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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.

 


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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.

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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!

 


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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.

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


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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.

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Okra plants are approximately six feet tall.

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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.

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

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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.

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

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Blanketflower—slowly reseeding and reblooming all summer long.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Magnolia leaves starting to give it up.

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Jalapeños are still going strong.

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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.


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Strategies for managing weeds

I’ve been spending a LOT of time weeding this year. I like weeding—or at any rate, I find it very satisfying. Yet, there are lots of other activities that I’d rather pursue, so I am trying to understand WHY my yard is so much weedier this year. Let’s explore.

This was a very sad week. September 2018.

Construction

Anytime you dig in your yard, especially with heavy machinery, you expose thousands of weed seeds to the oxygen and light they need to germinate. Many of those seeds have lain dormant in the soil for years, just waiting for an opportunity like this. In my case, that happened last fall when half of my front yard and boulevard were torn up for a sewer line project.

The newly-sunny area, August 2018. I ended up planting mostly annuals again this year so that I could focus on the front yard.

Changes in growing conditions

When a dramatic change occurs in your yard, expect a flush of new weeds. For example, my southerly neighbor cut down his large crimson king maple about a year ago. It had deeply shaded the southern half of my back yard, to the point where very little grew there at all. But apparently seeds of sun-loving weeds had been collecting in that soil for years because we’ve had flush after flush of new weeds back there.

Weather conditions

We’ve had great growing conditions most of the late spring and summer this year in South Minneapolis. Everything is flourishing! We’ve had plenty of rain, and it’s been warm by day and cool at night. (Until this week’s heat wave. Wow.) Weeds flourish just as much as other plants in these conditions.

So what to do about all this weed madness?

For one thing, and this is especially true if you grow native plants, you need to decide which plants are weeds. Note that deciding is different than simply figuring out. I highly recommend the book Common Backyard Weeds of the Upper Midwest by Teresa Marrone. It will help you identify weeds and understand which ones are edible (you’d be surprised how many you can eat).

Weeds or lovely dill volunteers? You decide.

If you grow natives, many will reseed themselves all over your yard, and most wildflower gardeners find this desirable. But you will need to learn how to identify seedlings of those coneflowers, Wild Columbines, and Black-Eyed Susans. Google is your friend here. If you see a plant and can’t identify it, do a google image search on what you think it might be, e.g. “Wild Columbine seedling.” You will get very skilled, very quickly at identifying certain prolific re-seeding plants, native or non-native. I’m looking at you, dill.

Getting rid of the weeds

So obviously to start with you need to just get rid of these plants that you’ve decided are weeds. I’m not into spraying chemicals on my yard but I issue one plea with those who do: when it comes to herbicides, the label is the law and you should carefully read the instructions of any herbicide before using it. One of the most critical rules is to only spray it at dawn or at dusk when there is little to no wind. Otherwise it blows over to my yard and I get VERY UPSET with you.

It’s also worth noting that even if you Roundup the heck out of your weeds, they will still come back in a few weeks. Roundup does not destroy the weed seed bank in your soil, nor does it prevent new weeds from blowing in via seed or creeping in via underground rhizomes from nearby areas once it has left your soil.

I have poured boiling water on my paver paths and found it to be pretty effective, but if you have a large paver path area you might need to boil several pots’ worth before you can get it all. It takes more than a few drops.

I’ve always hand-pulled weeds. But I heard Larry Weaner, author of the meadow manifesto Garden Revolution, speak this winter, and he made a pretty powerful case for trimming weeds to the ground rather than pulling them out. The idea is that every time you make a disturbance in the soil, you give new weed seeds a chance. This works on a micro-level when you pull weeds, as well as a macro-level when you dig up your sewer line.

So he recommends successive mowing or trimming of weeds—making sure they never get a chance to flower and continually weakening the plant until it just gives up and dies, without ever disturbing the soil and creating conditions for a new weed to grow in its place.

Preventing the weeds in the first place

An ounce of prevention in the native wildflower garden is complex, because you have some process-related and aesthetic decisions to make. The best way to prevent weeds is to have a thick growth of hardy, healthy weed-suppressing perennials (this is true of lawn grass as well). But in order to have that, you’re going to need to overcome this particular American Garden Aesthetic:

I’m sorry for using you as an example of what not to do, random neighbor.

Create a sea of mulch with annuals and perennials tucked here and there, and—congratulations!—you’ve created a maintenance project for yourself. Many people, desperate to maintain this unmaintainable look, turn to plastic sheets of landscape fabric under their wood mulch, hoping they’ll suppress those weeds. (Do not talk to me about rock mulch. That’s a subject for a much longer post, some other time.)

But wood mulch over landscape fabric is also not a good long-term solution because weed seeds will land on top and start growing in the mulch as it decomposes. Furthermore, landscape fabric makes it more difficult for your short-lived but self-seeding native wildflowers (like Wild Columbine) to spread their offspring around. You’re creating conditions that do NOT favor wildflowers.

This prairie boulevard would not have filled in if I didn’t create the conditions favorable for the plants to reseed and spread out.

If you are creating a new garden where there was once turf, sheet mulching is a good choice that will suppress the weed seed bank.

If you are planting into bare ground, mulch with something that you know will break down relatively quickly. Two great choices are lawn clippings (my neighbors are happy to share theirs with me) or fall leaves. Plus one if the fall leaves have been mowed over and collected so that they’re chopped up.

Both of these options break down within a year, allowing your native plants to spread their offspring around, and move around among each other as they please, filling in and creating a thick, lush landscape that weeds eventually will not be able to thrive in.

I use a thick mulch of straw on my vegetable gardens. It takes two years to break down but is easy to move around when you want to harvest or plant something new.

Wood chip mulch is good on a temporary basis while plants get established, because it also breaks down over time. But be wary of cheap bagged mulch from big box stores or gas stations. I get free municipal wood chips from the city of Minneapolis. They’re not as pretty, but they work just fine.

Sheet mulching

Creating a brand new cherry tree garden in our front yard, 2012 or so.

Cherry tree garden earlier this week. It does not get very weedy.

A quick how-to on sheet mulching:

Obtain uncoated cardboard and lay it down in the contours of your new bed—look at it from close-up and from far away to make sure you’ve got your scale and shape right. Cover with at least 2-3 inches of wood chips. Wait at least 6-8 weeks or up to 6-8 months before planting. If you wait weeks, you may need to spade through cardboard and water your new plantings frequently until the cardboard breaks down. If you wait longer, it will be easier.

This is why I like to sheet mulch in the autumn. I can spend my winter researching plants. Come spring, the cardboard has disintegrated and I simply pull back a small circle of wood chips where each plant will go and dig the holes with a trowel.

The chips break down within another year or two, just as the new native plants are ready to start spreading around.

The end goal: mulch with living plants

The eventual goal here is to not need mulch at all. It’s OK to sprinkle some wood chips on a walking path, like this:

This is an area of my back yard that I unintentionally filled with two plants that were far more aggressive than I initially realized. Virginia Waterleaf and Wild Sarsparilla slowly filled this area completely in; the only parts that stay open are the little path where we walk to the garage door, and a little path by the canoe (behind the rain barrel). The rest is completely full of lush green plants, and they suppress weeds better than any mulch ever could. I spend only several minutes per year weeding this area.

Here’s a very weedy little area that also serves as a walkway around my raised strawberry bed (bricks to the left), and also provides access to this end of my vegetable garden. I often place a pot of peppers or two here, but the path has been VERY weedy despite getting walked on. Earlier this year I added a rather invasive plant—peppermint (center right)—to crowd out the weeds and provide a “trap crop” area for four-lined plant bugs. The peppermint doesn’t mind if I step on it occasionally. Eventually it will become a living mulch for this area.

In the foreground, an established perennial garden filled to the brim with a mix of natives and non-natives. It’s easy to maintain. In the background, my new shade garden, planted this year after my sewer line tragedy/opportunity. I’m trying to keep it mulched with grass clippings until the tiny, barely-visible plants have a chance to fill in. It’s required some maintenance weeding, but in a few years it will be as lush and beautiful as the nearer garden.

So there you have it. I set out to explore the world of weed management in my own garden, and I ended up writing a weeding manifesto. How has your weeding been going this summer?

 


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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.