Building Healthy Soil Communities: Evaluating Soil Texture

Well, it has been a couple weeks since my last farm blog. And writing about farming becomes as linear of a task as everything else that needs to be done on the farm. So, I will have to admit this blog is weather induced…..it’s raining outside.

Sweet spring rain turning into a tumultuous downpour that makes Oregon such a great place to love plants. If you live in Oregon, you know spring is for warm sunshine, sideways rain, hard hail, and a rainbow finale all within a five-minute span. Nature is exhilarating! And it is within these short windows that my long-term tasks are completed for future harvest success.

On our farm, we track seasonal phenology. This is the term for watching our natural cycles in a specific location, to make daily decisions. When making farming decisions, I consider things like average rainfall, mountain snowpack, relative humidity, prevailing winds, day length, sun exposure, and heat units influence each crop cycle. Continue reading “Building Healthy Soil Communities: Evaluating Soil Texture”

Building Healthy Soil Communities for Medicinal Herbs

My first organic farm mentor used to refer to topsoil as “skin of the Earth.”.And each time this fine layer is broken by plow, nature’s response to heal by covering its wound with a green bandage of plants. This moment of healing becomes an opportunity. A chance for farmers to blend their own mixture of plants into a beneficial poultice.

This is where “cover crops” come in. Both preventative and restorative, cover crops are specific species of plants proven to restore soil fertility. On our farm, I make long-term rotational plantings of cover crops such as alfalfa, rye, clover, oats, buckwheat, vetch and sorghum key components of our fertility program.

But how do cover crops work? Why do they help? And why is topsoil so important anyway?

Continue reading “Building Healthy Soil Communities for Medicinal Herbs”

Do you promise to give the Skullcap and only the Skullcap?

Skullcap is not a liar. No herb is. But you’re forgiven if you have trust issues with it. Actually, these issues are why we grow it ourselves. So we can keep an eye on it, and make sure it doesn’t get mixed up with bad company. Make sure our Skullcap supply is pure and never adulterated.

You see, Skullcap has a long history of adulteration. For more than 25 years, the American Botanical Council has tracked incidents of dried Skullcap getting sold mixed with a type of Germander. What’s worse, this Germander is considered a liver toxin. As a result, Skullcap has been falsely implicated in liver dysfunction cases.

Clearly, this is unacceptable. So we did something about it.

Continue reading “Do you promise to give the Skullcap and only the Skullcap?”

Bees prefer fresh Chamomile. So do we.

A bee pollinates Chamomile

 

You might recognize Chamomile from its picture on tea boxes. It has a beautiful white flower around a golden cone. We grow it ourselves on our farm in Josephine County, Oregon. Just a few rows of Chamomile in the valley under the Siskiyou mountains.

Bees love Chamomile. You can hear the fields before you step into them. The buzz of thousands of bees. It’s magical. Continue reading “Bees prefer fresh Chamomile. So do we.”

“Mum’s” the Word!

blogmumA popular garden perennial and well-known ornamental plant, Chrysanthemum, is beginning to grow roots at our farm.  Typically referred to as florist “mums”, the plants are noted for their spectacular display of autumn flowers.  Garden centers and grocery storefronts are heavily stocked with the alluring hybrid colors of pink, yellow, purple, red and white throughout September and October. In 1798, the first cuttings of Chrysanthemum were planted in Hoboken, New Jersey.  Since then, plant breeders have transformed this Asteraceae-family flower from a typical daisy pattern into attractive pompons, buttons, anemone, single and double floral displays.  The US national Chrysanthemum society has divided mum flowers into thirteen distinct bloom forms by the arrangement of its floral parts, and the flower occupies second position in the world flower trade behind roses.  Modern floral exhibitions of Chrysanthemums resemble pictures from the popular Dr. Seuss books.

However, Chrysanthemums share a much older cultural heritage near its wild origins of China.  As a native to Asia, historical evidence has documented Chinese cultivation of this plant as far back as the 15th century B.C.  The Chrysanthemum flower, referred to “Ju hua”, along with plum, bamboo, and orchid are collectively referred to as the “Four Noble Ones”.  Through several dynasties, mums were exclusive to the elite class and common people were not allowed to grow them.  In China, leaves are steamed for cooking and the dried flowers are typically prepared as a tea for consumption on a regular basis.  The pale white to yellow flowers are steeped in hot water to create a cooling, medicinal tea with a floral aroma.  Specifically, Chrysanthemum morifolium is cultivated for it’s broad medicinal attributes and especially noted for eye health.  The dried flowers spread through Korean markets as a popular cure for insomnia, and in the year 910, Japan adopted Chrysanthemum as their national flower. Japan’s annual festival of happiness is based upon recognition of Chrysanthemum’s healing properties.

At Herb Pharm, we are growing three medicinal cultivars of Chrysanthemum morifolium, Bo Ju hua, Chu Ju hua, and Gong Ju hua.  Each variety is named after a specific region of initial cultivation in China’s Anhui province.  We are fortunate to have received stem cuttings of these rare varieties from Peg Schafer’s certified organic farm in Sonoma, California.  In 2011, Peg published a wonderful book titled “The Chinese Medicinal Herb Farm” and claims to be one of the few, if not only, grower of these varieties in the U.S.  The cuttings arrived rootless in the beginning of March, and our challenge was to sustain the tender cuttings until root development.  Chrysanthemum morifolium does not grow true from seed, so cuttings are the only option for propagation.  Stem cuttings require a high level of relative humidity, while maintaining a soil temperature of 70-75 degrees.  Cuttings should never wilt and a continuous film of moisture should cover the leaves until roots are able to form.  The plants grow best in well-drained, slightly acidic soil.  Throughout the growing season, mums should be pinched back a few inches every month to encourage bushy, compact growth.  Pinching stem tips will increase flower yield and create a healthy structure for future growth.  Just remember not to keep pinching too late into summer, or you could lose the entire fall bloom.  Also, mums will over-winter in our climate and last several seasons given the appropriate pruning and soil requirements.  At the farm, we will be harvesting our first flowers in September/October for drying, and propagating from these original plants for many years to come.  The dried flowers are a key component of Herb Pharm’s new Eye Health™ Compound, and we are excited to become one of the few farms cultivating these medicinal varieties outside of China.

Originally published in June, 2014.

Autumnal Changes on the Farm

black_cohoshAutumn on the farm is a very complex time, filled with many competing demands and tasks, completing and realizing the fruits of the year’s labor, while at the same time working on next year’s crop plan. Most notable about autumn is the slowing of biological processes in response to decreasing daylight. The daily heat of summer in sourthern Oregon continues, but is subtly diminished by the shorter days and considerably cooler nights. The crops are clearly responding to this autumnal shift and likewise the farm crew looks forward to a new pattern of work during the final three months of the growing season. The harvest, irrigation, maintenance and planning continues until the onset of winter.

Fields of Echinacea flowers have given way to brown ripening seed cones, which are the next major harvest and the prelude to root-digging season. Our Echinacea seed is ripening two weeks earlier than last year due to prolonged high summer temperatures. In response we are carefully monitoring irrigation, attempting to slow the ripening process. Because the farm crew will be called upon to hand pick each and every ripe seed cone, all 60,000 of them, our hope is to forestall harvest operations further into the fall when there will be more available time. The running of a farm requires constant management of biological factors to fit non-biological realities.

Our farm’s herb-drying facility has been chock full of fresh harvested leaves and flowers since early July. The last harvests of Motherwort, Artichoke and Wormwood are ready to go down the road to the lab for processing. Collinsonia Root, Horseradish and Gravel Root will soon follow. The drying and harvesting of roots is more labor intensive than leaf crops. After the digging and washing, the roots are sliced and laid out on racks to dry. Slicing is a critical aspect of proper root drying. If sliced too thinly, excessive surface area is exposed which promotes volitization of essential constituents from the root pieces. If sliced too thickly, rotting may occur in the centers. Attentiveness on the part of the farm crew is essential to successful drying of these herbs.

We are also in the midst of late seaon planting of cover crops and herb crops. Open ground is planted with winter rye, clover and sudan grass to protect and nourish the soil during the winter. Other fields will be planted in over-wintering herb crops, seedlings of which are raised in our greenhouses. Chamomile, Lemon Balm, Wormwood, Mullein, Pleurisy Root and Bugleweed do very nicely when planted in the fall. They have the winter to send their roots deep into the soil and are then able to make rapid growth for an early harvest next summer.

Other fall projects include repairing equipment, purchasing seed, cultivating, and constantly planning for the upcoming season. Planning is the foundation for a successful growing season. Notations are constantly made regarding planting amounts and methods, placement of crops in terms of rotation, pest and disease problems and suitability of soil type and preparation. Constant attention to detail in the planning process results in healthy, high quality crops which are the foundation of the medicines produced at our processing facility.

The Forgotten Pollinators

pleurisy_bee_800

Longer, warmer days are here, and with them we acknowledge a key player in the wonderful seed to flower transformations happening all around us – our friends and allies: the pollinators.

These creatures, which include beetles, butterflies, moths, bees, and bats, are responsible for the transfer of pollen from the male sex organ of the flower (anther) to its female counterpart (stigma). This well manipulated strategy ensures the birth of a seed in the plants ovule and the continuance of certain species. Pollen can also be moved by wind, water, or a gardener’s helping hand. Wind pollinated plants tend to produce a large abundance of lightly weighted pollen. At Herb Pharm’s “pharm” our Corn, Sweet Annie, Wormwood, and Stinging Nettle are wind-pollinated herbs. My nose always knows, along with itchy eyes, where to find these plants. However, insects pollinate the majority of medicinal herbs, including many of our farm’s crops.

From observation at the farm, bees seem to be our most prolific and efficient pollinators. Worker bees voraciously consume nectar and pollen in the early summer from our Motherwort and Mullein patches. They move happily towards July through the Hyssop, Lemon Balm, Catnip, Calendula and Echinacea purpurea. Worker bees, which are female, will forage nectar to bring back to the hive. Female nurse bees will feed nectar, honey and pollen to the queen’s young brood. There is only one queen per colony, but worker bees can choose to feed the young larva “royal jelly” to create a new queen. New queens are typically raised in the spring, when it becomes a colony’s natural instinct to swarm. A swarm is how honeybees advance their population, when approximately half the hive’s workers leave the colony with a new queen. You may have seen a swarm of honeybees land on a tree, under house eaves, or in chimneys and walls during this time.

The farm crew rarely encounters a male honeybee, called a drone, in our crop fields. They do not forage pollen or nectar from our plants. They fly to the “drone congregating area” and hang out all day with other male bees waiting for the queen bee to pass by. Their main role is to mate with the queen. However, the free meals and ride is over in the fall. The female workers will drag drones to the hive entrance and close the door. Drones serve no purpose to the winter hive, and they will not survive on their own.

One type of male bee we do encounter on the farm is the male bumblebee. Once a male bumblebee leaves the nest hive, he will not return to it. Instead, they sleep inside the flowers at night for warmth and slowly emerge, while drinking nectar as the sun warms them up. We observe bumblebees drifting amongst our Wood Betony, Bugleweed and Hyssop flowers.

Butterflies are also an important pollinator for many of our farm’s herbs. It’s hard to miss the giant swallowtail butterfly feeding on Goldenrod, Echinacea, and Pleurisy flowers. The smaller skipper butterflies are always attracted to our Yarrow beds. Beetles are some of the most primitive forms of pollinators on the farm. Finally, hoverflies enjoy feeding and sleeping in our Calendula flowers, and typically get trapped in our hands during the harvest. However, they are all buzz and no bite! Their bee-like appearance is to frighten predators, but these flies do not have the capability to sting.

Overall, these remarkable beings gather nourishment from the flower’s pollen and nectar to strengthen their own health, disease resistance, reproductive capabilities and individual societies. As we work alongside these creatures, our human-insect mission melds into a common goal of gathering and living well. A lively hum of chatter can be heard between the student farm crew and the bees in these flowery fields. And as the summer crops and crew begin to fade away, everybody will benefit from the transformation of flower into seed, perpetuating an ensured co-existence between plants, pollinators and people.

Listen to Herb Pharm Farm Manager Matt Dybala as he discusses the importance of bees on our 85-acre organic farm in southern Oregon.

 

Originally Published in June 2011