An herb to help you not lose your head named for a saint who lost his.

Shrubby St. John's Wort native to PA
Shrubby St. John’s Wort native to PA

There is a genus of plants that consists of nearly 400 species with nearly worldwide distribution. It is kind of amazing. These plants all have bright yellow blossoms. Some of the plants are perennials. Some need to reseed. Some are shrubby bushes. Some are trees, growing almost 40 feet tall. They are almost all called St. John’s Wort, with other descriptors or qualifiers before it. it’s genus name, hypericum, comes from the fact that they bloom just prior to the feast of the birth of St. John the Baptist on the summer solstice, June 24. The faithful would take branches of the flowers and place them over the icons in their homes and in their churches for the feast day.  Some varieties continue blooming until the feast of St. John’s Beheading on August 29.

St. John's Wort - hypericum perferatum
St. John’s Wort – hypericum perferatum

The petals of the flowers contain hypericin which is an antidepressant. For millennia people have been using the flower petals for tea for this purpose. Now drug stores sell 300mg capsules of powdered, dried St. John’s Wort that one may take three times a day. It is the only antidepressant I know of that doesn’t list suicidal thoughts as a possible side effect. (Miscarriage is a possible side effect, however.) Doctors prescribe it as it has been proven effective. We have three varieties of St. John’s Wort growing here. The photo above is from our front yard. It is a close up of a blossom on a native PA shrubby variety.  We have hypericum perforatum by the driveway side of the house and Four-petal St. John’s Wort, a native of Florida, back by the barn.

Non-native St. John's Wort in front of Telford-Souderton Post Office
Non-native St. John’s Wort in front of Telford-Souderton Post Office

I find it interesting that our local post office has loads of St. John’s Wort in front of it. Our local postal workers all seem to be happy and well adjusted. They have a couple of native bushes and then loads of these woody stemmed perennials, with giant blooms. The bees only bother with the natives. It provides a graphic lesson in the importance of planting natives. Only natives provide food for the bees and insects, butterflies and birds.

Four-petal Florida St. John's Wort
Four-petal Florida St. John’s Wort

Last summer, our plants each had one blossom on them the day before the feast and burst into full bloom on the day of the feast. This year, our native bush had only one blossom open two days after the feast. It is just now starting to fill with blooms. I think it is observing Old Calendar, this year.


St. John the Baptist icon by the hand of Constantine Youssis
St. John the Baptist icon by the hand of Constantine Youssis


“What’s so funny about peace, love and understanding?”

That was the question Nick Lowe asked in his song made popular by Elvis Costello. It is a serious question that  needs to be pressed especially hard to professing Christians these days. Jesus is proclaimed as the Prince of Peace! At Christmas we sing songs of “glad tidings of peace and good will among men.” Of course, in recent years, with the rightward turn of many in the pulpit, it has been stressed that “a more accurate translation of the Greek would be ‘peace to men of good will.'” I don’t know how this revision sits with Jesus’ message of turning the other cheek and going the second mile and forgiving those who have wronged you 70 times seven times in a day. I really don’t think he was worried we were going to be overzealous in our peacemaking. I wonder what the original Aramaic said. I’m sticking with the Christmas carol and the King James Version on this one, and the testimony of the whole direction of God’s word and Jesus’ ministry.

God came into the world not just to bring peace to good people. It’s a good thing, because none of us are that good. Christ is our peace, not only with God, but to bring peace to the nations:

“For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation, having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace, and that He might reconcile them both to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity. And He came and preached peace to you who were afar off and to those who were near. For through Him we both have access by one Spirit to the Father.” (Ephesians 2:14-18)

The first petition of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom of the Orthodox Church is “For the peace from above, and for the salvation of our souls, let us pray to the Lord.” This is foundational, because the Scripture says “God does not hear the prayers of sinners.” The second petition where our real work as a kingdom of priests starts is: “For the peace of the whole world; for the good estate of the holy churches of God, and for the union of all mankind, let us pray to the Lord.”

What’s so funny about peace, love and understanding, indeed!? We pray for them, right there at the beginning of every Liturgy: the peace part is obvious; love: when the churches are in good order, they are sharing the love of God through good works and breaking down walls of discrimination and ethnic and national hatred; and bringing all to unity in mutual respect and equality under God.

So why are so many of my Christian brothers and sisters so nationalistic and promoting the use of assault weapons to overthrow a government that might make you buy insurance for your employees? Why are so many of them racist? Why are so many talking of secession and stirring up anger and hatred just because their candidate didn’t win an election? Why do so many people think its OK to follow a bitter, atheist, immoral, hypocritical Ayn Rand as a moral leader in economics and totally ignore the teachings of Moses, the Prophets, Jesus and the Apostles? Or divorce them, by saying one is for private life and the other is for public life? How very De Peche Mode of you? You have your “own personal Jesus” but He has nothing to say about how we conduct civic life? The slave holders of the 19th century would solidly agree with you. It was the abolitionists who held that Jesus and the Prophets were going to call the nations to account, that dragged this country, kicking and screaming, into the modern age.

We need to revisit the Scriptures to unearth our sense of justice. We have lost our way. We have left Christianity and become Americans only. We have bought into the myth of the rugged individual. We think that if we can choose wisely, and get the right education, and land the right job, or invent the right gizmo, we can end up on top. Reality check. America now has the second lowest chance of upward mobility after England. Our middle class is disappearing at an alarming rate. Our income disparity between employers and workers is many times that of Mexico’s. That wall we are building will soon be keeping us in, if we do not do something quickly to correct things.

American Christianity has been very pietistic and individualistic to the point that modern evangelicalism is so disembodied as to be gnostic. Christianity’s roots, however, are not so. Hebrew did not have separate words for just and right or justice and righteousness. The singular and the corporate or the personal and the societal were so intertwined. The Bible is not just concerned about personal morality; it is concerned about social responsibility. God is not just going to judge individuals for their personal stewardship. He is going to judge the nations for their economic justice: their treatment of the poor. Read the Prophets. They still apply. Jesus did not come to abolish them, but to fulfill them. Our righteousness is to exceed that of the Scribes and the Pharisees, not mimic Rome.

We will examine the tithes of the Mosaic Law. Yes. There were more than one. We will look at the sabbath years, the gleaning rules and the Jubilee, to see a pattern of second chances, economic redistribution, and social justice, that God was setting forth as a pattern for the nations. We will see how God reinforced this message through the captivity and the warnings of the prophets to the nations. It was no accident that Jesus used the Jubilee song of Isaiah to introduce his earthly ministry. It was also not surprising that the entrenched political powers immediately wanted to stone him for preaching that kind of radical redistribution. St. James preached economic equality, as did St. Paul. We will include a few quotes from the Fathers and some examples from the Byzantine Empire. The point is not to push a particular party’s agenda. The point is to get people to think about economic justice and social justice in a more Christian way and bring that to the debate. We need to do like the old preacher told us to do: “Quit your meanness!”

A Solar Powered Water Purification System You Can Build at Home

That’s right folks! With very little skill you can build a system in your yard that will help purify streams and lakes. It will prevent many toxins from entering the waterways and improve water tables. But that’s not all! It will help freshen the air and provide shelter for some of God’s creatures. It can even help prevent some of your downhill or downstream neighbors from being flooded out! All this while adding beauty to your yard and reducing your mowing time! All this could be yours for the low, low price of  some rocks, some native plants and a couple of afternoons of sweat equity!

Adrianne L. Blank, RLA
Adrianne L. Blank, RLA, explaining rain gardens and swales

I’m talking about rain gardens and bioswales. Rain gardens and bioswales can be introduced into a landscape to help slow down the flow of water, allowing more of it to soak into the ground. This helps clean the water and alleviates flooding and improves ground water tables. A bioswale is basically a shallow ditch that slopes gradually down from the source of the water, whether that is a parking lot, a roof downspout, a roadway or a driveway. It can be lined with rocks or coarse gravel or eight to twelve inches of leaf compost and sand. It can include some native plants, but not solidly planted. It can be built up slightly on the low end to form a dam to allow two to four inches of water to remain in it and soak into the ground over the course of about two days after a rainstorm. This first level of filtering can remove most of any metals in the water and allows the water that doesn’t run over the low end to continue filtering through the ground.

The next stage of water purification and detention can be accomplished with a rain garden. For many years, building codes and zoning regulations have required detention basins for commercial developments and multiple unit housing developments. These help some, but not nearly as much as they could if they were planted and maintained as rain gardens. The average residential yard could help the water supply by using just 60 to 100 square feet for a rain garden (about the footprint of a mini-van). If commercial, church and development detention basins were to have their sod removed and replaced with a rain garden; it would go a long way to improving suburban and urban water tables and water quality.

A rain garden contains native flowers, bushes and sometimes, trees. 70% of water pollution comes from runoff. 80% of water that falls on a lawn runs off. The idea is to slow down the flow of the water to allow more of it to soak into the ground. Soil and plants filter out toxins to purify the water. Larger plants use more water. Local native plants help purify the air, moderate temperature and provide habitat for birds, butterflies and other creatures.

To build a residential rain garden, first, choose a suitable location. It should be where water flows to naturally, or you can create a bioswale or extend a downspout drainpipe to it. The finished ground level of the rain garden should be eight to twelve inches below surrounding grade level, with gentle slopes into it all around, if possible. It needs to be graded in such a way that the water enters it gently and is evenly dispersed, so it doesn’t erode and the full area is utilized to treat the water. The area needs to be dug down at least a foot deeper than the desired finished grade in order to mix compost into the soil. Then the area is planted with native flowers, bushes and trees. It is important to choose plants which tolerate wet conditions, yet tolerate drought. Local natives work best for this. A few sedges or ornamental grasses may be included in this, but so much that the ground is covered. Remember to choose plants that are appropriate for your sun conditions.

If only local, native plants are used, the rain garden should be very low maintenance. It should not be mowed more than once a year, in the fall.

For photos and more information on rain gardens, visit the following links:
Passive Rainwater Harvesting
Landcare Research (New Zealand), then click on A home raingarden for more detailed instructions and do’s and don’t’s.

Rain Barrel Workshop

Terry & Rain Barrel Kit
Terry & Rain Barrel Kit

Last Saturday  I went to a rain barrel workshop at Edge of the Woods Nursery put on by the Saucon Creek Watershed Committee. For $35, they provided the tools, the materials and help to build a 55 gallon rain barrel. Rain barrels help slow down the flow of water off of roofs. Suburban sprawl with its McMansions, additional roads, big box stores, big parking lots and lawns have caused many areas to become flood prone that never had this problem before. Rain showers now cause flooding, erosion and water pollution. 70% of water pollution in our lakes and streams comes from rainwater run-off. 80% of water falling on grass lawns runs off. Anything we can do to slow the flow and allow more of this water to filter through plants and soil will help to prevent flooding and pollution.

The simplest step that we can take to slow down the flow of water is to place rain barrels on our downspouts. This reduces the amount of rain flowing across the ground by catching the first 55 gallons in a rain event, saving it to be used on dry days. This reduces the amount of nonpoint source pollution. Rain barrels provide some additional benefits as well. 30% of our water is used for lawns and gardens, on average. If you use captured rainwater to water your garden and lawn you reduce your water and sewer bills and save drinking water resources. Rainwater is better for your plants than city water that has been chlorinated.

Mosquito screen
Mosquito screen attached to bottom of PVC toilet flange with duct ring

Now you can buy fancy, good-looking rain barrels from various gardening catalogs and some big box stores; or you can make them fairly inexpensively from a salvaged, food additive barrel and a few parts from the hardware store. The thread taps are pretty expensive, so try to borrow these from a plumber or join a gardening club or watershed association that can buy them corporately to sponsor events like the one I attended on Saturday.

Here’s the recipe:

1 food grade plastic 55 gallon drum. (SCWC gets theirs from a local recycling center.)
1 PVC toilet drain flange
2 sel-tapping 3/4″ hex-top, slot screws
1 dryer vent duct ring
about a square foot of nylon window screen
1 brass 1/2″ hose spigot
1 nylon 3/4″ thread, garden hose coupler
epoxy putty

Electric drill
handheld jigsaw
Adjustable wrench
4-5/8″ hole saw
3/4″ garden hose thread tap
13/16″ hole saw
7/16″ drill bit
thread tap for 1/2″ hose spigot
screwdriver or hex driver bit


Top of Rain Barrel Complete

Use 4-5/8″ hole saw to cut a hole in the top of the barrel, leaving enough flat surface around it to place the toilet flange. Attach screen to bottom of flange using the dryer duct ring.  (See photo above.) Trace and cut space on the side of the hole for the tightening screw to fit, so the flange lies flat, screen side down in the barrel.

Drill hole for spigot near the bottom of the side of the barrel using the drill bit. Consider carefully how you want to place this according to how the downspout will enter it, so you will have convenient access to use the water. Tap the threads and screw in spigot. Near the top of the barrel but still on the flat part of the side of the drum, cut the hole with the smaller hole saw for the overflow fitting. Use the larger tap to thread the opening, then screw in the hose coupler. Work the two parts of the epoxy putty together until it is a uniform color. Partially unscrew the spigot and the hose coupler. Work the putty into the threads and retighten, packing it all around to prevent leaks.

Your rain barrel is complete!

Tapping the barrel for the spigot
Threading the the hole for the spigot

Don’t drink the water from your barrel. If you have asbestos shingles (very old roof) or treated wood roof or a copper roof with a zinc anti-moss strip, do not use the water on edible plants. It is fine for flowers and lawns, though. Clean the bug screen periodically. In the winter, either take it in or leave the spigot open with no hose attached to avoid freezing and thawing from splitting your barrel.

Attach a hose to the overflow with the outlet somewhere like a soaker in a flower bed.
Spigot sealed with epoxy putty

Positive, Greener Alternatives to Mowing Lawns

The greenest, positive alternative to mowing a lawn is to do away with it by letting more green grow. I am not suggesting that you just stop mowing and let whatever is there just grow up, as if your place were abandoned. Land needs maintenance. Man is part of the ecosystem. Our responsibility since Creation has been to tend the earth. No, what I mean is replace the close clipped grass with bigger plants: bushes, flowers, trees, tall ornamental grasses and vegetables. Trees help clean the air; protect from and temper the weather; and attract rain. It is very important to choose plants that are appropriate for your climate. For the most part, avoid exotics, especially if they are invasive like kudzu and most bamboo. Plants that are native to a region will be easier to establish and maintain with minimal watering and protection than those that are not. Also native plants can many times be found and propagated with minimal cost. I subscribed to Mike McGroarty’s free e-newsletter to get tips on starting bushes and trees from cuttings. Another great resource is Mike McGrath’s “You Bet Your Garden” from WHYY-91FM in Philadelphia and syndicated nationally on NPR. He is a fount of information on all natural, non-toxic plant growing of all kinds.

An added benefit to growing more bushes, flowers and trees is that it provides more habitat for birds, butterflies and other creatures. These are fun to observe and beautiful and soothing to watch and hear. I had the thrill of watching an alley cat crouching behind our daylilies snatch a bird under the neighbor’s azalea. It was like a little National Geographic predators special, live, right here next to the driveway!

Vegetables and fruits have synergistic environmental effects. Replace some of your lawn with vegetables and you increase oxygen production, eliminate some lawn mowing pollution and reduce food miles. Instead of planting ornamental fruit trees, plant actual, fruit producing, fruit trees; and you may harvest some tasty fruit from your own yard. At the very least, you will provide added habitat and food for wildlife. You can plant edible cauliflower and cabbages, other vegetables and herbs as ornamental accents in your flower beds. A new specialty has even arisen among landscapers providing edible landscapes and planning.

If you really, truly enjoy a large lawn, get some sheep. I remember reading in  the Mother Earth News, about thirty years ago, about a rent-a-sheep mowing service in West Germany.

“How Green Was My Valley”?

About 40.5 million acres of land are used for lawns in the United Sates. About 300 million acres of land are used for harvested crops each year in the United States. American homeowners spent about $2.1 billion in 2001 for over 30,000 tons of herbicides (i.e., Roundup), insecticides, fungicides, etc., for their lawns. Lawn care pesticides kill about 7 million birds in the US each year. American farmers spent about $7.4 billion on the same in 2001. This is according to EPA estimates. (2001 is the last year for which they have published stats.) The lion’s share of the difference is that farmers use a lot more herbicide. Farmers have an additional 140 million acres in fallow and out of rotation cropland for a total of about 440 million acres. So US homeowners spent an average of about four times as much per acre on these toxins than did farmers. US residential use of these chemicals alone accounts for nearly 7% of the world market. This is more than a little out of proportion, just to have a patch of green around our castles. 

Then there is the whole issue of fertilizers. We use over 3 million tons annually on lawns. Over $5 billion per year is spent on fossil fuel derived fertilizers. Then there is the problem of gas powered mowers. The average gas powered mower emits as much pollution while mowing an acre of grass as driving a car 50 miles. Lawn mowers accounts for 7% smog causing particulate; and you are walking right behind it. 800 million gallons of gas are used each year for mowing lawns, of which an estimated 17 million gallons are spilled on the ground. (The Exxon Valdez spilled 10.8 million gallons, just for comparison.) According to the EPA, America uses an average of 7 billion gallons of water each day to water its lawns; over half of which is wasted due to overwatering and overspray. It always frustrated me, as a kid growing up in Golden Valley, that the more we would fertilize and water the lawn, the more we would have to mow it. It seemed to me that we could save all kinds of time by not fertilizing and watering. 

How about the dangers to life and limb? A number of these pesticides and fertilizers have been shown to increase risk of asthma, childhood leukemia, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, brain cancer, pancreatic cancer, birth defects, fetal death, etc., according to the Ontario College of Family Physicians: Pesticides Literature Review. Every year, about 75,000 people are seriously injured in lawn mower accidents in the US, including 10,000 children. 25,000 accidents result in an amputation. OK. Have I scared you enough? Just leave the lawn alone for a while.

I’ll get back to it with some positive, greener alternatives. I promise.