The New Home Economics


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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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Waste Not

It’s been a busy month since my last post. I’d like to say it’s all been joyous merrymaking, but, well I’m not going to bore you with the details. Suffice to say: strikes and gutters.

Christmas tree branches as mulchI took out our Christmas tree this week, and Adam cut off all the branches. I put them along the bottom of this fence, which we put up in October in hopes of defending my raspberries from rabbits. I didn’t spring for chicken wire because this stuff was cheaper, and those holes are really small. However, the varmints are getting in. I watched one hop right through the fence Friday night, to feast on my precious canes.

There’s actually not a whole lot I can do at this point except hope that my Christmas tree branch blockade will at least confuse them while Adam prepares for some very local rabbit hunting. He’s set up a little food stand in one part of the yard to bait them. We’ll see how it goes.

Christmas tree firewoodInstead of hauling the newly-bare Christmas tree trunk out to the alley, Adam sawed it into a few pieces and threw it on the wood pile. We’re currently heading a into record cold snap, which, by the way, is not all bad! Apparently there’s a good chance of emerald ash borer die-off. Silver lining, right?

Homemade suet for birdsWe still have just over half the pork fat left from two hogs my family purchased this fall. So Adam used the last of an old bag of bird seed and made some suet. The squirrels have been sniffing very curiously at this but so far I haven’t seen any birds on it. I’ve hardly seen any birds around AT ALL, though, so perhaps it will take a few days for them to discover it.

Venison sausageAdam’s making venison sausage on a regular basis now—and we still haven’t gotten through our store of ground venison or pork fat. I’m anxious to try this new one, which included Gamle Ode “Holiday” Aquavit. We gave some away to family and friends, so we went through our initial batches quickly.

Swiffer with chenille clothFor several months now, we’ve been using this chenille cleaning cloth on our swiffer sweeper, instead of buying the cloths. Take it outside and shake it out a few times while cleaning, then throw it in the wash when done. As far as I can tell it works the same. One less thing to buy, check!

Orange cleanerI’m also trying this suggestion for citrus-infused cleaning vinegar. I’m guessing a little of the orange oil gets into the vinegar too, which would make it ideal for cleaning our wood floors. On the left, some peels that we’re drying for adding to herbal tea.

KnittingFinally, I received a bag of yarn from Adam’s grandma who died almost three years ago, and am using it to teach Anneke to knit. (Rowan’s not interested, for now.) She picked it up really quickly, and I like to imagine how happy it would make Grandma Miller to see her great-granddaughter using up her old yarn.

Anyway, there’s a handful of positive developments around here. Happy New Year!


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A Homemade Christmas

We’ve been elving quite a bit around here lately. Here’s a sample:

Rewiring the deerMost of the lights on Anneke’s doe were no longer working, so Adam and Rowan re-wired it with brand new lights and lots of zip ties (she had intentions of helping, but was too busy with some art project).

Popcorn and finger knitting decorate the treeThe kids have been really into finger-knitting, so we have finger-knit garland on the tree, as well as some popcorn that they strung Thanksgiving weekend.

Making calendula lotionAnneke infused some almond oil with dried calendula flowers from her garden for about 8 weeks this fall. Then she strained it and we made some homemade lotion with it. This recipe makes a slightly greasy but very effective lotion, and the calendula gave it a nice yellow color (we used lavender essential oil). Here are some more calendula-based recipes.

Homemade lip balm and lotion for ChristmasAs long as we were making lotion (finished product in ready-to-gift containers is on the right), I decided to try SouleMama’s peppermint lip balm recipe too (left). I love this lip balm! We’ve been using it for a couple weeks now, and we also made extra to give away.

Homemade toffeeYesterday we tried making toffee for the first time, with this simple recipe from Twin Cities Mix. It’s not a terribly hard thing to make, but be sure you have a working candy thermometer first.

This afternoon, we’re making more venison sausage. Have you been making anything homemade for the Holidays this year? Please share links to recipes or projects if so!

 

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