The New Home Economics


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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!


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Planting season

Planting season is at hand. I had big plans for soil prep and planting things like radishes and potatoes this weekend, but I had forgotten about May Day and a few other things, so we’ll see. Fortunately, I am taking a working vacation later this week (don’t ask) so I will have two kid-free days to prep and plant away! Meanwhile, there’s a lot happening out in the yard.

Baby Anise Hyssop plantsAnise hyssop is living up to its reputation and is now filling in a few niches around the back yard. Quite a few niches. I can’t say I mind, though. It has beautiful purple flowers, is great for bees, and makes one of my favorite herbal teas. Did I mention it’s shade tolerant and native?

I’ve also been taking stock of our rabbit damage situation. Did I mention that rabbits don’t eat anise hyssop? Really, I can’t say too many good things about that plant.

Dogwood with rabbit damageHere is the red twig dogwood next to our front steps. Apparently, they brazenly perched themselves on the step in order to nibble away at it. Fortunately for us and the rabbits, this plant is misplaced: it’s too big for this spot and we have to trim it every year anyway.

Currant bush with rabbit damageHow do you tell if you have rabbit damage? Look at the ends of the twigs of my Red Lake Currant bush. They look like they’ve been snipped off with pruning sheers. I did not prune this bush over the winter. It’s definitely rabbits. They chewed this down a little further than usual this winter. This fall I’m going to try and work harder at protecting some of my fruit bushes from them.

Tulips with anti-rabbit measuresSeveral things going on here. First: I planted tulips before native plant mania took hold in my brain. They are not native, nor do they provide any value to wildlife, except squirrels who eat the bulbs in the fall and rabbits who eat the foliage when it first pops up in the spring. No value whatsoever to bees, butterflies, or birds. But, being Dutch, well, you know. Anyway: see that reddish stuff that looks like… oh dear is that hair? Yes, it is. Adam saves his beard trimmings all winter long, and it works great for rabbit deterrant. I spread it around the new tulips and strawberry plants every couple days or so until they get big enough to no longer be appealing to rabbits (right around bud stage). You have to re-apply because the smell wears off. Also, it biodegrades quickly, which is a good thing, because… gross.

Chives in early springChives are back, and fantastic-tasting right now. I’ve been putting them on EVERYTHING. Also rabbits don’t eat them.

Shitake mushroom logOur shitake mushroom log (purchased from these folks) also appears to be fruiting. This cold rainy week was good for something!

TINY snow peasMy snow peas, planted Easter weekend, are also poking through. I’m so excited for snow peas.

Rhubarb in early springRhubarb is really funny-looking when it first comes up! Rowan, inspired by my last photo, demonstrated scale for this one. With temporary tattoos.

First harvest of 2014!Here we have our very first back yard salad of 2014, harvested April 26. A small one, to be sure, but you have to start somewhere. Welcome to planting and back yard foraging season!


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This year, let’s plant for bees

It seems like the Save the Bees Movement has really gained traction this winter, doesn’t it? And thank God. I’ve had so many people ask me about what they should plant to attract bees and butterflies to their yard!

So, let’s start with some basics… First, what are bees and what are wasps? This one’s easy. Bees are fuzzy, wasps are shiny. Both are beneficial, but only one is a “pollinator.” Here are some images that should help:

Wasp on milkweed in MinnesotaHere is a wasp on some milkweed in my back yard. Notice that it’s shiny. Wasps may not pollinate our fruit and vegetable plants, but they do eat the insects that eat our fruits and vegetables. I once killed a nest of yellowjackets in my yard, but not until after my kids suffered several stings each. You have to use your best judgement on what you’re willing to tolerate as far as wasps are concerned, and be sure of what you have before you whip out the pesticide. Also, follow the label instructions to the letter. If you don’t, you’re not only breaking the law, but you could cause undue pain to a local honeybee keeper. In short, try a little tolerance.

Bee on Anise HyssopHere is a bee on some anise hyssop in my back yard. Sorry this picture is less than ideal, but you can see that it’s fuzzy. If you look from a different angle you’d also notice that its hairy legs are covered with yellow pollen. Bees eat pollen, and in the process they give us fruit, vegetables, tree nuts and honey.

Minnesota has more than 350 native bee species, and most of them live in the ground or in hollow stems of trees. So one thing you could do to help bees would be to make a bee hotel. Click here for 1 million + ideas.

But more importantly, we need to diversify our monoculture landscapes. Lawns=monoculture. Corn and soybeans=monoculture. And putting in non-native sterile nursery plants like tulips, marigolds, and daylilies (I’m guilty of having tulips) does not help, since they don’t provide pollen. Buying plants from big box stores is even worse, since many of these are treated with neonicotinoids, a pesticide that stays in the plant for… the U of M is currently embarking on research to find out how long. Neonics kill every insect that partakes of the plant, beneficial or not. Read local food writer Dara Grumdahl’s excellent Panic in Bloom for more on neonicotinoids.

Good news: it is now getting easier to find nursery plants that are neonic-free. The Friends School Plant Sale is 100% neonic-free. Bachmann’s recently announced that they are going neonic-free. The Hennepin Master Gardeners plant sale is neonic-free by design, since the plants are dug up from our own yards. Mother Earth Gardens in south and NE Minneapolis is also neonic-free. If none of these places are near you, go to a nursery. ASK QUESTIONS. If they are unable to tell you whether the plant is neonic-free, do not buy. I can’t say enough about the importance of avoiding big box stores for your plants (and not just because of pesticides; the plants are lower quality). Real nurseries will know what they have and be able to talk about it. Here is a helpful index of bee-friendly plant retailers in the Twin Cities.

So, now that we’ve covered all those topics, we get to the fun one: what should you plant? In a nutshell, go native. Most every wildflower that is native to our area will have some benefit for pollinators. Many non-natives do as well; I can think of several including dandelions, clover, dill, fennel, and the various vegetable plants that bees love to visit. Seed clover in your lawn! It will feed your grass (clover fixes nitrogen in the soil, which feeds grass) AND benefit bees.

If you’re really a gardening newbie, you could consider buying a butterfly or pollinator package, such as this delightful one from the Friends Sale. It’s a great place to start, since most plants that are beneficial to butterflies are also beneficial to bees. I would recommend buying and planting actual seedlings over one of those ubiquitous, cheap “butterfly garden in a can”-type seed packages. If you are newer to gardening it will be difficult to tell, especially with native seedlings, what is a weed.

The University of Minnesota Bee Lab also has a really nice list of native plants that help bees, and the required site conditions for each. Here’s another PDF from The Xerces Society that talks about both native and non-native plants for bees.

Great St. Jon's WortMany native flowers are stunningly beautiful as well as beneficial, such as this Great St. John’s Wort, also in my back yard.

If you’re adding pollinator plants for the first time, start small and simple. You don’t have to tear out your whole yard. But try a little plot with, say, some milkweed, bee balm, a couple of sunflowers, anise hyssop, and maybe an early spring ephemeral such as bloodroot. Note this spot must be full sun to part shade for these to thrive. And THRIVE they will; they are all very easy to grow. There’s a reason why milkweed has the word weed in its name. But I like easy, quite honestly, and I like this even more:

Anneke with MonarchQuestions? Ideas? Let’s save some bees! (Well, and let’s save the monarchs too, but that’s a whole ‘nother post.)

 


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Signs of life

School bean plant gone crazy!Wonders never cease. Rowan brought home a kidney bean plant he’d started in a styrofoam cup at school. We re-potted it a few weeks ago, expecting it to die at any time. It flowered; I told him not to expect beans. IT GOT BEANS. Did our cat pollinate this thing? My best guess is that I brushed the flowers several times while opening and shutting the curtains and that must have been enough.

Playing by Minnehaha CreekCan you find two faces in this picture? I stayed home with the kids on Thursday, and before the snowstorm hit they spent some quality time in their tree stump fort by Minnehaha Creek. Who says city kids don’t get out in nature? This is only 4 blocks from our house!

Venison jerkyWe truly still have a ridiculous amount of venison left, so today Adam tried venison jerky. We used this recipe, minus the liquid smoke, and will again. This batch, from the buck he got on bowhunting opener, was delicious. I’m curious to see if jerky will make the doe that he got later in the season taste better. Everything we’ve made from the doe has been (to my palate) overly gamey, and we’ve tried A LOT of different things. So, we’ll see if jerky can kill the gamey flavor.

PieThe co-op has had frozen fruit on sale quite often lately, so we got treated to a mixed berry pie this weekend. I often wish Adam was on permanent spring break.

happyfrogThe tank was finally thawed out enough today to plant lettuce, yippee! We applied a nice layer of Happy Frog soil conditioner—this stuff is magical and the kids loved putting their hands in bat guano. We pick it up, like most of our gardening supplies, at Mother Earth Gardens.

Lettuce planted for Spring 2014!The kids helped me sow arugula, cilantro, kale, bull’s blood beets, and more lettuce seeds around the seedlings we put in today. We were all so excited to be out there working, we ended up stripping down to t-shirts. (Yes, t-shirts in the snow, that’s how we roll in Minnesota.) Of course I had to put the hoop house back on the tank for now, but the temperature is not supposed to dip below freezing for a few nights so these should settle in quite nicely.

Garden season is heating up in a major way. I got my Friends School Plant Sale catalog last week and the kids and I have been circling plants we want to try. I am SO impressed by their commitment to only offering plants that are neonicotinoid-free. I’m also teaching the first Spanish Gardening Class of the year at Sabathani community center next weekend. HERE WE GO!


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FINALLY!

Spring is in the air! It’s currently 42 outside and feels like absolute heaven. The garage is flooding again and we have a 6 inch deep puddle the entire length of our front sidewalk, but you know me, I can’t complain.

Hiking in early MarchWe went hiking at Richardson Nature Center yesterday and the sky was big and beautiful over the still-frozen wetland.

Maple tree tappingThey’ve already got taps in several of their maple trees, but it was a little too cold for sap to be flowing yesterday (we had a high of about 30). I bet those taps started dripping today! March is the time of year when my most desperate wish is for lots of maple trees and the spare time for sap boiling.

Hoop house is in place!We crawled through 2-3 foot deep snow to get the cover on our hoop house this afternoon. My lettuce seedlings are getting big in their basement setup, so I’m hoping that putting the cover on this tank will expedite the snow melting process so I can plant them outside before the end of March. (Depending on the weather, of course.) Also: my winter sowing milk jugs have re-appeared!

Fleece bootlinersFinally, I don’t know who dreamed up the idea of fleece rain boot liners, but these are fantastic. Adam ordered them for me from this Etsy shop and I’ve been wearing them all weekend. Perfect for this sloppy snow melting weather. Dare I hope to get back on my bike this week?

Happy, happy, happy SPRING!


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Overwintering

Here we are. That point when even the most hardy Minnesotans are completely fed up with winter. Last weekend we had some gorgeous weather, and I started some seeds both indoors and out.

Outdoor seed sowingThis is my third time trying outdoor seed sowing. The first was a total failure, but last year I had some success with plants that would tend to reseed themselves anyway, such as calendula and nasturtium. So this year I planted chamomile, calendula, nasturtium, morning glories and moonflowers.

Outdoor seed sowing one week laterMy group of milk jugs, one week later. Sigh. I’m glad they are covered with an insulating blanket of snow, though, because we’re supposed to get another round of arctic air this week.

Indoor seed startingI started my lettuce and kale seeds indoors last weekend as well. It’s too early for anything else. Lettuce and kale seeds/seedlings do better in a really cool environment, so I have this in the basement now and the plants are significantly less leggy than they used to be on top of the refrigerator. I hope to plant these out in the hoop house in late March or early April, depending on what sort of spring we have.

Sprouted lettuce!My lettuce and kale seedlings, this morning. The tin foil, in case you’re wondering, reflects the light to spread it around; otherwise the plants in the middle tend to grow much faster. I’ve also started using these little terra cotta pots for starting seeds. I’ve tried MANY different things, and I like the results I’m getting with these, plus they fit the “must be reusable, recycled, or compostable” bill.

Fits and starts, right? That’s spring in Minnesota. Watering these little greenies every day has brought me a little joy every day this week.


Today is the fifth anniversary of my very first post on this blog. I can’t believe it’s been five years! This started as a comment I made on Snarkmarket about baking bread and growing your own food, and morphed into a chapter that I was VERY honored to write for the book, The New Liberal Arts (free PDF download here). Since then, my life has changed a bit. I got a different job, I became a Hennepin County Master Gardener, I went through at least 3 bikes; really, it goes on and on. More than that, though, look how much my twin kids changed:

My kids, Feb 2009Enjoying the outdoors during a rare thawing day in February 2009.

My kids, Feb 20145 years later, still playing outside all winter long.

Cheers! Here’s to another five years. Thanks for reading.


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Crazy Garden 2014

We reached a point in this past year where the kids simultaneously became more interested in gardening and less interested in trying new foods. We haven’t eaten mushrooms in ages! Oh, I miss them so. Last fall, in an attempt to tempt them into something new, I started buying only the crazy-colored vegetables at the farmers market. Orange cauliflower. Purple broccoli. Golden beets. Then we all got an idea: what if we planned our next year’s garden around crazy vegetables?! I give you our 2014 garden plan:

A kid-friendly garden for 2014(click to enlarge)

We still have some standards in there, like bush beans, tomatoes, peppers, and onions. But we’re really going to try and mix things up this year. Here are some of the new things we’re trying:

Romanesco Broccoli

Romanesco Broccoli (click image for source)

Cheddar cauliflower

Cheddar cauliflower (click image for source)

Purple Kohlrabi

Purple Kohlrabi (click image for source)

Golden beets

Golden beets (click image for source)

Rainbow chard

Rainbow chard (click image for source)

Dragon carrots

Dragon carrots (click image for source)

Easter egg radishes

Easter egg radishes (click image for source)

Red noodle bean / yard long bean

Red noodle bean, aka yard long bean.

I’ve grown some of these before, including the easter egg radishes, rainbow chard, and dragon carrots, but never a whole garden full. You’ll also notice on the plan that I’ve included a 10’x20′ plot at Sabathani with Long Island Cheese pumpkins, potatoes, and brussels sprouts. I’m applying for a permanent plot there this year—last year my friend CJ and I filled a spare 10’x20′ plot full of pumpkins and squash, and our relative success has me inspired to make this a permanent thing. I can’t get there every day, so I have to choose plants that can survive a few days without weeding/watering/harvesting. I’m very excited about this development!

Our three stock tank gardens in the back won’t change significantly this year, although Anneke really wants to try elephants’ ears in hers. I’m letting the kids pick out their plants for their tanks when we get the Friends School catalog in a few weeks. Of course I’d love it if they planted edibles, but I’m not going to force them. My large stock tank will be planted in greens hopefully in very early April. (Or late March? Dare I hope?)

So there you have it! Our edible garden plans for 2014. Of course I have “landscape” garden plans too, as always. My prairie garden in my boulevard still has about a 10’x6′ space to fill, and I may add another currant bush somewhere. When there’s this much snow on the ground it’s easy to get carried away. Happy garden planning season, everyone!

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