Stacking Functions Garden


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Detailed plant list

OK, people, we’re going deep into plant geek territory here today. Prepare yourself for latin names! My landscape plan shows where I’m planting all of these.

EVERY plant on this list is native to Minnesota/the upper midwest, and hardy to USDA zone 3, unless where otherwise noted.  Most of my information was pulled from the highly recommended book Landscaping with Native Plants of Minnesota, by Lynn Steiner.

Plants for my new shady rain garden

Lobelia Cardinalis
Cardinal flower
Height: 1-2 feet
Blooms late summer
Part sun to shade
I’m taking a chance planting this one in full shade — hopefully it will bloom; the flowers attract hummingbirds. This will be one of the taller plants in the rain garden, a focal point of sorts because of its bright red flowers.

Arisaema Triphyllum
Jack-in-the-pulpit
Height: 1-3 feet
Blooms early spring
Moderate to full shade
Jack-in-the-pulpit has large, tropical-looking leaves that will make it interesting in this deeply-shaded area. It also gets red fruits in late summer, which are poisonous. Native Americans had some interesting uses for this plant.  I’m growing it for looks. (Honestly!)

Mertensia Virginica

Virginia Bluebells

Virginia bluebells
Height: 1-2 feet
Blooms early spring
Part sun or shade
I added one of these to my front-yard garden two years ago and it is a cute little plant. The plants die back and go dormant in early June, so I plan to interplant them with ferns and meadow rue to fill in.

Thalictrum dioicum
Early meadow rue
Height: 1-3 feet
Blooms early spring
Light shade to deep shade
I’m following Lynn Steiner’s advice and using this exactly like I would use a fern, for its showy foliage.  I’ll interplant it with the Virginia bluebells and the ferns.

Polystichum acrostichoides
Christmas fern
Height: 1-2 feet
Partial shade to full shade
With dark green fronds that stays green into the winter, this is occasionally used for holiday decor. It’s a threatened species so it might be hard to find a nursery that sells it. If I can’t find it, I will try Athryium filix-femina, Lady fern.

So there you have it. A mass of jack-in-the pulpits, a mass of cardinal flowers, and a surrounding edge of rue, ferns, and Virginia bluebells. It was actually kinda hard to find shade loving flowers for a rain garden — I like ferns, but I’d like some flowers in there too.

Perennial screen under a maple tree

This is a dry shade situation, almost as challenging as a wet shade situation!  It will be interesting to see how this all turns out.

Viburnum trilobum
Highbush cranberry
Height: 10-12 feet tall, 10-12 feet wide in sun. I’m planning on 5-6 feet tall/wide for my mostly shady  spot. I’ll plant three of them to create a screen, and an understory layer under a mature maple tree.
Sun to shade
This is a very versatile native shrub for landscaping, and I can’t wait to plant it! It’s got beautiful flowers, and edible fruits (which also attract birds). I may go with another similar species called viburnum lentago (nannyberry) if it’s easier to find — apparently it is more shade-tolerant than trilobum.  Or perhaps I’ll plant one or two of each and see which does better.

Aquilegia canadensis
Wild columbine
Height: 1-2 feet
Blooms early spring-early summer
Full sun to full shade
One of my three main “under the viburnum” herbaceous perennials will be wild columbine. I added one of these in the front two years ago and love it — and so do the bees. It also attracts hummingbirds. This is such an easy plant to grow; I highly recommend it for just about any landscaping project.

Polygonatum biflorum
Giant Solomon’s seal
Height: 1-3 feet
Blooms early summer, dark purple berries in late summer
Light shade to full shade
The second of my three main perennials will be Giant Solomon’s seal, a super cool-looking plant with very light green foliage and dark purple berries in late summer which are prized by birds. It’s very tolerant of dry shade situations like mine.  Apparently, the roots of Solomon’s seal have a role in voodoo in the American south, but once again, I’m in it for the looks. (HONEST!)

Smilacina racemosa
False Solomon’s seal
Height: 1-3 feet
Blooms early summer, red marbled berries in late summer
Light shade to full shade
Third of my three main perennials is False Solomon’s seal, which ought to complement the other one perfectly well. It is apparently easy to grow but prefers acidic soil, so I may need to do a bit of amending around these plants. This one also had quite a few interesting uses to native Americans.

Allium tricoccum
Wild ramp
No bloom (??)
Full shade, but needs a bit of early spring sun (as in under deciduous trees)
Ramps! What permaculture garden is complete without ramps?!  I will finally have a place for them now.  These are a wild, hardy perennial member of the onion family, and their flavor is prized by foragers. I’ve never tried them, but I can’t wait!

A couple other ephemerals
Depending on what I can find, I will also add a few other native ephemerals (early spring blooming plants that die back before summer); namely Dutchman’s breeches (dicentra cucullaria), round-lobed hepatica (hepatica americana), and blood root (sanguinaria canadensis).

Wild Ginger

Filling in the rest of the groundcover
I will fill out the rest of the groundcover in this area with wild ginger (asarum canadense, not related to the ginger we eat), which fills in a nice carpet of green after spring ephemerals die out, and Maidenhair fern (adiantum pedatum) in the front, which is a small fern that is more tolerant than others of dry soil.

The arbor

I want to plant grape vines (these are not native) on the north side of the deck to grow up and over the arbor. My choices are somewhat limited by my hardiness zone.  There are several University of Minnesota cultivars that to consider, and I’ll probably plant 2-3 each of two different kinds. The two I’m most keen on are Edelweiss, which can be used for jellies/juicing OR wine, and Frontenac, a wine grape that is one of the U’s hardier and most disease-resistant.


Well there you have it; that oughtta do it for going completely broke on buying plants this year, huh?!  Since this is a very long-term project, I may wait until late June or July and try to get them after they go on sale. It will likely take until then to finish the hardscape parts of the project anyway.

One final thing: ALL of these plants (except the grapes), can be seen in their natural habitat at the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden & Bird Sanctuary, part of Theodore Wirth Park in north Minneapolis.  That place is a treasure and an inspiration. I cannot recommend it enough. Some of the more interesting notes about medicinal uses of plants in the list above came from a guide book I purchased there.

Update, 3/22/2012: D’oh, this post was over 1,000 words long and I still forgot one plant I want to add near my stock tanks: a western sand cherry shrub (link points to a PDF, sorry).


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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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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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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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The Coming Famine

Here’s another book to add to my list: The Coming Famine, by Julian Cribb.  Mark Bittman reviewed it for the NY Times today.  Basically, Cribb contends that we’ve reached peak food production (along with peak oil), and warns that our food system could collapse without major changes.  From the review (emphasis mine):

He proposes subsidizing small farms for their stewardship of the earth, and paying them fairer prices for production; taxing food to reflect its true costs to the environment; regulating practices that counter sustainability and rewarding those that promote it; and educating the public about the true costs of food. “An entire year of primary schooling” should be devoted to the importance of growing and eating food, he suggests.

An entire year of home ec.  Yes.  Read the whole review here.  My library doesn’t have this book in their catalog yet, but I’ll be watching for it.

Update, 8/26/2010: Apparently this topic is really gaining steam.  Here’s a review of another book about essentially the same thingEmpires of Food by Evan D.G. Fraser looks at the food systems of empires that failed, such as the Roman empire, and draws parallels with today.  So much reading to do…

Update, 8/27/2010: Gaining steam, speeding up:  The Atlantic Monthly’s round-up of stories related to this topic.


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No-mow grass

A few weeks ago, I took a mid-summer Master Gardener refresher course at the Minnesota Landscape ArboretumBob Mugaas, the awesome turf-grass guy from the U of M, gave a presentation about new no-mow landscape grasses that the university is developing.  Some are already available commercially.

The implications of this are incredible.  Imagine not having to mow your lawn.  Imagine all the oil and emissions that could be saved if people mowed their lawns only 2-3 times a summer at the most.  For us, our yard is so small, and we use a reel-type mower, so it wouldn’t be a huge savings in time or money.  But if I had a huge suburban yard, I’d be all over this.

The main no- and low-mow turfgrasses that are available commercially today are fine fescues, such as red fescue, chewings fescue, and hard fescue.  These can look a little floppy — because of their finer grain they don’t stand straight up like ye olde Kentucky bluegrass.  So adjust your expectations, yo.

Here’s an article from Extension with much more information as well as resources on where you can order low- and no-mow grass seed mixes.  Alas, I think you’d most likely not be able to find sod, because this is all still too new.

The Sustainable Urban Landscape Information Series also has some good information about maintaining a healthy lawn and when to plant, etc.  A couple notes, whether you have a low-maintenance lawn or whether you mow every week:

1) The best time to seed and the best time to fertilize are both in the early fall.
2) When watering, think deep & infrequent during the spring and fall, and more frequently but not so deeply in the summer.  This is because the root systems of grass plants typically die back quite a bit during hot, dry weather, but grow deeper during cool weather.
3) Setting your mower an inch or two higher will result in cooler, happier root systems and healthier grass.  If you are trying to achieve a putting green for a yard, your mower is set WAY too low.


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Natura Farms

Our CSA share includes two “farm day” events where we can visit one of the farms that we get our produce from, have a potluck picnic and take a tour of the farm (including picking some produce for ourselves).  Saturday’s event was at Natura Farms in Scandia, Minnesota.  I have never been so excited to be on a farm.  It’s small: only 57 acres.  This is TINY by today’s standards.  Even my Grandpa Rensenbrink’s dairy farm in the 1950s was over 100 acres.  But to see organic vegetable production at this scale totally blew me away, and humbled me (click pictures to enlarge).

All the kids in the group got really excited about picking and eating black and red currants — they have A LOT of currant bushes.

Look at all the kohlrabi!

And here’s some kale that could use a bit of weeding.  I was a little surprised at how weedy some of the rows were, but honestly, weeds are a fact of organic agriculture — when you’re weeding by hand, and you have this much to do, you’re just not going to hit up every row every day.  And weeds can often grow a foot in 2 days.

Onions.  Some of their crops have plastic mulches for weed control.  Paul, the farm manager, explained how some high-quality plastic mulches can be re-used for several years.  Makes sense.  My personal methods for weed control, including organic mulches like woodchips and straw, are really a lot harder at a large scale.

Lots and lots of pepper plants (more than 15 varieties), with apple orchard behind.

They have several windbreaks such as this one.  These are one way of preventing erosion and protecting plants from wind damage.  From the Natura website:

We’ve doubled the organic matter in the soil and more than doubled the depth of our topsoil. Earthworms love our rich soil – you can literary smell the life in it instead of petrochemical toxins. We’ve practically eliminated soil erosion by wind or water. Elevated organic matter, a multitude of windbreaks and grass middles between rows of berries, grapes and apple trees all help us achieve healthy soil.

My favorite part was when Paul mentioned that one of his favorite fertilizers is diluted molasses.  He mixes molasses, fish emulsion, and other minerals into water to feed his plants.  I don’t use liquid fertilizer in my garden, but once again on this scale I can see where it’s necessary.  Sounds good to me.  I loved this place.


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Those green Europeans

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

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

Yes.  (via Scrawled in Wax)


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Eco Yard

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

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

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