The New Home Economics


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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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Landscape plan: closer to reality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Late summer garden

Less than two weeks until school starts? Say it ain’t so. Here’s what’s happening in my gardens.

Tiger swallowtail on coneflowerWe’ve had more bees and butterflies in our yard this year than ever before. It could be because we have more coneflowers than ever before; they really spread. Here’s a tiger swallowtail in the foreground and a red admiral in the background, enjoying the coneflowers next to a carpentry project Adam was working on last week.

Bee on Prairie Blazing StarI managed to save one of the Prairie Blazing Star plants in my boulevard from rabbits this spring. It’s finally blooming, and looks glorious at 5+ feet tall. Now that the coneflowers are just past their peak, it’s providing some nourishment for this bee. Level two of wildflower gardening is when you figure out a way to provide for pollinators during the entire growing season, and the very early and very late seasons can be tricky. But this Prairie Blazing Star, some sunflowers, and goldenrod are going to be nice late summer/early fall food sources.

Vegetable gardenMy main vegetable garden is being taken over by pie pumpkins and hops (you can see the hops actually coming in through my bedroom window upstairs). The tomatoes (trellised at right) have been a bit underwhelming this year, but I’m hearing that from other people, too, so I’m guessing it was partly having to do with our (so far) mostly cool summer.

A picking of vegetablesA picking of “crazy” vegetables, the theme of our home garden this year. Yard long beans, white cucumbers, a variety of peppers, purple green beans, and some not-quite-ripe-yet Sungold tomatoes. We ripen them on the counter top to prevent squirrel thievery.

Community garden panoramaHere’s a panorama of my community garden plot at Sabathani, which is being overtaken by Long Island Cheese pumpkins. Behind the pumpkins, our dying-off potatoes (we’ve eaten three of the seven hills now), then the brussels sprouts mingling nicely with anise hyssop, and finally Anneke’s strawberry popcorn in the back. Random composting instructions in Español on the side.

Brussels sproutsAt last, my first ever successful brussels sprouts experience. I can hardly wait to eat these!


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In the summer kitchen

Here’s what’s been happening in our kitchen this summer:

KefirTowards the end of May, I realized that one of the other bus stop moms is a fellow real/whole foods enthusiast, AND she had kefir grains to share! We’ve made 3-4 batches now, and we are still adjusting to the taste. Co-op kefir must have A LOT of sugar in it, because even after adding various sweeteners, this stuff is SOUR. I may use my next batch in place of buttermilk in a recipe and see how that goes.

CucumbersWe’ve only managed to make two quarts of pickles so far, because we’ve been slicing them up, tossing them with a bit of salt and pepper, and just eating them fresh.

Mulberry ice creamEarlier this spring, we tried a new ice cream recipe.  We’re now sold on this new method.  For a few years, we’d been stuck on Mark Bittman’s ice cream method, which is a little, well, involved. You make a custard that involves at least 3 but up to 6 egg yolks, then chill it, then finally put it in the ice cream maker.

I don’t have anything against custard ice cream. It’s delicious. But with the price of eggs and our busy daily schedule, we just weren’t making it all that often. Now that we’ve switched to this new basic recipe we make it all the time. The basic recipe is: 2 cups cream, 2 cups whole milk, ~1 cup sugar, and then whatever flavoring you want. Whisk briskly, put it in the ice cream maker, 20 minutes later: done.

Above, we added some mulberry juice (probably about 1/2 c.) that was still leftover from last summer.

La Ratte French Fingerling potatoWe’ve now eaten two hills of our French fingerling potatoes (La Ratte). These things are like buttah. Even the kids went on and on about how delicious they were, just boiled with a little butter, salt, pepper, and fresh parsley.

Garden produceHere is a quick fry-up of one of our purple cauliflowers, zucchini from the market (didn’t have room this year), onions and purple/green beans from the garden. They grow purple, but turn green when cooked.

Pickling & canning season is really getting underway!


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North Shore Inspiration

We went on a camping trip during the second half of July. Our campsite was spectacular: on a cliff above Lake Superior with a view of Split Rock Light House.

Split Rock Lighthouse at sunriseThe view, with my morning coffee. It’s worth it to pack the french press in.

Wildflowers of MinnesotaI also took along a book that I picked up earlier this year, Wildflowers of Minnesota Field Guide by Stan Tekiela. This pocket-size guide slowed down our hikes and made them much more interesting. For one, it helped us identify the not-so-native-yet-gorgeous garden lupines blooming along the highway.

But naturally not everything is in the book, and one flower that I really loved was not included:

 

Northbush HoneysuckleThe naturalist at Tettegouche State Park helped me identify this small bush as a North Bush Honeysuckle, a native honeysuckle not related to the large tropical ones you usually see in gardens, but somewhat similar in appearance. A very nice compact little shrub that was blooming all over Tettegouche State Park when we were there, in shade to part-shade situations.

Here was another landscape design inspiration that I saw:

Tall ferns with leafy green plants underneathI am not great at fern identification, but I think this is some type of wood fern.  But I really thought this general look—tall ferns with leafy green groundcover like wild ginger underneath—could look really nice in a deeply shaded city lot. I have not had great luck with ferns in my particular yard; 70% of the ones I planted back in 2012 have perished. The one exception is my ostrich ferns, which are thriving. I think my shady areas are simply too dry.

Wild roseThe wild roses were also in bloom. Gorgeous. Now that my older hybrid rose bush is dying out, I might replace it with an old-fashioned or wild rose variety which would provide us with rosehips. They make amazing herbal tea.

HarebellsHarebells growing out of rock crevices.

Hunting crayfishSure, the waterfall is gorgeous, but there are crayfish in here, Mom!

All this inspiration is going to serve me well, because we’re removing our apple trees this week! The crab apple in front is already gone, and the larger apple tree in back is going as soon as we can get it set up with the power company, which has lines are running through it.

I’m starting my 2015 garden plan already, and there’s going to be two major expansions, one in front and one in back. Exciting times!


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Summer!

Monarch release

Most of our monarchs were born on the same day, and lucky me that it happened to be a Saturday. All 14 have now been released into the world with much ceremony and fanfare.

Milkweed beetleRed milkweed beetle season is upon us, and Anneke has once again named several of the many milkweed beetles currently calling our yard home. They are really cute. She holds them and pets them and generally loves them to death, but we have quite a few to spare so I don’t worry about it.

Milkweed flowerWho says milkweed isn’t beautiful? I’m pretty sure this is Asclepias Speciosa, or showy milkweed, planted before I was good about making plant maps of my yard. (Brett Laidlaw: this was the one I was thinking of when I was mixed up on twitter; the leaves are so similar to asclepias syriaca, common milkweed.)

GooseberriesOur gooseberry bush is so laden with fruit that it’s sagging to the ground. Crossing my fingers we get these before the critters.

Red Lake currantsCurrant pie is in my near future.

Bee on coneflowerThe bees and butterflies are both very happy about the now-blooming purple coneflowers.

Blanket flowerSo, is blanket flower native to MN or not? It’s definitely native to North America, but the Friends’ Plant Sale had it under “garden perennials” not “natives.” Well, I planted it anyway and it’s pretty! Blooming in its first year.

Food shelf harvestWe got a nice haul from my sometimes-neglected volunteer-managed food shelf garden at Sabathani community garden this week.

Happy 4th of JulyHappy Independence Day!

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