Wintersowing Tutorial: Upcycle Trash to Make Garden Greenhouses & Start Seeds in Cold Weather

Photo credit: nociveglia via Foter.com / CC BY

Photo credit: nociveglia via Foter.com / CC BY

What is Wintersowing?

Wintersowing is a method for seed starting developed by Trudi Davidoff. I first heard of the wintersowing method several years ago on Garden Web. The idea is a simple one; creating mini greenhouses out of recyclable materials to use for seed starting outdoors during the cold winter and spring months. I thought that it was a brilliant method that was inexpensive, environmentally beneficial, flexible, and allowed me to keep dirt, bugs, grow lights, and whatnot out of my home.

I also love wintersowing with the kids. We can plant a little bit at a time over the course of the season, which keeps planting fun and manageable. We talk about the stages of growth as we check on the progress of our seeds. We also discuss different aspects of plants and their needs as we create our little growing spaces (e.g., we need holes to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide; the greenhouses hold in moisture and allow the sun to shine through, we open the lids in the warmer weather so that we don’t overheat and cook our seedlings, etc.)

Why Use a Wintersowing Approach?

There are many reasons why I love wintersowing, but the basics breakdown to cost, convenience, and success.

Wintersowing is extremely economical. The containers used are generally free and readily available. Wintersowing eliminates the need for grow lights or any special equipment. A bag of potting soil is typically my only true expense. Some years I also purchase seeds, but not always (see seed discussion down below for many resources for free seeds).

I love the convenience of wintersowing. Because I am sowing seeds in the comfort of my home across a period of weeks or months, I can do a little at a time. I don’t feel overwhelmed by my garden or a need to start all of my seeds in the same small window of time 6-8 weeks before our final frost date. I also really like the low-maintainance of the method. Once I prepare a container for sowing, it just sits outside rain or shine, and there is no mess in my home. There is no need for upkeep until the seeds sprout, and from then on it is fairly minimal. It is important to make sure that sprouts don’t dry out, overheat, or “hit their heads” on the tops of the containers, but these needs can be managed with little trouble (see resources below for tips and guidance on wintersowing). Additionally, since the seeds come to life in the great outdoors, there is no need to coddle them through a hardening off period, they re ready to plant after the final frost date in your area.

The best part of wintersowing has to be the success of the method. Since wintersowing keeps seeds contained and protected, there is little seed loss due to weather conditions or animals, as there can be with direct sowing. Wintersowing also keeps temperature and moisture conditions controlled better than indoor setups in my experience. I find that I have incredibly high germination rates with wintersowing.

What Seeds Work for Wintersowing?

In my experience, just about any type of seed adapts well to wintersowing, with the exception of plants that are notoriously difficult to start from seed under any circumstance (rosemary comes to mind). Perennial plants are very well-suited to wintersowing, but I find annuals to work great as well. I have used wintersowing to grow a wide range of annual and perennial flowers, herbs, fruits, and vegetables with great success.

Basic Steps of Wintersowing

To wintersow, you will need your potting soil or preferred growing medium, seeds, and your containers. You will also need a knife or other object for poking holes in your containers, a marker to label your containers, and possibly some heavy-duty tape and rubber bands. I sometimes also purchase paper cups to use within some of my little greenhouses.

Wintersowing is generally done using plastic, food-grade containers that have not previously held any toxic or hazardous materials (I stick with old food containers that I would otherwise recycle). You want to look for containers that can hold at least a 2″-3” depth of soil with some head space for your plants. If the container itself is not clear or translucent plastic, you at least want the lid to be a clear plastic to allow the sun’s rays to shine in. Sometimes a lid can be adapted by cutting away a portion of the lid and replacing it with plastic wrap or similar as discussed in the video.

Wintersowing will shift how you look at your garbage and recyclables. Once you figure out your preferred types of containers, friends, neighbors, and others are often more than happy to route their garbage to you. Some of my favorite containers are quart size yogurt tubs, large plastic clamshells from bulk lettuces, and traditional seed starting trays coupled with single-serve yogurt cups and reused large plastic bags. Other people are milk jug enthusiasts,

The video will give you an idea of how to use and modify your containers to create your mini greenhouses.

Wintersowing Resources

Wintersowing is supported by an enthusiastic community. There are many great places to learn more about wintersowing, ask questions, and to see the setup and successes of other wintersowing gardeners. Some of my favorites:

Trudi Davidoff has her own website about Wintersowing. The site is currently under construction but still has some information and pictures.

Gardenweb’s Wintersowing Forum is a great place to post questions and reap the advice of winter sowers of all ranges of experience and from all across the country. It is also a treasure trove of pictures about wintersowing from seed starting to planting, and for the “after” shots of beautiful gardens built from wintersown plants.

The Wintersown Facebook Page is another useful public forum for discussing wintersowing and sharing progress photos. The page has over 9,000 members. The Facebook page is administrated in part by Trudi Davidoff as she continues to share her passion for the method that she developed.

But What about the Seeds?

Of course in order to wintersow, you will need seeds. One of the most exciting aspects of starting seeds on your own versus purchasing seedlings is the exponentially greater range of plant options available to you. I love thumbing through seed catalogs looking at the beautiful and exotic plant varieties. I gravitate toward unusual colors, shapes, and sizes that I would never see at a grocery store, and are a rare find even at the farmer’s market.

Whenever I purchase seeds, I prefer to support companies who are committed to biodiversity and who are against GMO seed. If this is important to you as well, I recommend purchasing from companies who have signed the Safe Seed Pledge, indicating that they will “not knowingly buy, sell or trade genetically engineered seeds or plants.” A list of companies who have signed the Safe Seed Pledge can be found here.

I also prefer to grow heirloom and open pollinated plants to allow me to save my own seed over the years; giving me a large stash of seed to work from. See a video tutorial of how I save tomato seeds here. Saving seeds from other plants such as flowers, peppers, peas, and beans is even easier.

I also find that because wintersowing has such high germination rates for me, I waste less seed and can successfully grow older seed. As a result, seed packets go a very long way and I often have extra seed from my own seed saving efforts to share. Seed swaps are another growing trend. I have participated in seed swaps through online communities as well at through my local botanic garden. Seed swaps tend to occur in January or February to allow gardeners to start their seeds in time for spring planting. This list of seed swaps around the country can help you prepare for next year’s events. Local seed libraries are another resource for seeds. See a partial list by state here, or search online for seed libraries in your state to find options local to you.

Wintersowing Final Thoughts

I hope that you find the wintersowing method to be as exciting and useful as I have over the years. After trying and succeeding with this gardening method, I really can’t imagine starting my plants any other way. I’m curious to know if you’ve tried wintersowing before. Do you have any experiences to share? I’m happy to field questions in the comments too so feel free to ask. There’s still time to start seeds for this year’s garden.

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My Great Big Herbal Adventure-Day Two

Arizona plants, mountains, and sky

You can read more about how a stay-at-home crunchy mom from Illinois came to find herself on a great big herbal adventure in Arizona and my first day here. Now that you’re here, let’s move onto the story of day #2.

Our classroom for the day

Our classroom for the day

Day number two my friend and I grabbed a quick breakfast at the motel and headed back to the hot springs reserve for what was to be essential oil day. It was amazing. Michael, our teacher, set up three steam distillation stills and talked us through the process of assembling, using, cleaning, and storing an essential oil still.

Still assembly-many bits & pieces

Still assembly-many bits & pieces

Michael had collected a host of medicinal plants in his home state of New Mexico just prior to driving in for the class, and fresh yerba mansa was dug from the stand adjascent to the classroom that morning. The boxes of plants had been perfuming the classroom as he spoke, and now they were ready for their big moment.

Watching, learning, and processing osha root

Watching, learning, and processing osha root

As a group we chopped up osha root, juniper, yerba mansa root and leaves, elephant tree, and white sage.

Processing yerba mansa to make whole plant essential oil

Processing yerba mansa to make whole plant essential oil

We then split into groups and got to work setting up our stills, packing the flasks with plant material, and watching the steam and cold water work together to extract and collect the essential oils from the plants.

Osha root in the bioflask

Osha root in the bioflask

Me attempting to use my hand as a level as we prepare for juniper essential oil

Me attempting to use my hand as a level as we prepare for juniper essential oil

For hours, we sat in our classroom while the oils were extracting, inhaling the scent of these amazing desert plants. We spent that time discussing the properties of the plants that we were working with, as well as learning about safe, responsible use of essential oils to support healing.

Juniper, yerba mansa, and osha filling the air with their powerful scent

Juniper, yerba mansa, and osha filling the air with their powerful scent

We were encouraged to drink plenty of water and use milk thistle seed glycerite to support our liver as we were inhaling, rubbing on, and otherwise absorbing so much of these powerful aromatics hour after hour. We also took an extended break mid-day to eat some lunch, soak in the hot springs, hike, and responsibly gather plants from around the reserve area.

Gathering chaparral, fresh air, and sunshine during the lunch break

Gathering chaparral, fresh air, and sunshine during the lunch break

After lunch, we returned to the classroom to watch the essential oils be separated from the residual water from the distillation process (hydrosol).

Dark band of yerba mansa essential oil collecting in the separator. Can you see it?

Dark band of yerba mansa essential oil collecting in the separator. Can you see it?

We then got to see a demonstration from a former student of Michael’s who had been invited to show us her process of making a medicinal herbal lotion using the yerba mansa essential oil and hydrosol that we had just made. We all received precious small jars of the lotion as well as jars of osha hydrosol. We were all also given 8 oz. glass jars to pack with the remaining plant material of our choosing and organic alcohol so that we could begin to create tinctures that we could bring back home.

Pinon pine & organic alcohol: the humble beginnings of a tincture before the alchemy sets in.

Pinon pine & organic alcohol: the humble beginnings of a tincture before the alchemy sets in.

Our final DIY project of the day was a healing oil that we were able to custom create using Michael’s proprietary oil blend and the osha, yerba mansa, elephant tree and white sage essential oils that we had created earlier. It was a wonderful way to watch, make, and blend a variety of herbal products that we could begin to put to use as soon as we returned home.

Sampling of the end products of "Essential Oil Day"

Sampling of the end products of “Essential Oil Day”

The evening wound down with collective pizza making in the brick oven on-site and long soaks in the hot springs.

Pizza making: when no rolling pin appears, grab a beer.

Pizza making: when no rolling pin appears, grab a beer.

Pizza oven firing away at sunset

Pizza oven firing away at sunset

Students grab a restorative soak in the large hot springs pool before nightfall

Students grab a restorative soak in the large hot springs pool before nightfall

After emerging restored and relaxed from the hot springs pool, we made our way back to our casita. That night our sleep was intermittently interrupted by the sound of wild animals howling outside our window, and mice scurrying around our mattresses (Well, it may have just been one mouse. We named him Cattywampus). We awoke ready for another day of herbal field study.

I will continue with day three of my herbal adventure in Part 3.

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My Great Big Herbal Adventure-Part 1

Arizona Herbalism Trip-yerba mansa stand at the hot springs

Back in April I wrote about going on a big trip out to Arizona for an herbal learning experience with clinical herbalist Michael Cottingham of Voyage Botanica (a bit more about Michael here). Michael was a student of the late, renown herbalist Michael Moore. He is continuing the tradition of herbalism through online courses as well as destination herbal intensives on topics such as essential oil crafting and native medicinal plants of the southwest. Right now, Michael and many of my former classmates from Arizona are enjoying another long learning weekend in New Mexico. I wish that I could be out there with them, deepening my understanding and appreciation of plant medicine. Since I cannot, I thought that I would write a bit about my Arizona trip so that I could savor and share all of the memories.

Before launching into that I should say that this trip was a big, thrilling deal for me. Years ago I would have not felt the freedom to leave my family and spend time away by myself, learning about a topic of interest to me. I feel extremely fortunate to have taken this trip. I learned so much and was inspired in many areas of my life. It also gave me an extremely rare change to unplug as a mom and reconnect with myself as an individual, which then allowed me to return home better than I left. I realize that a lot of people reading this blog may not have the time, freedom, or resources to go off on such a trip today. I hope that it at least plants a seed of an idea that maybe someday you can take a similar adventure, or maybe today you can think of a little something attainable that might allow you to recharge or feed the creative fire within you.

I have a delightful mama friend who I first met when our oldest daughters were attending a parent-child class together at a Waldorf school. We discovered that we had a lot in common, not the least being attachment parenting tendencies, as well as an enjoyment of cooking, crafting, healthy living, and a general overall drive to learn how to do new things. That connection has remained strong over the years, and we often find that we will encourage new interests in one another. She might mention a topic of interest in passing and then move on to something else only to find that I rediscover it down the line and renew the interest for her or vice versa. Through this relationship we have been partners in crime in many adventures that we might not have had the courage or follow through to pursue on our own. She had first introduced me to Michael Cottingham and then I later mentioned hearing about this trip. We both let it rest for a while as a bit of a pipe dream. Some time later, she brought it up to me again. Somehow through travel miles, and car rentals, supportive spouses, and a sense of adventure, we found ourselves heading halfway across the country to Arizona to learn more about herbalism and medicinal plants.

Sun-dappled yerba mansa leaves

Sun-dappled yerba mansa leaves

When we finally made our way to the private hot springs reserve area that would be the home for the class, we began with the group sitting in a large stand of yerba mansa, learning about the plant and its uses as an antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory herb. It was an incredible experience to be surrounded by the plant, and to reach out and feel the leaves, nibble the plant, and smell the fragrance all around us. If you have an interest in learning more about this magical plant, you can hear a sampling of the type of teaching that we received from Michael in this video:

One of the many hot spring pools throughout the property

One of the many hot spring pools throughout the property

After several hours developing a relationship with yerba mansa, we toured some of the rest of the reserve area, viewing the hot spring pools, and being taught about various plants as we walked by them. Michael shared a bit of information about mindful wildcrafting; taking care not to gather plants when too tired or distracted. He emphasized the importance of being present when harvesting, and use good guides to help identify plants and to become aware of “lookalikes” that may potentially be harmful.

Mesquite reaching upward

Mesquite reaching upward

Desert Plantain

Desert Plantain

Chaparral (aka larrea or creosote)

Chaparral (aka larrea or creosote)

We saw numerous plants native to the desert region including mesquite, desert wolfberry (similar to goji berries), tamarisk, desert plantain, and chaparral. You can read herbalist Sevensong’s insightful monograph on chaparral here. Michael guided us through the medicinal uses of each plant, encouraging us to touch, taste, and smell as appropriate.

Infinity symbol near the hillside

Infinity symbol near the hillside

Jewelry at the Source Well

Jewelry at the Source Well

Precious rocks at the gated garden

Precious rocks at the gated garden

It was clear that the private reserve area has been cared for by many over the years. Although the buildings on the property were rustic, they were sufficient to meet all of our needs. All throughout the property were beautiful natural gifts, formations, and symbols large and small that showed reverence for, and resonance with the beauty all around.

In addition to teaching us to recognize and utilize the various plants, Michael also took care to speak with us about ethical wildcrafting, developing relationships with private land owners who might allow one to harvest medicinal plants from their land in areas where wildcrafting is not allowed, and ways to give thanks to the plants and to the Earth for the gift of plant medicine.

The long first day of travel, walking, and learning began to wind down. Many of the students who had come by car had pitched tents to camp on the grounds. Since we had come by plane and rental car (and I do not own a tent or camping gear) we had intended to stay in a motel in a small town 20-30 minutes away, but when we had arrived we learned that there were rustic casitas on site that we were welcome to use for our stay.

Our casita for the stay

Our casita for the stay

We took a quick look at the casitas and realized that unfortunately we did not have what we needed to immediately take advantage of the offer. The casitas had only bare mattresses on the concrete floor and a string of Christmas lights and a small table lamp (on the floor) for illumination. They also has a series of nails sticking out of the wood beams along the wall and ceiling to allow us to hang up our clothes as needed to keep them away from the vermin (I mean, the four-or-more-legged casita keepers).

We decided that we really would much prefer to stay on-site for the remaining nights, even if that meant roughing it more than we had originally planned for. We wanted to be able to enjoy the hot spings, gather and process plant material, and build relationships with our classmates without the pressure of transporting back-and-forth to town to sleep. We decided to take the first evening to gather supplies and prepare. After a restorative soak in the hot springs, we drove out to town and headed for the biggest super store. We bought food, water, and sleeping bags. We then hit the clearance rack for the warmest nightgowns, lounge pants, small blankets, and scarves that we could find since the casita was not climate-controlled, and the temperature in the desert at night was shockingly cold. Once we had all of our spoils in the car, we went out for a quick bite to eat (quick because we were so exhausted from the day that by the time the food arrived at the table, we just packed it to go). We then made our way to our motel where we crashed hard in preparation for an early start the next day.

I will continue with day two of my herbal adventure in Part 2.

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Herbal 101: Glossary of Common and Unusual Herbalism Terms and 50+ Great Ideas for Using Herbs

Herbal 101 Glossary and 50+ Ideas for Using Herbs (cordial, oxymel, tincture, elixir, balm, salve, butter, salt, fizz, and so many more)

I received my monthly Kings Road Apothecary subscription box the other day (unboxing and review to be posted soon). During the unboxing I realized that although I have a general knowledge of many basic and intermediate herbalism terms, I’d be hard pressed to know and explain the difference between a shrub, oxymel, and elixir or a salve, ointment, and cream.

I thought that it might be helpful to put together a glossary of terms that one might run into when exploring herbalism or when looking for creative ideas for things to do with herbs. Of course, once I started to delve in it seemed that there are endless things that one can make and do with herbs in the form of beverages, medicines, topical applications, household products, personal care products, and more.

I’ve put together a list of 50+ common and unusual herbalism terms and ideas for using herbs. I am sure that there are many that I’ve overlooked, so please comment and I will add them to the list. Because essential oils made from herbal plant material have their own long list of helpful applications, I have limited the list below to items that can be made exclusively with herbal plant material or with herbs and the addition of essential oils in some cases. I have excluded products that rely exclusively on essential oils for their herbal ingredients. I have tried to organize the list into a general progression from beverages, food, herbal medicine, personal care, and household, but since many herbal preparations can be used in multiple ways, the boundaries between groupings are a little fuzzy.

The first portion of the list is primarily focused on items that are used internally, and involve extraction of herbs into liquid (again, boundaries between lists and groups are fuzzy). Nevertheless, this seemed like a good place to clarify that most liquid herbal recipes are comprised of the menstruum (liquid used to extract the properties of the herb) and the marc (plant material being used). It is the process of this extraction and the type of menstruum and marc that can be varied, yielding a host of wonderful end products with many applications.

cordial-a cordial is a sweet beverage made from alcohol and sugar steeped with a choice of fruits, herbs, and sometimes nuts. Vodka, grain alcohol, brandy or other alcohols serve as the base to which the other ingredients are added and allowed to infuse for weeks to months. Once infused, the botanicals are strained out leaving the flavored sweetened cordial. Some recipes infuse the plant material in the alcohol before adding sugar whereas others steep all of the ingredients together.
oxymel-The core components of an oxymel include vinegar, honey, and herbs, although many incorporate fruit as well. The ingredients are mixed in the proper proportions (generally one part dried herb to three-four parts liquid) and then allowed to steep in a cool, dark location for a couple of weeks before straining. Oyxmels, especially fruity ones, may be added to water or sparkling water to make a refreshing beverage. They may also be used straight or mildly diluted in more medicinal applications.
shrub-also known as a sipping vinegar, or drinking vinegar, shrubs steep herbs in a mixture of vinegar and sugar or honey. They also incorporate fruits, with some sources reporting that the original purpose of shrubs was to preserve fruits. Like their close cousin the oxymel, shrubs are often added to water or sparkling water over ice and enjoyed as a cool drink.
switchel-a very specific type of shrub, a switchel traditionally blends ginger, vinegar, water, and a sweetener such as sugar, honey or molasses to create a cooling drink.
syrup-herbs and water are cooked together to produce a strong decoction (see decoction). Fruit or vegetables may be included as well to enhance flavor. This liquid is then combined with honey, sugar or other sweetener and cooked further to thicken into a sweet, concentrated syrup. Syrups can be taken medicinally by the spoonful or used in culinary applications depending on the herbs used (see soda).
soda-an herbal syrup combined with sparkling water.
tea-herbal plant material such as flowers, leaves, stems, or fruits usually steeped in boiling water for 5-15 minutes to extract some of the flavor and beneficial properties. Generally consumed as a beverage although herbal teas may also be added to baths for topical benefits.
infusion-a medicinal drink made by pouring boiling water over softer herb materials such as leaves, stems, fruits, or flowers and allowing them to steep, covered, for an extended period of time, often several hours or more. The extended infusion time allows for the extraction of more constituents from the herb. Infusions often use significantly larger quantities of herbs relative to water as compared to teas.
docoction-a medicinal drink made by simmering or gently boiling harder herb components such as barks, roots, seeds, or mushrooms in water for an extended period of time. Usually decoctions are allowed to simmer covered for 20-30 minutes, concentrating the liquid by half.
poultice-soft plant material mashed with water, oil, or in the case of a “spit poultice” simply chewed and spit out to produce a soft, wet mass of masticated herbs. A poultice is applied directly to the skin to help heal or draw out infection.
compress-liquid-soaked fabric that is applied to the skin,covered, and kept warm (via a water bottle, heating pad, etc) for a period of time to promote healing. Infusions, teas, pastes, or herbal oils can all be used for compresses.
elixir-traditionally an elixir is an infusion of herbal plant material such as roots, leaves, or flowers in a base of brandy and honey. Generally elixirs are used medicinally by drop doses.
bitters-the standard western diet is heavy in sweets but lacking in the bitter department. Herbal bitters involve creating a tincture of bitter herbs and other flavoring agents such as fruits and spices along with alcohol. In come cases sweeteners such as honey may be added as well as water to dilute the strength if desired. Bitters help to stimulate the digestive juices needed to effectively process heavy foods and thus may help with gas, bloating, and stomach upset associated with eating rich foods. Bitters have been reported to help regulate blood sugar and appetite. They are also sometimes included in cocktail recipes to add flavor and bitterness to the drink. Bitters are usually dosed by drops.
tincture-(see extract) an infusion of plant material into an alcohol base, such as grain alcohol, cane alcohol, or brandy. Proof of alcohol needed for best extraction of plant chemistry will vary based upon the type of plant and plant material being used (e.g. gums, barks, and resins often require a higher proof alcohol for complete extraction as opposed to flowers, stems, or leaves). Sometimes water may be added to adjust alcohol content. The general ratios used are one part fresh plant material to two parts alcohol, or one part dried plant material to five parts alcohol. Plant material is often infused for several weeks before being strained out, allowing the tincture to be used medicinally. Tinctures are often dosed by drops.
extract-(see tincture) The terms tincture and extract are often used interchangeably, referring to plant material being steeped in alcohol to extract plant chemistry and flavor. When used in culinary applications, the term extract seems to be favored (e.g. vanilla extract).
glycerite-also known as a glycerine extract. Generally an alcohol-free alternative to an herbal tincture or extract. Glycerine, a thick, sweet, clear, plant-based syrup is used along with water to extract the plant chemistry from the dried herbal plant material (or fresh herbs can be used with straight glycerine). Plant material is steeped for several weeks before straining. Take care to source a food grade glycerine for use in your glycerites. Low-alcohol glycerites are also available, blending herbal tinctures with glycerine. Glycerites are dosed by drops.
tonic-this term is rather confusing in my opinion because I think that the term tonic conjures up the image of some type of drink or liquid medicine. In reality, the term tonic actually refers to the type of herb being used in the application (such as in a tea, infusion, or decoction). Tonic herbs are those that are said to stimulate the system and increase strength and vitality in the individual. I thought this was an interesting read about tonic herbs.
herbal beer-in essence, a fermented herbal soda, often using store-bought or airborne yeast to introduce carbonation. Ginger beer and root beer are common examples.
herbal wine-creating an herbal infusion, which is then mixed with sugar and specialized wine yeast. The mixture is allowed to ferment for several months or more in a series of special containers to allow for the buildup of carbonation and for alcohol to develop. Dandelion wine is an example. Another alternative is to make an herbal infused wine using wine as the menstruum and steeping herbs along with other flavoring agents such as spices or citrus peels as desired for a period of weeks to extract flavor and plant chemistry.
herbal honey-an herbal honey is honey (preferably raw to maintain all of the enzymatic goodness) in which an herbal leaf, flower, or root has been steeped for several weeks to impart flavor and infuse the honey with the healing properties of the herb. This can be dosed on a spoon or used topically for medicinal purposes depending on the herb. Herbal honeys may also be used or for flavoring foods or as a condiment.
herbal vinegar-steeping herbal plant material such as root, leaves, or flowers into a vinegar base for several weeks to impart flavor, minerals, and beneficial properties. Any vinegar may be used such as white wine, apple cider, or Balsamic. Fruit may also be added to enhance flavor. Herbal vinegars can be used in salad dressings, oxymels, or other food applications.
herbal oil-created by steeping dried plant material into an oil or blend of carrier oils such as olive, grape seed, almond, apricot kernel, jojoba, etc. Can be done over several weeks in a sunny window; across several hours while being gently heated, or for several minutes in a high speed blender. The plant material is then strained out, leaving the verbally-infused oil for topical or culinary applications, depending upon the plants and oils used. Fresh (wilted) herbs may be used in culinary applications where the oil will be refrigerated, but should be avoided in other applications as their water content may encourage mold growth.
herbal salt-a blend of fresh herbs and salt, often processed together and allowed to dry for a couple hours before being stored for use. In culinary applications, sea salt or kosher salt may be used. For external use such as in baths or foot soaks, epsom salt may be the preferred choice. Herbal salts can also incorporate spices and citrus rinds to enhance flavor. Bath salts may use essential oils in addition to, or in place of fresh herbs.
herbal sugar-much like herbal salts, herbal sugars combine herbs with sugar to use for finishing food, enhancing recipes, or elevating drinks. Using a slightly different process which varies by recipe, herbal sugars essentially infuse the herb and its essence into sugar.
paste-for culinary uses soft herbs such as basil, parsley, tarragon, etc. are processed very finely with a drizzle of neutral oil to form a paste. This can then be used in marinades, rubs, as a condiment, etc. For medicinal uses, fresh or dried herbs are pounded or ground and mixed with honey, oil, water, egg white, etc. to form a paste consistency which is then applied to the body where needed.
pesto-an extension of a culinary herb paste, a pesto often includes the addition of nuts (traditionally pine nuts), garlic, and cheese (traditionally parmesan or Parmigiano-Reggiano).
jelly or jam-herbal plant material is infused into water and then cooked with sugar and pectin and boiled to the proper temperature to create a thick syrup. Fruit or fruit juices may be used as well to lend flavor. The syrup is bottled according to the recipe and allowed to cool and thicken. Herbal infusions cooked with or without strained fruit juices will produce a clear jelly. Herbal infusions cooked with whole fruit purees will produce jam.
compound butter-not to be confused with a body butter, in an herbal compound chopped herbs are mixed or whipped with softened butter (generally cow’s milk). Sweeteners such as honey or other flavoring agents such as vinegar or citrus zest may also be added to enhance the butter. Once the herbs are incorporated into the butter, the mixture is reshaped into a log and chilled to solidify. Compound butters are used in culinary applications.
lozenge-(see cough drop) generally one of two preparations that are used to reference cough drops or lozenges interchangeably. In the first preparation, a decoction is made of dried herbs and water. The decoction is then mixed with honey, and a soothing bulking agent such as slippery elm powder to create a soft dough. This dough is then rolled and cut into shape and allowed to dry before being stored for use. In the second preparation, you again start with an herbal decoction that you then cook slowly with a larger quantity of sugar or other sweetener until you reach the hard crack stage (best to do using a candy thermometer to avoid under or over cooking). The mixture is then poured into candy molds and cooled before being stored. Essentially, you are making make a medicinal herbal hard cancy.
cough drop-(see lozenge)

Transitioning toward items that are used more for topical applications, personal care, and home care (again with fuzzy boundaries between lists). The following distinctions may be helpful:

An oil is a liquid fat comprised of either a carrier oil infused with herbs or a carrier oil supplemented with essential oils. Carrier oils are generally neutrally-scented oils such as olive, avocado, grape seed, jojoba, apricot kernel, argan, nut oils, etc. Carrier oils may have their own therapeutic benefits but are not concentrated medicinal oils such as essential oils. Accordingly, carrier oils can be used directly on the skin, but essential oils must be diluted in a carrier oil before being applied to skin to avoid irritation.

A butter is a solid fat that will melt around body temperature but is solid at room temperature. Examples include cocoa butter, shea butter, or mango butter.

essential oil-essential oils are the volatile and aromatic oils and chemistry of the plant typically extracted through a steam distillation process. Essential oils have many topical uses when diluted with other oils, or can be inhaled via steam, mists, or diffusers. Internal use or consumption of essential oils should be done with extreme care and only under the guidance of an experienced herbalist.
hydrosol-sometimes also referred to as flower waters, hydrosols are an herbally-infused water. Hydrosols are produced when the steam used in distilling essential oil cools and returns to a liquid state. They contain the water-soluble chemistry of the plant material as well as very small amounts of the essential oils. Hydrosols may be used in place of water or other liquids in skincare applications or as a facial or room-scenting mist. If made from edible plants, hydrosols may also be used in culinary applications (e.g. rose water, orange flower water).
gel-a non-greasy extract of herbs in an gel-base, usually from aloe but may derive from other gel-rich plants such as prickly pear cactus. Can also use a decoction or tincture to which a gelling agent is added such as agar agar or gelatin. Used topically.
liniment-intended for topical use, generally to relieve muscle pain or strain. Liniments are the end product of steeping dried herbs into a solvent such as witch hazel or rubbing alcohol. Herbs are steeped in the alcohol for several weeks before straining. Vinegar may also be used in combination or in place of the alcohol.
lotion-similar to a cream, but thinner due to a higher percentage of water-based ingredients as opposed to oils or butters (approximately 70/30 or 80/20). Water-based ingredients can include teas, hydrosols, infusions, aloe gel, distilled water, etc. Lotions spread and absorb quickly and easily.
cream-semi-solid emulsion, generally with approximately 50% oil and 50% water-based ingredients, often with the addition of some hardening wax. Recipes may use herbal infused oils or essential oils blended with carrier oils such as grapes or jojoba. A variety of water-based ingredients may be used (see lotion). Often packaged in a tub or tube, creams spread easily, absorb quickly, and are water soluble. Creams are generally applied to the skin for therapeutic, moisturizing, or medicinal uses.
body butter-combination of carrier oil/herbal oil, and butters. Generally thicker than a lotion or a cream due to containing little or no water-based ingredients, they are often used for similar topical applications, especially for very dry skin.
ointment-(see unguent) thicker than a lotion or cream, ointments are generally 80% oil and 20% water-based ingredients. They are thicker to spread and take a while to absorb. *Note that some sources list ointments as being synonomous with salves, balms, and unguents and exclude water-based ingredients from their composition.
salve-(see balm) a thick blend of herbal infused oils (or essential oil and carrier oils), along with a hardening wax such as beeswax or candelilla wax (vegan). On occasion butters may be used in addition to, or in place of waxes. Salves are generally applied to the skin for therapeutic of medicinal uses.
balm-(see salve) thick blend of oils and wax. May contain butters as well, and on occasion butters may replace waxes in a recipe. The terms salve and balm seem to be used interchangeably without much distinction, although lip products are most often called balms rather than salves for whatever reason. Historically, balms appeared to have been associated with resinous plant materials.
unguent-(see ointment) a term used less frequently, but often interchangeably with ointment. The only distinction that I found was that an unguent may be more oily and less viscous as compared to an ointment.
lotion bar-a blend of herbal infused oil or essential oil and carrier oil along with butters and beeswax that is then melted, mixed, molded, and allowed to cool. The ratio of oil, butter, and beeswax is generally close to equal (1:1:1). The bar can then be warmed between the hands or on the skin to re-melt a bit of the bar to soothe or moisturize skin. Often used for massage or to moisturize hands or feet.
toner/aftershave-generally used to balance skin ph and to cool and refresh the skin. Toners and aftershaves are both a blend of herbally-infused water or hydrosols with an astringent such as alcohol, vinegar, or witch hazel at their base. Other ingredients such as aloe vera gel and glycerine may be added depending upon the recipe used.
scrub-usually a combination of essential oils or of dried plant material such as flowers or leaves along with carrier oil, and a granular substance such as salt, sugar, or ground nuts, beans, etc. Scrubs are used to exfoliate and moisturize the skin. Scrubs may be used for face or body depending in the intensity of the granular component.
bath fizz-an extension of a bath salt (see herbal salt), a bath fizz adds baking soda and citric acid to produce a fizzing bubbly action when added to your bath water.
bath bomb-basically a molded bath fizz. Oil, tea, water, or an infusion is carefully added in small amounts to the bath fizz base to allow for shaping as desired. Once shaped into molds, the mixture is allowed to dry fully so that it will hold its shape. It is then ready to be dropped into a bath a desired to produce a bubbly, soothing, aromatic bath.
bath melt-a bath melt enriches butters such as cocoa butter and shea butter with herbal oils, essential oils, and/or dried herbs. After heating the ingredients to liquify, the mixture is cooled in small molds. Bath melts are added to running bath water and allowed to melt, creating a moisturizing, aromatic bath.
body mist or spray-at its base, a body spray or mist combines a refreshing astringent such as witch hazel or vodka with distilled water or a hydrosol. Essential oils may be added to boost aroma, and glycerine or aloe vera gel may be added to soothe the skin and boost the mist’s aromatic staying power.

This last grouping is herbal items to enhance your surroundings:

room spray-similar to a body spray or mist, a room spray combines distilled water or a hydrosol with an astringent preservative such as vodka or witch hazel, often getting a boost from essential oils as well. Proportions vary greatly among recipes from 1:1 water to astringent ratio to straight hydrosol or water/essential combination.
incense-basically a mixture of dried herbs, woods, or resins, binding agents and combustible materials such as charcoal or makko that are burned to release an aromatic, cleansing smoke. Incense making is a bit complex to describe in brief, but this article seems like a good reference if you are interested in learning more.
smudging stick-select herbs are bundled, tied together, and dried. Once completely dried, the bundles can be burned and their smoke used for cleansing, purifying, and healing purposes. Traditional smudging herbs include white sage, cedar, and mugwort, but other herbs can be used as well. Be sure to research before burning an herb to determine if the smoke produced will be healthy for inhalation or use in enclosed spaces.

Whew! I hope that you found this glossary of herbal terms and list of ideas helpful and inspiring. With the growing season upon us, I know that I will be looking at the plants all around me in new ways. If you have terms that I missed that you think should be included in the list, please comment with them. Also, if you have favorite recipes to share in any of the above categories, I would love to hear them.

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Seed Saving: What Seed Can Be Saved, How, and Why?

heirloom and OP tomatoes

Why Bother with Seed Saving?

I have really loved to grow food for as long as I can remember. Flowers and medicinal plants have claimed a place in my gardening heart in more recent years, but food is where it all began. As a young child, I remember that my dad always planted a summer vegetable garden in addition to the grape vines that wound their way up the fences amidst the raspberries and blackberries, and the strawberries that claimed their spot at the foot of the apple and pear trees. He would proudly display a handful of radishes or carrots and proclaim with pride, “Look what G-d and I made!” My Papa (his dad) was a gardener too, growing food his whole life. In his retirement he even coordinated a community garden and organized the donation of their bounty to local food pantries.

I am happy to carry on this tradition of growing food for my family and to share with others. My favorite food of all to grow is a tomato. In particular, I love to grow heirloom and open pollinated tomatoes. They tend to represent a seemingly endless array of shapes, sizes, colors, and flavor profiles. I think that they are beautiful and delicious. They also appeal to my drive to be sustainable and to perpetuate biodiversity in our food because open pollinated and heirloom seeds allow for the grower to harvest seed from the choicest fruit and save it to grow the same variety of plant year after year.

I know that in the weeks ahead gardeners from all around will be selecting and hardening off their plants or getting them in the ground. It is a bit late to be staring your own plants from seed this year, but if you want to plan ahead with the option of saving seed and starting your own plants next season, be mindful when choosing this year’s plants or seed. Moreover, if you are already growing heirloom or open pollinated plants, take advantage of the opportunity to save seed from your favorites to grow again in the future.

I demonstrate how to ferment and save your own tomato seeds in the video below. For more information on types of seeds and which are appropriate for saving (and which are not), keep reading.

Plant and Seed Types

For those unfamiliar with the distinctions among variety types, I’ll break it down:

Hybrids

A hybrid plant is a variety that has been created to have a number of desired characteristics. In the case of a tomato for instance that could be an early ripening, low acid, cherry size, orange, and sweet variety. This hybridized tomato is the evolution of cross-breeding plants with some of the desired characteristics and selecting out the resulting “baby” plants that come closer to the intended end product.

The variety mixing and tweaking goes on until the desired parent plants can be identified and stabilized so that when cross-bred will create the ultimate “blended” tomato. This tomato is their first generation “ideal” offspring and is labeled the F1 hybrid. However, hybrid tomatoes have seed that is unstable. That is to say that if you save and grow seed from this F1 fruit, the seeds will revert back in different and unpredictable ways to earlier generations, perhaps yielding an early ripening large red tomato with watery flavor; a late ripening, sweet, red cherry tomato; and a low acid, early ripening, medium-sized, yellow tomato. Moreover, second generation hybridized seeds also tend to produce less vigorous and more sickly plants.

Open Pollinated

An open pollinated (OP) plant means that the plant is pollinated by natural means such as insects, birds, or wind carrying pollen from the male flowers to the female flowers, rather than being a manipulated cross like a hybrid. As it happens, tomatoes are self-fertile and generally will be fertilized and set fruit without interference from other tomato plant varieties, but it could happen on occasion. If the blossom was to be fertilized from the pollen of a different open-pollinated tomato variety, the fruit would produce seed that would grow into a new and different variety altogether (in essence, an accidental hybrid).

This fact made me wonder how an OP keeps from becoming a hybrid. Generally speaking, these tomato varieties have become stabilized over time by selecting out generation after generation of plant that grows stable from the seed. The commonly held belief is that after 4-5 generations of growing seed from a fruit and saving seed only from those plants of each generation that replicate the initial plant, the variety is now stable and will yield the same tomato from generation to generation assuming that it is not accidentally fertilized by a different variety.

Because these plants are technically open-pollinated, they can yield seed that is a cross between the initial variety and another open pollinated tomato plant should an errant breeze or helpful bee carry over pollen from another plant before the flowers have pollinated by their own fertile selves. In an effort to ensure seed that is true to the variety, a grower would want to either isolate the plant a prescribed distance from other tomato varieties, or (more practical for the home grower) bag the flower blossoms to keep the fruit and seed true to the variety.

Heirloom

An heirloom plant is by definition an open-pollinated variety. The distinction however is that an heirloom variety is one that that has existed and handed down through families for years (I have seen definitions ranging from 50-100 years as the minimum requirement, but suffice it to say it would be an old variety). These tomatoes have become stabilized by years of selecting out the plants that represent the variety and handing these seeds down time and again, as with OP seeds. So in short, all heirlooms varieties are open-pollinated, but not all open pollinated varieties have earned the distinction of becoming heirlooms. If they stand the test of time and familial preference, they may become the heirlooms of the future.

Cliff Notes Version

In summary, a hybrid is a tomato that has been intentionally bred from crossing other varieties. It is unstable across generations so only first generation (F1) seeds should be used. Saved seeds from hybrids will not grow true. An open pollinated (OP) tomato is stable assuming that it does not accidentally become cross pollinated by another variety. This can be avoided by distancing plants or bagging blossoms. An heirloom is an OP variety that has been handed down from generation to generation for a period of 50-100 years or more and is still being grown today. Seed from OP or heirloom varieties can be saved and should grow true to variety except in the rare case of accidental cross pollinating.

Saving Tomato Seeds in Two Simple Steps

So, now that you know that you can save seed from heirloom and OP tomato plants, you just need to know how to do it. The good news is that it is very easy. All that is required is the liberation of the seed from its protective gel sac and then thoroughly drying the seed before storing so that it doesn’t mildew.

tomato seeds in their protective gel sacs

tomato seeds in their protective gel sacs

The second part is easy (just lay out flat and allow to dry). The first part is pretty simple too provided that you have a jar and a few days to allow the seeds to ferment in the tomato’s juice. See the video above for the quick tutorial.

What are some of your favorite tomato varieties? Why do you enjoy growing and eating them?

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