The Practical Garden

The Real-Life Tragedy and Joy of Chicken Keeping

I’ve spent most of my time to this point talking about medicinal plants, but now seems a reasonable point to talk a bit about my chickens—well, my chicken, singular, whom I’ve dubbed “The Lone Chicken” as of late.

I started out with five chickens—four hens and a rooster. I now have one. Now, I won’t give you any gory details, but the first chicken I lost was, of course, my favorite. She was named Diana, and she would follow me around the yard, clucking and cooing, and was always the first to walk up to me when I threw treats on the ground. There’s not good way to say this: she was eaten. By something. Who knows what.

chicken 

The second to go was Elizabeth, the half-blind chicken who went slowly into that sweet night until, finally, she went.

And the rooster, of course. Ah, the rooster. He was a beautiful rooster, and a good rooster, who protected his decreasing flock faithfully. However, he kept jumping on me, punishing me with his bony, sharp spurs, despite the fact that I was the one feeding him! The nerve. And, though I didn’t blame him for this, he crowed. A lot. All the time. It was stressful.

He went into the stew pot.

And on it went, until, finally, I was down to one chicken. When it was still chickens, plural, the chickens abandoned their perfectly serviceable coop. The Last Chicken is left to hop to her roost. First, she hops on the back of the porch bench. Then, she jumps on the back of the porch rocker. She stares, gathering her gumption, until she finally, desperately, urgently, flaps her wings until she makes it to a bottom branch. Once she makes it to the branch, she clucks as though pep-talking herself before scooting her way a few feet up the branch to find her roosting place.

Chickens are hilarious.

chicken 

For a long time, I lost track of where she was laying her eggs, until finally the dog pulled one out of the doghouse. It’s a toss-up on any given day who is going to get to the egg first.

Now, you should know that I love keeping chickens. We live on exactly enough space, in my view, to let them free range, so they’re pretty easy to keep, and frankly, during the summer, they don’t even care if I don’t feed them but occasionally, due to the high number of bugs and plant matter. Even better, they give me eggs. I forget that most people have to buy eggs, until winter when I begin pep-talking the hens about how long they’ve got “on break” until they better start laying again.

So here I am with one chicken, admiring photos of large flocks on the internet, dreaming of spring, when I, too, will have multiples. Until then, The Lone Rang—I mean, The Lone Chicken, my cat, and my dog will be here, perpetually waiting for their next meal.

Coming next: Let’s get specific. I’ll talk about the practicality of chicken coops. It’s easy to get overwhelmed with ideas of the “perfect” coop, when in reality all they need is protection from elements and predators.

The Benefits of Chickweed Salve

Maxal Tamor Stellaria Media

Photo by Maxal Tamor

 

Chickweed

The bane of many a gardener, Stellaria media, or chickweed, is in fact, a weed—or at least an unwanted plant in many areas. An invasive plant (non-native), it’s been found in every American state, so you’ll probably have good luck finding it growing wild in your area. It has rather distinct flowers in the blooming season of early spring.

Uses of Chickweed

Chickweed is pretty awesome stuff. Chickens like it (hence the name), and it was once a frequent addition to fancy sandwiches. Be careful though, as it has a look-alike in Mouse-eared chickweed, that while edible, must be cooked to become safe to eat.

Medicinally, chickweed is most commonly used for skin ailments in which there is inflammation that must be cooled—abrasions, non-serious burns, even acne and psoriasis. It’s mild astringent properties are even considered useful for drawing out splinters. The entire plant—leaves, herbs, and stems—are used in the preparation.

The most common way to apply herbs topically is via a salve. You can certainly purchase salves, but they’re inexpensive and easy to make, so why not do it yourself?

How to Make a Salve

A salve is made of beeswax, oil, and herbs steeped together. Once complete, the herbs are usually strained out, though they don’t have to be. Salves are used topically only.

To make one, gather: 

  • Jars or lip balm containers to store the salve in
  • Beeswax
  • Oil
  • A clean, wide mouthed jar or Pyrex container x 2
  • A pot in which to heat water
  • Cheesecloth
  • Herbs (in this case, chickweed) 

*I actually add a little extra beeswax—like an ounce and a half to two ounces—because I like my salve very thick, closer to lip balm consistency. Play around to get the consistency you prefer.

Fill the pot with water, high enough to cover your jar or Pyrex container about three quarters of the way up.

Fill the jar with one cup of oil and chickweed. Coconut oil is a good option, as it heats at a low temperature and doesn’t go rancid as easily as some oils.

Place the oil-filled jar in your pot filled with water. Turn the heat on low-medium. The water should not boil, but it should get quite warm, just less than simmering. Allow to heat through for about twenty minutes.

Once the mixture is warmed through and the herbs have been allowed to steep, you should notice a change in the oil color. At this point, remove the jar from the heat. Pour mixture through the cheesecloth and into your second jar or Pyrex to strain the herbs out. Squeeze the cheesecloth over the jar to retain as much of the infused oil as possible.

Place the jar of strained oil in the pot of water. Add beeswax. Allow to melt.

Once the mixture is melted through, it’s ready to be prepped for storage. Some folks leave it in the jar in which it was heated, which is fine. Just add a lid and store in a cool, dark location. Alternatively, it can be put in smaller containers for distribution or to keep in multiple locations. Either way, once the salve is placed in its storage container, set it in the fridge for about twenty minutes to help it set up.

And that’s it! The steps above can be combined with most any medicinal plant that’s applied topically. Try lavender for a soothing headache and stress-relief balm.

 enriscapes Salve Image

 Photo by enriscapes

What the Heck Am I Doing?

Lacey ThackerAs I’ve mentioned, when I was a teeny little toddler, my mother first became interested in herbs and plant-based supplements. As a result, my entire childhood was filled with learning about natural health and wellness. At this point, I’ve had nearly thirty years of experience with medicinal plants. It’s so ingrained in me I almost forget sometimes it’s not second nature to everyone else. I write this not to discourage you if you’re just beginning, but to encourage! The reality is, it’s going to take a little time to develop a working knowledge of medicinal plants, and that’s if you’re well and truly interested. If it’s a hobby you enjoy, you can just learn and learn, and then, when you need the information, you’ll have the knowledge. If you wait until you need it to learn anything, it will feel like a lot of work to find what you’re looking for. So, with that, I’ve written a brief getting-started guide below to give a little perspective on how medicinal plants fit into taking care of general health.

Books

The first thing to realize, as you start learning more about medicinal plants, is that each one will typically have one of a couple of uses. The first use, as with Echinacea purpurea last week, is to boost the immune system to give the body a stronger chance of fighting illness on its own. In regard to the second use, some plants have anti-bacterial, anti-viral, and/or anti-fungal properties. These are reserved for acute situations. If you have a couple of each of these on hand — an immune booster and an anti-viral/fungal/bacterial — you’ll be well-prepared for most situations appropriate to handle for yourself.

Next, we have the specialists. While some specialist plants have more than one use, many of them have one area of use they are particularly famous for. Ginger, for example, is known by many to be useful in aiding in digestion, settling the stomach, and relieving gas. That’s not its exclusive use, but its primary use.

Cloves are another example of a specialist — the extract of the unopened flower bud can be topically applied on gums to address a sore tooth. That, again, is its primary use. Some other uses include using the extract in combination with ginger in a bit of water for nausea, and some report clove extract to be useful in killing internal parasites.

Now, this is where it can start getting complicated. Are you ready?

Just because two plants have the same specialization doesn’t always mean they would be of equivalent benefit in every situation. Secondary actions and the interaction between any combination of plants used should also be considered.

Finally, let’s think about the body holistically for a moment — why is it ill? Is it stress or overwork? Well, that can’t always be avoided, but it’s certainly a good idea to try. How’s your diet? What you’re eating (or not) can greatly impact health. And — arguably most important — how’s your elimination? If it’s not occurring daily, it would benefit your health to address that first. Naturally, the diet is an appropriate place to begin, which brings us back around to your lifestyle — do you see the cycle?

So, to end, a checklist:

• Have you addressed any factors under your control? (Including lifestyle, diet, and elimination?)
• Is your immune system weakened?
• Is there an acute situation that needs to be addressed?

Next time: I’ll discuss chickweed — where and how it grows, harvesting, and how to make it into a salve that can be used on a variety of cuts and scrapes — even on pets!

Echinacea Purpurea

Lacey ThackerSometimes, I forget to remember that getting started with medicinal plants can be overwhelming. I grew up running around health food stores with my mom, and frankly, she’s forgotten more about herbal medicine than most folks ever know. Lucky for me, some of that knowledge and a whole lot of the interest rubbed off. I’ve taken that interest and expanded it into not only consuming plant-based remedies, but also growing and preparing them. Soon, I’ll share a bit about a useful framework for thinking about medicinal plants, but for today, I thought I’d start with a classic—Echinacea.

As a child, I remember complaining about feeling ill, only to be given an Echinacea-goldenseal combination. Now, that may be anecdotal evidence, but I will say I rarely got truly sick, even when very young. Though scientific studies are mixed about the reliability of this plant as an immune booster, it’s been in use in Native American healing for centuries, and I certainly swear by it.

Aside from its medicinal uses, Echinacea is a truly beautiful plant—and easy to grow, which makes it one of my favorites. It’s often called by the term “coneflower” due to its shape. When I see it, I can’t help but be pulled in my mind to the diverse woodland areas of the Ozarks.

echinacea

Medicinal Uses

Echinacea is a fairly common plant in North America consisting of nine separate species, but it is Echinacea purpurea that has been tied to folk and Native American remedies. Both the roots and leaves may be used.  

Echinacea may be purchased in capsule form at the health food store, or grown in your garden for personal use. Its most common use is for boosting the immune system—rather than a daily supplement, it’s taken when you’re starting to come down with something, or, if people around you are becoming ill and you hope to prevent illness in yourself. It’s noticeably less effective when taken after you’ve already begun showing symptoms of illness.

Cultivation

Echinacea purpurea is most prevalent in the Ozarks, where it grows readily. Though it is medicinal, it’s frequently grown in native gardens due to its pretty blooms that attract bees and butterflies like a magnet. Echinacea purpurea adapts well to moist or dry soil, making it ideal for those long summer dry spells we experience so often in Arkansas and other areas of the South. It will also tolerate most types of soil well, but it absolutely must be grown in sun.

To save seed, just wait until the flower petals begin to fall off and then test the heads every few days—once they break up easily in your hand, they’re ready to be collected and stored.

Storage

Echinacea is a self-sowing perennial, so once your plant is established, you should have a nice stand of it year after year. Pulling the root of course kills the plant, so though this is where the medicinal properties are most concentrated, it’s a better plan to pull the petals from the flowers for use in any remedies.

To use and store Echinacea for its medicinal purposes, you’ll likely want to make a tincture, as it lasts longest and is more concentrated than using the dried leaves for tea—and since the tea isn’t particularly palatable, the tincture is also more likely to be used if needed. To make a tincture, simply gather a substantial amount of leaves—say, an ounce or a little more by weight—and combine with ten fluid ounces of alcohol. Everclear is commonly used where legal, while vodka is a fine substitute. Let the leaves steep in the fluid out of direct light for a month or two. Strain. Pour into clean glass jars for storage.

Dosage: 10-30 drops every four hours as needed.

* Use caution when first taking Echinacea, as it can cause reactions in those sensitive to ragweed.

For further reading:

Balch, Phyllis A. Prescription for Nutritional Healing. 3rd Edition.