Picking mineral-rich "weeds" like dandelion, clover, chickweed and plantain is a great way to round out your nutritional intake during the spring, summer and fall. Doing this is harder during late fall and winter when there's a dearth of new growth, but there is a way to enjoy the vitamin and mineral-rich nutrition and preventative health benefits of wild plants all year round: Put them in storage!
Pills in a Jar
There are a number of ways you can store various crops, including the nutritious weeds that are first to come and last to leave in the yard and garden. But why not go a step beyond putting away food and create your own multi-vitamin and mineral supplements to help keep you healthy and well-nourished through the winter months? After all, nutrition is more than just calories; you have to have the right building blocks in the form of vitamins and minerals, too. That's one reason why people spend big bucks on multi-vitamins, but if you've got weeds in your garden you don't need to.
Many plants can be frozen or dried and stored for winter use, but you can more fully enjoy the benefits of your weed "vitamins", as well as know they're safe from dust, moisture, or power outages, by storing them in tincture form.
Tinctures are basically ready-made tea in concentrated form, but since water-based extracts of herbs (typical tea) won't keep for more than a few days in the refrigerator you should create your tinctures with a vinegar or alcohol base. I like to seal mine into sterilized glass jars so that I don't have to worry about whether they'll keep all winter long or whether a bottle that hasn't been sealed might get contaminated. The heat that comes from processing them in a hot-water bath also speeds up the solvent process that extracts the vitamins, minerals and phyto-nutrients from the plants into the vinegar. If you didn't subject them to heat at all you'd need to turn the tincture jars over periodically, letting the ingredients mix, for six weeks or more before they were ready to use. By sealing them in a hot water bath you can get away with just tucking them into the refrigerator or a cupboard and using them as needed.
Dig it Good
The first time I ever dug dandelion roots was in the middle of a huge dandelion fight. What had started as innocent flower flicking turned into a full-on battle with whole dandelion plants, roots and all, being tossed back and forth. I might not have participated if I'd known that I was basically throwing multi-vitamins; lobbing a little vitamin A, B and C at your buddies doesn't sound like half as much fun as just throwing flowers.
We were lucky with our dandelion pulling back then, because the soil was very loose and the plants very healthy; their robust roots came out of the dirt with the stems, looking for all the world like upside-down Easter trees. Odds are good that when you head out to dig dandelion roots for a vitamin and mineral tincture you're going to have to put more work into it.
While some people recommend digging dandelion roots with a full-size shovel, this can leave you with a pot-holed moonscape in no time, where once you had a yard or field, and makes it hard to get a close-up look at how healthy the plant is before you dig it up. I find that digging dandelion roots with a sharp hardened steel hand trowel is much easier and, in the end, gets you more root for less effort.
Healthy Weeds Makes for Healthy Me
This past growing season has been so dark, wet and just generally miserable in some places that many a gardener has been found curled into a fetal position, clutching the wilted remains of their crops and sobbing. Even the weeds, which tend to flourish when cultivated crops do not, have had a hard time of it; when I headed out to gather what used to be a bountiful crop of dandelions and clover in my yard I found that between the resident snowshoe hares, an invasion of slugs and other pests, and a fungus that capitalized on the moist conditions, there wasn't much left for me.
If, like me this year, you don't have healthy "weeds" to pick on your
own land, or if you've spread chemical fertilizers or insecticides over the area you otherwise would have liked to pick in, you can always ask a friend for their weeds. While most people are bemused by requests to harvest their dandelions or chickweed, they're almost always happy to have you come in and carry away what they've been probably been trying desperately to get rid of anyway.
Having found a neighbor willing to share the healthy crop of dandelions, clover and plantain in her chemical free yard I packed up my trusty trowel, a pair of gloves and a couple of bags to store my catch in and hurried over. Just like with cultivated plants, picking or digging up a weed is almost like pulling the plug from a sink—the vitality starts draining out of the plants immediately. Knowing this, I made sure that what I needed for storing my harvest (clean glass jars with two-part lids, a pot large enough to seal them in a hot water bath, and a rack for them to sit on in the pot) was ready before heading out and that I had plenty of time to take care of the plants once I got them home.
Once I started digging the dandelion roots I found that when working in firm soil it's much easier to loosen the dirt around the plant with a trowel than to dig it up directly. When going direct it's all too easy to chop the top of the plant from the root by mistake, which makes it nearly impossible to get the rest of the root up.
I learned to grip the base of the largest, healthiest looking plant in one hand while I worked the trowel around it in a circle, loosening the dirt; then I worked my hand down the root as far as I could, making sure that I was digging along the root and not across it. Dandelion roots will go straight down into the ground given the opportunity, but obstacles like big rocks or having been cut off by over eager diggers can leave them crooked. Again around the root with the trowel, then again reaching into the hole, and before long I lifted the dandelion, root and all, straight out of the hole.
For clover I snipped healthy-looking leaves, stems and flowers that weren't showing any signs of dying back or fungus blight. Just like you wouldn't want to eat meat from a sick animal, it makes sense to choose the healthiest plants for keeping yourself healthy, doesn't it? I put the clover flowers, stems and leaves into another bag together; while some might find them hard to digest raw, they are edible. A small, sharp pair of scissors came in handy for snipping clover stems since they can be a little tough. I could have differentiated between red clover and white