Stacking Functions Garden

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Winter Bike Commuting

I’m going for it this year!  I invested $130 in a new setup that has gotten me through all kinds of ice and snow in the last two weeks with no problems whatsoever.  Will I make it all winter?  Hopefully, but only time and Paul Douglas will tell.  Here’s my ride:

Safety tips so far include: wear reflective vest in the evening, take it slow, and, as per my usual advice, take the back roads whenever possible.  Also, I really like the ski goggles that Adam got me as an early Christmas present, though they’re not 100% necessary.

As usual, we tried to be as thrifty as possible, so here’s the cost breakdown:
$50 complete Nishiki Uptown bike in working order (via craigslist)
$65 set of Innova Tundra Wolf Studded Snow Tires
$15 set of SKS Beavertail fenders

The Nishiki Uptown was a great find.  That thing is a tank.  Added bonus: it has horizontal dropouts so after I trash the components this year, Adam could potentially convert it to a single speed or fixie for winter 2011-12.

Update, 12/27/2010: Boy, did I pick a great year to commit to winter bike commuting.  We’ve had 33″ of snow so far this December, on our way to a record (more is expected later this week). But I only wimped out and took the bus a total of 3 times so far.  I will, however, amend my earlier advice about only taking the back roads.  During a snow emergency, you’ll want to stick with main roads and try to leave just a little before or a little after the main rush hour.  I’ve been taking Bloomington Ave when the side streets are impassable and it’s been mostly pleasant.

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Book Review: Build Your Own Earth Oven

So it’s been over six months since my last book review (and my last few reviews were pretty lame).  I went on a total fiction binge this year.  I can now say I’ve completely exhausted any need to read about vampires for a very, very long time (at least until the sequel to The Passage comes out).

Anyway, so here’s a little non-fiction book that I picked up on impulse from the library a few weeks ago:

Build Your Own Earth Oven
A low-cost, wood-fired, mud oven simple sourdough bread, perfect loaves
by Kiko Denzer with Hannah Field

Ever since I tasted pizza from my friend Robin’s wood-fired pizza oven, this idea has really intrigued me.  But why build it out of mud?  Well, firebrick is pretty expensive — $2-$3 a piece.  Denzer’s ovens use a handful of firebricks for the oven floor, but they are mostly built out of mud.  He gives seven basic reasons to use mud: it’s fun, fast, artistic, cheap, builds community, is adaptable, and finally — the most compelling reason of all — it turns to brick through the heating process.

Not just any old mud will do, however.  You need mud that has high clay content.  This generally involves digging down a couple of feet past the topsoil.  The easiest way to tell if your soil has enough clay is to pick up a handful, roll it around in your hand into a ball, then squeeze it into a snake shape.  The longer and smoother “snake” you can make (with no cracks), the higher your clay content.

Most people (theoretically) should be able to find soil with high enough clay content for cheap or free, even if they don’t have it in their own yard.

So you build a foundation (Denzer gives multiple options here), lay a couple firebricks, and build a mud-based (also called “cob”) dome top.  While that dries you make a nice neat little oven door.  And… you’re done.  Denzer claims the whole thing can be done in a 1/2 day.  I am skeptical.  Up here in the north country you also definitely need some sort of shelter to put this in: nothing fancy, just a simple structure to keep the rain and snow off.

The chapter on sourdough baking (with recipe) was interesting, but I’m not ready to pick that thread up again for a while.  There are multiple right ways do bake sourdough bread — I just have to [someday] figure out the one that works for me.  Maybe someday if I am lucky enough to retire from full-time work…

If we ever get around to building a wood-fired oven, I will check this book out again.  These things are way cool, and they churn out some really delicious pizzas and breads.  They can also be a neat work of art — here’s some inspirational imagery for you.

My ultimate fantasy: to have a building that somehow incorporates a root cellar, a chicken coop, a garden toolshed + potting bench, and a sheltered but open area with an earth oven.  And then to be able to play there all day every day!  (In my fantasy world, obviously, winter doesn’t exist…)

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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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Ever wondered what an okra plant looks like?  We’re growing it in our Hennepin County Master Gardener demo plot at Sabathani community garden this year.  I love the leaf shape.  Check it out (click to enlarge):

4-5 okra plants, from above.

Lots of baby okras coming in.

Another view.  The plants are about 2.5 feet tall right now.  The seed packet said that they would be 4 feet tall, but I don’t know if that’s possible in Minnesota (okra is a tropical plant).  We direct-sowed seed and also put in a couple of plants that we had started inside, and there is very little difference between the two right now.  The seed packet also said to stake the plants, but I haven’t found that to be necessary yet.  I love to eat okra, so I might try it in my own garden next year.  My recommendation would be to find room for at least 6-7 plants, if you’re going to grow it.  The production has been a little uneven so far, and some pickings have only resulted in 2-3 pods.  Not really enough for a meal. That looks like it’s going to change soon, though.

If you’re ever near 38th St. and 35W in Minneapolis, I highly recommend visiting the Sabathani garden (behind the community center).  It is a really cool place right now; lots of innovative gardening going on there.


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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Community Gardening

This year, as part of the University of Minnesota Hennepin County Master Gardener Program (say that 10 times fast), I’ve been caring for a community garden plot at Sabathani community center here in south Minneapolis.  Here’s what our plot looks like (click to enlarge):

The Sabathani community garden is absolutely huge.  I think it might be one entire square block.  We planted our little section of it in May for a demo class on gardening, and now I’ve been maintaining it and donating the produce to the food shelf at Sabathani.

We consulted with the food shelf when we came up with the design for the garden back in April — we are trying to grow mostly vegetables that are in high demand there.  One cool thing is I get to learn how to grow some vegetables that I’ve never tried before, including collard greens, lacinato kale, and okra.  Collard greens and kale are neat because you can keep picking leaves off them and the plant just keeps coming back bigger and bushier than before.  A “continuous harvest” sort of plant is always nice when space is limited.

This is the weediest garden spot I’ve ever had, so we put down landscape fabric extensively to try and keep a handle on it.  It’s working quite well, I must say.

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Those green Europeans

Europeans are doing some neat-o, green redevelopment — from the no-car Vauban district in Frieburg, Germany (which I’ve mentioned here before) to well-planned urban public spaces in Copenhagen — there is some cool stuff going on there.  Read all about it here.  And then see what you can do in your own community.

the essential first step, maybe the only critical one, in reassembling these shards and building the urban foundation of the Green Enlightenment is to put people ahead of their cars and public spaces ahead of private ones in the planning priorities of the city — of any city.

Yes.  (via Scrawled in Wax)

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Eco Yard

The latest issue of the Minnesota Conservation Volunteer (my favorite magazine — and it’s FREE) included an article about sustainable-minded landscaping.  Really great stuff here, and I especially liked the diagram of an easy-care yard landscaped mostly with native plants — including no-mow grasses.

I’m planning on seeding my yard this fall, and I must say the no-mow grass concept really intrigues me.  We use a reel-type mower, so we wouldn’t really be saving any energy except human energy, but still.  We kinda have,  uh, a lot to do around the yard so not having to mow sounds all right to me.

Anyway, though the article goes a bit lighter on edibles than I would in landscape planning, I think it’s a great resource, especially for someone who is new to landscaping and is not interested or able in spending a lot of time maintaining their yard.  Because, let’s face it, many edibles do require a bit of work over and above what a native plant would require.  That’s what makes landscape design so fun — you can tailor it to your specific needs/interests/desired activity level.

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Round-up resistant weeds

The NY Times (via Cornucopia Institute) today had a story about Round-up resistant weeds:

“It is the single largest threat to production agriculture that we have ever seen,” said Andrew Wargo III, the president of the Arkansas Association of Conservation Districts.

There is one [small] positive aspect to this:

The superweeds could temper American agriculture’s enthusiasm for some genetically modified crops. Soybeans, corn and cotton that are engineered to survive spraying with Roundup have become standard in American fields. However, if Roundup doesn’t kill the weeds, farmers have little incentive to spend the extra money for the special seeds.

Fortunately for now, the problem does not appear to be widespread.  But we all know how evolution works, and our current factory-scale agriculture is contributing to a faster-than-normal evolving of weeds, bugs, and other problems that people have been dealing with for millennia.  And the main problem with that is: we’re creating problems faster than we can solve them.

Anyway, here’s the article on Round-up resistant weeds.

Update, 5 May 2010: Marion Nestle of the excellent blog Food Politics explains the science of how weeds become resistant to glyphosate (Round-up).

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New cruiser (Adam’s Bike Shop update)

Adam bought a pair of cruisers this winter from some guy on Craigslist.  Using parts from both of them as well as a couple of used parts from The Hub, and a couple parts he had lying around the garage, he built me a really sweet cruiser:

And now the detail shots:

I guess these bikes were originally made for Sears Roebuck, but they were made in Austria.  (Weird, yes?)  The chain ring says “JC Higgins.”  Tough to tell when they were made, but most likely 1950s.

An authentic Dutch seat for an authentic Dutch… um, well, you know.

Not sure what he plans on doing with the remains of the other cruiser.

One of the cool things about this bike is it has an internal 3-speed hub that still works great.  The hub is from a 1979 Raleigh Limited that Adam took apart this winter, but it fit this bike perfectly.  A perfect cruising-around-town bike for the summertime.