Stacking Functions Garden


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Four Lined Plant Bugs, gates, radishes, and everything in between

Happy Solstice to you! We spent ours in the company of our fellow Sabathani gardeners, cleaning up walkways and roasting marshmallows over a fire. It was a lovely evening.

Let’s get right into a garden update, shall we?

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Meet my current nemesis, the four-lined plant bug. It’s a generalist, shown here feeding on some goldenrod. It also really loves herbs and plants in the mint family. It’s done quite a number on my bee balm:

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In past years I tried not to get too worked up about this bug—its damage is not fatal, after all. But yesterday it almost destroyed several of my jalapeño plants. These guys are a little tricky to catch. They often scurry to the underside of the leaf as soon as they see me coming.

I’ve resorted to carefully watching plants that show signs of damage, then holding still to watch for movement. If I catch them I clap my hands together quickly over the leaf the bug is on. This usually either squashes it or slows it down enough for me to finish the job. I don’t get every single one. The numbers in my yard this year are a little disheartening, but at least I don’t have to worry about my wildflowers surviving.

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Thankfully they’re not interested in all of my garden vegetables. Radishes never get very large in my home garden, but a string of cool days has really helped extend the harvest.

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My home garden is dedicated this year to root vegetables, beans, and greens. Here are kale, collards, and chard which I planted from seed in early spring. The plan is to keep thinning them out as they get larger; we’ve already had one meal of thinnings so far and another is imminent.

Wait, is that milkweed growing in my garden? Yes, it is. I always try to pull these plants first to feed my butterflies, but I carefully work around them until I do need them.

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Good thing, too, because I found this big guy on a tiny milkweed plant between two onions. I’m having a good vegetable year so far, knock on wood. Here’s a picture of my lettuce from several days ago:

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Shortly after this some of it started to bolt, but we should be able to eke a few more weeks out of it. Underneath the big lettuce plants are some smaller ones that they crowded out, so hopefully as I pull bolting plants the smaller ones will fill in a little bit.

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My community garden plot is doing well so far, too. I attribute this to two factors. First, we grew pumpkins and squash there almost exclusively for 4+ years. After a poor season last year, it was time to try some different things on that soil.

Secondly, we planted a cover crop there last fall—a mixture of hairy vetch and winter rye from High Mowing Seeds. This mix is formulated to survive a Minnesota winter and start growing vigorously again right away in the spring. It worked (!) so we turned it over the first weekend in May and planted 3 weeks later.

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*This* is how bushy and happy tomato plants can be when they get 14+ hours of intense sunlight a day. I’m going against my usual community garden strategy this year, because of wanting to mix things up in the home garden and at Sabathani in an effort to reduce built-up bacteria in the soil.

This means Adam and I have to bike or drive over to Sabath at least twice per week to tend it, but so far we’ve been keeping up. It helps that our kids are now middle schoolers and have completely lost interest in us. Well, it gives us something to do anyway.

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One of the herbs I’m growing in my hugelkultur herb project at Sabathani is papalo, an herb from central and South America. It’s used similarly to cilantro–as a garnish on tacos, etc. Its flavor is more intense, though. It’s also much more tolerant of heat. The leaves are sturdier, more like collard greens in texture, but with a very unique flavor that is a strange but wonderful combination of cilantro and parsley. I love it, and I’m so grateful to the gardeners who introduced it to me.

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Herb drying season has commenced at home—here’s a mixed basket of chamomile, sage, dill, lemon verbena, mint, tarragon, and clary sage. I don’t know what I’m going to do with the clary sage yet—it was an impulse buy.

Between the bug fighting and harvest season commencing, I’ve accepted the fact that I’m not going to get much more done with my perennial gardens this year. I’m not ready to call them done, but the front definitely looks a lot better than it did last September when it got torn up by a backhoe.

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Adam finished the path and put out the bird bath, and there are actually quite a number of very small plants in here already—I did a lot of planting this spring. By this time next year we should be much more filled in, as I used all tough natives that should spread quickly—including Jacob’s Ladder, wild geranium, Solomon’s Seal, wild ginger, and…

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…three red-twig dogwoods! I’ve always wanted to try growing these; we need some winter interest in the front yard. So far they’re doing great. This area is going to look very natural, shady, and lush in just a few short years, if the elm tree that shades all of it hangs on. Fingers crossed.

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This may not look exciting, but to me it is everything right now. Our neighbors took down their chain link fence—which happened to have been installed at the same time as ours and matched perfectly. We used the opportunity to obtain a free matching gate, and finally added a gate on the garden side of the house. My number of steps from kitchen to garden has gone from more than 40 to less than 10. Yay!

It’s time to gear up for fruit season, and I feel ready. I really do. Our sour cherries are getting close:

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A happy and lovely solstice to you and yours.


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A Farewell to The New Home Economics

The scene: winter 2008-09. The economy is in trouble. I have two children under the age of two, my mortgage is higher than my house is worth, and I’m working for a newspaper that is about to declare bankruptcy. 

One of my favorite blogs at the time, Snarkmarket, posts about a project they’d like to do called The New Liberal Arts. The premise, basically: what should we learn / should we have learned in college to thrive in the world, now? I post a comment about how I wish I knew how to bake bread and grow my own food.

That comment turned into a chapter of the book, which was printed and also released as a PDF. The New Liberal Arts project inspired me to start a blog, The New Home Economics, which I have faithfully maintained ever since.

Seed starting, 2009. I did not know what I was doing.

Ten years later, my life is pretty different. After leaving the newspaper industry and working for a long while in the arts non-profit world, I’m now in the health insurance industry as of this spring. My kids are in middle school. I grew from a gardening newbie to an extension master gardener volunteer and native plants enthusiast.

In wanting to teach our kids about the world, my partner and I became students. We learned the names of common and uncommon Minnesota birds and insects. We raised and released hundreds of monarch butterflies. We learned about edible wild plants and the fermenting, culturing, and preserving of the bounty we were starting to harvest from our own yard. All of this is so ingrained in my life now; I have to remind myself I knew almost none of it ten years ago.

A banner monarch release day, 2018.

I’m changing the name of my blog because my primary passion is truly (and has always truly been) gardening. I’ve written about little else for several years now. Ten years ago, making my own sauerkraut or homemade yogurt seemed novel. Now it’s not only normal, it’s popular, and many other bloggers are doing a much better job of documenting it than I ever did.

The Stacking Functions Garden

So where did the name Stacking Functions Garden come from? I did not invent the term “stacking functions”–it’s a permaculture term that I first read about in the excellent book Gaia’s Garden, by Toby Hemenway. 

The main gist of stacking functions is that we need to make our gardens (and homes) work harder for us by making sure each element can perform more than one task or function, and that we have backup systems in place in case of a system failure. If you make your own compost, it’s not a big deal if the nursery runs out.

The best way to describe how I like to stack functions when choosing plants for my yard is with an example. Consider two different spring flowers that you could choose to grow in your yard: tulip and bloodroot. 

My little patch of tulips before it got mostly decimated by a sewer line project in 2018. I don’t plan to replace them.

I’m Dutch so I love tulips, with their simple elegance and bright colors. But let’s stack up the functions (and costs) of a tulip. It has an aesthetic function; it can fill a niche under a deciduous shade tree (since it does most of its growing before trees leaf out). That’s basically one function. Tulip costs: buying the bulbs, occasional fertilization, and maintaining ugly, dying foliage so that the bulb can shore up energy for next year (some professional landscapers replace the bulb every year).

Bloodroot flowers

Contrast the tulip with another beautiful spring flower, the North American native bloodroot. Its functions include early spring pollinator support, weed suppression via its crazy root system, free plants because it slowly spreads into a clump, a red dye that can be made from its roots. That’s four so far. It thrives in part to deep shade and poor soil, it fills two different aesthetic niches (first with its cheery white daisy-like flowers, later with its fairy umbrella-like leaves). Its costs: only the startup cost of purchasing the plant. Note: if you find a native plants enthusiast in your area you could likely get it for free, like I did.

Bloodroot leaves after the flowers have faded out.

The Stacking Functions concept can be applied to so much more than plants. We built a swingset for our kids when they were little. Over the years it has performed the following functions in addition to being a swingset: support for an outdoor movie screen, trellis for a grape vine, one end for a clothesline that we put up in the summer, and (recently) support for a hammock chair instead of swings.

Because we designed and built a structure that was flexible enough to serve all these purposes, it saved us money and effort in the long run. That’s a big part of my gardening and landscape design philosophy: flexibility, sustainability, and making my life richer while somehow simultaneously making it simpler. Wait, richer AND simpler? Yes. It’s possible.

A bunch of kids watching Harry Potter for our kids’ 9th birthday party in our backyard. We have even less grass now.

I hope you’ll stick with me—I plan to roll out a series of articles in the coming months featuring my favorite function-stacking garden projects and plants.

A housekeeping note: some links within the blog may be broken due to the name change. Please bear with me while I get everything updated over the next few weeks. 

Thank you.