Stacking Functions Garden


Leave a comment

Memorial Day 2021 Garden Photo Tour

As I do every year, let’s take a little tour and see what’s happening in my yard in late May. I’ll try to do this again in late June—the rate of growth during that month of very long days is astounding.

Blue false indigo is blooming (Baptisia australis). This is not a native plant but it is beloved by bumblebees, and it is just gorgeous. Pretty tough, too.
Our wild and weird weather patterns have my horseradish blooming a bit early. I’ll cut these off once they’re spent so that this plant doesn’t spread any more than it already has.
My ninebark is blooming. I have the common/native type, Physocarpus opulifolius. I have this in a shadier spot than was recommended for it, so I’m glad it’s thriving. And the shade is keeping its size in check.
But wait what’s this?! Some ants are farming some aphids on my ninebark. I’m letting it be for now but if it starts to look real bad I may give them a spray with some neem oil. It’s right next to my front door after all.
My comfrey is also blooming. Another bee magnet.
My two American Highbush cranberries (Viburnum trilobum) died last year, so I replaced one of them in a slightly different spot. The new one bloomed for the first time this spring.
My wild geraniums (Geranium maculatum) are mostly done blooming now, and look at the seed heads! If they look poised to shoot their seeds into the far distance, that’s because this is precisely what they do, as soon as they’ve dried out. Such a neat plant, and it does pop up in surprising locations all over the yard.
On our way to another bumper gooseberry harvest. Last year, our black lab mix dog Buckles discovered how much he loves gooseberries. He’s not the brightest dog I’ve ever met and yet he remembered them for an entire year; he’s been checking the berries every day the past week to see if they’re ready to eat yet. Only a few more weeks, Buckles!
I added walking onions to my garden last year, and I’m so glad I did! They’ve spread just a bit and I’m carefully weeding around them to cultivate a little patch here that will persist into the future. I’ve been using them more like chives, just cutting off the green stems and slicing them up, as you would any green onion or chive.
Lettuce is at peak, and I need to harvest it all as quickly as I can or it will bolt—we have a weekend heat wave in the forecast.
I harvested most but not quite all of my bok choy before it bolted. I’m leaving these flowers for a few days for pollinators to enjoy while I figure out what I want to plant here next.
The bok choy is in my daughter’s old fairy garden stock tank. The kids lost interest in each having their own little garden, so I emptied these tanks out, moved them, and refilled them last fall. In their new location, they get enough sun in the spring and fall to grow some fast-growing veggies. My son’s tank in the background has radishes (also about to bolt). Here with the bolting bok choy are carrots and some spring onions. I’m happy with how these worked out so far.

There you have it: some highlights and happenings from my garden in late May, 2021. Thanks for walking along!


1 Comment

Is it safe to use rain barrel water on vegetable gardens?

Happy summer to you! My vegetable garden is in, I’m eating radishes and lettuce every day, new perennials are planted, the final large section of grass I had in my yard is sheet mulched, and we finally got some much-needed rain this week. Garden season 2021 is well underway!

I helped teach a vegetable gardening basics class online earlier this spring for Hennepin County Master Gardeners. It was really challenging adapting our curriculum and teaching style to the online format, and it gave me a whole new appreciation for what school teachers have been through during the past 12+ months.

In creating our section on watering, we looked at current U of MN recommendations, and discovered that the U does not recommend using rain barrel water on your vegetable gardens.

A rain barrel next to a house
One of my first rain barrels—I like to use fancier wine barrels for the front yard.

The U has good reasons for this—one is that birds and squirrels regularly defecate on your roof, and rain washes all those feces into your rain barrel, where the bacteria has a nice warm and wet environment in which to thrive. 

Additionally, depending on the material and age of your shingles, various chemicals can also wash down those downspouts and into your barrels. A study in Seattle found that runoff from asphalt shingles was cleaner than the researchers had anticipated, while runoff from wood shakes was basically unusable because of high arsenic levels.

All of this makes sense to me. Yet, I’ve been watering my vegetables, fruits, perennials, and pretty much everything else in my yard with rain barrel water for 10+ years. Have I been unwittingly putting myself and my family in danger?

This rain barrel is situated directly next to my vegetable garden, although I use it more often lately for some newer trees in my back yard.

On the other hand, as I thought about it, I realized that I do employ some strategies with my rain barrel water that help mitigate those risks.

The most obvious one is: don’t ever rinse off produce with rain barrel water and then immediately eat it. Just like you wouldn’t drink water from a garden hose or rain barrel.

The next biggest one is this: avoid using rain barrel water on anything I’m going to eat in the next 5-7 days. I see little to no risk in using rain barrel water on, for example, the tiny leeks in my garden right now that I won’t be harvesting until September. I’ll probably use rain barrel on them until at least August. Allowing some time between watering with the barrel and harvesting allows for bacteria to be killed by our favorite bacteria-killing friend: the sun. Additionally I always, always wash produce inside the house with tap water before eating.

I have lots of fruit-bearing trees and shrubs and I can testify how much happier they are with rain water. Even the U of MN says it’s fine to use rain barrel water for fruit trees and shrubs, as long as you water in a way that doesn’t splash up onto the fruit. My favorite way to water trees and shrubs from the barrel is to hook up a hose to it and let the barrel water run out onto the ground.

This barrel is hooked up to soaker hoses into which I’ve drilled holes to improve how much water can seep out from a low-pressure rain barrel situation. The water goes directly to the roots of my raspberry plants (left).

As a master gardener, when advising the public, I have to stick to research-based University of Minnesota recommendations. And research shows that rain barrel water *does* have bacteria in it. But the research is also not completely conclusive on this—Rutgers University did some research and concluded that in most circumstances, it’s perfectly safe (they recommended strategies similar to the ones I recommended).

Unofficially, if you are a person who can handle nuance, and employ some risk mitigation strategy, I am prepared to say that, in my personal anecdotal experience and on some actual research that does exist, rain barrel water is OK to use on fruits and (to a lesser extent) vegetables. It’s not a must though—if you’re uncomfortable with it, then by all means just use your rain barrel water on your trees, shrubs, perennials, and houseplants. They’ll thrive on it.

Clear as mud, right? I’m very curious how many other people use rain barrel water on their vegetables and other edible landscaping, so please comment if you do. I would love to see more research done about it.

Coming soon: I’ll start working on my annual Memorial Day garden photo shoot tonight, so watch for that post early next week.


Leave a comment

Managing my expectations for 2021

It drove my 22-year-old idealist self crazy when my first manager at my first full-time job used to say, “You’re going to need to manage your expectations on this, Jennifer.” High expectations have hammered me again and again, in this first large chunk of adulthood that I’ve now completed. And that was before the pandemic.

As I face middle age and this new year, I’m feeling the need to manage my expectations and be aware that things can and will change, but often not in the ways or at the pace that I want.

Gardening is full of constant unexpected change–large trees getting cut down, hailstorms, late frosts, early frosts, heat and humidity at the wrong times, you name it. The opportunity to roll with those changes has been good for me, mentally.

(Harvesting ALL my leeks in early October due to unseasonably cold weather.)

But this past year other things have become more precarious, too. And those changes are requiring a little more from me, mentally. I am trying not to plan too much or expect too much from 2021. But. I can make some garden plans.

(The small fairy garden tanks in their new location. I will put some short perennials around them this spring. There is a very sharp contrast between my out-of-control tallgrass prairie on the left, and my last bit of lawn on the right. I sort of love it.)

My teenagers have lost interest in gardening for now. Last September I moved their old fairy garden stock tanks to the edge of my main backyard path, where they’ll (hopefully) get nice full sun in the spring and fall. I’m planning some strategic quick-growing cool season veggies that will take advantage of this—radishes, green onions, maybe some radicchio, what else should I try?

I will most likely not have a community garden plot this year. I’m thinking of it as an experiment in scaling back. More bike rides? More time for beers with friends when we finally get vaccinated? I hope so. Without further ado, my garden layout for 2021:

My garden layout is becoming less an artsy arrangement of vegetables, and more a schedule for me to follow so I know roughly when to start seeds, when to sow them outside, etc. Drawing it out like this every year also helps me keep better track of crop rotations. I don’t always follow it with absolute precision, but I usually come pretty close.

(I’ll be growing dragon tongue beans at home this year after a spectacular harvest of them at my community garden plot in 2020. They can be purchased from Seed Savers Exchange, among other places.)

I have precious little full sun to work with, so I plan plenty of leafy greens–collards, lettuce, mustard greens, bok choy–in my part-shade areas. I’m also trying a new vine on one of my garden trellises–passionflower vine, passiflora incarnata. It’s a north American native plant that can be made into a tea with medicinal properties and it supposedly thrives in part-shade. We’ll see!

I’ll continue to grow plenty of things in pots. I have found over the past several years that both sweet and hot peppers perform much better in pots. They really dislike cold soil, so if you plant them in May when the ground is usually still pretty cool / cold (here in the Twin Cities), they will go into a bit of a shock and take many extra weeks to recover and start producing. Planting in pots means the soil is nice and warm and they can start growing immediately. I do not have raised beds but I imagine they would be almost as good as pots in this respect.

(Carrots also grow surprisingly well in a pot–just be sure to thin them properly.)

Another change for me this year is that I’m expanding my seed-starting setup. This is partially for my mental health; it will give me a bunch of gardening to do starting in February. Here’s my tentative seed starting schedule:

February:
Lavender (start in late Jan and stratify in refrigerator for a couple weeks)
Onions
Leeks

March:
Cilantro
Lettuce
Holy basil
Chamomile
Peppers (sweet and hot)
Tomatoes
Parsley
Thyme
Rosemary
Oregano
Lemon balm

April:
Tithonia (aka Mexican sunflower)
Cucumbers
Basil

May (everything started in May is for late summer / fall harvest):
Onions
Radicchio
Lettuce (heat tolerant varieties)

That is an awful lot for March, so some of those things will probably spill out into early April. I only need 3 or 4 of most of those plants, so I should theoretically have room. I also have a couple of temporary greenhouse options for outside so many seedlings will be moved outside for finishing in early April (depending, of course, on our wild Minnesota spring weather).

(A tiny temporary greenhouse that Adam made for me last April using old bicycle tires.)

The Friends School Plant Sale is ON for 2021, and I am looking forward to it so much. I plan to get several new perennials and shrubs, too. Those plans are still in progress, but they are hopefully going to include an elderberry bush. I have become keenly interested in plants with immune-boosting and/or medicinal properties, and both the flowers and the berries of elderberry can be used for different purposes.

Just writing up this little plan has brought me so much joy on a gray winter day. I hope you are well and, like me, dreaming of warmer and more colorful days to come.


Leave a comment

Summer’s end

I’ve been away from this space for a long time. There are many reasons why. For the most part I’ve not had much trouble finding small things here and there to take photos of and write little sentences about on Instagram. But it’s the long form that I’m struggling with right now.

Maybe part of what’s holding me back is that I need more time to process things before I feel like I can write about them intelligently. More time to think about a man dying in an intersection, just hours after I’d driven through that same intersection and commented to Adam “it always seems like there are people struggling on this corner.” My privilege was practically dripping out of the car with the air conditioning condensation, as I accelerated through that intersection on my way home from my natural foods co-op.

bearded iris

Bearded iris in late May.

Late May: back when we were still in the “making the best of it” phase of the pandemic. If we just baked enough cakes—complicated cakes!—and learned how to make sourdough bread—finally! that’s been on my bucket list for a long time!—we would be able to come out the other side of this content for the time we’d spent at home.

Just two weeks before, and just three short blocks west of Cup Foods, my fellow community garden volunteers and I had pulled off our biggest plant giveaway ever. That weekend—with masks, hand sanitizer, the works—we gave away hundreds of tomatoes, peppers, herbs, seeds, annual flowers, and hope that the garden could grow enough food to help see us safely through the pandemic. It was one of my most optimistic days of 2020.

My Pilot, loaded up with plants for the giveaway.

And then a man lost his life, trying to buy food, and maybe passing a fake $20. And the man who took his life was a tax felon who had stolen much, much more. There is no justice. It all came crashing down.

Just days later, I found myself gathering with neighbors, with blackhawk helicopters hovering overhead, making plans on how to defend our neighborhood from white supremacists bent on causing mayhem and fanning flames—literally.

My adrenaline surged. Carrying a shovel, seeds, and donated plants past soldiers with guns, I kept going back to Sabathani. I tended my own garden plots, which had been planted in mid-May. I turned over two more extremely weedy, neglected plots in searing heat, sweat dripping, and planted them with the intention of giving away the produce to the community. I went home and stayed up all night for several nights, listening and watching. Every unplated truck that drove past our house was discussed by many people.

Sunset over Sabathani

Sunset over the community garden on June 5.

My neighborhood was lucky. We lost our closest gas station and our pharmacy for a while. But homes remained untouched. We kept coming together in June and July as a community to collect and distribute food. But as the summer progressed, everyone and everything started to feel tired. Our most recent meetings have only had a handful of attendees.

But I’d be lying if I said this whole summer has been a waking nightmare. It hasn’t. I’ve had moments of light and joy. I fell in love with several K-pop groups, thanks to my now-teenagers. I painted both kids’ bedrooms. I took time off work, using a neat thing called VPTO (volunteer paid time off) to tend those gardens.

One of the volunteer plots at Sabathani.

After spending an unprecedented amount of time in my flower and vegetable gardens at home, I don’t think my yard has ever looked as good as it does this year. I harvested every single sour cherry from my Mesabi cherry tree and made some of the most delicious jam I’ve ever tried. I shared fruit, jams and jellies with family and friends. In moments of lightness and ease, I reminded myself of how very lucky I am.

Mesabi cherries.

This is the first time in a very long time that I’ve had no plans. It’s such an odd feeling. As of late February, I had a busy summer and fall of travel planned, including taking the kids to see BTS in Chicago for their 13th birthday. It was heartbreaking to cancel. And now that everything else has been canceled, it feels weird to have and make no plans.

Red twig dogwood berries.

What have I learned about gardening this year? Well. Mary Oliver said attention is the beginning of devotion. And I realized this year how much more I notice about my gardens—and how much more I love every part of them—when I simply spend time observing. 

A goldfinch eating anise hyssop seeds in August.

I noticed house sparrows eating Japanese and grapevine beetles. I noticed a chipmunk climbing my cherry tree to pilfer cherries. I noticed a bumblebee digging a hole in the ground. I noticed flies farming aphids for their honeydew. I noticed a hummingbird on several occasions and noticed which flowers it seemed to like the most. I noticed my neighbors and how the same ones tend to walk by, at the same time, every day. I laughed one day when I noticed one man surreptitiously picking a purple coneflower from my front yard.

I have plenty of coneflowers to spare.

I welcome the cooler weather coming this week—I probably won’t cover my basil on Tuesday night when it’s supposed to get down in the 40s. I’m ready to let it go.

Pickles.

I feel like the theme of 2020—well, there are many themes—but one of them is getting used to uncertainty. I want to believe that I’ll come out the other side somehow wiser, more content to live in the moment. I want to believe that my family will come out the other side, alive and healthy. And I want that for my neighbors and friends, too. I want to live in a country where we’ll look at the hard lessons of 2020 and decide that we give a shit about public health.

I harvested an unprecedented amount of chamomile this summer.

Lots of good is happening, every single day. I’m not having any trouble seeing it at a micro level. I just step outside my door and watch the bees for a few minutes.

I’ve already drawn up some garden plans for 2021. I’m moving my stock tanks for the first time in 10+ years. I’m planting at least two or three new shrubs, since two of  my viburnums died out this year. I’m going to expand my seed-starting operation. Maybe I’ll finally fix up the grassy area in the back. I’m even adding some more tulips this fall, which feels really out of character for my native-plant obsessed self. But I saw people taking pictures of my tiny patch of tulips this spring and it brought me joy. I want more of that.

Shallot harvest.

I’m planting seeds of hope and crossing my fingers that they all germinate. I’m going to need them next spring.


Leave a comment

Spring in the Minnesota garden

I can’t think of a more glorious month than May in the state of Minnesota. For the second year in a row, we had a rather chilly April and start of May, so when things finally got warmer, and then we got some much-needed rain here in the Twin Cities on the 17th, plants really took off and the end of the month has been simply glorious. There’s nothing better than planting untold numbers of seeds and transplants, only to have them well-watered in by rain. Here are some photo highlights from May in my garden.

Bee approaching a serviceberry

A mining bee (not sure of the species) approaches my Autumn Brilliance Serviceberry (Amelanchier grandiflora) in early May. Early flowering plants like this are critically important sources of nectar for all manner of queen bees who are the only ones in their colony to have overwintered, and now must feed the entire next generation.

Jacobs Laddder

Jacob’s Ladder (Polemonium reptans), also blooms in May. It’s a low-growing groundcover plant that thrives even in dry shade. It deserves to be widely planted—it spreads only slowly and the foliage looks great even after blooming.

Protecting plants from squirrels

A not-so-fun spring project around here is trying to protect plants from squirrels and rabbits. Strategies for both need to evolve for different times of year. Rabbits are more of a problem in the winter, when they will eat woody shrubs and small trees down to the ground (or frustratingly, just eat the bark off them, which also kills them).

In the spring, squirrels get very excited about digging in freshly-disturbed soil, especially the friable soil in pots and containers. Happily, this behavior dies down after the pots have been around for a while and the plants in them are actively growing. So these ugly cages on nearly all of my containers can be taken down in another week or two.

Many spring garden vegetables such as lettuce and peas will need to be protected from rabbits continuously. Summer vegetables like zucchini and tomatoes require protection from squirrels. Last year I lost all but one or two zucchinis to squirrels. This year they’re in an impenetrable cage with my tomatoes.

My solution for lettuce is to grow it in a stock tank—it’s a little too high for the rabbits to jump in. We’re eating lettuce daily now and enjoying it while it lasts. The season is always over so quickly. One nice thing about being home-based now with my work is that I’ve had a little extra time to think about succession: I’ve got some romaine lettuce started already in my basement. When this lettuce seeds out in early July, I’ll replace it with some nice romaine. Hopefully.

Beans emerging

Thank goodness for an abundance of lettuce, because the rest of the vegetable garden is only just getting going. Beans are sprouted and up, along with carrots and zucchini. My tomato, kohlrabi and brussels sprouts seedlings are small but healthy, and I am growing more sweet and hot peppers this year than I ever have!

Barrel of onions

Here’s a weedy corner of my back yard. Well, weedy depending on who you ask. It’s got a giant mullein that I’m keeping my eye on—I’ll pull it as soon as it flowers to keep it from self-seeding. The area has also filled in with wild sarsparilla (Aralia nudicaulis) at the front, and it’s fine for now. I’ve got a honeycrisp apple tree in here, as well as a nice patch of Mexican sunflowers at the back (in a rabbit-proof cage for now; rabbits love to eat sunflowers when they’re little).

In the front pots are some 2020 experiments. I took an apple tree pruning and grafting course in February—one of the last social things I did before the pandemic, and it was such a pleasure. So I’m trying to get my grafts to “take” in the smaller foreground pots. We’ll see if it works. Behind them is a half barrel. We had a rain barrel for years that was not holding water very well anymore, so Adam cut it in half and now I have a new large planter. It’s going to be my barrel of onions this year. I plant onion starts thickly, then strategically thin out and harvest them green, gradually creating more room for the remaining ones to grow into bulbs.

Mini prairie in spring

Here, an early spring glimpse into what is my ultimate plan for a good-sized chunk of my backyard: a miniature tallgrass prairie! It’s honestly not that impressive in the spring. These are plants that thrive on heat, and every year I spend April and early May fretting about whether they’re actually alive or not. The answer is nearly always yes because these are seriously hardy plants. I’m trying to keep the palette fairly simple, mostly big bluestem, culver’s root, joe pye weed, and I’m trying out a couple of royal catchfly at one edge.

It’s also bordered by many other random things, including asters, showy goldenrod, rhubarb, a cherry tree, gooseberries, and a serviceberry. This part of the backyard has been really fun to sort out since my southerly neighbor cut down a very large tree that deeply shaded it until just a couple years ago. Suddenly I have so many options…

Wild Columbine

We had a very rainy Memorial Day weekend here, just perfect for sprouting carrots. It also knocked down the last of the pink crabapple petals around the neighborhood—at times it was raining pink petals in a very magical way. The main star of my gardens right now is Wild Columbine. It’s gently reseeded itself all over my yard, and it really ties everything together nicely. Repetition is such an important part of good design, and incorporating more of it in my landscape has made a big difference.

Red Lake Currants

Fruit season is right around the corner: my Red Lake and Ben Sarek currants, plus my gooseberries are nearly ready to eat. Sour cherries are coming along too. We’ll get a short breather between the madness of planting season and then jam-making season will be upon us. And thank goodness—had I not made some rhubarb sauce we would be pretty much out of jam.

Red chokeberry

I’m so happy to see one of my two red chokeberries (Aronia arbutifolia) blooming this spring. Both shrubs are alive, but barely: I piled snow a little too high next to the protective rabbit fence, and they used the snow as a jumping off point to get right inside. They nibbled off most of the bark on the bottom 1/4 of many of the branches. Fortunately enough branches survived that I think ultimately these shrubs will bounce back.

The web traffic to this blog has gone up significantly this spring—interest in gardening is at an all-time high. If you’re new here, what brought you here? Do you have gardening questions? Ask away, I am happy to help. My U of MN Extension Master Gardener activities are currently on hold, so I’m happy to answer questions virtually. Thanks for reading.


1 Comment

Pandemic gardening

Gardening this year, like everything else, is imbued with a feeling that nothing is the same, and might not be for a very long time. And yet. As I watch my yard come to life this spring, there are certain plants for which I feel so much gratitude. Well, honestly, I feel gratitude for all green things in the spring.

Blood root in full bloom

Bloodroot, one of my favorite wildflowers, is blooming in the Twin Cities area right now.

Here are some plants I was especially excited to see–some are weeds, and some are perennials I planted, but ALL are edible.

In times of uncertainty, growing your own food is taking control of something that you can take at least a measure of control over. I’ve been seeing lots of news articles about people suddenly taking an interest in gardening, and there’s never been a better time. There’s also never been a better time to search out locally-produced dairy and meat.

I also buy nearly all my meat directly from a farm family–Chris and Tamara Johnson of Johnson Family Pastures–and this has also been a source of comfort during this uncertain time. Getting to know the people who raise my food has always been important to me, but now it feels vital. Pasture-based meat is more expensive (and more nutritious) than conventional, but I use it more thoughtfully as a result.

Anyway, back to gardening, since that’s what I am here to write about.

One of the main principles of permaculture is to emphasize perennial edibles over annuals. This can be somewhat challenging in the north. And yet. When I look out on my yard today I see several things to eat–even though the snow only just melted–and having just a few things feels like a bit of added security. That feeling will get stronger when I have cherries, raspberries, and currants to pick.

Here are six edible perennials I’ve got growing right now. Each of these multipurpose plants stacks up several functions in the garden–from feeding my family and me to feeding pollinators.

Garlic mustard

Young garlic mustard plants. Later it gets much taller, with tiny white flowers.

Garlic mustard
One of my big goals is to try and make garlic mustard more popular. I walked along Minnehaha Creek last week and was really sad to see the extent to which it is taking over the natural area along the shore. If more people knew how delicious it is, perhaps they could over-harvest it like they do with ramps. 

Garlic mustard was brought over from Europe by early white settlers, and spread throughout the United States rapidly. It’s a green; you eat it like spinach, raw or lightly steamed. Its name comes from a slightly garlicky taste and aroma. Every year, I carefully remove every bit of garlic mustard from my yard, and yet every year more comes back. Someone nearby must have quite a bit that they allow to go to seed.

Please note: do NOT let garlic mustard go to seed. If you see it, pull it, whether you plan to eat it or not. This stuff is seriously invasive. Now is the very easiest time to find it, as it’s one of the only green things in natural areas.

stinging nettle pesto

Cutting up stinging nettle for steaming. Note the gloves–necessary only until nettles are cooked.

Stinging nettle
I’ve been allowing a little stinging nettle patch in my yard for several years now. I keep a very close eye on it to make sure it doesn’t expand too much, ruthlessly pulling any that appears beyond the bounds of where I’ve decided it can grow.

Why keep stinging nettle around? Two very important reasons. First, it’s a superfood. After a long winter of greens trucked in from California, in the early spring your body is practically begging for something local, fresh, and packed with anti-inflammatory goodness. My favorite two ways to use it are in an herbal tea, or lightly steamed and made into pesto–just use a standard pesto recipe and substitute steamed nettle leaves for the basil. Steaming it removes the sting.

The second reason I like to keep a little patch of nettles is that it’s the host plant for the Red Admiral butterfly–their caterpillars exclusively eat members of the nettle family. Red Admirals are not endangered like monarchs, but I can spare a few square feet of my yard to feed their babies.

sorrel

French sorrel in a bunny-proof protective basket.

French sorrel
Unlike my edible weeds, I’ve actually had to purchase and plant new French sorrels several times. Without a protective cage, rabbits will eat it to the ground over and over in the spring. I’ve also killed it by planting it in shade–it stays much bigger and healthier in a sunny spot. French sorrel can be used like spinach as well, and its flavor gets more pungent as the season goes. I think of it as a spring food; sorrel soup is a spring tradition around here but it’s also good in egg dishes.

Lovage is new to me so I only have baby pictures so far! I hear it gets quite large…

Lovage
Here’s a new-to-me plant this year. I read about lovage in permaculture books several years ago, but then became inspired to plant it after reading several of Monty Don’s books last winter. It’s a perennial that gets quite large and must be planted in a sunny spot. Its early spring leaves have a celery-like flavor; the best use for it truly is in soups. The flavor is not as good later in the season, but Monty Don recommends cutting it down severely in the early fall to encourage new tasty, leafy growth.

First chive harvest of 2020.

Chives
I first planted a small pot of chives more than 10 years ago, and now have several little clumps of them around the yard. They come back faithfully every year, surviving in all kinds of light conditions. They can spread quickly in a sunny spot, so I purposely keep them in partly-shaded areas. Chives are always my very first harvest of the spring–this year I picked my first on March 28.

Harvesting rhubarb on a VERY cold early May day in 2019.

Rhubarb
Who doesn’t love rhubarb? Rhubarb can be a little tricky to grow for two important reasons. First, it MUST have full sun (8-12 hours of direct sunlight per day) or it will die out after a year or two. I nearly killed mine by initially planting it in a spot that kept getting shadier each year. When I realized it was dying, I moved it into a new sunny spot and now, two years later, it’s thriving again. Secondly, it’s hard to resist picking every last beautiful rib of your rhubarb plant, especially in the early years when you’re so excited to finally have rhubarb. If you pick too much, you will kill your plant. My rule of thumb is to never pick more than half the plant at a time.

My tiny lettuce seedlings survived some very cold nights recently in the mini-hoophouse.

Cold season veggies
Halfway through writing this post, I got word that Mother Earth Gardens and other local garden centers are reopening again, after doing a limited website ordering/curbside pickup system for several weeks. I’m sure it will not be the delightful shopping experience we once knew and loved, but it’s necessary.

Please consider buying your plants from a local nursery, rather than a big box store. There are several good reasons to do this. First, big box stores treat their plants with neonicotinoids, which will injure and potentially kill any bee that tries to pollinate your flower. Secondly, these stores are primarily concerned with making a sale, not helping you be a better gardener. Also, does it even need to be said that small businesses need extra help right now? Choose integrity, and choose people who truly care about plants and pollinators–vote with your dollars on this issue.

I like to buy onion “starts” from Mother Earth Gardens. You tease them apart and plant them around 2″ apart from each other, then start thinning them when they reach delicious green onion size.

Garden season is really heating up along with the weather–as of right now in the Twin Cities it’s safe to plant out “cold season” vegetables. These are the ones that won’t be hurt by a light frost, like peas, lettuce, anything related to cabbage, greens, and many annual flowers. Perennial plants can also go in now. I sowed kale, collards, and poppy seeds yesterday, and I’ve got flats of herbs under grow lights in the basement. I’ve also got some pretty tiny lettuce seedlings under my mini-hoophouse.

Planting out kale, collard, and poppy seeds on April 18, 2020.

Time to get growing. Questions about gardening? Ask in the comments below or follow me on Instagram for more frequent updates.


Leave a comment

Garden Plans for 2020

I usually plan my gardens in January and February. This year, I was waiting during those months to find out whether my community garden would be available or not this year. Just days after I found out that we would be able to garden there this year (yay!) a … global pandemic hit.

Uncertainty has got to be the word of the year for 2020, yes? My anxiety over the community garden seems laughable now in hindsight.

I’ve decided to plan my garden for the best case scenario—the scenario in which my favorite local garden store is able to supply me with things like onion starts, leek starts, and various other seedlings that I usually buy each spring. My seed starting setup is rather small, but I’m also trying to strategically max that out, just in case. Anyway, here’s my plan. Click to enlarge:

Layout for an urban garden

LOTS going on here. First, I need to tell you something sad about my home garden. Reader, I sorta ruined my own home garden plot. How did I do this? Here’s some photographic evidence:

grape and hops growing on an arbor

This is my wine grapes and hops arbor—my “booze bower” that was featured in Northern Gardener magazine last August. Behind all that lush, green, tall foliage, to the right, is my vegetable garden. You can see the tomato cage just peeking out at the very far right of the picture near the bottom. What I’ve done here: I created a beautiful, shady, just lovely place to sit in the summer. The unintended consequence: I took away a few hours of late afternoon and evening sunlight from my vegetable garden, especially the west side of it.

As you know, vegetables NEED a lot of sun. I’ve had to do some rethinking of this garden. The plot at the far west is really only good for greens now. Kale and collards grew marvelously in that spot last year and I’m going to try them again—is this best practice? No. I simply can’t rotate other types of vegetables into that spot (except for lettuce, I suppose). I’m going to experiment and try some Hungarian breadseed poppies mixed in with the greens, to see how different types of annual flowers do here.

Last year, even further east in the garden, my beans were all foliage and no fruit:

pole beans out of control

Now, pole beans always take a long time to get going, and last year was a very late spring. But plants that are very leafy might be trying to tell you something: they’re not getting enough sun.

I had some other fails last year too, one of which is pictured above. I tried to grow Christmas lima beans inside the tomato cage. Here’s the thing about my squirrel-proof tomato fortress: we realized that it is nearly impossible to move, for a variety of reasons. So in late 2018 I decided it was going to stay in the same spot and I’d just rotate different crops into and out of it. I can always grow a tomato in a pot if I’m desperate. Anyway, this year I have the fortress slated for 1/2 tomatoes and 1/2 zucchini. I’m going to attempt to stake the zucchini following this interesting tutorial.

Over at Sabathani Community Garden, here’s where we stand. A high rise building for elderly folks will be built starting in September or October of this year (pending global pandemic easing up, I suppose). This is great news for the community, truly.

We will be kicked out of the garden as soon as mid-September and have no access to it for at least a year. When it reopens it will be a different configuration, the soil will be compacted from having construction equipment on it for 12+ months, and half the garden will now be a parking lot. Again, this was slightly more upsetting before I knew the other things that were coming our way for 2020.

But I’m glad I get to garden there this year. I’m going to refrain from planting pumpkins, since they might not be done in time. I’m moving all leek activity to the home garden since I usually harvest those late August-late October. Even planting brussels sprouts is taking a bit of a chance, but then again I started harvesting sprouts in August of 2019 so hopefully that will be true again this year. Check out this bounty from my community garden plot last August:

Community garden harvest

The tomatoes were a little uninspiring—diseases are unfortunately rampant in the community garden and our cool wet spring did not help. But I had a banner year of many things, including runner beans:

runner beans

If you’ve never grown these, I cannot recommend them enough. They are SO easy to grow. They are a vine plant so they need some support, but they get gorgeous flowers, and produce bucketloads of large edible green beans. If you don’t get to them in time and they get very large, no worries! You can simply shell them and eat the seeds like lima beans, or let them dry and use them as dried beans. This plant is amazingly versatile.

So I’ve got my “plan” for 2020 but I don’t feel very certain about it; so much will depend on… so many things. UNCERTAINTY, folks, get used to it, I guess? I’ve never been more thankful for my edible perennial plants. I’ve already got a protective bunny-proof cage around my French sorrel, and keep watching for my lovage to pop up. I can’t wait for some of the wild edibles that I know I’ll see, like garlic mustard and stinging nettle. I can count on raspberries, cherries, and hopefully some apples. I’ve never been a prepper on the scale of the types of people you see on the news, but the little bit of prepping that I have done here is helping to ease some of this uncertainty.

a tiny tall grass prairie

A big area of uncertainty is my teeny tallgrass prairie in my backyard. I had hoped to at least triple its size this year with the addition of 40-50 new plants, but I don’t know what stores will be open / what will be available. I can divide some of what I have and expand it slowly year by year, so it’s not a terrible thing. I am going to need to learn patience. That’s for sure.

Be well, friends. Take care of each other. Call me if you’re local and need divisions or volunteers of wildflowers.

 


1 Comment

2019 Photo Highlights

As much as I enjoy photography, I am very much an amateur. I never even purchased a telephoto lens until this year—Adam bought me a gently used one for my birthday early this spring. It made a huge difference in the shots I was able to get, especially of wildlife.

Enjoy these photo highlights of 2019. Clicking on the photo will take you to my Flickr page.

Black-backed woodpecker

This isn’t my most impressive photo but it was SUCH an exciting moment: we saw two black-backed woodpeckers at Sax Zim Bog in February. (This is clearly BEFORE I got the telephoto lens…) It was -20 degrees F and it was worth the frozen toes and fingers to see this unusual bird. Sax Zim is a birding paradise and I can’t wait to go back.

Redwing blackbird

Red-winged blackbird, herald of early spring, at Wood Lake Nature Center in March.

Sunset on Lake Hiawatha

Ice finally completely out on Lake Hiawatha, Minneapolis, April 3, 2019.

Bloodroot

Bloodroot in full bloom, my front yard, May 4, 2019.

Jacob's Ladder

Jacob’s Ladder in full bloom, my back yard, late May 2019.

Chive blossoms

Chive blossoms, early June 2019.

Bridal Veil Falls

Bridal Veil Falls, Glunflint Trail / Laurentian Divide area, northern MN, early July 2019.

Green bee on Great St. John's Wort

Metallic green bee really enjoying the Great St. John’s Wort, mid-July 2019, my front yard.

Tart Cherry!

Ready to pick sour cherries, July 2019, my front yard.

Bumblebee on hoary vervain

Bumblebee on hoary vervain in my prairie boulevard, July 2019.

Monarch butterfly landing on coneflower Taken only moments later, a monarch butterfly coming in for a landing. July in the pollinator garden is magical in Minnesota.

An August morning harvest

Harvest time, August 2019. Nearly all harvested from my community garden plot at Sabathani Community Center, Central Neighborhood Minneapolis.

Orange cosmos

Orange cosmos in my neighborhood, late August 2019. This is one of several photos that I took on my iPhone that surprised me how nice it came out. I love the colors—it was twilight so I didn’t think the photo would work at all.

Autumn Meadowhawk Dragonfly

Kicking off fall with an Autumn Meadowhawk Dragonfly, September 2019.

Sulphur butterfly

By late September the butterfly migration was well underway. One day my purple dome asters were covered in sulphur butterflies. The next day they were gone.

Leek harvest

Fall leek harvest. I love pictures that capture the true scale of things—here’s my husband Adam with some gigantic leeks. Sabathani Community Garden, mid-October 2019.

White tail deer, doe, Fort Snelling State Park

We hike Fort Snelling State Park all year round; late fall is a great time to see white-tail deer close up.

IMG_7754

What can you do for birds during the winter, really? Beyond the basics (bird feeders, leaving seed heads in your garden for them to eat), try adding a heated bird bath. We easily see 4-5 times greater numbers of birds in the winter than we used to, and a greater variety than just our resident house sparrows shown here. They are entertaining, though. I love how the female looks slightly annoyed at how the male is splashing her.

PSA: I’m not being paid to say this, but if you’re at all into photography, I highly recommend the Flickr Pro community. It’s a great and inexpensive option to back up all your photos, with lots of easy tools to organize them and set privacy levels, etc. I’ve been using it for years and I’m nervous it’s going to go away with the rest of the remaining positive and affirming places on the internet. Check out my photo page, or check out this huge Best of 2019 Group and get inspired for a great new year of photography.

Happy New Year!

 


2 Comments

Books for northern gardeners

A reader asked recently what books I recommend for people who are new to gardening. My answer: it depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. I have read MANY gardening books over the years—some are reviewed here—and there have definitely been some that are better than others. But the timing of her question is great: we’re just entering the gardening off-season!

The gardening off-season, in one image. I loved Monty Don’s The Ivington Diaries, even though I haven’t included it here. It’s not so much a methodology book (especially for midwestern US gardeners), but it captures the pleasure of gardening in a beautiful way.

The most important recommendation I have for northern gardeners is to check books out of the library before you buy them. I don’t usually impulsively buy gardening books because I’ve been burned so many times by books that are mostly written for warmer climates. My process: Hear about book. Borrow it from the library. Buy it if I feel like I can’t live without it. (“I can’t live without it” is pretty subjective and I own a fair number of gardening books. And novels.)

Most of my book collection. I feel I’ve shown a lot of restraint—EVERYONE should have multiple copies of Lord of the Rings.

Here are some of my favorite gardening books, roughly in order of how much I love and use them. Linked titles point to my review of each book, if I’ve reviewed it. Otherwise I’ve linked to Amazon.

Gaia’s Garden, A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, by Toby Hemenway. I can’t believe I’ve never written a full review of this book. I cannot overstate the influence it’s had on me—if I could only recommend one book it would be this one. The title of this blog and the book that I am writing, the way I think about landscape design and even how I organize my home life indoors—Gaia’s Garden is where it all started. I had never even heard of permaculture before reading this book.

If you’re even remotely concerned about reducing your carbon footprint and own a home with even a tiny bit of land, this is a fantastic resource. Hemenway doesn’t offer easy solutions to the climate crisis, but helps the reader view their own lives and properties through a different lens. And what I love about this book (and permaculture) is that it’s not prescriptive. It doesn’t say “you must do this thing, in this way.” Instead, permaculture encourages us to find unique solutions—using a framework of sustainable design—to our unique problems. By taking the time to observe our land, and learn from it, we start to realize slow, sustainable solutions to one problem at a time. We start to see every mistake as a learning opportunity.

I’m currently re-reading this book and will do a full review of later this winter, but for now, here’s an example about garden strategy and planting in zones, directly inspired by this book.

Common Backyard Weeds of the Upper Midwest by Teresa Marrone. This a great pocket-sized book for gardeners of any age who want to know what the heck IS this plant taking over this area of my yard? I always have it with me when I answer questions at the Master Gardener booth at the farmers market. The book is very helpful for identification, but Marrone also goes a step further and asks you to consider, for example, whether milkweed is actually a weed. She distinguishes between native “weeds” and invasives. Edible weeds are noted, along with what they taste like and their nutritional value. Thanks to Marrone, I have eaten a wood sorrel salad from my yard and it was delicious!

Bringing Nature Home: How you can sustain wildlife with native plants, by Doug Tallamy. If you, like me, find yourself wondering what one person can possibly do to make a difference in our current ecological crises, this book is a great place to start. Tallamy explains in excruciating detail how birds in North America are getting shortchanged, and what we can do about it. Short version: putting out bird seed is fine in the winter, but during the spring and summer birds depend on insects to feed their babies. Native plants attract insects to your yard, providing that food source. By restoring the predator/prey relationships yard by yard, we can truly make a difference. Tallamy even provides lists of plants, shrubs, and trees that are highly beneficial, so you know just where to start. This book sealed the deal for me on whether I was ready to commit to natives. Reader, I was. And I did.

Landscaping with Native Plants of Minnesota, by Lynn Steiner. After you finish Tallamy’s book, pick up this one by Lynn Steiner. Tallamy gives you the WHY, and a list of ideas for plants that you might choose, now Steiner can tell you where to site them in your landscape, and help with the design part by including specifics about soil and light conditions, as well as final plant height and width. This book has become something of a bible for me every time I consider adding a new-to-me plant, shrub, or tree to my landscape. It’s a great resource to have on hand; I loan it out all the time and inevitably ask for it back before the person is done using it, because I need it again. If you’re in Wisconsin and northern Iowa, these plants will work fine there. Other places—do a google search for your state. Chances are someone has written a very similar book for where you live.

Year-round Indoor Salad Gardening, by Peter Burke. Low startup cost? Check. Low carbon footprint? Check. Delicious? YES. This book outlines a method (that Burke basically invented) to grow what he calls soil sprouts indoors during the winter. They’re like the sprouts we’ve all had, but slightly bigger and (in my opinion) easier to grow. Call them super sprouts. I call them delicious.

Wild Fermentation and The Art of Fermentation, by Sandor Ellix Katz. These books changed how I look at food and how I eat. If you want to preserve your harvest or your farmers market find, there is no better way than by culturing or fermenting it—you actually increase the nutritional value of many of your veggies by preserving this way. You definitely can’t say that about canning. Katz led the fermentation renaissance that we are all now enjoying—he was making kombucha WAY before it was cool. He demystifies the process and inspires you to try fermenting your own, whether you want to try sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, tempeh, or yogurt. And that’s just the beginning, truly.

Four Season Harvest, by Elliot Coleman. This book is a must for northern vegetable gardeners. It’s not necessarily for beginners, but if you’ve got even just a couple years of vegetable gardening under your belt, and are wondering how you could extend your season a bit, then check this out. Maybe you’ll never get to the point where you’re harvesting in January, but even with just trying a few of his techniques I’ve extended my season from April to roughly mid-November. He also has great practical advice for important topics such as how to manage your compost pile. Also great: Coleman’s Winter Harvest Handbook, which is more targeted to small farmers than home gardeners.

Honorable mention books, for enthusiasts

Secrets of Wildflowers, by Jack Sanders. This is a delightful bedtime read if you, like me, are prone to anxiety. It tells some of the funny and strange histories of many American wildflowers—native and introduced—that even the most casual of hikers will recognize.

How to Move Like a Gardener, by Deb Soule. Soule is an herbalist and founder of Avena Botanicals. This book outlines her gardening philosophy, including an introduction to biodynamic farming, as well as profiles of many common medicinal herbs, flowers, and fruits, including what they’re indicated for. It’s a fantastic read, and a call to live more simply with our land. It also inspired me to purchase a bitter digestive tincture from Avena, which we all enjoyed very much.

____________________________________________________________________________

That’s a decent list for now, yes? Do you have any books to add to this list?


1 Comment

In the Fall Garden

The fall garden: it’s all about greens fading into blues and grays, then contrasting with bright oranges and yellows. Lush, soft textures contrast with dry, brown twigs and leaves. In short: it’s gorgeous. Why “clean it up”? Most of this stuff will stay in place until the spring in order to shelter overwintering insects for next year.

Here’s a photo tour of what’s happening outside my door, right now.

IMG_7502

Okra plants are approximately six feet tall.

IMG_7504

Meyer lemons—I’ve never had any get this big. For some reason the squirrels aren’t interested in them this year. I am trying to come up with a strategy to make the coming winter happier for this plant without breaking the bank.

IMG_7508

Who needs mums, anyway? Fall asters are gorgeous AND beneficial.

IMG_7517

Two thirds of this composition is serendipity. I only planted the purple dome aster; the calendula and brown-eyed susans reseeded from other areas of the garden.

IMG_7526

My showy goldenrod has been covered in bumblebees—during a warm spell last week they were positively frantic.

IMG_7531

Blanketflower—slowly reseeding and reblooming all summer long.

IMG_7532

Who’s this little bug trying to hide in a calendula blossom?

IMG_7537

Zig zag goldenrod, a favorite for shade. Great hosta alternative.

IMG_7540

The spent blossoms of the big-leaved asters are taking on a puffball quality.

IMG_7543

The prairie boulevard in autumn captures that quality I was trying to describe—contrasts of color and texture that are unique to this season.

IMG_7561

Blue false indigo leaves, their black seed pods, and more brown eyed susans in the background.

IMG_7566

Zinnias are a little obviously non-native at this point, but so pretty.

IMG_7569

Magnolia leaves starting to give it up.

IMG_7570

Fall is parsley’s time to shine. It’s very cold-hardy so I’ll keep picking it until it’s covered by snow.

IMG_7594

I love the giant spiders of September. This one’s right outside our dining room window.

IMG_7598

Bull’s Blood beets, grown for their incredibly nutritious and beautiful leaves. They’re also very cold-hardy so I don’t need to rush to get them picked and eaten.

IMG_7601

In order of cold-hardiness: collards, chard and kale. Kale withstands light frosts easily so I’m prioritizing eating up the collards and chard right now. We’re not expecting frost for at least a couple more weeks—early- to mid-October has become the norm now for first frost in the Twin Cities.

IMG_7606

A new-to-me vegetable for 2019: malabar spinach! I’ll definitely grow this again. It was so easy and (unlike so many other things) it thrived in the heat and humidity.

IMG_7613

I have several Autumn Joy Sedums in my yard, one of the few non-natives that I keep. They used to get covered in bees in the fall, but this year very few bees are showing interest, due to the large numbers of goldenrod I now provide. Sedums provide nectar, but lack certain vitamins and minerals that bees need to survive the long winter. Goldenrod > Autumn Joy Sedum. That’s really the bottom line. If these die out, I won’t fuss. For now they’re occupying a space that’s otherwise been difficult to fill in right next to my A/C unit.

IMG_7617

Anneke’s Japanese-style fairy garden had a rough summer, but still has some nice textures going on. I’ll have to bring this jade in for the winter.

IMG_7621

Jalapeños are still going strong.

IMG_7624

Comfrey. Plant comfrey only if you really truly intend to use it—it’s a great compost pile activator, and makes a potent compost tea. I can pull this entire plant out at the root two or three times each summer and it always comes roaring back. I will pull it out a final time in the coming weeks and use it for a winter mulch in the vegetable garden.

Fall is such a busy and stressful time of year, and it was a lovely break for me to spend my morning in the garden, taking these photos to share with you. Thanks for looking.