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1 January 2017

It’s that suspended—suspenseful?—time of year when we pivot from what has been, toward what will be: ewes are bred, hens are laying, ranunculus will soon unfurl through hard ground.

 I’ve learned many times over that it’s impossible to predict how a small farm will provide. I can be either the next farm genius or its most short-sighted nuisance, depending on how I proceed.

 20 years ago, this acreage was stewarded by a skinny, silent and smart hippy who’d wedged driftwood terraces into the steep bank that falls from the stone cottage he rented, down to where my kitchen garden boxes—and those ranuncs—now stand. An underground spring keeps that ground wet and unworkable. He’d planted his mother’s bearded irises—mostly gone now—but also comfrey and stinging nettles, and he left the cherry tree volunteer to have its way while horsetails speared skyward.

 I’ve tried to solve the problem of that bank many times, and one of those times involved much forking and accidental spreading of the comfrey roots. Careless composting dispersed the nettles, and clumps now nod hairily wherever I’m likely to brush against them wearing shorts. I once paid my daughter 5 cents a pulled horsetail, and she cleaned me out of egg money in 5 minutes.

 That was then, this is now. The rampant comfrey is the farm’s champion provider: nectar for pollinators at just the right time; deep-reaching roots to slurp potassium and calcium; leaves and stalks so lush and rich that when they topple—twice a season—they provide a living mulch for the feeder roots of fruit trees, or gooseberry bushes in my case; when harvested (twice) and applied to compost piles, the leaves accelerate the cook; fermented tea for sweet peas and other early flowers; I’ve macerated it and made poultices in cheesecloth for tennis elbow (Result? Who knows.).

 Nettles and horsetails also go into teas and compost (nettles also brighten homemade pasta), but the most heartening ways I’ve come to use them all are as plant dyes. The colours shift depending on time of season (comfrey gets carbon-heavy—and horsetail’s silica levels rise—when they set seed). I’d had enough of that sun-sucking cherry tree since house sparrows took every fruit and it threatened the stone foundation of the cottage. So down it came, and I used the bark for the most luxurious gold dye. I’m leaving the suckers to see how they’ll startle me.

 My younger impatient self wanted all of it gone to make way for better food, pricier flowers. But the wiser, more careful me—she who accepts the farm’s dominion and wisdom—is lucky she didn’t have the time, funds or know-how to get it done.

 For more, see Michael Phillips’ excellent and inspiring, The Holistic Orchard: Tree Fruits and Berries the Biological Way.