Medicinal Herb Gardening, Problems with Chickens and an Organic Vegetable Garden

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Hardy medicinal herbs like echinacea grow well with very little water.

The story of our California farm -apart from our adventures with goats, which I’ve already recounted in the September/October 1973 issue of MOTHER EARTH NEWS- is sort of strange. When we moved here we had high hopes of raising organic vegetables and eggs, but the results of five years’ work have to be grinned at and accepted as part of the learning of a new way of life.

First, the nesting chicken report: My hen count is exactly four, and eggs are down to maybe one a day. One bird is setting and another spells her at times, yet between them they’ve broken two eggs with chicks half formed inside and two more have rotted and messed up the nest something terrible. Ever changed the straw in a box with a mad mama in it? Just try to get her out and the minute she does move the other dashes on. I leave them alone now and hope they work it out all right. Which one will get custody of any chick that’s hardy enough to survive? All I can do is laugh and feed the poultry the best I know how.

Like the goats, the birds get apple cider vinegar at times, especially the babies, because the acid really gives them a boost and feathers them out much faster. I learned this with a batch of Leghorn-Cornish crosses I got as chicks. Unfortunately, only one survived a cat and a chicken-stealing dog.

Then there’s the garden, a rather sad story. (I’ve got great gobs to learn.) We have three years’ worth of goat manure and hay leavings in the half acre we set aside for organic vegetable gardening, and the crops grow well and taste fantastic. I could sell all I produce.

The main trouble is water. We get less than 20 inches of rain a year -all at once- and our tiny well was meant for household use only. Everyone who’s lived here before has had to have water trucked in at the peak of the dry season (June through November).

We rent cheap and have no money to drill a new well. The owners of the place couldn’t care less what we do, but we have to pay for any improvements we want, and that’s that. Their indifference is a blessing and a curse all in one. With conditions as they are, you can see why I latched on to organic gardening right away. The mulch and the naturally enriched soil give me the only help I get. There’s no other way to farm here, even if I wanted to. I often have to remind myself that I’m doing a marvelous job just keeping plants alive, let alone thriving, without water.

Still, I had a brainstorm this last year that may help. My fresh and dried herbs have been selling better and better, and since my introduction to folk medicine I’ve read a lot about their use for health as well as for seasoning. The medicinal herb business seems well suited to our water supply and market, so it looks as if we’ll have a cash crop after all. Then the bulk of the water can go for such vegetables as will fill the freezer.

Accordingly, I’m writing here and there for seeds and stocks of the hard-to-find, old-time medicinal plants. I’d give a lot for an old black cherry tree – the wild kind – or even for the stones of its fruit.

In any event, this is the life I feel called to and now that I’m on speaking terms with Nature the game seems to be all hanging on and learning what she has to teach. She’s a hard taskmistress and her lessons can be more bitter than it seems possible to take, but those who endure and learn to the end will find true contentment.