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Ground Ivy

Life has been pushing me in the direction of herbal medicine lately. A gentle nudge, some not-so-subtle hints, a full-on shove. So at last I am resisting no longer and taking advantage of the wealth of knowledge and opportunity laid before me to begin this journey of discovery.

At Twin Oaks, the community just up the road from and parent to Acorn, where I now live, the beautiful, sprawling herb garden has been run by the wise and knowledgeable Hildegard. She started it 30 years ago and has been maintaining it ever since. And so I have thrown myself at the feet of Hildegard as a student to absorb all that she might be willing to teach me. In this blog I intend to document my lessons, that I might better cement them for myself and also share them with you, gentle reader.


Just a small part of Hildegard’s magnificent herb garden
Just a small part of Hildegard’s magnificent herb garden


In our first class, we learned about Ground Ivy, also known as Creeping Charlie, and a host of other names.

Heart shaped leaves and pretty purple flowers
Heart shaped leaves and pretty purple flowers

Hildegard was full of praise for this pretty ground cover. Native to Europe and Southwestern Asia, it grows enthusiastically in most of North America and can be very effective in keeping out other weeds. It clings to the earth but lightly, making it easy to rake up and compost, and Hildegard said she was able to make an equal volume of rich soil out of a pile of it. It thrives in shade, but also handles sun well, so you can put it just about anywhere – but be careful in woodlands as this invasive can choke out native wildflowers.

Ground Ivy has been used medicinally and culinarily for thousands of years. It’s full of vitamin C and Hildegard told me she recently made a tea with loads of fresh ground ivy, elderberries, and holy basil and fed copious amounts of it for three days straight to a visitor with bad cold, who then made an astonishing and speedy recovery.

We’ve all been there - yuck!
We’ve all been there – yuck!

We wandered around the garden looking at many patches of Ground Ivy to pick the very nicest. Recent rains had the plants in lower lying areas looking a little yellowish. Finally we settled on a big patch on higher ground. Hildegard showed me how to snip the leaves with scissors rather than tearing or pinching them up, which traumatises the plants more. We filled up a basket and then headed back to the tiny room she uses for processing tinctures.

Here we stuffed the leaves tightly into a small mason jar, to about an inch from the top, reaching in with scissors to cut them up a bit. Then we poured in vodka nearly to the top, put a piece of plastic over the mouth of the jar, and screwed on the lid. (The plastic is there to keep the alcohol from being in contact with the metal of the lid.) Now it will sit for at least six weeks, drawing out the valuable compounds from the ground ivy to make a tincture which will allow us access to their medicinal properties whenever we feel the need of them.

Hildegard mentioned that whenever possible she likes to use medicinal herbs fresh, so when I got home I harvested another jarful of ground ivy and made myself a tea from the fresh leaves. I, however, found its taste odd and slightly nauseating, so I think I’ll stick with adding the tincture to other things.

A little more research on my own told me that besides being chock full of vitamin C (it proved useful in curing scurvy), ground ivy can be used as a substitute for animal rennet in cheese making, and that the Saxons used it in brewing beer before hops were introduced. The 16th century herbalist John Gerard called it the most excellent medicine in the world for eye ailments, and also recommended it for sciatica, back pain, as a diuretic, an astringent, and a stimulant. While these claims are not perhaps all able to be substantiated, it certainly seems like this prolific little creeper is an excellent addition to one’s herbal medicine cabinet.


Growing Grain and Making Bread

Farm and Sparrow bakery in Candler, NC buys grain – especially Turkey Red hard winter wheat – from farmers, and grinds it to make flour, bread, and pastries. Jul2015 (442) oven at Farm and Sparrow bakery small

Ken and I visited Farm and Sparrow on our summer road trip, which we’ve also written about in posts about seed growers, breeders, and research stations, and most recently, using home-grown grain and why I care about locally grown grain.

The crew of Farm and Sparrow bakes bread and pastries in a wood-fired brick oven.  They sell to a local pizzeria as well as directly to consumers at several markets in nearby Asheville.  We greatly enjoyed the powerful fragrance of fresh flour in the milling room and the taste of their Heirloom Grit bread.

We also visited two of the farms that Farm and Sparrow buys from.Jul2015 (511) at Dayspring Farm small
DaySpring Farms in Commerce, Georgia is operated by Murray Brett and his son Nathan.  They grow Turkey Red wheat as well as NuEast hard red winter wheat, Appalachian hard white winter wheat, canola, corn, cowpeas, dry beans, and fresh vegetables. During our visit we picked up the Turkey Red wheat seed we’re now selling.  Murray and Nathan are enthusiastic about growing corn and legume seed crops for us in the future, and we hope to line them up with some crops next year.

The last stop of our two-week road trip was Looking Back Farm in the northeast corner of North Carolina.  There, Kenny Haines and his son Ben grow corn, wheat, cowpeas, and soybeans, much of it for Anson Mills. Jul2015 (744) at Looking Back farm small

They also do soybean trials for the Rural Advancement Foundation International.  Kenny has been growing organically since 1987, long before organic food was popular.  His wife was a nurse and insisted that their sons not be exposed to pesticides.

Looking Back Farm was one of the largest farms we visited on our trip.  They farm 350 acres, all by themselves, with more and more help from Ben’s sons.  They’re precision tractor operators, planting and weeding and harvesting all their crops with their equipment.  Like many of the farms we visited, they scale their work to their family’s labor, since it’s hard to find skilled farm workers who’ll commit to the work and the farm.

When we had the opportunity a couple years ago, we were happy to buy some Iron and Clay pea seeds from them, but generally they grow no less than 10 acres of any crop.   Southern Exposure’s inventories are small enough so that it would only make sense for them to grow seed for us if they were also growing the same crop for food or seed for someone else.

We asked David Bauer of Farm and Sparrow if Aug2015 (639) At Sub Rosa bakery, Richmond smallany other bakeries also mill grain and buy from farmers.  He mentioned Sub Rosa bakery in Richmond, VA.  When I visited Sub Rosa, baker Evrim Dogu was making Polenta bread with Bloody Butcher corn from our neighbor William Hale, who also grows seed for us.  The sourdough loaf we bought was very crusty on the outside and very creamy on the inside.  I usually prefer a more even-textured bread, but found this loaf deeply satisfying.Aug2015 (607) At Sub Rosa bakery, Richmond small

Sustainable Agriculture Research Stations

Continuing our summer road trip adventures! Besides seed growers, we also visited with many vegetable breeders and researchers on our trip.  Here we’ll profile four organic and sustainable agriculture research stations.

North Carolina State University’s Mountain Research Station in Waynesville, NC (near Asheville) is up in the hills, and cooler and wetter than most of NC – a great place for tomato disease trials! Here, Luping Qu, Reuben Travis, and Jeanine Davis discuss how to measure the effects of diseases for their trial notes.

There’s a lot going at the Mountain Research Station. Besides tomato trials, we got to see melon and squash trials, stevia trials, hops trials, organic broccoli variety trials, and much more – here’s an overview of this year’s research projects. And that’s just the Alternative Crops and Organics part of the farm – elsewhere on the farm, there’s a big broccoli varieties trial that’s part of a multi-state project that aims, among other things, to find broccoli varieties that hold up well in the heat of the Southeast.

A great practice at the Mountain Research Station farm (and at many other farms we visited) is to plant strips of flowers and herbs — usually on the edges of fields, but sometimes in the middle as well. These flowers and herbs help attract pollinators and bug predators.

Jeanine is the co-author of Growing and Marketing Ginseng, Goldenseal and Other Woodland Medicinals. Her blog about the work at the Mountain Research Station is a great read. She’s a dedicated outreach person, and besides giving talks at the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association’s Sustainable Agriculture Conference, she regularly speaks at many conferences, including this year’s Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello, September 11-12.

A quick stop was the University of Tennessee’s East Tennessee Research and Education Center in Knoxville. We were already visiting three different Tennessee farms that day, but there it was, only a couple miles away from Jonathan Buchanan’s Crooked Road Farm, so we dropped in for a quick look. Much of the farm’s work is giving young beginning farmers experience growing market crops, but we also got to see pepper trials, stevia trials, and – a great new vocabulary word – ratooning trials for kale and other crops in the brassica family. Ratooning is the practice of severely cutting back plants to stimulate new growth for later production. Okra growers in the Deep South often do it, so as to keep okra plants from getting 10 feet tall or more! Here’s a ratooned kale crop at the East TN Research and Education Center.

Next was the USDA’s U.S. Vegetable Laboratory in Charleston, South Carolina, with Clemson University’s Coastal Research and Education Center (CREC) nearby. Mark Farnham and Richard Fery with the USVL, and Brian Ward (at left below) with the CREC, showed us around. Here Mark talks about his work with breeding summer broccoli that holds up in July heat. Vegetable breeding is patient work – it can take planting out big fields of dozens of different breeding lines to find the best traits. This was July, swelteringly hot in Charleston, but there was some great looking broccoli out there – Mark’s hoping to release some of the breeding lines in the next few years!

Mark (at right below) is a brassicas guy; another recent project of his and Pat Wechter’s, Carolina Broadleaf mustard, is a leafy green bred for resistance to a bacterial leaf blight that’s become a problem in the Deep South. The USVL makes small amounts of breeding stock available to seed producers, so we’re hoping to line up some of our own seed growers for this one and have it in the SESE catalog in the next few years.

Richard Fery is emeritus plant geneticist at the USVL. He’s worked on many different seed crops over the years, mostly peppers and southern peas. He and his colleagues bred the nematode-resistant Carolina Wonder sweet pepper, Charleston Hot hot pepper, and many others, and he’s shared seedstock with us of southern peas releases that we’re hoping to be able to offer in the next few years.  He’s in the picture below at right, with colleague Floyd P. Maguire at left.

Across the street, Brian Ward gave us a fast tour of the organics section of Clemson’s Coastal Research and Education Center. Interesting projects included watermelon seedlings grafted onto gourd rootstock for greater disease resistance and vigor, a study of alternative pollinators for watermelons, rice trials, and seed increases for heirloom varieties of peanuts, southern peas, and corn. Alas, so much to see, but so little time!

Our final stop in the research portion of this trip was the Cherry Farm facility in Goldsboro, NC, for the Central for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS), a collaboration between several NC ag departments. With 2,245 acres available, CEFS has a huge area to do all kinds of big studies, with long term studies of soil nutrition, tree alley crops, forest succession, animal husbandry, and many others. Research Operations Manager Andy Meier generously took time on a Sunday afternoon to show us around. CEFS helps provide the space and support for many NC ag folks and groups to do trials.  Their variety trials this year include wheat, barley, soybeans, and this southern peas trial with four repetitions. Again, so much to see, and so little time!

Next week we’ll spotlight two individuals who we visited who breed exciting new varieties.