linen dish cloth

When the countertops and cutting boards, the faucets and the sink are all wiped down with a good clean cloth, I’m quite content. Linen fibre is strongest when wet, so it makes an ideal dish cloth. I adore the texture and gloss of wet-spun linen, at once hardy plant fibre and fine silk, artless pastoral and opulence combined.

These cloths are a great little project to pick up and stitch when there are quieter moments in the day. All you need is some linen yarn and a crochet hook in your pocket, and the simple pattern, below.

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The qualities of linen

Like rustic clothing, the difference between store-bought and handmade is often its strength. They’re certainly not cheaper than the imported cotton dishcloths we can easily buy, but then they last so long, and please me so much. In using natural linen we sidestep destructive farming practices, pesticides and toxic dyes. There are even folks experimenting with local flax production, and you can grow it easily yourself! To demonstrate the wonderful process of transforming flax to gold, there’s a an old bit of Canadiana on the subject, too.

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Linen care

To care for these linen cloths, we just throw them in the wash as usual, cold or hot, with a drop of tea tree oil to kill any germs. I imagine it doesn’t get musty or stain as easily, but I might just take extra care to hang it to dry, because it’s handmade and beautiful. We hang them or lay them on a flat, waterproof surface like our countertops, and sometimes block them. Block them?

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Blocking is what you do to shape any knit, woven, crocheted piece, and is simply arranging it back into shape and allowing it to dry that way. You can get fancy with special pins and boards, if you were blocking pieces of a sweater before sewing it, so that it would fit perfectly together. But for the linen dish cloths, you’re just laying them flat while they’re wet or damp, and patting, pulling, shaping back to a square, then leaving them to dry. Shaping is ten-second task. No harm in skipping this part, either. It does please me to see them back in their fine shape.

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Theme and variation

Crocheting linen fibre makes these pieces a little bit rustic, a little bit ornate, and thoroughly handmade. I love to use these cloths to experiment with variation in crochet patterns.

Linen dish cloth pattern

I like to use a heavier linen yarn like Euroflax, and a 4.5mm hook – aim to have the hook larger than what’s called for, to get that open weave.

Chain 27 stitches, and work into them half-double-crochet, double crochet, or triple crochet, repeating until you have a square.

I like to stitch the rows in hdc, and then finish with a restrained ruffled edge: chain 6, slipstitch to attach at every 5th stitch, and repeat to the row’s end. Then work back with 6 or 7 double crochets around that loop you’ve made, just enough that the ruffle lies flat, working a slip stitch into the previous slipstitches. Tie it off very firmly. Rinse the piece and block it!

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Linen cloths make a nice accompaniment to a trusty stiff brush, and a stack of linen tea towels. Elegant tools make the work far easier, far more agreeable, I think. They encourage mindfulness in presence in everyday labours. We love these useful, perennial favourites.

linen-cloths-stacked

an illustrated guide to comfrey

One excellent way to become more self-reliant about improving soil fertility and the health of the homestead is to grow comfrey. Comfrey is a perennial herb, related to borage, also known as knit-bone or boneset…also known as a terrible weed. Amazing how terrible weeds like dandelion, nettle, comfrey, are actually so terribly good at taking care of our needs. Comfrey’s taproot plumbs the depths of the earth, bringing up more minerals and well-balanced goodness than a hen can poop. Certainly more than chemist could mix. Once you’ve got comfrey, you can just make more, for so many purposes.

dividing-comfrey

The dynamic accumulator

Comfrey’s deep taproot makes it a dynamic accumulator, so we plant it around our fruit trees to pull up nutrition from deep in the soil; then cut back the leaves from time to time (say, when they’re a couple of feet tall) to mulch the tree. Best to bury those leaves under some other mulch to retain all the nutrients. Their broad leaves shade the tree roots, too, thank you, and pollinators love the flowers.

The super-nutrient feed

We feed comfrey to our chickens, ducks and goats too. I cage smaller plants to keep them from getting browsed to death!

The fertiliser

We make a comfrey fertiliser to feed to other plants, as you would with nettle – simply cover with water, or not, put a lid on it, and allow to decompose til liquid. Then dilute to use. Smelly yet effective.

The healer

If anyone in my family shatters a bone again, boneset makes an excellent poultice. As a salve I swear by comfrey for aches and pains, it works extraordinarily well to reduce inflammation. A homesteader’s salve most definitely.

Make more comfrey

Now, we like to have plenty of comfrey plants, but one must tread the line carefully. Common comfrey will self-seed until there’s nothing in your garden but its offspring (unless you have goats to control it!) and once established, that root is determined to stay. On the other hand, Bocking 14 doesn’t self-seed very well, so it stays put – then if you want more comfrey, there’s nothing to do but dig it up and divide it.

Luckily, that’s easy. Have a look.

To propagate comfrey, dig up a healthy plant over a year old. Pull apart and even cut your root pieces, plant them just below the surface of the soil, and keep them watered til they are established. At the lakehouse, some creature regarded this as a root vegetable buffet, so it may be worth laying an old screen on top for a bit if you’ve got voracious squirrels or other root thieves lurking.

Then let everyone thrive on your useful weeds.

making traditional rhubarb soup

Kiiseli is a fruit soup from Finland that generations of my family grew up making. This family recipe is drawn from my mother’s best advice, her 1966 Finnish cookbook, a peek through my grandmother’s 1948 cookbook and a family friend’s 1933 cookbook. It’s a recipe you can easily grow in your own garden, too. With all that research, your kiisseli should make a fine old fashioned (yet gluten and dairy-free!) dessert.

kiisselli

The ingredients

We’re going to need:
1 litre water
750 grams chopped rhubarb
200 grams sugar or alternative, to taste
4 tbsp fine potato, tapioca or arrowroot flour

The method

Cook the rhubarb in the water for a short while til softened. Add sugar to taste. (I like to pop up the sweetness with a few drops of stevia, and drop the sugar.) My mother usually adds the strawberries when finished cooking to retain their freshly picked flavour. Dissolve potato flour in a small amount of cool water and then stir the solution very well into the rhubarb mix, heating til it just begins to boil. Take the soup off the heat, and sprinkle a little sugar on top to prevent a skin forming. Serve it cool.

Eating rhubarb soup with ice

Double cream or ice cream is gorgeous with kiiseli. In spring we love combining rhubarb & strawberries, or in the summer, blueberries & raspberries. I love to think of all my relatives, a long time ago, maybe on the farm in Finland, making kiiseli, eating it together round the table. We have pictures of our children as toddlers, painted with rhubarb soup.

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Fruit potager

Rhubarb and strawberries are both easy, early perennials to grow in a corner or pot somewhere, we have ours as a pretty understory to a fruit tree, white wisteria, marshmallow plants and hollyhocks. I look forward to the moment our rhubarb is tall enough to twist off stalks for rhubarb soup!

a short guide to foraging and preserving nettles

The old-timers would take bitters in early spring, and wild stinging nettles grow just at the moment when we really need some good greens. Nettle is good for all of us here on the farm, and can be used in many ways. In early spring we head out foraging.

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Harvest the nettles

The moment to forage stinging nettles for fresh eating and preserving is a dry day in early spring, while the tops are young and fresh. Heavy gloves, long trousers and sleeves and great respect for the plants are required. I keep a bit of calendula or comfrey salve to hand for stings. We like to use a pair of snips and a burlap sack, and we just cut the top few leaves, plenty of them as they dry down to very little! Then we take them home to preserve.

Preserve the nettles

To preserve the nettles, I shake them out onto a cookie tray (to keep from getting stung), put my oven on its lowest temperature with the fan on, and pull them out when crispy-dry. They should crush to a powder. Once dried or cooked the sting is removed, happily. Or, if you catch a good warm, dry day, you can lay them out on a clean sheet and turn them now and then til they are crisp. Fresh or dry, or a combination of both, you can make them into a nettle tincture.

Store the nettles

I love to have a store of dried nettle and tinctures put away for the year. As a tincture they store indefinitely. Fully dry in a glass jar they will keep for a lot longer than any of them ever last at our house, certainly past the brief autumn harvest and through to the following spring.

Use the nettles

A friend on a nearby farm harvested some nettles to provide me with mineral-rich tisanes as I was convalescing after an illness, and later on we gathered a huge batch together. Infusions full of minerals are just the thing to give me strength and are particularly good to help counter my iron-deficiency. You can make fresh nettle soup, pestos, ravioli too.

Nettles for flora and fauna

When the nettles are older they’re no longer safe for teas and soups, but they are excellent for making a liquid fertiliser for the garden – simply cover with water, put a lid on it, and allow to decompose til liquid. Then dilute to use. Goats love to eat nettles fresh, and our ducks and chickens like them if we crush them first to remove the sting. How great to create fertilisers and fodder from the wild larder! Closing the loop on fertility and feed is a huge step toward greater community-reliance.

dried-nettles

Foraging and preserving nettles for high-mineral wild infusions, medicinal tisanes, fertilisers and fresh eating is a very old, trusted practice. It feels good to continue it.

potager design

Each year I sketch the kitchen garden to picture what will live in the protected, somewhat rabbit-free potager and what can thrive outside it, integrated into the beautiful perennial garden along the lake. I learn more every year, happily. Last summer’s disaster of crashing tomato vines, at once productive (for the tomatoes) and destructive (for everything else) has led to this redesign.

potager-design

After much gazing through images of arches, bamboo sculptures, wires tensioned like bridges, and obelisks, I’ve made a plan. I hope to build traditional trellises, the tuteur, out of cedar. The obelisk is such an old fashioned feature of an English garden, and should lend my funny veg patch some order. See the circles in my drawing? There they are. I can grow peas up them early in the year, and tomatoes later on, benefitting from the nitrogen they’ll set. They ought to be very strong and very tall, and in place well before the vines are planted, quite in contrast to last summer’s toppling bamboo frames. They might be quite pretty through the winter, too. I like that the pyramid-shape will keep the tomatoes from shading out too much of the garden, though a wall of tomatoes is quite tempting.

Below the drawings I’ve listed all the plants that might do best in the potager, with some vague ideas about the shelling pea bushes giving way to pepper plants, to be replaced later on by kales or purple-sprouting-broccolis. Spinach or lettuce might like to live in the center of the wide obelisks in spring, to be shaded out by vining tomatoes by summer to give them a little more time. Beans will enjoy growing up the bamboo that live at the north end, or along the fence. There. That’s the idea.

In one section I’ll swap out a cucumber frame for coldframes, after harvest-time. I hope to keep a series of seedlings at the ready to plant into this space throughout the summer, and leave us with some plants that can weather our maritime winter.

I’m quite fond of dotted-graph paper for its subtle order, in which 1 square: 1 foot, loosely measured off of our unruly garden space.

First I’ve laid out a hose across the land to get some idea of how the new path will run, with modifications for the irrigation system. Oh right. Later I’ll toss down some wood shavings, then wood chips to mark off the path. For now I must move slowly, recovering from an illness, yet compelled by tiny seedlings appearing under the coldframes. Wish me luck with the tuteur construction!