Be well friends…

There are so many challenges we are all facing right now that it is hard to know what direction to look in. Here in Nashville in the past two weeks we have faced a tornado that destroyed or disrupted many of our family and friend’s homes and businesses, and now the presence of COVID-19 which has now shut down all but essential business. While the storm is not over yet, we have seen love shown from friends and strangers.

In the midst of all of this heartbreak and turmoil is the search for gratitude.

If I stop for a moment I do not have to look far though… laughing on a group family text with those living in different parts of the country, having FaceTime tea with a friend that lives nearby since we cannot visit each other, waving and talking to the many people that walk our neighborhood, quick phone calls to family that are close, but that I cannot visit right now.

And also for the earth that I tend, and all the green things that are coming up in it. Gratitude for the seedlings that grow ever stronger that will be transferred to the earth soon, the “weeds” growing in my yard that I can put in my soup, the beautiful pink peach blossoms that are raining down in the breeze, the mockingbirds that have become friends.

Beyond the gratitude is a desire for action…

We had classes scheduled at The Spring House for the entire year; many of which are now on hold. I had hoped to eventually have some online offerings, and now suddenly we are launching into that without much preparation. Our first class will be April 4, 2020 at 7 pm CST on Facebook Live, called Gardening on the Edges. (This class is free. There are no gimmicks and nothing to sell.) This class won’t be fine tuned or polished, but we hope that it will encourage you to get your hands in the dirt. Our passion for everyone being able to grow their own food feels more important than ever. We hope you will join us.

The second endeavor we are launching is The Seed Revolution. This is not a business, but a movement about the power of a seed. It is about living locally, growing our own food, and learning to live life in community with each other and with the green world around us. We hope you will visit the site and become part of the revolution.

Peace & love, Robert & Joni McKeown (March 2020)

Living Wood

This is important stuff. Seriously.

Many people complain about fallen dead branches or wood after a windy day.  It just seems like one more thing to have to take care of in our busy life.  We pick them up and then have to figure out where to dispose of them.  But, did you ever consider viewing this wood as an important part of your own eco-system?

In permaculture there are some important principles about trying to produce no waste, and using what you have. Those dead branches and wood, instead of being viewed as a waste product, can actually be seen as a beneficial resource for your land and garden. We can use this wood to mimic a process that happens in the wild.  Let me explain how.

On the edge of our land is an old fencerow grown over with trees. Some of these trees are very old, some are younger, and some are even dead.  This area has long been neglected, and may look neglected still, but it is not.  It is an important part of our property that is now being tended. The invasive plants and vines growing there are slowly being removed, and replaced with natives. One thing that is not being removed, though, is the old dead trees and stumps (unless they pose a danger to our house of course) .

These dead trees and wood are important, and provide many benefits.  While they are still standing these dead trunks and branches are homes to the multitude of birds and creatures that live in this area.  Over time they slowly disintegrate and fall to the ground, adding to the rich humus, full of beneficial microorganisms, and other life, which form a complex system that we are only beginning to understand. 

The other fallen branches and wood that fall into the lawn area can be used for a similar purpose in our gardens.

Enter the hugelkultur.

Hugelkulturs, means “hill culture” in German.  It is a type of growing system that uses wood from trees, and other plant material.  The concept is very simple.  First, a pit is dug.  Then it is filled with logs and branches.  The dirt that is removed, is piled back on top of it, forming a mound that can be used for planting.  So simple, and yet so brilliant.

Traditional hugelkulturs are often very large, and sometimes even use freshly cut trees, including large logs.  For the average urban gardener, this is not really practical, because of space restrictions, but most importantly, because of the number of years that it takes the wood to break down, when it is put in the pits fresh or in large logs.  When made in this way, as the microorganisms break down the wood, there is often a period of time that the nitrogen is actually depleted from the soil, making it not ideal for growing things.

A simple solution for these problems is to use the dead and rotten branches naturally coming down from your trees.  (And if you don’t have trees, I promise you there are people in your neighborhood that would be happy to have you come pick up their branches.)  

When harvesting branches and wood, I try not to use the occasional branches that come down, that are still green, because of the length of time they take to decompose, and the nitrogen depletion they can cause.  This wood can be stacked and saved though. When you use dead and partially decomposed wood you avoid the nitrogen depletion problem.  (The more rotten the pieces are, the better.)

Once I have collected a sufficient quantity of wood for the hugelkultur, it is time to start digging.  I typically like to dig these beds in a crescent shape, and place them where water may naturally run off my property.  This serves a dual purpose, in that, in addition to being a growing space, the hugelkultur will also capture rain run off, keeping yet another resource on my land.

For a smaller bed, about 3’ x 6’, I dig down about 1-1 ½ ‘, and then lay the branches and wood in the pit, using a mixture of small and larger branches. Other plant material can be added including leaves, grass, etc.  Then just pile the soil back on top, making sure that the soil goes through the spaces to fill in well.  (Don’t compact it though.) Since the best time to create these is in the Fall or early Spring, I sometimes cover the hugelkultur with a layer of straw to protect the soil, and to add more nutrients.

The resulting garden bed will be a nutrient dense planting space, that will both nourish your plants, and also act like a sponge to hold water when it rains, meaning that this area likely will not need to be watered, even in hot conditions.  The beneficial microorganisms from the rotting wood will also inoculate your soil, increasing the biodiversity of your soil.

My favorite way to use these beds is to plant summer crops that will be there the whole season.  Those crops will grow and flourish[i], as you save time and money, since you will rarely have to water (if you need to water at all). You will also not be adding chlorine and other chemicals, to your garden, that are in your tap water. These spaces are also fertile enough to support being planted densely, thereby preventing weed growth, which saves you even more time and work.

So you see, those despised broken branches, falling from your trees, really are a treasure. It is truly living wood, that can save you time and work, by giving you more fertile and moist soil.

[i] We had one of the hottest summers on record in Nashville in 2019, and a mini-hugelkultur that I planted with tomatoes, never needed to be watered once. I also only needed to weed a couple of times through the entire season. The plants flourished and produced tomatoes all summer, and continued producing long after many of my neighbors tomato plants had stopped producing.  

The Light andThe Dark

The dark and the light. Thanksgiving is a day of dissonance. While many of us step away from the busyness of life to share a thankful meal with loved ones, there are others that know the truth of the day and mourn. 

Normally,, I try to focus on the things in life that grow, and that make the world a more joyful and beautiful place.  But joy and beauty must align with truth, and there is a beauty in sharing truth, since the world can become a better place because of it.

Like most Americans, I come from a mixed ancestry.  Almost two thirds of my great grandparents were born in different.  If you go back one more generation, there are only two branches of the family left that have been in the United States for any length of time. 

One of these lines encompasses a good bit of the history of New England, beginning in the early 1600’s.  While I am not aware of any Mayflower ancestors, mine weren’t far behind.  Some of those ancestors were founders of towns, governors, sea captains, preachers, and well-known military figures; many which have been honored with accolades for their deeds and accomplishments. (There are even statues of some of them.)  These people saw themselves as a “city of a hill”, a shining example of Puritan perfectionism.

It is this that is often celebrated on Thanksgiving.

I was one of the children that was dressed up at school with paper outfits to celebrate the “Pilgrims” and the “Indians” sharing a happy meal together.  History taught to children to perpetuate the myth.

The truth is a harder sell.  A story of the Europeans showing off their force with gunfire, and the indigenous people showing up to find what the problem was.  The feast was shared with suspicion, not thanksgiving.

The even darker truth is that these people on the hill, the ones that statues were carved for, were also the same people that stole the land from the First Nations people.  They were the ones that massacred whole villages of indigenous people: men, women and children.

I come from these people.  

I also come from the indigenous people here in America; the Seneca from what is now New York.  I also come from the Kalinago (Carib) people, and from the people of West Africa, who were likely brought by the sea captains engaging in the triangle trade who filled New England’s insatiable thirst for rum through the sale and labor of the enslaved people from Africa brought to the Caribbean.

I come from these people, too.

The predominate culture I grew up in, though, is that of the first group.  Yet both of these are my heritage.  The dissonance vibrates within my very cells, and still I carry on the values and often thoughtlessness of my own actions as a privileged white person.

I have a choice to ignore the difficult pieces of this, or I can feel the discomfort and try to educate myself, and be willing to hear when I am operating out of the predominate culture. I can have empathy with those whose history has been ignored, and stand with them on these difficult days. These are the small things that I can do, that we can do, to take this darkness and change it to light, one little revelation at a time.

So today, at your family gatherings, embrace those you love, remember those that you miss desperately, be thankful for all the good and the lovely that you have, bring light in to the world by bearing the truth, and remember those that are grieving.

Winter Garden Soup

Winter in Nashville is always like a slow waltz back and forth between fall and spring, with an occasion dash of winter. The days leading into this winter have been very different though, with more extreme weather events, both hot and cold.[i]

Throughout all of this I have been observing the plants that have survived these drastic temperature extremes, both the heat and the cold, since I believe that some of these plants are our future, as climate change begins to affect how we grow, eat, and live.

In addition to gardening differently, those of us who like to eat seasonally may find ourselves experimenting to create new recipes to accommodate the changing times when food is actually harvestable; blending ingredients that might normally be thought of as spring vegetables and herbs, with those that are normally harvested in the fall.

My typical way to make soup is to walk out in to the garden to see what is available.  Because of the weather, there are not many options in the garden right now, so it would have to be a little of this and a little of that. The soup would be a blend of what was available in my garden, and what has already been harvested and stored for the winter.  

Most of the plants in my garden had suffered damage from the hard frosts that we have had recently, so I only took small amounts from each of the surviving plants, so that they could continue growing.  (Plant conservation can apply to vegetables, too.) The ones that still offered their leafy greens for the soup were: spinach, escarole, and even a small amount of French sorrel, which we usually think of as a spring vegetable.  For herbs, I collected rosemary, thyme, and some luscious green parsley that, in spite of the weather, was flourishing.

Of the garden produce that had already been harvested and stored, I used grey shallots, garlic, and even some beets that I had canned during the summer. Then to round things out, a small cut of beef, some barley, and for a few added touches: Piment d’Espelette from France, balsamic vinegar from Italy, and bay leaves.

Then something else caught my eye, an ingredient that most of us in the US do not typically use: juniper berries.  Its piney and citrusy flavor seemed a complimenting flavor that would match the lemony spring taste of the French Sorrel. Juniper berries are harvested in the fall, and as you will see, it is perfect timing for when we need them.

Juniper (Juniperus communis [ii]) has a history in many countries of being hung outside to ward off evil spirits. The Scottish people, (one of the groups I am descended from) burned juniper to cleanse and consecrate their homes, as well as also hanging it outside their doors to ward off evil and disease.[iii]

Based on recent studies it is not surprising that juniper has historically been used for cleansing and against infectious disease, since it has been shown to have anti-bacterial, anti-microbial, and anti-fungal properties, as well as anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant properties.[iv]

(As an aside, juniper is also the herb that gives gin its distinctive flavor.)

The other herbs in my soup, though we usually think of them as just culinary herbs that bring flavor, also have medicinal uses.

Parsley (Petroselinum sativum) is a powerhouse of nutrients; full of vitamins, minerals, and many other things that our bodies need.  Although not necessarily its primary medicinal use, parsley also helps with digestion, as well as respiratory issues.[v]

In addition to its other uses, rosemary (formerly called Rosmarinus officinalis, and recently renamed Salvia rosmarinus) has antiseptic and healing properties, and helps with digestion.[vi]

Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) is also known to have antiseptic properties, and has been found to be affective against many infectious organisms. The Greek word “thymos” means strength.  Thyme can also have a calming affect on the nervous system.[vii]

It is believed that the reason that Thyme and Rosemary became tied to food preparation was that they were actually used by the Romans to help preserve food.  As we now understand how affective they are against various microbes and other detrimental organisms, we can see why.

All in all, with the things that I collected from the garden and had in the kitchen, I had the makings of a hardy soup for a cold day; one that was both nutritive and protecting, and that was a unique blend of spring and fall.  

While it simmered away, all that was needed for it to be perfect, was for my friends to finally arrive with the bread, and some gin and tonic.

Winter Garden Soup

¼ lb beef cut– diced into small squares
2-3 TBS cold-press olive oil
3-4 cloves grey shallots (or 2 red shallots) – chopped finely
2-3 cloves garlic – chopped finely
1 tsp juniper berries
4-6 sprigs fresh thyme
2-3 springs fresh rosemary
2 bay leaves
1 c. barley
2-3 c. various greens as available (spinach/escarole/French sorrel/Swiss chard)
dash Piment d’Espelette
2 TBS balsamic vinegar from Modena
2 TBS beets – canned (optional)
2 TBS canned beet liquid (optional)
3-4 TBS fresh parsley – finely chopped

Sautee beef in olive oil until slightly browned.  Add shallots and brown with the meat, then add the garlic and carrots, and sautee slightly longer.  (Be careful not burn the garlic.)

Tie the thyme and rosemary in a bundle with organic cotton cooking twine. Add about 6-8 cups water, the juniper berries, the herb bundle, and the bay leaves to the sautéed mixture.  

Chop the greens and parsley, and set aside.

Simmer the soup on low for 1-2 hours, preferably in a porcelain-glazed cast-iron pot for even heating.

About an hour before serving, cook the barley in a separate pan.

About 15 minutes before serving, add the greens, the Piment d’Espelette, the beets, the beet juice, and the balsamic vinegar.

About 5 minutes before serving, add the hot cooked barley.

Serve in bowls, and sprinkle the fresh parsley on top. Enjoy!

This information has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This article is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease, it is solely for educational purposes only.

[i] In less than 6 weeks we experienced an 82°F range of temperatures! October 3, 2018 had a high of 99°F (37°C) and November 13, 2019 the temperature had dipped to 17°F (-8°C).

[ii] Herb Society of America,

[iii] William Milliken and Sam Bridgewater, Flora Celtica: Plants and People In Scotland, Birlinn Ltd, 2004

[iv] Souravh Bais,Naresh Singh Gill,Nitan Rana, Shandeep Shandil, A Phytopharmacological Review on a Medicinal Plant: Juniperus communis, 2014,

[v] Matthew Wood, The Earthwise Herbal – Vol. 1, 2008, North Atlantic Books, Berkley

[vi] Matthew Wood, The Earthwise Herbal – Vol. 1, 2008, North Atlantic Books, Berkley

[vii] Matthew Wood, The Earthwise Herbal – Vol. 1, 2008, North Atlantic Books, Berkley

Second Blooms

We all love the explosion of purple in the spring as violets[i]welcome us to the warmer weather.  In the late spring and early summer we only see their dark green leaves flourishing, but did you know that they are blooming again?

Violets actually have two types of flowers… the ones you see beaconing to the bees to pollinate them, and then a second set that self-pollinate underground.  These flowers never open, and never come above the soil.  Often they are white, since they don’t need to attract pollinators, although sometimes they allow themselves the extravagance of a pale cast of purple.

The Greeks named these types of self-pollinating flowers kleistos gamos[ii], meaning “closed marriage”[iii] since they are self-pollinated.

Both types of flowers have advantages and disadvantage.  The above ground flowers produce seeds with more genetic diversity, since the pollinators share pollen from other plants, but they are dependent on pollinators and other factors that might hinder seed production. The underground flowers have the advantage of being able to produce seeds that are basically reproductions of the plant itself, which means that it is likely to survive in the environment that the plant is in.  They can also produce seeds in spite of environmental factors taking place above ground.  

We are much like these violets.  In the early part of our adulthood, we burst forth beautiful and glorious, for all the world to see, bringing forth new life with the innocence of violet blooms.  Yet, it is often later in life that our work grows deep, even though sometimes hidden. These sensual twilight flowers, perhaps less beautiful, are what ensure the continuation into the future of those things that are tried and true. It is they that carry the wisdom of the ages.  

[i]Dennis Horn and Tavia Cathcart, Wildflowers of Tennessee, the Ohio Valley, and the Southern Appalachians(Partners Publishing & The Tennessee Native Plant Society, 2018).

[ii]Alfred Ernest Knight and Edward Step Hutchinson, The Living Plant in Leaf, Flower, and Fruit: A Popular Book on Botany for the General Reader(University of Chicago, 1905).

Spring French Sorrel Soup

This delightful lemony soup, made from French sorrel, tastes like spring. Not only is this green plant (Rumex scutatus) nutritious, but it is also a perennial vegetable.

1 Kitchen garden 
(Alas if you don’t have one… go to the farmer’s market for the ingredients, but please, start a kitchen garden next year, so that you can have the true gastronomic experience of this dish.)

A few sprigs of fresh parsley
A few sprigs of thyme for seasoning
A few sprigs of blooming thyme for garnish
1 baby leek plant (or shallots)
1 large bunch of French sorrel (approx. 4+ cups when chopped)
3-4 cloves of garlic
A few nasturtium flowers (optional)

1 T olive oil
1 T butter (no margarine please!)
1 qt organic chicken stock
2 c. cooked quinoa [i]
2 hardboiled eggs, cut in half [ii]
Espelette pepper powder (or paprika)

Serves 2

French Sorrel

Go to the garden and clip off fresh sprigs of parsley and thyme. Pull up one baby leek that is not fully developed yet. Gather a large bunch of French sorrel. (If you gather these items barefooted in the shade of the evening, the happiness you feel will be absorbed into the soup.)

Wash and drain all the herbs, vegetables, and flowers. (Enjoy the feeling of the water running over your hands, and the sight of the beautiful greenness of it all.)Cut or tear the sorrel into large pieces and set aside. Chop parsley. Strip the leaves off the thyme stems (for seasoning). Trim the root off the leek and thinly slice the white and green parts of the leek. Chop the garlic very finely or use a garlic press. (Pause and look at the intricacy of the nasturtium blooms.) Pinch off the nasturtium stems and put aside.

In a deep frying pan or Dutch oven, gently warm up the butter and olive oil. Before it browns, add the thyme (prepared for seasoning) and the leeks, and cook until slightly browned. Then add the garlic and the sorrel together and cook briefly. Pour in the chicken stock and cook for 5 minutes.

Once the soup is finished, ladle it into large open bowls. (In a color that will compliment the soup of course.)Add a large spoon of quinoa into the soup on one side of the bowl. Garnish with parsley. (The sorrel will sadly have turned a shade of olive green, but sprinkling the fresh parley on top of the soup will bring your memory back to the beautiful shade of green that it was before cooking.) Add 2 egg halves to each bowl on the opposite side of the quinoa. Sprinkle the egg with the Espelette pepper powder and salt. Then garnish your soup with the blooming thyme and nasturtium. (You can also use the nasturtiums on a salad[iii] to go with it.)

Now that this meal is ready… pour yourself a nice glass of white wine from Alsace, to enjoy with this simple and delicious meal.

[i]Be sure to finishing cooking the quinoa before starting the soup.
[ii]Cook the eggs ahead of time.
[iii]We highly recommend a simple salad of lettuce, spinach, and salad burnet sprinkled with vinegar.

All rights reserved. © 2019 THE SPRING HOUSE

Of Tea & Compost

A few years ago I fell in love with loose-leaf tea.  Once you watch the leaves uncurl in the hot water, to happily sit in your cup while you drink it, you will never want to use a tea bag or strainer again.

And then there is the taste. Ahhh. Drinking traditionally grown and processed tea from the tea tree, Camellia sinensis, is unlike anything you will get in a teabag. The flavors of the different types are as complex and variable as different types of wine. 

The comparison to wine does not end there though.  Like grapevines, the tea tree is influenced by its terroir[i], which gives each area’s tea its own unique character.

I have some tea from ancient tea trees from the Ailao Mountains of Yunnan Province in China. Some of the trees in that area are over 1000 years old. Unlike commercially grown tea trees, these trees can grow over 50 feet tall in the lush, misty mountains.  

The tea tree roots spread out horizontally pulling the nutrients from the rich soil that they love to grow in.  Like other trees, their roots connect with each other and with other living things creating an underground network that allows them to access what they need beyond their own roots. Like all plants, their leaves have a respiration process, taking in the air around them and then returning it, changed in form. (Plants have the complete inverse of our own respiration process.) The trees gather everything around them to produce new growth and leave. A process that happens not only at the cellular level, but at the molecular level as well. Some people even believe that the trees take in the energy of the environment that they grow in – the beauty, tranquility, and wildness.

Eventually the tea leaves are harvested, and end up as a delicious cup of tea that I will enjoy drinking.  Not only experiencing the pleasure of the taste of the tea, but ingesting all that richness as well.

And what, you might ask, does all this have to do with compost?

When I am done enjoying my tea, like all other compostable organic materials at my house, the leaves will end up in my compost pile. With the help of microorganisms, earthworms, and other natural processes, the compost will eventually break down into rich humusy soil, which will provide nourishment for the plants growing in my own garden.

Those vital ingredients that the tea tree took from its environment, that then traveled half way around the world, are now broken down into another form to start the cycle over again. To nourish, to build, to grow. 

So, while it might look like dirt to you, it is really a little bit of magic in my garden[ii], from the misty mountains of China.

Peace & love,

[i]Terroir is the combination of environmental factors influencing plants, including the climate, the soil, and even the other living things growing nearby.

[ii] The next time you throw a banana peel into your own compost pile, remember that you are adding the magic that it brings from the country it came from.