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.


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.


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.


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.


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 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.


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.


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.


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.


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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All plastic is oil: the movie Collapse


The book that the documentary was based on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Intensive hydroponics and another new movie

Oh, do I long for a time when I won’t be so busy.  My life is absolute craziness right now.  So I’m not going to spend a lot of time with you this morning other than to point out two cool things I read this week:

Aquaponics — a hydroponic gardening system that incorporates fish and uses their waste as fertilizer (and the fish themselves as food) seems to be gaining popularity.  Perhaps some of this is due to movies like FRESH, which featured a farmer who is using it rather intensively: Will Allen of Milwaukee.  Anyway, a NY Times article and a beautiful slideshow this week showcased a home-scale example of aquaponics in Colorado.

There’s another movie about the food revolution coming out this year.  This one’s about young farmers, and it’s called Greenhorns.  This documentary film is also connected with a grassroots non-profit out east whose goal is nothing less than to support, promote and recruit young farmers in America.  Here’s the website.

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Movie review: The future of food


I knew I was going to be angry when I watched this movie.  The Future Of Food was made in 2004, so it is a bit of a pre-cursor to movies like Food, Inc and Fresh.

The main focus of this movie is genetically modified foods, and there is more than enough bad news here to fill a full-length documentary.  They discuss the process for how scientists get cells to accept these new genes: apparently, the genes have to be attached to some sort of virus that will invade the cell and set up shop.  The cell is altered in many ways other than just the addition of the new trait.

Is this a necessarily bad or dangerous?  The problem is:  we don’t know.  We have no idea.  They’ve done very little testing, and some studies that have shown negative effects on animal test subjects have been immediately squashed by industry.

The film explores many of the aspects of these wide and varied problems.  Among them:

Because the US allows patents on living organisms, Monsanto (our major agriculture corporation) owns the rights to all these plants.  But unfortunately plants reproduce themselves.  So once that seed is out in the world, if it accidentally spreads to your yard, Monsanto can hold you liable for growing their product without a license.  Several farmers are interviewed who have been sued for this very thing.

The very fact that these plants are reproducing themselves out there in the world is also a huge problem.  Stands of old-world strains of corn, wheat, etc. are being contaminated.  In the film they test some corn in a remote location in Mexico (a country which is fighting HARD against GMO’s).  They find some of the mutant Monsanto genes in the corn.

This is especially scary since Monsanto currently holds patents on several genes known as “terminator genes.”  These render all seeds that a plant produces sterile.  Hence, you can’t save seeds to re-use them for next year. You must buy next year’s seed.  Imagine the consequences if these became widely used, and genes started spreading far and wide.  75% of farmers in the world save and re-use seed.  You think we have starvation issues now?

When the film was made, five years ago now, the fight against GMOs was in its infancy in the US.  I’d like to think we’ve made some progress.  However, GMOs still do not require labelling, which would be such an important first step towards creating a database of known reactions to them.

If you feel anywhere near as passionately about this as I do, please check out the Institute for Responsible Technology for more information.

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Food, Inc.


Well, I finally saw the movie Food, Inc. last night.  It was pretty much what I expected, as far as who the major players were.  Joel Salatin, Michael Pollan, & Eric Schlosser were all prominent.  I have been immersed in this kind of stuff for a long time now, so none of what I saw was particularly shocking, though the mother of a two-year-old boy who died from e.coli really got to me.

The problem with this movie, and really this whole movement, is how do you get people to go to it?  How do you get people to watch this movie, to open their eyes, to become conscious of what we are doing to our bodies and our land?  There were 6 people in the movie theater, and I’m willing to bet all 6 had already read Omnivore’s Dilemma, or maybe shopped at a Co-op on a semi-regular basis.

They’re preaching to the choir.  I don’t need any convincing.  I don’t need to watch Meet your meat, or read another Michael Pollan book, or see another documentary.  But I am in the minority.

I was really glad that the movie made the strong point that consumers are definitely part of this, but government must be too.  Many of the hidden costs of our cheap food are borne by the government, covered by the taxes and you and I pay.

I included the pic of Joel Salatin from the official movie website, because I seriously love that guy.  To me he is the embodiment of the old wisdom we need to try and revive.  And guess what?  He’s a conservative Christian.  He might make a lot of city folk (including most of the members of Pollan’s choir) very uncomfortable.  And that is one of the things I love about him:  this movement needs to be neither conservative nor liberal, but practical.  Radically practical.

Encourage your friends and family to see this movie.  It really speaks to what the New Home Economics is all about.



My goodness, this week has been crazy, as you might be able to tell by my complete lack of new posts. But I shall have plenty of new material shortly. Coming soon:

  • This afternoon’s CSA
  • I’m seeing Food, Inc. tonight
  • My kimchi is almost done fermenting! We’ve been taste-testing it every night and it just keeps getting better and better. We used the recipe from Wild Fermentation, a book I am shortly adding to my MUST READ list (that list really needs some work).
  • I should have fresh raspberries soon.  And a bumper crop, at that.
  • Zucchini: maybe not the best choice for the 3 sisters guild.  It might take over my entire garden any day now.

Have a great 4th of July.  (And yes, my corn is more than knee high.  It’s nearly 5 feet.)

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I was lucky enough to be able to attend the sold-out screening of FRESH last night at the Riverview Theater in Minneapolis.  Awesome event, and so inspiring.  The movie was so optimistic — it made it seem like a regional food economy is really possible.

When I first started caring about this stuff over 10 years ago in college, it was always through the framework of animal rights.  But it has become so much more than that, and it needed to if it was ever going to go mainstream.  Having a healthy regional food economy is now about EVERYTHING.  Human rights, the environment, our urban and rural economies, our health, and yes, animal welfare.

I highly recommend this movie.

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Two things

1. FRESH: Another movie, similar to Food, Inc. but a bit more optimistic.  I’m such a sap that I got tears in my eyes watching the trailer.  There’s going to be a screening in Minneapolis June 2.

2. I was listening to The Splendid Table again and Lynn R-C talked to a guy from the Environmental Working Group, who talked about pesticides on produce.  The interesting thing that he noted was that these tests are performed after produce has been washed (and cooked, where applicable).  Here’s the full list.

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King Corn

I watched King Corn last night.  This 2005 documentary is about two urban east-coast boys who decided to move to Iowa and raise 1 acre of corn, and learn about the ways that corn has infiltrated pretty much every food that Americans eat.

They even had their hair tested in a laboratory and the lab tests confirmed that the guys were, indeed, pretty much made of corn.

This was entertaining and not at all preachy and included an appearance by Michael Pollan; his Omnivore’s Dilemma is required reading for the New Home Economics.

It’s just amazing to see how much Earl Butz‘s farm policy in the 1970s, which I’m sure he enacted with really good intentions, has changed family farms, our health, and our environment, and all for the worse.  Does that mean the old farm policy of the 50s and 60s would work now?  I don’t know.  But something has got to give, and the farmers in the documentary were in agreement that the ridiculous amounts of corn they produce are, well, ridiculous.

I wish I knew what the solution was.  Simply educating consumers to make informed choices is a start, but I just don’t think it’s enough, not when our government is pouring giant subsidies on a crop that no one can eat.