Stacking Functions Garden


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Going native

I was just reading through some recent posts, and realized that I forgot one of the most important reasons why I had my most successful gardening year ever in 2012.

I had very few pest problems this year, and with our mild winter/early spring I had actually expected an increase in pests. Two reasons: first, I added beneficial nematodes to the garden in early June, all around my zucchini plants. I later saw (and failed to catch) adult squash vine borers in there, so I know they laid eggs, but the nematodes must have done their job because my zucchini plants looked gorgeous all summer.

Second, and more important: I have added a great variety of native plants to my yard and garden over the past two years, and I can’t believe how many more birds, butterflies and spiders are around. I actually watched two birds flying in and out of the vegetable garden one day, feasting on crickets. HUGE spiders set up shop in several areas of the yard this summer.

American Highbush Cranberry (viburnum trilobum) is just one of the native shrubs I added this spring. They’re absolutely gorgeous right now, and next year they should produce berries.

I keep saving seed and replanting Florence Fennel from a packet I originally bought several years ago (I also get MANY volunteers). This fennel frustrates me because it seems that no matter what part of the yard I plant it in, I almost never get a bulb worthy of dicing. I get lots of neat foliage, and I use the seeds and feathery leaves interchangeably with dill, but I am ready to try a different variety—I keep dreaming of cucumber fennel salad and never getting around to making it. Anyway, when I pulled out the remaining fennel plants this weekend, look what I found! Weird fennel carrot-like roots!? So, we boiled them up with some parsnips and mashed them. Not too shabby.

Garden’s not done yet! I’ve never seen a better chard plant than this one; it’s been completely cut down several times and just keeps coming back. Apparently it’s hardy to about 15 degrees (F), so we’ll probably want to use it up by the end of November or so.

With all the native plants we added this year, our need for leaf mulch increased to the point that we no longer need to bag/dispose of ANY leaves. We raked them off the small grass area, and threw the extras on the raspberries. So there’s one chore greatly reduced, at least. Leaf mulch is exactly what native plants want and like—after all it’s what they’d get in the forest.

A friend of mine was touring my garden this summer, and seemed perplexed at all the work I’m putting into adding natives that supply only a little food at most. Why not focus more on adding as many vegetable and fruit areas as humanly possible? Well, that’s likely the direction I would have gone, if I didn’t have so much shade. Since I can’t grow traditional vegetables and fruits in the vast majority of my yard, I had to improvise. I am SO glad I did: even if you can’t eat all of the plants I’ve added, they still greatly benefit the plants that I CAN eat by increasing biodiversity in my little south Minneapolis yard.

There’s also the permaculture aspect of this: in order to achieve greater sustainability we need to expand our definition of edible and explore the native plants of our regions. In that vein, I will be more than thrilled to welcome nannyberries, highbush cranberries, gooseberries, fiddlehead ferns, and even more herbal teas to my table next year. Now if I can just get my hands on some ramps and a serviceberry bush or two, I’ll be set!


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Project: complete!

Back in April, I applied for a grant from the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District. Their stormwater best management practices cost-share program helps homeowners in the district pay for landscape projects that help reduce run-off and support wildlife. I figured my back yard landscape project was a good candidate with its native plants and the rain garden. Found out last week that I got the grant!  It should cover all the plants. Awesome!

Knowing that the funding was secure, I bought the rest of the plants needed to complete the project this weekend. Fortunately Mother Earth Gardens in Minneapolis had everything I needed (mostly ferns).

Let’s dig in to the process:

First I wrote down the common and latin names, quantity, and location preferences for each plant. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of at least jotting down the latin name of each plant you buy. If you don’t, it is very difficult to know exactly what you have a few years from now.

Then I set the plants, still in containers, in their places to be sure of arrangement. Many of the plants I put in this spring are still tiny in their rabbit-proof cages, so I hope they survive the winter.

Next I made detailed maps of each planted area. This will be a big help next spring.

One of the three planted areas: a deeply shaded area between the compost bin and the wood shed where no grass has ever grown. The shrub in the picture is a alternate-leaved dogwood, also called pagoda dogwood (cornus alternifolia). Originally I had this area marked as “leave empty for potential chicken coop” but Adam put his foot down about the chicken issue. Plants it is. For now.

The other large planted area is along the north fence line, under a beautiful mature maple tree. It’s not much to see right now, but it should look much more filled-in next year. In a few years the 3 viburnums (2 trilobums and 1 lentago) will hopefully get big enough to provide a bit of screening.

I added six of these maidenhair ferns (adiantum pedatum). They are a great groundcover.

I was so jazzed to find Christmas Ferns (polystichum acrostichoides) that I bought 5 of them even though I technically only needed two. They’re an evergreen fern often used in holiday floral arrangements; hence the name.

I also added some cardinal flowers (lobelia cardinalis), though not in the rain garden as originally intended. They need a bit more sun than I originally thought, so they went into the sunniest part of the maple tree garden.

I definitely varied from my original plan, but the differences are relatively minor. Also, the edges of the rain garden need a bit more contouring before I post pictures.  I cannot wait to see all of this next year!


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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!