In The Woods And In The Nursery

We just began the process of uncovering the nursery. Such a fun job after a long winter. Each time we roll back the landscape cloth we immediately inspect the condition of the plants underneath. One little Hepatica transylvanica that we’ve propagated was already in bloom. A determined little gem! It looks like most everything has come through the long winter splendidly. Always a joy and a relief to know our plants were tucked in well for the winter, undisturbed by voles, and are now ready to have their covers lifted.

Lobaria pulmonaria

While out foraging, I came across one of my favorite lichens, Lobaria pulmonaria. This lichen is an epiphytic lichen, which means it is an organism that uses another plant for structure and derives its moisture and nutrients from the rain and air but does not harm the plant it’s living on. This particular lichen is very susceptible to air pollution and will not often be found in areas where air quality is poor. Fortunately, our air quality is pretty darn good here in the woods of Maine, so I come across it quite regularly. I harvest a small amount of Lobaria for two reasons. First, for its medicinal value. I tincture this lichen for respiratory ailments such as bronchitis, lingering coughs, and croup. Lobaria is an expectorant, an astringent, is an antimicrobial and a pulmonary demulcent. Having antibiotic properties it can help with bacterial infections. I tincture Lobaria and also gather a bit for drying to add along with other respiratory herbs and then use it as a tea. The other use I have for Lobaria is as a dye plant. Used fresh or dried, Lobaria gives a dark brown color to the yarn I am dying. I don’t often use a mordant ( a mordant is a substance, typically an inorganic oxide, that combines with a dye and helps to fix it to the wool), but with the most recent collection, I will see if I can shift the color a bit using some copper or iron. Aren’t these plants just the most amazing things ever? I am very careful about leaving the bulk of a lichen undisturbed. Lichens are very slow growing and such an important part of our ecosystem that I find it best to be very thoughtful when harvesting. Not much is needed for tincture, for tea, or for a dye bath, so a very small amount is actually gathered.
Tomorrow, I may take my Lobaria pulmonaria down to the coast and set up a little fire and a dye pot. Curious as to what the salt water and all its minerals will do to alter the color. We shall see and I’ll keep you all posted on the results!
Hope where ever you are, you are feeling the strength and restorative properties of the approaching spring season. So very lovely, isn’t it?

The Gardens Now

The gardens are now just shy of that bursting point. We’ve had some rain. We’ve had some warm sunny days. The plants are responding and putting forth all their best efforts. Isn’t it amazing? Isn’t it just the most delightful thing in the world (O.K., certainly one of the most delightful!). A customer came by yesterday, wandered through the gardens, explored the nursery and said: “My, you must really enjoy that first cup of coffee in the morning while strolling these gardens”.You bet we do! Bliss.
This week during a bit of downtime ( Mondays and Tuesdays) I’ll be posting some more of the classes we are offering. A wet felting class, as well as a class on wool dyeing, an herbal cocktail and mocktail making class, more hypertufa building, and a class on creating interesting vessels with succulents. Rick will offer another fern identification class and a late summer class on dividing shade and woodland plants. Stay tuned!
Hope you are enjoying all that brings you joy and delight during these precious summer months!

Fiber Of Maine And The Heavenly Socks Yarn Shop

My friend Helen Sahadi owns a beautiful yarn shop in Belfast, Maine called Heavenly Socks Yarn. Helen is a lifelong knitter and is passionate about fiber but also about community. Her shop is chock full of the most delicious yarn. Not just eye candy, but lovely squishy yarn that you can take home and make something wonderful out of! It’s the middle of winter, the best time to grab your needles, find a pattern (loads and loads of great patterns at Heavenly Socks Yarn store!!) and start knitting! Take a field trip to Belfast, Maine and visit Helen’s shop…it’s the best!
Helen’s latest addition to her shop is an on-line store where she features Maine yarn from Maine farms. And, guess who’s being featured this month ( February, actually)…us here at Fernwood. You can check us out and Helens great shop and work here:

March On!

picture-3943Have we had a few days of really, really cold temperatures lately? Brrr and yes, but the sun is high and strong and the very near future promises much warmer weather. Yeeha! So, we’ll march on through the month readying ourselves for what’s to come…..sowing seeds, turning over soil, boiling sap into maple syrup goodness.picture-4029I’m not going to squander a minute of March. Before long we’ll be doing that “sun up til sun down” thing we do every year. I’m using these last days of winter (yes, soon to be spring) to finish all the wool spinning and dyeing, all the knitting and felting, all the rummaging through boxes of family papers, all the reading (thank you Rick H. for the package of books you sent!!) I can muster before it’s too late. picture-4008This past weekend both Liberty Tool Company and Liberty Graphics opened their doors for another season. This is great for all those who travel to Maine looking for something special to bring home…like a smoothing plane, or a mortising chisel, or a really nice locally printed tee-shirt. For us locals, we wait all winter for the village to show signs of life again. After a winter of staying close to home, gathering at Liberty Graphics for a cup of coffee and a good chat is a sure sign of revitalization.
Even our chickens seem to have a pep in their step, grooming the landscape for spring morsels. Deep snow and cold temperatures keep them close to the coop until the bare ground starts appearing. Then the door is flung open and out they come, busy the rest of the day rototilling through the gardens and the woods.
Enjoy your days, peek out into the gardens, tip your face to the sun….spring’s a comin!picture-4032picture-3948

Calendula Flowers

Picture 3177Before the day gets too hot and just after the dew has dried, I harvest the calendula blossoms (Calendula officinalis) from the gardens. I’ll dry the flowers for making calendula oil and then add the oil to some of the salves and creams we make. Calendula is one of my favorite ingredients to use in ointments. It is antiseptic, has antimicrobial properties, and is an anti-inflammatory. As a topical ointment, it helps to heal wounds, soothes burns, rashes, and bug bites, and aids in collagen regeneration. It is also an antifungal. Some of the dried flowers will be stored in clean glass jars for making tea. We use the tea to promote digestions, as an immune booster, and in soothing abdominal cramps. The very last picking will be kept fresh and put into a pot of hot water, left overnight, strained, and then used for a dye bath. Along with a mordant of alum ( A mordant is a chemical binding agent that adheres well to both the fibres and to the dye. The word comes from the Latin mordere, which means to bite), it will produce a beautiful golden yellow dye to sink my wool into. Very nice indeed.
I love having these bright blooms among the veggies in the garden (that is where we grow them) and though we harvest most of their cheery orange and yellow blossoms, we do leave a portion of the flowers for reseeding.
The gardens here are glorious at the moment, despite the lack of rain. We spend much of our time watering, watering, and watering. The showy lady slippers, the corydalis, and bowman’s root are all in bloom…to name a few. Beautiful. We recently had a guest from South West Harbor visiting the nursery, a lovely lady who declared that pulling up a seat to enjoy Cypripedium kentuckiensis for an entire afternoon would suit her just fine. Can’t blame her…they are quite stunning. Happy gardening to all, and let’s hope we get some rain soon!

Cypripedium kentuckiensis

Cypripedium kentuckiensis

Our Days Now

Picture 2392Our days now are spent tending to both the needs of winter and the needs of spring. We’re still hauling in firewood, and feeling the need to warm ourselves with hot tea and homemade broth. Somedays we are still putting a layer of long underwear on beneath our work clothes. The water buckets for the sheep and chickens are often still frozen in the morning. We are, however, for the most part without snow. Plants like winter aconite have pushed through the thawing ground and have blooms ready to open. Small, bright yellow flowers, just what we need to bring warmth to the landscape! Already the chickweed (Stellaria media) is starting to come up and spread along the ground in the greenhouse. This is great because I will pick it for salads, tea, and make a tincture with some – (More on this later).

Xanthoria parietina

Xanthoria parietina

I recently collected some lichen for wool dyeing. A jar of Xanthoria parietina sits soaking in a mixture of ammonia and water, fermenting nicely.Picture 2405 In about three months or so, I will have the makings of a nice dye bath. I’ll keep you posted as the process moves along. Whether I am making tinctures, salves, or a concoction to be used for dyeing wool, I love this chance to be a ‘kitchen chemist’. A very basic ‘kitchen chemist’ that is, but with wonderful results that improve our health, nutrition, and can bring wonderful color to a skein of yarn. Speaking of yarn, the last package for our winter yarn CSA will go out this month. It’s been fun putting together the skeins of yarn, choosing patterns, and including a snapshot of one of our lovely sheep. We’ll surely be offering this again.
A warm weekend coming up, a few new lambing pens need to be built and another wall boarded in the studio. Maybe one of the giant brush piles can be burned. What sorts of things are people doing to ready themselves for spring? Any new gardening projects on the ‘to do’ list? We’d love to hear.

Yarn From Some Happy Sheep In Maine

Picture 735The sheep (and their shepherd) here at Fernwood would like folks to know that we have a winter yarn CSA available ( CSA- Community Supported Agriculture). Purchase a 3-month membership and we will send you a skein and a ‘one-skein’ knitting pattern each month. Beautiful, hand dyed, soft and lustrous skeins of yarn from our flock of Blue Face Leicester sheep. Though it hasn’t been one of our coldest winters on record, and perhaps there has been less need to bundle up in woolens, we do hope you’re still finding an opportunity( and reason!) to knit. If you are interested in Fernwood’s Yarn CSA and would like more information, email us please and I will promptly send along all the details. Thank you and stay warm!Picture 2104


Picture 2140Please don’t be upset with me. We are finally getting the long-awaited snowstorm, and it makes me so happy! A winter that doesn’t act like winter makes me uncomfortable. Winter should know its place and behave accordingly. Snow. Cold. Frozen ponds and lakes. Are you with me on this? I’m not sure the sheep are, but they’re designed for this kind of weather. Built-in winter coats? Sunny Florida is not the place for them, they belong right here where the cold will encourage them to grow long and heavy fleeces. And you know what that means, plenty of scrumptious Blue Face Leicester wool for me to spin and knit with. So……let it snow, let it snow, let it snow! I think I actually see a smile on the sheep’s faces, don’t you? Picture 2142

Battenkill Fiber Mill

For years …as long as I have raised sheep, over twenty five years now, I have been searching for the perfect woolen mill to process some of our fleeces. We always keep a bundle of the newly shorn fleeces here to process ourselves, the rest will often get sent off to be cleaned and carded. This means bags of beautifully cleaned roving returns, ready to spin. The last two years I’ve even sent off several fleeces to have them cleaned, carded, and spun into yarn. So I have both available……skeins of our Blue Face Leicester spun right here with me at the wheel or yarn from our sheep that has been sent over to the Battenkill. Even with any mill spun yarn, I still do all the dyeing of each skein. With a flock of sheep’s fleeces piling up (I can only spin so fast and there is always so much else to do…surprise, surprise, huh?) I decided two years ago to send some of the fleeces off. This allowed me to have more inventory to sell to our yarn customers. Finding the right woolen mill has always been a challenge. For years we’ve had a local mill who did a great job, but they no longer clean fleeces, and because ‘cleaning’ the fleeces is the job that is most helpful, I began looking elsewhere. It’s not easy to find a mill you trust. Being a handspinner and working hard to maintain the quality of our sheep and their fleeces, I don’t want to risk sending them just anywhere. I had one mill years ago lose all of my 1st year lamb fleeces. Not happy, I can only say. Blue Face Leicester tends to have a fairly long staple length (length of the locks), it is quite crimpy, and often contains a fair bit of lanolin. This can gunk up a machine, so carefully washing is important. Some cottage mills are not able (or talented enough) to handle fleeces that are considered extra fine , like Merino or Rambouillet, or they are not able to slow the machines to handle a long stabled fleece…like Blue Face Leicester. Owning and operating a woolen mill is a craft. They need to understand the different wool breeds, they need to be able to assess the fleeces when they come in, and they need to be able to process each order to the customer’s request. There is a lot to pay attention to. So, this is why I am promoting the Battenkill Fiber Mill. They are, by far, the best mill I’ve come across. One of the great things about them is that they strive for accuracy. I get my own fleeces back and the weight of the finished product is always on the high end. They are great communicators, I often send my fleeces with a ( fairly) long list of instructions and thoughts…. the folks at the Battenkill know that they are working with producers that care about their sheep and the end quality of their fleeces, and so they listen. Quality is first and foremost at the Battenkill. I have been so happy to find a mill, one that is not across the country, that I can trust with my fleeces. They really are an excellent mill.
Recently, I received an email from Mary Jeanne who owns and operates the Battenkill Fiber Mill. She sends out a yearly update of things happening at the mill, along with this great video which explains how the mill operates. The best part of the video is learning a little bit about the happy folks who work there. If happy and contented people are doing the job of processing your fleeces, it makes sense that they come back to you reflecting the happy hands that handled them.
Check out the Battenkill’s website, the video is there to click onto……join in with supporting a great little business!

The Roof Goes On!

Picture 1830This weekend we put the metal roofing on the studio building. The studio has been one of the summer/fall projects we’ve been working on. Why do we need a studio here at Fernwood? Having a building to give more lectures and classes will be a great help. Rick will certainly offer up more horticultural classes, talks on specific plants or groupings of plants, and hands-on workshops. Over the last few years, people have requested more ‘talks’ and workshops that focus on the native and woodland plants we grow, shade gardening, and a multitude of other gardening/farming/ and craft related topics. Of course there will be lots of wool dyeing, felting, knitting, and art classes available, that’s just a given…..and completely indulgent on my part! Now that the roof is on, we’ll be focusing on the inside. This next weekend the woodstove will go in to allow us to work comfortably throughout the next month. A bit more wiring, insulating, and trimming out windows are next on the list. With hopes ( and well wishes!) the studio will be ready by January. We’re planning on a mid week yoga class taught by a friend of ours. A writing workshop has stirred some interest…..winter being a great time to indulge in the craft of writing. Rick has agreed to a winter walk and plant identification class. Part of the excitement has been in developing a line up of class possibilities……and suggestions are always welcome! We’ll certainly be listing class offerings as we get closer to finishing up the construction……stay tuned!