The New Home Economics


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Goodbye microwave

A few months ago, we got rid of our microwave. I was convinced that I couldn’t live without it, so I moved it to the basement. Turns out, I haven’t missed it a bit.

Many of my favorite food and nutrition bloggers are very against using a microwave to cook foods, and the Weston A Price Foundation recommends against it, since it was never used any traditional societies.

However, I’m having a really hard time finding solid scientific evidence that says, without a doubt, that microwaving food causes real, immediate harm.  But! BUT!  It all depends on how you look at it.

What is true: microwaving food in plastic containers causes the plastic to release toxic chemicals into the food. Also, from one of the more reliable sources I was able to find, scientists don’t all agree on how microwaves actually heat food. There’s also the issue of “popcorn lung,” i.e. highly processed foods specifically made to be microwaved that release airborne chemicals.

Additionally, as everyone knows, microwaves heat food really unevenly and therefore should not be used to cook raw meat or heat up baby bottles, and — let’s face it — microwaved food often just doesn’t taste as good.

What may or may not be true: microwaving food causes cancer, fibromyalgia, and host of other major human diseases. (Here’s a fairly typical article.)

Even if the more extreme assertions aren’t true, what I’ve read was enough to convince me that it’s probably not worth it. Additionally, microwaving food is kinda antithetical to the entire slow foods frame-of-mind — if you want to eat something but are feeling too lazy to cook it properly, maybe you’re not really hungry to begin with!

Our microwave occupied a large part of our kitchen counter.  We got rid of it, put a toaster oven in its place, and haven’t looked back.  Look how much counter space we freed up!

Before:

After:

I’ll be honest: I still use the microwave at work to heat up my soup lunches. (Hey! I’m not perfect!)

Do you feel strongly about microwaves? Know about some really great scientific evidence that they’re dangerous or that they’re safe?  Post it in the comments! Seriously. I’m interested in figuring all this stuff out, and I want to take an even-handed approach and investigate multiple sources.

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Seed starting – light issues

I have the Jump Start seed starting system. It works great for the most part, but the product photo is a *little* bit misleading:

See all those super happy plants? It’s safe to assume they did not actually grow under that light.  The light fixture on the Jump Start is simply not wide enough for a full flat of plants. This was the mistake I made earlier this year:

The seedlings at the outer edges of the flat really had to reach to get their fair share.  I rotated them as much as possible to make sure every plant got their fair share, but they still ended up quite elongated and weak.  Fortunately I was able to plant them out before they reached the point of no return, and they seem happy in the new hoop house. (And who wouldn’t be, when it’s 70 in March?)

I won’t make this mistake again.  For my next batch of seeds, I’m doing a single row, like so:

These should be just fine with the amount of light they’re getting.  And next year I want to look into replacing the fixture on here with one that is wide enough to accommodate 2 bulbs, which should provide enough light for an entire flat of seedlings.  Because who can start a measly 1/2 flat?  (It was hard, let me tell you.)

New to seed starting? This U of M Extension guide is very thorough.


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Detailed plant list

OK, people, we’re going deep into plant geek territory here today. Prepare yourself for latin names! My landscape plan shows where I’m planting all of these.

EVERY plant on this list is native to Minnesota/the upper midwest, and hardy to USDA zone 3, unless where otherwise noted.  Most of my information was pulled from the highly recommended book Landscaping with Native Plants of Minnesota, by Lynn Steiner.

Plants for my new shady rain garden

Lobelia Cardinalis
Cardinal flower
Height: 1-2 feet
Blooms late summer
Part sun to shade
I’m taking a chance planting this one in full shade — hopefully it will bloom; the flowers attract hummingbirds. This will be one of the taller plants in the rain garden, a focal point of sorts because of its bright red flowers.

Arisaema Triphyllum
Jack-in-the-pulpit
Height: 1-3 feet
Blooms early spring
Moderate to full shade
Jack-in-the-pulpit has large, tropical-looking leaves that will make it interesting in this deeply-shaded area. It also gets red fruits in late summer, which are poisonous. Native Americans had some interesting uses for this plant.  I’m growing it for looks. (Honestly!)

Mertensia Virginica

Virginia Bluebells

Virginia bluebells
Height: 1-2 feet
Blooms early spring
Part sun or shade
I added one of these to my front-yard garden two years ago and it is a cute little plant. The plants die back and go dormant in early June, so I plan to interplant them with ferns and meadow rue to fill in.

Thalictrum dioicum
Early meadow rue
Height: 1-3 feet
Blooms early spring
Light shade to deep shade
I’m following Lynn Steiner’s advice and using this exactly like I would use a fern, for its showy foliage.  I’ll interplant it with the Virginia bluebells and the ferns.

Polystichum acrostichoides
Christmas fern
Height: 1-2 feet
Partial shade to full shade
With dark green fronds that stays green into the winter, this is occasionally used for holiday decor. It’s a threatened species so it might be hard to find a nursery that sells it. If I can’t find it, I will try Athryium filix-femina, Lady fern.

So there you have it. A mass of jack-in-the pulpits, a mass of cardinal flowers, and a surrounding edge of rue, ferns, and Virginia bluebells. It was actually kinda hard to find shade loving flowers for a rain garden — I like ferns, but I’d like some flowers in there too.

Perennial screen under a maple tree

This is a dry shade situation, almost as challenging as a wet shade situation!  It will be interesting to see how this all turns out.

Viburnum trilobum
Highbush cranberry
Height: 10-12 feet tall, 10-12 feet wide in sun. I’m planning on 5-6 feet tall/wide for my mostly shady  spot. I’ll plant three of them to create a screen, and an understory layer under a mature maple tree.
Sun to shade
This is a very versatile native shrub for landscaping, and I can’t wait to plant it! It’s got beautiful flowers, and edible fruits (which also attract birds). I may go with another similar species called viburnum lentago (nannyberry) if it’s easier to find — apparently it is more shade-tolerant than trilobum.  Or perhaps I’ll plant one or two of each and see which does better.

Aquilegia canadensis
Wild columbine
Height: 1-2 feet
Blooms early spring-early summer
Full sun to full shade
One of my three main “under the viburnum” herbaceous perennials will be wild columbine. I added one of these in the front two years ago and love it — and so do the bees. It also attracts hummingbirds. This is such an easy plant to grow; I highly recommend it for just about any landscaping project.

Polygonatum biflorum
Giant Solomon’s seal
Height: 1-3 feet
Blooms early summer, dark purple berries in late summer
Light shade to full shade
The second of my three main perennials will be Giant Solomon’s seal, a super cool-looking plant with very light green foliage and dark purple berries in late summer which are prized by birds. It’s very tolerant of dry shade situations like mine.  Apparently, the roots of Solomon’s seal have a role in voodoo in the American south, but once again, I’m in it for the looks. (HONEST!)

Smilacina racemosa
False Solomon’s seal
Height: 1-3 feet
Blooms early summer, red marbled berries in late summer
Light shade to full shade
Third of my three main perennials is False Solomon’s seal, which ought to complement the other one perfectly well. It is apparently easy to grow but prefers acidic soil, so I may need to do a bit of amending around these plants. This one also had quite a few interesting uses to native Americans.

Allium tricoccum
Wild ramp
No bloom (??)
Full shade, but needs a bit of early spring sun (as in under deciduous trees)
Ramps! What permaculture garden is complete without ramps?!  I will finally have a place for them now.  These are a wild, hardy perennial member of the onion family, and their flavor is prized by foragers. I’ve never tried them, but I can’t wait!

A couple other ephemerals
Depending on what I can find, I will also add a few other native ephemerals (early spring blooming plants that die back before summer); namely Dutchman’s breeches (dicentra cucullaria), round-lobed hepatica (hepatica americana), and blood root (sanguinaria canadensis).

Wild Ginger

Filling in the rest of the groundcover
I will fill out the rest of the groundcover in this area with wild ginger (asarum canadense, not related to the ginger we eat), which fills in a nice carpet of green after spring ephemerals die out, and Maidenhair fern (adiantum pedatum) in the front, which is a small fern that is more tolerant than others of dry soil.

The arbor

I want to plant grape vines (these are not native) on the north side of the deck to grow up and over the arbor. My choices are somewhat limited by my hardiness zone.  There are several University of Minnesota cultivars that to consider, and I’ll probably plant 2-3 each of two different kinds. The two I’m most keen on are Edelweiss, which can be used for jellies/juicing OR wine, and Frontenac, a wine grape that is one of the U’s hardier and most disease-resistant.


Well there you have it; that oughtta do it for going completely broke on buying plants this year, huh?!  Since this is a very long-term project, I may wait until late June or July and try to get them after they go on sale. It will likely take until then to finish the hardscape parts of the project anyway.

One final thing: ALL of these plants (except the grapes), can be seen in their natural habitat at the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden & Bird Sanctuary, part of Theodore Wirth Park in north Minneapolis.  That place is a treasure and an inspiration. I cannot recommend it enough. Some of the more interesting notes about medicinal uses of plants in the list above came from a guide book I purchased there.

Update, 3/22/2012: D’oh, this post was over 1,000 words long and I still forgot one plant I want to add near my stock tanks: a western sand cherry shrub (link points to a PDF, sorry).


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My back yard landscape plan

I am finally unveiling what I’ve been working on for more than two months: my back yard landscape plan!  It is as complete as it’s going to be, so let’s take a look.

I want to walk you through my process, because I am really jazzed about how it went. I used Adobe Illustrator as my landscape design tool, rather than the traditional graph paper and tracing paper. I took a landscaping class in February and the idea of re-drawing the entire thing every time I wanted to move something or change something frustrated me really quickly.  Fortunately, I have an older copy of Illustrator on my home computer and, measurements of my back yard in hand, I created a document where each square on the grid represented 1 foot of my back yard. Made the math part really easy (click to enlarge).

Adobe Illustrator as landscape design tool

So without further ado, let’s walk through the steps.

back yard existing hardscape and plants

Here’s the back yard (and sides) as it exists now. North is to the right. Pretty much everything that’s white in here is turf grass and/or bare ground.  I have some existing planted areas, such as my raspberries. Some areas are so shady (like the corner by the compost bin) that no grass will grow there. The concrete sidewalk is old and tree roots have made it very uneven. Speaking of trees, here’s the same landscape with existing shade trees and drainage problems:

The green shady areas are the areas of more than 75% shade. You could extend those borders out even a bit further if you wanted to include the 35-50% shade areas.  The blue is where we have standing water in the spring — it also floods our garage each year.

final back yard plan

And here is the plan! We’ll maintain a pretty large turf area for now, because the kids need room to play. Everything that’s white will be mulched with wood chips — we’re going to need a couple trucks full!  The biggest components of this project, however, are going to be: building a cedar trellis/arbor over the deck and completely removing the sidewalk.  Adam will be doing his best John Henry impression with a sledgehammer to get that sidewalk outta there.  Our dads will likely help him build the arbor.

The weirdest part about following the landscape design process is that you don’t pick your plants until dead last.  I had a couple plants in mind all along, of course, but I forced myself to keep an open mind in case they wouldn’t fit into the areas I had planned. You plan for sizes and shapes of plants first, then find plants that fit the bill.

One thing that really helped me finalize where everything was positioned was doing an exercise to mark access points where people would be frequently walking through:

with access points

This diagram actually still shows the existing sidewalk too, so you can see that the new plants will actually be in the exact spot the sidewalk is now.  I had several a-ha moments while adding all these little arrows, and it really helped me to finalize the design and feel confident about my choices.

I’m still in the process of finalizing plant lists for the rain garden and the smaller perennials that will go under the viburnums on the right (north).  My goal is for the entire back yard to contain only plants that are native to Minnesota and/or the Upper Midwest.  So that limits my choices quite a bit, but I’m very excited to see all the birds and butterflies that will assuredly show up here in the next few years as these plants mature.

This post is getting a bit long, so I think I will go ahead and save a detailed plant list with descriptions for another night.  If you can think of a great native plant for a shady water garden or a shady understory garden, please add it in the comments below!  Also, what do you think?  I’m pretty excited.


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Garden update

Today I planted out the seeds I had started on February 22, with the exception of the spinach which never sprouted. These seedlings are still pretty young, but unfortunately they’re a bit leggy — my seed-starting system really is not made to support the numbers I have been attempting with it.

The plants in their flat. From now on I will only allow one row of flats in there instead of two, unless I change my lighting system. (I have the Jump Start system and it shows two very happy rows of plants in every picture.  Humph.)

greens in stock tank

Greens planted out in the stock tank! I sowed mini rows of seeds all around the plants, to fill in after we harvest these.  I am really going to try for sowing new seeds every 4-6 weeks all season, for a more continuous and varied harvest. This tank contains (L to R) ‘Winter Density’ lettuce (a head lettuce), leeks scattered around, swiss chard, red russian kale (which may not survive; it is very leggy), lacinato kale, and mesclun lettuce.

There was a hot wind today so I was glad for the cover to give them a bit of shelter from it.  Even though it got up into the 80s today the forecast is for highs in the 60s the rest of this week. Even 60 is about 20 degrees above normal for Minnesota in March.

This weather troubles me.  All the plants in my yard are waking up, and quickly. If apple trees blossom out before mid-May (and at this rate, they most certainly will), there’s a good chance of the blossoms being zapped by a late April or early May frost (a very common occurrence — our average last frost date is May 15).  Minnesota’s apple harvest could be compromised.  I’m hearing reports of below-average maple syrup harvest. Maple sugaring time is right now, and in order for the sap to really flow you need cool daytime temps in the 40s-50s and night times below freezing.

Anyway, everything I planted out today can withstand light freezing temps, so no worries about those little greens.  Even if the weather gets down into the 20s they should theoretically be OK with their hoop house cover.  Only time will tell!


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Book Review: Four Season Harvest

Four-Season Harvest
Organic vegetables from your home garden all year long
By Eliot Coleman

You guys, I made a mistake. I bought the wrong book! Not that the Winter Harvest Handbook wasn’t awesome, inspiring, and great, but I kept getting the sense that I was missing something. That something was the information contained in this Eliot Coleman book from 1999, which a friend recently loaned to me.

Whereas Winter Harvest Handbook focused mainly on growing winter crops in a market-garden or CSA-farm scenario, Four-Season Harvest is all about the home garden. (Yes, I’m aware that 10 minutes of research and would have revealed this, but I’m here to serve you, dear reader, and prevent you from repeating my mistakes.)

Let’s dive right in and explore the many ways this book is influencing changes in my gardening life, starting this year.

Compost
My compost pile has always been OK… after a year, I do get compost, but it doesn’t move very fast, and I’ll admit that it occasionally gets smelly.  It’s also never heated up for me, as well-maintained compost piles should.  The past two years I’ve been adding dried leaves to it as “brown” material between the green layers, and this has greatly helped with the smell factor, and seemed to be an improvement overall, but still things were just not breaking down as quickly as I would have liked.

Enter Coleman’s very helpful chapter on composting. First of all, he does *not* recommend putting leaves in your compost pile, because apparently leaves are broken down primarily by fungi, while other compost ingredients are primarily broken down by bacteria.  The leaves and their fungi don’t necessarily subtract from that, but they definitely don’t add to it.  They can also end up slowing down the process when they clump together and form a dry, airless mass.  I’ve broken up many of these in my own bin.

Rather than leaves, he recommends keeping a bale of straw (not hay) and sandwiching your green layers (vegetable scraps, lawn clippings, and the like) with a layer of straw.  Because each stalk of straw is hollow, they help improve airflow, and they end up becoming a fuel to help heat up your pile.  I just checked my pile and it’s still frozen solid, but as soon as it thaws I am getting a bale of straw to try this method out.

But what about all my poor old leaves?  I have them all saved still, in bags!  Coleman recommends using them to create leaf mold.  Apparently leaf mold is a really great soil amendment for vegetables in the cabbage and carrot families.  To make leaf mold, create a round wire column out of fencing, 3-4 feet in diameter, (much like what I made for my potato tower last year), add leaves and water, and leave them for around 2 years. I may need a couple of these for the amount of leaves our trees produce!

Soil structure and aerating
Coleman uses a broad fork to gently aerate the soil, rather than tilling, which can disturb soil structure in the long run. I’m going to look for one of these at the garden store.

Garden layout
He has a map of his own garden, with details on crop rotation, succession planting, etc. If I had more land to work with, I would honestly just make an exact copy of his garden design, because it is brilliant. However, instead of a 43’x40′ garden spot I have a 21’x6′ spot that is shaded for 7 months of the year by the neighbor’s house. Humph.

Cold frames
Cold frame and green house/high tunnel design, maintenance, and care are covered extensively in this book. There’s even a table of planting and harvest dates for winter cold frame veggies (I’ve added some of these to my garden calendar). I would like to add a cold frame; there are limits to what we’ll be able to do with our mini hoop house, as cute as it is.  In order to really consider having greens from your home garden for 10 (maybe even 11-12) months, you really need a cold frame. Coleman recommends two 4’x8′ frames for each member of your family. YOWZA!  That’s definitely not happening on my less-than-1/4 acre!  I’m going to keep thinking about while being content with just my hoop house for this year.

Forcing endives and other root crops
There’s also a how-to on how to grow Belgian endives — it involves storing them in a root cellar, then sprouting them a few at a time in a bucket of wet sand under your kitchen sink. Very interesting stuff. He also gives details on sprouting cabbages, celeriac, beets and parsley root.

Finally, there’s several appendices full of descriptions of how to grow specific vegetables (including artichokes, and his technique is very interesting).

In short, I’m just going to have to buy my own copy of this book, even though I’ve totally blown my book budget for the entire year and it’s only March.  I recommend this one even more than Winter Harvest Handbook, especially for those of us who only dream of raising fields of food while gardening for ourselves, in the city.