Stacking Functions Garden


Garden Plan 2013

Here we are, my favorite post of the year! My detailed garden plan for 2013, click to enlarge:

Sample garden layout for 6 foot x 20 foot garden, via New Home Economics blog

Oh, how my plans have evolved over the years (2009, 2010, 2011, 2012).

I’ve been very focused, the past two years, on trying to grow a GREAT variety of things in my garden, but now that I’m a more experienced gardener, I want a nice-sized crop. I’m no longer excited about having grown one single eggplant fruit. Give me at least 15 of something or forget it.

With that in mind, I’m taking 2013 off from all brassicas and root vegetables in the main garden. I have had bad luck with both—brassicas due to their long growing season and root vegetables due to my very rocky soil. My main vegetable garden has a very short season due to the peak of my neighbor’s house. It blocks the sun in all but the highest summer weeks.

I’ve also learned a lot about hoop house gardening, and this year will try to take my mini stock tank hoop house to the next level. With that in mind, I’m planting only very early spring things in March (weather permitting). These things will definitely be done by July 1 or so, when I will look to the fall and get greens and other such things started for fall harvests. My biggest lesson from 2012 in the stock tank was that I need to start the fall plantings earlier, giving them a chance to get good-sized before the cold and dark set in.

I grew both shallots and green onions from Mother Earth Gardens “starts” last year, and loved them. I plan to do that again. Garlic is already in the ground. I wish it had some insulating snow on top to protect it from the -20 degree F winds blowing over our area today, but… well hopefully it will be fine.

After pickling jalapeno peppers last summer and LOVING the result, I plan to grow quite a few more hot peppers this year. I’ve made room for 12 plants, and will get a variety of peppers when I make my annual pilgrimage. As for tomatoes, I’ll grow six plants again on the trellis, but will decide which varieties when the catalog arrives.

I actually have quite a bit of seed leftover from last year when I apparently went completely insane with seed, so I’m going to re-use wherever possible (yes, many seeds are still viable after a year or two). This means we’ll be enjoying “Maxibel Haricot Verts” again this summer–they are a spectacular bush green bean.

I’m also letting go of trying to grow vegetables in Rowan and Anneke’s stock tanks. They simply don’t get enough sun for anything beyond nasturtiums. I’m going to let them each pick out a variety of shade-loving annual flowers this year, and I think some fairy gardens may sprout.

My question for you: do you think acorn squash will work on a completely vertical trellis? Or am I dreaming too big?

Garden planning and seed starting information

My garden plans for 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012
My 2012 garden calendar (2013 planning dates, coming soon)
Starting seeds without peat or plastic
U of M Extension seed starting guide
U of M Extension: planting dates for vegetables (highly recommended)
U of M Extension: a whole bunch more information about vegetables


Rabbit Damage

The rabbits. They’re especially destructive in winters like the one we’re having, with little snow cover. The day after Christmas, I saw this: Rabbit damage on viburnum, via The New Home Economics blog

One of my brand new viburnums with obvious rabbit damage—stripped bark and disappearing twigs galore. Obviously, my cut-in-half hardware cloth hoop did little to protect this plant. Since Christmas was over anyway, we took down the Christmas tree, clipped off all the branches, and used it as heavy mulch and rabbit-blocking aid.

Christmas tree branch mulch on viburnums, via The New Home Economics blog

I looked under the branches today and it does seem to have helped. I did the same thing with my blueberries, whose size had already been reduced by 50% by the time I got to them.

Blueberries with protective Christmas tree mulch, via The New Home Economics blog

They were very small to begin with, having been eaten to the ground last winter. They spent all of summer 2012 just trying to get re-established.

Raspberry hedge decimated by rabbits, via the New Home Economics blog

Things look even worse in the raspberry patch. If we don’t get significant snow cover soon, all canes will be eaten to the ground. A fresh dusting of snow today covered a truly astonishing amount of rabbit scat that was visible after a thaw last week.

Rabbit damage on crabapple shoots, via The New Home Economics blog

On the other hand, should I be thanking the buns for trimming the sprouts next to my sickly crab apple tree?

Rabbit damage on currant bush, via The New Home Economics blog

Many plants withstand a little rabbit damage. This established currant bush is a good example. You can see some bark nibbling going on, and maybe a handful of twigs eliminated, but for the most part we’re good here.

Red-twig dogwood with rabbit damage, via the New Home Economics blog

Here also, some minor damage near the bottom of a red-twig dogwood. It needs trimming every year anyway, so I’m not worried about it.

What to do about this? The most effective way to prevent rabbit damage is by blocking them, but blocking every single precious plant in my landscape would make my landscape ugly. Rabbits are one of the reasons why I chose stock tanks for my back yard container gardens, so I’ve found some creative ways around them.

The other big thing that we need to address is this:

Rabbit habitat, provided by friendly humans, via The New Home Economics blog

The previous owners of our home built a large deck about 4-6 inches off the ground right behind our house. I’m guessing it didn’t take the rabbits long to move in, and they were well-established—with several entrances and exits—by the time we bought this house 6 years ago. Then we started adding in all kinds of rabbit delicacies to the previously-sterile landscape, supporting the population even further…and… well… this problem is multi-faceted, suffice to say.

Magnolia in winter, via The New Home Economics

The one shrub they have no interest in: my magnolia, with its fantastic fur-covered toes that hold within them the first flowers of spring.

Killing rabbits is not a long-term solution to this problem. In any ecosystem—the inner city is definitely a unique one—if you remove a part of it, others will fill that niche. Translation: other bunnies will move in to a newly-vacant rabbit mansion under our deck.

So the next step is going to have to be: remove the habitat. I’m not excited about the expense of removing the deck and replacing it with a patio, but it’s got to be done. Will it get done this year? That remains to be seen.

What are your rabbit strategies? This is a problem I’ve been dealing with for quite some time:

Protecting baby plants from rabbits (summer 2012)
Rabbit damage, spring 2011 (after a VERY rough winter for the rabbits)
Me 1, rabbits 0 (protecting early spring tulips and strawberries)


The Grocery Budget, 2013 edition

It’s become an annual tradition for me to review our grocery budget around New Year’s. At first, it was about gauging whether our garden was really saving us money. What I’ve come to realize is that our gardens (especially our fruits) allow us to eat really grandly (and healthfully), on a budget. It’s all a matter of perspective of what you want to put in your body and how much effort you’re willing to make, in the kitchen and the garden.

Anyway! There’s a major difference about our 2012 grocery budget. One year ago, we started using to track all of our expenses. IT ROCKS. Pulling the stats for this post took approximately 45 seconds:

Food budget on

There you have it, a simple pie chart showing that groceries are, far and away, where our food-related spending happens. When I first started looking at the stats, it looked like we had spent about $300 more in 2012 than 2011. But on closer inspection, I realized that if I just looked at Seward co-op, where we get almost all our groceries, we actually spent a tiny bit ($100) less. The other $400 or so was from other grocery stores around the states of MN and South Dakota, where we traveled in 2012.

I think it’s safe to say that, more or less, we held the line on grocery spending for 2013. Mint was a big part of making that possible—it tracks your spending automatically, and you can sign up for text messages when you exceed any of your set budgets in any given month.

My only criticism of Mint is that neither my credit union nor my 401(k) provider hook up well with it, eliminating some of the convenience factor. But for the most part, I like it. It’s helped us set up our monthly budget and now we’re using it to help achieve some financial goals (made possible by the kids being in full-day Kindergarten instead of daycare).

I should note: we spend a MUCH greater percentage of our income on groceries than average Americans. It’s a conscious decision and I have no regrets about it—on the contrary I feel lucky to have the option.


Enough about budgets, let’s talk about food. Adam’s been watching The Mind of a Chef on PBS, and the kids and I have been reaping the benefits, including this homemade ramen. He didn’t use a recipe, but based it loosely on David Chang’s descriptions of authentic Japanese ramen. It involved cooking pork and chicken bones, and some oxtail for good measure, for 24 hours, along with some onions and other random veggie trimmings. He removed the bones, then boiled it on the stove to reduce it by half, and also cooked some kombu in there for a while. We poured the finished stock over cooked Japanese noodles, and enjoyed it. Immensely.


Book review: The Resilient Gardener

The Resilient GardenerThe Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times

by Carol Deppe

The title of this book is a bit heavy-handed; I probably wouldn’t have looked it up if my favorite permaculture blog hadn’t recommended it.

Yet, her broad definition of “hard times” resonated with me. Would your garden survive if you were unable to water it for two weeks? Weed it for three weeks? This concept was brought home to me long before I read this book, when Adam had a random injury in August that left him unable to do any lifting for well over a month. I had to do everything during that time, and it was both eye-opening and exhausting.

So, what if I, the primary gardener in the family, get a random injury? Or what if we have a drought and the city imposes watering limits (a very real possibility, actually)? I actually think these two questions should be asked about ANY landscape, not just a food-producing one.

Before I go any further, I should outline my recommendation regarding this book. Choose whichever of the following best applies to you:

1. If you live in Willamette Valley, Oregon and garden at any scale: BUY this book.

2. If you live anywhere else, and own or have access to acreage and have a desire to increase self-sufficiency by raising some staple crops like corn, beans, squash, or potatoes: BORROW this book from the library. (You may end up buying it.)

3. If you do not meet conditions 1 or 2: well, borrow it only if the topic really interests you.

This book suffers from the same problem affecting nearly all gardening (especially permaculture-oriented) books I read: warm climate-itis. The upper midwest is just a whole different ball game in gardening (though that’s not all bad, either).

Still, there are some useful nuggets in here. Here are a handful:

Plant spacing for resilience. Deppe grows corn, squash, beans, and potatoes enough to be self-sufficient on them as well as sell at market (i.e. she grows a shit ton of all four on acreage). The Willamette valley gets very dry in summer, but she grows most of her crops with little to no irrigation. She achieves this, in part, by increasing plant spacing to even double the amount recommended on the seed packet.

Timing. Because her region has rain at specific times (lots in the winter but very little in the summer) she plants strategically so that crops that need more water are maturing at the time when her region tends to get water. (This does not apply to the upper midwest, but still worth noting.)

Potatoes. She outlines three strategies for planting potatoes: hilling up, trenching, or growing in mulch, with details about how to determine which strategy is best for you. My own potato tower experiment was not successful, but I think that hilling up is probably a classic Minnesota potato strategy for a very good reason.

Ducks vs. Chickens. Deppe’s chapter on ducks offers a great comparison on determining whether you should raise ducks or chickens, and how raising fowl can have a dramatic effect on your resiliency. They can be a great choice if the land you live on happens to not be ideal for growing vegetables or fruit. Unfortunately they are not a choice for me right now, because of problems with obtaining a city permit.

Corn. Deppe has a real fondness for the lowly corn plant, and this book has great in-depth information on types of corn (flour, flint, dent), reasons and how-to’s for growing each, seed-saving and breeding techniques, and even recipes. As a person who is gluten-intolerant, she has a keen interest in providing high-quality non-wheat flour for herself—there are several interesting gluten-free recipes in the book.

Beans. One of the shortest chapters, but Deppe still manages to make a nice case for growing drying beans, and offers advice for those of us who still romanticize the old interplanting corn, beans, and squash myth. Deppe’s answer: it can be done, but mind your spacing and choose varieties that are suited for it.

I would love to think that someday Adam and I might be able to afford to buy a handful of acres somewhere in Minnesota or western Wisconsin. But since we likely wouldn’t be able to live there for many years, what crops (if any) could I realistically grow on this fantasy land, which I would only visit once per week in the best of times? Deppe’s book gave me LOTS of ideas to dream on, for now.


Recipe: banket

Here’s a Christmas dessert from the far reaches of my distant memories—making Dutch treats must have gone out of fashion at some point for my family. I remembered an oblong loaf with almond filling in it, and my mom informed me it’s called banket (bahn-ket). I started with this recipe, gleaned useful information from this kind Dutch cook, and came up with the following:

1 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 c. (1 stick) butter
1/4 c. water
pinch salt

1 7-ounce tube (3/4 c.) almond paste
1 egg
1/3 c. white sugar (I used evaporated cane juice which is slightly more complex)
1/2 tsp. almond extract

1 beaten egg
1/2 c. sliced almonds

The crust is basically a pie crust. Start with nice chilled butter, mix it into the flour and salt with a pastry cutter or fork, then slowly add the water until it forms a ball. Let it chill for a bit in the refrigerator while you mix up the filling. The almond paste can be a little tough to work with and make smooth. I used an electric mixer.

Take 1/2 of the crust dough out of the refrigerator and roll it into a long strip. Form the strip into a circle on a piece of parchment paper OR a large cookie sheet. Brush the edges with beaten egg. Now spoon your filling onto your circle like so:

How to make banket, a Dutch almond pastry

Roll out the other half of your dough into a strip of similar size/shape, and plop it on top of the filling. Chilling everything (including the filling) makes this go a bit easier.

How to make banket, a Dutch almond pastry

Now you want to paint more beaten egg on, using it as glue to attach the bottom pastry to the top. You may be able to tell at this point that I am not a professional pastry chef. But this mess gets covered by almonds, so don’t worry too much about it.

Brush the entire thing with the beaten egg, and sprinkle the sliced almonds on top. With a sharp knife, cut just a handful of small slits in the top to help prevent blow-outs. Bake at 400 for 25 minutes or so, and you’ll have this beauty:

Banket, a Dutch almond pastry

I baked mine on the same baking stone I use for all breads, but a cookie sheet would also be fine. In my first iteration of this, I baked it in long sticks at a higher temp (per this recipe). The crust was a bit flakier, but it also burned on the bottom and the almond filling burst out of a couple of them. Baking at a lower temp for a bit longer seemed to help. Plus, the wreath shape is festive, yes?

Banket, a Dutch almond pastry

I actually made this several days ahead of time and then froze it, and it held up pretty nicely. I only wish one of my Dutch omas was still around to taste it. This is probably going to be a new holiday tradition. Happy New Year!