The New Home Economics

Leave a comment

Progress and change

We’re going through lots of changes here in south Minneapolis. Some are seasonal—it’s going to freeze tomorrow. Others feel more substantial.

Blake the dog

We said goodbye to our old friend Blake on Saturday, September 10. Adam and I adopted him as a puppy in May of 2001; he was 15 years old. Rowan and Anneke have never experienced life without him until now—I caught Rowan sitting quietly with him several times in the week leading up to his final vet appointment. We’ll get another dog someday. But I don’t know that I’ll ever love another animal as much as I loved Blake—my dog baby before I had human babies.

All I do is laundry

Our other major life change is that Adam went back to full-time employment this fall after years of being part-time. As a result, our weekends have become something of a race to do ALL the laundry, housework, gardening, shopping, and everything else. We’re not ready to give up yet, though—with several major household appliances and a car all over the age of 15, we need to build savings.

Garden Shed, 2016

Here’s a more pleasant “life” update, or what feels like a life update, anyway. The garden shed that Adam started building five—yes, FIVE—years ago is finally complete. He nearly finished in 2011, but ran out of cedar shakes around halfway up the sides. It took 5 years of diligent Craigslist searching to find someone willing to sell such a small number of shakes needed to finish the job. I’ve been using the garden shed these 5 years, but it’s nice that it finally also looks done on the outside.

Garden shed, 2011

For comparison purposes, here are Adam and the kids working on it in 2011, when they were four. I think Rowan has more than doubled in height. His hair’s a bit longer too. Ah, tweens.

Pollinators of Native Plants

I’ve been making progress on my reading list this year. I recently finished Pollinators of Native Plants: Attract, Observe and Identify Pollinators and Beneficial Insects with Native Plants, by Twin Cities author Heather Holm. As a graphic designer, I found the layout of the book to be a little bit distracting, but in the end the content overcame the layout. This is a fantastic resource; I bought it so that I can have it on hand every time the kids see some new bug in the garden.

I’ve read so much about native plants, but so little about insects, and what a world there is to discover. For example, I never knew how tiny most native bees are—I thought they were all variations on bumblebees, but most are so tiny you most likely never even notice them unless you’re really looking. The other surprising thing was the great variety in shapes and sizes of the various wasps, syrphid flies, and other pollinators native to the midwest.

Thread waist wasp on goldenrod, via The New Home Economics

I was immediately able to identify the wasp on the left as a thread-waist wasp on my goldenrod thanks to this book. On the right, most likely a bumblebee, but it could also be one of several bumblebee mimics. I’m no longer certain!

Learning about our great variety of pollinators drives home the realization that the number of native midwestern insects that we fear because of stinging is such a very small part of the whole population. I have killed nests of yellowjackets in my yard before, but to lump all bees and wasps together with them really does the larger number of them a major disservice. It’s truly becoming one of my life’s missions to help people understand the difference between bees and wasps, and now also between different types of wasps! Because let’s face it: wasps are beneficial, too. How could they not be, when they evolved with our ecosystem right alongside bees, flowers, and everything else?

Trees and Shrubs of Minnesota

I also just finished Trees and Shrubs of Minnesota, by Welby R. Smith. This is also a wonderful resource—especially if you own land or live in the country and want to try and identify the plants growing on your property. It contains general information, distribution, and specific identifying characteristics to help you distinguish even between different types of, for example, currants. I had no idea how many different types of wild currants we have in our state. With four distinct biomes, there’s a lot to cover. This book would not be appropriate for bringing along on a hike; it’s way too big and heavy. This is on my official Christmas list for 2016.

Elephants Ears

With the frost coming tomorrow, several important chores needed to happen this past weekend. Chief on Anneke’s mind was potting up her elephant’s ears and bringing them in for the winter. I’m not sure how this happened, but my kid has become obsessed with tropical plants. And the elephants ears keep multiplying—this started as one plant only 3 years ago. I composted a few of them when she wasn’t looking. She now has a large plant shelf in her room supporting new roommates for the winter, most of which she started from seed on her own: 5 elephants ears, 1 avocado tree, 4 grapefruit trees, and a venus fly trap. She “let” me keep my Meyer lemon in the living room. It’s a silly plant zoo around here.

Musquee de Provence pumpkins, via The New Home Economics

Our Musquee de Provence pumpkins also got hauled in from the community garden plot at Sabathani. There should be four more of these; we lost two to rotting and two to thievery. I was surprised at the thievery—this is the first time my garden has ever been hit. I just hope those thieves cook them up and eat them, because they are DELICIOUS. We made one into a pie on Sunday and it was brightest-orange colored pumpkin pie I’ve ever seen.

Milkweed bugs

Winter is coming. Quick, let’s have a milkweed bug swarm! I could spend all day, every day in my garden observing all the crazy things that go on there. As a proud Minnesotan I do appreciate the winter, though. Enjoy autumn, everyone.


1 Comment

End of summer

Fall is right around the corner, but my gardens are lush thanks to an unusually wet August. Soldier Beetle // via The New Home EconomicsSoldier beetle—a beneficial insect that preys on aphids. I usually see these on orange or yellow flowers, an excellent choice for camouflage.

Newly-hatched Monarch butterfly caterpillar, via The New Home Economics

After a very slow start, we’ve now released more monarchs this year than we did in 2015—the current count is 20. They are so tiny when they first hatch!

Black Swallowtail butterfly, via the New Home Economics

We also raised three black swallowtail butterfly caterpillars, but unfortunately one of them hatched out of its chrysalis with a deformed wing. We ended up mercy-killing it and will donate its body to the STEM classroom at school. Pictured: one of the lucky two that came out perfectly.

Lord of the Rings Kubb, via The New Home Economics

Adam and the kids made a Lord of the Rings-themed kubb set for our family a few weeks ago. With three artists and two months off school, the arts and crafts production reaches a fever pitch during the summer.

Community garden pumpkins, via the New Home Economics

I received an email from our community garden coordinator yesterday mentioning that my pumpkins are now blocking the paths on both sides of my plot. Oops! Going to cut them back later today. These are Musquee de Provence pumpkins; they started slowly but have quadrupled in size the past four weeks.

Harvesting potatoes, via The New Home Economics

We’ve been harvesting potatoes for over a month now. Instead of buying seed potatoes this year, I simply cut up some old sprouty potatoes we had on hand from the co-op. Result: our best potato harvest yet.

Moon rise over Minneapolis, via The New Home Economics

By this time next year, my deck arbor should look how I originally envisioned it: covered in vines, cool and shady even during the middle of the day. This is only year two, so I’m pleased with how far it’s come along.

Rudbeckia, via the New Home Economics

These rudbeckia laciniatas (green-headed coneflower) were taking over my boulevard in 2015. At 6+ feet tall, they were way too big for that spot—and spreading fast. We transplanted all of them to family hunting land this spring and most of them survived! They look much better in their natural meadow environment.

Goldenrod, via The New Home Economics

That meadow is also full of goldenrod. I picked a nice large bunch to dry for tea this winter; apparently goldenrod tea is full of health benefits. I’ve never tried it—I will report back on both flavor and miraculous changes to my well-being.

Lavendar, via The New Home Economics

I tried lavender again this year, in a pot on my steps. It’s grown quite a bit but it just… will… not… bloom. It’s running out of time, too. Lavender: I have never successfully grown it. I’m thinking this is a sun issue—very few areas in my home yard are very sunny. I may try it at my extremely sunny community garden plot next year.

Herb spiral, via The New Home Economics

My herb spiral, in its overgrown end-of-summer state. The sorrel (right) really took off, to the point where we don’t use nearly enough of it to keep up. I like the flavor of it, but no one else in the family does so it’s not getting much use.

Brown eyed susans, via The New Home Economics

A former co-worker divided many of her brown-eyed susan plants mid-summer last year and gave me several. They are thriving. In general, brown-eyed susan plants are easy to grow but individual plants are relatively short-lived, so it pays to let them spread a little by seed. Same goes for purple coneflowers.

This is one of MANY reasons why organic materials are the only mulch to choose if you’re going to plant natives. Put them in, mulch them with old leaves or woodchips, then let them spread and move around a little bit. You’ll be rewarded with volunteers to share with family and friends and spread around your own garden. It’s much more difficult to do that with plastic or rock mulch—you’re tied to the very first placement of the plant, and forced to replace it entirely when it dies.

Zucchini, via The New Home Economics

This used to be a garden path! Now it is an overgrown zucchini plant. Aah, August.

Ostrich ferns, via The New Home Economics

Ostrich ferns and chocolate mint have been waging war on each other for several years in this north-side foundation planting. It’s a pretty contained spot—there’s only one direction for them to escape and it’s narrow (to the east/left side of the photo). The mint started so strong that I was afraid it would completely eradicate the ostrich ferns, but this year thanks to plentiful rain, the ostrich ferns really took off. Will 2017 be the year I FINALLY have enough fiddleheads to actually harvest and cook some? We’ll see.

Spider, via the New Home Economics

August is also officially the season of the big bugs, especially given our tropical weather. Out in the country, literal clouds of mosquitoes are helping to create literal clouds of dragonflies. This spider built a web between our fence and our nannyberry. By the end of summer, the prey-predator balance in the insect world of my yard means I worry more about saving butterfly caterpillars than eliminating aphids or cabbage worms.

I’m all for edible landscaping, but mixing in as many natives as possible creates habitat that brings your yard to life. And it is amazing.


Leave a comment

Country in the city

We keep talking about moving to the country. I don’t think it’s going to happen anytime soon; I’m starting to wonder if it ever needs to happen. How would our lives be different if we lived in the country? What would we do, that we don’t do now?

9YO girl shoots a recurve bow in Minnesota


Fruits of our labor, via the New Home Economics

Raising lots of different fruits right in our yard?

Tiger Swallowtail, via The New Home Economics

Photographing butterflies and bees on wildflowers?

Rescuing baby ducks out of a storm drain, via The New Home Economics

Rescuing baby ducks out of a storm drain? Do they have storm drains in the country? It was pretty satisfying seeing that Mama duck waddle away with all 7 babies in tow after our exciting experience which included lowering my child into a storm drain and stopping traffic on Cedar Avenue…for…ducks.

Honestly, we would do most of the same things we do now, but we’d add in a long car commute (and say goodbye to my beloved daily bike commutes), or try to find a job out there—and that’s no easy task. I guess city life isn’t what I thought it would be, growing up on the edge of a cornfield in the last part of the last century. But it’s better in so many ways. (I haven’t figured out how to have a goat in my back yard, yet.)

Isle Royale National Park

Anyway, we went to Isle Royale National Park in June, after talking about it for approximately 20 years. It was everything I had dreamed it would be; my life-long moose drought ended with seeing three actual moose in the wild. It was wonderful.

Bison at Blue Mounds State Park

Three weeks later we went on an impromptu trip to Blue Mounds State Park, in the very opposite corner of our state. From the boreal forest to the prairie—there is so much to love about both of these biomes. In my fantasy world of moving to the country, I find some acreage that includes both of them. The kids surprised me by emphatically declaring that they preferred Isle Royale, but I had to point out that Blue Mounds was a significantly cheaper and easier trip.

Thimbleberry, at Isle Royale National Park

When we go on these trips, I always take obnoxious numbers of wildflower photos. Isle Royale was covered in thimbleberry plants, which were new to me. A member of the rose family, they get a bright red, raspberry-like berry later in the summer. A little research upon our return told me that Prairie Restorations, a local native plant nursery, stocks these! I’m going to try them next year in a new mixed bed I am planning. I will be sure to find out first whether they require acidic soil; I frequently saw them next to Bunchberries, which do require acidic soil and failed to thrive in my yard.

Pink wedding bouquet, via The New Home Economics

A friend got married two weeks ago, and I was able to provide a beautiful bridal bouquet for her from my yard! Fortunately she’s not the kind of person to mind if a few bees were buzzing around her bouquet.

Living out of doors, via The New Home Economics

Two years ago, we added this trellis above our deck. Last year, I planted hops and grapevines around it, and this year the plants really got established and started actually providing us with mid-day shade. However, the deck/arbor are on the west side of the house and the setting sun is still intense around supper time. We added this sun shade to the arbor, and the sense of privacy and shade have been great. Plus: we’ll get our first real hops harvest this year. Adam wants to brew one batch of fresh hops beer, then I hope to barter the rest to a brewing neighbor in exchange for a growler of the finished product. Next year, perhaps, we’ll get our first real batch of wine grapes.

Banana and jalapeno peppers, via The New Home Economics

Garlic, via The New Home Economics

Harvest season is in full swing. Above, jalapeño and sweet banana peppers ready for pickling. I’m growing my peppers all in pots this year, scattered around the sunniest parts of my flower garden. This could end up being a permanent change.

Next, my garlic. I had an epiphany last fall: WHY was I using up several square feet of my precious little fenced vegetable garden space for a food that rabbits *don’t* eat? So I planted garlic cloves all over my flower beds in the fall. They all came up, and that was great, but unfortunately many of them got shaded out by taller plants as they were maturing. As a result, my bulbs are rather small. I’m still happy to have them, though.

I love the home and yard we’re creating here in South Minneapolis. So maybe I should spend some time enjoying it rather than wonder if I’m missing out on anything. How is your summer harvest going?

Leave a comment

Book reviews: Minnesota’s Bounty and The Vegetable Gardener’s Guide to Permaculture

I read two garden-related books this spring, and am finally getting around to reviewing them here.

A Vegetable Gardener's Guide to Permaculture

The Vegetable Gardener’s Guide to Permaculture: Creating an edible ecosystem
by Christopher Shein, with Julie Thompson

I approached this book as I do all permaculture books: with skepticism. There are three aspects of many (most?) permaculture books that bother me. First, they are written by and for people living in more moderate climates than the upper midwestern United States. Second, they are written by people who have no profession other than doing permaculture stuff. Is this my bias, or is this generally true? Finally, they often encourage the planting of non-native, invasive species such as bamboo without warnings about the potential consequences to local ecosystems.

Having said all that, of course I support any book that makes the principles of permaculture accessible for normal people, and this book fills that niche just fine. It features gorgeous photos of permaculture principles at work in some very productive California gardens.

This book includes lots of practical advice for the novice vegetable gardener; for example defining monoculture vs polyculture and outlining the benefits of growing many different types of things. I have seen this in my own garden this year: instead of growing just one type of leafy green, I’m growing kale, swiss chard, collard greens, French sorrel, and mesclun lettuce mix. When my collards were under attack from cabbage worms several weeks ago, we ate lettuce instead. Now that my collards have recovered and my swiss chard is full of leaf miners, well, you get the idea. When you plant a variety of things, a crop failure of one is not devastating.

Another criticism that I could lodge at some permaculture books is an oversimplified view of how nitrogen-fixing crops work. Until very recently, I too was under the impression that placing any nitrogen-loving plant next to a nitrogen-fixing plant was a solid move all throughout the growing season. But that’s not true. And I could have learned how it worked just by checking Wikipedia!

It’s a subtle difference, but it’s important: nitrogen-fixing plants (such as legumes like beans and peas) have little nodes on their roots. These nodes are where excess nitrogen (pulled from the air) is stored. When the plant dies, this nitrogen is released into the soil as the nodes/root system break down. So yes, they benefit the soil, but only after they die.

This explains why I had to eventually consider my interplanting of snow peas and cucumbers to be a fail. I tried it for two years—it made so much sense to me that my cucumbers could climb up the snow peas and then eventually just replace them on the same trellis.

Interplanting cucumbers and snow peas

The problem was, right up until the moment the snow peas died, they were actually competing with the cucumbers for water and nutrients. My cucumbers’ growth was slow until the snow peas finally died off in early July. When the peas died off, the cucumbers really came to life (which supports the science that nitrogen is released when the plant dies). In a long growing season, this might be OK, but not with my short Minnesota window. My yields of cucumbers were less than in previous years.

I suspect that many “dynamic accumulators” in permaculture are just like this. Take comfrey, for example. The plant doesn’t do much for you when you just leave is sitting in its spot (except spread and become invasive). You must remove much of its foliage several times per growing season and either add it to your compost, make comfrey compost tea with it, or use the leaves as a weed-suppressing mulch. If you’re not willing to commit to that, you should think hard before planting it.

I made comfrey compost tea earlier this summer, and WOW did it smell awful!

Comfrey Compost Tea

I pulled out most of my comfrey plant (don’t worry, it came right back), placed it in two 5-gallon buckets, then let it ferment for 2 weeks. Then I watered it down about 50% and poured it on many vegetables and shrubs. Everything responded well to the treatment except my peppers, which looked a little stressed afterwards. If I use it on them again, I will water it down further (to 25% or less).

But I digress. I checked The Vegetable Gardener’s Guide to Permaculture out of the library, but I won’t be buying it. It gave me a few new ideas, but was mostly review. It’s fine for beginner vegetable growers and people who are curious about permaculture, but not really for me.

Minnesota's Bounty, A Farmers Market Cookbook

Minnesota’s Bounty
The Farmers Market Cookbook
by Beth Dooley

Here’s a book written just for me and my fellow cold-climate gardeners! It’s a list of many different vegetables that one can find at our great Minnesota Farmers Markets, from common vegetables like potatoes and peppers to the more unique varieties: bitter melon, okra, sunchokes and the like. There’s also a short section for meat and fish, such as lamb, poultry, and bison.

For each item, Dooley provides at least one recipe (usually three or more), plus Quick Ideas—simple preparations with ingredients you’ll already have on hand. My favorite “quick idea” was the idea of soaking rhubarb overnight in water, discarding the stalks, then sweetening to taste for a rhubarb-ade.

I tried several of the recipes, and they were all satisfactory and easy to follow. The shining star was a salad of radishes, cucumbers, and tomatoes with a cider vinegar-honey-fresh mint dressing. I cheated a little and bought hydroponic cucumbers and tomatoes so that I could make it before the book was due back at the library. It was delightful, and I’ll be copying down that recipe to make it again.

I also tried a stir-fried bison with spring vegetables recipe that was a little bit ho-hum. The sauce was not very flavorful—I’m spoiled by a husband who doesn’t even use a recipe to make a damn good stir-fry sauce. Shall I pin him down on his methodology and share it with you? I will try.

The primary reason I checked this book out was in search of savory rhubarb recipes—I would like to move beyond cakes, pies, scones, etc. This book did have a delicious rhubarb “pandowdy” recipe (a type of upside-down pie), but no savory ideas. I will try to check out Kim Ode’s Rhubarb Renaissance next. I get more rhubarb than I can use; I’ve become that neighbor who gives away rhubarb to anyone who will take it.

I enjoyed this book, but I don’t think I’ll buy this one either. I have somewhat limited book shelf space, so my standards are pretty high for a cook book. Ingredients-based books like this are great, because they provide a resource for that moment of “what do I do with all these collards?” But then again, it’s even easier to just google “collard green recipe” or “red currant recipe.” That was how we found our beloved red currant pie recipe, which Adam is making right now!

Do you know any savory rhubarb recipes? I’d love to hear about them.

1 Comment

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!”


Onions and integrity

A northern vegetable garden, prepped

I can’t remember the last time I’ve had the garden prepped and partially planted this early. The soil has been amended, the soaker hoses are in place, and cool season crops are planted.

Cool and warm season crops are a major topic at the Master Gardener classes I teach. In a nutshell, cool season crops are any edible that you can plant while there is still a chance of frost. We still have about a month until our “average last frost” date in Minneapolis, but many plants can withstand and even thrive in cool temperatures.

With that in mind, I planted collard greens, swiss chard (from seed), two types of radishes, onions, and carrots. I planted my peas two weeks ago; they’re about two inches tall now. Lettuce was sown in February, in my mini hoop house. This turned out to be a little bit premature. It took three full weeks to sprout, and then grew so slowly that it is now approximately the same size as the lettuce I started in the house a few weeks later. I do like experimenting.

Drilling holes in soaker hose

Speaking of experimenting, I have spent the last few years pondering how to make my soaker hoses work better when hooked up to rain barrels, which have very low pressure. The hoses are designed to be hooked up to a regular outdoor faucet, so when using the rain barrel there was never enough pressure to push water through the hose walls and empty the barrel completely.

Drilling tiny holes in these was a risk, no doubt, but I’ve grown annoyed enough with these things that I was willing to try it. Adam drilled holes every 6-12 inches, then we hooked them up to the barrel to test. It worked pretty much how I hoped it would. There is no doubt that the plants closer to the barrel will get more of the rainwater, but overall it will be a more efficient use of this precious resource.

Planting onion starts

Rowan and I spent Sunday afternoon planting onion starts. It’s a tedious process. My method is to dig a little trench, lay out 6-10 onions in a row, then carefully fill in around each one. I plant them fairly close together—around 1-2 inches—because we thin and eat them as scallions all summer long. The few that remain until late summer will actually form bulbs, but few ever make it that long. Green onions from the garden are just too much of a treat.

Rowan planting onions

We bought our onion starts at Mother Earth Gardens. Rowan heard me comment about garden stores with integrity, and asked what that word meant. Here’s how I explained it. It was WARM this weekend, unseasonably hot. It felt like the right weather to plant tomatoes. Many big box stores are probably already selling tomatoes. Mother Earth probably could have sold some this weekend, but they didn’t have any out. Why? Because anyone who plants a tomato this early in Minnesota is at risk of failure if we get a frost (which we might). They want their customers to be successful gardeners, even though it might mean lower profits. Integrity. He totally gets it. (Obviously, since he’s helping his mom plant onions on a Sunday.)

Trout Lilies at Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden

We also made a quick visit to Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden. The spring ephemerals are nearly at peak, with thousands of trout lilies (above) in full bloom and trillium about to open.

The forecast is looking great for cool season crop starting this week—cooler and a little bit rainy. Perfect! I can taste the radishes already…

1 Comment

Book Review: On Garden Style

On Garden Style

Book: On Garden Style
by Bunny Williams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arbor with lights

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

Laundry on arbor

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

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

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

Garden Gnome

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

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

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

Garden entrance

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

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

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

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

Boulevard prairie garden

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

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