Stacking Functions Garden


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Strategies for managing weeds

I’ve been spending a LOT of time weeding this year. I like weeding—or at any rate, I find it very satisfying. Yet, there are lots of other activities that I’d rather pursue, so I am trying to understand WHY my yard is so much weedier this year. Let’s explore.

This was a very sad week. September 2018.

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Anytime you dig in your yard, especially with heavy machinery, you expose thousands of weed seeds to the oxygen and light they need to germinate. Many of those seeds have lain dormant in the soil for years, just waiting for an opportunity like this. In my case, that happened last fall when half of my front yard and boulevard were torn up for a sewer line project.

The newly-sunny area, August 2018. I ended up planting mostly annuals again this year so that I could focus on the front yard.

Changes in growing conditions

When a dramatic change occurs in your yard, expect a flush of new weeds. For example, my southerly neighbor cut down his large crimson king maple about a year ago. It had deeply shaded the southern half of my back yard, to the point where very little grew there at all. But apparently seeds of sun-loving weeds had been collecting in that soil for years because we’ve had flush after flush of new weeds back there.

Weather conditions

We’ve had great growing conditions most of the late spring and summer this year in South Minneapolis. Everything is flourishing! We’ve had plenty of rain, and it’s been warm by day and cool at night. (Until this week’s heat wave. Wow.) Weeds flourish just as much as other plants in these conditions.

So what to do about all this weed madness?

For one thing, and this is especially true if you grow native plants, you need to decide which plants are weeds. Note that deciding is different than simply figuring out. I highly recommend the book Common Backyard Weeds of the Upper Midwest by Teresa Marrone. It will help you identify weeds and understand which ones are edible (you’d be surprised how many you can eat).

Weeds or lovely dill volunteers? You decide.

If you grow natives, many will reseed themselves all over your yard, and most wildflower gardeners find this desirable. But you will need to learn how to identify seedlings of those coneflowers, Wild Columbines, and Black-Eyed Susans. Google is your friend here. If you see a plant and can’t identify it, do a google image search on what you think it might be, e.g. “Wild Columbine seedling.” You will get very skilled, very quickly at identifying certain prolific re-seeding plants, native or non-native. I’m looking at you, dill.

Getting rid of the weeds

So obviously to start with you need to just get rid of these plants that you’ve decided are weeds. I’m not into spraying chemicals on my yard but I issue one plea with those who do: when it comes to herbicides, the label is the law and you should carefully read the instructions of any herbicide before using it. One of the most critical rules is to only spray it at dawn or at dusk when there is little to no wind. Otherwise it blows over to my yard and I get VERY UPSET with you.

It’s also worth noting that even if you Roundup the heck out of your weeds, they will still come back in a few weeks. Roundup does not destroy the weed seed bank in your soil, nor does it prevent new weeds from blowing in via seed or creeping in via underground rhizomes from nearby areas once it has left your soil.

I have poured boiling water on my paver paths and found it to be pretty effective, but if you have a large paver path area you might need to boil several pots’ worth before you can get it all. It takes more than a few drops.

I’ve always hand-pulled weeds. But I heard Larry Weaner, author of the meadow manifesto Garden Revolution, speak this winter, and he made a pretty powerful case for trimming weeds to the ground rather than pulling them out. The idea is that every time you make a disturbance in the soil, you give new weed seeds a chance. This works on a micro-level when you pull weeds, as well as a macro-level when you dig up your sewer line.

So he recommends successive mowing or trimming of weeds—making sure they never get a chance to flower and continually weakening the plant until it just gives up and dies, without ever disturbing the soil and creating conditions for a new weed to grow in its place.

Preventing the weeds in the first place

An ounce of prevention in the native wildflower garden is complex, because you have some process-related and aesthetic decisions to make. The best way to prevent weeds is to have a thick growth of hardy, healthy weed-suppressing perennials (this is true of lawn grass as well). But in order to have that, you’re going to need to overcome this particular American Garden Aesthetic:

I’m sorry for using you as an example of what not to do, random neighbor.

Create a sea of mulch with annuals and perennials tucked here and there, and—congratulations!—you’ve created a maintenance project for yourself. Many people, desperate to maintain this unmaintainable look, turn to plastic sheets of landscape fabric under their wood mulch, hoping they’ll suppress those weeds. (Do not talk to me about rock mulch. That’s a subject for a much longer post, some other time.)

But wood mulch over landscape fabric is also not a good long-term solution because weed seeds will land on top and start growing in the mulch as it decomposes. Furthermore, landscape fabric makes it more difficult for your short-lived but self-seeding native wildflowers (like Wild Columbine) to spread their offspring around. You’re creating conditions that do NOT favor wildflowers.

This prairie boulevard would not have filled in if I didn’t create the conditions favorable for the plants to reseed and spread out.

If you are creating a new garden where there was once turf, sheet mulching is a good choice that will suppress the weed seed bank.

If you are planting into bare ground, mulch with something that you know will break down relatively quickly. Two great choices are lawn clippings (my neighbors are happy to share theirs with me) or fall leaves. Plus one if the fall leaves have been mowed over and collected so that they’re chopped up.

Both of these options break down within a year, allowing your native plants to spread their offspring around, and move around among each other as they please, filling in and creating a thick, lush landscape that weeds eventually will not be able to thrive in.

I use a thick mulch of straw on my vegetable gardens. It takes two years to break down but is easy to move around when you want to harvest or plant something new.

Wood chip mulch is good on a temporary basis while plants get established, because it also breaks down over time. But be wary of cheap bagged mulch from big box stores or gas stations. I get free municipal wood chips from the city of Minneapolis. They’re not as pretty, but they work just fine.

Sheet mulching

Creating a brand new cherry tree garden in our front yard, 2012 or so.

Cherry tree garden earlier this week. It does not get very weedy.

A quick how-to on sheet mulching:

Obtain uncoated cardboard and lay it down in the contours of your new bed—look at it from close-up and from far away to make sure you’ve got your scale and shape right. Cover with at least 2-3 inches of wood chips. Wait at least 6-8 weeks or up to 6-8 months before planting. If you wait weeks, you may need to spade through cardboard and water your new plantings frequently until the cardboard breaks down. If you wait longer, it will be easier.

This is why I like to sheet mulch in the autumn. I can spend my winter researching plants. Come spring, the cardboard has disintegrated and I simply pull back a small circle of wood chips where each plant will go and dig the holes with a trowel.

The chips break down within another year or two, just as the new native plants are ready to start spreading around.

The end goal: mulch with living plants

The eventual goal here is to not need mulch at all. It’s OK to sprinkle some wood chips on a walking path, like this:

This is an area of my back yard that I unintentionally filled with two plants that were far more aggressive than I initially realized. Virginia Waterleaf and Wild Sarsparilla slowly filled this area completely in; the only parts that stay open are the little path where we walk to the garage door, and a little path by the canoe (behind the rain barrel). The rest is completely full of lush green plants, and they suppress weeds better than any mulch ever could. I spend only several minutes per year weeding this area.

Here’s a very weedy little area that also serves as a walkway around my raised strawberry bed (bricks to the left), and also provides access to this end of my vegetable garden. I often place a pot of peppers or two here, but the path has been VERY weedy despite getting walked on. Earlier this year I added a rather invasive plant—peppermint (center right)—to crowd out the weeds and provide a “trap crop” area for four-lined plant bugs. The peppermint doesn’t mind if I step on it occasionally. Eventually it will become a living mulch for this area.

In the foreground, an established perennial garden filled to the brim with a mix of natives and non-natives. It’s easy to maintain. In the background, my new shade garden, planted this year after my sewer line tragedy/opportunity. I’m trying to keep it mulched with grass clippings until the tiny, barely-visible plants have a chance to fill in. It’s required some maintenance weeding, but in a few years it will be as lush and beautiful as the nearer garden.

So there you have it. I set out to explore the world of weed management in my own garden, and I ended up writing a weeding manifesto. How has your weeding been going this summer?

 


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Four Lined Plant Bugs, gates, radishes, and everything in between

Happy Solstice to you! We spent ours in the company of our fellow Sabathani gardeners, cleaning up walkways and roasting marshmallows over a fire. It was a lovely evening.

Let’s get right into a garden update, shall we?

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Meet my current nemesis, the four-lined plant bug. It’s a generalist, shown here feeding on some goldenrod. It also really loves herbs and plants in the mint family. It’s done quite a number on my bee balm:

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In past years I tried not to get too worked up about this bug—its damage is not fatal, after all. But yesterday it almost destroyed several of my jalapeño plants. These guys are a little tricky to catch. They often scurry to the underside of the leaf as soon as they see me coming.

I’ve resorted to carefully watching plants that show signs of damage, then holding still to watch for movement. If I catch them I clap my hands together quickly over the leaf the bug is on. This usually either squashes it or slows it down enough for me to finish the job. I don’t get every single one. The numbers in my yard this year are a little disheartening, but at least I don’t have to worry about my wildflowers surviving.

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Thankfully they’re not interested in all of my garden vegetables. Radishes never get very large in my home garden, but a string of cool days has really helped extend the harvest.

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My home garden is dedicated this year to root vegetables, beans, and greens. Here are kale, collards, and chard which I planted from seed in early spring. The plan is to keep thinning them out as they get larger; we’ve already had one meal of thinnings so far and another is imminent.

Wait, is that milkweed growing in my garden? Yes, it is. I always try to pull these plants first to feed my butterflies, but I carefully work around them until I do need them.

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Good thing, too, because I found this big guy on a tiny milkweed plant between two onions. I’m having a good vegetable year so far, knock on wood. Here’s a picture of my lettuce from several days ago:

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Shortly after this some of it started to bolt, but we should be able to eke a few more weeks out of it. Underneath the big lettuce plants are some smaller ones that they crowded out, so hopefully as I pull bolting plants the smaller ones will fill in a little bit.

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My community garden plot is doing well so far, too. I attribute this to two factors. First, we grew pumpkins and squash there almost exclusively for 4+ years. After a poor season last year, it was time to try some different things on that soil.

Secondly, we planted a cover crop there last fall—a mixture of hairy vetch and winter rye from High Mowing Seeds. This mix is formulated to survive a Minnesota winter and start growing vigorously again right away in the spring. It worked (!) so we turned it over the first weekend in May and planted 3 weeks later.

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*This* is how bushy and happy tomato plants can be when they get 14+ hours of intense sunlight a day. I’m going against my usual community garden strategy this year, because of wanting to mix things up in the home garden and at Sabathani in an effort to reduce built-up bacteria in the soil.

This means Adam and I have to bike or drive over to Sabath at least twice per week to tend it, but so far we’ve been keeping up. It helps that our kids are now middle schoolers and have completely lost interest in us. Well, it gives us something to do anyway.

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One of the herbs I’m growing in my hugelkultur herb project at Sabathani is papalo, an herb from central and South America. It’s used similarly to cilantro–as a garnish on tacos, etc. Its flavor is more intense, though. It’s also much more tolerant of heat. The leaves are sturdier, more like collard greens in texture, but with a very unique flavor that is a strange but wonderful combination of cilantro and parsley. I love it, and I’m so grateful to the gardeners who introduced it to me.

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Herb drying season has commenced at home—here’s a mixed basket of chamomile, sage, dill, lemon verbena, mint, tarragon, and clary sage. I don’t know what I’m going to do with the clary sage yet—it was an impulse buy.

Between the bug fighting and harvest season commencing, I’ve accepted the fact that I’m not going to get much more done with my perennial gardens this year. I’m not ready to call them done, but the front definitely looks a lot better than it did last September when it got torn up by a backhoe.

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Adam finished the path and put out the bird bath, and there are actually quite a number of very small plants in here already—I did a lot of planting this spring. By this time next year we should be much more filled in, as I used all tough natives that should spread quickly—including Jacob’s Ladder, wild geranium, Solomon’s Seal, wild ginger, and…

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…three red-twig dogwoods! I’ve always wanted to try growing these; we need some winter interest in the front yard. So far they’re doing great. This area is going to look very natural, shady, and lush in just a few short years, if the elm tree that shades all of it hangs on. Fingers crossed.

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This may not look exciting, but to me it is everything right now. Our neighbors took down their chain link fence—which happened to have been installed at the same time as ours and matched perfectly. We used the opportunity to obtain a free matching gate, and finally added a gate on the garden side of the house. My number of steps from kitchen to garden has gone from more than 40 to less than 10. Yay!

It’s time to gear up for fruit season, and I feel ready. I really do. Our sour cherries are getting close:

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A happy and lovely solstice to you and yours.


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A Farewell to The New Home Economics

The scene: winter 2008-09. The economy is in trouble. I have two children under the age of two, my mortgage is higher than my house is worth, and I’m working for a newspaper that is about to declare bankruptcy. 

One of my favorite blogs at the time, Snarkmarket, posts about a project they’d like to do called The New Liberal Arts. The premise, basically: what should we learn / should we have learned in college to thrive in the world, now? I post a comment about how I wish I knew how to bake bread and grow my own food.

That comment turned into a chapter of the book, which was printed and also released as a PDF. The New Liberal Arts project inspired me to start a blog, The New Home Economics, which I have faithfully maintained ever since.

Seed starting, 2009. I did not know what I was doing.

Ten years later, my life is pretty different. After leaving the newspaper industry and working for a long while in the arts non-profit world, I’m now in the health insurance industry as of this spring. My kids are in middle school. I grew from a gardening newbie to an extension master gardener volunteer and native plants enthusiast.

In wanting to teach our kids about the world, my partner and I became students. We learned the names of common and uncommon Minnesota birds and insects. We raised and released hundreds of monarch butterflies. We learned about edible wild plants and the fermenting, culturing, and preserving of the bounty we were starting to harvest from our own yard. All of this is so ingrained in my life now; I have to remind myself I knew almost none of it ten years ago.

A banner monarch release day, 2018.

I’m changing the name of my blog because my primary passion is truly (and has always truly been) gardening. I’ve written about little else for several years now. Ten years ago, making my own sauerkraut or homemade yogurt seemed novel. Now it’s not only normal, it’s popular, and many other bloggers are doing a much better job of documenting it than I ever did.

The Stacking Functions Garden

So where did the name Stacking Functions Garden come from? I did not invent the term “stacking functions”–it’s a permaculture term that I first read about in the excellent book Gaia’s Garden, by Toby Hemenway. 

The main gist of stacking functions is that we need to make our gardens (and homes) work harder for us by making sure each element can perform more than one task or function, and that we have backup systems in place in case of a system failure. If you make your own compost, it’s not a big deal if the nursery runs out.

The best way to describe how I like to stack functions when choosing plants for my yard is with an example. Consider two different spring flowers that you could choose to grow in your yard: tulip and bloodroot. 

My little patch of tulips before it got mostly decimated by a sewer line project in 2018. I don’t plan to replace them.

I’m Dutch so I love tulips, with their simple elegance and bright colors. But let’s stack up the functions (and costs) of a tulip. It has an aesthetic function; it can fill a niche under a deciduous shade tree (since it does most of its growing before trees leaf out). That’s basically one function. Tulip costs: buying the bulbs, occasional fertilization, and maintaining ugly, dying foliage so that the bulb can shore up energy for next year (some professional landscapers replace the bulb every year).

Bloodroot flowers

Contrast the tulip with another beautiful spring flower, the North American native bloodroot. Its functions include early spring pollinator support, weed suppression via its crazy root system, free plants because it slowly spreads into a clump, a red dye that can be made from its roots. That’s four so far. It thrives in part to deep shade and poor soil, it fills two different aesthetic niches (first with its cheery white daisy-like flowers, later with its fairy umbrella-like leaves). Its costs: only the startup cost of purchasing the plant. Note: if you find a native plants enthusiast in your area you could likely get it for free, like I did.

Bloodroot leaves after the flowers have faded out.

The Stacking Functions concept can be applied to so much more than plants. We built a swingset for our kids when they were little. Over the years it has performed the following functions in addition to being a swingset: support for an outdoor movie screen, trellis for a grape vine, one end for a clothesline that we put up in the summer, and (recently) support for a hammock chair instead of swings.

Because we designed and built a structure that was flexible enough to serve all these purposes, it saved us money and effort in the long run. That’s a big part of my gardening and landscape design philosophy: flexibility, sustainability, and making my life richer while somehow simultaneously making it simpler. Wait, richer AND simpler? Yes. It’s possible.

A bunch of kids watching Harry Potter for our kids’ 9th birthday party in our backyard. We have even less grass now.

I hope you’ll stick with me—I plan to roll out a series of articles in the coming months featuring my favorite function-stacking garden projects and plants.

A housekeeping note: some links within the blog may be broken due to the name change. Please bear with me while I get everything updated over the next few weeks. 

Thank you.


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Spring 2019

This spring has been a whirlwind: mentally, physically, spiritually…literally. Gardening has happened in fits and starts. Here’s where I’m at for my annual Memorial Day garden photo shoot in 2019.

In 12 years of gardening at this house, I’ve never had to wait until Memorial Day weekend to plant my warm season vegetables (beans, tomatoes, peppers, etc). We had a cold spring and the long-term forecast never included any frost-less nights until the last few days, so finally I was able to get everything in. I’m trying a spinach that likes hot weather this year—Red Malabar spinach, which I will train on one of my trellises.

French breakfast radishes are coming along. Maybe one more week? Hopefully.

One of my master gardener projects for this spring involved starting several hundred pepper and tomato seedlings at the Lakewood Cemetary greenhouse. We distributed the free seedlings to gardeners at Sabathani Community Garden on Saturday—the weather could not have been more perfect.

Back at home, my Red Lake currants are coming along nicely. Fruit season is just gearing up—we harvested a lot of rhubarb this weekend.

I transplanted these purple dome asters into the back yard last year and they are getting eaten to the ground every few days by an adorable family of baby rabbits currently living under our deck. I went on the offensive this weekend and put cages around everything that they’re killing. Established plants can handle the nibbling, but new ones like this need a little help right now.

The gnome in a sea of pink and purple flowers—Jacob’s Ladder and wild geranium—in the dry shade under my silver maple. We expanded the size of this area last year, divided, and spread out the existing plants. It has much more visual impact now.

The new Jacob’s Ladder (polemonium caeruleum) plants that I added in the front yard have been blooming for at least two weeks. I love this plant and could not recommend it more for tough spots—even dry, shady boulevards.

My bloodroot (sanguinaria canadensis) is done blooming but has reached the stage where it really ought to have a fairy sitting under each leaf. I’m dividing and adding these all over my yard, too.

Finally, my wild columbines (aquilegia canadensis) are also blooming. I bought three of these several years ago, and they’ve reseeded themselves into at least a hundred. The original plants do not live terribly long, but it hardly matters, given how readily they multiply. You can slow down their spread (and make the plants look a little nicer during mid-to-late summer) if you cut off the stems with the spent flowers when they dry up.

A personal note.

I started writing this blog just over ten years ago. I observed but did not celebrate the anniversary this February because I was in a deep funk and was struggling to celebrate anything at all. Right around that same time, I made some important changes to bring some more space to my brain and my life, and I am now feeling more ready to move forward and celebrate the fact that I’ve been writing about gardening for TEN YEARS!

This blog started out as chapter to a really cool book called The New Liberal Arts in 2009. At that time, I was a new parent of twins, and feeling the weight of the responsibility of everything I wanted to teach them—things that I did not know—from gardening to baking bread to fermenting vegetables. I thought about it as a journey towards learning some healthy self-sufficiency skills.

Over time, however, the blog came to be mostly about gardening. I love cooking, baking, and other homey activities, but gardening is where my passion lies and it’s where I feel I can make the biggest difference. My master gardener volunteer work has underscored that for me.

Starting very soon, the name of this blog is changing from The New Home Economics to Stacking Functions Garden. I’ve already registered stackingfunctionsgarden.com and it points right here. I’ll write a post explaining what it means very soon. In the meantime, for my long-time readers, THANK YOU. Your support means a lot.


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Community Gardening strategy

I live in the inner city. For an inner city lot, mine is good-sized. Yet, my full-sun area—and thus my ability to grow large numbers of vegetables—is actually quite small. I’ve had an additional plot at a community garden for several years now, and in 2018 we doubled the size of it, to 20 feet x 20 feet.

I have a philosophy about my community garden plot, and it stems from the permaculture concept of zones. The basic gist is that your home is ground zero. If you have plants that need daily tending, put them as close to the house as possible. The zones go all the way to five, which is supposed to be a wild and natural area.

Realistically, for city dwellers like me, zone five is where I travel to be on vacation—I don’t own a property big enough to contain a wild area. My yard realistically includes zones zero through two. This stock tank of lettuce is easily accessed from my back door. It’s in zone one, precisely where you’d want something that you pick daily.

Just outside my front door, and easily accessed while wearing slippers, is my herb spiral (pictured in late summer with wildflowers threatening to take over). I’ve placed the foods that I harvest daily during the growing season as close as possible to my home. This makes it far more likely that I’ll use them.

Even my strawberries and my primary vegetable garden can now be accessed in slippers, thanks to the beautiful brick paths my husband has been diligently working on each summer.

My community garden plot, however, is a different story. It’s approximately two miles away. It’s a little further than I really have time to walk on a daily basis (unfortunately). I try to bike there as often as possible, but it’s generally not realistic to plan on going more than once per week. Hence, I only grow vegetables that need less daily attention at the community plot.

My early years of gardening at Sabathani, I did try to do more. Here’s my 2014 garden with pumpkins, onions, potatoes, brussels sprouts, and strawberry popcorn. The brussels sprouts never amounted to much, and the onions got overrun by the pumpkins. The strawberry popcorn was fun though! The plot is not terribly large, so most years I try to keep it simple. My best year was the year I grew Musquee de Provence pumpkins:

They outgrew the plot and started spreading into the walkways. A fellow gardener actually trimmed them back with a gas-powered weed trimmer at one point. Pumpkins and squash are fun to grow, but when you live in the city it’s hard to justify the space they require. This is where my community garden strategy shines. It’s just a little extra room, with a slightly lower time commitment, to try something fun.

Here are my Musquee de Provence pumpkins after harvest. Suffice to say we ate a lot of pumpkin that year.

In 2017 I was really craving zucchini, another vegetable that gets a little too big in my petite home garden. So I grew this variety of patty pans (a type of zucchini) at Sabathani. Once again, I proved myself right and was unable to get there often enough to harvest them at an ideal size. Pictured are several that are a bit too large. We still ate them, but generally you want to pick them while smaller (like the green ones pictured).

It’s been so fun growing large numbers of squash and pumpkins each year. Here are my 2014 Long Island Cheese Pumpkins—these were excellent for baking.

I’ve tried to rotate crops as best I can at my plot, moving potato and pumpkin hills around my now-doubled (as of 2018) 20 foot x 20 foot plot. This year, I’m going to break my rule again and try to grow some tomatoes and cucumbers there, due to a buildup of disease at my home garden. I will have to commit to going there mid-week to pick during July and August, but there does happen to be a Dairy Queen on the way, so it’s usually easy to convince the kids to go for a bike ride.

Do you garden in zones? What strategies have you tried for time management in the garden?


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Winter rabbit damage

Confession: I complained about our lack of snow earlier this winter. It was barely a white Christmas, with only a dusting on the ground. “This is the lamest winter ever,” I said, dreaming of cross country skiing, sledding, anything.

Welp.

A snowy winter

Here’s my front yard after a record-breaking February of snow. It feels like the kids have barely been to school, and we’re running out of places to pile it. My herb spiral is under there, somewhere. Behind it are completely buried currants and wild roses.

The rabbits are getting really desperate, and the snow has helped them reach over some of my barriers to nibble on shrubs and young trees.

Rabbit damage on a honeycrisp apple tree

Here’s my suffering honeycrisp apple tree, planted last July. This new damage, approximately 2 or 3 feet off the ground thanks to the new snow, encircles between 1/4 and 1/3 of the young tree’s trunk (plus a small branch had its end chewed off). Were this the only damage it would probably not be fatal, but rabbits also ate the bark off the trunk closer to the ground, and that time they made it more than 3/4 (~7/8) of the way around the trunk (this was back in November, before I had the cages up).

This is called a “girdled” stem, which is confusing because “stem girdling” can also refer to roots growing in a tight circle around an improperly-planted tree.

Anyway, this tree is a goner. I plan to replace it this spring–thank goodness for the two-year “purple perks” warranty at Bachmann’s. Rabbits love fruit-bearing trees like apples (and their malus genus compatriots) and cherries, along with other members of the prunus genus—such as wild plum.

A hole in the rabbit proof fence around some viburnums

The only thing more appealing to rabbits in winter than fruit trees is native shrubs. I found this hole in the plastic fence that I put around my viburnums every fall, along with some fresh damage to some of the smaller suckering branches on the pictured shrub. I patched it up and will swap the plastic fencing next year for something more durable.

Rabbit-pruned gooseberry bushes

My gooseberry bushes needed a good pruning this winter/spring, so I left them unprotected to see what would happen. Rabbits don’t eat my (non-native) currant bushes, and gooseberries are related, so I wondered whether they’d be interested. Verdict: they are interested. I shall not need to do any pruning of these bushes come spring. They are very vigorous, though, so I’m not worried about them.

A small pagoda dogwood aka alternate-leaf dogwood, in winter

This tall enclosure felt like overkill when I put it around my small pagoda dogwood last fall, but now it looks like this might be one of my only shrubs that will emerge in the spring completely unscathed.

I have a handful of non-native shrubs: a magnolia and three currants (two Red Lake and one Ben Sarek black). Rabbits rarely touch these in the winter. But all my various dogwoods and viburnums are like candy to them, as well as my serviceberry and chokeberries.

In a normal winter, the cages are enough. In a record-breaking month like this, I’ll need to keep checking on things until we experience some melting.

All this damage has me re-thinking my front yard landscaping plans. Half of it was torn up for a sewer line project last year; my initial replacement plan included five new shrubs. I’m now thinking two might be more appropriate, if I’m going to realistically be able to protect them in the winter while still finding places to pile up shoveled snow.

I’m thinking about plants that give the appearance of a shrub, or fulfill the same niche as a shrub, but still die down to the ground each winter. A great native plant that fits this bill is baneberry:

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(image source + more images of this plant)

There are two versions of this plant that grow in Minnesota, both poisonous but very pretty. I will mass several of these in place of at least one of the shrubs I’d hand in mind. My options are somewhat limited because this area is so shady. If I had more sun I’d also consider Culver’s Root.

Deer at Fort Snelling State Park

I have a rare Monday off work, so I cross country skied at Fort Snelling State Park this morning. The weather was perfect: 0 degrees fahrenheit with almost no wind. I had to politely ask this one to please move and let me through; he did so begrudgingly.

Next up: seed starting for the official kick-off of vegetable garden 2019.


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Garden Plan 2019

It’s January. It’s about zero degrees F. A snowstorm is due any minute. Time to get started on planning my garden for this year.

The main thing to note about this year’s plan: it does not include cucumbers or tomatoes. I’m giving my main home garden the year off from both; I’ll most likely try to grow them at Sabathani Community Garden. My home garden has built up various tomato and cucumber diseases over the past few years, and I need a year of starving both bacteria in hopes of getting rid of them for good.

Let’s take a look at the plan:

Sample garden layout

Starting on the far left, the little strip of land between my deck and chain link fence was a fine rhubarb area for several years, but unfortunately the grapevines that I am training on the arbor over the deck are now casting deep shade in that area for most of the summer—this is what I wanted! But it means the rhubarb had to go somewhere sunnier. I transplanted it last fall.

In its spot I will put a mix of early- and late-season pollinator support plants. My two favorites for a shady spot like this are bloodroot and zig zag goldenrod.

 

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Bloodroot, aka sanguinaria canadensis

Bloodroot blooms in the very early spring—usually in April when I’m feeling the most desperate for some sign of spring. It’s an ephemeral so it only blooms for a very short time, then the leaves get quite large and look just like an umbrella for a fairy to sit under. I can’t get enough of these plants. They also spread gradually, so I’ve been dividing them every couple years and adding them all over the yard. Prairie Moon is a good source for Bloodroot, if you don’t know anyone with some to divide.

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Zig Zag Goldenrod, aka solidago flexicaulis

Then there’s zig zag goldenrod, the only goldenrod to thrive in shade. It blooms at the very opposite end of the season, August-October. I’m slowly adding this to all shady areas of my yard. I’ve always had plenty of blooms from June-August, but have been a little lacking in the very beginning and end of the season. Time to work on that.

Getting back to the garden plan, the first bed on the far left has greens in it, and I think this is about all I’ll be able to grow in this spot anymore. The arbor is shading this area of the garden for a significant portion of the day now, too. I had my tomatoes in that spot last year and they performed dismally—lots of green foliage but hardly any tomatoes, a classic sign of insufficient light.

Next we have some turnips, onions, and beets, in the spot where I grew leeks and onions last year. After this year I will have to let this spot rest from members of the allium family or I’m going to create a problem.

Next is the spot where I’ll put my tomato cage, except this year I’m growing heirloom dried beans in it. Legumes for the win! I plan to leave the cage in this spot permanently—we discovered this spring that moving it is a major pain. So I’ll rotate legumes and tomatoes in and out of it each year, relying on pots and/or my community garden plot in the years I don’t put tomatoes in this garden.

Finally we have the spot where I planted some garlic last fall. If it survives the insane sub-zero temperatures that are arriving shortly, it will be so fun to have garlic again. I haven’t grown it in a few years. I’m going to try following it up with some watermelon radishes; they are better when grown in the later season.

So that’s my plan, in a nutshell. I’ll also do various pots and edible landscaping tricks. I have a very large new sunny area in the backyard now that is raising all kinds of possibilities. Eventually it will be a mini tallgrass prairie, but for now… maybe we could grow some watermelons…


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Fall

The time for spookiness and voting has arrived. I assumed this spider was dead until I picked it up to show it to the kids and got a very chilling surprise. (Yes, I shrieked.)

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It’s an orb weaver spider, and I’ve never seen one this large before. It was moving pretty slowly but still too fast for me.

I gave the kids my old D-SLR camera and got myself a newer (used) one; they’ve been going crazy with photography ever since. Here’s a spooky spider picture from Anneke that was not quite what any of us expected to see when we uploaded it to the computer.

She also snapped these lovely purple asters, one of the only flowers still blooming here at the end of October. Our mid-October frosts and brief snowfall mean there are no bees around anymore to pollinate them.

Over at my Sabathani Community Garden plot, cover crops are up and running, although I don’t expect them to grow a whole lot more. My new goal is to do this every year–it’s so important for soil health. We’ll be ready to harvest our horseradish (large bushy plants in the center and left) soon. Generally mid-November is a good time, after a couple of hard freezes but before the ground is frozen.

This year was my first successful attempt at growing leeks. I never did get around to hilling them up, so they’re a little green, but just fine for our purposes. They were actually quite easy to grow and the entire family (except me) is now tired of potato leek soup. I don’t think I’ll be all the way through these or my kale until the end of November.

October means time to bring in all our tropical plants from outside. We managed to find spots for our Meyer lemon, an avocado tree, and three grapefruits. The kids have gone a little crazy for houseplants and I don’t discourage them from any botany pursuits, so our house is getting a little over-run. They’re going to bring us some much-needed green in the coming months.

The weirder a plant looks, the weaker our resistance to it.

I killed a Christmas Cactus two years ago, so I’m trying again.

Anneke’s been asking for a fiddle leaf fig for ages now, and I finally saw a tiny, inexpensive one at Mother Earth Gardens yesterday and gave my consent. Then we came home and read about how quickly they grow. We’ll see, I guess!

Fort Snelling State Park is very close to our house, so it’s a frequent getaway when we just need some nature time. Shown is the Highway 55 bridge over Picnic Island. The kids have been learning about the tragic history of this area, giving all of it new significance when we visit. I’m glad that bdote has been preserved in at least a semi-natural state. Photo by Anneke.

Stay warm, friends.


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Not professional landscapers

“We’re not professional landscapers,” said the sewer line contractor who tore up my yard 10 days ago.

“No shit,” I thought to myself, but I tried to keep it cool.

It took three days and by day two I realized it would be healthier if I didn’t watch. After it was over, however, I quickly moved from horrified to excited about redesigning this area of the yard. It’s an opportunity, right?

Last weekend I laid out the edging bricks for a redesigned path in the area that was dug. This path used to curve from the house to the street, but since we already have two paths that do that in the front, I wondered if we really needed a third (I’ve always wondered this, though it did look nice). The new path starts by the house but will end with a circular mini-patio, big enough for our bird bath to sit in its center as a focal point. It will allow me easy access to all the flower beds around it, and be just a little bit different from other areas of the yard. I’m excited to see it take shape.

When laying out new hardscape features, it helps to take pictures from different angles like this, to help you see if you have your scale and positioning correct before you start permanently installing bricks. This may change a bit before all is said and done.

I’ve got the area about 1/3 replanted, but the rest will have to wait until next spring when there is more selection at area nurseries. In the meantime I’m going to see about getting some chopped up leaf mulch this fall to help enrich the soil a bit.

Even though my front yard is looking shabby, interesting things are happening out back. For example, my second wine grape harvest:

Ten pounds of Marquette grapes. Both grapes that we grow are University of Minnesota hybrids.

16 pounds of Frontenac Gris grapes! These were in much better shape than the Marquettes. They didn’t get hit quite as hard by Japanese beetles, and they were at their peak of ripeness when we picked them on August 26; the Marquettes were slightly over ripe and quite a few had to be tossed.

We spent some time with a very patient and helpful employee of Northern Brewer talking about what went wrong last year and getting some great advice about what to do differently.

We tasted both wines at every stage this time, trying to understand better how the flavors develop. We also purchased a bottle of Frontenac Gris from the local wine shop so we could compare. The professional wine is on the right, our cloudier version on the left. Honestly, I didn’t care for the flavor of the professional version—it was way too sweet. Yet ours was so sour that it tasted like really strong kombucha. The professionals must have added sugar.

Anyway, we added the bottle of professional wine to our gallon of amateur wine to just cut down the sour flavor a tiny bit, and we liked the result, so we bottled it. And now we wait.

Over in the vegetable garden, my cover crop looks beautiful! It’s a mixture of rye grass and field peas, and my intent is not to turn it in until next spring. We’ll see if it survives the winter, as promised by the seed company where I purchased it.

Over at our Sabathani community garden, we’re finally harvesting some Waltham Butternut Squash. I’ve never seen such slow-growing squash plants. After looking unhappy the entire summer, they finally started spreading out and flowering in mid-August. I have read that Walthams are slow, but I think there’s more going on here than that. We’ve got soil fertility issues at Sabathani as well. Before September is out I am going to harvest what I can, rip everything out, and plant a cover crop there too.

Speaking of squash… Here’s a picture of our neighbor’s yard. Our house is the white one in the background behind the fence. In this spot used to be a very large crimson king maple tree that cast deep shade over this area and a good bit of our back yard too. Shortly after it was cut down in June, a pumpkin or squash of some sort sprouted from a bit of dropped compost next to our bin.

Fast forward just a handful of weeks and it started invading our neighbor’s yard through the fence. He was delighted, so he let it grow. It is now the largest pumpkin plant I’ve ever seen, and as far as I can tell it’s just one plant! This area is at least 30 feet wide by 15 feet deep and it’s still going. It’s occupying some of our yard and driveway too.

It’s got several strange-looking pumpkins or squash that I can’t identify, though the leaves look exactly like the leaves of musquee de provence pumpkins, which we grew two years ago. We’ll see what happens.

Last but not least, I recently read The Complete Gardener, by British gardener/TV personality Monty Don. I watched his Netflix show Big Dreams, Small Spaces earlier this year and liked his attitude, so put myself on a waiting list from the library to read some of his books. (He must be gaining popularity here as well.)

I went through my usual range of emotions when reading a gardening book from somewhere very different from Minnesota. First, jealousy: his snowdrops bloom IN JANUARY. Second, relief: slugs are a huge issue there, and they have two different types of cabbage butterflies.

I picked up a handful of ideas to try in my own garden, including spreading wood ash from our fireplace around our currants and gooseberries. He also grows significantly more comfrey than I do and uses the leaves as a mulch around some of his garden vegetables. It’s an excellent idea that I’ve tried before, but ought to do more.

His style is more formal than mine; yet it’s completely appropriate for the place where he gardens. The book is full of gorgeous pictures and good general advice—especially for people who are new to concepts in organic gardening.

We’re running headlong into fall—it is 43 degrees F here as I write this and my husband is sitting in a deer stand up north. I feel ready, though. I have a lot of open spots to fill in spring 2019 so my winter garden planning process is going to be more involved than usual. I’m looking forward to it.

 


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Late Summer

I received 2 free packets of zinnia seeds last winter, and decided on a whim to try sprouting them. They were so easy. I didn’t have a plan for the plants so I just put them in groups of 5 all over the yard to see how they’d do in different light conditions. I’ve found them to be pretty flexible but a bit less floppy when they get plenty of sun. Pollinators love them! Here’s another non-native plant that gets my stamp of approval.

This little skipper spent several minutes nectaring.

 

I dig all the variations in color and form on the zinnias.

Walking around the yard, this scene caught my eye from some distance. How weird! It appears that a cicada decided to shed its exoskeleton while posing on a flower. The cicadas were almost as loud as the airplanes last night. (I live near the airport. You get used to it.)

Want to attract pollinators to your garden? Plant joe-pye weed. It comes in a few different heights. The original wild variety gets quite tall—perhaps 5 feet—and can get a little floppy. It was meant to be mixed in with other tall-grass prairie plants such as big bluestem. I plan to create a little tallgrass prairie oasis next to my garage next year. It will include divisions of this joe pye plant, plus big bluestem, prairie blazing star, Jerusalem artichokes, and (of course) milkweed. Can’t wait to get started on that project.

I also started nasturtiums from seed this spring. I ended up with so many plants that I scattered them all over the yard in pots, hanging baskets, and this window box on my garden shed. Little did I know: nasturtiums attract hummingbirds! We’ve always hoped to attract a hummingbird to our garden and Anneke has been dutifully filling, cleaning, and refilling a hummingbird feeder for two years in hopes of seeing one. A male ruby-throat has been stopping by several times a day now, but he skips the feeder and goes for the nasturtiums. Figures.

Everything is just OK in the garden. Honestly the annual vegetable garden is the most challenging part of my yard, between the pests, the diseases, the soil amendments, the weeding, etc. My permaculture fruit guilds by comparison are much easier to maintain. I’m really going to rethink my vegetable garden design for 2019 to see what I can do about improving soil health—even if it means the short-term cost of going a summer without certain vegetables.

Can you help me identify this mystery pepper? It’s not “Tangerine Dream”—the pepper I thought I’d bought. I am afraid to try it because it’s really hot—Adam said it reminded him of a habanero. I think it might be a hot lemon pepper.

Here’s another mis-labeled pepper from the Friends’ School Plant Sale. (This is not the first time this has happened to me with that sale.) I think these are likely cayenne. Well, at any rate the squirrels are not touching them. I am a big wimp when it comes to peppers, but we’ll pickle these all the same.

This year I tried interplanting my shallots into my strawberry bed, and I’m happy with the results. Some of them are very large and impressive. Most are average, and a few are tiny. A decent harvest.

Here’s an illustration of why you really do need a certain number of plants for this whole eating from the garden thing to work out right. I have 5 okra plants in part-shade so they’re not hyper-productive. I get 3-4 pods, every 3-4 days. It’s just not ever quite enough to cook with. Next year I’m going to try 10 plants, and put them in full sun. Then we’ll get good and tired of okra. Okra is a great edible landscaping plant—the flowers look like hibiscus.

Here’s a little nostalgia for today. My Rowan, age 4, left and age 11, right. Still helping me in the garden.

Here’s a garden friend that I spotted on my hydrangea this morning: a goldenrod soldier beetle. They feed on other insects including cucumber beetles. I don’t know if goldenrod is necessary to attract this beetle. The name might simply refer to its color. I usually see it on calendula flowers.

And here’s evidence of a garden foe that I’ve been battling for over a month now: the dreaded Japanese beetle. After last year’s near defoliation of my grapevine, I was hyper-vigilant this year. At least twice a day since around July 4 we’ve been out there killing as many as we can, but they are seemingly unstoppable. My best guess is that our grapevine is about 30-40% defoliated. Next year we will most likely resort to spraying neem oil, earlier in the season. We’re almost ready to harvest now so it’s too late for this year.

You can see there is also some Japanese beetle damage on my large cherry tree. However, in this case it’s only 5-10% of the leaves that are affected, so I’m willing to tolerate it. It won’t harm the plant at all. Generally if 10% or fewer of leaves on a tree like this are affected, you have nothing to worry about. Trees in the Prunus genus (cherry, chokecherry, plum) support a wide variety of insect larvae—especially butterflies and moths—so if you can tolerate a little damage, you’ll be giving your area birds a huge boost. Insect larvae are the primary food they feed to their young in the nest.

My back yard is going through a major transformation, due to a large tree being removed. I’m starting to get used to how bare it feels, and starting to come up with all kinds of ideas for what I want to plant next year in my three new full-sun spots. Formerly they were two very deep shade and one part-shade spot, so my options have changed considerably. For now we put in zinnias and sunflowers, just to hold us over until certain other projects are done. It probably won’t get fully planted until next spring, and that’s OK.

We only have two weeks left of summer and then my three people—who have been helping me in the garden every single day—will all go back to school. Sigh.