10 DIY Fire Pits

The allure of the fire pit. Photo © Liesl Clark

The allure of the fire pit. Photo © Liesl Clark

We love outdoor “rooms” with fire pits. They extend your outdoor time by weeks. Seems the latest craze is repurposing metal things into fire pits. Here’s a list of some of the most innovative ones we could find:

1) Metal Wheelbarrow Fire Pit: If you’ve got a metal one that’s broken down, try to turn it into a fire pit. It’ll look cool in your back yard.

2) Washing Machine Drum Fire Pit: Our app users love this. Next time someone you know is getting rid of their washing machine, ask for the drum inside. They make beautiful fire pits.

3) Paver Brick Fire Pit: Brick and concrete pavers make easy fire pit insulation material. There are many tutorials to find on the web for these homemade fire rings.

4) Wash Pail Fire Pit: A metal wash pail can work as a fire pit. Just be sure that if it’s galvanized you give plenty of time for the chemicals on the metal to burn off.

5) In-Ground Fire Pit: This is a classic and easy fire pit to make at home.

6) Old Grill Fire Pit. Wait for an old grill to come up on your Buy Nothing group for this fire pit option.

7) Shopping Cart Fire Pit: My favorite, with built-in log storage rack.

8) Industrial Wire Waste Fire Bowls: You can always try your hand a making fire bowls like these.

9) Tractor Rim Fire Ring: If you have access to a tractor rim, it makes a great fire ring.

10) Castiron Bathtub Fire Pit: Maybe you have an old tub hanging about?

Low Impact Trekking

By Mr. Everest

A Journey Beneath Dhaulagiri. Photo © Liesl Clark

A Journey Beneath Dhaulagiri. Photo © Liesl Clark

In most parts of the world, the higher we journey, the more rarified the air and pristine the environment. But in Nepal, that truth is changing. Twenty thousand visitors per year travel to the Mount Everest region, and thousands climb the 20,000 foot trekking peaks to catch glimpses of the world’s highest mountains. It’s imperative that we strive to leave as little impact as possible, and take steps to reverse some of the impacts left behind by others.

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This summer, we’ll be on our 13th journey through Nepal with our children, and feel fortunate to be able to share our work in the Himalayas with them, continuing the friendships they’ve established after 12 consecutive years of coming to this rugged country every spring or summer.  Exploring the outdoors brings joy to my 10 and 13 year old daughter and son and is integral to who they are.

Our children go on expeditions with us in Nepal.

Our children go on expeditions with us in Nepal. © Liesl Clark

My wife, Liesl, and I strive to pass on to them the 7 principles of leave no trace, established by the Center for Outdoor Ethics. I’ve added my personal insights and recommendations to the basic principles that you might find useful in planning for your next trip into the wilderness, whether alone or with your family and friends. The less impact we have on the environment, indeed even in our own backyards, the more readily our unique ecosystems and all the flora and fauna therein can thrive.

1) Planning your trip ahead of time and preparing is the first step. Take extra care to gain cultural knowledge of the behavior and the accepted norms of the country you’re travelling in. Learn about the environment you’re going into, whether it’s a pristine alpine wilderness or a heavily used high desert. Memorize which habitats are the most at risk and stay clear of them. Knowing this can make a difference in the choices you make for camping and recreating. Establish contingencies and have a plan in place for all contingencies.

Spinning prayer wheels in Kagbeni. © Liesl Clark

Spinning prayer wheels in Kagbeni. © Liesl Clark

Here are a few steps you’ll need to take in the planning phase that will greatly reduce your impact:

a) Get rid of all excessive packing of items you’re bringing with you. Remove the packaging from batteries, for example so you don’t bring that unnecessary paper and plastic (called blister packs that are not recyclable) with you.

b) Procure the right medicines and medical supplies for your trip. Remove the unnecessary packaging.

c) Bring maps and navigation materials like a compass or GPS.

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d) Set up the necessary insurance you’ll need in the event of a medical evacuation or helicopter rescue.

e) Where will your water sources come from? Please avoid plastic bottled water and plan to bring your own reusable water bottle to be refilled. Bring a Steripen for ultraviolet water purification, a water filter, or iodine tablets to treat your water.

2) Travel and camp on durable surfaces. For most trekking, you don’t need big heavy boots. You can travel in lighter trail shoes which don’t impact the terrain as much, causing erosion. Avoid going over people’s stone walls or walking through gardens. If you open gates, close them behind you. The point here is that you’re leaving no trace that you passed by. This is one instance where you don’t want to leave a big impression behind.

Sometimes travelling by foot is more reliable than by jeep. This jeep lost its fuel tank en route up the Kali Gandaki River. © Liesl Clark

Sometimes travelling by foot is more reliable than by jeep. This jeep lost its fuel tank en route up the Kali Gandaki River. © Liesl Clark

3) Have a plan for dealing with your waste:

a) If you’re in a National Park, use blue bags or something similar to pack out your own human waste. If you’re trekking, use outhouses. Otherwise, carry a small trowel or shovel and dig catholes. Carry your own toilet paper and burn it.

b) Carry out all plastics from your bars and all packaging from your food. A compression sack can do the trick to keep the waste in one place in your pack and consolidated.

c) Carry out the batteries from cameras and other equipment. These should be disposed of responsibly. Either take them home with you if you’re travelling in a country that doesn’t recycle them, or research where your nearest recycling facility is at the end of your trip. We stockpile all our batteries on our expeditions and bring them home.

d) Water: This might be the single most important step you take. Bringing your own reusable bottle saves the environment from hundreds of plastic bottles potentially littering the landscape. If others see you using a Steripen, a filter, or water tablets, they’ll see how easy an option it is. You can always ask for boiled water, but this water requires fuel to boil contaminants. A Steripen or hand-filter will mean you can get water wherever you want and it’ll be cold. It will also be free! I use a Steripen that has a solar charger attached to it so I’m not reliant on power or batteries to use it. Learn where the potable water stations are so you can support these efforts to stop people from buying bottled water.

Using a Steripen means we can have fresh cold water anywhere. © Liesl Clark

Using a Steripen means we can have fresh cold water anywhere. © Liesl Clark

e) When you’re on your way out, pay it forward by removing any waste you see in the environment. Especially if you come across potentially toxic waste like batteries or CFL light bulbs. These shouldn’t be anywhere outside, helping to remove these things and disposing of them safely, helps zero-offset your impact.

Removing a battery from a village water source. © Liesl Clark

Removing a battery from a village water source. © Liesl Clark

4) If you’re cooking on your own, be sure that you know where you should and shouldn’t have fires. Use local fuel that you can find easily and use those in substitution of wood fires.

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a) If you’re trekking where there are villages nearby, eating locally is a great way to reduce waste. The more local produce and indigenous food products you can eat from nearby fields and kitchens the less imported foods are needed to support your journey. We eat in homes and tea shops wherever we can in Nepal, where you’ll always find dhal bhat a Nepali dish of rice and lentils along with side dishes of locally grown vegetables.

Local Fresh Goatsmilk Yogurt in Kolapani. © Liesl Clark

Local Fresh Goatsmilk Yogurt in Kolapani. © Liesl Clark

b) Save your organic waste rather than throwing it outdoors to decompose. In some environments like the desert, even eggshells take an inordinate amount of time to break down. If you’re passing through villages, local farmers will be happy to take your stockpiled organics to feed to their stock animals (chickens, cows, yaks) or put in their compost piles.

5) Leave the natural environment as it is. Refrain from picking flowers or taking mementos from the natural world. Take only photos, leave only footprints.

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6) Be respectful of wildlife and don’t disturb any birdlife, mammals or any animals you come across.

7) Be respectful of other travellers using the same environment. The same goes for locals. Try to learn some of their language so you can greet them and ask a question. For starters, learning how to say hello, goodbye (often the same word), thank you, good morning, and counting to three will get you far. And, as in step #1, be aware of cultural norms.

9-hour day in jeep will put any 7-year-old to sleep. © Liesl Clark

9-hour day in jeep will put any 7-year-old to sleep. © Liesl Clark

Most of all, be in the moment and enjoy the journey, and where it takes your mind and heart.

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How to Fix a Cracked Wheelbarrow

I bought a plastic wheelbarrow and regretted it 4 years later. So much for the “plastic lasts forever” theory. Yes, it lasts forever, but it cracks in the interim, into smaller and smaller pieces. That was the fate of our deep Ace Hardware wheelbarrow that was this homestead’s workhorse for some 4 years.

We’ve had to replace the wheel once already. You can do that at Ace, amazingly, as they have parts ready to purchase for their wheelbarrows, but I doubt they’d have a new tub for us to replace. I thought we’d have to trash the whole molded black plastic thing, and then our friend, Ang Temba Sherpa from Nepal came to the rescue. He stitched it!

Yep, the fix was a mend via wire stitching, using a thin drill bit to make small holes for threading the wire along the crack. It’s a beautiful work of art to behold, somewhat like the stitch-up of the plastic plant pot I spotted in Tsarang, Upper Mustang, Nepal on our last trip there.

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Why don’t we mend our plastics in this country like the people of Nepal do?

It’s now been another 4 years since Ang Temba repaired our wheelbarrow, and I’m proud to tell you that we’re still using it! The long cracks in the base are actually quite welcome, as they let rainwater drip out. We have an improved wheelbarrow as a result of this everlasting hand stitchery.

Thanks, Temba!

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It’s still in action!

10 Things You Never Need to Buy

We got our inspiration for this post by reading Suburban Pioneers’ list of 10 common products you never need to buy, so we thought we’d spread the wealth and add to their list. So, this is really about 20 things you never have to buy. Do read their list first.

If we all compiled lists of 10 “Never Buy” items complete with explanation, we’d live in a utopian circular economy, my dream economy.  After reading our list, then compile your own and send it along in the comments below. I actually already have a list of 100 items, but I’m going to work up to it, so I don’t overwhelm you.

So, here goes: 10 common items you should never have to buy —

1) Paper towels (Um, use cloth ones.)

2) Hair ties (look in every parking lot and side walk. I’m serious.)

Hair Ties and Hair Clips Recovered From the Parking Lots and Sidewalks of the World. Just wash them. Photo © LIesl Clark

3) Pens (Look in every parking lot and side walk. I can’t tell you how many hundreds of pens I’ve found in public places.)

Pens Recovered on Puget Sound Beaches

4) Ribbons (Look on every shoreline.)

Ribbon Found on Our Beaches (including the spool), Photo © Liesl Clark

5) Styrofoam Packing Peanuts or bubble wrap (just ask on your local Buy Nothing group.)

6) Ziploc bags (wash them.)

Gaiam Bag Dryer, Photo © Liesl Clark

7) Plastic children’s toys (just ask any parent for them, they’ll gladly give you a box or 3.)

These Plastic Toys Were Being Thrown Away. Photo © Rebecca Rockefeller

Oh, and if the parents in your neighborhood want to hang on to all that plastic, just make your own toys. Here are a few (hundred) ideas for toys you can make from stuff in your home to get you started:

Click through for innovative ideas for making your own toys or reusing them at Trash Backwards

8) Books (use your library!)

9) Plastic straws (use your lips.)

plastic straws recovered from Point No Point and Schel-Chelb Estuary, WA, photo by Liesl Clark

10) Plastic cigarette lighters (use matches, especially from matchbooks you collect from bars and restaurants.)

Lighters Recovered from Puget Sound Beaches

OK, so now it’s your turn. What’s on your list?

Reducing Waste on Earth Day One School at a Time

Schools love Earth Day because it’s a kid-friendly time of year to educate and celebrate Mother Earth while taking stock on how we’re measuring up with our waste footprint. A couple years ago, we took the opportunity to audit 2 schools’ waste on Earth Day week, and the impact of the exercise has huge potential. But it’s up to the schools themselves to learn from the experience and find easy ways to change their collective behavior.

This article walks you through an informal audit that can take as little as 1 hour to conduct, if you have a few hands to help. We’ve also cut a short video to inspire you to do your own waste audit in the classroom with the kids. It’s hilarious, because it involves our trash, and enlightening at the same time.

1) Weigh the trash that the school is planning to throw away. In this case, we had 2 weeks’ worth of one school’s trash. There are approximately 45 students and 6 staff in the school.

A Carload of Trash = 2 Weeks' Worth of One School's Waste.

Total Trash Headed to the Landfill = 23.31 lbs.

2) Start sorting! Can anything be diverted? Start with recyclables. This school recycles, but there’s always room for improvement. We found a lot of recyclable paper and plastic in the trash.

We sorted 2 bags'-worth of recyclables out of the landfill-bound trash.

Total Recyclables Diverted from the Landfill: 9.24 lbs.

3) Are there any organics, meaning compostable materials in the trash? Remove them from the trash, pile them up, and weigh them. This school has a Bokashi composter, but there’s always room for improvement.

Compostables Found in the Trash.

Compostable matter is a resource! Put it back in the earth by composting it or sending it to the worm farm.

Throwing away a dried-up plant and soil? We put the soil and plant in the compost and the 4" pot can be reused.

Total Compostables Diverted from the Landfill: 6.27 lbs.

4) Are there any reusable items in the trash? Separate them out and weigh them. A lot of pencils, some clothing, and bookmarks were recovered from the trash for donation to an organization that needs these items.

These pencils can be reused. Photo © Liesl Clark

Total reusable items: 5.76 lbs.

5) Are there any polyethylene plastic bags in the trash? Separate them out and weigh them. We found 45 totally clean trash bags in the waste.

Mount Polyethylene. Photo © Liesl Clark

Total plastic bags: 1.16 lbs.

6) Are there other specialty recycling items in the trash, like scrap metal, batteries, printer cartridges, and styrofoam peanuts? They don’t need to go in the trash.

Packing Peanuts Can Be Recycled at UPS or Freecycled.

Total speciality recycling items: 0.52 lbs.

7) Are any of the compostable items good for chickens to eat? Separate them from the trash and weigh them.

Chicken Vittles, Courtesy of School Lunch.

Total chicken bucket items: 0.36 lbs.

8) Now re-weigh your trash headed to the landfill.

Final Landfill Tally? 3.76 lbs.

Total Trash Headed to Landfill Post-Sort: 3.76 lbs.

That’s a diversion of 19.55 lbs. or 2 and 3/4 trash bins-full. We pay $4.00 per trash can of waste at our transfer station. This waste audit saved the school (or the school’s volunteer who takes the trash to the landfill) $11.00. In one year, that’s a savings of $286.00. For a small school, that’s a significant savings!

How can we keep our school waste down in the future? Here are some simple recommendations that any school can follow to reduce their landfill waste:

Recommendations

1) If your school doesn’t have a composting program in place, consider starting one or a worm bin. Failing that, a parent volunteer who has a farm or garden will happily take your organic waste away for their own compost. See your organics as a resource!

2) Place a small recycle and compost bin next to every landfill trash bin in your school. This way you give everyone a CHOICE.

3) Clean and wet paper towels can be recycled. Place a recycle bin in the bathrooms for this along with a sign reminding people that the bin is for their clean and wet paper towels. Or better yet, lose the paper towels and switch to cloth ones. This school did.

4) Set up specialty recycling containers where appropriate. For example, a plastic bag recycling spot should go in every classroom and in the lunchroom and kitchen. A school volunteer can come and pick up the plastic bags once a week and take them to the grocery store for recycling. I’ve happily done it for our children’s schools for years.

Do the same for other items such as batteries and printer cartridges. These items should never be put into the landfill. Your community will have a recycling location for them, or look “batteries” or “printer cartridges” up in our Trash Backwards app. Staples takes printer cartridges worldwide and most municipal recycling programs have a safe disposal location for batteries.

5) If your school has a pencil sharpening area, place a can near the sharpener for collecting shredded pencil bits for the compost. Also place a donation can for the small pencils that your teacher might want you to throw away. Children at our libraries in Nepal would love those pencils, or let the students take them home for their homework. The image below, shows a yellow pencil stub my son found in a schoolyard outside one of our Magic Yeti Children’s Libraries in Nepal, lined up with the pencils we sorted out of a school’s waste yesterday:

Yellow pencil found in a schoolyard in Nepal vs. the pencils (and shapeners) discarded in a 2-week period by one US school.

The pencils can go to good use in the hands of kids who have no pencils in Nepal.

These discarded colored pencils will bring joy to children living at 14,000 feet in the rainshadow of the Himalaya. Trash. Backwards.

6) Each classroom could have a reuse bin for students to throw items (like the discarded pencils) that others could take for reuse or donation. Some students might be able to use a plastic container that might otherwise be thrown away, for example.

7) Set up a chicken bucket in the food-eating areas. You’ll likely have a family or 2 that have chickens. Getting the students involved in seeing their food waste as a resource for another animal is a good thing. The families can switch off chicken bucket pickup each week. We use a galvanized bucket decorated by our children for our chickens.

6) Be aware of what’s headed to the landfill monthly and set community goals to reduce even further. If your cleaning service doesn’t empty the trash bags but simply removes a bag no matter how much waste is in it and replaces it with another, you might recommend they pour the trash from all your waste bins into a single bag, to conserve plastic trash bags.

This trash bag only had a single dry paper towel in it.

If they use single-use swiffer dusters, perhaps invest in a reusable micro-fiber swiffer duster.

If your school laminates a lot. Consider going lamination-free. Laminate is a non-recyclable plastic, is costly, and isn’t the most healthy material for children to be handling on a daily basis. Using reusable plastic sleeves might be a more sustainable option.

8) Educate parents and students about food packaging used in school lunches. Plastic snack packaging was the single-most thrown-out item in this school’s landfill waste. Encouraging students and staff to find plastic-free options will make a large dent in your overall waste bill. Students, when made aware that plastic is forever, often prefer plastic-free lunches. A popular option to suggest is a “pack it in, pack it out” policy for school lunches, putting the waste onus on parents and students, not the school. Parents can then see what their kids are truly eating, or not, and modify their portions and lunch choices accordingly, saving money and waste.

Single Most Common Item in Landfill Trash = Snack Wrappers.

Have you found this information useful? Share it with others, especially your school!

Mermaid’s Tears For Earth Day

By Finn Clark when he was age 9 (With Some Help from his Mom)

Last Friday was Earth Day at our school, a Montessori school called Voyager, and we created art from plastic my family found on the beaches of Bainbridge Island and the Olympic Peninsula. For the past 2-3 months, we have collected plastics that we find on our shorelines and in parking lots and watersheds, stream beds and estuaries headed toward the sea.

For our spring break, we camped at Second Beach, in Olympic National Park, and were amazed at the amount of plastic washing ashore from the Pacific Ocean’s waves. My little sister and I collected plastic for about an hour and hardly made a dent in the plastics spread across the sand.

When we woke up in the morning little bits of plastic seemed to sparkle along the high tide line, thousands of tiny shards and pieces worn and broken down by the action of the waves. Plastic can’t decompose, it just gets smaller and smaller until it becomes a thick soup in our waters. But the most disturbing pieces of plastic are miniscule nurdles, little round white discs, that are the raw plastics used to make anything that is plastic. One scientist went to hundreds of beaches around the world and found nurdles on every beach he studied, even on beaches in countries where plastics aren’t manufactured. Some people call them “mermaids’ tears,” and I think that’s a good name because they make me sad, too.

They’re toxic, sadly, as they act like a sponge, absorbing persistant organic pollutants (POPs) like DDT and PCB that are afloat in our waters. The yellower the nurdle, the more toxic it is.

We brought the larger chunks of plastic to our school for Earth Day and made 4 panels of art, following the rainbow spectrum of colors, to show people that every color imaginable is found on our favorite beach. Now that art will be hung at our school to remind us that maybe we should rethink the plastics we use everyday and find better alternatives that will biodegrade or break back down naturally into the environment.

My mom and her good friend, Rebecca, are trying to provide solutions to this problem of plastic in our environment, one piece at a time. That’s what a whole website, called Trash Backwards that Rebecca and my mom created is about. The most common things we find on the beaches, the straws, pens, plastic bottle caps, toothbrushes, and fireworks are a few of the items they’re researching and trying to find non-plastic alternatives for us all to use.

What common items have you found on your beach, in your parking lots, or sidewalks? Tell us, list them below, even a single word will do, and we’ll start researching non-plastic alternatives so we can live lives a little less plastic in the future.

20 Nettle Uses: A Forest Superfood

There’s likely no other wild plant that marks the beginning of spring growth than the wild nettle, urtica. Urtica is a forest superfood, full of vitamins and health benefits that can alleviate allergies, dry scalps and skin, and a long list of diseases that I’ll simply link you to here since Mother Earth News has it covered.

We all know that nettles come with an unpleasant sting if you brush up against the leaves. But with some care, a.k.a gloves and tongs, you can harvest wild nettles, steam them (this removes the sting in about 6 seconds), and have the foundation for one of the most nutritious greens you’ll ever have in your kitchen. Go forth and harvest these stingers, dry them or steam them up, puree them, bake them, or just put them in jars in your freezer for future use in the recipes I’ve collected below.

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1) Drying Nettles and the Basics: For starters, I want to link you to this great article on how to safely forage for nettles and also dry and store them. I’m a big believer in using all the naturally-edible natively-growing greens around you, rather than going to the store and buying greens grown elsewhere.

2) Nettle Beer: From what I’ve read, this is more like a wine. Easy to make, and quite tasty.

3) Nettle Chips: Move over kale! It’s time for us to embrace stinging nettle chips. These. Are. To. Die. For. (And I promise, you won’t die, you’ll just want more.)

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4) Stinging Nettle Fritters: These look incredibly delicious. I don’t have to say much more.

5) Stinging Nettle Mayonnaise: Want to add a bit of zing to your mayo? This is a recipe worth trying.

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6) Fermented Nettle Kimchi: We’re big kimchi makers and eaters. I just can’t wait to try this recipe this weekend. It’s right up our alley.

7) Black Strap Nettle Syrup: This ought to cure what ails you, yet another recipe that I know will come in handy for my family as we grow ever-closer to living off our land.

8) Wild Nettle Mini-Cakes With Strawberry Lemon Icing: If the name of this recipe doesn’t have your mouth watering, just check out the photos from this beautiful blog.

9) Nettle Recipes For Hair, Skin, & Nails: If you’re looking for a deep infusion of green to help bring you back into balance while providing nutrients for your hair, skin, and nails? This article is for you.

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10) Portable Allergy Tonic: Have troubles with seasonal allergies? This tonic promises relief.

11) Nettle Vinegar: This one caught my attention because we make all our own vinegars. Adding nettles makes a lot of sense, given their health benefits.

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12) Nettle and Lemon Cake with Blackberries and Lemon Icing: If you’re planning a birthday party for a child, this might be a great way to sneak in some greens! The lemon icing adds just the right zing to match the nettle color.

13) Wild Onion and Nettle Soup: We make this every spring and freeze as much as we can. This soup is just about as close as you’ll ever come to “drinking spring.”

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14) Fermented Nettle Tea: If you’re into all things fermented, why not nettles? Kombucha, move over!

15) Lentil and Nettle Curry: Seeing as Nepal is covered with nettles in spring, this dhal curry with nettles didn’t surprise me.

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16) Pizza with Garlic Cream and Nettles: OMG, you guys! This is so delectable, you have to try it. Just replace your hankering for basil with nettles here and you’ll want to repeat this recipe every week. I now freeze our excess-harvested nettles so we can have this all year round.

17) Nettle Crisps: Ok, so these are the same as the nettle chips, but it doesn’t hurt to try a slightly different recipe.

18) Nettlekopita: My friend, Rebecca, who is an amazing cook, makes this every spring and so I know it’s delicious. I just need to get over my sense that it’s time-consuming to make, because it doesn’t look like it from this recipe. My husband is Greek and I’d love to try this out on him.

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19) Wild Nettle Beer: I couldn’t resist linking you to another great recipe for a nettle home brew. This one was so well thought-out, I think a novice could make it.

20) Nettle Wine: I’m calling this one wine because, reportedly, it tastes more like wine. I love this article as it really spells things out clearly.

On a final note, I wanted to link you to a fascinating article, now that you’ve immersed yourself in mouth-watering nettlemania. It appears nettles have been used for millennia. Around 800 BC, nettles were used to make a silk-like fabric. Like flax, nettles were employed for their strong fibers for use in cloth-making. What uses have you come up with for this underdog wild stinging plant? We’re in awe of its properties and many uses, and excited to learn more about this superfood’s talents. Share what you know, and we’ll add it to the list.