oat harvest

This post is a continuation from Sowing My Wild Oats

The harvest of my wild oats was one of my greatest gardening pleasures. In the
spring, when they reached about a foot tall, I would start cutting them
for tea. Most years, they can handle two harvests easily and still
produce seed. I experimented with various methods, and eventually found
it was best to cut the grass to about 3 inches high, then cut up the harvested green tops
immediately with scissors into small pieces and then dry them in my
dehydrator overnight. The only limit to how much I could harvest was how
much scissoring my hands could tolerate.

When
I had cut all I could, I would let it keep growing until it flowered
and set seed. Then, the testing begins. Experience taught me that the
flower stalks get a distinctive wiggle-shape to them when the seeds are
in milk. I’d always verify, though, partly just for fun. As the seeds of grains develop, they go through several phases. For tincture, we harvest them at the phase called “milky” or “in milk”. The pop and
squirt of a milky oat seed is satisfying like popping bubble wrap. A little of the milky white latex spurts out. Michael used to say it was sexy: “you rub them and they come.” At
that phase, I’d harvest bowl upon bowl of seed. Each day a new crop, for a
week or two at least. I’d post on facebook and invite the local herbalists over.
There was always more in my small yard that I could ever harvest on my
own.

And then the tincturing! I had an
ancient vitamix that I’d pull out for a few, select herbs. Like a milky
oat smoothie, I’d add seeds and alcohol, seeds and alcohol, weighing
out one part seeds to two parts alcohol, then poking it with a stick, whizzing it, poking it with a stick, whizzing it. I’d pack the resulting mash into
canning jars to macerate. For my first batches I used 95% alcohol, the
way I had learned from Michael, but that tincture was
unpleasantly strongly alcoholic. I worked my way down over the years to
75% and then 60% and then finally all the way to vodka. People like the
taste better and, as far as I can tell, it works just as well. No matter
what the alcohol level, the mash that results is an electric green that
begs to be admired. I sit and stare at it and delight in the opportunity
for color therapy, soaking in the viriditas.

I’ve never harvest oat for the edible kernel. Anyway, the edible part of Avena fatua is so tiny compared to the familiar Avena sativa you get at the store. Reading about the phases of grain development in order to understand the milk phase, though, I felt such empathy for grain farmers. After months of growing, the weather in those last few weeks becomes so critical. If it ripens quickly and then rains on the ideal harvest day, all of that work could be ruined! And if you have to wait for it to dry, the other critters may find it in time to eat a lot of it before you have a chance to harvest. As I watched it ripen, I could feel what a tense, nail-biting phase this could be in the farming cycle. Good thing to have that oatstraw tea to drink!

No matter what the weather does, though, the seed would come eventually. The green fading into beige, once it was nice and dry and fully formed it would have taken on the color of a tawny lion. And then I would harvest large sacks of ripe seed, to sow in garden beds and to give away to other gardeners and herbalists. In my baskets of seeds I’d gathered to plant, probably half the bulk of it was oats, a bounty to be shared.

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