Exploring ideas for affordable, sustainable, enjoyable living.

Something for Nothing; or, Your Friend the Dandelion (updated 6/10/13)

Depending where you live, your lawn is now, or soon will be, sparkling with a veritable galaxy of sunny dandelions.

Lucky you!

What we so often dismiss as a weed, the humble dandelion, is an herb of great generosity. And they are abundant and since few people know what a treasure they are, they won’t mind letting you harvest in their yard. I won’t delve into its many medicinal uses here, but suffice to say that all parts of the plant are useful and edible*–although if you’re a supertaster like me, you will find the roots and leaves horribly, unbearably, immediately-vomit-inducingly bitter.

From A proper dandelion has only one flower per stalk, with all the leaves at the base of the stalk.

From A proper dandelion (Taraxacum officinale is shown here) has only one flower per stalk, with all the leaves at the base of the stalk.

Three things about harvesting dandelions: (1) You want to find a field or yard that is not sprayed with chemicals, for obvious reasons. The further from a roadway the better too, since plants get covered with pollutants. (2) Don’t harvest all the dandelions! A good rule of thumb is to take only about 10% of them; but dandelions are forgiving and would probably let you take more. But remember, you want dandelions to come back next year, and they can’t do that if you don’t leave some flowers to turn into seed-heads. (Also you don’t get to later blow the seeds off and make a wish.) For some purposes (e.g., the infused oil I describe below), you can pick a couple dandelions a day and add them, if there aren’t a lot at one time. (3) Pretty much everyone knows what a dandelion looks like, but there are a few species with very similar looking flowers, so pay attention to the rest of the plant–while there are hundreds of species of dandelion, they all have a basal rosette of leaves and only one flower per stalk. The stalk is smooth, hollow, and oozes a milky white latex when broken. The leaves usually have a zigzag silhouette.

Among the many things you can make with dandelions are syrup, infused oil/salve, tea, tincture, and wine. Below are recipes for infused oil/salve and syrup:

Dandelion Infused Oil/Salve

  • Dandelion flowers
  • Oil (e.g., olive, coconut, sunflower, almond, jojoba)
  • Beeswax (for salve)

Dandelion oil is a soothing and warming liniment for sore muscles, helping them to relax and ease pent-up tension. It’s also a gorgeous yellow that makes you feel like you’re walking on sunshine.

Pick some dandelions and remove the stems (the green base of the flower is fine). Dandelions absorb and hold on to lots of moisture, so let them wilt/dry overnight. Put them in a jar and pour in enough oil to just cover the flowers; cover with a paper towel or cheesecloth and secure with a rubberband–you want air to be able to circulate. You’ll want to use an oil that is easily absorbed by the skin, such as good quality olive, coconut, almond, sunflower, or jojoba. Leave the jar in a sunny window for 4-6 weeks.

Alternatively, you can gently heat the oil and flowers in a bain marie (or a glass measuring cup in a pan of water) and let them simmer for a few hours. This is quicker, but heat can destroy essential nutrients in the flowers and the oil, so it’s not ideal.

Discard the oil if it develops mold or smells rancid. Letting the dandelions wilt beforehand helps prevent this.

Strain the flowers out using muslin or cheesecloth (or at least line a strainer with paper towel, though this method is sloooooow) and squeeze to get as much oil as possible. If you want to stop with an infused oil, you’re done!

To make a salve (same as a balm or ointment), you will add beeswax to the infused oil.

Heat the wax in a bain marie or your trusty cauldron measuring cup in a pan until liquefied. Add the dandelion oil, stir to blend, and remove from the heat right away. The usual ratio is 3 parts oil to 1 part beeswax, but you can vary this if you want a looser or firmer salve. If it turns out too hard, re-melt everything and add some more of whatever oil you used. If it’s too thick, re-melt and add a little more beeswax.

Pour into containers (glass jars or tins work best–any plastic that could melt in contact with hot liquid is right out) and allow to cool.

Dandelion Syrup

  • 1 part dandelion flowers
  • 1 part sweetener (sugar or honey)
  • Lemon juice (optional)
  • Water

Again you’ll be removing the stems from the dandelions.

Place in a pan with water that you consider potable–i.e., filtered, if your tap water is nasty–and bring to the boil.

Turn off the heat, cover, and allow to steep overnight.

Strain the dandelions out using cheesecloth or muslin, and squeeze it to get all the dandelion water you can.

At this point, you can add a little lemon juice to taste if you like. Heat the water back up and add the sweetener. Remember, the sweetener is a preservative–so even if you want to cut calories you need to have roughly one part sugar to one part dandelion water.

Allow to simmer over a very low flame until reaching desired thickness (remember that while it’s hot, the syrup will be thinner, so test by dripping some onto a fridge-chilled plate).

Enjoy on waffles or pancakes, or diluted in still or sparkling water.


*EDIT 10 June 2013: Regarding the nutritional properties of the dandelion, and further reason to incorporate them into your diet and/or pharmacopeia, this recent article from The New York Times points out that dandelions have 7 times more phytonutrients than spinach, which we consider a “superfood.”

My dog Shermie enjoys the dandelions.

My dog Shermie enjoys the dandelions.

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Permaculture Principles and Home Economics, Part III

And we’re back, with permaculture principles #7-12!

7. Design from patterns to details.  We don’t have to constantly reinvent the wheel; nature and people are full of patterns that can be templates for things we want to build or do.  And our predecessors usually worked out the kinks, making it that much easier for us. Also, figuring out what you need to accomplish first helps keep you from getting distracted by picayune details. Accordingly, permaculture farms and gardens are laid out in ways that replicate the features of specific natural ecosystems, chosen as appropriate for local conditions.

8. Integrate rather than segregate.  I think this could just be the most important principle of all, because it overlaps so many others.  Every element in your home ecosystem, from the furniture to the people, should accomplish more than one purpose, and each should help the other elements accomplish their purposes as well.  What we are talking about here are mutually supportive relationships among all elements.  Such relationships–whether among the beams of a reciprocating roof, the members of a family, or a community of plants–mean that each individual part bears less weight, less responsibility.  When you observe nature’s patterns (as in Principle #7), you will see that the whole pattern is greater than the sum of its parts.  Each organism or structure fulfills multiple roles but also assists every other part.  Beautiful!

For example, chickens.  Chickens lay eggs, they can be eaten, their poop is fertilizer, and they eat garden pests and kitchen scraps, thus reducing waste and enhancing food production.  When they die, their remains can be composted to nourish more plants.  Plus, they can be sweet little birdy friends!  Though in that case you might not want to eat them. Anyway, unless you eat an enormous amount of eggs or have a huge family, two or three hens are all you need, and they can live in an urban backyard (depending on zoning laws, that is).

Chances are, many things in your home are already doing at least double duty.  But this principle also requires that we see our actions in terms of a larger context, so that our actions are conscious and meaningful.

9. Use small and slow solutions.  Big is harder to maintain; fast is likely to burn out.  As Joel Salatin describes in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a hundred years ago a farmer could comfortably support a large family and a bunch of livestock on relatively few acres.  Now, that farmer’s great-grandchild can barely support a family of three or four even with more land and higher-yield crop varieties.  The desire for bigger fruits and higher yields (and of course, bigger profits for companies that sell fertilizer and seed, and now GMOs) led to decisions that seemed clever in the short-term but have proven to be unsustainable over time.  America now produces so much corn that we literally do not know what to do with it all, yet individual farmers keep growing more and more in an attempt to just break even.

The home economy too needs to be sustainable.  When first attempting to budget or grow vegetables, patience is necessary before we start to reap real rewards; but in the long run, small-scale systems are easier to maintain than big ones.  A simple example of this is cleaning–if I do a few little chores every day, keeping the house clean is manageable and not too awful. But when I let it build up, even though I mean to do a super-fantastic scrub-the-baseboards-with-a-toothbrush spring cleaning, I wear myself out before I’ve finished two rooms.

It is also worth remembering that our home ecosystem is part of an even larger system, and every choice we make about how to feed, clothe, or house our family affects people and animals we’ll never meet.  Make no mistake, small actions can still have huge effects.

10. Use and value diversity. Remember how I said that the availability of any resource will fluctuate?  This is why they say you shouldn’t put all your eggs in one basket.

I should have known this would all come back to chocolate.  I’ve been experimenting with different brownie recipes, and have realized that flexibility is key in choosing the right recipe.  Last week when I made brownies, I used up the last of my cocoa powder, and the local market doesn’t carry it.  But they do carry baker’s chocolate, so the next time I made brownies, I used only baker’s chocolate.  The recipe I was using called for unsweetened chocolate plus a lot of sugar, but I didn’t have enough sugar so I used some unsweetened and some semisweet chocolate.  My point here is that if you have the elements of your home ecosystem each fulfilling multiple roles, and a flexible recipe, you can always have brownies.

11. Use edges and value the marginal.  Anthropologically speaking, humans have always preferred living in ecotones (zones where two or more habitats meet).  These are the places with the greatest variety of resources (and as we just saw with Principle #10, variety is a good thing).  I love the proverb that permaculturalists use to sum up this principle:  “Don’t think you are on the right track just because it’s a well-beaten path.”  The best way forward may be the road less traveled.

There are other ways in which we can apply this principle.  For example, consider buying store generic brands or cereal in a bag instead of the big name brands.  These brands may be “marginal” in terms of their packaging and advertising, but in many cases they’re just as good and a whole lot cheaper. Alternatively, consider shopping at ethnic markets where you can sometimes find amazing bargains.  This week at our local Mexican grocery, tangerines were 3 lbs for 99 cents, and potatoes were 10 lbs for $2!

Another reflection of this principle is the adage that one should shop around the edges of the grocery store and stay away from the processed foods that tend to be stocked in the middle aisles.

My favorite application of this idea is making my own stuff.  I make most of my cleaning and personal grooming products myself. Some people I know say this is hippy weirdness. Even more think anything I make myself must be somehow unsanitary or sub-par at best. But when I think of (a) how much money I am saving and (b) how much more effective I find most of my DIY products to be, I just have to laugh at the naysayers.  I’m laughing all the way to the bank. (I will post some ideas and recipes for making your own stuff later.)

12. Creatively use and respond to change.  Quoth Scotland’s most famous poet, Robert Burns:

“But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!”

(The poem is “To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough, November, 1785.”) Changes are inevitable, but if you’ve been observing your situation as per Principle #1, you can see many changes coming and roll with them.  They can become opportunities as well as being challenges.

In concrete, mundane terms, one example of this is that in my attempts to save money, I discovered that having a budget wasn’t enough. In fact, by itself it really didn’t help at all. I started keeping a household account book and that helped immensely, but still wasn’t enough. Just last month I started keeping a monthly list of unforeseen expenses. One of the reasons I had so much difficulty sticking to my budget is that when unforeseen stuff came up (most recently, my car died and needs to be replaced) it would totally wreck my plan. Lest my budgeting gang agley as it has so many times before, I need to keep a record of this simply as a reminder to myself that I don’t have as much left in the bank as I normally would, but more importantly, to gain a concrete idea of how much I need to have saved in the emergency piggy bank from month to month.

Last but not least, this principle is about having a vision for the future. For my home, I am using these very permaculture principles to help forecast changes and guide my decisions long-term, so that my home economy isn’t just a matter of balancing a checkbook.  It actually becomes fun as well as being socially meaningful action.

If you’ve read along this far, I hope you’ve enjoyed it and found it useful!

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Permaculture Principles and Home Economics, Part II

In order to see how permaculture principles can help in the home, you first have to imagine your home as an ecosystem.  The yard and the building with its furniture is the terrain.  The people, pets, and garden plants are the native species.  The local climate (including heating and air conditioning) is, well, the local climate.  How will you use your resources to sustainably meet your needs and thrive?

I will be looking at each of the 12 permaculture design principles to see how they can help us make the most of our little ecosystems.  Remember, too, that these principles can be applied both literally and metaphorically.  I find that thinking metaphorically about them allows me to make more creative leaps and come up with literal ways to apply them.  For each of the following principles, think of the specific needs of your home ecosystem, and be creative about how you can apply these ideas.  It’s fun!

1. Observe and interact.  Figure out what your specific needs and resources are. Your system needs to be designed to suit these needs, no one else’s.  There is no one-size-fits-all solution, and inevitably some trial and error will be necessary to find the way that works best for you.

Recently I went on Pinterest to try to find some good money saving tips and tricks.  And generally I find Pinterest to be like a Willy Wonka chocolate factory of clever ideas waiting to be plucked and tasted, but when it comes to saving money on groceries…eh, not so much.  What I found was that most of it was either not applicable to me or I had already figured it out because it was just common sense.  The reason I had figured many of the techniques out is that I have already been observing and experimenting for the last nine months.  For me, the best way to observe has been rigorous household accounting.

Oh and incidentally, reading and doing research on the internet does count as observation!

2. Catch and store energy.  The availability of resources (money, free time, good gardening weather, pasture-raised chicken eggs at the grocery store…)  is always fluctuating.  When resources are abundant, save some for the lean times.

One of the Pinterest tips that I will be implementing is making things like brownie and cake mixes.  These are things I never buy because they are full of ingredients that scare me and are grossly overpriced, so when I want brownies I have to make ’em from scratch.  Which is fine, enjoyable even, but time is a limited resource.  When time is abundant, I can pre-assemble the dry ingredients and store them for later; then when I’m short on time, I can make delicious dessert quickly and easily.  Another way to apply this principle is of course to buy in bulk, which will usually save you money in the short term as well, but how much you can do this depends on how much storage space you have available.  Making your own jam is ridiculously easy and can save you money if you do it when fruit is in season and on sale, plus you can make your own custom flavors.

And of course–if you own your own home and have the capital to invest in solar panels, rain barrels, and so on–what are you waiting for?  Store that stuff!

3. Obtain a yield.  This might seem so obvious that it doesn’t need saying, but in order for the system to work, you need a quick and continuous return on your efforts so that the system can self-perpetuate.  After all, a big payoff down the road is great, but you have to live to see that day.

4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback.  As I said with Principle 1, you have to do what works for you, but one thing I’m pretty sure is universal in the home economy is the need to (a) budget and (b) keep rigorous accounts.  In order to evaluate whether your methods are working, you have to be able to observe the changes so you can immediately stop what isn’t working and maximize whatever is.  You must stick with this, because sometimes the results aren’t immediately apparent.  It has taken me 9 months to really catch the patterns in my spending behavior and to figure out what records I need to keep.

And another thing–Mother Nature has no mercy, and neither should you.  If there aren’t enough resources to support an organism, it will die, and you have to be equally ruthless toward any activity or spending that is not working.  Sometimes, alas, this means going without.

5. Use and value renewable resources and services.  This principle seems so easy, but I find it’s one of the most difficult ones to apply.  When you live in an urban environment, you are just swamped with non-renewable and non-degradable materials and energies, and not many of us have the capital to renovate and old house or build a new passive solar one.  So I am of the opinion that every little bit helps.

In some states, you can opt to have all or part of your electricity sourced from wind.  In my area, every year each household receives a voucher for a free tree from a local nursery, the idea being to create more shade and reduce A/C usage.

6. Produce no waste.  Waste is a sign that resources are not being used efficiently, so the more waste you’ve got, the less efficient you are.  Quite simply, the number one way to reduce waste is to reduce consumption.

One thing that helps a lot here is meal planning.  If you plan your meals week by week, and make grocery lists from those plans, you can dramatically reduce the amount of food that will go to waste.

And there are other practices which will at least diminish your waste.  If you are reducing, reusing, and recycling, you will already have reduced the amount of garbage you produce significantly. You can also start composting.  When I first started looking into composting I was discouraged, because I lived in an apartment and didn’t have my own yard where I could make a compost pile.  Solution:  worm composting in a bin under the sink.  I was amazed how much of my kitchen trash those worms gobbled up (everything except oils/fats, meat and dairy, and citrus and onions, though they happily eat onion skins), and they gave me lovely fertile worm castings in return.  They also reproduce very fast, and then gobble exponentially more.  And no, it doesn’t stink at all.  Now, your kitchen waste will eventually biodegrade in a landfill, but this way you get to directly benefit from that biodegradation, saving money on fertilizer and even groceries, if you’re growing some of your own food, and saving space in the landfill.

My big bugaboo is the amount of unnecessary packaging material we’re surrounded by (and forced to dispose of)–most of it made from plastic, which comes from petroleum, which is of course a non-renewable resource.  Every time I use a ziploc bag I die a little inside.  Happily, reusing packaging materials is a topic on which the internet is overflowing with wonderful ideas.  There will of course come a day when all your sodas and household cleaners and pencils are neatly organized and stored and you can’t think of any further use for leftover tin cans, shoeboxes, or those little plastic bread clip thingies.  But I bet that day is a lot further down the line than you think.  Almost any glass container is worth saving and reusing.  At the very least, you’ll feel pretty awesome knowing how smart and creative you’ve been.

You will not be able to completely eliminate waste until you completely eliminate consumption, and at that point you’ll be totally self-sufficient–which is an excellent goal but admittedly difficult for the urban Homo sapiens.  But we can all do our best.    I’ll come back to the issue of waste in Principle #8.

Next time:  Principles #7-12!


Permaculture Principles and Home Economics, Part I

For a long time now I’ve been obsessed with permaculture (from permanent + agriculture).  In a nutshell, permaculture is a way to radically change humans’ relationship to the environment so that we can survive and thrive without destroying our fellow earthlings or the planet.  In other words, it’s about sustainability.  It demands simple yet profound changes in the ways we produce our food.

A brief survey of history and archaeology makes it glaringly obvious that agriculture has not been an unmitigated blessing to humanity–in recent times we have been confronted with dilemmas (in some cases catastrophes) directly resultant from our food production systems, including but not limited to:  contaminated meat, massive bee die-off, pesticide toxicity, herbicide-resistant super-weeds, greenhouse gases, boys growing breasts, the demise of the family farm, and soil erosion.  And there are moral quandaries, such as the marginalization of hunter-gatherers, unequal access to food and the means to make it, and shockingly inhumane treatment of animals.  We (should) have also learned that humans don’t always make the best decisions when it comes to the way we consume food–even where it is abundant we end up malnourished and obese at the same time.

Permaculture offers solutions to these problems.  Its methods are guided by a three-fold ethical foundation–earth care, people care, fair share–and 12 design principles.

You don’t have to be a farmer or go back to a Stone Age lifestyle to benefit from the principles of permaculture.  They are guidelines for sutainability in most, if not all, aspects of our lives.  So call me a dirty hippy, but I have this crazy dream of putting them to use in my home and saving money too.

I admit I still haven’t figured out exactly how this is going to work.  But stick with me for Parts II and III, where I will look at each principle in detail and see how we can work with it in the home environment.

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Free Fitness Logs

There are many great online resources for diet and exercise tracking.  I’ve been exploring some of the free ones, and thought I’d share my reviews.

For GPS tracking of my outdoor workouts, I’ve been really happy with the CardioTrainer smartphone app.  It provides real-time data on steps, speed, distance, calories burned, plots my route on a nice street map, and would apparently integrate with my in-phone music library (if I had one).  I was much less impressed with the affiliated Noom application for diet tracking.  It would be great for anyone who wants to characterize a meal by size (small, medium, large) and color (green for healthy, red for unhealthy, yellow for in-between), but I found that to be far too subjective to be useful.

My new favorite online food diary is  It also has downloadable smartphone apps that work seamlessly with the main website.   The database for the food diary is extensive, and it is also simple to add your own foods or quickly log calories only.  The fitness tracker is equally efficient:  just tell it what you did and for how long, and it calculates your calories burned.  There are also handy tools, a blog, and message boards to help keep you on track.  The best part, however, is the instant gratification I get when I log my exercise and it immediately increases my daily limit for food calories by the amount that I just burned.  Bring on the cheesecake!  😉

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