Stacking Functions Garden

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Landscape plan: closer to reality

We moved into this house 8 years ago this weekend, looking at the blank canvas of a yard and dreaming of the possibilities. We worked at things really slowly at first (because, hello, TWIN babies). Two years ago, I drew up a landscape plan for my back yard.  We made big strides that year and in 2013, and this year, we came close to finishing it and then some (with some design changes of course).Cutting down a crabapple treeLet’s start in the front yard, where Adam cut down our old, crooked, witches-broom-looking crabapple tree. I was not terribly fond of it outside of the 4 days that it bloomed in the spring.

Cherry tree guild in progressIn its place (a few feet behind the stump) we put in a new Mesabi Cherry tree. You can see the lasagna mulching in progress here. The tree will eventually be surrounded by several shrubs and some other perennials; we’ll divide a bunch from other areas of the yard in the spring. I hope to plant the shrubs this fall, including another currant and a (maybe) a snowberry closer to the front sidewalk.

Bird bathAlso new in our front yard, Adam and the kids made this gorgeous birdbath this summer. It’s cast concrete with a stained-glass mosaic. I didn’t have any (non-plant) focal points in the garden, so this adds a nice touch.

Cutting down an apple treeIn the back, our huge old apple tree finally came down. We spent a few years trying to save it, but the fireblight was decidedly worse this spring, so we decided to just get it over with. We had to hire this out due to the power lines. Removing this tree also removed a major food source for neighborhood squirrels, and we felt their retaliation when, days later, they ate EVERY SINGLE TOMATO in our garden. Our total tomato harvest this year ended up being ONE (ONE!) standard size tomato and a few handfuls of Sungolds.

ServiceberryHappily, the removal of the apple tree opened up an opportunity for more landscaping changes in the back (we also removed the sandbox earlier this summer). So I finally had a spot for my long-coveted Serviceberry (aka Juneberry, Amalanchier Canadensis). It looks rather small now, but apparently they grow fast. Also, we finally planted the area between the fence and the driveway, starting with two Chokeberry bushes (Aronia arbutifolia) and a handful of miscellaneous divided perennials from elsewhere. We’ll also add a few more shrubs here with the Serviceberry; likely a gooseberry or three.

ArborLast but DEFINITELY not least, I finally got my arbor. And, WOW, is this thing ever gorgeous! Adam built it the week the kids were at horse camp, with me staying home from work to help him for one day. Next year, we get to plant grapevines and hops on it. It ties the house and the yard together so beautifully.

Bird houseWith all the leftover wood, Rowan and Anneke felt inspired to build a birdhouse in the image of our house (with Dad’s help). Grampy Junior, aka Rowan, insisted on real asphalt shingles for it, too. The hole’s kinda huge, so I’m not entirely certain what kind of birds we’ll get, but it’s been installed on a tall pole next to the Serviceberry and looks neat.

What a busy summer. No wonder it flew by! We still have some harvesting and preserving to do. My pumpkin harvest is looking spectacular (fingers crossed). I don’t feel ready for fall, but ready or not…

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Back yard project: update

It’s now been a full year since we “finished” our back yard project. Click here for the project plan, here for the detailed plant list, and here for a couple fun pictures of my kids helping with landscaping. So how are things looking, 3/4 of the way through 2013’s growing season?

Raingarden, relocatedFirst of all, we re-located the rain garden about 3 feet away from the garage, and properly tested it this time for overflow. Crossing our fingers that we will have better luck with flooding next spring.

A dry shade garden, via The New Home EconomicsUnder the large silver maple tree on the north side of the back yard, our three viburnums are all doing wonderfully. We planted two American Highbush Cranberries (viburnum trilobum) and one large Nannyberry (viburnum lentago). Two of the three flowered, but no berries have been seen. I’ve read that berries are fewer in deep shade.

Map of dry shade garden, via The New Home EconomicsI cannot tell you how valuable a resource these maps have been to me this year, as I anxiously checked for new growth this spring, and also tried to figure out which plant was which. As you can see, we lost some plants. Most notably, we lost ALL of our bunchberries (Cornus canadensis) and all of our cardinal flowers (lobelia cardinalis). My hypotheses: I read somewhere last winter that bunchberries prefer acid soil. Mystery solved. Ours is very alkaline. As for the cardinal flowers, I had originally intended to put them in the rain garden, but they ended up in this dry shade garden in a VERY dry year (2012). Cardinal flowers are usually found in low-lying, swampy areas, so that mystery is also likely solved.

I thought I had lost many of my ferns, but it turns out that they’ve been victimized repeatedly all spring and summer long by rabbits.

Tiny maidenhair fern, via The New Home EconomicsThis maidenhair fern is less than 3 inches across, and was hiding under some wild columbine leaves, probably the only reason it’s hanging in there! I’m hoping that if these ferns can get a little bigger and more established, that they’ll be able to withstand the nibbling a little better.

Lady Fern, via The New Home EconomicsLady ferns seem to withstand the nibbling easier.

Another dry shade garden, via The New Home EconomicsBecause this garden on the south side of our yard (and under a different maple tree) is closer to the rabbits’ hideout, it’s received the brunt of their damage. On the left side, several virginia waterleaf plants came up this spring, but they got eaten so many times I think they gave it up. Fortunately the celandine poppies, Christmas ferns, and lady ferns are hanging in there along with the pagoda dogwood, which has made a very impressive comeback indeed.

So, progress is slow, but everything is staying alive and getting established. I’ve noticed that native plants can sometimes take a bit longer to get established, so I’m trying to be patient. We’re now planning phase II of the project for this fall, which will involve building a grape arbor over the deck and eventually putting in a flagstone or paver patio (and thus eliminating a rabbit habitat). Next year, grape vines. 2015: my own wine?

Apples, via The New Home EconomicsI picked a handful (or rather a shirtful) of apples tonight. They’re starting to turn red, but a little tart still. Hoping that the squirrels don’t take our whole harvest; they’ve already thinned out at least 2/3 of them. The kids were sitting outside with their toy bows this week, shooting (nerf-tipped) arrows at the squirrels in a last-ditch effort to get some applesauce. We’ll see!


August so far

fishing off the dock

We finished off July with a weekend “up north,” where the kids caught some impressive sunnies right off the dock. They are such good little Minnesotans.

Not bad, eh?

When we got back from the lake, our cucumbers had gotten out of control. I shredded up the biggest ones for some relish. It’s still fermenting, but as soon as it’s done I’ll post a recipe.

The few apples that our tree produced are starting to ripen. Squirrels are taking most of them; I doubt we’ll get more than a few.

I canned 20 lbs of raw tomatoes with Tattler lids. Yay for BPA-free canned tomatoes! Gardens of Eagan has 20 pound boxes of canning tomatoes for $16—naturally I bought two. My garden’s not quite big enough for canning quantities.

The next day, Adam and I were too tired to do it all over again, so the kids helped with the second box of tomatoes. They were great at peeling and de-seeding.

Why roast a mere 5 lbs of tomatoes when you can roast 20 lbs?

The most beautiful caprese salad I’ve ever put together. Not that it’s super hard. But I had doubts as to whether my neighbors deserved a salad of this caliber for National Night Out.

Herbs from a neglected community garden. If I take on any more charity projects my own garden is going to be swallowed up in weeds and giant cucumbers. Also: I now have enough sage for ten Thanksgivings.

Coming this weekend: finally, putting in the last plants so that I can call my back yard landscape project complete! (More details to come.)


Operation save our apple tree

We are finally starting to (literally) harvest the fruits of our two-year effort at saving our apple tree. Two years ago, we had it professionally pruned, removing some diseased branches that the arborist thought might be infected with fire blight. The tree then went into shock and produced almost no apples in 2010.

This spring, however, it looked healthier than ever. The air was practically snowing with apple blossoms in late May.  So, with hope in our hearts we tried a couple different methods of apple pest control.

My first thought was to bag a couple hundred apples. Bagging apples prevents a few different harmful flying insects — like apple maggots — from landing on the apple to lay their eggs. Apparently it’s a common practice in Japan, and it’s gaining popularity here. After bagging about 25, I gave up. Our tree is so tall, I would have needed to rent a cherry picker to be able to do this properly.

Plan B: sticky sphere traps. I bought six of them (two kits) and got them in place the last week of June.  They are now covered with dead, stuck flies.  When I get the traps down in a few weeks I will look carefully at them to see if I can identify any of them.

I’m still not 100% sure what we have — from looking at the various U of M Extension diagnostic tools, I think we may have ALL of the following: codling moth, obliquebanded leafroller, apple maggot. These are some of the most common apple pests in Minnesota, so it’s not surprising.

However, I’m trying to look at this tree project as a multi-year process. The first few years we lived here, we had hardly any usable apples from the tree. This year? We’ve already frozen 5 gallon-sized bags of cut up apples for pies, canned 5 quarts of apple sauce, and look at these beauties that I picked today that we’ll just eat:

They are far from perfect, but those minor flaws are only skin deep.  It’s hard to estimate numbers, because the squirrels take SO many of our apples.  But here’s a rough guess of where we’ll end up for 2011:

25% totally unusable
50% suitable for sauce or pies once wormy/gross part is removed
25% absolutely perfect (well, I guess that means only skin-deep minor flaws)

This is a HUGE improvement over the first few years we lived here. And with the measures we’re taking this year, I hope to improve those numbers even more.  I’m not aiming for anything near perfection — you need pesticide for that.  Here’s some photographic evidence of what bagging can do for you:

bagged apple

Although I’ve had a few unbagged apples that looked this perfect, too.  Here was this afternoon’s picking:

A five-gallon pail of sauce apples, and a nice crisper-drawer full of eating apples. Not too bad, considering the relatively small effort I’ve put in.

If you have a pest-ridden apple tree, here are some steps you can take. Again, it helps to look at this as a multi-year process.

1. If the tree itself seems sick: yellowing or spotted leaves, whole dead branches, or other problems listed here, get it professionally pruned.

2. Try to determine what pests you have. The University of Minnesota Extension website has several different diagnostic tools you can try. This one walks you through step-by-step, and this one just lists common pests and how to identify them. (I prefer the second one.)

3. Follow IPM (integrated pest management) guidelines for the pests you know you have.  Since I am not 100% sure yet which pests I have (I do know that I have more than one kind), I’m following a couple of general helpful IPM guidelines:

General IPM for apples:
– Clear away all fallen fruit and leaves and throw them in the garbage, not the compost pile. This prevents a few different pests from overwintering in fallen fruit/leaves.
– Sticky sphere traps are great for apple maggot, a very common pest in MN. I found a kit easily in the organic pest control section of a local garden store.
– Thin out apples in early July (squirrels take care of this part for me).
– Bag as many apples as you possibly can. Simply cut the bottom two corners off a sandwich bag (for drainage) then staple them over the tiny apple as soon as it forms on the tree (usually late June here in Minnesota). Be sure to leave room in the bag for the apple to grow!

So there you have it, progress. Thank goodness something worked out fairly well in what has otherwise been a very challenging year in the garden.

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Pruning my crabapple tree

I pruned Mrs. Crabapple this morning, something I’ve never done before.  The tree was covered in watersprouts, which are tiny little branches that just shoot out all over the place and make the tree look hairy.  They also suck out energy, water, etc. from the tree, which will harm fruit production. Maybe that’s why we didn’t have as many crabapples in 2010?  I dunno, but I gave it a shot this morning.













Well, it helps that the sun came out, but it looks better, right?  Here are a couple of close-ups so you can get a feel for what watersprouts look like:

Now my tree is covered with these ugly battle scars.  Watersprouts aren’t necessarily a sign of a sick tree, but I’m not totally sure, in this case.  Gardeners, any thoughts?

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Growing woody fruit plants in the midwest

Being a Hennepin County Master Gardener is great.  Among other reasons, we have monthly meetings with an education component, and the speakers are usually pretty great.

I recently saw a presentation by Rebecca Koetter, who manages demonstration plots at the Urban Forestry & Horticulture Research Institute at the U of M.  She was kind enough to post her presentation (a powerpoint file) to her blog for anyone to download.  So have at it!  There were a couple slides that I found particularly helpful:

Slide 6: a breakdown of commitment levels and fruits to match.  Basically, she breaks fruits down into three levels of commitment:

Relatively low time commitment: elderberry, currant, gooseberry, juneberry, apricot
Medium time commitment: pear, plum, tart cherry, blueberry, kiwifruit
High commitment: apple, grape

Raspberry isn’t on this list but I’d put it somewhere between low and medium.  Standard strawberries are also low-medium, while alpine (wild) strawberries are low.

Slide 19: another great slide that shows the oxygen radical absorbance capacity (aka antioxidant power) of various berries.  The two highest berries (by far) just happen to be ones that we can grow right here in USDA hardiness zone 4: choke berries (aronia berries) and elderberries.  Sadly I have NEITHER of these in my yard.  This will have to be remedied.

Slide 45: a while back I saw a whole bunch of beautiful pictures of apple trees growing up the sides of walls; apparently training an apple (or other fruit) tree to do this is referred to as the art of espalier.  Traditionally it was done to achieve certain aesthetic goals; today it is very useful for growing fruit trees in really small spaces.  I am intrigued and a little intimidated by the concept.  Now that I know the name of what I’m looking for, I will search the library for a book on it.

Anyway, those were the slides I enjoyed most, but if you’re thinking about fruits you could try in your yard, there are a lot of options in the presentation.  Enjoy!  And if you have any questions about the content, feel free to ask in the comments and I can check my notes.

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Knee deep on the 4th of July

I’ve been neglecting the blog a bit lately, so here’s a mega-update (click pictures to enlarge):

The alpine strawberries that I planted this spring are producing some fruit already.  They do taste pretty amazing — a very full, sweet strawberry flavor in a tiny size.  What I’ve read elsewhere is definitely true: they are shade-tolerant, but the more sun they get the more fruit they produce.  So, I wouldn’t bother with them in heavy shade.  Part shade is just fine.

Raspberry season has officially started.  This was our first picking, last week.

This was our picking today.  We are getting a ton of berries & green beans are ready now too.  We’ve frozen five quarts of raspberries so far, and are eating a good quart of them every day too.

I took this picture of the underside of our raspberry hedge to illustrate how raspberries (the old-fashioned cane variety, anyway) work: the darker woody canes are the ones that sprouted last year.  Right now they are fruiting, and then they will die.  The green canes will overwinter and produce fruit next year.  I remove the woody canes shortly after the fruit is gone.

A handful of our raspberry plants are actually black raspberries.  They start out small and red and then get darker as the fruit swells (standard red ones start out light pink).  Wow, these are absolutely delicious, a little bit sweeter than the reds.

My efforts at acidifying the soil around my Endless Summer hydrangea (in order to make the flowers blue) have given me a plant with some pink flowers and some purple.  It’s kinda pretty actually: like a natural gradient.

My new red lake currant bush also has some berries.

Here’s my sad apple tree.  It has so many diseases/infestations at this point that I’m having trouble figuring out which one is afflicting it most.  I don’t think last year’s pruning solved the fire blight problem.  We will most likely have to remove this tree next year, but we want to at least see how it does this year.  It’s got quite a few apples on.

Moving on to the vegetables, 2 inches of rain last week plus lots of sunshine this week made for some very happy veggies.  Everything is around two weeks ahead of schedule.

Garlic will be ready to harvest soon.  I will pull one later this week and see how it looks.

Banana peppers, italian flat-leaf parsley, cauliflower and a small creeping charlie weed (whoops) all co-existing peacefully.

My mistake cilantro looks quite nice next to the cabbages, and it’s attracting a lot of bees to the garden.  I’m leaving it in for now.

Cucumbers!  The plants are full of blossoms and a couple of baby pickles.  I can’t wait to start pickling.

Lots of wee roma tomatoes on the vine.  I planted all romas this year in the hopes of having enough to can some of my own.  I doubt I’ll get that many, but I can add these to the ones I plan to buy (I bought a 20 lb crate of romas last year through our CSA and plan to do so again).

We FINALLY came up with a plan for the backyard garden!  We were going to put one in this spring, but we got overwhelmed with other things, and we just never came up with a solid plan that we both like — we have a tentative plan now which I will post about soon.  We’re getting started on some of the preliminaries now, even though we won’t actually plant it until next spring.  First up: getting rid of the landscape rock next to the foundation.

And a preview of an upcoming post: why am I grating soap?  Inspired by my friend Christina, I tried my hand at making my own laundry detergent and deodorant.  Since they called for a lot of the same ingredients, I made them both at the same time.  I really like the laundry detergent so far, but haven’t made up my mind about the deodorant.  I’ll post both recipes in the near future.  (Oh, and also: HUP HUP HOLLAND!)

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Book review: all-in-one garden

all-in-one garden
Grow vegetables, fruit, herbs and flowers in the same space
by Graham Rice

Here’s a little gem of a book that’s useful for beginners, people who have grown flowers but not food, and people like me who already do both.  If nothing else, this book has major vegetable eye candy.  Just take a look at the author’s garden vegetable photo gallery to get an idea — vegetables can be very beautiful in the landscape indeed.

The book has ideas — with diagrams — for several different landscape situations (including containers), as well as plant guides and lots of top ten lists, such as “Graham’s top ten shade-tolerant food plants.”  In everything, he considers form as well as function.  He wants plants to look good at a distance, up close, and with each other, creating a beautiful and harmonious landscape.  He mixes flowers and fruits with cabbages and runner beans, and the results are gorgeous.

Rice is also very fond of putting in very young pear, apple, and peach trees and training them to grow in a fan shape against a wall or fence — this way they take up very little room and provide a beautiful backdrop for other fruits, vegetables, and flowers.  I am really unfamiliar with this technique but I am intrigued.  Not that I really have space for it in my current yard, but I’m definitely going to keep it in mind.

I would put this book on the highly recommended list if only for the inspiration those pictures brought me in the bleak month of February when I was reading it.  This book is a great way to get into more of a permaculture mindset without having to read about peak oil or composting toilets.  Not that those things aren’t important, mind you, but there are kinder and gentler ways to start, and this book is one.

Rice doesn’t really go into it all that much, but there’s also a companion planting aspect to all this — flowers attract bees which help pollinate your vegetables.  Interplanting lots of different plants helps confuse and deter pests — this is Integrated Pest Management 101.  A row of cabbages plus cabbage moths may equal a whole row of lost cabbages.  Cabbages spread out in different areas of the landscape, mixed in with flowers, might mean only 1 or 2 lost to cabbage moths.

If Minneapolis had planted a bunch of different species of trees instead of just one species of elm — by the thousands — our boulevards might not have been so devastated by Dutch Elm Disease.  Some elms may have even been spared because they need to be in close proximity to each other for the disease to spread.

But I digress, majorly.  Here are the ideas I’m going to try this year, from the book:

1) Keep on continuously starting more seeds through the months of May, June, and even into July.  That way as you pick things like kale out of your combined flower/vegetable beds to eat, you can pop in a new plant and avoid having bare spots all over.

2) Make beautiful containers of things like mint, nasturtiums, and sage.  Bonus: the container will keep the mint from taking over your garden.  (I’ve not yet tried growing mint but I have been warned by several different people now to be careful with it.)

3) Curly-leaf parsley — the most useful plant I have EVER grown — looks really, really great in the landscape with a couple of cute little petunias or violas mixed in with it. Seriously, you can put parsley in pretty much everything you eat — it becomes addicting.

4) I really ought to work an evergreen plant or two in my landscape — I have very little “winter interest” right now.

5) Someday, but not this year, I’d like to try growing a purple brussel sprout or two mixed in somewhere with my flowers.  They look really neat.

Rice also listed some common edible flowers, including: calendula, day lilies, geraniums, nasturtiums, sunflowers, and violas.  All good choices.  I also want to try Jerusalem artichokes, which look like sunflowers, but which apparently are fairly invasive.  So I might try them in a pot.  SO MUCH TO DO.  I have to try and control myself this year because with starting a new job, I’m going to be able to take days off work to garden, and there’s only so much one can do on evenings and weekends.

Yeah right, I’ll totally be picking raspberries wearing a headlamp again this year.  I might as well just mentally prepare now…

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Fall happenings

Couple of random things going on today.  First:


Adam made a very local pie: he used raspberries and apples right from our yard (via the freezer for several weeks).  It is with great sadness that I report we have now eaten all of our frozen raspberries.  And it’s only Oct. 24.  It’s going to be a long time until July.  It was still a pretty great run though.   I’ve never eaten that many raspberries in my life.



My mother-in-law found a really great deal on pumpkins near their hometown in central Minnesota and picked us up two giant jack-o-lanterns and 5 really nice little pie pumpkins.  So I’m following the advice from the Root Cellaring book and storing them in a cool, dry place.  We have a spare bedroom that is just a storage area right now, so we don’t heat it in the winter.  It stays about 50-60 in there, so it should be perfect.  Not that those jack-o-lanterns need to last long, anyway.

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I made more applesauce yesterday.  Tried the double-boiler method this time, since I have been having trouble with scorching apples lately.  Here’s what my set-up looked like:


One stock pot with boiling water, the smaller one with the appples set inside of it, handles resting on top.  It’s really hard (impossible?) to burn your food when you cook it this way, but there’s a downside.  It takes forever.  EIGHT HOURS LATER:


I added more apples as it cooked down, so some of those have only been in there for a couple hours.  I kept having to add more water to the bottom pot because it would boil away, then I’d realize that it wasn’t even in contact with the apples anymore, so they probably weren’t even really cooking.  It went on and on, and of course I was really distracted during the whole process (2-year-old twins will do that).

I finally took the 7 quarts out of the canner at 11 p.m.  The good thing with canning is that you learn something every time; I’m getting a lot better at guessing amounts, etc.  Because the canning process takes so long, I generally do NOT want to run through the whole process twice, so I have to make sure I do not make more than 7-8 quarts of applesauce.  Our canner holds 7 quarts at a time.

On the other hand, as long as I’m going through all the effort, I’d like to make as much as I can.  So this is the 4th or 5th time we’ve used our canner and last night for the first time we got it just right: 7.5 quarts of applesauce.  The extra 1/2 qt. went into the fridge and we’ll eat it in the next couple days.

I think I might be reaching my upper limit on the amount of canning I feel like doing… last night for the first time it didn’t really feel like a fun adventure anymore, just more like a chore that I needed to complete.  I had picked a whole grocery bag full of apples at Adam’s parents’ house and didn’t want any of them to go to waste.

Here’s our canned-goods shelf as it looks today:


That’s not too shabby for my first-ever year of canning, right?  There’s 13 quarts of applesauce there (we’ve already eaten 4-5), plus the tomatoes we did several weeks ago.   Not bad considering all those apples were free from either our tree our Adam’s mom’s tree.

I’m trying to give myself permission to go ahead and say ENOUGH canning for this year.  I’m exhausted.  Mentally, physically.  I want to curl up with some good fiction and chill out for a while, for pete’s sake.  So I doubt I’m going to do any more, and I’m going to have to decide to be OK with that.