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Jen Owen

Eat Your Weeds

Eat Your Weeds

Here in Indiana (Planting Zones 5 & 6) our lawns are returning to green and we are getting excited for gardening season. This also means the inevitable return of “weeds” to our lawns, containers, and gardens.


 Did you know that some of these so-called weeds can actually provide nutrition and other health benefits for you? So before you trash or compost these little blessings, take a moment to learn about some of their wonderful benefits.


Dandelion is one of the first spring green plants to arrive. Yes, that pesky plant that seeds so easily and many work very hard to eradicate. Dandelions are good sources of calcium, potassium, iron and manganese and full of vitamins and minerals, especially vitamins A, C, and K. Their bitterness increases bile flow from the liver and gallbladder helping to improve digestion and relieve whole body congestion. The leaves can be eaten raw in salads or cooked in olive oil.  You can also try adding them to your green smoothie, or infuse the leaves for tea.



Violet is another plant that grows abundantly in this area. The leaves are rich in vitamins and minerals, especially vitamins A and C. Violet is thought to be a blood purifier and cleanser for the lymphatic system. This system is a network of tissues and organs that rid the body of toxins and wastes. After winter, consuming violet may assist the body to cleanse any leftover toxins for a more energetic spring. You can use the whole plant, or just the leaves and the top of the stem. The thin roots are known to be especially powerful for lymph cleansing.




Cleavers is another plant often considered to be pesky weed. Historically, cleavers have been used to drain swollen glands and cleanse the lymphatic system. They have been used to treat skin conditions, such as psoriasis and eczema and as an external poultice for sores and wounds. Cleavers have also been used to soothe irritation in the bladder. They are known to have a mild diuretic effect; so can help with inflammation in the body from winter foods.


This makes cleavers another great herb to add to your Spring diet!



Don’t spray your yard! Always be sure to harvest from a clean, toxin-free area. I let my dandelions grow like crazy and use them all season long. In fact, I blow the seeds around my garden. If you don’t have a yard, bring home a fluffy seed top from a dandelion and dedicate a container to this nutritious plant. I also let the violets grow. They make a great ground cover around other herbs. They take off easily, so you only need a small one to get started. Cleavers tend to be found in wooded areas and also grow plentifully when transplanted.


So much fun and freshness for free!



Please note: Be absolutely sure of the identification of plants before taking them internally and see your physician for health issues. This is not meant to be medical advice, simply thoughts about additions to your diet. 



Soil Building 201: Biochar

Soil Building 201: Biochar

While we are on the topic of putting the gardens to bed and building soil this fall, let’s look into biochar. 

What is it?

Biochar is a valuable soil amendment, first and foremost. According to the International Biochar Initiative, “This 2,000 year-old practice converts agricultural waste into a soil enhancer that can hold carbon, boost food security, and increase soil biodiversity, and discourage deforestation. The process creates a fine-grained, highly porous charcoal that helps soils retain nutrients and water.” (1)

b2ap3_thumbnail_Biochar.jpgSimply, it is a charcoal made at low temperature that is often then inoculated with beneficial bacteria and soil organisms that inhabit the very porous and expansive surface areas. Because nutrients, beneficial soil organisms and water are all held by the biochar and slowly released, soils are greatly improved—and maintain their fertility over a long period of time. These were first found as terra preta in the Amazon, where they worked miracles holding fertility in tropical soils. Biochar is useful when incorporated into temperate soils as well.  

Image: By K.salo.85 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons from Wikimedia Commons

Biochar is now used agriculturally, not just to build fertility in the soil, but for animal feed and health as well—as biochar isable to capture and purge harmful bacteria in the digestive systems of many domesticated farm animals. As a feed additive, it is very useful. A 2012 report stated that 90% of European biochar was used in livestock farming. (2) We can find activated charcoal on the shelves of health food stores to deal with digestive issues. Feeding biochar to livestock is right in line with this practice.

Secondly, biochar can help to address climate change by storing stable carbon in the soil for a perhaps hundreds of years. While there are many ways to build carbon in the soil and remove it from the atmosphere (rotational grazing, for example), biochar may be an important aspect of addressing climate change and providing terrestrial system benefits simultaneously.

What can it do for you?

  1. Incorporate it into your garden soils
  2. Consider it as a feed additive if you have livestock
  3. Learn or encourage others to make it and provide it as a product in the community. Note that anytime you introduce bacteria and new components into an ecosystem, you should be knowledgeable about what it is you are incorporating and how to observe the space to note impact.

Another cautionary note:

When thinking about biochar as a solution to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, it might be tempting to think that cutting down trees and creating biochar is the solution. After reviewing the situation, we know that we need our large trees and established forests to do what they do best—and provide the many ecosystem services they already provide (as well as inspire and move us to connection). What we need now are new forests and new ways of working with agroforestry in those new forests and grasslands to produce with biochar. Fortunately, this is something many excellent people are researching. 




© Garden Tower Project, nine months, then reverts to Rhonda Baird

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Double the Growing Power

Double the Growing Power

We wanted to highlight one of our Garden Tower growers, Bill Land. Bill has been gardening and working b2ap3_thumbnail_Bill-Land-setup.jpgtoward an abundant world for most of his life. Bill worked in planning and zoning for many years and has been involved in projects that promote community-building in Illinois and Indiana. Throughout that time, Bill has gardened. He has been gardening with the Garden Tower since almost the inception of the Garden Tower Project. This year he set up his towers a bit differently. We wanted to share with you what he did, incase you are interested in trying it next time you plant your Garden Tower. 

The first thing to note, is that Bill doubled up each of the pockets with lacinato kale, romaine lettuce, and rainbow chard. In the spring, he alternated these three types of plants in diagonal rows. In the top ring of each tower, there are three Bloody Butcher tomatoes, three basil, and two bush beans. This means he had 95-100 plants in the Garden Tower at any given point (remember, you can rotate out plants and add new ones throughout the season). The plants are getting the support they need in the soil, because rich, complex nutrients are available right at the root zone! This is one of the great secrets for healthy, nutritious fruits, flowers, and veggies. b2ap3_thumbnail_First-Harvest.jpg

For amendments, Bill added Dr. Earth and a goat/horse manure mix were added to one tower. The other tower had: Dr. Earth, manure mix, and azomite. He also experimented with putting copper and other metals near the tower to attract a beneficial electrical charge--encouraging plant growth.


These two spring towers were planted the on May 3, 2015. The first harvest was on day 26—and continued to go strong throughout the summer despite copious amounts of rain.

If you are interested in sharing your story with the Garden Tower as a feature, contact us!


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GMO-Free: or IS it?

GMO-Free: or IS it?

The debate around genetically modified organisms is intense this year as labeling laws and bans and bans on bans are taken up. GMO technology has become pervasive in our world; and its impact on our food supply gets most of the attention. Is your food safe or isn’t it?

Whether you believe GMOs are dangerous or not, the majority of people agree we should have an option to know whether the food we buy contains them. And this is where GMOs get even more confusing. Many companies voluntarily label their foods GMO-free. Others don’t. 

There is also the belief that if you buy organic, your food is also GMO free. This was called into question by Henry I. Miller and Drew L. Kershen in a July 8 opinion piece for Forbes magazine. The key passage is includes this quote from USDA officials:

“As USDA officials have said repeatedly: “Organic certification is process based. That is, certifying agents attest to the ability of organic operations to follow a set of production standards and practices which meet the requirements of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 and the [National Organic Program] regulations . . . If all aspects of the organic production or handling process were followed correctly, then the presence of detectable residue from a genetically modified organism alone does not constitute a violation of this regulation” [emphasis added]. 

This language is probably meant to protect the investment farmers have made in certifying organic and the value of organic as a label. It also means that due to genetic drift or other means, organic food may have GMO “residue” in it.

Miller and Kershen go on to point out the issues with certification and accountability with organic certification programs. Among their points, they report that there are only two conditions under which organic produce can be tested: 1, if the farmer is suspected of intentionally violating organic standards; 2, 5% of the operations certifiers work with are tested annually.

The authors' bottom line is that eating organically doesn't guarantee your food is GMO free. They seem to miss the point that farmers choose not to use materials like synthetic fertilizers and pesticides that will compromise their certification. This means the food is not sprayed with synthetic toxins and that natural, organic substances are used.  In addition, growers are becoming savvy to dealing with genetic drift by using measures like planting corn earlier than GMO corn is planted so that pollination times are staggered.

Does this mean throw out the value of eating organically? By no means! Becoming more aware about the concerns surrounding food safety and helps us understand why we want to buy and eat certain foods—or turn more towards growing our own.



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Soil and Bioremediation

Soil and Bioremediation

When it comes to food, soil is where it’s at. There’s the adage: healthy soil=healthy plants=healthy people. It’s true! That’s why nutrient dense foods are as important to identify as organic or local foods. Growing your own in an active soil food web is key. 

We focused on what goes into healthy soil in a blog from May this year…and there’s more. Many of us live in urban or rural areas that have damaged and contaminated soils: oil spills, herbicides, asphalt and concrete bases in the soil, etc.  In fact, it might be safe to say that most of us have something to consider in our environment. This blog isn’t meant to be a “doomer downer” entry, but to introduce to you some techniques to heal our soils:

  1. Microbial remediation uses the bacteria and other microbes present in a healthy soil food web. Composting and applying compost as well as increasing the variety of plant species present are two of the keys.
  2. Phytoremediation uses plants as the primary processors of toxins. Plants can extract the toxin (and then be removed themselves) or break the contaminant down, or bind it up.
  3. Mycoremediation uses fungi to process contaminants. These are especially good at long-chain carbon substances (such as those made from oil).

These three techniques alone, or in combination, can do much to work with natural processes to break down or bind up toxins.  Remediated landscapes are then much healthier for people, plants and animals to be in.

Don’t go it alone! More research and working with specialists in the subject can help you to assess and formulate a plan for how to address an area safely.  Healing a damaged landscape can take years to fully realize.

Community groups together with municipalities are more appropriate to make decisions for larger common spaces. Many municipalities and states mandate capping the damaged soil with clean soil brought in from outside. Just like throwing a rug over your dirty floor, capping is not a complete solution. While, it is an understandable approach given financial and time constraints, it might be worth suggesting alternative test plots using remediation and proceeding carefully from there.

If you want two sources to inspire you, please do check out Earth Repair: A grassroots guide to healing toxic and damaged landscapes by Leila Darwish (2013) and the work of Paul Steamiest of Fungi Perfecti. Both are cautious, optimistic, and passionate about transforming our landscapes into healthier places for future generations. 

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Eating and the Environment

Eating and the Environment

Please note: nothing in this blog replaces the care of your trusted medical advisor. 

 Our modern world can be stressful. Financial, relationship stresses, sleep/waking cycles, electro-magnetic fields, and environmental toxins all play a part. There is good news. We can change our lifestyle philosophy and habits to embrace healthier options.  Our choices on food are one way of doing that. 

Get the lead out: choosing foods that chelate 

When our son was about eight months old, he tested for higher lead levels. Whether the lead came from an old paint chip or crawling on the floor somewhere else, we don’t know. Each month for a few months his blood tests showed lead.  The levels quickly fell within acceptable limits. Our family learned that foods high in vitamin C will help remove lead from the bloodstream: strawberries, cabbage, broccoli, etc…were high on his list of foods. Since that time I’ve been on the lookout for which foods help us release toxins. 

Besides raw, high vitamin C foods, cilantro tends to pull heavy metals out of the body. Parsley is also our friend. Reportedly it is effective at removing mercury from our bodies. This is especially important in areas where coal-produced electricity affects the water supply. 


Pump up the volume: choosing foods that support you

Besides eating foods to detox, our family chooses foods that support health including: 

Sea vegetables. We now prefer those ethically harvested from the Atlantic Ocean and avoid those from the Pacific or the Gulf of Mexico. They are naturally higher in healthy iodine and minerals—which help to protect the thyroid and keep it in balance. Hint: you can throw in a handful with your kimchi. 

Raw, fermented foods. We love homemade kimchi, sauerkraut and gingerbeer. Kombucha, yogurt, kefir and many other foods make a regular appearance in our home. The bacteria used in the fermentation process are beneficial for your digestive system. They start to break down the food making the vitamins and minerals more available to your body. Nothing is as satisfying as dishing out a helping of kimchi made with veggies from your garden! 


 Mushrooms are another of our favorites—but you must cook them! They supposed to be good for everything from ridding yourself of a cold to fighting cancer. Paul Stamets of Fungi Perfecti has shared research that mushrooms exposed to sunlight for two days store many times the Vitamin D of their counterparts. Apparently this practice is so healthy that even squirrels do it! (Permaculture Activist, #86, November 2012)

There are some other things to consider incorporating into your weekly or yearly diet.

  • Consider including detox regimes. 
  • Stress and relaxation programs help with balancing your hormones (especially cortisol and adrenaline).
  • Water is critical for your health. Of course there are many other options. These are a few to get you started. 


Permaculture Activist (now Permaculture Design Magazine) #86, November 2012

Fallon, Sally, Mary G. Enig, PhD. Nourishing Traditions. Washington, DC: New Trends Publishing, Inc., 2001.

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