Virginia’s Oak Knob and Pond Knob Hike

With winter clinging to the last few days of March before spring arrived, Andy and I took off to George Washington National Forest to complete the last of the Hone Quarry hikes.

I’ve written about these three hikes earlier: Our first was in May 2020 to Hone Quarry Falls where a beautiful twenty-five foot waterfall was found. Our second was six days later in May to Hone Quarry Ridge where wildflowers lured us on as we walked the ridge of the mountain. Now we were walking the longer and harder of the three: Oak Knob and Pond Knob. Here are more details:

  • Almost eight mile loop hike
  • A 2,250-foot elevation gain
  • Level Four of Five difficulty

This hike was said to have two amazing overlooks, and while it was not supposed to be a difficult trail in the realm of hiking, I think it largely depends on the season one sets off. With the last offerings of winter on the ground, Andy and I found snow — covered with a thick layer of ice — on one side of the mountain. This side, of course, was where the trail literally hugged the mountain’s edge and so what I’m basically saying is when it came to this part — our simple hike turned treacherous (very, very treacherous).

But I’m getting ahead of myself — Let’s start this trail story where we began, which was the side of Oak Knob Mountain without snow and that is where we followed the yellow-blazed Cliff Trail to steeply ascend the mountain . . .

Then, in a little less than half a mile, we arrived to our first beautiful vista . . .

With the second vista less than half a mile away, we continued on the trail while the sunshine warmed our faces . . .

Turning to leave our look-out of the valley, we walked on, though I admit I found myself pausing often to take in the Blue Ridge Mountains where the rich blue below surely made the sky jealous . . .

As promised, after our vista, the trail became more rocky. This area, we learned is a favorite sunny spot for Timber rattlesnakes, though we lucky did not see any this time of year . . .

With the trees still mostly bare, we could see a glimmer of Hone Quarry Reservoir, which is directly adjacent to where we parked; and here, I was reminded once more about how incredible it is the distance one can travel if he or she simply keeps walking . . .

The best way to describe the next part of this hike in one word is ‘treacherous’ . . .

From here, we slowly made our way around Oak Knob Mountain, following the turns of the yellow-blazed Cliff Trail as it hugged the ridge edge. The trail was narrow and on right, a rocky build up the mountain and on the left, a steep sloping plunge down. What made this part of the trail all the more difficult though was the snow and ice. Because this mountain side was dramatically colder, the old ankle-deep snow was nowhere near melting, proven by the fact that it had an incredibly thick layer of ice on top. In fact, the ice was so thick that we couldn’t even crack it to walk over.

“Maybe we can skate across?” I mused but on attempt, immediately slipped right off the danged side of the mountain. I’m not gonna lie — a scream did escape my lips and a quick-turn grab did come from Andy as he helped me scramble my way back up — surely moments from a dramatically different-story tumble.

“Should we turn around?” I huffed, shaking a bit after my near plummet.

“I do think this is why we saw that other couple head back,” Andy pointed out and it was true — A young couple had bounded past us earlier only to appear again, this time going the opposite direction on the loop-trail so surely walking back towards their car.

“Every decision is a joint decision,” we said together — This, our Hiking Rule Number One and learned when we went to Emerald Pond where we took one wrong turn after another with our friend Usua. “I think we can continue,” we determined, knowing full well this was going to be a very slow and very careful walk.

So we began . . .

Because it was impossible to break the ice under our feet, we stretched our legs to reach an earlier hiker’s footprints. That earlier hiker though — I should point out — was either the tallest person alive or a Virginia Bigfoot because the gait was at least double what Andy’s and mine are. Balancing on one leg, we would extend the other before allowing our one-foot to fall into place. Then with legs splayed wide, we would gather enough energy to repeat the process and all the while our trail turned narrower and steeper. This was the last picture I took on this part of our journey because, quite frankly, I was having a right mission of just taking care of myself — never-the-less taking pictures of us trying to survive.

Hours passed slow trekking this side of the mountain but slowly, we made it around and into the sun.

“I can’t believe we made it and didn’t kill ourselves,” I told Andy.

“I can’t believe you made it and you didn’t kill yourself,” he said and so I requested a picture that encompassed exactly how we felt. This is that picture:

From here, a rocky and wider path — without a single snowflake — meant an easier trail up Pond Knob Mountain, which was welcomed because we needed to make up our lost slow-snow-walking time.

Yet, the sun was setting fast and we were far from our car after scaling two mountains. To give reference — Our car is at the bottom of the valley to the right of the second picture below, which means our trail next descended steeply and without a single switchback.

Pushing through quickly also meant setting aside pictures so that Andy and I could boss the next three and a half miles in record speed. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again but massive amounts of ground can be covered by simply having a desire and strength to charge on — to carry through.

That’s exactly what Andy and I did — We made our way back to our car just as darkness set in . . .

And I’ll tell ya what — There’s little reward better than that feeling of barely beating the nightfall on a day hike . . . of standing exactly where you have aimed to stand . . . precisely when you wanted to stand there . . . and relishing that moment with someone else who feels the same way.


Virginia’s Blue Ridge Tunnel Hike Attempt (Our Cat’s Second Hike)

It was the start of February and I was desperate to get away so, while snow rolled over the mountains, Andy and I packed our day packs to head out on a hike . . .

The only problem was that we could not open the door to leave because our kitten Lysander wanted to come, too. Wailing and rubbing his little body against the door, he was undoubtably begging to accompany us — though in his kitten mind, he desired a walk through the courtyard, a roam on the sidewalk, or a stroll through the park. Basically, Ly was not thinking about walking in the mountains.

“Should we take him?” I asked Andy and at that question, Ly knew he had won. Pausing in mid-tearful wail, he waited patiently for us to make our decision. Then — to encourage through little yips — he rubbed his back against our ankles before stretching his little paws up to our waists so that we could pick him up. All of this is well-rehearsed by him, you have to understand, in an effort to make him more appealing and ultimately convince us to slide his harness over his bitty head and body. “We did say we wanted to take him on more hikes this year,” I reminded Andy.

The truth was though in that moment it was not about Ly hiking — It was about me. I suddenly felt as if I could not leave without Ly — that I could not function without him — and so I froze, brimming with emotion that blurred heartbreak, confusion, anger, loss, madness, sanity, more.

This is because what was left unsaid (but understood) was why I could not leave Ly — I could not leave him because Paris had left me.

Paris Rose — my chihuahua-miniature pinscher mix who I rescued in college when she was four weeks old — passed away a couple weeks earlier. She was seventeen and battling many health problems when Andy and I rushed her to a veterinarian emergency room on a Sunday a short time before midnight, and it was there we made the painful decision to put her to rest.

This is the last picture we have of our Paris

I hope to one day write about my girl — my child, my love, my world. I have opened and re-opened a page to start typing countless times but how to possibly put into words — to make you understand, to make you feel — how important and how pure and how beautiful Paris was . . . it is impossible. I do know as I type this — almost three months after she has passed, it does not get easier. In fact, each day is harder than it was before. People lied when they told me that it would get easier — They lied. The only aspect that gets easier is lying — lying and not caring that I lie to people. I am not okay, and Paris was not my dog — She was every part of me and the better parts of me. Without her, I am hollowed out — empty . . .

and so losing my Par is why I wanted to get away and go hiking this weekend . . .

and losing my Par is also why I could not leave Ly. I was terrified the moment he was out of my sight, Ly would find a way to leave me too. Plus, denying our son such simply pleasures that a walk can provide — when we were already going walking — felt intentionally cruel.

It is possible Andy understood what was left unspoken because he, too, lost Paris — Pari was his first dog, his first child. She and Ly — he always admitted — were the reasons he fell in love with me. “Alright,” Andy sighed. “Let’s take Ly . . . ”

And so I bent to scoop up our boy but in that moment I was lifting more — I held love and hope in my arms as I covered his kitten body in kisses and lightly cried into his fur . . .

and Ly was wide-eyed and truly smiling between eager chirps that, in his mind, lead us to the door . . .

and Andy slipped on Ly’s harness over his kitten sweater while whispering of adventure in his tiny ears . . .

then we were in the car and leaving . . .

I want to pause to mention Andy and I also have a daughter named Peach and while we wish we could bring Peach with us, she is not ready — nor would she enjoy the trip. Peach is our rescue cat with a sad and rough past before us. We adopted her exactly a year prior to this hike and, while she has made incredible bounds , Andy and I are both well-aware that leaving Peach to quickly nap in our bed is fulfilling every dream she could have for this day.

Therefore, as Andy drove over the rolling Blue Ridge Mountains, we did think about Peach but we mostly thought about Ly and his first-ever mountain hike.

As the start of hiking in 2021 proved tricky for us with no parking options and closed national parks — our planned hike for this day was also impossible due to the Blue Ridge Parkway suddenly being closed so we diverted our plan to a noteworthy spot: George Washington National Forest’s Blue Ridge Tunnel.

  • A little less than fives
  • A low 470-foot elevation gain
  • Level Two of Five difficulty

True, this hike is in no way a challenger; however, it fit the peaceful outing we wanted for Ly because this was only his second time on a trail. His first, you may remember, was at Virginia’s High Bridge where he bossed the longest recreational bridge in our state and one of the longest in America. This tunnel-hike was similar to that in both length and design (meaning it was ‘constructed’ — there were paved paths and man-man elements such as the bridge and the tunnel).

Not only was this a good starter trail for Ly but it was a location I’ve wanted to see because of the interesting history behind the tunnel . . .

According to a sign there, the tunnel was designed by a French immigrant then built primarily by Irish immigrant laborers between 1849 and 1859. Its purpose was to allow for railroad access to the Blue Ridge Parkway’s Afton Mountain. Sitting 700 feet below the surface, this tunnel stretched almost a mile long, making it the longest in America when it was built.

Later in 1950s, a gas corporation created huge bulkheads with the goal of storing propane in the tunnel; however, they soon removed those bulkheads because it prevented people from walking through (and let’s be honest — propane under a mountain isn’t that grand of a plan either).

Later in November 2001, the tunnel was set to be turned into a public trail, which — after construction in the area on parking lots, trails, and such — the tunnel opened to the public twenty years later. This means a few months after the grand opening, Andy, Ly, and I were walking here.

The day was cool but not bitter and depending on which part of the mountain we were on, snow covered the ground. Ly’s eyes were wide and alert and despite the snow-covered path, he immediately begged to get down to explore on his own.

From the icy path to trees and tree stumps, Ly walked and climbed and peaked his head through every possible area. To our surprise, he did incredibly well progressing on the trail as we sometimes find in new areas he wants to retrace his steps because he is familiar with where he came instead of the unknown ahead. Here though, he seemed excited to venture on . . .

There was a fence — prohibiting people from getting close to the nearby train tracks — and it seemed to help Ly because it cut down on his ability to roam and sniff both sides of the trail.

Therefore, with only the trail and one side of it to focus on, we let him wander wherever he chose to go — even if that was, at times, simply standing to take in the beauty of the area . . .

The truth though is Ly could have stood and admired nature for days and so we did eventually have to pluck our sweet boy from the ground before encouraging him on . . .

Happy with encouragement, Ly set his goal again on proving he was a great trail kitten and so he would squirm and squirm until we set him down again . . .

The challenge of the trail was moving in though and that was the tunnel. Unsure of how Ly would respond to the tunnel, we let him to explore in front of it before picking him up to head inside . . .

All around the tunnel there were beautiful rock formations covered in bright green moss, which Ly was quite happy to sniff . . .

After awhile though, it was onward for us as Ly by now realized our intent was to walk through a very dark hole. Still, he seemed interested and relaxed, maintaining a set gaze and crossed paws . . .

Passing under one end of the tunnel, blackness enveloped us, except for the tiny glowing light ahead.

Ly was alert in our arms but comfortable . . . until people from the other direction took no heed in quieting their booming voices. Scrambling to leave our arms and exit the tunnel, Andy and I chose to turn around instead of carrying on and so in the end, we did not walk through the historic Blue Ridge Tunnel this day.

No doubt we will come back at some point but for now, the simple adventure meant more to Andy and me and hopefully Lysander . . .

For Ly, it was an opportunity to teach him about hiking so that one day he can accompany us on longer trails and even camps. Paris is the reason he is an extraordinarily cat — She taught him how to walk on a leash and explore the outdoors. It is because of her Andy and I long for the day when we can pull our hiking packs from the closet as Ly yaps with eagerness because it means we are heading into the forest together . . . and that will happen, but it takes time. Therefore, we want to hide outdoor aspects he may find scary and instead keep his wonder and excitement alive.

For us though, this trip was about simply getting away — taking that deep inhale of crisp, clean mountain air and realizing life does goes on. In honesty, I never imaged life going on when the day came that Paris would leave me . . . and yet, here I am. I am grateful to have Andy and Ly and Peach in my life — for they give me a reason to live now — so while each day is hard without my P, I am trying to look forward to a future of exploration with them.

Ready for the drive home, I lifted our son from the ground and filled his ears with all the praise in the world.

“You’re such a brave boy!” I cooed as he mewed faintly and kneaded my arm in happiness.

“He always surprises me and does better than I expect,” Andy admitted, scuffing Ly, too.

And so we headed back to our car, knowing and cherishing that Ly is a special cat.

As we drove home, I watched Ly cross over my lap and into Andy’s. His little neck stretched up to see the world outside before he nestled himself into a little ball to nap . . .

Yes, Ly is extraordinary because Paris was extraordinary and so maybe — when I look at our son — I can now see Paris live on inside of him. Maybe now I can see that my beloved Par did not fully leave me . . .


Virginia is for Farm Lovers: Lessons on an Herb, Flower, and Seed Farm (Part Four)

The summer was coming to a close, which meant leaving my dream job of volunteering on an herb, flower, and seed farm to return to my full-time job. The realization of this made me appreciate my experience and be eternally grateful for this opportunity.

I admit, leaving the farm was both extraordinarily hard and heartbreaking — for a variety of reasons which span from personally to worldly. The fact is I am in a constant state of panic and fear when it comes to thoughts on our plant, the land, and the environment. More needs to be done to protect it, and working on this farm has instilled in me an even stronger belief that more also needs to be done to protect those that farm on the land.

The truth is there are half as many farms today than there were hundreds of years ago.

Virginia alone is a powerhouse when it comes to agriculture — The farming done in this state is some of the most diverse in the country.

Therefore, this is what I held onto as my summer volunteering days were disappearing — the opportunity to take part in something larger than myself and the opportunity to learn. I hope you’ve taken away knowledge too from my Part One, Part Two, and Part Three lessons and so, on that note, here is my last bunch of farm lessons . . .

↠ Volunteering on the Farm ↞

The harvesting board was ready again and slowly but surely I have grown in harvesting strength (read: speed) to where my name L shows a little more . . .

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A Lesson on Harvesting Mugwort
Mugwort is a massive plant — bushy and tall — so when I was told to harvest it, I was quite excited. Holding a large bin, I set to work cutting the tops of the plant that had begun to flower. This mugwort was being cut for its medicinal value — Research now shows me that it can boost energy, help the stomach, aide intestinal conditions (such as diarrhea, constipation, cramps, and vomiting), and more.

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A Lesson on Catnip
Speaking of harvesting medicinal plants, I want to take a moment to talk about the powers of catnip — and yes, that is catnip as in the catnip your kitties go crazy over (which, by the way, fresh catnip serves as an aphrodisiac for cats so I learned it is actually quite frustrating to them to be around it.)

Back to humans: Catnip is a digestive aid because it is helps bloating and gas. It also calms the nervous system and is seen as a mood stabilizer; therefore, it can be used to treat insomnia, anxiety, and headaches. Importantly (at least for females), it is anti-spasmodic for smooth muscles, such as the heart and uterus. This means it helps alleviate cramps.

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To use when that time of month rolls around, test catnip properties by using half of the suggested amount but for me, I take a palmful of the leaves and flowers (seen on the far left), drop them into a mug, and pour boiling water over them — the way one would to make an herbal tea. Another interesting catnip fact is the entire catnip plant can be used all the way down to the roots!

Catnip has a light woody, natural taste so it was recommended for me to pair it with peppermint mint (seen on the right) — Peppermint is known to cool, too. Oh, and another recommended pairing: Nettle because it replaces iron due to loss of blood.

A Lesson in Harvesting Camomile
Speaking of medicinal, Camomile is a war-horse in the medicinal world. It is known to be similar to yarrow because it is calming, camomile is a great sleep and digestion aid. It is also packed with antioxidants that research now tells me may lower disease risks, such as heart disease and cancer.

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When harvesting camomile for medicinal purposes, it is best to pluck the blooms that have the white petals falling directly under the disks/middles. Rain came on suddenly though so it was a dash to get as many of the farm’s flowers plucked, cut, and gathered so I tried to fill my bucket with as many camomile blooms as quickly possible . . . which, let’s be honest, I’m new to this so I’m extremely slow compared to everyone else who is experienced here!

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A Lesson on Other Medicinal Herbs
I’ve written before where my most prized farm lessons are ones that span medicinal herbs. I learned medicinal herbs fall into three categories: unnerving, sedative, then hypnotic.

Looking at other specific herb lessons, I was taught lemon balm is wonderful for the nervous system and skullcap helps with panic attacks.

A Lesson on Harvesting Gaillardia
Gaillardia flowers are from the sunflower family and come in practically every color. Also noteworthy: They are said to be drought-resistant.

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A Lesson on Harvesting . . . Grass
Yep, you read that right: Grass.  I harvested bunny tails (pictured first below), fire explosion (pictured second below), and another type that I am forgetting but all are grasses. Grasses! The farm’s owner told me through a smile, “A part of me does die when I plant and harvest grass” but it’s for a simple but important lesson that I learned: All plants are beautiful, even grass.  Tall grasses can be used in bouquets while the shorter ones can be used in boutonnieres. I confess, those first ones are quite pretty!

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A Lesson on Harvesting Dara
Dara is in the carrot family, which is known for wilting so great care has to be taken when harvesting it. Only the large and fully bloomed Dara are ready to be cut; otherwise, the little blooms will wilt. Looking at the big delicate blooms, they are very similar to yarrow.

Okay now sad Dara facts: Other farmers are growing pollen-less flowers, which is exactly as they sound. These flowers lack pollen so pollen does not drop on tables when people put them in vases at home. I say this is sad news because by choosing to farm pollen-less flowers, these farmers are choosing sterile flowers, which means bees, butterflies, birds, and more do not get any food. What is even worse is these animals do not damage Dara . . . so now imagine rows and rows of beautiful flowers like these at other farms but not one feeding a bee. When the owner told me all of this information, she confessed there is nothing sadder than going to a sterile sunflower farm and not seeing a single bird. I agree whole-heartedly. Further, knowing humans have engineered flowers to be sterile — The combination of these facts is honesty a travesty. This is also why I respect this farm owner, her farm ethics, and her farm so very much.

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A Lesson on Bouquets
The flowers here are purchased for businesses (such as florist shops and restaurants), people (who want beautiful flowers at home), and weddings. When picking flowers for weddings, the top most care goes into the color and size. While I did not graduate to wedding bouquet, boutonnière, and arrangement flower-cutting, I did learn that before flowers are arranged, they need to rest for six to eight hours after they are cut.

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A Lesson on Harvesting Garlic
Super cool lesson I learned involved garlic: Garlic is sun-sensitive, which is how it got a reputation involving vampires.

At this farm, garlic is harvested from 6:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. — This time allows for morning light sun rays and also cooler temperatures versus the afternoon and evening heat.

When harvesting garlic, the garlic is not far in the ground so with a light tug on the green bunches, the garlic can be removed. From there, we immediately placed them in covered black bins so that our once packed garlic lines turned to these nice, fresh soil rows.

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Overall, volunteering on this farm did more than reaffirmed my love of plants. My time taught me to put aside some preconceived notions about certain plants, to embrace the beauty of others, and to welcome all lessons plants teach.

In the end, plants are truly remarkable — not only because nature can produce something so stunning but because plants can cure; they are medicinal. At a bare minimum, too, they cured me — That quiet time cutting flower stems is one I cannot describe. It is cathartic and the mind slips deep within itself in the most simple and beautiful way. At the start of this global pandemic and time of uncertainty and fear, plants healed me — They provided stability and reassurance. They would be there — today, tomorrow, and the next day — and I could help plant, cut, and harvest them as best I could and they would never complain but instead continue to grow. There is so much beauty in that.

Farm work is also incredibly rewarding — With hard work, rows upon rows of plants can be weeded, pulled, and cut down, leaving glorious mounds of soil ready for new plants to go in.

And farming taught me patience — Not all jobs need to be done quickly and over-the-top. Some can be done methodically and silently, and in fact — I would rival to say these tranquil jobs are the best.

There are so many lessons I learned from my time on this farm that I could live a lifetime dedicated to the cause and still not learn all, but I suppose this is merely the start and for that, I am incredibly grateful.

Until next summer and more farm lessons . . .


Virginia is for Farm Lovers: Lessons on an Herb, Flower, and Seed Farm (Part Three)

It was another warm summer day, and I was thrilled to return again to a local herb, flower, and seed farm to volunteer. Not only did this work allow me to live a childhood dream, but it also brought an incredible feeling knowing I was taking part in something larger — Virginia’s legacy when it comes to agriculture.

In my Part One and Part Two lessons, I’ve written how Virginia farms are the backbone of the state, and so I wanted to tell a bit more about agriculture here.

In Virginia, there are over 43,000 farms. Of the over twenty-seven million acres that make up this state, farms are spread across a whooping seven-point-eight million acres. That’s one-third of the land here, which is quite impressive.

Virginia Department of Agriculture and consumer services

I have a deep love for farming, and this may be based on how I was raised because my family has come from generations of farmers. For the past 120 years, a forty-one acre working farm has been passed down the line and, therefore, to my grandfather. On this farm there have been a variety of animals but the two constants were chickens for a poultry supplier and cows for Angus beef production.

There were also a wide range of vegetables grown on the land — such as the massive potatoes that I remember most because as a little girl, my Papa would dig them up and my sister and I would have to pull them from the hot, dry dirt; and fruit — such as the plump and juicy red strawberries that I may or may not have snaffled when my Papa’s back was turned. The farm is now owned by my uncle and aunt, and if you’re one of the kind souls who have subscribed to our YouTube channel, you will have seen this piece of paradise because it is where they have allowed Andy and me to store and work on our 1965 Clark Cortez motorhome. Back to farming though, my most fond memories come from visiting this farm so it is no surprise that I yearn for that feeling again, which is why I was ecstatic to learn different lessons on a different farm and so, with that, let’s continue . . .

↠ Volunteering on the Farm ↞

A Lesson on Harvesting
When harvesting plants, you want to start with the freshest crop first and then move to the older crop. This reduces the risk of spreading disease.

A Lesson on Cerinthe
Cerinthe is succulent-ish plant with big, thick waxy leaves. My research now tells me that this pretty plant attracts hummingbirds. Aren’t plants lovely?!

A Lesson on Harvesting Sunflower
I confess, I have never been a sunflower fan but I think that’s because I thought there was only one standard-store variety. Looking at the beauties, I learned, there are several varieties, and this deep red one is absolutely stunning!

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I also had no idea that the green leaves of the flower steal water from the plant so, once a stem is cut, it is wise to remove the leaves to allow the cut flower to live.

Also, sunflowers are best cut before they truly have a chance to open. For example, while stunning, the massive one below is actually past its prime — By the time it arrives at the florist (which is pretty quickly) and is purchase by a customer, the bloom will gradually fade so sunflowers are best cut much earlier. I may or may not have learned this by cutting the stems of full pretty blooms only to have them be cast aside, to which I may or may not have said — with great inhales — that farming is ruthless work. In truth though, if sunflowers are not able to be harvested in this peak un-opened bloom period, they can be left because they are wonderful food for birds.

A Lesson on Harvesting Poppies
Poppies are unusual flowers — They are extremely delicate and wilt almost immediately when cut, which is why they do not hold up well in bouquets or boutonnieres. If a vase full of poppies is still desired, know there are facts that should be heeded when cutting. First, poppies cannot be placed immediately into water when cut because they secrete a sap that will prevent the flower from sucking up water. Instead, sear the stem end to prevent sap from escaping — This can be done by blowtorching two to three-inches stem end for about ten seconds. Now the poppy can take up water and will not immediately wilt!

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Note the different bee types: Here is a tiny bee on this poppy compared to the earlier chubby, fuzzy bees!

Last poppy lesson: Before I volunteered here, I also did not like poppies. The only poppies I’ve seen are the very ordinary red poppy . . . then I met this rattle poppy. Rattle poppies are known for their large feathery petals and light lavender color and, oh my goodness, there has never been a more beautiful flower!

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A Lesson on Harvesting Milky Oats
Milky oats get their name because if the oats are squeezed, they have a white milky sap inside. Research now shows me they are great for nervous conditions (from stress to anxiety to panic) because they relax the body — which, I don’t know quite yet how to use them for these purposes so if you do, leave me a comment!

Another interesting fact: The milky oat stems are hollow so they can be used as straws!

A Lesson on Avoiding Pests
Back to how at this farm there are no pesticides, which is great . . . until you meet the cucumber beetle. The cucumber beetle is a little beetle that nearly destroys amaranth leaves. Strangely enough, working on this farm I’ve gained a new perspective on plants — Normally people go into the store and purchase those with the prettiest blooms; now though, I’ve been looking at the leaves. One would think these eaten leaves aren’t “good enough” — which is why we have to cut them off for florist shops. I admitted to the owner that I found the leaves pretty in a delicate, lacy way. I’m not alone either — She told me one local restaurant owner came to the farm, saw these green leaves, and immediately had to have the plant based on the unique quality. Looking past the leaves though, amaranth throws extraordinary blooms (that appear more as plums) that either dangle down the stem (such as this dark pink variety) or grow up from the stem (such as this golden variety)!

A Lesson on Planting Sunflower
There are crops known as “the three sisters” — corn, beans, and squash. These three compliment each other because the corn grows up, the beans twist along the corn’s stalks, and the squash covers the ground. For flower farms, sunflowers can be used in replacement of corn so here, we planted a long line of sunflowers. Once the stems are tall and thick, other plants can twist around the stems and/or other plants can benefit from the big leaves for shade.

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A Lesson on Preparing Beds
This bed of bells-of-Ireland — which always reminds me of octopus tentacles — was done for the year so we cut it back to prepare for next year. To keep the bells, we cut the plant practically as low as we could (slightly above the root!) and removed these thorny stems (which will be used for compost). By cutting the plant that low, it tells the bells not to send out more growth and instead rest and recuperate for next year. How smart are plants?!

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Even more intelligent (and beautiful) plants are ahead in my Part Four post!


Virginia is for Farm Lovers: Lessons on an Herb, Flower, and Seed Farm (Part Two)

I was born and raised in the beautiful state of Virginia — a state nicknamed “the birthplace of America” due to it being home to the first permanent English settlement. From the start, agriculture has been the foundation of this state — Native Americans farmed tobacco and the first colonies harvested corn and wheat.

Today, agriculture remains the top largest private industry.

Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services

Because of this, small farms are said to be the backbone of Virginia; and I had the privilege of living out my dream by volunteering of a local herb, flower, and seed farm.

To learn more about the lessons I learned on my first farms days, read my Part One. Meanwhile, my documentary continues as I was welcomed back for more hard work.

↠ Volunteering on the Farm ↞

A Lesson on Harvesting Basil
I’ve had basil in pots on porches and it never worked out — I could pick a few good leaves, but once it flowered, the plant was done; and while I knew not to let basil flower, that information did not tell me how to prevent this.  Today, I learned the trick harvesting sweet or purple basil.  When the basil begins to flower, do not simply remove the flower — Instead, cut the stem a significant amount down (below a few nodes).  This will encourage new growth and, hey, you get those nice big leaves, too.

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A Lesson on Harvesting Calendula
Calendula is a flowering plant, and it can be used for medicinal purposes because it is packed with antioxidants.  Similar to yarrow, it is great for the skin and heals wounds; however, while yarrow can be stuffed into wounds, calendula can be applied on top of the skin to help with ailments, such as sunburns.  (Though, I have not learned yet how to actually apply calendula to burns, I am positive my sunburn-suffering skin would be much appreciative if you left a message below detailing more!)  Also, noteworthy, calendula helps the stomach and intestine — It can improve digestion, reduce inflammation in the gut, and repair the gut wall.  Research tells me it can even be used to combat certain cancer cells, among still more benefits.  Plants are amazing.

Back to my lesson: Because calendula becomes sticky when plucked, it is wise to wear gloves. Further, when harvesting it for medicinal value, pluck yesterday, today, and tomorrow’s blooms — and pluck them right off the stem.  Blooms that are too far gone should be plucked also but cast on the ground.

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A Lesson on Harvesting Orange Calendula
There are different medicinal values between orange and ivory calendula blooms . . . and sadly I learned this by mistake.  After plucking an entire row of orange calendula, I began to pluck the ivory accidentally.  Turns out there is more medicinal value in the orange compared to the ivory (I think I overheard the ivory has more pollen?) so the ivory stems should instead be cut for flower.  Huge oops — so much so I was worried I would not be invited back to the farm!

A Lesson on Composting
Farming can be a rather ruthless business — at least this is what I thought in the beginning.  Sometimes you have to sacrifice one plant for another to ensure the strongest can survive without competition.  This means snipping, pinching, or plucking the weaker plant out.  Often the ground between the rows then becomes littered with these sacrifices but this business encourages more growth from the plant so, in the end, it will be stronger.  Also good news: Dropped flowers such as these can be turned into compost.  A circle of life at its finest!

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A Lesson on Harvesting Strawflower
There are flowers with petals that feel like dry and papery — or well, straw-like — and they are strawflowers. I never knew these plants existed and I absolutely love them for their unique features. Another unique trait about the strawflower: They love dry, hot environments, which most flowers do not fair well in. PS–Strawflowers have so many color choices too! It’s hard not to fall in love with these flowers!

A Lesson on Harvesting Flowers
I have been anxious over cutting flowers too early but I learned a lesson that brought huge relief: It is better to harvest too early than too late.

A Lesson on Harvesting in the Rain
As we continued to harvest, the once-light drizzle turned to a heavy rain.  Sure, I was super happy because I love warm rain; however, the harder it fell, the more challenging harvesting becomes.  One reason why is because the blooms become water-laden, which causes the stems to break and so all of us made a dash to save the flowers!  The beauties on the right actually had a stem break from the heavy rain but even so, they are positively breathtaking!

A Lesson on Harvesting Seeds
Harvesting seed here is a top goal the farm owner has because then she does not have to rely on purchasing seed but instead can continue to support her plants independently and in a full-circle type of way.

My time spent on the farm was predominantly cutting flowers (which is absolutely fine with me) but when I had a chance to harvest seeds, I was eager to learn. To harvest, the plant has to be super dry and at the end of that year’s harvest. We started by cutting this plant down and placing — as delicately as possible — the stems in a large bin. The only problem is with a plant that is made to reproduce at the end of its life, seeds are thrown everywhere so keeping them contained and not littering the ground is rather difficult. Sure, the falling seeds would not be a problem if the same plant was to return in this spot the following year, but it is beneficial for the soil to cycle through different plants so these were not set to return in this exact spot again.

With my time to go, I realized yet another reason why nature is breathtaking: By the end of the day, the rain had soaked my clothes and once it stopped, the sun re-dried them and know what? There is something incredibly gratifying in that.

Interested in more farm lessons? Read my Part Three!