The soil beneath our feet

Since just even looking out the window means feeling cold and wet at the moment, I will just share a little snapshot from how it looked yesterday afternoon, and then move on to another subject.

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SOIL  is the Topic!

Dare I say, without soil, there would simply be no life. It is one of our most important natural resources alongside air and water. And in the same time, without life, the soil would by definition not even exist.

The definition (according to Wikipedia) of soil is: Soil is a mixture of organic matter, minerals, gases, liquids, and organisms that together support life.”

soil

Just to remind us, here are a few things that the soil does:

  • It is a medium for growing plant life.
  • Soil absorbs, releases, holds and filters water.
  • The soil holds and releases nutriments by processing recycled material from dead organic matter.
  • Soil exchanges with the atmosphere by emitting and absorbing gases like carbon oxide and methane (have a look at this blog post for some information about how this makes your garden important in inhibiting climate change).
  • The soil contains “hard matter” like mountain rock, and thereby provides minerals.
  • It is a stabilizer of climate since it stocks the warmth of the day, which is then released by night.
  • Besides carrying animals and humans at its surface, the soil is also home to a huge amount of life living IN it.

Connecting this to our gardens it is not hard to understand why pesticides and chemical treatments don’t belong in the context. But many still have a little of a hard time seeing what it says about some other parts of the picture. Let me give an example…

We recently helped to prepare the planting season for a couple with a garden consisting in about ten raised beds for vegetable, and a beautiful 15 m2 greenhouse (in real glass). Since about ten years they have mainly grown tomatoes in the greenhouse, and in the beginning they were really happy with the fact that their tomatoes developed so well in the greenhouse. They didn’t catch the disease that sometimes attained the outside tomatoes. With time they noticed that this didn’t work any more though. The tomatoes inside were more often sick than the outside ones, and it seems like the raised garden beds needed to have the earth changed every two years to work well. Of course – this is huge work, and for someone with a pleasure garden it removes a lot of just that – the pleasure.

Visiting their greenhouse we could see dirt, not soil. Dirt has a pale colour, it is dusty and it contains little life. The striking proof – not a single weed! It was really, really hot inside even a spring day like this. The earth was dry. No chance that microorganisms or funghi could live here.

What had happened here? Well, coming out of winter, the greenhouse had been abandoned since last season. The earth had not received a single drop of water since. Many people with a fixed installation don’t think about watering their empty greenhouse soil in winter, but it is really important. Once a month is enough. Hey, it’s not empty just because YOU didn’t plant anything! Microorganisms who work so hard for a healthy balanced soil still lives there, and even weeds are good signs saying that the environment is life friendly.
Moreover, all organic material had been carefully removed at the end of the growing season, leaving nothing at all to worms and the other inhabitants of the earth to feed on. Consequently, neither was there anything to protect the surface of the soil from the harsh heat that occurs even in spring in a closed greenhouse.

To restore the balance we started by opening the greenhouse as much as possible and with an overall clean. We gently aired the earth with a fork. Then we invited life back in. We brought manure, compost, layers of leaves, and started to create a lasagne. Then we toped off with an infusion of comfrey and lots of water.

As for the raised garden beds things where looking better, there were weeds and humidity! Digging in a bit we noticed a lack of worms and any abundant signs of life though. Here’s an example of what happens when you only take, and forget to give back to the soil.

I nature this giving and receiving cycle is everlasting, and everybody contributes with their specific task. Plants grow, they live, they flower, they give fruit, they drop their leaves, or they die and are composted. Some have really deep roots, like trees seeking minerals in the depts of the earth, and then they give them back to the surface with their falling autumn leaves. Some benefit from the surface nutriments and have shallow root systems, protecting the surface of the earth with their ground covering growth.

In a potager where we tend to accumulate a concentration of plants with many needs, and combining it with the fact of removing both harvest, plant residue and weeds, we actually owe a lot in return if we wish to “fair play”.

In fact, no matter the initial quality of the soil, all soils needs to receive additional organic matter at a regular basis. In a garden this can take several shapes, but we need to keep a balance of carbon and nitrogen rich material. It’s possible to use almost anything we have nearby – old manure, hay, straw, lawn and other fresh plant parts. If the structure of the earth is good, with a balance of moisture holding earth particles and pores, the roots will have a good environment. They can then easily spread and absorb oxygen, water and nutriments. It also gives the biological life in the earth something to work with, helping to make the nutriments available and airing the earth with their presence.

Going back to the example of the couple with the raised garden beds, they could have put in a chemical fertilizer, but their plants would probably not become healthier and more resistant to disease, since life in the soil would still not have enough to work with. If the nutriments are not made biologically available by natural soil activity, bacteria, fungus etc. we will still not have a functional environment.

Gardening techniques that improve the earth structure are therefore important. Mulching and green manure are the most important ones. Not only does it create material going back to the earth, but also by occupation of the space, it keeps us from once again removing something – weeds! This is generally welcomed by the gardener spending less time on the task, but thus also by the soil. Actually not “tidying up” after each harvested crop is another way of leaving for example roots and above ground material at the spot to go back to the earth. And last but not least, not walking on the cultivated earth keeps an airy structure and keeps you from interrupting the different layers of the soil by having to use tools to air it up again.

There is a lot more to say about this subject, but I will stop there for now. I just want to add that there are some simple garden boosters that can be helpful to know about, especially now in spring. Did you know that an infusion of comfrey not only stimulates germination and the development of the upper areal parts of plants, but that it also reinforces the immune defence of the plants and in the same time stimulates the earth’s microbial life?

You might also want to try the effect of yarrow on your compost. It has been shown that yarrow, even in homeopathic doses, stimulates composting processes! How great that these  two are both common plants easy to find and use!

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Spriiiing with extra i’s

Spriiiing with extra i’s

Each spring here in France surprises me. It’s a long story. It goes on, and on and on some more! There are SEVERAL MONTHS of spriiiing (one i isn’t enough really)!!! As you can see on the head picture, it’s a beautiful spectacle playing out all around.

 

Depending on your own provenance this might seem just normal, but since I’m born and raised in northern Sweden, about 120 km south of the arctic circle, spring is for me supposed to be a short affaire of something like a week or two. Up there, spring doesn’t get a whole set to play. Firstly because winter plays the main act and always draws over a bit, and secondly  because summer impatiently puts across that she need not be too late if she is supposed to have time to play her piece before autumn. Suitably the word “spring” translated in Swedish means “run”. Yes indeed, spring up there runs a race with time!

Anyway, what I really wanted to share today are some pictures showing what spring is bringing us at the moment around here.

P1040215The rhubarb that has struggled a bit to get nicely implanted has come along strongly this spring. Look at this giant! I will have plenty of shopped rhubarb leaves to spread around my kale plants to hold of cabbage worm later on!

 

Above you can see three perennials. The first to the left is the kiwaï that is looking perky and thriving in company of  some strawberry at its feet. I don’t know how soon one can hope for it to carry fruit. This will only be it’s second summer at our place, and we bought it as a young plant of one year.

The second picture is of an Echinacea. I am coming to an end of the stock of dried flowers from last year and I’m eager to see it in bloom again soon. It’s such a wonderful plant! Beautiful, full of health benefits and low maintenance. It’s mostly known for the use if it’s root, that can help prevent colds, but the flowers can also be used in the same purpose, even though they are a little less powerful. It also has a lovely flavor!

The third picture is of our chocolate mint that starts to show its nose above the mulch. We moved it to a new spot this spring and would need to find some more space for it to spread since it has a good demand in infusion.

 

Three different stages of evolution of raspberry. The first circle shows our “favourites”. They give big and juicy fruit during a long period. We liked them so much that last autumn we tripled the length of what was already planted, and in the middle circle you can see the cuttings coming along (with a double row of pansies planted in front). The third circle is raspberries that doesn’t seem to give much fruit, but being planted on a mound facing south, with some big trees that cover from cool evening air, they give lots of leaves early in the season, and that’s appreciated too!

 

Above some  other projects coming along; first picture is a new massive (not finished) decorated with some old iron details that a nice friend brought us recently. I have been looking for bringing in some metal here and there so I was happy to play garden designer and make this arrangement that reminds a bit of a snake (or the Loch Ness Monster maybe) at the border…

Second picture to the right is from the “fruit hedge” or future “mini-forest-eco-system”. The Cassis are beautiful and in flower, all the autumn and spring planted trees are coming along well and I’m little by little planting different perennials and ground cover at the feet of the trees. So far it’s strawberry, yarrow, monarda, pansies, lungwort, tansy, wild garlic, chives, absinth and rhubarbe. The tricky thing is that the trees don’t give shadow and shelter yet, so the ground climate will change quite a bit with time.

The third picture to the right is from the flower lines. They are almost prepared for planting (right side). I didn’t have enough mulch last autumn to make a nice winter layer and prevent weeds, so they have been cleared all recently and are now waiting to be fully covered by a new layer of hay. The Sage to the left has grown well since last year and will probably give a nice harvest. They will soon get the company of some lavender and Echinacea where there’s room.

 

Seedlings are also coming along this time of the year of course. Look at these babies waiting to get transplanted. They are still going to be kept a while in what I call “the hot frames” though. Last morning there was frost despite a nice warm influence that has brought us some 25 degrees Celsius during the week. Tomatoes, flowers and different type of cabbage on these two pictures.

BUT! Don’t underestimate what is shown on the picture underneath! Wild flowers and plants of all kind are lovely and filled with vibrant energy this time of year. One can just feel nourished by the delight of looking at this beautiful composition! Before the garden is awake you shouldn’t miss out on the opportunity to serve yourself in the wild. I have said it before and will say it again – wild plants grow where the environment and conditions are exactly right for them, developing a maximum of specific nutriments, while cultivated plants have to settle for what we offer them. Food is medicine!

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Giants of nature

Since spring makes us practice patience this year, we took the opportunity to go south for a bit, to the area of ” La Drôme”, the passed weekend. Even down there they hadn’t come much longer in terms of flowering and greens. We made a lovely forest walk though and came across these magnificent giants leading up to the actual wild woods.

CèdreIf I’m not mistaken these are Atlas cedars (the word Atlas meaning “the Carrier” in greek). It’s hard to make justice on a photo to such big trees, but several of the trunks must have measured over a meter wide, and as you can see the branches was inviting as natural hammocks. It’s just incredible to creep up on the branches of such giants, opening up to the strength and wisdom of nature.

I love trees. Thinking about how they are silent witnesses to generations passing by, scenting their seeming everlasting patience throughout storm, sunshine and fog, and embracing their strong life force and compassion fills me with respect and reverence.  Yes, I think trees, like other plants, shows compassion. We are just about to start understanding a small bit of the exchange trees actually have between each other. They are not all about competition like we have thought here in the west since a long time  now. No, they actually share lots of information and communication which benefits to all. Think about it, how often will you see one lonely tree in the middle of a field in a true natural area?

Some might know that a single isolated tree can have more difficulty to thrive than in a group of trees growing together, but many think that you have to plant them all at the same time for it to work. I recently learned that this is not necessary and that if you wish to implant a young tree next to an older one, the only thing you need to do to facilitate the implantation is to prune the older tree before preparing for the new one. Since the old tree has established a certain amount of roots according to the need of its foliage, cutting away a part of the mass above ground will cause a correlative part of roots to die. This is pure adaption to the new needs of the plant. However, the situation will come in profit to the new tree since the dead roots will start to decompose, leaving free space to the roots that the new tree will develop, and also slowly releasing the nutriments from the old roots and leaving a more airy structure to the soil.

Of course less disease, more stable humidity, mutual protection from the elements and variated foliage are other pleasant advantages (both for the trees and us humans) if one chooses to plant trees or bushes together.

“Trees are poems that earth writes upon the sky” – Khalil Gibran

Herbal harvest

Herbal harvest

How I have waited for this time of the year! I just love aromatic herbs, and now is when many of them are at their best. It’s oh so fragrant, oh so beautiful!
With their lovely fragrances, each so specific to the plant in question, it would be a suitable task for a poet trying to describe their taste. Most aromatic herbs are also part of a medical tradition, as well as surrounded by diverse folkloric stories and beliefs. These are just some of the herbs in our garden…

BasilI think basil is a culinary icon. I just love it, and it’s the aromatic that I wait most impatient for each summer.
Basil exists in lots of varieties today, but the only one that should be used in a true pesto is the kind named Genovese. Historically there are many thrilling traditions associated with basil. In India it has been considered a holy plant, part of religious ceremonies, and people thought that the creator of the earth lived inside the plant. Another quite fun story is that the ancient grec apparently thought that one had to scream and shout in order to make the basil seeds germinate. I haven’t tried that technique, but I have everything between the traditional basil Genovese, to purple basil, thai basil and my very favorite – the holy basil growing in the garden. I find the holy basil spicier than classic one, yet sweeter in the same time. It goes with everything from a tomato salad to some fresh strawberries with a little sugar. A must-try if you haven’t discovered it yet. There are many others, but I tend to like the varieties I mentioned above the best. Basil lasts for harvest a long time once it has started to produce. I tend to use most fresh, dried its use is completely different. If anyone has the experience of freezing basil to conserve I would love to hear about it.

Some other herbs have already given their major harvest and will be conserved by drying. That’s the case of my oregano and marjoram. It was with both joy and sadness that I cut the lovely flowering bushes that they have formed. Thank you nature for this fragrant and beautiful gift!
Yet others, like the lemon balm (first picture above) and my two varieties of mint will even have time to re-grow three times during the summer season.

On the middle picture above there is also an herb called Perilla that I have become found of in infusions. Perilla is the parsley of the Japanese, and the green variety is even included in sushi from time to time. Yes, it exists in two shapes, green or red, the green one being the most aromatic. I haven’t found any seeds of the green Perilla even though I am keen on growing it to try. Apparently its taste is something between cumin, coriander, mint and lemon all at once! The red Perilla on the other hand is quite discrete but has nonetheless a pleasant flavor, and is antispasmodic, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and contains lots of vitamins. The foliage of the plant also makes it a beautiful eye-catcher in the garden.

The third picture is Chrivil (Cerfeuil en francais). I think it is my Swedish origin that makes me so keen on these licorice-like flavors. I am a big fan of its really, really thin leaves with refreshing taste. Try it to fish or in a light yogurt sauce to accompanie  the barbecue. Chrivil is an annual that is also an excellent companion planted near the salads. It’s scent makes slugs less eager to feast on the salads, and since it is a bit sensible to heat, they share the same preferences for exposure.

P1040039I am also happy to see that my Rosemary is beginning to thrive and grow stronger. Rosemary means ” the dew of the sea” in latin, and naturally grows at the beaches of the Mediterranean sea. Not a climate much like ours at almost 1000 meters altitude in the middle of the mountains, with other words. Last year, I had the chance to have a piece of an already accustomed Rosemary plant though, and it seems to be a successful cutting. I have made two other cuttings on my plant this summer and hope to enlarge the population.
Rosemary is full with health properties and is very pleasant in infusions. Included on its list of benefits is that it stimulates the memory and helps relief stress and anxiety.

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And here are the young sages sown this year. They are coming along fine but will not really give much before next year. In the middle of the rows I planted marjoram this spring but it seems to have been less successful – I can hardly find any that are still there actually.

Anyway, my conclusion of the day is that we should all enjoy the fragrant gifts of mother nature this time of year, and keep marveling at the rich and surprising tastes she serves us with!

 

A glimpse from the garden

Spring and beginning of the summer are periods of full activity both in nature and for us gardeners. Since Neorigins is quite a young project, we have been even more busy than usual by the fact of installing new cultures and opening up fresh soil. Other important activities for the moment being picking and drying wild medicinal plants, and adding some enjoyable side projects like making a hen house, we have passed an anything but boring spring! It’s been intense, but what a pleasure it is to see life coming around in all different shapes!

A picture explains more than a thousand words it is said, so here comes a glimpse from what’s been going on lately around Neorigins. 

It started like this at spring. The raised garden beds we have made for our vegetable cultures were in great shape and all ready for welcoming a new season. The outer circle is the oldest, and has already one summer season behind. It contains a core of big wood with branches and leaves put in layers on top, finishing with the growing soil and a protective mulch as the outer coating. Being that they are created quite recently, the winters rest made them well by allowing the beds to set, and all the micro organisms living in there to start working the material more seriously. This can really be seen at the surface on the thickness of the top straw layer that had reduced to only 1-2 cm. Another effect is that the winters snow, melting water and rain has started to be absorbed like a sponge on the inside of the beds, by the wood that is slowly starting to composte. All together making out a perfect supply of slowly released nutriments and a humidity for the plants of this summer!

This is how it looks at the moment:

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Since we have added some new cultures of medicinal plants we have also been in the business of opening up new soil. This is how it has evolved:

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To protect the naked soil and the freshly spread cow manure, the earth is quickly covered with straw.

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Working the earth by hand is a gentle way of a preparing for new cultures. We use a broad-fork which means that worms and other shapes of life in the soil is less disturbed, and that the earth’s structure is kept in balance. It’s a sweaty exercise though!

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Almost all planted! With a thick layer of straw the young plants barely emerge above the surface.

Young plants of French Marigold, Pansy and Borage are living side by side, and are peering at the world for the first time!


We have longed for some more company around since a while now, and since we have a perfect piece of land in nice half-shade at the very top of our terrain we decided to make reality of the hen-house-plans. When we started working at this spot there was only a huge pile of plant covered rocks – a rest of the ancient ruin that is fallen since a long time now, and it will keep being a nice biotope for lots of animals and wildlife with it’s many rocks, wild herbs and humid area.

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Hen house in construction

Other than gardening and building we keep picking and drying what the season offers. At the moment, Elderflowers are at their best in our surroundings, and may other of the medicinal plants that we work with are coming around too. Keep a look out for what will soon be available at the website!

Natural toothpaste recipe

Did you know that the capacity of absorption of the oral mucosa is two times superior of that of the skin?

DentifriceYes, it’s true, and that is one of the reasons we should be careful about not only what we eat, but also about what we put in our mouths to then spit out. Many modern toothpastes contains doubtable ingredients like fluorine, whiteners of different origins, consistency agents and so on… A large number of these are not healthy to be exposed to in the long run, and the fact of using strong bacterial killing products like mouth flush often actually harms the important balance of oral bacteria more than anything.

Luckily – there’s numerous ways of making your own toothpaste with all natural, and often quite inexpensive, ingredients. That way you are not only sure about what it contains, but you also no longer contribute to spreading substances like triclosan into nature, and you don’t make waste since there is no need for throwing the empty package of the toothpaste tube.

Here comes one natural green clay-based toothpaste recipe that I like.

  • ½ teaspoon of green clay powder
  • 4 tablespoons of potato starch
  • A pinch of salt
  • 1 teaspoon of plant powder (thyme for example)
  • A little water
  • 3-4 drops of peppermint oil

Mix all the dry ingredients in a small glass jar. Add water in small quantity (teaspoon by teaspoon) and blend until you reach the consistency you like. Finish with a few drops of peppermint oil. This mix doesn’t make a big quantity at a time, adapt it for the number of persons in your household. It can be kept for about two weeks, and if it tends to dry out on the end you can just ad some more water and repeat the blending.

To apply the toothpaste to my brush I use a little spoon to not put bacteria into the mix.

N.B. Remember to vary your paste with different base products. Even if it’s all natural, substances like clay, lemon and baking soda can alter the tooth enamel if used exclusively in the long run. Try excluding or including ingredients from time to time, or use coconut oil combined with plant powder like thyme or fennel to vary.


And then a thought on keeping a happy smile… Today, an increasing number of research is conducted on the human gut microbiota, that is, the complex community of microorganizms that live in the digestive tract. We begin to understand the important role that micro organisms play in our body, and that the bacteria present in our internal “eco-system” actually has an impact far beyond what we have imagined so far. Our behaviour and our mental health, as well as the function of the immune system, are all currently being intimately connected with the gut flora.

But the gut flora is only one part of the whole picture, and another part of the body containing about 600-700 species of bacteria on itself, is the mouth. We are not only constituted by genes, but also of small living organisms within our own organism. Their role being to contribute to the metabolism of diverse nutriments and vitamins, we couldn’t live without them. So if you choose to make your own toothpaste or not, think about what you put into your mouth to take care of those precious fellows to keep your happy smile!

Source of base recipe: Je fabrique mes produits ménagers, Laetitia Royant

Gardening is politics

Gardening can represent a lot of things. It’s a way of eating well, a way to practice presence in the moment, a hobby, a medicine, an experimental approach on life and it also represents an act of politics. Maybe you followed me in the beginning but not quite at the end… Let’s dig in to the subject!

In almost whatever country we live in today, we are touched by huge commercial interests dealing with our every day food. We are what we eat, and what we eat comes from the soil. To begin with, numerous studies have shown that the common supermarket food only contains about 20 % of the nutrition in the food that the generation of our grandparents consumed when they were young. It’s not only due to the fact that the food is processed once it has been harvested that contributes to this, but also that intense culture has removed the natural minerals from the soil, that the living organisms of the soil are strongly affected or eradicated by chemicals, and that vegetables are picked before being ripe to be stored for long periods prior to being consumed. As a result of this, more and more diseases with various symptoms that can be connected to poor nutrition are appearing today.

seedsA very complex law that treats the farmers right to grow specific plant varieties a
nd to produce seeds is today applied in the European Union. It has the practical consequence that our genetic banc of seeds, and many locally adapted varieties that actually makes out a cultural legacy, are on the verge of disappearing. Instead big seed companies are extending their market and developing more and more genetically modified seeds, or only offering the option of buying seeds that are pre-treated with pesticides for a “safer” germination.

Luckily, people are reacting against this outrageous deterioration of quality, something we can see on the almost explosive development of the organic market. It’s an important act by consumers that shows that we understand the importance of a balanced agriculture, for the sake of the earth and our health.

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Own vegetables – an independant choise

Furthermore, every gardener has a huge possibility to do an important political act by continuing to grow his or her own vegetables. By growing our own food we take the power back over what we eat. We do not rely on international laws concerning our dinner. We do not contribute to enrich the seed lobbies. We do not put money into a machinery that doesn’t suit us. We don’t get sick by the hidden bioaccumulation of toxic chemicals in the food, and we don’t need to buy isolated food supplements. Instead of being dependant,
we become self-contained.

And every single gardener also contributes to another important phenomena and political subject – lowering the greenhouse effect. Yes, on a planetary scale, every piece of land, every garden soil takes part in the carbon cycle. It is one of the fundamental parts of planetary health and YOU have the power to make a difference by simply building up a healthy soil with an increasing humus level. This is how it works…

There exists a certain amount of carbon molecules on the planet. Our issue today is that more and more of them are found in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. The rest is either stored in the soil as humus, or in living creatures like plants, animals (on land and in the oceans) and humans. On the scale of the earth, we have over the past decades lost two thirds of our humus, due to extensive agriculture. That carbon is now in the atmosphere and contributes to the climate change we are seeing. In the same time, some scientists claim that an increase of only 1 % organic matter in our soils could seriously slow down or even stop global warming.

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Mulching – a way to create humus

This means that every method that increases the forming of humus contributes to resolve this worldwide problem. By applying mulching (covering the uncultivated soil of the garden with, for example, straw), by regularly making and adding compost to our soil, and by practicing all methods that encourages the development of natural earth organisms we contribute to this cycle. By these simple acts we are actively a part of positive climate change.

So growing can be a lot of things besides the actual vegetables; growing health, growing knowledge about our own food, growing influence and growing political power among other things. Let’s all take action.