Stacking Functions Garden


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Back yard project

Our back yard project has been progressing slowly but surely over the past month or two. Here’s where we’re at:

In late March/early April Adam busted out the entire sidewalk with a sledgehammer. Though Adam hauled away all the big pieces, the kids got busy hauling smaller pieces with their dump trucks.

pile of concrete to be recycled

What a ham!

Adam piled the concrete in the back alley. With faint hopes of avoiding dumpster fees, we posted an ad on Craigslist — free concrete to any taker.  Low and behold, the entire pile was gone a week!  Then Adam busted out the 2nd half of the sidewalk, made an equally big pile, and that went too.  All of this concrete will see a second life as part of numerous DIY projects — we had quite a few different people stop by and each took at least 5 or 6 pieces. Cool.

The latest step in the project is filling in the trench with topsoil.  Then comes sheet mulching, then finally, planting.  I’m afraid we are not going to be far enough along to buy all our plants at this weekend’s Friends Plant Sale, but… there are a fair number of nurseries near the Twin Cities that specialize in native plants so we still ought to be able to find everything we need.  Hoping for Memorial Day weekend or so, at this point.

Stay tuned!

 

 

 


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My back yard landscape plan

I am finally unveiling what I’ve been working on for more than two months: my back yard landscape plan!  It is as complete as it’s going to be, so let’s take a look.

I want to walk you through my process, because I am really jazzed about how it went. I used Adobe Illustrator as my landscape design tool, rather than the traditional graph paper and tracing paper. I took a landscaping class in February and the idea of re-drawing the entire thing every time I wanted to move something or change something frustrated me really quickly.  Fortunately, I have an older copy of Illustrator on my home computer and, measurements of my back yard in hand, I created a document where each square on the grid represented 1 foot of my back yard. Made the math part really easy (click to enlarge).

Adobe Illustrator as landscape design tool

So without further ado, let’s walk through the steps.

back yard existing hardscape and plants

Here’s the back yard (and sides) as it exists now. North is to the right. Pretty much everything that’s white in here is turf grass and/or bare ground.  I have some existing planted areas, such as my raspberries. Some areas are so shady (like the corner by the compost bin) that no grass will grow there. The concrete sidewalk is old and tree roots have made it very uneven. Speaking of trees, here’s the same landscape with existing shade trees and drainage problems:

The green shady areas are the areas of more than 75% shade. You could extend those borders out even a bit further if you wanted to include the 35-50% shade areas.  The blue is where we have standing water in the spring — it also floods our garage each year.

final back yard plan

And here is the plan! We’ll maintain a pretty large turf area for now, because the kids need room to play. Everything that’s white will be mulched with wood chips — we’re going to need a couple trucks full!  The biggest components of this project, however, are going to be: building a cedar trellis/arbor over the deck and completely removing the sidewalk.  Adam will be doing his best John Henry impression with a sledgehammer to get that sidewalk outta there.  Our dads will likely help him build the arbor.

The weirdest part about following the landscape design process is that you don’t pick your plants until dead last.  I had a couple plants in mind all along, of course, but I forced myself to keep an open mind in case they wouldn’t fit into the areas I had planned. You plan for sizes and shapes of plants first, then find plants that fit the bill.

One thing that really helped me finalize where everything was positioned was doing an exercise to mark access points where people would be frequently walking through:

with access points

This diagram actually still shows the existing sidewalk too, so you can see that the new plants will actually be in the exact spot the sidewalk is now.  I had several a-ha moments while adding all these little arrows, and it really helped me to finalize the design and feel confident about my choices.

I’m still in the process of finalizing plant lists for the rain garden and the smaller perennials that will go under the viburnums on the right (north).  My goal is for the entire back yard to contain only plants that are native to Minnesota and/or the Upper Midwest.  So that limits my choices quite a bit, but I’m very excited to see all the birds and butterflies that will assuredly show up here in the next few years as these plants mature.

This post is getting a bit long, so I think I will go ahead and save a detailed plant list with descriptions for another night.  If you can think of a great native plant for a shady water garden or a shady understory garden, please add it in the comments below!  Also, what do you think?  I’m pretty excited.


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Book Review: The Winter Harvest Handbook

The Winter Harvest Handbook
Year-Round Vegetable Production Using Deep-Organic Techniques and Unheated Greenhouses
by Eliot Coleman

This book has been on my list for a very long time. Glad I bought it, because I absolutely loved it and plan to start using it this year.

Mr. Coleman and his family run a CSA farm in Maine (USDA hardiness zone 5a, only one tick warmer than where I live in Minnesota), and they are able to deliver certain crops to their customers all year round with some pretty amazing techniques.

We’re not talking about tomatoes here, but certain cold-hardy vegetables — greens, carrots, turnips — are actually superior in flavor during cold weather.  Coleman breaks it down: the history of winter vegetable production, the maximum-yield yearly schedule, “cold” vs “cool” greenhouses, the basics of how he handles soil prep and pests, plus the very best cold weather vegetable varieties.

This book is written with the small farmer in mind, not the home gardener. If I bought a farm tomorrow, I would use this book as a guide. But most if not all of his ideas are totally adaptable to the home garden, and actually will end up being more fun for me to experiment with since my livelihood will not be dependent on the results.

Coleman’s major discovery that has revolutionized his winter greenhouse gardening is simply this: he creates two microclimates by doubling the layers of insulation over plants.  The first microclimate is the unheated greenhouse. But the second, equally important one, is a layer of thin fabric, draped over the crops inside the greenhouse, like this:

(From Amazon.com customer image gallery, click image for source)

On average, the temperature under the inner covers is up to 30 degrees warmer than the outside temp.  This means if it gets to -15 degrees F outside, it’s still +15 degrees F under the covers. So obviously you have to have hardy vegetables, but still: a huge difference!  (And this was the first part of the book where I squealed like a little girl.)

He also talks a bit about cold frames, which are very popular for small-scale winter vegetable production. They were not practical for his farm because of the volume of food they need to produce, but he got me thinking about where I might fit one in my yard.

I can’t stress enough how useful this book would be, to me anyway, if I was starting a small CSA farm.  He talks about tools, marketing, and growing vegetables that give you the most yield per square foot, and what’s worth your time or not, in terms of how successful he’s been in the past at selling various items.

Several things that I’m going to try that I learned from this book, in no particular order:

1. I’m going to build wee hoop houses for my new stock tank gardens in the back yard and try for a late fall/early winter harvest of carrots and greens, using Coleman’s schedule and methodology.

2. I’m going to try his method for planting leeks. Most people hill up soil around their leeks as they grow, in order to get that nice blanched stem. Coleman starts his leek in large 3-inch deep seed flats.  He lets them grow until they are at least 10 inches tall. To transplant into the ground, he first digs 9-inch deep, narrow holes with a tool he calls a “dibble,” then drops the leeks in so only 1 inch of the plant is above the surface of the soil. Then there’s no mounding necessary, and he gets beautiful leeks.

3. I’m going to start a gardening calendar here on the blog in the next few days. My plan: record the dates of every garden-related event for the entire year. I hope to experiment with planting and harvest dates year-over-year and develop a better system to maximize my yield from my wee 1/4 acre.  I hope you find it [marginally] interesting!

4. I’m going to work on convincing Adam that we absolutely must add at least 4 cold frames. This will probably be about as successful as my work in convincing him that we should get chickens.

This book goes on the HIGHLY RECOMMENDED and inspirational list, for sure!


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Milkapalooza!

Yes, there is an event called Milkapalooza, and yes of course we went to it this weekend. It was a blast. Anneke, it turns out, is a natural at milking cows:

The event featured tours of the Minars’ farm, and I eagerly soaked up every minute. This was our opportunity to see where our milk comes from! And considering how much yogurt, butter, and ice cream we make with their milk/cream, a fair amount of our family’s daily calories come from this patch of grass and cows near New Prague, Minnesota. Here are some of the highlights from the tour:

Here’s the winter hoop house (not sure if that’s the right term) — it’s a simple structure where the cows go in cold weather. There is no barn for them to sleep in — this is it.  The bedding at the bottom is turned frequently, and as it decomposes, it heats up (this is all part of the process, as those of you who compost know). The heat is plenty for the cows, even in Minnesota winters.

The milk parlor was a little dark, so sorry for the low quality.  I’ve only seen a handful of milk parlors, including my Grandpa Rensenbrink’s very low-tech one, so this was very impressive. They can milk 32 cows at once!  Looking at the picture, basically cows would be facing you. The person goes down a set of stairs into a galley where they have easy access to all the udders to hook up the machines. It was pretty neat and efficient, and very clean.

The family raises pigs and chickens too, but not for commerce necessarily (that I know of anyway). Those were some darn happy pigs. Anneke naturally thought they were completely adorable and said that one in particular looked exactly like Wilbur from Charlotte’s Web.

Finally, the cows themselves. My, what beautiful girls. The milking herd is about 150 cows, which seemed like a small number to me (not really sure on that though). They have several different breeds including brown jerseys like this one. So, Cedar Summit Farms is different from conventional and even some organic dairies in several key ways:

1. The cows eat grass, and stored hay in winter. Quite a bit of acreage is required to grow that much “pasture salad,” as the tour guide called it.  Apparently when they switched from grains to grass, milk production went down.  But so did costs, so things balanced out in the long term.

2. Calves get to stay with their mother for 4-6 weeks after birth. Apparently you get much healthier calves this way.

3. The cows live a bit longer than they would if they lived on concrete, inside, their whole lives.

4. The cows still become hamburger, after 5-6 pregnancy and lactation cycles.  Sorry, but it’s true.

I know very little about dairy farming. But I liked everything I saw and heard at the farm this weekend. There were so many things to think about — and I’ve already gone on and on about how much healthier grass-based dairy products are.

This is going to sound a bit melodramatic, but I looked at this farm and saw a way to save the rural America I grew up in and love.  By making farming a bit less efficient, you instantly need many, many more farmers than we currently have.  Farms get smaller again.  Families can be supported by a smallish farm.  Rural communities have an economy again.  Everyone wins.  You can set aside the health, environmental, and animal welfare implications of “agribusiness” as we know it, and the bare economic facts point to smaller, greener farms being much better for people and communities.

Now the challenge: how to talk people into making the switch to milk that costs twice as much. And, how to get the government to subsidize farm programs that actually benefit real farmers instead of corporations — because conventional dairy farming, like so much else in our society is partially a product of subsidies both to corn and oil. It’s not sustainable. Things have got to change.

[ Blushes, thanks you very kindly for reading this far, and steps off soap box ]


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Season’s Greetings

Well hi there! Just a couple things before I get back to the revelry:

1. We’ve got a new header, right up on top (RSS reader people will have to click through to see).

2. I finally started soaking and drying nuts, another thing that Nourishing Traditions recommends.  Result: TASTY. Basically, you soak any kind of raw nut in salt water for 8-12 hours and then dry it in a food dehydrator or oven at a low temp.  I think 140 degrees is supposed to be the max.  We are fortunate that our oven has a convection fan so we can dry foods in there.  Works great for this purpose.  Also note: almonds take a LOT longer to dry than walnuts.

3. We put up some heavier curtains in hopes that our extremely drafty windows would feel less, well, drafty.  I think it’s working; our living room seems a bit cozier this winter.  We also made a silly draft stopper snake with the leftover material from the curtains:

And really, that’s about all, aside from the usual holiday excitement.  I was dreaming about radishes last night, so I think you can expect a garden update soon.  No better time than January to plan my 2011 garden.  See you next year!


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Going small and low-tech

I was recently introduced to the joy and wonder of french press coffee, and as a result we got rid of our old coffeemaker and replaced it with two secondhand french presses that Adam found on eBay (we got two for when we have company).  This corner of the countertop used to be completely dominated by the coffeemaker, but now it’s a nice workspace.  Love it.  Also pictured is our wee stovetop espresso maker.  (It’s the Bialetti Moka Express, if you’re wondering.)

So yeah, I like fancy coffee and I like espresso, but I also like to not have my kitchen countertop be totally dominated by expensive single-use appliances.  I have a giant stove.  Why not use it to heat water for my coffee?  I’ve got 5 burners, for pete’s sake.  I never need more than two for the kids’ daily oatmeal and scrambled eggs.  Plus, now we can make fancy coffee even when we’re camping.

Clearly, the explosion of single-use kitchen products (like this or this or especially this) are what led to people feeling like they needed a huge kitchen.  If a gadget only performs one function (and this applies to choosing plants for  landscapes as well), you have to ask yourself, REALLY ask yourself, is it worth it?  And not just the money it will cost, but also the space it will occupy and the maintenance required.

My kitchen is 82 square feet; the attached breakfast nook is 42 square feet.  It feels huge and spacious to me; it has a great layout.  We do A LOT of from-scratch cooking and we never feel like we are cramped in any way. According to this 2005 article from ABC/Good Morning America (the most recent I could find), the average kitchen size in new home construction is around 300 square feet (or was, as of 2005).  Wow.

Reading this article is fascinating, by the way, because it so clearly captures the mood of the country in 2005.  Check out this quote:

“There’s more money around,” said Barbara Corcoran, a New York-based real estate agent and “Good Morning America’s” real estate correspondent. “People are more vested in where they live. The houses that are driving the housing prices and sizes way up are the ego homes, though. The really rich people.”

Bigger and better seem to be the way to go in housing these days.

These days, indeed.  Too bad they didn’t find room in the story to point out some of the crazy/shady lending practices that were making all that expansion possible.

Full disclosure: we do have some kitchen gadgets.  I love our heavy-duty stand mixer — but it has many different uses beyond simply making cookies.  We make flour with it!  And butter!  And ice cream!  We also have a waffle maker, a food processor, and an immersion blender.  Actually, I guess we do have, uh, quite a few gadgets.  What was the point of this post again?  Oh yeah, that we eliminated ONE gadget from our kitchen…  It’s a start, right?

If you’re feeling like your kitchen is simply not big enough, look around and see how many single-use gadgets you have.  Eliminating even just one or two can really make your kitchen feel more spacious and useful — and save you money in the long run.  Another digression: I recently taught Anneke the phrase “in the long run” and she says it all the time.  It sounds hilarious coming from a three-year-old.

OK, that’s enough of this random post.  Good night.


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The Coming Famine

Here’s another book to add to my list: The Coming Famine, by Julian Cribb.  Mark Bittman reviewed it for the NY Times today.  Basically, Cribb contends that we’ve reached peak food production (along with peak oil), and warns that our food system could collapse without major changes.  From the review (emphasis mine):

He proposes subsidizing small farms for their stewardship of the earth, and paying them fairer prices for production; taxing food to reflect its true costs to the environment; regulating practices that counter sustainability and rewarding those that promote it; and educating the public about the true costs of food. “An entire year of primary schooling” should be devoted to the importance of growing and eating food, he suggests.

An entire year of home ec.  Yes.  Read the whole review here.  My library doesn’t have this book in their catalog yet, but I’ll be watching for it.

Update, 8/26/2010: Apparently this topic is really gaining steam.  Here’s a review of another book about essentially the same thingEmpires of Food by Evan D.G. Fraser looks at the food systems of empires that failed, such as the Roman empire, and draws parallels with today.  So much reading to do…

Update, 8/27/2010: Gaining steam, speeding up:  The Atlantic Monthly’s round-up of stories related to this topic.


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No-mow grass

A few weeks ago, I took a mid-summer Master Gardener refresher course at the Minnesota Landscape ArboretumBob Mugaas, the awesome turf-grass guy from the U of M, gave a presentation about new no-mow landscape grasses that the university is developing.  Some are already available commercially.

The implications of this are incredible.  Imagine not having to mow your lawn.  Imagine all the oil and emissions that could be saved if people mowed their lawns only 2-3 times a summer at the most.  For us, our yard is so small, and we use a reel-type mower, so it wouldn’t be a huge savings in time or money.  But if I had a huge suburban yard, I’d be all over this.

The main no- and low-mow turfgrasses that are available commercially today are fine fescues, such as red fescue, chewings fescue, and hard fescue.  These can look a little floppy — because of their finer grain they don’t stand straight up like ye olde Kentucky bluegrass.  So adjust your expectations, yo.

Here’s an article from Extension with much more information as well as resources on where you can order low- and no-mow grass seed mixes.  Alas, I think you’d most likely not be able to find sod, because this is all still too new.

The Sustainable Urban Landscape Information Series also has some good information about maintaining a healthy lawn and when to plant, etc.  A couple notes, whether you have a low-maintenance lawn or whether you mow every week:

1) The best time to seed and the best time to fertilize are both in the early fall.
2) When watering, think deep & infrequent during the spring and fall, and more frequently but not so deeply in the summer.  This is because the root systems of grass plants typically die back quite a bit during hot, dry weather, but grow deeper during cool weather.
3) Setting your mower an inch or two higher will result in cooler, happier root systems and healthier grass.  If you are trying to achieve a putting green for a yard, your mower is set WAY too low.


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Growing lots of potatoes in a small space

Well, isn’t this a clever idea?!  Fill a wire frame with layers of dirt, straw, and seed potatoes, water thoroughly, and a “potato medusa” is born.  Come harvest time, simply tip it over and dig them out.  This blogger says you can grow upwards of 25 lbs of tomatoes in one of these clever towers.

Just found this blog today, from an urban farming pioneer right here in Minneapolis.  He’s starting a CSA program on his urban farm, and the whole project looks very promising.  I am definitely trying a potato tower next year.  Here are the instructions.

Update, June 14 2011: the tower experiment has officially begun!


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Another rain barrel

We added a third rain barrel to our collection this week.  It’s a really gorgeous one: a reclaimed oak wine barrel from Barrel Depot.  They offered our neighborhood group a modest discount, so I decided to take them up on it.  Now our two uglier plastic ones will be in the back of the house and the oak one will adorn the front:

I like that this one is made with better components than our plastic ones — the cheap hose attachments on our plastic ones are already falling apart.  The only challenges with it were: 1) it is extremely heavy, 2) we needed to find our own screen for the top, and 3) there was a 2″ hole in the middle which Adam had to cut a piece of oak and plug (visible in picture).

We got lucky on the screen issue.  Right there in the sandbox was an old sieve which just happened to fit the hole perfectly:

Perfect.  Now we just need some rain.