Each year, I think I’m going to be too busy to craft handmade gifts for the holidays. And each year, I end up doing it anyway. The idea of running around stores to the tune of holiday muzak and pouring money into stuff made thousands of miles away feels ultimately much more overwhelming.
This year, we have added incentive to be more intentional about gift-giving. First of all, many of us can’t physically be together for the holidays because of Covid. So we can be present for our loved ones through our creativity and the work of our hands, with truly unique gifts. Or, if we do buy gifts, let’s direct our patronage to local small businesses or small-scale artisans on platforms like Etsy, rather than the big chain stores and tech giants. Covid has hit small business owners especially hard. The online giants will be just fine.
For those of us who take the DIY route, the question always creeps up in September, October, or at the latest in November: “What to make this year?” Here are 12 of my favorite ideas from past years. There’s something for everyone and for all skill levels: knitting, crochet, sewing, body care, jewelry, and food gifts… And as I’m quite picky about gift projects — I don’t want to add more junk into the lives and homes of my loved ones — the crafts profiled here are all either beautiful, useful, or both. (I hope my giftees think so too!)
Lavender sachets for the linen closet
This is a quick knit from More Last-Minute Knitted Gifts by Joelle Hoverson. These pyramid-shaped sachets take just over an hour each to knit, and are filled with oh-so-fragrant lavender buds to protect linens, yarns, and hand-knits from moths.
Pointy elf hat
…also from More Last-Minute Knitted Gifts. A couple of years ago, I knitted one for each of my nephews, nieces and godchildren. That may sound like a lot, but these are incredibly fast and satisfying to knit, especially when working with bulky yarns in lovely bright colors.
A couple of years ago, I made a pair for just about everyone in the family. The pattern — “Rye” by Tin Can Knits — is available for free on Ravelry, and just lovely to make.
I made this firewood carrying tote a couple of years ago for Dan, and we’ve been carrying our firewood in style ever since. I actually used a canvas painting drop cloth that we already had, so the only material I had to buy was a 3/4″ wooden dowel from the hardware store! You’ll want to use canvas or other similarly sturdy fabric for this one. See tutorial here.
Vanilla brown sugar body scrub
…for pampering a loved one. I followed this recipe, but used dark brown sugar instead of light.
Lavender massage oil
This massage oil is really quick and easy to make, and will definitely be a welcome gift — especially with calming lavender, which is perfect for relaxing massages. This would make a sweet gift for a friend, or for your sweetheart for future date nights. It can also be used as body oil after a warm bath.
4 oz grapeseed or almond oil (or combination)
1.5 oz dried lavender blossoms
5-10 drops lavender essential oil
Put the lavender buds in a jar and pour oil over them. Close the lid and let sit on a warm windowsill for 2-3 weeks. (To accelerate the process, you can gently warm the mixture in a double boiler for about 1 hour.) Strain the buds from the oil and add the essential oil. Bottle and store in a cool, dark place. Adding a sprig or two of dried lavender to the bottle adds a nice touch.
Handmade beeswax candles
You knew this one was coming, right? I make candles every fall and they make a gift that I love to give — and people seem to love to receive. I have a full tutorial for you, for making both taper candles and pillar candles, here.
Bird’s Nest necklace
I made these for my nieces, but I ended up liking them so much that I kept a couple for myself! See tutorial here.
Jar of home-made granola
— with recipe attached so that the lucky recipient won’t be forced to come knocking on your door when the goods run out.
After all of these knitting projects, here’s a crochet craft for you! These little woolen pine cones turned out so sweet. There are several patterns available on Ravelry — I ended up going with this one, as it has 6 different size options. The stitch pattern is easy to memorize and you can soon whip out one in an hour or so. I made key chains, but these would also make lovely Christmas tree ornaments.
These are pretty dark days. Let’s make some light!
If you’ve never made natural beeswax candles before, now is a great time to give it a try.
Handmade candles add magic and comfort to your fall and winter nights. You can also save money by making your own. But it’s not just about the end result. The process of making candles itself is calming, almost meditative: you’re in a warm kitchen, fragrant with the grounding scent of beeswax, slowly dipping tapers in molten wax one after another until, layer by layer, they become beautiful, thick, smooth candles.
Materials you’ll need
This is what you’ll need to make a dozen pairs of taper candles and a couple of large pillar candles:
3 lbs beeswax
3 lbs soy wax
wicking: thick square braided wick for pillar candles, #2/0 Square Braid Cotton Wicking for taper candles, individual 3-4″ waxed wicks for small votive or container candles
for pillar candles: something to seal the wick hole at the bottom of the mold (I use QuakeHold museum putty or Play-Doh)
A word about waxes: I can only speak to making candles with natural beeswax and soy wax — I’ve never made candles with paraffin. I’ve made candles with 100% beeswax, but the last few years my preference has been 50% beeswax and 50% soy wax. The candles turn out a lovely light yellow color, and the soy wax also lowers the total cost as natural beeswax is not cheap.
Different waxes behave differently. Soy wax is softer than beeswax. It can still be used for dipping tapers, but it needs a longer drying time between layers.
If you can find a local source of beeswax, consider yourself lucky. Failing that, here are some online stores specializing in candle making supplies:
a large pot to set up a double-boiler (get a cheap used stock pot at a thrift store)
molds: aluminum pillar candle mold for pillar candles, or small votive molds for votive candles
Preparing to make candles
You’ll need some kind of a rack for drying taper candles. You can get creative with a laundry drying rack or a coat rack. A drying rack for handmade pasta would also double as a candle drying rack.
Make metal rigs for dipping taper candles in pairs. I made mine out of old clothes hangers with wire cutter and a pair of pliers.
Lastly: wax is a real pain to clean. Do yourself a favor and protect counters and any other surfaces with newspaper or brown packaging paper. (For cleaning up any spills or utensils with wax on them, paper towels dipped in olive oil seem to work best.)
Now you’re ready to begin!
Hand-dipped Taper candles:
Prepare your wicks. Cut a length of wicking — it needs to be at least twice the length of the desired length of your taper candles.
Each end of the wicking needs to be weighted with something initially to keep the wick straight. The weight can be any cheap metal object such as a screw, a nail, or a nut. Don’t use anything you value because it’s going to be forever encased in beeswax!
Slide the wicking through your rigs so you can dip two tapers at once.
Set up your double boiler (pouring pitcher inside a large pot filled with water) to melt your wax. You want all the wax to melt before you start dipping. Keep an eye on the temperature and consistency of the wax. The ideal temperature for dipping tapers is about 165F. If its’ too hot, the wax will just melt off the wicks. Too cool, the wax forms wrinkles on the candles when you dip them. Finding the Goldilocks temperature of “just right” may require sometimes taking the dipping vat off the burner or out of the pot completely.
Dip your tapers. Allow several minutes to cool, then repeat. The dipping motion should be slow and steady, as shown in this video.
About halfway through the process, cut the weights off, and then dip a few more times.
Repeat until you reach a desired thickness.
Usually I make two dozen taper candles and then use the remaining wax to make pillar candles.
Before pouring the wax into molds, you need to add some stearic acid to your wax. The stearic acid hardens the candle and makes the wax shrink just a little, which makes it easier to slide the candle out of the mold once it has set.
Add stearic acid at a rate of 3-6 tbsp per pound of wax.
Next, prepare the mold: Thread the wick through the wick hole at the base of the mold. This can be a somewhat maddening task. If the wick end gets frayed, try dipping the end in melted wax and forming a pointed end with your fingers. Tie a small, tight knot at the base just outside the wick hold.
Secure the top of the wick by tying it to a pencil or a skewer on top of the mold.
Seal the wick hole on the bottom with mold seal to prevent leakage of the molten wax when you pour it into the mold. I have used QuakeHold Museum Putty or, in a pinch, Play-Doh (pictured here). Press it firmly into place.
Once the stearic acid combo has melted into the wax, pour the wax into your prepared mold. Let cool completely before proceeding to the next step. This can take a few hours or even a day for very large candles.
Remove the mold sealer and cut the knot at the base of the candle. If it’s completely cooled, your candle should slide out of the mold when you turn it upside down. If it doesn’t, try placing it in the fridge for 20 minutes — the cold will further shrink the wax.
Trim the wick to desired length. Your pillar candle is done!
Let me get straight to business. This is the meal you need to make this fall. No excuses.
When our closest neighbors had a baby a year and a half ago, I made them this dish. They’ve repeatedly made coy requests about whether I might make it again. As in, do they need to make another baby just to get me to cook it for them again?
My butternut squash lasagna is the ultimate fall comfort food. The butternut squash is just slightly sweet; the ricotta is rich and melts in your mouth; the tomato sauce is savory and garlicky; and the combination of the three is just. perfect.
The recipe is based on one in Kelly Brogan’s book A Mind of Her Own, but since I’m not ready to give up dairy (sorry, Dr. Brogan), I replaced the egg filling with ricotta cheese.
While we’re on the subject of special diets:
This lasagna is naturally gluten-free because the lasagna “noodles” are actually thin slices of butternut squash.
I have two vegetarians/pescatarians in my household, so I usually make a second batch using crumbled tempeh as a substitute for the ground beef. You could probably experiment with other meat replacements too.
Lastly, not only is this a perfect seasonal meal in the squash season, but it’s also possible to source all the ingredients locally (depending on where you live, of course). I use locally grown butternut squashes and local ground beef from a grassfed meat farm. For the tomato sauce, I use the tomato sauce from our own tomatoes that I canned back in the sweltering heat of August (this part will require on some advance planning, I admit). And I make the ricotta cheese by hand with the milk from our local dairy.
Without further ado —
Butternut Squash Lasagna
Serves 6-8, depending on how hungry y’all are
1 large butternut squash
1 tbsp butter or ghee, plus more for greasing the pan
1 large yellow onion, finely minced
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 lb grassfed ground beef (substitute 1 package of crumbled tempeh for non-meat eaters)
Prepare the ricotta cheese in advance, if making your own.
Melt the butter or ghee in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add onion and sautée until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the ground beef and the garlic and cook, turning the heat to medium-high, until the meat is browned. Add the tomato sauce and season with salt and pepper. Let simmer on low while you prepare the rest.
Preheat the oven to 400 F.
Peel the butternut squash, cut it in half and scoop out seeds. Slice it into slices and rounds, as thinly as you can. (This is the trickiest part; the rest is easy!)
Butter a 15″ x 10″ high-rimmed oven baking dish. Add enough sauce to cover the bottom of the dish, then spread a layer of butternut squash slices as you would with lasagna noodles. Ladle more sauce generously on top of the squash and then top with dollops of ricotta cheese. Sprinkle with your preferred herbs, salt and pepper. Proceed with another layer of squash slices, sauce, and ricotta. Finish with a final layer of squash and a light layer of sauce (and any remaining ricotta).
Bake for about 30 minutes or until the squash can be easily pierced with a fork.
This weekend, we had garden-to-table buckwheat pancakes for breakfast. We ate them about 20 feet from the garden bed where said buckwheat grew. This buckwheat is my first real homegrown grain harvest, and it checks all the boxes for me: gluten-free, locally sourced and hands down delicious, with a distinctive nutty flavor.
To most urban gardeners, growing grains might seem like it’s outside their wheelhouse. After all, when we think of growing grains, we think of hundreds of acres of farmland extending to the horizon. If this is you, I encourage you to read Small-Scale Grain Raising: An Organic Guide to Growing, Processing, and Using Nutritious Whole Grains for Home Gardeners and Local Farmers by Gene Logsdon. It inspired me to try growing small patches of grains myself. This year, I dedicated one long bed (about 4 x 20 feet) for growing a grain crop. I decided to start with buckwheat, a plant I’m already familiar with, as I’ve grown it as a cover crop many times. But I haven’t actually been methodical about harvesting the groats until now.
Buckwheat really is a fantastic beginner’s grain. It is nutritious and so friggin’ easy to grow:
You don’t need rich soil. In fact, buckwheat seems to do better in poor soil!
You barely need to irrigate.
Buckwheat has few disease or pest problems
Buckwheat (like other pseudo-cereals, such as quinoa and amaranth) has a favorable nutrient profile, forming a complete protein
Buckwheat is a remarkably resilient plant that not only tolerates, but in fact thrives in poor soils. Once established, it grows even if you ignore it, as long as it gets some rain from time to time.
Buckwheat prefers cool temperatures, but is frost-tender. That makes it somewhat tricky to figure out an optimal time window for planting buckwheat, which has a sow-to-harvest time of 10-15 weeks. Here in the South, the best time to plant buckwheat is actually mid-August. That way, the buckwheat gets to grow during the cooler fall weeks, but can still be harvested before the first frost, which here in Asheville, NC, comes in late October.
Harvesting the buckwheat groats is reasonably easy. I say this after unsuccessfully trying to harvest enough lambsquarter seed to make a quinoa-like meal… After those nearly invisible, tiny seeds, the buckwheat groats seem bulky and easy to extract.
When grown on an urban garden scale, buckwheat is best harvested by hand. One option is to walk through the buckwheat patch whenever you need some, simply stripping the dark brown grains off the stalk with your fingers until you have a cupful.
To harvest an entire bed of buckwheat at once, cut the buckwheat down with a scythe or sickle mower, tie the plants into bundles, and let them dry protected from rain. I brought mine into our sunroom. Chicken and (other) birds also seem to love buckwheat, so if a few plants are left behind it will all get eaten eventually.
When the stalks are completely dry, thresh them inside sacks or old pillowcases. What you’ll have at this point is lovely buckwheat groats, but with a fair amount of plant matter and leaves in the mix.
This is the part that can be a bit challenging and time-consuming. Take your time. You may have to try a few different methods to figure out what works for you, as I did.
The next step is to separate out the chaff from your buckwheat groats. If you’re in the small minority of modern folks who have winnowing skills and a decent winnowing basket, it’ll be a breeze. Otherwise, you may have to try a few different setups. I had the most success with a fan set up next to a shallow tray. I placed a couple of cups of buckwheat on the tray and grabbed a handful and let go, grab a handful and let go, on repeat. All the dry leaves and other chaff flies off because it’s very light. Ideally what ends up on the tray eventually is just the buckwheat groats.
Here’s another setup I tried: using one of my Excalibur dehydrator trays as a tray. The perforated silicone is ideal for letting tiny pieces of chaff to fall through, but catching the buckwheat.
After winnowing, you have yourself a nice batch of wholesome buckwheat groats.
You could grind them into flour as they are, but the taste is better if you remove the dark brown hulls.
First lightly toast the groats, or put them in a hot oven for a short while. It’s well worth the effort, as it helps the hulls to separate easily.
Grind the toasted groats to remove the hull. You can use a blender or a food processor, but I had the most success with a good old-fashioned food mill. The hulls just shattered off (all over the table, as you can see…). The resulting coarsely ground buckwheat will still have some bits of hulls in it, but they can easily be sifted out with a flour sifter at the end.
Now you can grind the groats into flour. If you don’t have a grain mill, a food processor or blender will also work.
Here’s the pancake recipe I used to make ours. Some people like to use 50% buckwheat flour and 50% all-purpose wheat flour, and that works great. But in my opinion it’s not necessary to cut the buckwheat with wheat — the buckwheat’s flavor is not overwhelming at all. Even my daughter, who usually demands “ordinary pancakes” (as opposed to her mom’s experiments), gobbled them up enthusiastically.
Gluten-free Buckwheat Pancakes
1.5 cups buckwheat flour
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
3 Tbsp salted butter, melted
2 Tbsp maple syrup
1 3/4 cups buttermilk
butter (for the pan)
Set a well-seasoned cast iron pan on medium heat. Mix the dry ingredients together well. Mix the melted butter together with the syrup, eggs, and buttermilk separately, and add to the dry ingredients. Mix until the batter is well blended and there are no more dry lumps.
Melt a dollop of butter on the heated pan and ladle the batter onto the pan in desired sizes.
Rotational grazing — rotating animals across pastures — is a common practice in large-scale sustainable farming. Put simply, it means subdividing a pasture area into smaller paddocks with fencing, and moving the grazing animals from one paddock to another on a specific timeline. The idea is to create a strategic disturbance for limited periods of time.
On large diversified farms, multi-species rotational grazing sees the animals moved in succession: for example, first cattle, then sheep, followed by poultry, and maybe pigs at the end. Rotating animals in this way is beneficial for both animal and pasture health: pasture paddocks get to rest and regenerate when the animals are in other paddocks, and the animals always get access to diverse, fresh, good-quality forage plants.
But what does rotational grazing look like in the urban or suburban backyard, and with a single species — in our case, chickens?
We don’t have acres and acres of pasture. What we do have on our 1/3 acre is a vegetable garden, young food forest areas with perennials, and some grassy areas. Still, we’ve found ways to move our chickens through the landscape in ways that help to optimize their health, and integrate them into our garden management system. I’m sharing some of what we’ve learned in case it’s useful to others.
The ground in the chicken run quickly becomes dusty, compacted, and devoid of any greenery, which is also a sign that chickens shouldn’t be kept confined to the same area for too long. They are so happy when they get to explore new ground, to kick and scratch good garden soil and take some dirt baths in it.
At the same time, chickens can be destructive if left to their own devices in a vegetable garden. Like any gardener, I’ve had moments of heartbreak when a less-than-perfect fencing setup allowed the chickens to rip apart carefully tended young seedlings.
In a nutshell: you want some combination of free range and smart fencing.
For rotating our chickens around in the garden, we create designated fenced-in “paddocks” in the specific spot where we need their scratching, pest control and fertilization services. We have two primary ways for doing so: 1) a chicken tractor and 2) movable fencing.
A chicken tractor is any simple outdoor enclosure that’s lightweight enough to be moved around. We built ours out of 2 x 4’s, PVC pipe, and chicken wire, but there are tons of designs out there for building a chicken tractor that works for you.
The chicken tractor is particularly handy for getting to narrow spots. Here the chickens are foraging and doing weed control in between rows of young currant bushes. Bringing the chickens through here every couple of weeks is all we’ve needed to keep the weeds from taking over.
Whenever we want to let the chickens forage on a larger area, or clean up a particular garden bed after it’s been harvested, we use 3-foot wire fencing to create a “paddock” in any shape we want. Some people use electric poultry netting. On hot summer days, we use shade cloth over the fenced-in area to help keep the chickens cool — as well as to discourage the most mischievous of them from trying to fly out.
No-TILL Garden bed prep sequence
My favorite way to integrate the chickens into our no-till garden is recruiting them to do the cleanup after a particular bed is harvested. This is roughly the sequence:
Harvest food + pull out any large stalks or vines that chickens are not likely to eat.
Create a fenced perimeter around the bed and bring in chickens (yes, I carry them one by one from the chicken run) to forage and scratch
Move chickens to another area and rake off any remaining plant debris
Aerate the soil with a pitchfork or a broadfork
Spread a 1″ layer of compost
Plant next crop or cover crop
One caveat: our setup is not perfect. My preference would have been to have fully free-range chickens with access to all areas of the garden (except the annual vegetable beds, which they would quickly rip through). Alas, we don’t have a perimeter fence, and all of our neighbors have large dogs, so it hasn’t been possible. So we always need to have some kind of protection around the chickens.
How would you like to be able to grow your own colors in your yard? To have non-toxic, natural dye pigments for dyeing textiles, wool yarns, or even children’s art supplies and soaps?
If you have a garden, chances are that there are already some plants there you could dye with. Some of the most common garden plants can be used as dyes since they release pigment when simmered in hot water:
Even if you don’t, many so-called weeds — plants that grow wild by the roadside or in wild patches — make great dyes:
You could easily get started with these plants.
But if you’re really drawn to the idea of über-local, non-chemical colors on your textiles, and if you have access to garden space, I encourage you to create a designated dye garden. You get to participate in the process of choosing your plants/colors, growing and tending them through a growing season, and then experimenting with different combinations, plant parts, time of harvest, and the various mordants and afterbaths that help to modify your colors.
planning Your Natural Dye Garden
Choose a site that gets good sun, ideally at least 6 hours a day. Decide on the shape of your dye garden area. It’s better to start small the first year, and then expand later if you find that you can manage what you have so far.
Many dye plants tolerate poor soils, but they’ll be more productive in rich soil. Prepare the soil as you would a vegetable garden bed: remove any plant debris and the sod, then dig deeply to loosen the soil. Work in compost, aged manure, or other organic matter to improve soil structure and drainage.
Then the fun begins: what plants — what colors — will you grow? Take a look at the list of common garden plants above: many of them are incredibly attractive as they bloom in the summer, and provide nectar for pollinators. Even if you just plant marigolds, Black-eyed Susans, zinnias, and purple basil, you’ll have a striking flower bed all summer long, and can harvest colors ranging from sunny yellows to sweet pinks at the end of the season.
But besides these plants, there are some that are usually specifically grown as dye plants — and for a reason: they have unusually strong and colorfast pigments:
madder root (reds)
Japanese indigo (blues)
You’ll probably have to source the seeds or the plants from a specialist seed company or nursery (see Resources below). But it’ll be worth it.
My Dye Garden
For me, choosing the location for my dye garden was easy. On one side of our property is our neighbors’ retaining wall, built out of railroad ties that likely contain creosote. I’ve done enough research on creosote to not want to grow anything edible near them. So I turned that entire strip, behind and surrounding our greenhouse, into a dye garden.
In designing my dye garden, I started with a handful of dye plants that both look gorgeous in the garden, and make strong dyes: marigold (for yellow), weld (for yellow), madder root (for red and orange), Japanese indigo (for blues) and zinnia (for beige to light yellow).
In future years, I can easily expand and add new plants. Elsewhere in the garden, I also grow purple basil (for pink), fennel (for green/yellow), and stinging nettles (for green/yellow).
Here are a couple of my favorite dye plants that made their way into my dye garden plan without any hesitation.
Japanese indigo(Polygonum tinctorium) is, like the name indicates, a source of blue color. It has pretty pink flowers in the summer and the leaves can be harvested for the loveliest blues — not quite the strong dark blue of real indigo, but a strong dye nevertheless.
Space the plants about 10 inches apart. You can harvest the leaves several times in the course of the growing season.
Madder root(Rubia tinctorum) is an age-old dye plant (pigment from it was found on cloth in Pharaoh Tutankhamen’s tomb!) for reds, ochres and oranges. As the name suggest, you harvest the dye from the root. Madder roots have to be minimum 3 years old before you can harvest a strong red dye from them. Madder is a sprawling, vigorous plant that will spread, so it’s best if you either give it plenty of space, or plant it inside a raised bed box to confine the roots. Other than that, it’s one of the easiest plants to grow: you can virtually ignore it and it will thrive.
My 6-year-old is now old enough that we can work on dye projects together. We play witches, stirring potions in big pots and magically creating colors. I promised her that if we get a range of colors on wool yarn, I’ll knit her a rainbow hat and mittens with colors from the garden.
So far we’ve got blue from Japanese indigo, yellow from marigold, green from marigold with iron afterbath, and pink from purple basil… We’re well on our way!
What if there was a food crop hanging from trees that line your neighborhood streets — delicious and versatile, rich in unsaturated fats, fiber and minerals? What if it was available for free, yours for the picking? And what if it also required minimal human input, fertilizers, or pesticides, created wildlife habitat, reduced erosion, and sequestered carbon while growing?
If you live in most parts of temperate North America, that food is already out there. You guessed it: it’s nuts. There’s a bounty of native nuts and acorns growing all around us, largely untapped by human beings.
But if you’ve ever processed nuts and acorns on your own — cracking, de-hulling, leaching, grinding — you know it’s an arduous process. And that’s why the words “collective nut processing” will quickly grab your attention.
In Asheville, North Carolina, where I live, an innovative nut foragers’ collective is removing the obstacles that keep us from incorporating local nuts into our diets. It’s the Asheville Nuttery, a cooperatively owned nut processing facility. Anyone can join to be a forager for the project. Foragers pick black walnuts, acorns, and hickory nuts and bring them to the Nuttery; the Nuttery team processes them, and foragers get their share of processed nuts, or oils, or flour at the end of the season.
* * *
Historically, acorns and nuts were a staple food for Native Americans, as well as in many parts of Europe and Asia. Some of the oak and pecan groves that still stand in our landscapes date back to a time when people harvested from those trees for their sustenance. But in the past two centuries, the overwhelming dominance of annual grains in our diets has made acorn-based and native nut-based foods a rare curiosity.
There’s enormous potential for an economic and culinary revival around nuts and acorns. With their nutty and complex flavors, they are a real delicacy. They are among our most nutritious foods, versatile to cook with, and store well. Nut and acorn flours can be substituted for wheat flour in many recipes, making them a great gluten-free option.
In 2014, a group of agroforestry enthusiasts in Asheville, North Carolina came together to bridge this gap — to create a model for growing and processing native nuts and acorns that would be both ecologically and economically viable. They met through the Buncombe County Fruit and Nut Club, a volunteer group that plants and cares for fruit and nut trees in parks and other public places in Asheville, and began to develop a vision for growing and processing nuts on a large scale. They identified two limiting factors: the cost of land, and the time it takes for nut trees to bear a crop (about 10-15 years).
Planting food in public places pointed the way around the first obstacle. “We were planting fruit and nut trees in public parks,” says Justin Holt, one of the group of five, “and I started to get my head around the idea of trees as a kind of commonwealth — how we can serve so much more than just ourselves if we think outside the box of only our own yards.” It was a simple insight: you don’t need to own land to plant on it.
The five friends organized themselves as the Nutty Buddy Collective, and started reaching out to local conservation-minded landowners who had underutilized land. They negotiate 99-year lease agreements with these landowners that allow them to plant and maintain nut orchards and harvest crops from them. For compensation, the landowner receives a percentage of the harvests. The Nutty Buddies planted the first orchard of mostly black walnuts in 2014. Their plantings have now expanded to include hickory, chestnut, hazelnut, pawpaw, aronia, elderberry, apples and pears.
While waiting for their nut orchards to mature, the Nutty Buddies decided to start foraging nuts from the existing nut trees in the region, and developing the equipment necessary for processing them. This led to the creation of The Asheville Nuttery. As of early 2019, the Nutty Buddy Collective and the Nuttery are two independent but inter-related enterprises. A third entity, the Acornucopia Project, is developing and marketing new food products based on the nuts harvested and processed in this way, such as oils, nut flours, and crackers.
* * *
If there’s a pun with “nuts” or “nutty” in it, it’s been heard at the Nuttery. But it’s not just jokes that are cracked here: the Nuttery is a pioneering cooperative facility for processing local, collectively foraged wild nuts. Located at a former greenhouse complex with gritty charm outside of West Asheville, the nut depot reflects the entrepreneurial spirit and can-do attitude of the team members, all of whom have other day jobs. On any given day in the fall season, you can find them here sorting and weighing nuts, packing them in mesh bags, and greeting people who come to drop off their foraged nuts.
The idea of the Nuttery was sparked, in part, by how olives are often processed in Southern Europe: a village has a community oil press, and people can bring the olives from their trees to be pressed and leave with their own olive oil share. Similarly, the Nuttery is a place where anyone can bring in acorns and other wild nuts to be processed into flour and oil. Foragers can trade what they pick either for cash or for a forager’s share of the processed nuts.
The Nuttery is also where the team members are developing innovative processing equipment. Accessible, small-scale equipment for cracking, de-hulling, pressing and grinding nuts and acorns is hard, if not impossible, to find. So the Nuttery is building its own. One example of the low-tech solutions I have witnessed in action is a de-huller for black walnuts: a former lime spreader attached to a tractor. Works like a charm.
* * *
Two years ago, I became one of the nut foragers for the Nuttery. I took a nut tree identification class. I got my buckets and sacks ready.
The next thing that happened is that I started to look at my neighborhood a little differently.
Nut trees — massive old nut trees — are everywhere where I live. They grow on people’s backyards. They line the streets. They provide shade in parks, school playgrounds, and cemeteries. Most of the time, people don’t even think of them as producing an edible crop; that is how far removed we are culturally from incorporating local nuts in our diets. Even when they drop their thousands of pounds of acorns, black walnuts, hickories and chestnuts onto streets and sidewalks, it’s mostly the squirrels that are thrilled; homeowners and car drivers tend to be annoyed. Gathering tennis ball-sized black walnuts or prickly chestnuts in public parks, I have more than once gotten the reaction, “You mean those are edible?”
The most transformative part about becoming a forager is that you start to notice. You start putting together a mental map of nut trees in your neighborhood. You pay attention to the shape of the leaves and the telltale stains on the sidewalk and start planning your trips around town around the location of particularly promising trees. You work up the courage to go talk to a neighbor you’ve never met before to ask if you could collect acorns from her oak tree. Before you know it, you see the place where you live differently. Not only has it turned into a landscape from which you can harvest edible crops, but it also feels more like a village now that you’ve connected with former strangers.
The bounty comes in. On Saturdays in the late fall, foragers haul five-gallon bucket after five-gallon bucket to the Nuttery depot for de-hulling and cracking. Each drop-off trip feels a little festive: we are contributing to a collective project of shifting more of our calories to the local area, and shifting towards a more cooperative, perennial-based food system.
In December, I received my share of nuts: 18 pounds of de-hulled and cracked black walnuts. We foragers gathered for an end-of-the-season celebration where we got to sample some innovative nut and acorn-based delicacies: acorn flour crackers, hickory and black walnut oils, nut “cheeses,” nut-based pesto, acorn “olives” and acorn-based chocolate desserts.
And here, of course, is the reason why we’re doing what we’re doing. Because we’re rediscovering forgotten flavors, and inventing new ones, and both make for a good adventure.
Interview with Justin Holt of the asheville nuttery
One of the challenges to the wider adoption of locally grown nut-based foods is the lack of cultural knowledge around harvesting, processing and cooking with nuts and acorns. How do you address that?
Justin: Working to align our cultural values and practices with trees and perennial agriculture is more important to me than planting trees.
Sure, it’s important to be out there planting the trees and developing the infrastructure – but what’s matters to me most is engaging our community about this. That’s what has made it feasible for us to do what we do now: we are able to access land because we’ve negotiated leases with landowners, and we get such a large supply of nuts because we’ve involved the community in foraging nuts. Community engagement is in the DNA of both the Acornucopia Project and the Nutty Buddy Collective.
In many ways, you have to change people’s perceptions of what counts as food.
JH: Yes. When we go to events, there’s often a handful of people who seem mildly interested in, say, acorn flour, and they say, “Oh, I didn’t know you could eat that….” And then they move on. But maybe they go home and tell a friend about it, or maybe they come back next year and actually taste the product. Slowly, people become more curious. The flavors are strong, and some people get excited about the novelty factor. They just have to wrap their head around how they might want to use the product in cooking.
One of the new edges we’re trying to work is partnering with chefs at local restaurants. Chefs are very influential in what people will consider as cool and exciting. If a food item shows up on the menu of a fancy restaurant, and they’re featuring it, and they’re excited about it – that raises awareness. Recently, we had a fundraiser dinner, and chefs at OWL Bakery, Plant, and West Village Bakery all contributed. Seeing nut-based and acorn-based foods being adopted by restaurants also raises awareness about our foraging efforts, and brings in more people who want to participate.
What are some of the main challenges you’re encountering?
JH: One challenge is that we’re working with about a dozen different nut species. Each one has their own characteristics and quirks in terms of how you process them — post-harvest handling, curing, storage — so there are a lot of moving parts.
Marketing is also a challenge. We believe there’s actually a massive demand for nut-based products out there: so many people are looking for alternatives to meat and gluten in their diets, and nut and acorn-based foods can provide both. The challenge is figuring out how to get the products in front of the right people and understand their value.
A part of your larger vision is to inspire nut depots like yours to spring up everywhere. Tell me more about what you’d like to see happening.
JH: We’re giving presentations at various events and farming conferences and essentially laying out our business model, hoping some people will adopt it and decide to cooperate rather than compete with us. Some amount of competition is good; it creates a buzz. I’d love to see someone else start selling acorn oil and raise awareness about it! But the possibility of cooperation is really strong, too. One of the issues with nut trees is they don’t produce consistently each year. If we had a network of nut depots in different regions, we could be co-organizing to harvest in whichever local the mast year is.
What would you say to readers who live in another part of the country, or the world, and get excited about your vision and business model?
JH: Get in touch with us, ask us a lot of questions, check out our websites (nuttybuddycollective.com and www.acornucopiaproject.com). Start picking up nuts and figuring out how to work with them. I might suggest picking 2-3 species to start with, and first learning how to be really efficient with those before taking on more.
Making your own herbal medicine may seem daunting at first if you’re new to it. Medicine tends to seen as the domain of specialists — and for a good reason, as this year’s events attest.
I’m not formally trained as an herbalist. I’m a gardener, a cook, and a maker, and my herbal medicine making has evolved pretty organically as a result of learning to use plants. Many simple medicine-making practices have become a part of my routine — making herbal teas, putting chewed-up yarrow leaves on wounds to stop bleeding, or resorting to elderberry, honey, thyme and garlic to keep the winter colds away. I wouldn’t claim to be an expert.
But my point is that there’s a lot that you can do with a basic skillset. Most garden plants with medicinal properties — familiar plants like chamomile, red clover, yarrow, mint, or garlic — are absolutely safe and hard to go wrong with. Just find a reliable, go-to resource that you consult before making or taking herbal medicines.
Crafting herbal medicines is a great activity to do with kids. This summer, my six-year-old has accompanied me to harvest blossoms and leaves into a colander, fill up the dehydrator, or put herbs to infuse in oil, vinegar or brandy on the windowsill. I call it our “witch magic” and that’s enough to get her fully engaged in the process.
Because making tinctures, vinegars, and oils feels a little bit like being witches or alchemists: we’re mixing potions with fresh herbs and leaves and, after a few weeks of those jewel-toned jars steeping on a sunny windowsill, the solvents inside have become potent with the plants’ power. It’s like magic: transforming one thing into another. Who doesn’t love that?
Below are five safe and simple remedies using common garden plants.
Calendula is an all-purpose healing plant for various skin problems, such as cuts and rashes. In a family that’s into gardening and adventures, we get cuts and scrapes a lot! I’ve made calendula salve before, but Gladstar’s Medicinal Herbs also has a recipe for a luxurious moisturizer that uses calendula flowers, olive oil, beeswax, and lavender essential oil. Whipping up oils, beeswax and essential oil in a blender until it thickens and becomes opaque is one of those alchemist moments that both kids and grownups love.
Making tea out of herbs is a simple process of harvesting leaves, steeping them in hot water, straining, and enjoying. I use herbal teas primarily for their mental health benefits: they help to soothe anxiety and stress (not that any of us have any reason to soothe those this year!).
Good tea herbs with calming, anxiety-reducing properties are chamomile, tulsi (holy basil), lemon balm, anise hyssop, spearmint, and lavender.
I love using thyme in cooking, but it’s also traditionally valued as a cold and cough remedy. Just pop a few of its fresh leaves onto your tongue and you’ll see why: it has an almost menthol-like freshness to it.
Honey makes a great base for a thyme syrup, since it not only extracts the healing properties of thyme, but also has beneficial enzymes of its own. Thyme honey is the simplest natural remedy to make: gently warm honey to 100 F, add it to a jar half full of fresh thyme leaves and flowers, and keep the jar in a warm place for a couple of weeks to steep. You can take it straight or mixed in herbal tea, where it adds its own healing properties to the tea.
Elderberry cold syrup
Elderberry syrup is a potent natural remedy for sore throats and other cold and flu symptoms. The berries of the elder tree (Sambucus) have anti-viral, immune-boosting properties and are high in vitamins A, B, and C. The syrup is really easy to make and it’s one of the best-tasting herbal syrups out there. You can use either fresh or dried elderberries. Simmered in water with ginger and cloves and steeped in honey, they turn into a luxuriously deep-red and sweet-tasting remedy. You can either take this syrup preventatively to ward off the cold or, if the sniffles and the cough already got you, to speed recovery.
Here are a few different recipes for elderberry syrup:
Tinctures — concentrated liquid extracts of herbs — are one step up in the herbal medicine making game, though still easy to make. They take a few weeks to steep, and you also want to take care in choosing the proper solvent. The most potent tinctures use 80 to 100 proof alcohol like vodka or brandy; for children or adults who don’t want to use alcohol, you can use vegetable glycerin or apple cider vinegar instead. The amount taken daily is very small, 1 to 2 teaspoons per day. That’s a dropperful, taken straight or mixed into a water or a beverage.
(Sometime I wonder if I make tinctures just because all those little bottles look so darn cute in my herbal home apothecary…)
Basic instructions for making tinctures:
Chop the herbs fine and put them in a clean glass jar. Pour in either 80 to 100 proof alcohol, vinegar, or vegetable glycerin, enough to cover the herbs by a couple of inches. Put the jar in a sunny spot and let soak for 4-6 weeks, shaking daily. Strain and store in a clean bottle or jar. Take as directed either by the dropperful or diluted in tea or water. A tincture will keep for 1 year if you used vinegar, 2-3 years in case of glycerin, and several years with alcohol.
Good beginner’s herbs to make tinctures with: echinacea, cinnamon, tulsi, yarrrow, St. John’s wort, dandelion, burdock, and valerian.
Sometime in April, we ran out of the refillable carbon cartridges for making bubbly water at home. “That’s it,” I declared to my slightly dismayed partner and daughter. “From now on, we’ll drink plain filtered water — or we’ll make our own bubbles.”
(Make our own bubbles. Doesn’t that just sum up this pandemic year perfectly?)
Since the summer heat landed on us, our cravings for refreshing, cool, preferably sweet beverages have grown accordingly. So here’s what we’ve been making to quench our thirst on hot afternoons (besides just lots and lots of iced water with lemon and fresh mint):
These two drinks are probiotic beverages, both prepared with a live culture, or SCOBY (a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeasts). In the case of kombucha, the scoby looks like an opaque sponge, in water kefir it’s small water kefir “grains.” As probiotics, they are excellent for supporting gut health, something that seems like a good idea now as ever.
Kombucha is probably the more familiar of the two. I’ve made kombucha off and on for years, using the recipe in Sandor Katz’ Wild Fermentation. It is so easy. Since I periodically fall off the kombucha-making habit, I don’t always have a scoby lying around to start a new culture, but thankfully I have cool friends who share theirs with me.
Water kefir, or tibicos, is another traditional fermented drink. I added it to my repertoire just this summer after Milkwood Permaculture got me intrigued. A healthy sweet soda to hook kids onto probiotics? Yes, please! I found the water kefir grains here and have enjoyed integrating the kefir-making into the daily rhythm of our kitchen. The microbes in water kefir include Lactobacillus, which you’ve probably heard of. I love knowing that I can grow these good guys in a glass jar right on my kitchen counter.
I can tell you that water kefir now ranks #1 in our family’s list of drinks right now. The subtle base flavor is unlike anything I’ve ever had before, but you can also flavor water kefir in all kinds of creative ways with fruit, herbs, etc. The family favorites right now seem to be blackberry kefir and lemon mint kefir. If you do the second ferment and “feed” the kefir with some more honey and then bottle it for another day, as Milkwood instructs, you’ll end up with a bubbly beverage.
Here’s a tip: this drink is extra delicious if you grow the watermelon yourself. Why? Because you’ll be checking on the melon daily for ripeness, knocking on it, waiting, looking for signs that it’s ready to harvest… while the anticipation keeps growing. By the time you cut off the melon and sink a kitchen knife to it, you’ll be so excited to taste it that you’ll dig in with both hands, watermelon juice dripping off your chin, devouring the sweetness.
And if there’s any left from that initial binge… I make a watermelon slushy, a hot summer afternoon hit if there ever was one.
freshly cut watermelon, cut into chunks, seeds mostly removed, and frozen for 1-2 hours
a few sprigs of fresh mint
fresh lemon juice, to taste
maple syrup, to taste
Put chilled watermelon cubes in a food processor and mix until the large chunks have disappeared. Add mint, lemon juice, and syrup and pulse again until well blended. Serve immediately.
Welcome to the inaugural video garden tour of our urban homestead!
Friends and family both far and near have asked me for a while to post a video tour of the garden. Here it is at last!
On the video, I share how we transformed a 1/3-acre urban lot with compacted soil and grass into a diverse edible landscape of vegetables, fruit, berries, medicinals and dye plants over the last 2 years.
So make yourself a glass of iced tea (or something) and imagine you are coming on a stroll along with me.
Our garden is designed using the design principles of permaculture. I will probably do a full post about the design process some day; in the meantime, below is the design drawing/map that might also help you to orient yourself as you go along (the greenhouse, which you see on the video, is not in the drawing since it was a later addition).