Stacking Functions Garden


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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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The time for natural animal fats is NOW

I saw this a couple weeks ago and I can’t get it out of my head.

A mother orangutan hugs her daughter as bounty hunters move in - the pair was saved at the last minute by an animal rescue group

[original source article]

Palm oil, dudes. It’s in EVERYTHING. And the increasing demand for it is causing unprecedented rainforest destruction and killing of anything that stands in the way, including orangutans.

I see two ways of addressing this.  Number one: reduce the number of highly-processed foods we consume, since so many of them contain palm oil. It’s tricky to puzzle out which products have it, because it’s usually simply labeled “vegetable oil.”

But secondly, can we also get over ourselves and start using animal fats in cooking, as people did for millennia? I’m talking about lard. Beef tallow. Duck and goose fat. Buttah. Not only are these traditional fats rich in fat-soluble vitamins, they are also cheap and easy to produce locally since they are byproducts of the meat industry. They can also easily be obtained without resorting to pesticides, GMOs, or deforestation. A win for all of us, including small family farmers AND orangutans.

And don’t think you’re innocent if you shop at natural foods stores — many natural foods products contain palm oil because, let’s be honest here, it does have some health benefits and is seen as an alternative to highly processed, GMO-based oils such as corn, canola and soybean.

Don’t be afraid of lard, OK?

For many more resources on traditional fats, visit the Weston A Price Foundation.


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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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BPA in canned foods, continued

I wrote a post just a little over a year ago about our efforts to avoid BPA in canned foods. Since then, a handful of organizations have done actual scientific studies on BPA in can liners.  The most damning of these came from the Journal of the American Medical Association:

Urine samples taken during each week of the experiment found that BPA levels increased by 1,221 percent during the week that the participants had canned soup for lunch.

“The magnitude of the rise in urinary BPA we observed after just one serving of soup was unexpected and may be of concern among individuals who regularly consume foods from cans or drink several canned beverages daily,” said Karin Michels, senior author of the study and an associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard, in a prepared statement. “It may be advisable for manufacturers to consider eliminating BPA from can linings.”

(Read the whole article on MinnPost.com)

Now, I posted this article on Facebook and a friend pointed out that an increase of 1221 percent is meaningless if you don’t know the base number.  He’s not wrong, but what concerns me is this: BPA is one of *many* toxic chemicals that are now in our food and water supplies.  Measured individually, each one might come in at a safe/acceptable level, but what about when taken altogether?  No one is studying this, because it would be absolutely impossible to study scientifically. Your research subjects would have to live in a bubble.

Control is such a hard thing. We want to control every aspect of our existence, but we simply can’t. Accepting that can be so hard. I want to follow steps A, B, and C and then get result D. But life has never, ever worked out that way. I can’t do much to control the toxins I take in through the air and even to a large extent, the water.  Food, then, is one of the few areas where I do have a choice.

The study specifically mentioned canned soups; I can’t think of a easier thing to phase out.  I am not much of a cook, but soup is pretty much the easiest thing in the world to make.  Take a crockpot.  Add some water and some veggies, legumes, meat, and/or herbs.  Turn it on and leave it for 8 hours.  Done.  Every time I make soup, I double the recipe and freeze the leftovers in glass pint jars. Fast, BPA-free food.

What do you think, gentle readers?  Are you taking steps to avoid canned food?


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Drying foods for long-term storage

Here’s an area I’m just starting to, uh, get my feet wet in. A while back, I realized how fantastic certain herbs tasted when homegrown and dried. Last year, we had a very respectable herb store for the winter. We still have a bit of 2010 thyme left, more than enough to last us until April, so I didn’t dry any thyme this year.

This year I really wanted to get into growing my own herbal teas. So to that end, I planted significantly more mint in the shady area on the north side of the house. I’m not sure whether that long-term strategy is going to pay off because the mint just does not grow very enthusiastically in the deep shade. I may try more mint elsewhere in the yard next year–avoiding full sun so that it doesn’t get completely out of control. So here’s my respectable (in my opinion) first-ever herbal tea harvest for 2011:

home grown herbal teas

Left to right: foraged banana mint from a neglected garden (strange but good), peppermint from a neighbor, chamomile from our garden (we’ve already used more than half our supply) and chocolate mint from our garden. These make FANTASTIC teas. We usually just make loose-leaf tea in one of our french press coffee makers.  I love growing plants for tea — especially since so many are perennials.  Here are some tea plants you could grow:

German Chamomile: technically an annual, but I’ve had reports from other master gardeners that it re-seeds itself readily. It definitely needs full sun, and an open, breezy spot would suit it well — I’ve had mine fall victim to powdery mildew a few times.

Mint: there must be 4,000 varieties of mint, and all are perennials that do well in MN. Be aware that mint can become invasive in full sun. Better to plant it in part (but not full) shade to keep it under control.

Feverfew: looks and acts a lot like chamomile. Can be used medicinally for migraines. On my list to try for 2012.

Lemon Balm: another one with many varieties. Useful in salad dressings, too. Also on my list to plant in 2012.

Anise Hyssop: a midwest native that will tolerate part-shade. Licorice-flavor tea. On my 2012 list.

Valerian: gets four feet tall! Root is used as a sedative.

Well there you have just a few, but there are many, many more. We’ve also made tea with sage and raspberry leaves, since we usually have them in ready supply.

Here’s some more of our dry harvest:

1/2 pint (packed) rosemary, a bit of oregano, Christmas lima beans and Cherokee Trail of Tears beans. I know that dried beans are super cheap to buy, but you can’t really buy the heritage ones anywhere. They are super fun and easy to grow, so why not?! Unfortunately many of us in the Twin Cities had uninspiring bean harvests this year, but… well… there’s always next year.

Finally, sage and garlic in a very inspiring picture, photographically speaking. Good grief. Anyway, you get the idea. This will be the first time ever that we might just make it until next year without having to buy garlic. The sage should be dried out in another week.  It’s so great having some of our harvest put-by with minimal effort — drying could not be easier or less resource-intensive.


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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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DIY potato tower

Last fall I came across this idea for a way to grow lots of potatoes in a very small space.  This year I’m trying it in my yard.  I made a couple of improvements on Stefan’s design, after eavesdropping (so to speak) on a conversation on his Facebook page.  Without further ado, here’s how I did it:

1. Bend some steel fencing into a 36-inch diameter circle and fasten. Ours is nearly 5 ft. tall, but it does NOT need to be… 3-4 feet tall would be plenty.

2. Make a nest of straw in the bottom, and fill it with a 50-50 mixture of compost and old leaves.  Nestle 5-7 seed potatoes, with eyes pointing to the outside, all the way around the circle.

3. Get a soaker hose in there, too.  Continue layering up: straw, compost/leaves, seed potatoes, soaker hose, repeat until you run out of seed potatoes.  Put a final topping of compost and straw on top, and you’re done.  Here’s another view:

Here’s the completed potato tower:

It needs to be in a sunny location. Stefan of Growing Lots claims that people have gotten upwards of 25 lbs of potatoes from 5 lbs of seed potatoes in towers like these.  The two main changes that we made from his design are putting in the layers of straw, adding the dry leaves, and the soaker hose.  He pointed out that it’s really difficult to water the lowest layers, without it.

And here’s what it looked like about 3 weeks later (about a week ago). The plants are even bigger now.  There aren’t quite as many sticking out of the bottom as I would have thought, but it seems like the majority of the seed potatoes sprouted.  Now we wait!

See the post from Fall 2011 when we harvested our potatoes.


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Rabbit damage

It’s been a rough winter for the varmints living under our deck. Early, deep snowcover meant a scarcity of food for them for months. Now the snow is finally receding (note: not totally gone yet), and they are having a field day with my perennials.

Note the stripped bark from the top parts of these rose bush branches. Fortunately I always cut the them back to the green part every spring anyway.

A few weeks ago I pruned my crabapple tree, and I was super lazy about cleaning up the branches. I basically just piled them up and left them there. I am so glad I did now, because the rabbits have been feasting on those as well. Apple branches must be extra delicious. I like to think this pile of branches might be saving a perennial or two. I am seeing lots of damage everywhere, but nothing fatal except my grape vine, which probably wasn’t going to survive the winter anyway.

I may assent to Adam’s offer to get one of his old “wrist-rocket” slingshots from his parents’ house.  Apparently he used to kill striped gophers with one shot when he was a kid. Hasenpfeffer could be an Easter dish, right?

Somebody’s mocking me.

Ending on a positive note: look at those swelling magnolia buds. Spring is coming! Really, it is.


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Starting seeds? Peat alternatives

If you’ve done any gardening, you’ve likely read that peat moss is a great soil amendment. It is. However, peat moss is–surprise!–not a great choice if you consider the source. Peat bogs are fragile ecosystems that sequester a lot of carbon from the atmosphere, and, like other swamps and watershed areas, help purify run-off water before it can get into our streams and rivers.  Now, the Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss Growers association will tell you that peat bogs can, in fact, be restored. I hope that’s true, but I’m trying to move toward using byproducts instead of, well, products.

Fortunately Mother Earth Gardens, right here in south Minneapolis, is a great source for sustainability-minded gardeners. I picked up some peat-free seed starting medium yesterday:

It contains coconut husk fiber, “forest products,” parboiled rice hulls, and worm castings. It has a real nice texture and the added bonus of not puffing up all weirdly like the peat-based seed-starting mixes do when you add water. Now, neither coconut husk fiber nor rice hulls are exactly a local product for me here in Minnesota.  (Neither is peat.) But they are byproducts, so that’s an improvement.  Will they work?  I’ll let you know.

I’m keeping my seed starting modest again this year, with just one flat on top of the refrigerator under my JumpStart light system. The plantable pots are also made of coconut husk fiber, also called “Coconut Coir.” I plan to buy several peppers and tomato plants at the Friends School Plant sale; they always have a good variety of heirlooms.

Another thing I’m trying this year:

Now that my pickle fridge is almost empty (boo!) I have another flat of recycled plant and yogurt containers chilling out in there.  I plan to convert my boulevard to all native prairie plants this year, so I’m starting some of those seeds, too.  Here I have 5 each of Prairie Blazing Star, Butterflyweed, and Little Bluestem.  Chilling seeds like this is called stratification — it fools the seeds into thinking they were lying under snow all winter.

I also plan to pick up some more prairie plants at the plant sale in May, but starting a few of my own will reduce my bill a bit.  After they chill out in the fridge until the early part of April, I’ll move them out onto the deck to get them sprouting.  (I’ll most likely have to take them in every night for the first few weeks at least.)

Planting fever is upon me!


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Rendering duck fat

I always make a point of looking in the frozen meat section at Seward Co-op because it usually has a nice traditional foods-minded surprise or two.  I’ve found various different kinds of liver, chicken feet, homemade fish and chicken stock, and lard there.  Today: two packages of duck fat!  I took the smaller of the two, not knowing what to expect.

A little research revealed that duck fat, like lard, must be rendered.  It did take a couple hours, mostly unattended.  Also, it didn’t have nearly the strong smell that the pork lard had. The kitchen just smelled vaguely chickeny.

I used this method:

1. Place cut-up pieces of duck fat in water.  About 2 c. water for 1 pound of duck fat. I probably could have gotten by with slightly less water.

2. Bring to a simmer and cook over low heat until all the water boils off and the cracklings start to get browned.

3. Drain through cheesecloth into half-pint jars. I’m not sure how long this will keep in the refrigerator, but I’d guess 4-6 weeks at the most. Hence the tiny containers. Extra containers can go in the freezer.

Yield: 1.5 half-pints of duck fat (or, nearly 1 pint).  We used it to fry some potatoes and patty-pan squash for supper, and they turned out great.  The ever-so-slight chicken flavor was only detectable in some bites, and it was not unpleasant at all. This experiment went much better than my lard one!

Apparently, duck fat is a very gourmet, very French thing to use in cooking (even Jamie Oliver recommends it). Traditionally in Germany they also made schmaltz with duck or goose fat — a butter replacement that they spread on bread, apparently. I’m reading a book about traditional German cooking right now which may lead to both the roasting of a goose and the making of some schmaltz. (I already make sauer kraut on the regular basis so I’ve got that covered.) The schmaltz recipe in the book calls for an apple and an onion to be cooked with the fat and discarded with the cracklings.

Our supper tonight: potatoes and patty-pan squash cooked in duck fat with thyme and orange zest, plain couscous, and a massaged kale salad.  A yummy way to celebrate the start of Daylight Savings Time.