Tag Archives: charles walters

Foraging ‘weeds’ provides ‘Anglo-Saxon salad’

Nov. 11, 2011
Foraging ‘weeds’ provides ancient Anglo Saxon fare today

Anyone who reads this column regularly knows that I’m not an enemy of weeds.
Not only do we welcome weeds in our plots at ShooFly Farm because they shade plants, keep roots cool, soil moist, and provide habitat for beneficial insects, but because it’s a lot easier on the back.
Weeds can tell you a lot about what’s going on with your soil. (Read Charles Walters’ Weeds: Control Without Poisons, Acres USA.) But they also provide a look back at history.
You probably didn’t know that many of what we consider some of the most pernicious weeds in our gardens were once considered sacred among the ancients.
Richard Mabey explains all this in a wonderful book: Weeds: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants (HarperCollins, 2010, $25.99). While it focuses on the English countryside, most of the plants he talks about are “invasives” in the Americas.
For example, when you’re mowing your lawn, you may be shredding some of the Anglo Saxons’ nine sacred herbs: mugwort, plantain, chamomile, betony, stinging nettle, chervil, fennel and crab apple.
The pernicious plantain was called “the mother of worts” and was revered as far back as the earliest Celtic fire ceremonies. St. John’s Wort is still used to calm nerves.
Tramping back through the Middle Ages, our pathways are lined by what Mabey calls Anglo-Saxon salad.
Foraging today may be seen as chic in America, but it’s an age old tradition in Europe, with seasonal forays in France to gather wild greens such as leeks and dandelions and local fungi.
But lest we feel second best, it should be noted that foraged fare once was as American as Henry David Thoreau, who opined: “The bitter-sweet of a white oak acorn which you nibble in a bleak November walk over the tawny earth is more to me than a slice of imported pineapple.”
Even closer to home, the Choctaw say that migrating geese gave the people corn.
How short-sighted we are that we view the apple, a hybrid from Asia, as American. More indigenous is the corn, the tomato, the squash, the bean.
Our “weeds” are imported from the Mediterranean mostly via Britain from the Neolithic Age 4500 BCE.
Organic gardeners revere their cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, kale, collards, kohlrabi and Brussels sprouts. Most probably don’t know they once were “weeds,” and not recognizable to what they have become. That’s something to munch on this November day!

Be alert: Make sure you are picking what you think you’re picking, to avoid stomach upsets! I recommend: Peterson’s A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants.
Online: Food writer Barbara Damrosch on eating weeds:http://wapo.st/u332Kw
Reminder: I’ll be at the Mississippi Fruit and Vegetable Growers/ Agritourism/ Blueberry Associations Conference and Tradeshow next week at the Vicksburg Convention Center. The show runs Monday through Wednesday. If you’re interested in ag stuff, it’s the place to be.
For more information, see: www.msfruitandveg.com.
Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

Soil fertility, humus, tilth

February 25, 2011

Test soil of gardens, lawns to ensure fertility, balance

In a previous column, we wrote about how one can look at the weeds growing in a field and determine soil deficiencies.

For example, dandelions tell us we have too much soil sedmentation; consider them natural tillers of your field; when they die back, the hollowed out root system is used by earthworms to travel and further break up and fertilize the soil, bringing calcium to the surface. So, far from being “just a weed,” they’re the gardener’s friend. (Thank Charles Walters of Acres USA for this good advice!)

But beyond what our “weed” friends are telling us, it’s a good idea, too, to take a soil sample and have it tested, not only for your organic garden (certified organic growers must test every year), but also for your lawn and flower beds. You might be surprised at what you find (that you’ve been overfertilizing or adding the wrong amendments).

The Mississippi State University Extension Service Soil Testing Laboratory analyzes soil. It only costs $6 for a routine analysis.

For additional information, see http://msucares.com/crops/soils/testing.html, visit your local extension service office or write: Soil Testing Laboratory, Box 9610, Mississippi State MS 39762; or call (662) 325-3313.

As an example, while it’s not required, we sample three areas of our little ShooFly Farm because we’re on a hill, and we actually have three different types of soil; at the top of the hill, it’s red clay sandy soil, highly acidic; at the middle, halfway down, it’s loamy and high zinc presumably from previous owners using composted chicken manure as fertilizer; at the bottom, it’s dense clay soil.

Each has its own needs. For example, we’ve been steadily working to build humus and composted material in the top area, to hold moisture and build tilth, and provide optimum conditions for microbial life.

In the middle area, we’ve concentrated on building fertility through adding composted horse manure and high nitrogen cover crops.

At the bottom, we’ve just used standard crop rotation along with allowing natural weeds and brush as a “buffer” zone between the highway and our fields.

For your 4-by-8 “Jim’s plot,” of course, it’s a lot simpler. Just take a small trowel or spoon and fill the cardboard box that MSU provides for a soil sample, send it off with your payment, and in a few weeks, you’ll get your results.

Reader response: An online reader wrote from Hawaii about starting a backyard CSA (community supported agriculture) plot to share produce with friends and family:

“But alas, I can’t plant a garden. Military housing is strongly opposed to us digging a garden in our backyards. We can’t even compost in housing here.”

I suggested that perhaps there was a community garden somewhere that she could donate time to help tend in exchange for food, and she wrote back that, in fact, she shopped at a local farmer’s market at least once a week and would look into it.

People who live in urban areas might also consider “yard sharing.” That’s where they link up with people who have space to grow but not the inclination.

Yard sharing has grown in popularity nationwide. To find someone in your area, check out: http://hyperlocavore.ning.com/page/about-us.

It’s a free yardsharing service operated by Liz McLellan in Boise, Idaho.

There is good value in getting your hands dirty and thinking about things. Lately, I’ve been employed a good bit in farm work and, consequently, have had lots of time to mull things over.

One of the items that has long simmered just beneath my consciousness is the sorry state of rural America. I remember when I was a boy, small rural places were bustling. Now, they are like ghost towns. I remember local communities thriving, filled with the commerce of farms and farmers who came and shopped. What happened to those people? Those communities?

We can’t just blame it on the lure of cities. For, indeed, the ties that kept rural people rural were broken loose, over the decades from the 1950s, when I was a boy, to before now.

The economic, social, moral and spiritual collapse of rural America may ultimately prove not to be the result of America’s decline but the cause of it.

Let’s reverse this. Let’s renew rural America from the ground up! I think we can do it with just the same kind of initiative and self-reliance that I’ve been writing about here; with backyard farming, micro-farming, growing local food for neighbors, churches, friends, family, and creating markets for our goods.

We lost our roots because we let them go. But roots can grow again, if we plant our feet and try again.

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

Weeds Whisper Secrets …

February 4, 2011

Weeds whisper soil secrets to organic farmers (and CSAs!)

An online reader wrote from Italy asking what to do about weeds. After discussing various options, I told her that a good book that explains why weeds grow where they do and what to do about them is Weeds: Control Without Poisons by Charles Walters (Acres USA, 1999; $25).

There is a whole movement on this principle: that all creatures grow from the ground up, and their health can be determined from the health of the soil. It’s similar to the Slow Food movement, as a return to healthy basics, but mostly followed by people who label themselves as “grass farmers,” organically raising grass-fed cattle, sheep an goats. (See: http://www.stockmangrassfarmer.net/. Also, for those interested in raising grass-fed beef using this principle and avoiding chemicals of any kind, see the book: Natural Cattle Care by Pat Coleby, Acres USA, $20.)

The Walters book is an eye-opener in that it teaches that the weeds in any field are themselves telling us what’s deficient in the soil. Every weed has a niche for certain soil imbalances where it thrives. When it decays, it actually is returning the missing nutrient to the soil. These facts can be monitored by soil testing each year.

You’ve heard the saying that a “weed” is only a misplaced plant? Moreso, weeds are our allies in returning balance to the earth!

Reader response: I’ve been getting a lot of response from readers near and far about the Jan. 7 article suggesting people consider starting their own backyard micro-farms and selling their produce via a CSA (community supported agriculture):

“I wish to start a CSA for my neighbors and grow organic veggies to share. Any suggestions as to where I can start? I live in north central Louisiana and have 2 acres.”

A couple of suggestions: First, a caution: I’m not sure that just starting out learning by doing is the best way to begin a CSA, per se, unless it is with family and really supportive friends who will forgive you if your crops don’t pan out. Otherwise, folks who pay $400 or more for a season will expect a fair return and may not be so open-minded if plans go awry.

With that in mind, it might be best to consider your first year an experiment and allow for a learning curve (and lots of mistakes). Having neighbors chip in without a fixed pay schedule while you learn the ropes could do that.

Second, you might want to check with people operating CSAs and learn from their experiences, and ask them questions. It could be, if there are any in your area, they are looking to “go in with” others even part time to complete their offerings while you learn.

Third, there are a couple of books you might want to read, first: Eliot Coleman’s classic: The New Organic Grower: A Master’s Manual of Tools and Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener (Chelsea Green, 1995, $24.95); and, second, though it’s a bit dated, but chock full of practical advice and lessons learned the hard way: Rebirth of the Small Family Farm by Bob and Bonnie Gregson; Acres USA, 2004, $12.)

There are some CSAs in North Mississippi to look into (and they write blogs sharing their experiences):

Doug Davis operates Yokna(patawpha) Bottoms Farm, see: http://yoknabottoms.com/. Or write: 26 County Road 471, Oxford, MS 38655;

Horton Nash and Genevieve Yeakel operate Isis Gardens CSA: http://isisgardens.blog.com/. Or write: 955 Mt. Vernon Rd., Tupelo, MS 38801

For a scientific approach, see the GGSIM CSA test, at The Fireant Farm at Starkville: http://fireantfarm.wordpress.com/


The Mississippi Urban Forest Council is holding a conference, “Sustainable Choices for Today, Planting for Tomorrow” Wednesday and Thursday at the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science in Jackson. For more information, see: http://www.msurbanforest.com/

The Northeast Mississippi Fruit and Vegetable Producers Association Conference and Trade Show will be held Friday in Verona. For more information: http://msucares.com/counties/chickasaw_9/veg_brochure11.pdf or contact Scott Cagle at (662) 456-4269 or scottc@ext.msstate.edu.

News alert: Last week, the USDA OK’d unrestricted use of genetically modified alfalfa in a stunning decision that threatens organic and non-GMO farmers, food safety and the environment. Lawsuits are in the works, but now, the only recourse consumers have to make informed choices about the food they eat is to press for better labeling to show when GMO is present. For more, see: http://bit.ly/fsH9eD

Five reasons why it matters: http://bit.ly/h0z2J5

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.