Stacking Functions Garden


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A banner berry year

Apparently, it’s not just me: 2015 is a banner year for all berries in Minnesota! We’ve had bumper crops of strawberries and currants, and the raspberries are just getting started. We even got a handful of cherries from our tiny new cherry tree.

GrapesWe have quite a few grapes on our vine–I am not sure what variety these are but they make a nice jelly and aren’t bad to eat fresh either (they turn purple when ripe). We only get grapes on this thing every 2 years or so, due to multiple factors including rabbits frequently mowing the vine all the way back to the ground some winters.

I was thinking that we’d escaped any grapevine beetle action this year, but then I saw one through the window today! I raced outside with a container of soapy water and sure enough, found six of them, apparently engaging in a grapevine beetle orgy on just a couple of leaves. They didn’t even see me coming.

I don’t get too uptight about grapevine beetles; they don’t cause fatal damage to the plant. But six of them could defoliate the whole thing and that could hurt my grape harvest for this year–plus I want to control them as much as possible since I have two baby grape vines in the back yard that I’m keen to protect. So, to control them: just knock them into a container of soapy water. They’re very easy to catch.

I also saw a Japanese beetle on my hops today, so apparently pest season has begun. I use the same method of control for them, though they are slightly more wary than the grapevine beetles so you have to sneak up on them. Japanese beetles are significantly more worrisome than grapevine beetles because they feed on a whole bunch of different plants.

Currants

I’ve never had a red currant year like this one. We had to resort to making triple batches of Amy Thielen’s red currant compote this week. It’s delicious! We now have 12 half-pint jars of it in the freezer. We also made Adam’s favorite red currant pie.

Pickling gooseberries

Our gooseberries are nearly ready, and the bush is so laden with fruit that a couple branches broke off. We’ve been watching Mind of a Chef season 3 and I also recently read Fäviken (the book), so there’s been all kind of Magnus Nilsson-inspired cooking and preserving going on. Above, we salted green gooseberries, fermented them on the counter for two days, then put them into our pickle/beer fridge. We’ve also tried his herb salt recipe (here’s an adaption of it) and plan to make *a lot* more before the summer’s out.

ChamomileAnother garden success this year has been my herb spiral! I’m getting significantly more chamomile (shown above) than usual. I’m hoping to dry a greater variety of tea herbs, including a few new ones (to me) this year: stevia, lemon verbena, and feverfew. The stevia and lemon verbena have been instant hits, both fresh and dried. I’ve gotten a ridiculous amount of feverfew–perhaps three plants was a bit much?  I tried it the other night in a cup of hot tea and it tasted complex and interesting, but medicinal. I think I’ll need to blend it with some other herbs. And next year one plant will be plenty.

Haricot Verts

Things are coming along fine in the main garden, too. My carrots did not sprout nearly as well as I hoped, and my peppers are disappointingly small AGAIN this year, but everything else looks good, including this fourth picking of Maxibel haricot verts beans. I can’t recommend them enough, both in terms of productivity and taste.

FishingOne of our non-garden-related goals for this summer was to get out fishing more! The delightful result has been some gorgeous days at various MN lakes and several nights of fish tacos.

Monarch taking flightWe’ve released 7 monarch butterflies so far this year, with more caterpillars munching away in the critter cage as we speak. This one, which we released two weeks ago, sat on a coneflower for the longest time, and then as I leaned in as close as possible to take a photo, it suddenly flew away.

It’s not difficult to spot female monarchs laying eggs on milkweed plants. We watch for them, and then bring leaves (the eggs are always stuck on the underside of a leaf) in before the tiny caterpillars even hatch. This way we can ensure a very high survival rate–no worries about predators or bad weather.

I keep hearing from other people who have planted milkweed and not seen any monarchs yet in their yard, but I say: don’t lose hope. I think the reason why we started seeing them within two days of the first time we ever planted milkweed (no kidding) is because we live in close proximity to Lakes Nokomis and Hiawatha, both of which have large shoreline restoration projects with monarch habitat. So they’re in our neighborhood anyway. But if people keep planting milkweed as enthusiastically as they seem to be this year, we have reason to hope.

Anyway, that’s my update! You can always follow me on Twitter for ridiculous numbers of garden photos and updates on a day-to-day basis.

 

 


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Garden mania

Time for an epic garden update! We’ve been very busy the last two months, but we have much to show for it.

Ramp pestoWe’ve been having a very nice spring this year, neither too cold nor too warm, and it made for some early harvests of various wild things that grow in and near our yard. I pull out the entire patch of stinging nettle that grows under our old maple tree every spring, roots and all, and yet every year it comes back bigger. Hmm. This year we had enough to make pesto–we simply steamed the nettles briefly, then processed them with olive oil, lemon juice, some garlic, and whatever nuts we had on hand. I’m not a purist about pesto recipes; my favorite nutty addition is actually sunflower seeds.

Herb spiral in progressAnother April project was our herb spiral. First, we moved out all the coneflowers and other various perennials that were crowding this area—most ended up filling in our two new gardens. We priced different options for the stone; I originally wanted natural stone but we couldn’t afford it. So we went with these bricks. Shown in the photo is the bit of hugelkultur we used to help fill in. Bottom layer was sticks and logs, then went a whole bunch of last year’s leaves, then a whole bunch of compost, and finally topped with a few bags of topsoil. Saved us a bunch of money to not have to have a whole cubic yard or two of topsoil delivered; we just filled it in with what we had laying around. Read more about hugelkultur; it’s awesome.

Hugelkultur herb spiralAnd here’s the spiral, complete with planted herbs. We planted: cilantro, dill, two kinds of parsley, lemon balm, lemon verbena, sage, two kinds of chamomile, feverfew, stevia, two kinds of thyme, oregano, rosemary, and basil. I’m also growing catnip in a pot out back. We use many of these for herbal tea. Several are new to me for this year, so I’m very excited to try them.

Serviceberry in bloomSpeaking of our new gardens, our yard has supplied endless blooms this spring thanks to all our new shrubs. It started with the magnolia, then cherry, serviceberry (shown here), and this week we should see chokeberry, nannyberry and highbush cranberry blossoms. Our currants and gooseberries also bloomed somewhere in there, but they’re not terribly showy so I’m guessing nobody except me noticed. (I squealed with glee.)

New plantsFriday morning I made my annual pilgrimage to the Friends School Plant Sale. Is it me, or is that event getting completely out of control? I had to wait 2 hours just to get in. I picked up: two more currants (Ben Sarek and Red Lake), two more gooseberries (Pixwell and Hinnomaki Red), Dutchman’s pipe (an important larval food for butterflies), two grapevines for my new arbor (Frontenac Gris and Marquette), two cascade hops plants (also for the arbor), one prairie rose, one snowberry, and all my veggies. Phew. Good thing I had and stuck to a list.

I cannot emphasize enough how important it is, if you want to get into edible landscaping, to expand your mind beyond typical grocery store fruit. Currants, serviceberries and gooseberries can handle some shade and need little to no care, and they have wonderful flavor. Raspberries are pretty easy, too. I can’t say I’m too crazy about the flavor of my highbush cranberries or chokeberries (the name is appropos) but I could do *something* with them if I added sugar. Strawberries? A pain to keep weeded, plus the rabbits eat them. Blueberries? Require acidic soil.

Rhubarb PieSpeaking of fruit that I grow that’s easy–we harvested enough rhubarb yesterday to make a pie (shown here just before we applied the crumb topping). Rhubarb does need quite a bit of sun, but other than that, it’s easy. Just don’t get overzealous and pick more than half the stems of any one plant at one time.

Chiots Run Carrot MethodOver in the vegetable garden, which I also planted this weekend, I’m trying something new: the Chiot’s Run carrot method. Adam made me two different square foot templates; one with 9 holes and one with 16 holes. I used the 9-hole one to perfectly space out my parsnips and beets, and the 16-hole one for carrots. Read more about her method here; I followed it pretty much exactly. She doesn’t mention parsnips or beets, but I see no reason why the method wouldn’t work fine for them as well–they are planted slightly deeper than carrots, so I sprinkled fine soil over them first.

The only area I differed from Suzy’s plan is that I used brown rice hulls instead of vermiculite. My garden store doesn’t sell vermiculite and it seemed like the brown rice would probably accomplish the same thing. So stay tuned on that.

Carrots, doneI laid burlap over the carrots and parsnips until they start sprouting. This greatly reduces the number of times you have to water. Also, the burlap (along with the brown rice hulls) holds the seeds in place better, in the event of a hard rain.

Haricot VertsI’m also planting these Haricot Verts again this year. I planted them two or three years ago with great success–they were the most prolific and best-tasting bush bean I ever grew. And no, I have no idea what the correct pronunciation of their name is, having never taken French.

Vegetables: plantedA panorama of the complete vegetable garden after planting. The big shadow cast by my neighbor’s house is really one of my biggest gardening challenges in this northern latitude. My garden is full-sun, yes, but only from approximately May 15-July 30. So I try to be mindful of the “days to maturity” part of seed packets.

White trilliumLast but definitely not least, I am going to implore you, if you live anywhere near the Twin Cities, to visit the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden in Theodore Wirth Park. If you have any interest in learning how to garden with native plants, this is a great place to take a walk. Many of the plants are labelled, so you can learn their names. Yesterday the trilliums were in their full glory in the woodland.

Also: observe how beautiful and natural that dead, rotting log and all those leaves on the ground look. Leaving some wood and leaves to rot on the ground provides all the fertilizer native plants need while saving you time on maintaining your landscape.

Thanks for sticking with me this long! Hope your spring gardening is bringing you as much happiness as it brings me.


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New windows

This was supposed to be a triumphant post about how we saved money for three years to install new windows in our house…but… we didn’t quite save enough and we now have a small loan as a result. But oh well, a small loan is better than a huge one! Here’s how we did it.

When our twin kids started all-day Kindergarten (free at our school, thank goodness) in the fall of 2012, we immediately started putting every cent that we used to spend on daycare into savings. We were accustomed to living frugally, so it didn’t really feel like much of a sacrifice. Every time our savings account reached $2,000, we paid $1,000 of it towards one of our various debts. In this way, we paid off all our debt in one year. Yes, we were lucky to not have an *extreme* amount of debt.

Next, we saved for a little over a year, trying to get at least $15,000 saved up for new windows, which we’ve needed since we bought this house in 2007. Check out how awesome Rowan’s old window looked every winter, all winter:

Old double hung window covered with frostIn addition to being completely covered with frost all winter, our windows were also extremely drafty. During the coldest parts of the winter, it sometimes felt like there was a slight breeze inside the house. Most of the storm windows were barely functional, and were difficult to open more than 4-5 inches in the summer, making it hard for us to get good ventilation when we wanted it.

So, while we waited to have enough money to actually do this, we started doing some research. We read about energy ratings, learned what fenestration is, and made some decisions about materials.  Our goal was to get the most energy-efficient and durable window possible for the price. This three-part series in the Star Tribune was particularly helpful for getting started (part 1, part 2, part 3). I also spent some time on the Green Building Advisor website, which is where I first heard about triple-glazing, and about the brand we ended up going with, Fibertec windows.

I had fiberglass in mind from the very beginning, but we thought we should still get a few different types of bids. Our first bid was from a local builder/remodeler who installed Marvin Infinity windows (double-glazed fiberglass). The sticker shock was a little intense on this bid, which helped us realize that we couldn’t afford to redesign our picture window opening, as we had originally hoped. They seemed like nice windows, though.

Our second bid was from a friend of a co-worker, who installs very basic double hung vinyl windows, and the price was half of the bid on the Infinity windows. HALF!  But the windows didn’t seem nearly as nice. We decided to get a third and final quote from Above and Beyond Construction, who install Fibertec windows.

The bid came in between the first and the second, we both agreed that we liked these windows the best of the three, AND the company had hundreds of positive reviews on Angie’s List. They were also the only company that offered a lifetime warranty on the windows, which says a lot about their durability. Here’s how the windows’ ratings stand up:

Fibertec energy ratingsFor what it’s worth, that’s the lowest U-Factor you can get. Now, these are not spectacular as far as solar heat gain goes, and if our house was better-positioned we could factor in solar heat gain. If I was building a new house I would DEFINITELY think about solar heat gain and how we could maximize it both with positioning and glazing of windows. But our house is not positioned to gain any benefit from the sun, here in the inner city, butted up right next to our southerly neighbors’ house. The visible transmittance is also just above the minimum that Green Builders recommended of .40.

So anyway, we did it, and guess what? We love our windows. Some before and after photos:

Living room, beforeThe living room, at night, December 31, 2014. The old double-hung windows letting in their final drafts. Above & Beyond started on New Year’s Day because they needed to time their work with the temperature being above 32 degrees (F).

Kitchen, duringThe kitchen, during installation. To shave a little bit of money off the total cost, Adam did all the interior trim work. These are the new windows.

Kitchen, afterAnd the breakfast nook with new windows and trim, complete. Nice!

We had a very cold snap right away after installation was complete, and we noticed the difference right away. When the temp got down around 0 degrees F and colder, our furnace used to run nearly constantly. Now it was shutting off and staying off for many minutes before cycling back on again. Our three doors are still very old and drafty, so if we can save up and replace those, we will really start hitting new highs with efficiency.

Living room, afterAn after view of the living room.

Triple-glazed windows are supposed to be harder to see out of than double-glazed. I’ve not noticed a difference except occasionally at night, when trying to look at the moon at an angle, there is a definite triple reflection. They are also harder to see into, and we have already had several birds fly into them–so far all of them survived the collision though, thank goodness.

Here’s a view of one of the windows when open:

window openWhat, you don’t open your windows when there’s still snow on the ground? As you can see this is a casement-style window, which means you crank it open. We chose these over double-hung (where you lift the sash to open the window) for the simple reason that casements are more energy-efficient–you get a better seal when you don’t have all those moving parts.

These also have a much bigger glass surface area than our old windows, and certainly bigger than the vinyl windows that we got a bid for. We decided to go with the square pattern on top to complement the cape cod style of our house.

exterior of house with new windowsCute, yes? For the middle of winter, anyway. We were a little nervous about tampering with the period style of our house–houses from the 1950s really ought to have double hung windows, but we hoped the square pattern would alleviate that a bit.

So there you have it: the new windows process, which seemed VERY LONG at times (especially during the three years of financial preparation). So far, though, no regrets. We’ll have them paid for by mid-summer as long as everything goes according to plan. A 6-month loan is better than a 3-year loan.

At this point, I would have to say that I recommend both Fibertec and Above and Beyond Construction. Questions? I’ll probably forget everything about this process within a few months, so best ask me now. I had already forgotten the names of the two other companies we got bids from! Thanks for reading, as always.


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This year, let’s plant for bees

It seems like the Save the Bees Movement has really gained traction this winter, doesn’t it? And thank God. I’ve had so many people ask me about what they should plant to attract bees and butterflies to their yard!

So, let’s start with some basics… First, what are bees and what are wasps? This one’s easy. Bees are fuzzy, wasps are shiny. Both are beneficial, but only one is a “pollinator.” Here are some images that should help:

Wasp on milkweed in MinnesotaHere is a wasp on some milkweed in my back yard. Notice that it’s shiny. Wasps may not pollinate our fruit and vegetable plants, but they do eat the insects that eat our fruits and vegetables. I once killed a nest of yellowjackets in my yard, but not until after my kids suffered several stings each. You have to use your best judgement on what you’re willing to tolerate as far as wasps are concerned, and be sure of what you have before you whip out the pesticide. Also, follow the label instructions to the letter. If you don’t, you’re not only breaking the law, but you could cause undue pain to a local honeybee keeper. In short, try a little tolerance.

Bee on Anise HyssopHere is a bee on some anise hyssop in my back yard. Sorry this picture is less than ideal, but you can see that it’s fuzzy. If you look from a different angle you’d also notice that its hairy legs are covered with yellow pollen. Bees eat pollen, and in the process they give us fruit, vegetables, tree nuts and honey.

Minnesota has more than 350 native bee species, and most of them live in the ground or in hollow stems of trees. So one thing you could do to help bees would be to make a bee hotel. Click here for 1 million + ideas.

But more importantly, we need to diversify our monoculture landscapes. Lawns=monoculture. Corn and soybeans=monoculture. And putting in non-native sterile nursery plants like tulips, marigolds, and daylilies (I’m guilty of having tulips) does not help, since they don’t provide pollen. Buying plants from big box stores is even worse, since many of these are treated with neonicotinoids, a pesticide that stays in the plant for… the U of M is currently embarking on research to find out how long. Neonics kill every insect that partakes of the plant, beneficial or not. Read local food writer Dara Grumdahl’s excellent Panic in Bloom for more on neonicotinoids.

Good news: it is now getting easier to find nursery plants that are neonic-free. The Friends School Plant Sale is 100% neonic-free. Bachmann’s recently announced that they are going neonic-free. The Hennepin Master Gardeners plant sale is neonic-free by design, since the plants are dug up from our own yards. Mother Earth Gardens in south and NE Minneapolis is also neonic-free. If none of these places are near you, go to a nursery. ASK QUESTIONS. If they are unable to tell you whether the plant is neonic-free, do not buy. I can’t say enough about the importance of avoiding big box stores for your plants (and not just because of pesticides; the plants are lower quality). Real nurseries will know what they have and be able to talk about it. Here is a helpful index of bee-friendly plant retailers in the Twin Cities.

So, now that we’ve covered all those topics, we get to the fun one: what should you plant? In a nutshell, go native. Most every wildflower that is native to our area will have some benefit for pollinators. Many non-natives do as well; I can think of several including dandelions, clover, dill, fennel, and the various vegetable plants that bees love to visit. Seed clover in your lawn! It will feed your grass (clover fixes nitrogen in the soil, which feeds grass) AND benefit bees.

If you’re really a gardening newbie, you could consider buying a butterfly or pollinator package, such as this delightful one from the Friends Sale. It’s a great place to start, since most plants that are beneficial to butterflies are also beneficial to bees. I would recommend buying and planting actual seedlings over one of those ubiquitous, cheap “butterfly garden in a can”-type seed packages. If you are newer to gardening it will be difficult to tell, especially with native seedlings, what is a weed.

The University of Minnesota Bee Lab also has a really nice list of native plants that help bees, and the required site conditions for each. Here’s another PDF from The Xerces Society that talks about both native and non-native plants for bees.

Great St. Jon's WortMany native flowers are stunningly beautiful as well as beneficial, such as this Great St. John’s Wort, also in my back yard.

If you’re adding pollinator plants for the first time, start small and simple. You don’t have to tear out your whole yard. But try a little plot with, say, some milkweed, bee balm, a couple of sunflowers, anise hyssop, and maybe an early spring ephemeral such as bloodroot. Note this spot must be full sun to part shade for these to thrive. And THRIVE they will; they are all very easy to grow. There’s a reason why milkweed has the word weed in its name. But I like easy, quite honestly, and I like this even more:

Anneke with MonarchQuestions? Ideas? Let’s save some bees! (Well, and let’s save the monarchs too, but that’s a whole ‘nother post.)

 


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Putting by

Adam always makes fun of me when I use the phrase “putting food by”—as if it’s 1932. But I like it; it reminds me of both my grandmas. I’m not sure what happened this fall but we’ve put by way more than we ever have before. Take a look at this freezer!

A freezer full of food for the winter, via The New Home Economics

On the left we have 1/2 a hog (including the fat), a whole deer, 1/4 beef, and a bunch of sliced apples. On the right: lard, a few containers of tomato sauce, strawberry jam, pesto, and hops. All set.

Stock tank garden, via The New Home EconomicsOver in my fall greens garden, our wild arugula has gone completely mental. These plants (cascading over the front) have kept going all spring and summer, and the flowers do not seem to have any real negative effect on the taste. I had wild arugula last year as well that went to seed, and I’m noticing volunteers popping up everywhere. I’m considering letting it naturalize around this tank. It is so delicious. The rest of the greens are doing well, although once again the lettuce underperformed. It simply doesn’t grow very fast this time of year. The chard is doing really well though, so we have plenty to eat in here.

Tiny carrot, via The New Home EconomicsThe row of carrots that I planted near the end of July, however, is pretty underwhelming. They’re still very tiny, and I don’t know how much more they’re really going to grow at this point with the tiny amount of sunlight they’re getting. Well, now I know beyond the shadow of a doubt: I need to just stick with leafy greens in this part-shade situation.

Lacinato kale, via The New Home EconomicsLacinato kale still going strong in the main garden. Just because tomato and cucumber season is over does NOT mean fresh food season is over, not by a long shot.

Dried herbs for tea, via The New Home Economics

I’ve dried lots of herbs for tea this year. We ran out quickly last year of our favorites—anise hyssop and chocolate mint. I’m hoping to be able to give away samples of my Evening in Minneapolis blend for Christmas this year. Since we have not yet had a frost, herb picking and drying season is still in progress.

New compost bin

Finally, the most exciting development around here lately: we have a new compost bin! It’s a Mantis ComposTwin, which we were fortunate enough to find gently used, for a great price, on craigslist. Our old open compost bin was getting rickety, and we had complaints from some neighbors about squirrels and other rodents dining there, so I’m hoping to increase neighborhood harmony as well as produce compost faster. Plus now I don’t have to manually turn my pile. Excellent!


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Cover cropping

A first for me, in 2013: I am using cover crops both at my home garden and at the Sabathani community garden plot that I manage. Here’s Sabathani:

Cover crop of buckwheat and annual rye, via New Home EconomicsI planted this nearly a month ago, on September 16. Over the last two years at least, our plot at Sabathani has been riddled with disease. I’ve got the weeds under control now, but the insects and diseases translated to a less-than-average crop last year and a poor one this year.

Since the plot was producing next to nothing in early September anyway, I ripped out all the plants and put in buckwheat and annual rye. It might take a few years of doing this and other measures, but I’m hoping that by increasing soil fertility, I can improve my yield at this plot.

So, cover crops. How do they help? Mostly, they are about suppressing new weeds and creating a bunch of organic matter that is easily turned over into the soil in spring. On-site composting! There are a number of different options depending on your needs. I chose buckwheat and annual rye because they will both be killed by a frost, so in the spring I’ll simply have to turn the dead plant material over and start anew. Also, Southside Farm Supply (my new favorite neighborhood store) had both in stock, so that was also frankly a big point in their favor.

I was so impressed by how this went at Sabathani, that I decided to rip out most of my home garden yesterday, too (except the kale, Christmas lima beans, and rosemary).

Garden almost put to bed for winter, via The New Home EconomicsI hemmed and hawed about this for a couple of weeks, but as we are now nearly a full month past the first average frost date, it was now or never. Hopefully the seeds will have time to sprout and grow an inch or two before we get a killing frost.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about short-term vs. long-term gain. The plants that I removed yesterday were still very much alive and producing, albeit very little. But this year, anyway, I decided that the long-term health of my soil was more important than another handful of tomatoes and (maybe) one more quart of pickles. We’ll see if my strategy pays off.

It seems like I have fewer pest and disease problems every year at my house. 2012 and 2013 were VERY different years, weather-wise; yet I had what I would deem a mostly successful garden both years, with few problems. Could it be that I’m getting better with practice? Well, I wouldn’t want to brag.

I found a couple of University of Minnesota Extension resources on cover crops that I thought were quite useful:

Cover Crop Options (table of crops, when to plant, benefits of each, etc.)

Why you should consider using cover crops in 2012 (I’d add, “or any year”)

Both of the above links are written for farmers, but they are completely applicable to home gardeners interested in improving their soil.

The hard part about Minnesota, of course, is that our growing season is so short, and our winter so harsh—it can be hard to fit a few weeks in for growing a cover crop. In milder climates, cover crops are planted in the fall and grow all winter. Not so here in the north land, where NOTHING grows all winter. Uh oh, here comes another “I’m annoyed by permaculture people whose ideas/advice are all based on living in milder climates” moment. Well, at any rate, you have to try and make the most of where you live, and a Minnesota winter has its charms, too.

What do you think? Was it even worth it to plant a cover crop at my home garden this late in the game?


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Two books

I managed to read two gardening-related books this summer (and a healthy dose of fiction, don’t worry).

How to Move Like a Gardener - Book Review via The New Home EconomicsHow to Move Like a Gardener: Planting and Preparing Medicines from Plants
by Deb Soule of Avena Botanicals

I first heard of this book through SouleMama, a parenting/gardening/homesteading blog I’ve been reading for several years. The author of that blog is a fan of Avena Botanicals products, and one thing that this book is very successful at is making me want to try one of their tinctures, teas, or lotions.

However, I am more interested in making medicines from plants myself, and this book fell a little short for me. The title was a little misleading for me; most of the book is a vivid, interesting description of how the Avena Botanicals farm is run and their philosophy of agriculture, spirituality, and even tools. They follow biodynamic agriculture principles, and this was my first introduction to it.

Biodynamic agriculture goes far beyond organic. For example, one of the “biodynamic preparations” that Soule describes involves packing a cow’s horn with manure, burying it for several months, unearthing it, then stirring the now-composted manure into fresh rainwater for an entire hour, then spraying it on crops. All these things must be done at specific times of day AND specific times of year. There are several other biodynamic preparations described in much greater detail in the book.

Honestly, I don’t think that this or strategies like moon-cycle planting are whack, I’ve just never personally tried them. Maybe I ought to. At the very least, by combining meditation with farming, Soule is able to achieve a level of harmony and inner peace with her land and her work on it that must make it a very special place indeed.

The last third of the book is devoted to descriptions of medicinal plants, with advice about cultivating and collecting for each, as well as indications, preparation and dosage. I wished the “preparation” part would have been a bit more detailed—I wanted recipes for tinctures, lotions and the like. She uses many herbs I had never previously heard of, such as gotu kola, ashwaganda, and schisandra, while also providing detail on more common plants such as lavender, rosemary, dandelion and nettle.

A few North American native plants are represented, including Solomon’s Seal and Echinacea.

Beyond excessive wintertime herbal tea drinking, I don’t know how far down the herbal medicine route I’m going to go, but I find it all fascinating. This book was not exactly what I thought it would be, but it was interesting, and a good reminder to me of the importance of intimately knowing your piece of land and all its microclimates—and how valuable that knowledge can be.

The Secrets of Wildflowers, a book review via The New Home EconomicsThe Secrets of Wildflowers
A Delightful Feast of Little-Known Facts, Folklore, and History
by Jack Sanders

I bought this book at the 2013 Wild Ones conference in February after paging through my neighbor’s copy. Unlike Soule, Sanders almost exclusively covers North American native wildflowers, including a handful of non-natives that have spread so excessively through our continent that they are here to stay; for example, Coltsfoot, Dandelion, Bindweed, and Chicory.

Each plant is given what can only be described as a short story, comprised of a great variety of details including botanical descriptions, historical medicinal uses, names and naming controversies, modern medicinal uses, and poems.

I found this book entertaining because so many of the plants I’ve recently added to my landscape are included, such as monardas, St. Johnsworts, asclepias (millkweeds), wild geraniums, celandine poppies, and wild columbine. It also made me very curious about some plants that I’ve never seen but will now seek out in the woods, including may apples, jewelweed and indian pipes. After reading this book, I identified a handful of plants while hiking, including jack-in-the-pulpits and baneberries.

The writing is entertaining and accessible, if you have interest in native plants. I enjoyed it, and will be picking it back up as I choose new landscape plants for next year. Reading a story about each plant is so much more memorable and interesting than simply scanning a table of characteristics.


The other day, we were on a hike and Rowan picked up some seeds off the ground. “What plant did these come from, mom?” I had to admit I didn’t know. Then Anneke piped up. “Those are totally from a basswood tree. See? There it is!”  My kids have a much more highly-developed sense of place than I did at their age. I spent time on the edges of cornfields and cow pastures, but I never learned the names of plants or observed at the level that my kids do. Learning about where I live—the plants, animals, and insects that are native to my corner of the earth—enriches my life in so many ways beyond merely gardening.

One of my favorite blogs lately has been Ben Hewitt’s account of his family’s very successful homesteading adventure. Recently, he said:

Stop thinking of yourself as a steward of the land. That’s the same old, tired story of humans over nature.

Instead, think of the land as the steward of you. And treat it with the respect your caregiver deserves, dammit.

Just think about that. Isn’t it wonderful?


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The three Rs

Single sort has arrived!

Single sort recycling has arrived in Minneapolis! Welcome to a new era where more than 18% of Minneapolitans recycle!

Wait, what? Yes, it’s true. One of the reasons Minneapolis switched to single sort is to increase recycling numbers. The old system was somewhat complex, but still, I am perplexed that, as recently as 2012, 80% of people in my fair city were still not taking this simplest of steps. This is a move in the right direction.

And look at the size of that cart! The idea is to make absolutely sure that anything people can dream up to recycle will fit in there. Maybe someday the city will make garbage carts smaller; ours is never more than half full. It’s a bit demotivating when you pay the same price for your garbage cart every month whether it’s got 1 bag of garbage in it or is overflowing every single week.

Solving problems like that on a city-wide scale is really tough. I don’t want to downplay it. But I also don’t feel like waiting around for city governments (or any government, really) to figure these things out when there are so many changes I can make at the household level. Therefore, I can’t waste this opportunity to bring up a key point:

Recycling should be lower priority than Reducing and Re-using.

Producing less waste in the first place should be our top priority (and I’m talking about waste at every level, including emissions). There is a new book out which I’ve recently added to my “must read” list; the author also has a blog: Zero Waste Home. There’s also a local blog with a similar theme: The Trashbasher (although she updates less frequently).

I’m really excited to see this idea getting momentum. It’s not just about buying less, it’s about creating opportunities to close as many loops as we can. It’s a cup of permaculture tea, applied to every aspect of our lives. Overwhelming, but maybe less so when taken one thing at a time.

So, yay to single sort recycling, but let’s all get going on our compost piles too, OK? Or maybe do a little bulk shopping at the grocery store? What are you doing to reduce waste? This is an area that, for me, needs constant inspiration, lest I slip back into old habits out of sheer exhaustion. So, inspire me please!


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Community Gardening

Wow, the past two weeks have been busy. It all started on May 9 with the Friends Plant Sale. Since then, I’ve been going non-stop. One big occupier of my time has been the community garden behind Sabathani Community Center on 38th Street in Minneapolis. I’m currently in my 4th year of coordinating the master gardener demonstration plot there. This year things got more complicated, because some other Master Gardeners and I decided to use the demonstration garden as a true teaching garden, and teach a class, en español, to a group of new gardeners. The class has had its share of hiccups, mostly weather-related, but we’re on our way.

Here’s the layout of the Master Gardener demo plot for 2013. I always try to keep this simple, and dedicate lots of space to collards and kale. When I take our harvests to the food shelf every week, I get mobbed for my greens. I also tried to include examples of what I knew my students wanted to plant, so I could demonstrate.

Sample layout for a 10' x 20' garden, via the New Home Economics

Adam and I and some fellow MGs planted 75% of this last week, and then I planted the rest on Tuesday night (in 55 degree drizzle) for a planting demonstration. Here’s what the garden looks like as of today:

Community garden plot, 10'x20'

I haven’t gotten straw mulch down around the plants yet, because straw has suddenly become VERY hard to come by in Minneapolis, thanks to the straw bale gardening trend. But I got toilet paper collars (for cut worms) around the peppers and tomatoes today. That crooked trellis in the background will be for tomatoes, grown similarly to how I grow mine.

This week, I asked the main community garden coordinator about an empty plot that was near the demo plot, and whether anyone was using it this year. She gave her blessing, and I suddenly had to quickly come up with another 10’x20′ plan for myself! I wanted to keep things simple, and I’ve always wanted to try winter squash, so that’s what we planted today: 14 hills of it! Am I crazy?!

Digging up a neglected community garden plot in Minneapolis

Today Adam, my best friend CJ, and I dug up the VERY WEEDY plot (she’s sharing the plot with us), while the kids made dandelion chains in another abandoned plot nearby. Then we sowed 5 hills of pie pumpkins, 4 hills of acorn squash, and 5 hills of butternut squash. Later CJ added a few rows of radishes. Here’s what it looks like now:

hills of squash

Again, I had to conserve what little straw I had left, so I only put it on the actual hills for now. Tomorrow we’re going up north to visit our parents, and my dad, who knows actual farmers, has procured two bales of straw for me. So everything will get mulched in good time!

I’m relatively new to growing squash. I’ve only tried it the one time before in my garden, and it ended early with squash vine borers. Hoping to avoid that here, I’ll add some nematodes in the next couple weeks. Got any advice about winter squash for me?


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Book review: The Art of Fermentation

Art of Fermentation by Sandor Ellix KatzThe Art of Fermentation
An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from Around the World
By Sandor Ellix Katz

I met Sandor Katz a few years ago, shortly after I purchased his first book, Wild Fermentation. I feel fortunate that I took a class from him when he was still relatively unknown; the likelihood that he’ll be teaching inexpensive classes at local co-ops again in the near future seems pretty low.

Wild Fermentation is a true recipe book; in it you will find recipes for things like sauerkraut, kimchee, mead, and a whole host of other fermented foods. But one of my main issues with it was that I wanted to know the WHYs of every recipe. Why is it OK to eat brined pickles that are a bit moldy on the surface? Why did my brined pickles fail? Actually, how do I know whether they failed? Why is lacto-fermentation as safe (or safer) than canning? Does lacto- mean it involves lactose?

I had a lot of questions, clearly. Some of them were answered slowly, over time, as fermentation became mainstream. When I made my first batch of yogurt four years ago, google searches turned up almost no answers. Now, there’s even an heirloom vs. modern yogurt debate. I retired my yogurt maker and switched to the oven method a year ago.

Actually, the reason I read Wild Fermentation was in search of answers to MANY questions that I had after reading Nourishing Traditions. If you’ve ever read either one of those books, or had mixed success with some of the recipes, The Art of Fermentation is an invaluable resource. It covers everything the WAPF-ers are passionate about, from proper preparation of grains to culturing dairy products to the value of live-fermented foods, but the difference is Katz includes the science and logic to back up every single claim. Wild Fermentation and Art of Fermentation are truly complements to each other.

Here were some of my favorite bits from Art of Fermentation:

Botulism
If you’re confused about the now generations-old association between canning and botulism, Katz puts this question to rest once and for all. For starters: fermenting is completely different than canning, even though it may use the same jars. The acidic environment present in any and all fermented foods prevents botulism spores from ever gaining a foothold, as they can in warm, sterilized canned food environments. Katz includes an anecdote about Native Alaskan peoples’ techniques for preserving/fermenting fish, which involve burying them in a pit in the ground. Recently, people interested in reviving the tradition have tried fermenting fish in plastic bags and buckets instead of pits, and the results have been questionable enough that the US Centers for Disease Control conducted a test. To me, this was one of the most powerful passages in the book:

Two batches were prepared the proper traditional way, and two were prepared…using plastic bags or buckets. One of each batch we inoculated with botulism; the other was left natural. After the fermentation process was complete, we tested them. To our surprise, those batches of foods prepared the traditional way had no trace of the botulism toxin, not even in the foods that were inoculated with botulism spores. On the other hand, both batch of foods prepared in plastic tested positive for botulism. The advice that came out of that experiment was—”keep on fermenting your food, but never use plastic bags or buckets, and be certain that you do it the traditional native way without any short cuts or changes.”

Do you really need whey, or what?
I found the Nourishing Traditions fermented vegetable recipes confusing. The book made it sound (to me anyway) like if you do not use liquid whey (and I was unclear whether the whey should be from raw or pasteurized dairy), that your fermented foods will not turn out. My own anecdotal evidence plus this book has now settled this issue for me. Whey: not necessary at all. There’s no harm in using liquid whey; adding it is sort of like adding a “starter”–think sourdough. In vegetable ferments, it can help fermentation get started quicker, but it’s not necessary.

Yogurt
I’ve already documented a couple different yogurt-making methods that have worked for me, and Katz says his method has evolved as well. For one thing, he uses only 1 T. of starter per quart of milk and only cultures it for about 4 hours. Also, Katz clarifies the differences between using store-bought yogurt and heirloom cultures. But this is one of the great things about him: he doesn’t fuss about contentious issues like raw vs. pasteurized milk. He wants people to ferment foods which they have access to, whatever those may be.

Butter
I’ve always been confused about what is the difference between sweet cream and cultured butter. The difference is this: sweet cream butter is made from agitating fresh cream until the butter and the buttermilk separate. Cultured butter is made from cream that has first been “soured”–on it’s way to becoming creme fraiche. To make creme fraiche, simply add 1 T. of yogurt or buttermilk to 1 c. cream and leave it out for 24 hours. Refrigerate until set for creme fraiche, or shake it up for cultured butter. Now it all makes sense!

Water
I now understand why several of my brine ferments have failed in the last few years: up until 2012, I always used tap water. Katz recommends against using city water because it has chlorine in it, which upsets the natural balance of bacteria. I had a feeling about this, so I used spring water for my pickles in 2012, and not one jar went bad. I don’t like buying bottled water, but for this one thing, it’s worth it. There are ways to de-chlorinate city water, but most simple filtration systems don’t remove enough of it. Yes, of course, I’d love to get a super expensive filtration system, but… maybe someday.

Other topics
Just to give you an idea, Art of Fermentation also covers all of the following: kombucha, sauerkraut, tempeh, miso, wine, beer, sake, hominy, coffee, cheese, salami, cod liver oil, brined mushrooms, kimchee, cider, fermented urine as garden fertilizer, sourdough breads, koji, and 100 year eggs. That’s only a sampling.  There are only a few recipes, in the traditional sense of the word; this is a book of methodology and inspiration. If you decide to make one of the more complicated ferments, such as salami, Katz urges you to read more on the subject and gives you ideas of where to start. On the other hand, with simpler vegetable and cultured milk ferments, there are SO many right ways to do them that knowing the basic methodology (and science behind why it works) is really all you need.

Fermentation, wow, who knew I would become so obsessed!? I love it!