Stacking Functions Garden


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Mega Garden Update: Memorial Day

Hello! Now that my garden is almost completely planted…wait, is it ever completely planted? No, but I’ve planted many things since my last post. Here’s a small slice of what’s been going on here this month.
Making comfrey compost tea

Permaculture achievement unlocked: my first batch of comfrey tea is brewing right now. I’m following the instructions from Rodale.

Pagoda Dogwood

I’ve had this Pagoda Dogwood for several years, but due to rabbit damage it was growing sideways. So I trimmed it up and made it stand up straight with some twine. A year or two of maintaining that and it should straighten out just fine.

Gooseberry sawfly damage

We’ve learned about a new garden pest this spring: the currant sawfly. It attacks white currants, red currants, and gooseberries. We have 5 bushes from this group, and one got almost completely defoliated a few weeks ago. As you can see in the picture above, it’s got some new leaves now, but that’s only after diligent hand-picking every other day or so.

sawflies

Here’s what the little critter looks like up close. They’re tiny and we had a hard time spotting them at first. Then I promised the 8-year-olds 5 minutes of iPad time for every caterpillar they found. They sprang into action. Anneke found more than 100 of these just yesterday, leading to intense political negotiations about caps on total screen time available per day.

Gooseberries

Happily, only one bush has been majorly affected. I stripped the fruit off that one so that it could put its energy into recovering. This gooseberry, which is right next door to the defoliated one, has only had minor damage, and is loaded with fruit.

Grapes

The two new grapevines that I planted last year came roaring back this spring and are going exactly in the direction I want: UP! I won’t need these strings forever; they’re just to help the grapevines grow in a pleasing spiral up these columns. Once they reach the top and get established, I’ll cut the strings off. Pictured is Marquette; on the opposite corner of our arbor is a Frontenac Gris—it will be another year or two at least before we can actually make wine from them. Both are University of Minnesota hybrid wine grapes.

Lettuce

We’ve been eating lettuce since late April.

Virginia Bluebells

Virginia Bluebells in my raingarden have been full of bees. They’ve proved elusive to photograph so far.

Raspberry flowers

Raspberry or blackberry flowers (I have a few random blackberries mixed in with my raspberries).

Milkweed

Milkweed is almost blooming but no monarch eggs yet. I checked underneath the leaves of every single plant last night. We saw two monarchs north of here at William O’Brien state park yesterday, so hopefully we’ll see some in our neighborhood soon.

Bearded Iris

Bearded iris. Yes, I still have a few non-natives. They’re from when I first started gardening and hadn’t yet realized the importance of native plants. But they’re pretty, and I only have a few, and I’m keeping them.

Pasque Flowers

Pasque flowers, done blooming a few weeks ago but still very cool to look at.

Lemon tree and irises

The little Meyer lemon tree that I bought last fall on a whim survived the winter and is now flourishing next to the irises.

Garden visitor

Can you spot the little garden visitor? Why must they be so cute when they’re babies? He’s not the most brilliant rabbit I’ve ever seen; he is not very cautious at all. I’m hoping the neighborhood bald eagle (yes, we have one!) scoops him up some morning, preferably when the kids have already left for school.

The thing about rabbits is: if you learn how to protect the things they really like to eat (your vegetables), and plant some clover in your grass for them, they do very little damage during high summer. It’s just during the winter that they will nibble every shrub on your property to the ground. So, this time of year I get a little more tolerant. Note the garlic next to the herb spiral. They have no interest in that; it’s placed there strategically.

Currants

My Red Lake currant bush is once again loaded, but we’ve already picked several of the currant sawflies off, so we’re going to need to be vigilant in order to keep it healthy.

Cherry tree garden

My cherry tree garden, newly planted one year ago, is starting to fill in. In the foreground, left to right, we have wild columbine, garlic, and another Red Lake currant. I have three pots of hot peppers and the lemon tree occupying the remaining open spots around the tree.

Strawberries

We’ve already harvested a handful of strawberries. Everything’s happening early this year.

Cabbage worm

The pests are also a little early this year. Here is an imported cabbageworm feasting on my collard greens (he was killed 2 seconds after this photo was taken). My management strategy for pests like this is to hand pick and then let the plant recover. My vegetable garden is small enough that it only takes a few minutes to look it over every day and remove these guys. When you get good at recognizing the signs (see all that frass dotting the leaf?), you can spot these easily.

Tomato flowers

This spring, I followed my own advice and got a soil sample from my vegetable garden tested at the University of Minnesota. It revealed that my garden had an imbalance in NPK nutrients (what does NPK stand for?)—I had high levels of phosphorous and potassium but very low nitrogen. Not really surprising, given the intensive gardening I do there. So this spring I put down a very generous feeding of bloodmeal, one of the highest organic sources of nitrogen. My tomatoes are really showing this; they’re twice the size now that they were last year at this time.

Beans eaten by what?

My green beans, on the other hand, are struggling. Something is eating them before they can leaf out. I’m not sure these will even survive; they’ve looked like this over a week now. I will most likely buy new seeds and replant these today.

Backyard

Overview of our backyard. I feel like we still have so much grass. I’d like to get rid of it all eventually; but on the other hand we do use our lawn for family fun.

outdoormovie

Speaking of which, Adam rigged up the swingset for double duty as a home theater, bought a used projector off eBay, and we watched our very first outdoor movie last weekend. That swingset now supports swings, a grapevine, hookups for a clothesline that we hang each weekend, and now also holds our movie screen. This is the permaculture concept of stacking functions—getting the maximum benefit out of every plant and/or structure that you add to your landscape.
Backyard movie

Welcome summer! Here are the kids watching the Sandlot and finally understanding why Adam and I always say, “You’re killing me, Smalls!”


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Book Review: On Garden Style

On Garden Style

Book: On Garden Style
by Bunny Williams

There’s no better time and place than January in Minnesota to read inspirational/aspirational landscaping books.

My overall impression of this book was similar to my overall impression of most gardening books: first, much of the book assumes you have at least an acre to work with, unlimited money, and live in a hardiness zone of at least 5. So, as usual much of the information is useless to a middle class Minnesotan in the inner city. Williams also has little interest in native plants, and relegates edibles to a kitchen garden—but oh, her kitchen garden examples were beautiful.

I was able to glean some nuggets of good advice in this book, despite its shortcomings.

The first concept that got me thinking was identifying separate rooms in your garden. I haven’t really thought about my gardens this way. I tend to identify them more by guilds, in the permaculture tradition—my herb spiral, my cherry tree garden, my Viburnum garden, my Serviceberry garden, etc. But it’s a useful exercise to think about how these gardens relate to each other within their larger contexts.

The idea of having a room helps you to think about the different features of that room, like designing your living room. You’ve got to have walls, a ceiling, a floor, something to sit on, and sources of light.

Williams advocates dividing up your yard into distinct rooms—some of those rooms could be wide open spaces. The rooms could be large and formal or small and intimate—from a small bench under a cherry tree to a museum-like room with columnar trees or shrubs.

Her chapter on designing an effective terrace was funny; she described suburban homes with their elevated decks and no trees or walls as being on a stage, with your neighbors as the audience. I’ve felt this way about our deck since we moved into this house almost nine years ago. It’s not that I dislike my neighbors, but I’d like to be able to sit out on the deck with a glass of wine and have some privacy.

I’m ahead of the game on this one since we added our arbor two years ago, and plants in 2015. As they fill in we should start to get some privacy on our deck—hopefully starting this year.

Arbor with lights

The bones are there. Now the grapevines and hops just need to hurry up and grow to fill in the walls and ceiling. And the scale was right on this one too. The back of our house is this big white wall. The arbor needed to be big in order to soften it and tie it together effectively with the rest of the yard.

Laundry on arbor

Of course, my practical side means the arbor also supports temporary clotheslines during the summer. And that’s the big difference between Bunny Williams and me: her garden designs are pure aesthetics. I am trying to stack functions (in the permaculture sense) on every single element I add to my yard—and I’m going to be writing a lot more about that this year. My landscape needs to be much, much more than pretty.

Another concept of hers that spoke to me was the idea of including surprises in your garden. For example, if you have a meandering path, plant something tall at a curve so that garden visitors will get the anticipation of wondering what’s on the other side. Hide and reveal. She’s also fond of adding little windows in walls, and carefully placing ornaments such as bird baths.

This is another thing I have not really thought much about. If you’re standing in my front yard, you can see the entire front yard garden. Same with the back yard. I’m going to be thinking about this as I look at my gardens this year.

Garden Gnome

I added this rescue gnome last year; she’d been under a bench at the office for a couple years, where everyone thought she looked scary. I swear she instantly looked happier when placed in the garden.

Another thing I’m thinking about this year, thanks to this book, is passages between rooms. I want to think about how people move between the front and back yards. It’s not always pleasant when the raspberries on the north side reach their peak and you have to swat aside huge canes!

Williams advocates adding gates, pergolas, and/or arbors to indicate passage between rooms and to help frame the first view of a new garden room. I may add an arch in my strawberry garden (pictured below, bottom right), as an entrance to the vegetable garden area. It would draw the eye away from the uglier aspects of my neighbor’s siding (just to the left of the picture below) while also providing support for a grapevine that I clearly planted in the wrong place. It currently grows on the low rabbit fence surrounding the garden and is generally unruly.

Garden entrance

The hops (right trellis) have already been removed but an arbor at the corner near the bottom left of this picture might just be what we need, here.

The book also touches on plants, of course. Up until very recently most of my garden designing was done with plant material. This part of the book touched on things I’ve already been thinking about such as layering your landscape—groundcover, perennial, shrub, understory trees, canopy trees. Unifying different areas by repeating colors and textures is a good thing.

Purple coneflowers have become a unifying feature in my garden. They can be found in every garden bed. This is for a simple reason: they re-seed. Every spring I get free new coneflower seedlings to move about to any open spot I can find. It’s a very economical unifying design feature.

I’m not sure what Bunny Williams or other landscape designers would say about my boulevard, but I think it’s pretty:

Boulevard prairie garden

Messy? Maybe a little bit. I don’t have any large-scale turf removal and garden installation planned for this year, so I’m going to try to focus on editing. A couple of the plants in my boulevard, in particular, are too big for that area. So they’ll be moved or removed altogether. See the purple coneflowers? They really tie this room together.

If you’re interested in landscape design, definitely check books like this one out of the library. Don’t waste money buying them, though. The pictures cheered up my January, and got me making plans for this year. And that’s really what this is all about, right? We’re making progress every year.


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Summer Lessons Learned

Greetings! Every summer has to come to an end, and this one is no exception. We’re having a hot Labor Day weekend, but there can be no doubt the end is near–Minnesota’s first frost averages around September 21, only two weeks away. Obviously I hope it won’t come that early, but it definitely could.

It’s time to talk about what worked well for us this year and what gave us mixed results. It’s a great exercise to record your successes and failures–especially with gardening–because otherwise you might be doomed to repeat your mistakes.
ClotheslineFirst new thing for 2015: clothesline! Now that we have the large trellis over our deck in the back, it’s really easy to stretch out a couple of lines from the deck to the swingset. We’ve been putting it up on the weekends. Does it save a ton of money? Probably not, but this is one of those things that just makes sense. I expected to be quickly bored by the drudgery of hanging out sheets but in the end found that it really didn’t take any more time than loading up the dryer–they actually dry faster outside anyway.

Monarch Release

We released 16 monarchs that we had raised from caterpillars this year. I still see some butterflies flitting around, but their breeding season is over and they’re on their way south now.

Pigeon River Middle Falls Grand Portage

In August, we took a trip up to the very tip of Minnesota’s arrowhead, camping at Judge CR Magney State Park and hiking Grand Portage State Park (among other adventures). Here’s a view of Canada, across the Middle Falls on Pigeon River. I can only hope that the next time we see this it does not have a fence anywhere in the picture. Common sense will prevail, right? At least in this one small area?

Praying Mantis

On a whim, we bought an egg sac of praying mantises in May. They hatched in June, and we released them all over the yard. We didn’t see any for quite some time, then in the last two weeks we found two of them in different areas. THEY ARE HUGE. Also: they’re working. I have zero aphids on my flowers, which are usually covered with them by September.

Despite this effectiveness, I still have mixed feelings about the mantises. They’re not native to the United States–and they kill both beneficial and pesty insects. I’m particularly worried about whether they killed any monarch caterpillars. My proposed solution to the kids is to capture them and donate them, in a terrarium, to their school’s STEM teacher, who can feed them crickets in the winter. Now we just have to catch them.

Drying herbs

I get more forgetful all the time. So this year, when drying herbs, I wrote myself helpful notes at the bottom of the basket to help me remember what everything was. Many of them end up looking alike when they’re all dried out. You can always crush a leaf and eat it, in order to guess what it is, but this made it very easy.

carrots

Apparently my skill with carrots is similar to my skill with archery: wildly inconsistent. I tried the Chiot’s Run carrot method this year and got mixed results due to less-than-ideal germination rates. I had to reseed the entire thing in late June, and those newer carrots are just not catching up. I’m trying the method again next year (as far as the template part goes) but I’m going to put more seeds in each hole, and cover it with a little potting soil, not just the rice hulls.

Parsley and black-eyed susans

Parsley keeps growing wild all over my garden, and this year has been a banner year for it. These petite Black Eyed Susans are new; transplanted from a co-worker’s garden. I’m making tabouli this afternoon. One of the great things about curly parsley (besides the fact that it keeps coming back), is that it’s very frost tolerant. If it doesn’t get covered by snow, I can still harvest it into November.

Hops

This was the first year of growing brewing hops on our new trellis. They didn’t provide much shade, but from what I know of hops we’ll have much bigger plants next year, so hopefully we’ll get more screening and shade in years to come.

Kohlrabi chips

School started two weeks ago already. Minneapolis has a very early start. One of my kids’ favorite lunchbox treats is kohlrabi chips. Simply peel and slice kohlrabi, sprinkle with salt and pepper. They are delicious, easy, and nutritious. I am going to try harder with kohlrabi in the garden next year–it needs A LOT of sun for a long time, so I am going to give over some of my pumpkin and potato space at the community garden plot to some kohlrabi.

Broom Corn

I’ve never seen anything like this broom corn that Rowan planted this year. We got the seeds from his STEM teacher and planted it on a whim. It’s 14 feet tall! I don’t know if we’re actually going to make a broom with it, but we’ll definitely make some pretty dried flower arrangements or maybe even a shock of corn for Halloween decor. That stuff has been unreal, and survived a few high wind events to boot.

Solomon's Seal

Here’s another native plant I want you to think about: Solomon’s Seal. I’m growing it in a very challenging spot: dry shade. It took a few years to get established, but now it is starting to flourish and spread. It is a beautiful choice, particularly if you want to add more native plants to your garden and are afraid you might not be able to distinguish weeds from plants. It has a very distinctive form, is easy to grow, and birds like the berries (which are poisonous to humans, by the way). This one is in my back yard in some dry shade under a large Silver Maple, but next year I’m going to add some more in the front yard under my large Elm. I have tried *many* different ground covers under that Elm and have not had very good survival rates. So, here’s one to try for 2016.

Dried cranberry bean

Lest you think harvest season is nearing an end: we’re not even close to being done. We have at least half our potatoes still left at our community garden, all of our pumpkins, these True Red Cranberry dried beans (still growing; we don’t pick them until they’re dried out), and lots of cucumbers, tomatoes, and peppers still coming like crazy. Adam also hopes to harvest a deer: bow hunting opener is just two weeks away. He was unsuccessful last year, so we’ll see what happens.

I’m planning on harvesting another big round of herbs for drying as soon as the weather cools off–herbs tend to have better flavor when it’s cool. We also have quite a bit of kale growing in various places around the yard. In a couple weeks, I will pull out the seedy and weedy lettuce in my stock tank, transplant all the kale in there, and put on the hoop house. Then hopefully we’ll have kale into November–maybe December?

As for now, I’m off to the farmers’ market to buy some beets; as mine were a total fail this year. Despite everything I grow, I still go to the farmers’ market on a regular basis, but I look for very specific things. This year it was zucchini, kohlrabi and beets. I can’t grow everything, after all.

Happy Labor Day to you, and thanks for reading!


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A banner berry year

Apparently, it’s not just me: 2015 is a banner year for all berries in Minnesota! We’ve had bumper crops of strawberries and currants, and the raspberries are just getting started. We even got a handful of cherries from our tiny new cherry tree.

GrapesWe have quite a few grapes on our vine–I am not sure what variety these are but they make a nice jelly and aren’t bad to eat fresh either (they turn purple when ripe). We only get grapes on this thing every 2 years or so, due to multiple factors including rabbits frequently mowing the vine all the way back to the ground some winters.

I was thinking that we’d escaped any grapevine beetle action this year, but then I saw one through the window today! I raced outside with a container of soapy water and sure enough, found six of them, apparently engaging in a grapevine beetle orgy on just a couple of leaves. They didn’t even see me coming.

I don’t get too uptight about grapevine beetles; they don’t cause fatal damage to the plant. But six of them could defoliate the whole thing and that could hurt my grape harvest for this year–plus I want to control them as much as possible since I have two baby grape vines in the back yard that I’m keen to protect. So, to control them: just knock them into a container of soapy water. They’re very easy to catch.

I also saw a Japanese beetle on my hops today, so apparently pest season has begun. I use the same method of control for them, though they are slightly more wary than the grapevine beetles so you have to sneak up on them. Japanese beetles are significantly more worrisome than grapevine beetles because they feed on a whole bunch of different plants.

Currants

I’ve never had a red currant year like this one. We had to resort to making triple batches of Amy Thielen’s red currant compote this week. It’s delicious! We now have 12 half-pint jars of it in the freezer. We also made Adam’s favorite red currant pie.

Pickling gooseberries

Our gooseberries are nearly ready, and the bush is so laden with fruit that a couple branches broke off. We’ve been watching Mind of a Chef season 3 and I also recently read Fäviken (the book), so there’s been all kind of Magnus Nilsson-inspired cooking and preserving going on. Above, we salted green gooseberries, fermented them on the counter for two days, then put them into our pickle/beer fridge. We’ve also tried his herb salt recipe (here’s an adaption of it) and plan to make *a lot* more before the summer’s out.

ChamomileAnother garden success this year has been my herb spiral! I’m getting significantly more chamomile (shown above) than usual. I’m hoping to dry a greater variety of tea herbs, including a few new ones (to me) this year: stevia, lemon verbena, and feverfew. The stevia and lemon verbena have been instant hits, both fresh and dried. I’ve gotten a ridiculous amount of feverfew–perhaps three plants was a bit much?  I tried it the other night in a cup of hot tea and it tasted complex and interesting, but medicinal. I think I’ll need to blend it with some other herbs. And next year one plant will be plenty.

Haricot Verts

Things are coming along fine in the main garden, too. My carrots did not sprout nearly as well as I hoped, and my peppers are disappointingly small AGAIN this year, but everything else looks good, including this fourth picking of Maxibel haricot verts beans. I can’t recommend them enough, both in terms of productivity and taste.

FishingOne of our non-garden-related goals for this summer was to get out fishing more! The delightful result has been some gorgeous days at various MN lakes and several nights of fish tacos.

Monarch taking flightWe’ve released 7 monarch butterflies so far this year, with more caterpillars munching away in the critter cage as we speak. This one, which we released two weeks ago, sat on a coneflower for the longest time, and then as I leaned in as close as possible to take a photo, it suddenly flew away.

It’s not difficult to spot female monarchs laying eggs on milkweed plants. We watch for them, and then bring leaves (the eggs are always stuck on the underside of a leaf) in before the tiny caterpillars even hatch. This way we can ensure a very high survival rate–no worries about predators or bad weather.

I keep hearing from other people who have planted milkweed and not seen any monarchs yet in their yard, but I say: don’t lose hope. I think the reason why we started seeing them within two days of the first time we ever planted milkweed (no kidding) is because we live in close proximity to Lakes Nokomis and Hiawatha, both of which have large shoreline restoration projects with monarch habitat. So they’re in our neighborhood anyway. But if people keep planting milkweed as enthusiastically as they seem to be this year, we have reason to hope.

Anyway, that’s my update! You can always follow me on Twitter for ridiculous numbers of garden photos and updates on a day-to-day basis.

 

 


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Garden mania

Time for an epic garden update! We’ve been very busy the last two months, but we have much to show for it.

Ramp pestoWe’ve been having a very nice spring this year, neither too cold nor too warm, and it made for some early harvests of various wild things that grow in and near our yard. I pull out the entire patch of stinging nettle that grows under our old maple tree every spring, roots and all, and yet every year it comes back bigger. Hmm. This year we had enough to make pesto–we simply steamed the nettles briefly, then processed them with olive oil, lemon juice, some garlic, and whatever nuts we had on hand. I’m not a purist about pesto recipes; my favorite nutty addition is actually sunflower seeds.

Herb spiral in progressAnother April project was our herb spiral. First, we moved out all the coneflowers and other various perennials that were crowding this area—most ended up filling in our two new gardens. We priced different options for the stone; I originally wanted natural stone but we couldn’t afford it. So we went with these bricks. Shown in the photo is the bit of hugelkultur we used to help fill in. Bottom layer was sticks and logs, then went a whole bunch of last year’s leaves, then a whole bunch of compost, and finally topped with a few bags of topsoil. Saved us a bunch of money to not have to have a whole cubic yard or two of topsoil delivered; we just filled it in with what we had laying around. Read more about hugelkultur; it’s awesome.

Hugelkultur herb spiralAnd here’s the spiral, complete with planted herbs. We planted: cilantro, dill, two kinds of parsley, lemon balm, lemon verbena, sage, two kinds of chamomile, feverfew, stevia, two kinds of thyme, oregano, rosemary, and basil. I’m also growing catnip in a pot out back. We use many of these for herbal tea. Several are new to me for this year, so I’m very excited to try them.

Serviceberry in bloomSpeaking of our new gardens, our yard has supplied endless blooms this spring thanks to all our new shrubs. It started with the magnolia, then cherry, serviceberry (shown here), and this week we should see chokeberry, nannyberry and highbush cranberry blossoms. Our currants and gooseberries also bloomed somewhere in there, but they’re not terribly showy so I’m guessing nobody except me noticed. (I squealed with glee.)

New plantsFriday morning I made my annual pilgrimage to the Friends School Plant Sale. Is it me, or is that event getting completely out of control? I had to wait 2 hours just to get in. I picked up: two more currants (Ben Sarek and Red Lake), two more gooseberries (Pixwell and Hinnomaki Red), Dutchman’s pipe (an important larval food for butterflies), two grapevines for my new arbor (Frontenac Gris and Marquette), two cascade hops plants (also for the arbor), one prairie rose, one snowberry, and all my veggies. Phew. Good thing I had and stuck to a list.

I cannot emphasize enough how important it is, if you want to get into edible landscaping, to expand your mind beyond typical grocery store fruit. Currants, serviceberries and gooseberries can handle some shade and need little to no care, and they have wonderful flavor. Raspberries are pretty easy, too. I can’t say I’m too crazy about the flavor of my highbush cranberries or chokeberries (the name is appropos) but I could do *something* with them if I added sugar. Strawberries? A pain to keep weeded, plus the rabbits eat them. Blueberries? Require acidic soil.

Rhubarb PieSpeaking of fruit that I grow that’s easy–we harvested enough rhubarb yesterday to make a pie (shown here just before we applied the crumb topping). Rhubarb does need quite a bit of sun, but other than that, it’s easy. Just don’t get overzealous and pick more than half the stems of any one plant at one time.

Chiots Run Carrot MethodOver in the vegetable garden, which I also planted this weekend, I’m trying something new: the Chiot’s Run carrot method. Adam made me two different square foot templates; one with 9 holes and one with 16 holes. I used the 9-hole one to perfectly space out my parsnips and beets, and the 16-hole one for carrots. Read more about her method here; I followed it pretty much exactly. She doesn’t mention parsnips or beets, but I see no reason why the method wouldn’t work fine for them as well–they are planted slightly deeper than carrots, so I sprinkled fine soil over them first.

The only area I differed from Suzy’s plan is that I used brown rice hulls instead of vermiculite. My garden store doesn’t sell vermiculite and it seemed like the brown rice would probably accomplish the same thing. So stay tuned on that.

Carrots, doneI laid burlap over the carrots and parsnips until they start sprouting. This greatly reduces the number of times you have to water. Also, the burlap (along with the brown rice hulls) holds the seeds in place better, in the event of a hard rain.

Haricot VertsI’m also planting these Haricot Verts again this year. I planted them two or three years ago with great success–they were the most prolific and best-tasting bush bean I ever grew. And no, I have no idea what the correct pronunciation of their name is, having never taken French.

Vegetables: plantedA panorama of the complete vegetable garden after planting. The big shadow cast by my neighbor’s house is really one of my biggest gardening challenges in this northern latitude. My garden is full-sun, yes, but only from approximately May 15-July 30. So I try to be mindful of the “days to maturity” part of seed packets.

White trilliumLast but definitely not least, I am going to implore you, if you live anywhere near the Twin Cities, to visit the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden in Theodore Wirth Park. If you have any interest in learning how to garden with native plants, this is a great place to take a walk. Many of the plants are labelled, so you can learn their names. Yesterday the trilliums were in their full glory in the woodland.

Also: observe how beautiful and natural that dead, rotting log and all those leaves on the ground look. Leaving some wood and leaves to rot on the ground provides all the fertilizer native plants need while saving you time on maintaining your landscape.

Thanks for sticking with me this long! Hope your spring gardening is bringing you as much happiness as it brings me.


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This is it

Say it isn’t snow. Snow, quite a bit of it, forecast for tomorrow. Fortunately we were right on track and only had a few chores left to get done this morning. We decided to go ahead and put the Christmas lights up now, but I promise we won’t turn them on for a few more weeks.

Protecting bushes from rabbits in winter, via The New Home EconomicsOne thing on my list: I put chicken wire cages around each and every shrub in my landscape. They look ugly but it is the *only* surefire solution I have to prevent rabbit munching. Two years ago, they ate a few of my shrubs clear to the ground. This is my brand new Serviceberry; I’m not taking any chances.

Planting garlicWe also planted garlic that same morning, two weekends ago. I was glad that I ended up not having time to plant garlic until late October; it was a warm month. The general rule of thumb in Minnesota is to plant after Columbus Day, but one year I didn’t get it in until late November and snow was falling on my head as I planted it. And it was still fine. After taking a 2013-14 off from garlic, I’m very excited to grow it again.

Tamaracks at peakWe went on a little getaway to the Ely, MN area over MEA break in mid-October. I thought any chance of fall color-gazing would be past, but the tamaracks ended up being at their golden peak. We had beautiful weather, cold but sunny, and took the kids on some trails that we hadn’t seen in more than 10 years. It was wonderful vacation, too short as always.

Brussels sproutsOur first hard freezes of the year didn’t really come until the very end of October this year, around 5-6 weeks later than “average first frost” (really there’s no such thing in MN, but the official first frost date in the Twin Cities is September 21). So I only picked my brussels sprouts last week. They were tiny but tasty.

KaleI ran back over to the community garden today to get a last large picking of kale, collards, and parsley before everything gets covered with snow. Sadly, this was a sight all over the garden: kale, brussels sprouts, and collards, all at their most gorgeous (and delicious) point but unlikely to ever get picked. The vast majority of the garden has been empty of people for more than a month now. It’s worth mentioning: if you plant frost-hardy plants such as these, expect to extend your harvest into November, and give thanks for it.

Back yardAdam cleaned the gutters today and was kind enough to provide me with an updated photo of the back yard. It looks very empty without the apple tree. I hope the Serviceberry (Amalanchier canadensis, also called Juneberry), grows quickly! It’s in a brand new planting area between the path and the compost tumbler; I hope to add a few more shrubs there in the spring. I have big, booze-themed plans for my new trellis, too.

Kale chipsWhat to do with all the kale I picked today? Easy. Kale chips. We ate them all afternoon. Toss dry kale leaves with a bit of olive oil and kosher salt, bake in a single layer on a cookie sheet for 10-15 minutes at 325 degrees F. Watch them closely because they go from perfect to burned VERY quickly. Delicious.

Ready or not, here comes winter.


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Harvest time

It’s time for me to come clean. After last week’s native plants manifesto, I realized I’m a giant hypocrite because I plant an entire garden of non-native annuals every single year. Yep, that would be my vegetable gardens. And I’m not giving them up. So, now that my confession is over and you’ve forgiven me (right?), let’s talk about something positive: the harvest.

Long Island Cheese PumpkinsWe have more Long Island Cheese pumpkins than we know what to do with. My decision to grow them this year (at our community garden plot) was 100% fueled by this post and accompanying recipe. We made the soup last night and it was good. Subtle, but good. Once cured, these pumpkins do have a pretty great flavor. I’ll bake them up one at a time (because I can literally only fit one at a time in my oven) and freeze the flesh for pies, breads, pancakes, etc.  I’ve also given a few away to friends and family. So fun to have a big success!

Romanesco Broccolli failNo year is complete without a few fails: my Romanesco Broccolli still has not formed heads and I don’t see how it will now, since the sun has now dipped behind my neighbor’s roofline for most of the day. I also crowded too many plants in this little space. The broccoli and cauliflower really shaded the purple kohlrabi. There are one or two edible kohlrabis in there, but the rest are mostly greens. I’ll still cook them up—all are edible. I think we ran out of the large amounts of sunlight the Romanescos need, just at the time they need them. This particular spot is truly a short-season garden.

HopsSpeaking of fails, here’s another one that only recently came to light.  We started talking to a fellow home-brewer at National Night Out, and realized that we are not growing the right kind of hops (he informed us with his nose in the air). We have Golden Hops; apparently they’re not really recommended for brewing. No wonder the homebrew we made with them last year didn’t taste quite right! We were planning on removing this vine anyway next year. It has gotten too big for this little garden spot, and we might just let it die and replace it with Cascade, or another traditional brewing hops plant. Even Master Gardeners can make big mistakes!

Blueberry preservesEnough of the fails, in a year where we have SO MUCH for which to be thankful. One of those things was the opportunity for me to take a Friday off work in August so that the family could go pick blueberries in eastern Wisconsin. We made quite a few (18?) half-pints of this simply amazing blueberry preserves recipe, and have been enjoying it weekly since.

TomatoesI never grow enough tomatoes for canning, so as usual I purchased 40 lbs of canning tomatoes from Gardens of Eagan—the best value I’ve been able to find at $1/lb. I had grand plans, and my best friend and I thought we could drink wine and can tomatoes at the same time. You can imagine how much we actually got done!  We processed 1/3 of them raw, while another 1/3 of them baked in the oven using Trout Caviar‘s roasted tomato recipe. We intended to can the roasted tomatoes in these half pints (we use them as a pizza sauce base), but ended up freezing them because my patience for the canning process is wearing thin, in general.

Tomato PasteLater that week I still had 1/3 of the tomatoes to use up, so Adam and I tried our hands at tomato paste, using this recipe. It was easy! I’ll definitely do that again. We froze the resulting paste in ice cube trays and I have a feeling it will be gone before the new year.

tomatopaste2Frozen cubes of tomato paste, ready to be used.

La Ratte fingerling potatoesWe dug up three final hills of “La Ratte” fingerling potatoes the first weekend of September, from our community garden plot. They seem to be storing pretty well so far, but we’ll use them up before we really test how long they can last.

Chamomile flowersI didn’t dry quite as much mint as I usually do, but I doubled my usual amount of dried chamomile flowers for tea this winter. Good thing too; we’ve already run through one minor illness in the first month of school.

Little Bluestem grass in the fallOver in the prairie boulevard, Little Bluestem is turning absolutely gorgeous.

Aromatic AsterIn the backyard woodland garden, this wee little aromatic aster (mixed in with some lemon balm) is adding a nice little splash of color.

We have two remaining harvests in our community garden plot, too: our brussels sprouts and Anneke’s strawberry popcorn, which is close to being ready. Part of me wishes we would have a freeze to sweeten up those brussels. We’re living on borrowed time right now here in the Twin Cities; the average first frost date is September 21.

I hope this post has illustrated that every year in the garden, you have some successes and some failures. This blog is part of how I keep track of mine. It’s all part of the process, right?!


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Book Review: Bringing Nature Home

Bringing Nature Home by Douglas TallamyBringing Nature Home
How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants
by Douglas Tallamy

The bad news about birds just keeps on coming. Climate change. Habitat loss. You name it. We could lose more than 300 species of birds just to climate change alone. And not just in the U.S.  Sir David Attenborough recently saidevery space in Britain must be used to help wildlife” to avoid catastrophic die-off of key species.

What are we to do?  I refuse to sit around and do nothing or give in to despair, because friends: there *is* something we can all do. Will it stop climate change or restore our pristine environment? No. But we can help bridge the gap between where we are now and where we need to be in the future, with one simple step.

CHOOSE NATIVE PLANTS FOR YOUR LANDSCAPE.

I just finished this excellent little book, and honestly Tallamy was preaching to the choir with me because I was nodding my head emphatically at every paragraph.

Tallamy’s angle on saving birds is that by planting native plants, we support native insects, which in turn support birds. Honestly, I used to think about supporting wild birds mostly in terms of plants that produced berries for them to eat. But a huge percentage of a bird’s diet comes from the insect world (bats and rodents, too), especially when they are raising their young.

But how bad are things, really?  Here in Minnesota, in particular, we value our outside spaces so much that we seem surrounded by “nature” all the time. But the problem is our nature is not exactly all natural: we plant non-native species that offer no value to wildlife, or worse, turf grass that requires constant pollution to maintain and *still* offers no value to wildlife.

A handful of the staggering statistics cited by Tallamy:

– The United States’ songbird population has declined 50% in the last 50 years.

– Only 3-5% (depending on whom you ask) of the land in the lower 48 United States is still undisturbed.

– 50,000 alien species of plants and animals have colonized North America.

There is a simple relationship between species survival and habitat area. If you destroy half of a natural area, half of the species within that area will die. Tallamy extrapolates that we could lose 97% of our native North American species of plants, insects, and animals. Think about that. Pretty sobering.

So why do people buy non-native ornamental plants for their landscapes? At this point, it’s hard to see why you would. After reading this book, I definitely won’t. But unfortunately the nursery industry is going to cater to what its customers are asking for and not enough of them are asking for natives.

Tallamy gives many examples of the woes brought upon our continent by foreign ornamentals; it’s not just that they displace native plants, but they also often bring new foreign pests and diseases along with them, that thrive in an area where no natural predator has developed to keep them in check. Hello, Emerald Ash Borer.

So what native plants should we prioritize in our landscapes? Here’s where this book starts to take a helpful turn for the positive. Tallamy gives detailed descriptions of several native species that support not just one but many species of insects that in turn support the rest of the ecosystem.

Tallamy uses lepidoptera (butterflies) as his test and ranks woody plants by how many different lepidoptera species they support. He chose lepidoptera mainly because large bodies of research exist about them. Using lepidoptera as an indicator of value is not perfect, but it is very interesting. For example, our native North American Oak trees (genus Quercus) support 534 different butterfly species! Wow. Coming in close second are our native Willows (genus Salix), Cherry & plum (genus Prunus), and Birch (Betula). For shrubs, he lists blueberries & cranberries (Vaccinium) & hazelnut (Corylus).

He then describes—in detail—the insect world that depends on several of these key species, showing how the support goes up the food chain. For example, downy woodpeckers like to forage for insects in the soft wood of large willow trees.

One of my favorite chapters was “What does bird food look like?” with detailed descriptions of several bugs, where they live, what plants they need, etc. I never thought of milkweed beetles as bird food, for example.

Aphids on native sunflowersAfter reading this book, I am looking at scenes like this with a different attitude. Multiple levels of the food chain in action right here on this dying compass plant. Aphids, ants, you name it. I’ve also been seeing goldfinches and other birds I had never previously seen around here, all over my yard this year. It’s so rewarding.

So. If you are *at all* concerned by the mounting body of evidence that we are at the doorstep of a massive extinction event, give this book a shot. I *highly* recommend it. Then start deciding what native plants you’d like to add to your landscape—shrubs and small trees can still be planted here in the northland for another two weeks at least, as long as you keep them well-watered until the ground freezes hard. OK? OK.

Maybe the sea change has already begun: the Washington Post just published a piece on this very topic! Positive change that I can be a part of? SIGN ME UP.

 


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Eight tips for new Minnesota gardeners

I’m not trying to create link bait or anything here; I know SO many people that are vegetable gardening for the first time this year, so I wanted to create a resource for them. So here you go, Lisa, Jon and Nick!

1. Light

As a master gardener, I hear this question all the time. “Why did my tomato plant not produce any tomatoes?” More often than not, it was because the plant simply did not get enough light. Most vegetables need AT LEAST 8 hours of sunlight per day. I would not go less than 10 for most vegetables, including favorites like tomatoes, cucumbers, and zucchini. The only vegetables that really tolerate shade (and actually benefit from a bit of it) are the ones that you eat as leaves: lettuce, kale, chard, most herbs. I have seen many Pinterest boards that list root vegetables like carrots and beets as being shade tolerant, but in my experience they still need a good 8 hours of sun. When you consider that a MN summer day can be as long as 15 hours around solstice time, 8 hours does technically qualify as part-shade, I guess.

2. Timing

Most of our favorite garden plants—including tomatoes, basil, cucumbers—are tropical by nature. They will not tolerate frost in the least. They don’t even like nighttime temperatures less than 50 degrees. So we have to be VERY patient in late April in early May. Watch the forecast and make an educated decision when you plant—in general the last frost occurs in the Twin Cities by May 10-15. Happily, many plants can be put in as soon as the snow clears away and the ground is soft enough to work. Radishes, peas, cabbage-family veggies: these can all be planted earlier and don’t mind the cold.

3. Rows

When I was a new gardener, I read lots of books about permaculture and alternative planting methods, and I really wanted to scatter-plant my seeds in order to maximize the space that I had. The problem with this was that, when the seeds sprouted, I couldn’t differentiate between what I had planted and what was a weed. If you plant in rows or at least in a grid pattern (if you’re trying square foot gardening), it will be much easier to identify your plants, since mother nature never plants weeds in straight lines.

4. Spacing

Another mistake I still make all the time is assuming I can cram one more broccoli plant here, or one more row of radishes there. What usually ends up happening is that they don’t end up getting enough sunlight or water and I get nothing at all. When you are a new gardener, especially, mind the spacing recommendations on the plant tag or seed packet. I have an illustration of tomato spacing for you:

Tomatoes, recently plantedHere are six heirloom tomatoes, recently planted, getting tied up with twine.

Tomatoes in high seasonHere they are in August. The trellis is about 6 feet tall, 6 feet long, and two feet wide. It *barely* fits six tomato plants, and only because I prune most of the suckers out.

5. Water

At the master gardener vegetable classes, we like to say “water infrequently and deeply”—and this is true for most of the season. However, the first few weeks you will want to water frequently and lightly until all your seeds are sprouted and your seedlings established. Then you can back off to once or twice a week (or less if we get plenty of rain).

6. Compost

Start a compost pile! It’s not rocket science; even if you’re a lazy composter you will, eventually, get compost. It’s free fertilizer for your garden, and reduces household waste.

5. Biodiversity

Most of my garden pest problems have disappeared since I started adding large numbers of native plants to the rest of my yard. We now have an abundance of beneficial insects, spiders, birds, and yes, wasps around who help us control all the crawly things that eat our cabbage and other vegetables. As an added benefit, you’re helping bees.

6. Edible landscaping

While we’re on the subject, why limit yourself to planting edibles in one area, and flowers in another? Small fruit trees and shrubs give you food year after year without having to be replanted. I love my currant bushes, alpine strawberries and raspberry hedge. I don’t like to think of my gardens just in terms of monetary value, but if that appeals to you, here it is: fruits are the very best return on investment you can get. Also, many native plants, such as my favorite anise hyssop, can be dried and made into herbal teas.

CurrantRed Lake currants are a beautiful landscape plant, aren’t they?

7. Plant herbs

This sort of goes along with edible landscaping, but herbs are also a great investment, in terms of money. They’re also more shade tolerant than standard garden produce, so they’re great to fill in other areas. My front flower garden has become an overgrown (yet somehow beautiful) mix of wild columbine, purple coneflowers, parsley, dill, cilantro, chives and fennel which all re-seed themselves each year. Added bonus: we now get black swallowtail butterflies every year, whose larvae love parsley. Herbs are some of the first things to come back in the spring, too, when you’re just dying for something fresh and green. I picked my first chives in April this year, and that was after a very late spring.

dill and herbsThis is pretty, right? It’s not a mess at all, in my mind.
8. Mulch

When it gets to be early June and everything is up and out of the ground, why not add a layer of mulch? It will help keep the ground from drying out and also simultaneously help keep weeds down. I’ve been using straw in the vegetable garden for a few years now and really like it. It also keeps things cleaner, which enables even more eating straight out of the garden. For my regular flower/herb/native plant beds, I use wood chips, which are FREE and also a little more acceptable for keeping my front-of-house yard attractive to normal people.

Since there are plenty of experienced gardeners who read this blog, what am I forgetting? Surely something? Post a comment!


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Here we go!

Gardening season is a go! A slow go, but it’s started. We even ate some pea shoots out of the garden this weekend, and they were tasty:

Thinned out pea shootsI’m going to have to thin these one more time in order to make room; I plan to interplant them with cucumbers on one trellis and small pie pumpkins on the other. A friend tried this last year and reported great success.

Community garden plot, before prepping and plantingHere’s our community garden plot at Sabathani. Yikes. We grew pumpkins here rather successfully last year, but towards the fall the weeds really got away from us, especially around the edges. Here I’m measuring to see where my paths should go. Next we worked it up with a fork, pulled up LOTS of quackgrass and worked in some composted manure.

Community garden plot, planted!After! At the very back is Anneke’s popcorn—she received a packet of Strawberry Popcorn seeds in her Easter basket. Then a burlap walking path, then 6 small brussels sprouts plants and 5 hills of potatoes—they’re actually small craters right now until the plants come up. We also interplanted anise hyssop with the brussels and horseradish with the potatoes, after consulting a companion planting book. There are LOTS of pests at Sabathani, so I’m willing to try just about anything. Up front are three hills of Long Island Cheese pumpkins interplanted with several extra cauliflower plants; why did I buy a 6-pack for my home garden when I only needed two? Anyway, it’s worth a try to see if we can get those cauliflowers done and eaten before the pumpkin plants completely take over. On the left-hand side of the plot are volunteer strawberries.

Carrots with burlap sack protectionI also manage a Master Gardener demonstration plot at Sabathani—we use it for teaching and donate all the produce to the food shelf. Since this garden is very open and windy, I have never had much luck sprouting carrots there. I’m going to try this little burlap tent to keep them dark and hopefully prevent them from drying out too much. The tricky thing about carrot seeds is that they don’t want to be buried too deeply, yet they need to be kept dark and moist, and oh did I mention they take up to 20 days to sprout!? I’ll report back on whether this works or not.

My home gardenBack at home, where weeds are few and pests are fewer. The newly-thinned peas are stretching up to to the trellises, onions, cauliflower, broccolli, kohlrabi, carrots, and radishes are in. And… tomatoes. I planted tomatoes, even after seeing the forecast lows in the upper 30s! I love experimenting way too much and it may prove to be fatal for these young plants. They’re under the hoop house in my very sheltered garden, so my gamble is at least an educated one. In general, it’s best to wait until nighttime lows are in the 50s to plant warm season crops like tomatoes. But we’re almost there! Next week, I promise!

lettuce in a raised planterMy lettuce and other greens are also coming along nicely; we’ve had several harvests. That’s part of the reason why the biggest plants have not really changed size much: I keep picking leaves. The other two tanks are the kids’ fairy gardens, which Anneke incongruously decided must have elephant ears this year. Should be an interesting experience for those fairies, anyway.

Fire blight on an apple treeThis final picture is from upstairs, looking out over our back yard, with dog damage along the path. Our grass needs some help—this week we worked up those areas and added some seed in hopes of filling it in a bit. But the main thing I want to show you is the apple tree to the left, in front of the car. Even from this distance, you can see the blackened areas of the trunk and branches. The fire blight has spread. This tree will have to be cut down this year. Our harvests the last two years have been next to nothing, anyway. Instead of being sad, I’m actually a little excited. Since we’re also getting rid of the sandbox, it’s going to open up a whole new space for a small tree or large shrub (along with some underplantings, of course). WHAT SHOULD I PUT THERE!? A new dwarf apple? A serviceberry? Oh the possibilities are endless. And thus begins 2015 planning season!