Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Free Fertilizers for the Urban Backyard

[Nyerges is the author of “Extreme Simplicity,” “How to Survive Anywhere,” “Foraging California,” and other books. You can learn about his classes and books at, or Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041].

In my “Extreme Simplicity” book, my wife Dolores and I outlined our efforts to live lightly and self-reliantly in the city,  a path that many more are pursuing these days.

We shared all our experiences with gardening and producing our own food.  Some friends told u that they do not garden because it is “an expensive hobby.”  That always made us laugh. There was a time not that long ago when nearly everyone gardened because homegrown produce was not only better from the produce you purchase at a supermarket, but also cheaper.

Before WWII, before agricultural chemical came into widespread use, everyone knew that to produce healthy plants, you had to improve the soil.  Weak soil means that the plants grown there will be weak, and subject to insect infestation, and more susceptible to both drought and freezing.  Insects tend to eat the weakest plants, and insecticides would rarely be necessarily if the soil provided all the nutrients needed by the plants.

We taught ourselves about the whole spectrum of fertilizers that were once common-knowledge.

For example, we learned a lot about the beneficial properties of seaweed from professional gardener Ernest Hogeboom.  He would collect several large trash bags of kelp from areas along the Pacific Coast.  He’d empty the kelp into a 55-gallon drum, fill it with water and cover it.  As the seaweed began to decompose, the water turned brown.  Within about two months, the seaweed was full decomposed into the water.  Hogeboom used the liquid as a concentrate, which he would dilute with water before spraying it on, or pouring it around, his clients’ plants.

Dolores used this for our own landscaping and gardening clients, with the addition of fish emulsion.  Approximately a quarter cup of fish emulsion was used for each gallon of seaweed elixir.  Plants sprayed with this mixture also seemed to repel insects, and generally showed renewed growth..The only pitfall is the fishy, oceanic odor that is detectable for a day or two after the application. 

Seaweed is rich in potassium, up to 12 percent by volume.  Though seaweed contains many beneficial trace elements, it is relatively poor in nitrogen and phosphate, which is why the addition of fish emulsion creates a nearly perfect fertilizer.

We didn’t use the bulky metal 55 gallon drum that Hogeboom used, but rather we purchased a 30 gallon plastic trashcan at a building supply store for about $10. 

If you live in a coastal area where seaweed rotting on the beach is readily availably, you’ve got a great potential fertilizer available only for your labor of hauling it.

Monday, July 18, 2016

MUGWORT -- A versatile herb

MUGWORT:   A versatile and common herb with many survival uses

[Nyerges is the author of Guide to Wild Foods and Useful Plants, How to Survive Anywhere,  and other books. His schedule of outings is available from School of Self-Reliance, P.O. Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041 and can be viewed on-line at]

Mugwort is an aromatic plant with species found all over the world.  It is perhaps one of the few herbs widely steeped in lore and mythology. Mugwort (Artemisia douglasiana and other closely-related species) is a multiple use plant, having been used for  food, medicine, fire-starting, dreaming, and more.

I have known people who ate the raw mugwort leaves in salad and added to sandwiches, in much the same way as you’d add a pickle or a piece of lettuce to a sandwich. However, I have always found it too bitter for my taste to eat raw. But once simmered in water and cooked like spinach, its appeal is greatly increased.  If you’re really hungry and there’s nothing else, this will be acceptable.
Southern California Indians gathered the mugwort seeds and ground them into meal to make bread products.   And in Japan, the dried and powdered mugwort is often used to flavor and color rice cakes.  Still, the food value of mugwort is not its greatest asset.

As an infused tea, mugwort is used by herbalists to improve the appetite and digestion, and to relieve stomach pains and fevers. The dried herb is commonly sold in Mexican herb shops under the name “estafiate.”  

An infusion from the dried leaves is applied externally for inflammatory swellings. Bruises are reputed to heal quicker if bathed with a mugwort infusion. As a bath additive, it's used for tired legs and feet. Plus, in the bath water, mugwort gives the bathroom a pleasant aroma!
In areas where poison oak grows, it’s a very old custom to mush up the fresh leaves of mugwort and rub the wet poultice over exposed portions of the body before entering poison oak areas in order to prevent the rash.  Some western Indians used the fresh leaves externally as a cure for poison oak and wounds.
Before I immunized myself from poison oak, I have used the freshly crushed leaves of mugwort rubbed over newly-developing poison oak rash with good results. Aloe vera is the best treatment for poison oak that I have found, but you don’t usually find aloe in the wild.

Mugwort gets its name from the English practice of putting a leaf of it in their mugs of beer to improve the flavor. ("Wort" is an Old English word meaning "herb.") This is still practiced in London pubs.
Mugwort is also used by home beer-brewers, such as Pascal Baudar in Southern California. The results depend on the recipe, ranging from a mead-like beer, to a very crisp, light beer.

One of the most effective wilderness "punks" is made by gathering the mugwort leaves that have dried and browned on the stalk. Slide your hand along the lower stalk to gather the dried leaves and then roll them into a cigar. By lighting the end of this "cigar" and then wrapping the entire cigar in larger fresh mugwort leaves, you can effectively carry fire over long distances. This was the technique practiced by Southwestern Indian tribes for transporting fire from camp to camp. It can still come to the aid of today's campers where matches are scarce or unavailable. In fact, I have tested dozens of tinders using both natural and man-made materials, and mugwort has consistently proven to be one of the best natural tinders.  [Note: Survival Seeds (Box 41-834, L.A., CA 90041) sells bags of mugwort for tinder, for $7 a bag. ]

When we teach and practice the art of fire-making with the hand drill, or the bow-and-drill, we nearly always have a good supply of the mugwort leaves on hand. It is the ideal tinder to shape into a birdnest, and to drop your ember into it.  By gently blowing on this ember, it slowly gets larger and larger.  Dried grass or pine needles are then added around the mugwort, and one continues to blow until it bursts into flame.

Sleeping on "pillows" of dried mugwort leaves is said to induce wild, vivid dreams and visions of the future. To test this, I placed several of the fresh leaves around my pillow. Those nights, I had very colorful dreams, though they were not what I would describe as “lucid” nor did I ever receive visions of the future. Nevertheless, some enterprising folks have begun to sell “dream pillows” which are small pillows stuffed with mugwort leaves.

Folklore from various parts of the world states that a leaf of mugwort in the shoe will enable you to walk all day without leg fatigue.
Nathaniel Schleimer of Pasadena, California, a student of acupressure, pointed out to me that there may be some factual basis for this "folklore." Schleimer told me that there is an acupuncture point on the bottom of the foot which is said to "regulate fatigue." The mugwort leaves which have naturally dried on the plant are collected and used in a therapeutic technique called acupressure. These dried leaves, when rolled into small balls or into a cigar-shaped cylinder, are called "moxa." A Chinese species is said to be the best, but all species can be used in the following fashion, described by J.C. Cerney in his book Acupressure -- Acupuncture Without Needles:   "On the outside of the lower leg, below the level of the knee, is the head of the fibula. Just below and slightly in front of the head of the fibula is what the Japanese refer to as sanri or S-36. This is an important vitality-stimulating zone. It's a point where weary Oriental foot travelers applied a burning ball of moxa and with energy restored, traveled on."

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Survival? Get to Know Your Neighbors

[Nyerges is the author to “How to Survive Anywhere,” “Foraging California,” and other books. His schedule of classes is available at]

Real Survival is not a sport. It is not a computer game. Survival is not a “reality” TV show.  Survival is not a concept that intellectuals discuss over latte. Nor is it a topic for science fiction novels.

Real Survival is that live-or-die feeling that emanates from our deepest desire to continue our life.  It is the deepest instinct of human kind and the entire animal kingdom. 

We joke about “the apocalypse” and zombies and “the end of the world,” and yet, due to our ability to adapt and to condition ourselves, we live all the time with factors that threaten our very survival.  But we continually address those factors, and we modify and change, and we survive.  

Human society stands as a testament to human ingenuity, adaptability, and the desire to survive. Our growth, and our ability to harness and utilize nature, all arose from our desire to survive.  Now, the main threat to our survival as a species seems to be – ourselves.

We know the natural threats to our survival: earthquakes, mudslides, tsunamis, volcanoes, hurricanes, tornadoes, and maybe even occasional millennia where a comet hits the earth. 

The so-called “acts of God” will be contended with when they happen, and it seems they will always be with us.

But as our urban centers grow ever-larger, we wonder if we will ever turn into a Bladerunner-type world, where we’re all cramped into ever-tighter quarters. 

We have to be concerned about the “acts of man” that continue to threaten our survival:  terrorism, war, bombs that nations point at nations, crazy leaders, economic chaos that drives our lives into the dirt, rampant plague and disease from poor hygiene, and so many other preventable crises.

Some of these “acts of men” we can do something about, and most we cannot.  But we can inform ourselves, and we can organize with like-minded individuals.  This is perhaps the most important step we can take, since as our society has grown ever larger, and vastly more technologically-oriented, and “leaders” that seem ever-distant, we realize that it’s important to try to take control of whatever we can of our individual lives. We realize that knowledge is power, and my increasing our personal sense of responsibility, and awareness, we can at least move our lives in the right direction.

Self-sufficiency and neighborhood cooperativeness is the path to sustainability and survival.

An associate of mine who told me he hates his neighbors, said that his ace in the hole in the event of a major disaster is his uncle in Minnesota who has a self-sufficient farm and home, and produces his own power.

“Really?” I mocked. “And how do you expect to get to Minnesota after some major catastrophe?” (My friend lives in urban California). 

Like it or not, we’re all in this same boat. In an emergency, your neighbors are your family. Get to know them, now, not later. Get back to our roots of neighbors helping neighbors, and learn to share and support among yourselves.  That is our tradition, and that is what made this country great.

There is no threat that stout-hearted people working together cannot overcome.

There are no simple answers to life’s many problems, but it’s a step in the right direction to always learn new things, and get to know your diverse community.