Stacking Functions Garden


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Book review: The Resilient Gardener

The Resilient GardenerThe Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times

by Carol Deppe

The title of this book is a bit heavy-handed; I probably wouldn’t have looked it up if my favorite permaculture blog hadn’t recommended it.

Yet, her broad definition of “hard times” resonated with me. Would your garden survive if you were unable to water it for two weeks? Weed it for three weeks? This concept was brought home to me long before I read this book, when Adam had a random injury in August that left him unable to do any lifting for well over a month. I had to do everything during that time, and it was both eye-opening and exhausting.

So, what if I, the primary gardener in the family, get a random injury? Or what if we have a drought and the city imposes watering limits (a very real possibility, actually)? I actually think these two questions should be asked about ANY landscape, not just a food-producing one.

Before I go any further, I should outline my recommendation regarding this book. Choose whichever of the following best applies to you:

1. If you live in Willamette Valley, Oregon and garden at any scale: BUY this book.

2. If you live anywhere else, and own or have access to acreage and have a desire to increase self-sufficiency by raising some staple crops like corn, beans, squash, or potatoes: BORROW this book from the library. (You may end up buying it.)

3. If you do not meet conditions 1 or 2: well, borrow it only if the topic really interests you.

This book suffers from the same problem affecting nearly all gardening (especially permaculture-oriented) books I read: warm climate-itis. The upper midwest is just a whole different ball game in gardening (though that’s not all bad, either).

Still, there are some useful nuggets in here. Here are a handful:

Plant spacing for resilience. Deppe grows corn, squash, beans, and potatoes enough to be self-sufficient on them as well as sell at market (i.e. she grows a shit ton of all four on acreage). The Willamette valley gets very dry in summer, but she grows most of her crops with little to no irrigation. She achieves this, in part, by increasing plant spacing to even double the amount recommended on the seed packet.

Timing. Because her region has rain at specific times (lots in the winter but very little in the summer) she plants strategically so that crops that need more water are maturing at the time when her region tends to get water. (This does not apply to the upper midwest, but still worth noting.)

Potatoes. She outlines three strategies for planting potatoes: hilling up, trenching, or growing in mulch, with details about how to determine which strategy is best for you. My own potato tower experiment was not successful, but I think that hilling up is probably a classic Minnesota potato strategy for a very good reason.

Ducks vs. Chickens. Deppe’s chapter on ducks offers a great comparison on determining whether you should raise ducks or chickens, and how raising fowl can have a dramatic effect on your resiliency. They can be a great choice if the land you live on happens to not be ideal for growing vegetables or fruit. Unfortunately they are not a choice for me right now, because of problems with obtaining a city permit.

Corn. Deppe has a real fondness for the lowly corn plant, and this book has great in-depth information on types of corn (flour, flint, dent), reasons and how-to’s for growing each, seed-saving and breeding techniques, and even recipes. As a person who is gluten-intolerant, she has a keen interest in providing high-quality non-wheat flour for herself—there are several interesting gluten-free recipes in the book.

Beans. One of the shortest chapters, but Deppe still manages to make a nice case for growing drying beans, and offers advice for those of us who still romanticize the old interplanting corn, beans, and squash myth. Deppe’s answer: it can be done, but mind your spacing and choose varieties that are suited for it.

I would love to think that someday Adam and I might be able to afford to buy a handful of acres somewhere in Minnesota or western Wisconsin. But since we likely wouldn’t be able to live there for many years, what crops (if any) could I realistically grow on this fantasy land, which I would only visit once per week in the best of times? Deppe’s book gave me LOTS of ideas to dream on, for now.


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Going native

I was just reading through some recent posts, and realized that I forgot one of the most important reasons why I had my most successful gardening year ever in 2012.

I had very few pest problems this year, and with our mild winter/early spring I had actually expected an increase in pests. Two reasons: first, I added beneficial nematodes to the garden in early June, all around my zucchini plants. I later saw (and failed to catch) adult squash vine borers in there, so I know they laid eggs, but the nematodes must have done their job because my zucchini plants looked gorgeous all summer.

Second, and more important: I have added a great variety of native plants to my yard and garden over the past two years, and I can’t believe how many more birds, butterflies and spiders are around. I actually watched two birds flying in and out of the vegetable garden one day, feasting on crickets. HUGE spiders set up shop in several areas of the yard this summer.

American Highbush Cranberry (viburnum trilobum) is just one of the native shrubs I added this spring. They’re absolutely gorgeous right now, and next year they should produce berries.

I keep saving seed and replanting Florence Fennel from a packet I originally bought several years ago (I also get MANY volunteers). This fennel frustrates me because it seems that no matter what part of the yard I plant it in, I almost never get a bulb worthy of dicing. I get lots of neat foliage, and I use the seeds and feathery leaves interchangeably with dill, but I am ready to try a different variety—I keep dreaming of cucumber fennel salad and never getting around to making it. Anyway, when I pulled out the remaining fennel plants this weekend, look what I found! Weird fennel carrot-like roots!? So, we boiled them up with some parsnips and mashed them. Not too shabby.

Garden’s not done yet! I’ve never seen a better chard plant than this one; it’s been completely cut down several times and just keeps coming back. Apparently it’s hardy to about 15 degrees (F), so we’ll probably want to use it up by the end of November or so.

With all the native plants we added this year, our need for leaf mulch increased to the point that we no longer need to bag/dispose of ANY leaves. We raked them off the small grass area, and threw the extras on the raspberries. So there’s one chore greatly reduced, at least. Leaf mulch is exactly what native plants want and like—after all it’s what they’d get in the forest.

A friend of mine was touring my garden this summer, and seemed perplexed at all the work I’m putting into adding natives that supply only a little food at most. Why not focus more on adding as many vegetable and fruit areas as humanly possible? Well, that’s likely the direction I would have gone, if I didn’t have so much shade. Since I can’t grow traditional vegetables and fruits in the vast majority of my yard, I had to improvise. I am SO glad I did: even if you can’t eat all of the plants I’ve added, they still greatly benefit the plants that I CAN eat by increasing biodiversity in my little south Minneapolis yard.

There’s also the permaculture aspect of this: in order to achieve greater sustainability we need to expand our definition of edible and explore the native plants of our regions. In that vein, I will be more than thrilled to welcome nannyberries, highbush cranberries, gooseberries, fiddlehead ferns, and even more herbal teas to my table next year. Now if I can just get my hands on some ramps and a serviceberry bush or two, I’ll be set!


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All plastic is oil: the movie Collapse

Collapse

The book that the documentary was based on.

I added the documentary Collapse to my Netflix queue at least two years ago, after a friend earnestly implored me to see it. It’s a profile of a guy named Michael Ruppert, whose blog/self-published newsletter predicted—with scary accuracy—the economic collapse of 2009. Back when the movie came out, I added his website to my RSS reader, but I had to stop reading after a while because I felt like I was going to have a panic attack if I read one more article about peak oil.

I was filled with dread at the prospect of watching the movie, but this weekend I finally got up the nerve. Honestly, it wasn’t that scary. As a matter of fact, as soon as the movie was over, Adam joked, “Wait, wait, don’t tell me, THIS is why you want to get chickens, right?”

If you’ve read about climate change, and if you’ve ever heard of the giant pool of money, most of the information that Ruppert presents is now old news. We’re probably past peak oil. Capitalism itself is unsustainable because infinite growth is not achievable on a planet with finite resources.

Honestly, this stuff doesn’t scare me that much anymore. I guess I’ve moved into the acceptance phase—I’m much more focused on what I can do about it.

Yet, I’ve also found myself slipping into old habits lately as our personal economic situation has improved. The kids are in school now; we’re not as desperately broke as we were when I first started writing this blog. For the past month or two, I’ve been noticing that our small “plastics” recycling bin has actually been full every time the recycling goes out. This is a clue that I’m not doing all I can to reduce plastic in my life. My goal is generally to only have to take the plastics bin out once or twice a year.

So I’m glad I watched this; if nothing else it was a good reminder that, indeed, all plastic is oil. Learning to live without plastic now will make it easier to adjust later when it’s no longer cheap and plentiful. Besides, given the facts that it’s nearly impossible to recycle AND possibly leaches chemicals into your food, it’s really not a great choice anyway.

I liked what Mr. Ruppert had to say. Yes, he’s a bit of a Lone Gunman, but he also advocates community building and local food networks and truly believes that we can confront this crisis if we change our paradigms. The revolution is at our doorstep—but it doesn’t need to be a violent one. We all need to quit wasting our time yelling about trivial political issues (related: turn off our TVs), and pull together to figure out how we survive the coming challenges. Planting a garden is a great place to start. I am IN. Are you?

(We’ll return to our regular posts about gardening and recipes later in the week, I promise!)


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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 ]