The Extreme Gardener

Experiments in permaculture and
other gardening adventures in northeastern Vermont

Archive for ‘Alchemy and ayurveda’ category

Annapurna

Saturday, December 6th, 2014

Albert Einstein said that god does not play dice; however, the Hindu gods and goddesses do…

In their abode, high on Mt. Meru, Shiva and his consort Parvati were fond of playing dice with each other. One day they decided to liven it up with a little bet. Shiva bet his trident against some of Parvati’s jewels. Shiva lost, and then bet his tiger skin to win the trident back.. and he lost again. He bet his malas… and lost. He bet his cobra, his drum, his begging bowl… and lost them all. Parvati won all the throws of the dice and Shiva lost everything he had. Naked and humiliated, he fled into the forest in a huff.

Vishnu happened to be in the forest and saw Shiva in an utterly dejected state, and asked him what was wrong. Shiva told him, and Vishnu said, “No problem, I’ll load the dice so that you will win everything back.”

So Shiva went back to play dice again with Parvati. With every throw, the dice fell in his favor and he won all his stuff back item by item. Parvati, however, had became very suspicious of such consistent “luck”, and she called him a cheat. “Indrajala (magic) is not fair. That is sooo lame!”

Then they had a very vigorous conversation that went something like this:

Shiva confessed to having Vishnu’s magical assistance, but said that it wasn’t really cheating, because the whole universe is just an illusion (maya) anyway, and possessions are transient, and the ultimate truth is we’re all one, so what’s the difference?

Parvati said, “Of course, so why did you run away with your tail between your legs when you lost all your stuff in the game?”

Shiva sheepishly said, “I just needed some time out. Anyway, the only thing that really matters is to seek moksha.” (liberation from maya, the illusion). “All this maya stuff just gets in the way, it’s nothing but a distraction.” (Parvati represents maya) “See how you, Parvati, spend so much time worrying about silly things like clothes and food and…”

Parvati was not impressed by Shiva’s philosophizing. “So I’m a distraction, an illusion, am I? Take your magic dice and go play with yourself in the forest. I’m out of here, and I’m taking all the food with me. Go sit and meditate on that!” With that Parvati vanished, and everything edible in the world vanished with her.

Soon all the world was suffering from hunger. Even the most austere yogis sitting out in the woods were having trouble meditating.

An apologetic Shiva humbly cried out to Parvati to come back into the world. Parvati was moved by his contrition, and also by the suffering she saw caused by hunger everywhere. She returned to the earth, bringing grain to eat and seeds to plant, which she freely gave to all. Shiva came to her with his empty begging bowl, which she filled with delicious porridge. He then gave her the name Annapurna.

Anna means food or grain, and purna means full, complete.

Annapurna carries a serving spoon and a pot of food. It is not a big pot, but it always has enough for everyone, and the porridge she serves is delectable, completely satisfying and health giving. She provides bodily sustenance easily so that we need not worry constantly about having enough food to eat; and with our physical needs met, we can meditate, and ponder about, and enjoy the illusion we walk within.

Our gardens and this website are dedicated to Annapurna. Whenever we go to the gardens with our begging bowls, she fills them with just what we need for nourishment, delight and wonder.

Getting lunar in the garden

Friday, February 28th, 2014

The comment from keshavapuri was “tell us about ekadashi and trayodashi in sasya yoga.” This needs more than just a comment reply, so here’s a full post. Thanks for the question, keshavapuri!

Ekadashi (eleventh day) and trayodashi (thirteenth day) are tithis (lunar days).

In vedic astronomy and astrology the month/lunar cycle is divided first in half: Krishna paksha (waning moon) and Shukla paksha (waxing moon); then each half is divided into 15 divisions (tithis). Each tithi is calculated according to the angle between the sun and moon in increments of 12 degrees.

Ekadashi and trayodashi occur twice a month and are significant as preparation points for amavasya (new moon, 15th day of Krishna paksha) and purnima (full moon, 15th day of shukla paksha) .

I must confess that I am fluent in western astrology, but not so much in vedic. Still, if you know how to work with lunar cycles, the translation is not too much of a problem.

Fundamentally all processes (cycles) can be broken down into two parts, as we say in the western alchemical tradition, solve/coagula – dissolve/coagulate, breaking down and building up. This corresponds with the lunar cycle’s waning and waxing moon.

In the garden, very roughly, the moon’s waning phase (Krishna paksha) favors “solve” activities, ie getting rid of what is not wanted, such as weeding, pest control, pruning, etc. The waxing phase (shukla pahsha) favors “coagula”, ie nurturing activities, sowing seed, watering, and feeding.

The smaller cycle of tithis refines our understanding of and our ability to work with the lunar cycle. New and full moon, the 15th and 30th tithis, have energies that can be problematic – it’s easy to get swept up in karmic vortexes at these points in the cycle, and what occurs on these tithis sets energies in motion for the following cycles. One way to steady and direct these energies is to prepare for them when the energies are easier to guide. So, ekadashi (about four days before new and full Moon) and trayadashi (about two days before new and full moon) are auspicious times for this preparation.

On ekadashi, we work with the solve aspect of preparation – we identify and remove what is not wanted. On trayadashi, we identify and nurture what we do want. Traditionally ekadashi is associated with fasting and meditating, and trayadashi with celebration.

In terms of physical tasks, for instance, for making compost, on ekadashi before new moon would be a good time to clear the space for the pile, and segregate and chop up materials, then on trayadashi before new moon, you would then assemble the pile. Ekadashi before full moon would be a good time to weed around plants in preparation for spreading compost, then on trayadashi before full moon, you would side dress your plants with compost.

But probably more effective than trying to physically perform all the preparation tasks that you might wish to get done on a particular tithi is to take time during the tithi to meditate on these tasks, and what you are trying to accomplish. With the tithi supporting your efforts, even a small amount of mantra and meditation can have strong effects, and lead to some very interesting insights.

I don’t really spend much time trying to schedule my gardening activities according to the lunar cycle – there’s too much to do in too short a time in our very short growing season. Still, as an astrologer, I am quite conscious of lunar, solar and planetary cycles and often notice how my gardening activities coincide with them anyway…

Sasya yoga

Sunday, August 11th, 2013


In Sanskrit, sasya means “plant”. As a tantric yogi, my particular path involves a life style in which I engage intimately with the natural world, particularly the plant kingdom…

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Three ayurvedic herbs for cold climates

Tuesday, April 2nd, 2013

For many years I tended to ignore the tropics as a source of plant material for our gardens, and cast my eyes towards cold places like northern Europe and Siberia with climates like ours. Plants that can acclimate and be naturalized here have long been my primary fascination; but, let’s face it, what would a gardener’s life be without melons, squash, tomatoes, peppers, corn, beans and so on – all of which require (here, at least) the hand of a gardener to grow and to propagate.

The question becomes how much energy, space, time and treasure does any particular plant require, and is what you get out of it worth the input? I am quite willing to start peppers and tomatoes early on a kitchen window sill and hand-pollinate squashes. They’re definitely worth that much to me, but, for instance, I wouldn’t go so far as to buy plastic mulch, build hoop houses, etc, at least not at this point in time. This is all to say that I am quite delineated about how much space, time, energy and treasure I am willing to allocate for a given plant.

Tomatoes and peppers were originally perennials from the lower latitudes, but we have adapted them to grow as annuals and be productive nearly all over the globe. So, from that perspective, there are no doubt other valuable tropical plants that can acclimate to our gardens, even in northern Vermont, without too much fuss.

Ashwaganda (Withania somnifera)

Ashwaganda roots

A few years back I started hearing about gardeners in similarly cool climates growing herbs from India, particularly ashwaganda and tulsi, so we cautiously trialed some. We’ve had significant success with three of the primary ingredients for chyawanprash, which is now part of our daily diet, and consider these permanent members of our plant menagerie.

Ashwaganda is a perennial nightshade, a relative of peppers and tomatoes, and is grown pretty much on the same schedule – here it must be started early indoors and transplanted out after danger of frost is past. It is more frost tolerant, likes drier conditions and requires less fertility compared to tomatoes and peppers.

We use the root dried and in chyawanprash, and were thrilled last season when, out of the 18 plants we had growing, one set fruit, and viable seed. None of the others showed any sign of even flowering, so this was exciting and promising for it to adapt as an annual here, maybe even to naturalize (though I do not know how freeze tolerant the seeds are). Now we are growing out the seed from this very early individual, and expect to develop our own short season strain. On trial for this season we also have a strain from Africa purported to have high vigor, so maybe it will throw some early fruits, too.

A young tulsi plant

Tulsi, or holy basil (Ocimum sanctum) is simply a lovely plant to have around, never mind that, like ashwaganda, it is an adaptogenic herb. In its native India, it is perennial and grows big enough for the stalks to be made into mala beads. It is ubiquitous at the entrances of homes and temples. Its fragrance is strong and uplifting.

A tulsi mala. (Tail of Arjuna the cat in the background.)

Although I have long grown numerous types of culinary basils, I never was able to get a good seed set from any of them, and I assumed that basils in general were all as cold sensitive as Ocimum basilicum, which is even more cold sensitive than melons. I had resigned to having to buy seed for basil, and I never tried tulsi, figuring it would be even less cold tolerant than its cousins.

A visitor gifted us with a plant one season, and I was pleasantly surprised. When the more familiar annual basils bloom and go to seed, which they are apt to do here prematurely from cold stress, it’s all over. The energy withdraws from the foliage, and the plants decline quickly, becoming an illustration of the term “gone to seed” used as a negative description. Tulsi sustains blooming and seed set, and continues to make new leaves and stalks. It dosn’t blacken at the slightest touch of frost either.

Tulsi actually sets seed well,
despite our short growing season.

Since we can get seed reliably from it, and grow it as an annual, it’s actually a sustainable plant here. I sow it about 4 weeks before the last frost, the same as the other basils, and set them out into warm soil. Because we don’t have a greenhouse or cold frame, window sill space for growing transplants is at a premium. I discovered that all the basils do very well sowing fairly thickly into 2 inch pots, and leaving a dozen or so seedlings in each pot. While it’s not as ideal as sowing into plugs or something like that, the seedlings do fine as long as they are transplanted fairly promptly when the time is right.

i

Brahmi in its winter quarters.

Our third import from India is brahmi, Bacopa monnieri. It is similar in some ways to another herb from India that I have had a great interest in, gotu kola (Centella asiatica). They both have been used medicinally to support healthy brain function, and both are swamp plants. I didn’t know of brahmi until recently, but had tried several times to grow gotu kola without success. I like using gotu kola enough that I was willing to pamper it as a houseplant, but it was impossible to keep the surrounding air humid enough for it, even in a terrarium.

Brahmi, on the other hand, is perfectly happy as long as its feet are wet. It summers in a pot set into a wet garden bed, where it spreads rampantly. In the fall, a piece can be put in a 4 inch pot to winter over on a kitchen window sill, as long as the pot is kept wet. Just that much is quite adequate for two people to nibble off daily sprigs throughout the winter, and have a good sized plant to set out in the warm weather. Brahmi is perennial in India. We have gotten some flowering but I’m not sure about seed set – the seed capsules are tiny, and while some capsules formed, I could not tell if they any had viable seed, and I haven’t yet noticed any volunteers. That’s OK, though – it roots so easily there’s no need to bother with seed.

Chyawanprash, Vermont style

Saturday, October 6th, 2012

Cooking chyawanprash

Reducing the chyawanprash to a thick paste.

Last winter we decided to attempt a home-grown version of what is possibly the oldest recipe in the world – chyawanprash. “Prash” means jam, and Chyawan was an ancient Indian yogi, as the legend goes, from 10,000 years ago. Yes, four zeroes there, and don’t laugh. Increasing evidence is being found of large sophisticated urban areas that now lie underwater off India’s coasts. They may very well date back to the last Ice Age, before sea levels rose as the great glaciers melted.

But, I digress. Chyawan was getting on in years, and was given a young bride in marriage. A pair of herbalists concocted a rasayana, a blend of herbs in a fruit base to rejuvenate him so that he would be a suitable companion for a young woman.

Chyawanprash is a staple condiment in India, and the most popular ayurvedic product in the world. At first I was very skeptical about jam that cost around $15 a pound, but we purchased some, and were very impressed.

The purchased chyawanprash has a really bizarre texture, kind of like slightly sticky silly putty. It actually fights back when you insert a spoon and try to get it out of the jar. The flavor is unusual, but very pleasant in my opinion, rather like mincemeat pie with a whole lot of other stuff going on, including a lot of pepper.

black currants

Black currant was substituted for amla as the fruit base.

The primary ingredient in classical chyawanprash is amla (Indian gooseberry, Phyllanthus emblica), which is a very strong antioxidant, and has many other attributes beneficial to human health. I am sure there are folks who will say that without amla, chyawanprash is not chyawanprash. Whatever. Our goal was to develop an approximation – a rasayana in a fruit base with as many home-grown ingredients as possible, and amla is a tropical plant and simply does not grow here. However, we do have abundant black currants, which have much in common with amla – for instance, a high concentration of vitamin C and tannin. I picked and froze a gallon or so of black currants in July to wait for the other ingredients to be ready.

worden grapes

Worden grapes, hit by frost, and ready for jam. Yes, they live in a balsam tree. It was an accident.

The other fruit ingredient in the purchased chyawanprash (which we used as a rough guide) was grapes. By Equinox our Worden grapes were ripe enough for a batch. They are not seedless, but that’s a virtue, I think, for this application. I ran the grapes and frozen currants through the blender, skin, seeds and all until all particles were pulverized enough to be palatable in a paste. A lot of the nutritive value of these fruits is in the skin and seeds, so this way we keep all that in the mix. I have always preferred to not peel or strain fruits and vegetables unless it’s really necessary.

ashwaganda

Ashwaganda can be grown here as an annual. It is perennial in milder climates.

The pulverized fruit was slowly simmered on the lowest heat possible, and the other ingredients prepared.

Chyawanprash typically has from 15 to 80 ingredients. Ours ended up with 20 ingredients. We found that we could easily grow or were already growing some of the major herbs involved: ashwaganda (Withania somnifera), tulsi (holy basil, Ocimum tenuiflorum), brahmi (Bacopa monnieri), tribulus (Tribulus terrestris). We make ghee (clarified butter) regularly from a neighbor’s raw milk, so that was easy, though we preferred go light on the ghee. We used purchased long pepper (Piper longum – this is a really important ingredient, though black pepper could be substituted), honey (we’ve not yet recovered from a bear devastating our bees), organic cane sugar, kudzu, cardamon, cinnamon, and clove.

brahmi

Brahmi also can be grown as an annual here. It grows well in wet conditions. The photo was taken early in the season.

tulsi

Tulsi or holy basil

Ashwaganda roots, tulsi leaves and flowers, brahmi leaves and stem tips, and green tribulus fruits were gathered fresh in early September, in anticipation of frost, which I feared might damage these herbs. The ashwaganda root was chopped up and tossed into the blender with the tulsi, brahmi and tribulus, with enough water to be able to blend them into a thick liquid. This was frozen in glass canning jars, then later (when the grapes were ready) added to the simmering fruit mixture.

long pepper

Long pepper (Piper longum)

The purchased spices ground up and added to the mix were long pepper (in great quantity), cardamon, cinnamon and clove. We made substitutions for some of the herbal ingredients. Instead of the root of Indian elecampane (Inula racemosa) we used Inula helenium which we have growing. Foraged wild ginger (Asarum Canadense) was substituted for regular ginger (Zingiber officinale).

wild ginger

Wild ginger

Elixir jam seems a perfect venue for other adaptogens and tonic plants and fungi, so to this batch we added the mushrooms turkey tail (Trametes versicolor) and chaga (Inonotus obliquus), and my own favorite, Siberian ginseng root (Eleutherococcus senticosus). These three we have growing in abundance.

turkey tails

Turkey tail

In the future, we may add some others that are not yet as well established in our gardens (but show some promise), including fo-ti (Polygonum multiflorum), Schisandra chinensis, Rhodiola rosea, and Maral-root (Rhaponticum carthamoides).

The chaga was wrapped in a cloth, pounded with a hammer into small chunks, then soaked overnight with the turkey tails, chopped fresh eleutherococcus root and nigella sativa seed. Then I ran all these through the blender until smooth, and added the mix to the simmering pot.

chaga

Above, chaga, Inonotus obliquus
Below, eleutherococcus

eleuthero

If you’re familiar with the flavors of some of these ingredients, I know it sounds like it would taste like a train-wreck in your mouth. But somehow there’s a synergy there that works. It tastes great. We sweetened it just enough to take the very sour edge off the fruit. The consistency is like apple butter, and the cooking of it is similar – it is reduced very slowly on very low heat, then when sufficiently thick, poured into glass canning jars.

Chyawanprash can be eaten simply as is (you only need a teaspoon or two a day), diluted with water for a beverage (hot or cold), eaten with yogurt, spread on bread, whatever – essentially you can consume it any way that you would use any other jam or chutney. It’s definitely more fun than swallowing a lot of capsules of dried powdered herbs!