Stacking Functions Garden


1 Comment

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!


1 Comment

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?


Leave a comment

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?


2 Comments

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!


Leave a comment

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?


3 Comments

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!


1 Comment

In the bleak midwinter

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago

It’s a Christmas carol, but I find this song more fitting for right now. This winter has seemed closer to normal in terms of temperature (-14 degrees F in Minneapolis this morning), but we are sorely lacking in snow cover. Hopefully March will bring us closer to normal moisture levels.

Some garden bloggers post about how much they enjoy the break. What I’ve come to realize is that I need physical activity—the more difficult, the better—to truly feel happy and sleep well. Three seasons out of the year, that’s no problem. In the winter, however; not enough exercise… not enough light… and insomnia starts to become my reality.

I have rediscovered how much I love running, though, and it’s helped. I’ve been running home from work at least once per week. It’s a nice 4.5 miles through south Minneapolis and saves me a $2.50 bus fare (I’ve been wimping out on the winter bike commuting this year). There was a time in my life when I would go to the gym and work out; that time has mostly passed. With my schedule, it’s easier to exercise if I can also accomplish another task at the same time, e.g. commuting.

Lake Harriet Kite Festival 2013

A kite festival on a frozen lake in the middle of January: totally normal for Minnesota.

Our lives are changing rapidly right now. Of course, they’ve been changing rapidly since the kids were born, but it feels different now. I used to look forward to each new step. “Soon we won’t need to buy diapers anymore!” Now, I want everything to slow down. My Kindergarteners have been reading to me every night for the past couple weeks. I want to cherish this moment, and maybe that’s the gift of winter: I have time to do so.

We also made good on a plan we committed to a couple years ago: we finally got rid of our television completely during our Christmas break. We’re not screenless, though. I bought a new Mac last fall, which will finally enable me to occasionally work from home and start freelancing again. So the Mac is doing double duty as work and entertainment, and I don’t miss the television one bit. I don’t want to make a blanket judgment on TV watching—I do it, too (currently working our way through season 4 of Battlestar Galactica on DVD). But quantity matters—a lot. The average American is now watching 34 hours per week of TV. No wonder we collectively have no time for cooking or gardening!

Honestly, for me, TV cannot compare to the excitement of gardening, fermenting, reading, running, cooking, or baking, anyway. The movie is NEVER as good as the book, right? So, I’ll get off that soapbox.

seed inventory

Seed inventory time. I don’t have to buy very much seed this year. Apparently I went completely crazy with seed buying last year; I don’t even remember using some of these!

It doesn’t feel like it outside, but spring is ramping up. I’m adding master gardener volunteer activities to my calendar already, and plan to start my first seeds of the season in two or three weeks. I’m also excited and anxious to see what happens to the hundred or so new perennials I added last summer. My back yard will hopefully look very different this spring. I’m also starting to outline my 2013 garden calendar.

I’m not really sure what the point is, of this post, but I guess: I’m here, we’re getting through the winter, staying mostly healthy, and this too shall pass. Without winter, how can one truly appreciate spring? What are you most looking forward to?