Stacking Functions Garden


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Spring in the Minnesota garden

I can’t think of a more glorious month than May in the state of Minnesota. For the second year in a row, we had a rather chilly April and start of May, so when things finally got warmer, and then we got some much-needed rain here in the Twin Cities on the 17th, plants really took off and the end of the month has been simply glorious. There’s nothing better than planting untold numbers of seeds and transplants, only to have them well-watered in by rain. Here are some photo highlights from May in my garden.

Bee approaching a serviceberry

A mining bee (not sure of the species) approaches my Autumn Brilliance Serviceberry (Amelanchier grandiflora) in early May. Early flowering plants like this are critically important sources of nectar for all manner of queen bees who are the only ones in their colony to have overwintered, and now must feed the entire next generation.

Jacobs Laddder

Jacob’s Ladder (Polemonium reptans), also blooms in May. It’s a low-growing groundcover plant that thrives even in dry shade. It deserves to be widely planted—it spreads only slowly and the foliage looks great even after blooming.

Protecting plants from squirrels

A not-so-fun spring project around here is trying to protect plants from squirrels and rabbits. Strategies for both need to evolve for different times of year. Rabbits are more of a problem in the winter, when they will eat woody shrubs and small trees down to the ground (or frustratingly, just eat the bark off them, which also kills them).

In the spring, squirrels get very excited about digging in freshly-disturbed soil, especially the friable soil in pots and containers. Happily, this behavior dies down after the pots have been around for a while and the plants in them are actively growing. So these ugly cages on nearly all of my containers can be taken down in another week or two.

Many spring garden vegetables such as lettuce and peas will need to be protected from rabbits continuously. Summer vegetables like zucchini and tomatoes require protection from squirrels. Last year I lost all but one or two zucchinis to squirrels. This year they’re in an impenetrable cage with my tomatoes.

My solution for lettuce is to grow it in a stock tank—it’s a little too high for the rabbits to jump in. We’re eating lettuce daily now and enjoying it while it lasts. The season is always over so quickly. One nice thing about being home-based now with my work is that I’ve had a little extra time to think about succession: I’ve got some romaine lettuce started already in my basement. When this lettuce seeds out in early July, I’ll replace it with some nice romaine. Hopefully.

Beans emerging

Thank goodness for an abundance of lettuce, because the rest of the vegetable garden is only just getting going. Beans are sprouted and up, along with carrots and zucchini. My tomato, kohlrabi and brussels sprouts seedlings are small but healthy, and I am growing more sweet and hot peppers this year than I ever have!

Barrel of onions

Here’s a weedy corner of my back yard. Well, weedy depending on who you ask. It’s got a giant mullein that I’m keeping my eye on—I’ll pull it as soon as it flowers to keep it from self-seeding. The area has also filled in with wild sarsparilla (Aralia nudicaulis) at the front, and it’s fine for now. I’ve got a honeycrisp apple tree in here, as well as a nice patch of Mexican sunflowers at the back (in a rabbit-proof cage for now; rabbits love to eat sunflowers when they’re little).

In the front pots are some 2020 experiments. I took an apple tree pruning and grafting course in February—one of the last social things I did before the pandemic, and it was such a pleasure. So I’m trying to get my grafts to “take” in the smaller foreground pots. We’ll see if it works. Behind them is a half barrel. We had a rain barrel for years that was not holding water very well anymore, so Adam cut it in half and now I have a new large planter. It’s going to be my barrel of onions this year. I plant onion starts thickly, then strategically thin out and harvest them green, gradually creating more room for the remaining ones to grow into bulbs.

Mini prairie in spring

Here, an early spring glimpse into what is my ultimate plan for a good-sized chunk of my backyard: a miniature tallgrass prairie! It’s honestly not that impressive in the spring. These are plants that thrive on heat, and every year I spend April and early May fretting about whether they’re actually alive or not. The answer is nearly always yes because these are seriously hardy plants. I’m trying to keep the palette fairly simple, mostly big bluestem, culver’s root, joe pye weed, and I’m trying out a couple of royal catchfly at one edge.

It’s also bordered by many other random things, including asters, showy goldenrod, rhubarb, a cherry tree, gooseberries, and a serviceberry. This part of the backyard has been really fun to sort out since my southerly neighbor cut down a very large tree that deeply shaded it until just a couple years ago. Suddenly I have so many options…

Wild Columbine

We had a very rainy Memorial Day weekend here, just perfect for sprouting carrots. It also knocked down the last of the pink crabapple petals around the neighborhood—at times it was raining pink petals in a very magical way. The main star of my gardens right now is Wild Columbine. It’s gently reseeded itself all over my yard, and it really ties everything together nicely. Repetition is such an important part of good design, and incorporating more of it in my landscape has made a big difference.

Red Lake Currants

Fruit season is right around the corner: my Red Lake and Ben Sarek currants, plus my gooseberries are nearly ready to eat. Sour cherries are coming along too. We’ll get a short breather between the madness of planting season and then jam-making season will be upon us. And thank goodness—had I not made some rhubarb sauce we would be pretty much out of jam.

Red chokeberry

I’m so happy to see one of my two red chokeberries (Aronia arbutifolia) blooming this spring. Both shrubs are alive, but barely: I piled snow a little too high next to the protective rabbit fence, and they used the snow as a jumping off point to get right inside. They nibbled off most of the bark on the bottom 1/4 of many of the branches. Fortunately enough branches survived that I think ultimately these shrubs will bounce back.

The web traffic to this blog has gone up significantly this spring—interest in gardening is at an all-time high. If you’re new here, what brought you here? Do you have gardening questions? Ask away, I am happy to help. My U of MN Extension Master Gardener activities are currently on hold, so I’m happy to answer questions virtually. Thanks for reading.


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Garden Plans for 2020

I usually plan my gardens in January and February. This year, I was waiting during those months to find out whether my community garden would be available or not this year. Just days after I found out that we would be able to garden there this year (yay!) a … global pandemic hit.

Uncertainty has got to be the word of the year for 2020, yes? My anxiety over the community garden seems laughable now in hindsight.

I’ve decided to plan my garden for the best case scenario—the scenario in which my favorite local garden store is able to supply me with things like onion starts, leek starts, and various other seedlings that I usually buy each spring. My seed starting setup is rather small, but I’m also trying to strategically max that out, just in case. Anyway, here’s my plan. Click to enlarge:

Layout for an urban garden

LOTS going on here. First, I need to tell you something sad about my home garden. Reader, I sorta ruined my own home garden plot. How did I do this? Here’s some photographic evidence:

grape and hops growing on an arbor

This is my wine grapes and hops arbor—my “booze bower” that was featured in Northern Gardener magazine last August. Behind all that lush, green, tall foliage, to the right, is my vegetable garden. You can see the tomato cage just peeking out at the very far right of the picture near the bottom. What I’ve done here: I created a beautiful, shady, just lovely place to sit in the summer. The unintended consequence: I took away a few hours of late afternoon and evening sunlight from my vegetable garden, especially the west side of it.

As you know, vegetables NEED a lot of sun. I’ve had to do some rethinking of this garden. The plot at the far west is really only good for greens now. Kale and collards grew marvelously in that spot last year and I’m going to try them again—is this best practice? No. I simply can’t rotate other types of vegetables into that spot (except for lettuce, I suppose). I’m going to experiment and try some Hungarian breadseed poppies mixed in with the greens, to see how different types of annual flowers do here.

Last year, even further east in the garden, my beans were all foliage and no fruit:

pole beans out of control

Now, pole beans always take a long time to get going, and last year was a very late spring. But plants that are very leafy might be trying to tell you something: they’re not getting enough sun.

I had some other fails last year too, one of which is pictured above. I tried to grow Christmas lima beans inside the tomato cage. Here’s the thing about my squirrel-proof tomato fortress: we realized that it is nearly impossible to move, for a variety of reasons. So in late 2018 I decided it was going to stay in the same spot and I’d just rotate different crops into and out of it. I can always grow a tomato in a pot if I’m desperate. Anyway, this year I have the fortress slated for 1/2 tomatoes and 1/2 zucchini. I’m going to attempt to stake the zucchini following this interesting tutorial.

Over at Sabathani Community Garden, here’s where we stand. A high rise building for elderly folks will be built starting in September or October of this year (pending global pandemic easing up, I suppose). This is great news for the community, truly.

We will be kicked out of the garden as soon as mid-September and have no access to it for at least a year. When it reopens it will be a different configuration, the soil will be compacted from having construction equipment on it for 12+ months, and half the garden will now be a parking lot. Again, this was slightly more upsetting before I knew the other things that were coming our way for 2020.

But I’m glad I get to garden there this year. I’m going to refrain from planting pumpkins, since they might not be done in time. I’m moving all leek activity to the home garden since I usually harvest those late August-late October. Even planting brussels sprouts is taking a bit of a chance, but then again I started harvesting sprouts in August of 2019 so hopefully that will be true again this year. Check out this bounty from my community garden plot last August:

Community garden harvest

The tomatoes were a little uninspiring—diseases are unfortunately rampant in the community garden and our cool wet spring did not help. But I had a banner year of many things, including runner beans:

runner beans

If you’ve never grown these, I cannot recommend them enough. They are SO easy to grow. They are a vine plant so they need some support, but they get gorgeous flowers, and produce bucketloads of large edible green beans. If you don’t get to them in time and they get very large, no worries! You can simply shell them and eat the seeds like lima beans, or let them dry and use them as dried beans. This plant is amazingly versatile.

So I’ve got my “plan” for 2020 but I don’t feel very certain about it; so much will depend on… so many things. UNCERTAINTY, folks, get used to it, I guess? I’ve never been more thankful for my edible perennial plants. I’ve already got a protective bunny-proof cage around my French sorrel, and keep watching for my lovage to pop up. I can’t wait for some of the wild edibles that I know I’ll see, like garlic mustard and stinging nettle. I can count on raspberries, cherries, and hopefully some apples. I’ve never been a prepper on the scale of the types of people you see on the news, but the little bit of prepping that I have done here is helping to ease some of this uncertainty.

a tiny tall grass prairie

A big area of uncertainty is my teeny tallgrass prairie in my backyard. I had hoped to at least triple its size this year with the addition of 40-50 new plants, but I don’t know what stores will be open / what will be available. I can divide some of what I have and expand it slowly year by year, so it’s not a terrible thing. I am going to need to learn patience. That’s for sure.

Be well, friends. Take care of each other. Call me if you’re local and need divisions or volunteers of wildflowers.

 


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Strategies for managing weeds

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

This was a very sad week. September 2018.

Construction

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

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

Changes in growing conditions

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

Weather conditions

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

So what to do about all this weed madness?

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

Weeds or lovely dill volunteers? You decide.

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

Getting rid of the weeds

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

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

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

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

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

Preventing the weeds in the first place

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sheet mulching

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

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

A quick how-to on sheet mulching:

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

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

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

The end goal: mulch with living plants

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

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

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

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

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

 


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Community Gardening strategy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Not professional landscapers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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Late Summer

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

This little skipper spent several minutes nectaring.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Memorial Day 2018

I like to photograph my garden every year on Memorial Day to track where we’re at from a phenology perspective. From the plants’ point of view, we look roughly average, but from a human point of view it’s been anything but.

I swam in a lake in 95 degree heat yesterday; just under 4 weeks ago that lake had ice on it. It’s been a wild swing from winter to summer, seemingly overnight.

We got some bad news this week. Our main line sewer needs to be replaced and pretty much everything in the foreground of this picture will need to go. I’ll know more next week. I was very upset at first but I’m now trying to look at it as an opportunity.

It was such a weird week. This also happened: a red-tailed hawk caught a squirrel in our yard and landed with it on our deck for a minute or two. I was astounded at its size. And not terribly sorry to lose a squirrel, honestly—the hawk dispatched it quickly and efficiently.

Did you know that wild sarsparilla get flowers? They’re hidden under the leaves. I found these on the plants that get a little bit of sunlight each day—in deep shade, I couldn’t find any flowers.

I love the way the gooseberries, wild columbine, and serviceberries are intermingling in our back yard.

My interplanting of shallots and strawberries is coming along swimmingly. The strawberries are thriving in their new raised bed (new in summer 2017). It’s wise to periodically (every 3-5 years) dig up all your strawberry plants, amend the soil, weed thoroughly, and replant them. They get so overrun with weeds over time. Raising them up like this has kept the rabbits from them and made it easier to keep them weeded.

They’re currently covered with blossoms and tiny green strawberries. I’ve been watering them daily to keep them going strong through this heat wave.

One plant that is LOVING the heat is my Meyer Lemon tree. It spends winters inside and generally looks unhappy the whole time, but the second we bring it out in the spring, it starts to revive.

Peppers are also off to a good start with their ollas for water. I’m curious to see how this experiment works out.

My community garden plot is all planted—it’s double in size for this year as my good friend who gardens next to me is taking a year off from her plot. Crossing my fingers that we’ll have a veritable squash kingdom come August, if we can keep the vine borers away.

Last but not least, monarch season has begun! I’ve only seen one, but Anneke found 40 eggs in our yard two nights ago. If all these survive, we’ll have a household record number of releases, in the first round of the migration.

How are you surviving the heat?