From time to time, I get a mild ear infection. An itching sensation in the right ear, like ants, crawling about inside and a deep swelling feeling like a softball is trying to grow its way out of the side of my head. The ear, nose and throat doctor suggested a drop of olive oil from time to time, but for the most part, these things are supposed to clear up on their own. The olive oil helps a bit, but the sensation never really goes away. I started looking for other solutions.
One day I found this ginormous plant growing in my field. It had big fuzzy leaves and a five-foot-tall flower stock. Could this be mullein?
Meet mullein, a plant with many uses. The leaves are dried for tea to treat respiratory distress or used fresh as cowboy toilet paper (but not both). Parts of the plants are transformed into tinctures for addressing various issues, but in my case, I'm after the oil.
To make mullein blossom oil, we pluck the ripe flowers from the stock. Place them in a jar and cover the flowers with olive oil then seal the jar with a lid. I put the jar on my desk where I will see it, but out of the direct sun, and shake it at least twice a day. After a week or two (depending on how many flowers I put in it), it's ready. I strain the flowers and whenever my ear hurts, I put a drop or two in my ear.
Mullein oil works wonders for the pain and itch. I've also tried it on eczema and is quick to sooth the swelling.
I'm glad to have mullein flowers again this year. It's a biannual so I've only been getting blossom every other year. I'll probably make an extra batch later in the summer to get me through next year.
George is one of my silkworms. These greedy-samas (sama is the Japanese honorific title added at the end of the name, like 'san' but with more respect) are going to help me transform leaves into cloth.
These are my very first silkworms and I want to give a shout out to Peggy at Flourishing Filaments who helped me with the research and found a way to send silkmoth eggs to Canada. At the time of writing, it is legal to import Bombyx mori into Canada and to export from the USA without a fancy certificate (but check with the government before attempting it for yourself because things change).
While researching silkworms online, I noticed that a lot of people name their worms. They grow attached to these little guys. I didn't want to feel left out, so I named them. I named all 200 of them George except for the big one, his name is Harold.
Over the last nine years, we've planted a couple of dozen mulberries on the farm. These are marvellous trees, willing to grow without irrigation (but they do grow better with), on land that wouldn't grow anything else. These perennials are willing to be bush or tree, have deep roots to combat erosion, leaves that feed all manner of livestock, including silkworms, produce a paper or cloth from their bark and are an excellent investment for timber. Oh, and they make tasty berries which are shaping up to become the next superfood in about five years.
Moriculture - the growing of mulberries - is as old as silk. We have five thousand years of history interacting with this plant. Unlike the silkworm who is wholly domesticated and dependant on humans to survive, the mulberry tree is delightfully wild. It has to be because any chemical aid we may apply to give it a boost or protect it from leaf munchers destroys the silk crop. Pesticides kill caterpillars. Silkworms are caterpillars.
Being domestic, silkworms are hugely sensitive to any changes in their diet. Even dusty or damp leaves can kill them, and the residue from car exhaust along a busy street is enough to give them the trots. Just about anything and everything in the modern world is out to kill silkworms.
Growing mulberry trees was never just about the trees. Mulberries do best when they are intercropped with other plants. Two rows of mulberry trees, a wide swath of annual plants like beans or a mulch crop, another two rows of mulberries. Tilling between the mulberries loosens the soil and allows the moisture and air to penetrate to the roots. But tilling is a lot of effort just for trees, so plant something in the freshly turned earth. The trees protect the annual crop by preventing erosion and providing shelter for helpful wildlife like pollinators and pest-eating birds.
To learn more about how to grow silkworms, check out Wormspit's article on Bombyx mori
It's 2 am and there's a pot of Cardamon Coffee steeping on the stove top. I'm going to have to be careful when I drink it. I don't want any stains on this white wool blanket I'm working on. With enough coffee fueled insomnia I have a good chance of finishing the finishing before the day begins.
It never ceases to amaze me how much time finishing takes. Making something, be it spinning yarn, weaving cloth, dyeing yarn, or planting the garden is actually the easy part. In most cases, it takes as long to finish a project as it does to make it. Sometimes longer. Linen yarn, for example, is spun at the wheel. That's the easy part. It is next measured into skeins, tied, soaked, boiled in many changes of water, re-skeined and blocked while drying. After which it is inspected again, labeled and stashed away.
Same too with this blanket. It took only a few hours to weave, but at least as many to finish. First we cut it off the loom and inspect for mistakes. Next repair the mistakes with a darning needle and yarn. From there, the edges are finished, in this case with a fringe, and after that it is fulled (washed with agitation) to be just right. Finally, tonight's task: the final inspection where I go over every inch (front and back) to locate any loose threads, flaws, areas that need further fulling, or anything else that can be achieved. It's a lot of work, but the results are worth it.
And of course, there are the washing instructions to sew onto the cloth. I found these custom cloth labels at the etsy shop mountain street arts.
You can see from those two photos how much the cloth has changed when fulled. On the loom the weave was loose; one could easily poke their finger through the web. But after it's finished, the cloth is firm but soft. I'm completely in love with this yarn (Ashford Tekapo 12-ply), even if it is special order in Canada.
Finishing makes stuff better.
Last winter, I had the crazy idea to write a book. The actual writing is surprisingly quick. Like Agatha Christie said, writing is all about thinking up an idea and forcing yourself to sit down and write it down. Finishing the book is so much more complex. Editing, images, covers, formatting, choosing a size, learning how to ship, learning about paper manufacturing so I can make an informed choice on the more eco-friendly options.
And now, Homegrown Linen: transforming flaxseed into fibre, is about to enter the next phase. A market test to see if there really are enough people interested in growing their own yarn to justify the existence of this book.
Like any project, there's always doubt if things will finish well. That blanket was a whole new experience. Set at four ends per inch, this was the first time I wove with this yarn. I chose a double weave pattern and set to work without making a sample first. It's nerve wracking to put so many hours into something, before we discover if it will finish well.
We have officially entered stage four drought conditions, which is apparently the worst we have. It means that the government can start making emergency legislation to reduce water usage including industry and farming. It also means that we are at risk of not having enough drinking water next year if the drought continues through the rainy season.
Since water-less and water-free farming is the main focus on the farm, I wanted to share some updates on what's working and what techniques we are still developing. It's all experimental. There's lots of theories on what works, but what works for one may not work at another location. That's why it's so important to try things for yourself.
Many of the trees my grandfather planted on the property were watered and given great care and affection. But these trees never toughened up. Their roots are shallow and they haven't the ability to make it through this heat unaided. So I place at the base of each tree a bucket of water. The geese and ducks splash in this water and it helps to cool the roots and provides a slow trickle of moisture into the soil. This is often enough to save the tree, but when it isn't, we apply some water to the ground around the drip line of the tree in the evenings. Maybe once a week. This not only waters the roots, but it also creates conditions that encourage dew to gather.
Looking at the shape of the land, it goes down into a valley where and then up again on the other side. At the base of the valley is an ephemeral stream and in the winter, there are springs that bubble on the surface of the valley floor. But up here on the ridge, the subsoil is glacial till, which is rocks and other coarse matter deposited by the last ice age. This makes for amazing drainage... which also makes it difficult for plants to thrive in the summer.
Have another look at the above photo. Can you see how green it is in the valley? In the foreground, all the annuals are dead. But a bit further away, there is hawk weed and further still we can see green grass and nettles. Then as we travel up the hill on the other side, the ground is quickly brown again.
We can see from this photo that the valley has more soil moisture, even in the summer. Even in a terrible drought like this one, we still have greens growing. So we put the summer garden down there. This year it is sunflowers and soup (dry) beans. Over the last few years, I've been planting these two quite early in the spring. Before even the last frost. In the first few years, I had little success because sunflowers and beans don't handle frost well. But I kept on saving seeds from the survivors and now I can plant my crop in April, before the rains have finished for the year. The rain helps the seeds germinate and they very quickly grow a deep root system. Because they can establish themselves so early in the year, they are strong enough to handle the drought without any irrigation. It's a combination of plant breeding (I used a smidgen of landrace techniques to choose the genetics, then nature do the selecting until I had a plant that would do what I needed) and using the natural inclination of the land.
Storing water in the soil is my first preference, but this year we experimented with some large rainwater tanks. We used them to help a few transplanted fruit and nut trees make it through the summer. We have the hope of transforming the space near the road into a small forest garden, but the first step is to get the trees established. I think they would have been find in a normal summer, but I don't know when we'll see one of those again. It's also why you see the hose in the next picture. Nothing to do with the annuals.
Now here's a dismal site:
This is the second generation of my landrace kale. There are several experiments going on here. The first is trying to improve the soil. We terraced this section to help it gather more moisture in the winter. But until we can add more organic matter into the soil, it's going to be tough keeping the moisture in there for the whole year.
I started this experiment with Seedy Saturday. I got one packet of every kale seed that did not have the word "dwarf" on it. Combined them all together in a big bowl and planted them in poor soil where they would receive no water or love. Half of them survived. These are their children and I can see that there are some interesting varieties (crosses) that weren't part of the original mix.
They did very well at the start, with a good deal of dew collection. The plants spaced closer together (plant spacing is another experiment this year) did the best at the start. But once the heat hit, the plants with the widest spacing are doing best of all.
Another thing I noticed is that aphids hit the taller, bigger leaf kale pretty hard this spring but ignored the others. But these same plants are doing the best of all now. Did the aphids do something to the plant to harden it against the drought, or perhaps the same genetics that make plants tasty to aphids when young, are what makes them do so well in the drought?
You can also see some sunflowers self seeded in this part. Worst soil on the farm, best drainage, hottest and driest part. So even sad looking kale is a victory. I can't wait to see what the offspring from these kale can do.
Yes, you can use your handspun linen singles for weaving. Weavers for thousands of years of history did. You can too.
Most linen warp is spun from the long, luscious flax fibres called line. These make for strong, shiny, and fine yarns. When wet spun by an expert, the yarn is smooth. All these qualities make it perfect for warp and weft.
But what about poor tow? This often discarded fibre is described as hairy and weak. Not suitable. A waste of time and space.
Being a advocate of the underdog, I decided to learn to love tow. I wanted to discover if Tow's reputation was unbreakable, or if maybe different techniques would make it strong enough for warp. So I spun up a bunch of tow, playing with different techniques and discovered there is no reason for tow to be hairy or fragile. It's all in the spinning. Which is to say, how tow behaves is entirely up to the spinner. You have complete control.
Here are a few tips and tricks for weaving with handspun linen singles - tow.
Record keeping - The theory behind this is we can reproduce what we made before. But here we are, working with natural materials. Nature by her very essence is constantly changing. The weather, soil, air, sun, and wind all have their effect on the colours these plants produce. Every time we dye with natural ingredients, we are promised a different colour. I wonder if anything beyond the most basic record keeping is strictly necessary (although, it can of course be fun).
Mordants - I've discovered that there are a great variety of mordants and many dyes will affix to the yarn without any mordant at all. The sheer range of alum I've seen recommended in dyeing from 2% weight of fibre (WOF) all the way up to 22% WOF. I wonder if precision is really that vital when it comes to mordanting yarn and fibre.
Ratio of dye to yarn - I've had very bad luck following directions. I carefully weigh everything to the decigram and at best, I get a pale imitation of colour. However, the times I simply stuff my dye pot full of leaves or flowers, simmer a while, then add yarn, I'm greeted with vibrant results. I wonder if being less precise is actually the key to dyeing.
So what is the most vital part of dyeing in my opinion?
The most vital part in dyeing yarn, is final step - washing the yarn.
Why do I think this stage is the most important? Because this is the stage that teaches the most.
Being gentile at this stage is abusive to your future self. One quick rinse and hang the yarn to dry and you risk using that yarn, putting loads of work into a project, and first time through the washing machine, all the dye washes out. It didn't take. Or worse, it bleeds and stains the rest of the project.
I once wove a set of towels from hand dyed linen. The arbutus dyed linen was a gorgeous brown, and the carrot top dyed linen, a lovely lime green. But one trip through the washing machine, and all the carrot top washed out. It looked okay, but not as good as it would with the green.
The woman of Wovenwares are gifted fibre artists and well worth a pilgrimage into town to visit. They weave cloth. More amazingly, they weave clothing!
Cloth made locally by local artisans, with as many locally sourced materials as possible. That's my kind of thing.
As much as I want to do everything, growing fibres on the farm has taught me there is a finite amount of time in the day. Everything has it's rhythm and each element on the farm has it's task. I don't ask the sheep to eat bugs from the garden, likewise, I don't expect the chickens to grow wool. Why then, should I expect that I can do everything? At least, not until I find the time to invent a TARDIS.
But I want to. Especially when I see what amazing things are possible.
Wovenwares gives me heart and hope. Here is the skill to create clothing from the materials I grow. I couldn't ask for better!
And, wow! What skills these women have.
Entering the studio, I'm bedazzled by the collection of handwoven goodies. Cloth, clothing, rugs, and hand dyed yarn.
They work with local materials, connecting directly with the farmer whenever possible. Sustainable clothing at it's best.
I learn something new with each visit, and this week I understood, I don't have to do every step myself. I couldn't make clothing as beautiful as this, but I can grow yarn. By working together, we can keep everything local, sustainable and beautiful.
This morning petrichor was heavy in the air. Petrichor is a smell so strong; you can almost feel the texture gritting against your skin. It's a mixture of ocean and dust. But more than that. Petrichor is the smell rain makes after dry, grimy, hot summer days.
It's unusual to experience petrichor here, as it seldom rains in summer and never in June. At least not since we moved to the farm nearly ten years ago. It is an unusual year for weather. I expect unusual will soon be the new norm.
Most years, the rain stops on or before May first. There are a couple of rainy patches near midsummer and again at the end of August, but these showers usually miss the farm. It will rain at the neighbours and across the road, but not here. One of the things we strive for is low maintenance farming; farming without irrigation or rain in a Mediterranean climate. Most of the experiments on the farm have been focused on the assumption it won't rain in the summer. We've had great success with this. There are a few parts of the farm that are entirely irrigation-free and produce a decent crop even on poor soil.
We've grown chickpeas, peas, soup peas, kale, squash, hot peppers, sunflowers, woad, flax, and tomatoes without irrigation or rain. Pretty darn neat. This year, we've been experimenting with different row and plant spacing as well as potatoes. But the rain has skewed our results - not that we mind - so we'll have to try it again next year.
How are we growing these without irrigation?
I've learned a lot from permaculture. The world domination gardening videos are a great resource filled with different techniques, how and why they work, and how to build them. The last video is my favourite. It's about adding texture to the landscape to create warm pockets.
Finding microclimates that are already moist
There's a section of the farm that is quite moist most of the year. There's an ephemeral stream and in the winter, the whole area floods. By deepening a hollow that was already there to create a pond we capture some of the winter rain that would otherwise pass us by. The stream we made curvier and planted willows and other trees to help capture moisture and hold it in the soil. Trees are also great at capturing dew and can often create their own rain on moist mornings. Since the ground is too wet to till until May, it is a good spot for warm weather crops like beans, corn, squash and sunflowers.
Making our own microclimates
Terracing adds texture to the landscape like nothing else. It's also great for reducing the speed that water runs off the land. Storing moisture in the soil during the rainy season is possibly the most efficient way we've found to grow without irrigation. Somehow terracing reduces the fluctuation in temperature.
airwells to capture dew
Capturing dew is an essential tool to irrigation-free farming. An airwell a great help with this. About three years back we transplanted 100 fruit trees at the start of what turned out to be one of the driest summers on record. We moved the trees to the spot with the most drainage and worst water retention soil on the farm and gave them nothing to drink. Not even watering them in when we moved them.
Two-thirds of the fruit trees were given an airwell. A small, dry stack, rock wall. One third was given nothing. Of the latter, we have on tree surviving. But the trees with the airwell are growing strong. Through extreme heat, drought, cold, and all sorts of crazy weather, we have only lost two of the 60-odd trees. The only difference is the airwell. We were shocked by just how much difference it made.
Even making texture on the soil increases dew collection. Molding up potatoes left furrows between the rows. I was surprised to see just how much dew collected in them.
One thing that isn't working is mulch. Mulch works wonders if it rains at least once a month, but by the end of the second month without rain, it seems to do more harm than good. By the end of month five, only well established perennials with high dew collecting abilities like rosemary, sage, and lavender can survive mulch.
Mulch covers the soil and prevents moisture loss, but it also prevents moisture penetration. Once the mulch dries out, the dew that runs down the stems of the plants, cannot enter the soil for later use. By the time the soil is warm enough for the invisible beasties to break down the mulch into soil, the mulch is too dry to sustain them.
Looking at our local forests, one can see why mulch doesn't make sense here. Mulch works well where the soil is built through layers of detritus like leaves and grass. But here, when one watches a pioneer area, the soil isn't formed that way. The cottonwood and alder grow on poor, but moist soil pockets, then when they fall, the logs quickly rot to create better soil. The leaves do very little except provide food and shelter for animals who fertilise and build soil that way. For this reason, I suspect Hugelkulture will be a useful tool in our area. Something to try in the years to come.
Before I moved to the farm, I lived in the city. Right at the heart of downtown, in a cement cube with south facing windows surrounded by other people also living in cement cubes. But living in the city had its advantages.
All that concrete and asphalt absorb the heat from the sun and holds onto it. This creates a warmer climate than the rest of the area, bumping us up one or even three climate zones. In the city, we can grow things that we cannot in the surrounding countryside. Banana and palm trees are popular choices - in Canada!
What I wish I knew at the time is that we can grow cotton too. Cotton grows in the same condition as tomatoes. Cotton loves the warmth and isn't adverse to being kept in pots. In a pot, you can bring cotton inside for the winter. Another thing the city gives us that I don't have on the farm is limited daylight. Cotton is daylight sensitive so on the farm, I have a challenge getting it to set bolls this far north because our days are just too long. But in the summer, the buildings act as a false horizon, cutting off the sun from the earth early. Warmth plus limited daylength.
There are lots of other fibre crops and animals we can grow in the city. Linen can also be grown in pots so long as you don't sow the seeds to densely.
Within walking distance of my condo were several mulberry trees on public land. Two of them are in gardens specially designed for public harvest - food forest community gardens. I know more than one person who kept silkworms hidden away in their pet-free apartments (caterpillars don't count as pets, right?). They snuck out each morning, about 5am, to harvest mulberry leaves, being careful never to take too much and to always ask permission first. There was an abundance of wormfood available.
There was a great article in Spinn Off a few years back explaining how easy it is to grow silk. It was the same one that introduced me to cotton and got me wondering what non-sheep plants and animals can grow fibre in small spaces.
Don't have mulberries, try wild silk moths. There are a hundred or more different kinds of moths that produce silk and chances are some of them are native to your area. These wild silk moths produce various colours and textures of silk and in my opinion, they are even more beautiful than bombyx silk. The best thing about them is if they are native to your area, then their food can be found in abundance. Many wild silkmoths consume a variety of different fodder. The Polyphemus moth that is native to my area eats a dozen different trees, so I don't have to go hunting for mulberries. Wormspit's website is the place to go for more information on
Bunnies take up a bit more space than silkworms. Angora or any fluffy bunny produces warm and soft fibre. Comb the bunny each day and spin the fibre into lovely lofty yarn.
Wildcrafting fibre like nettles or kudzu is another option. Talk to your local parks department to see what you're allowed to harvest. This is also a good source of dye materials.
Of course, if you absolutely must have sheep, you can always try to sneak some on the roof.
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