The New Home Economics


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Happy Memorial Day

Time for my annual Memorial Day garden photo shoot. What a gorgeous day, my goodness.

Apple blossomsThis is the last bloom for our fire blight-afflicted apple tree; we’re cutting it down in a few weeks. It sure does look gorgeous against our neighbor’s purple leaf maple though!

Giant Solomon's SealMy Solomon’s Seal is finally really starting to look like something! I think it will even bloom this year—note the tiny buds hanging delicately, like green pearls, from the stems.

The delicate flowers of Jacob's LadderI can’t get over the delicate blue flowers of Jacob’s Ladder.

Wild ColumbineNext spring, I will need to give away some wild columbine. It’s taking over our entire yard!

Chives and tulipsChives are almost blooming, tulips are just about finished. I don’t remember a year when tulips bloomed this late. It was a challenging spring.

Prairie SmokePrairie smoke blooming in my boulevard. This plant is really tiny!

Grape vineThe rabbits left us a 3 foot section of grape vine this year!

TomatilloThis year I’m trying a tomatillo for the first time. It’s got a blossom on it already!

Strawberry bloomStrawberries are in full bloom, but unfortunately rabbits have eaten a lot of the plants.

Crab apple blossomMy neighbor’s crab apple tree in full bloom. Have a wonderful end to your 3-day weekend!

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Eight tips for new Minnesota gardeners

I’m not trying to create link bait or anything here; I know SO many people that are vegetable gardening for the first time this year, so I wanted to create a resource for them. So here you go, Lisa, Jon and Nick!

1. Light

As a master gardener, I hear this question all the time. “Why did my tomato plant not produce any tomatoes?” More often than not, it was because the plant simply did not get enough light. Most vegetables need AT LEAST 8 hours of sunlight per day. I would not go less than 10 for most vegetables, including favorites like tomatoes, cucumbers, and zucchini. The only vegetables that really tolerate shade (and actually benefit from a bit of it) are the ones that you eat as leaves: lettuce, kale, chard, most herbs. I have seen many Pinterest boards that list root vegetables like carrots and beets as being shade tolerant, but in my experience they still need a good 8 hours of sun. When you consider that a MN summer day can be as long as 15 hours around solstice time, 8 hours does technically qualify as part-shade, I guess.

2. Timing

Most of our favorite garden plants—including tomatoes, basil, cucumbers—are tropical by nature. They will not tolerate frost in the least. They don’t even like nighttime temperatures less than 50 degrees. So we have to be VERY patient in late April in early May. Watch the forecast and make an educated decision when you plant—in general the last frost occurs in the Twin Cities by May 10-15. Happily, many plants can be put in as soon as the snow clears away and the ground is soft enough to work. Radishes, peas, cabbage-family veggies: these can all be planted earlier and don’t mind the cold.

3. Rows

When I was a new gardener, I read lots of books about permaculture and alternative planting methods, and I really wanted to scatter-plant my seeds in order to maximize the space that I had. The problem with this was that, when the seeds sprouted, I couldn’t differentiate between what I had planted and what was a weed. If you plant in rows or at least in a grid pattern (if you’re trying square foot gardening), it will be much easier to identify your plants, since mother nature never plants weeds in straight lines.

4. Spacing

Another mistake I still make all the time is assuming I can cram one more broccoli plant here, or one more row of radishes there. What usually ends up happening is that they don’t end up getting enough sunlight or water and I get nothing at all. When you are a new gardener, especially, mind the spacing recommendations on the plant tag or seed packet. I have an illustration of tomato spacing for you:

Tomatoes, recently plantedHere are six heirloom tomatoes, recently planted, getting tied up with twine.

Tomatoes in high seasonHere they are in August. The trellis is about 6 feet tall, 6 feet long, and two feet wide. It *barely* fits six tomato plants, and only because I prune most of the suckers out.

5. Water

At the master gardener vegetable classes, we like to say “water infrequently and deeply”—and this is true for most of the season. However, the first few weeks you will want to water frequently and lightly until all your seeds are sprouted and your seedlings established. Then you can back off to once or twice a week (or less if we get plenty of rain).

6. Compost

Start a compost pile! It’s not rocket science; even if you’re a lazy composter you will, eventually, get compost. It’s free fertilizer for your garden, and reduces household waste.

5. Biodiversity

Most of my garden pest problems have disappeared since I started adding large numbers of native plants to the rest of my yard. We now have an abundance of beneficial insects, spiders, birds, and yes, wasps around who help us control all the crawly things that eat our cabbage and other vegetables. As an added benefit, you’re helping bees.

6. Edible landscaping

While we’re on the subject, why limit yourself to planting edibles in one area, and flowers in another? Small fruit trees and shrubs give you food year after year without having to be replanted. I love my currant bushes, alpine strawberries and raspberry hedge. I don’t like to think of my gardens just in terms of monetary value, but if that appeals to you, here it is: fruits are the very best return on investment you can get. Also, many native plants, such as my favorite anise hyssop, can be dried and made into herbal teas.

CurrantRed Lake currants are a beautiful landscape plant, aren’t they?

7. Plant herbs

This sort of goes along with edible landscaping, but herbs are also a great investment, in terms of money. They’re also more shade tolerant than standard garden produce, so they’re great to fill in other areas. My front flower garden has become an overgrown (yet somehow beautiful) mix of wild columbine, purple coneflowers, parsley, dill, cilantro, chives and fennel which all re-seed themselves each year. Added bonus: we now get black swallowtail butterflies every year, whose larvae love parsley. Herbs are some of the first things to come back in the spring, too, when you’re just dying for something fresh and green. I picked my first chives in April this year, and that was after a very late spring.

dill and herbsThis is pretty, right? It’s not a mess at all, in my mind.
8. Mulch

When it gets to be early June and everything is up and out of the ground, why not add a layer of mulch? It will help keep the ground from drying out and also simultaneously help keep weeds down. I’ve been using straw in the vegetable garden for a few years now and really like it. It also keeps things cleaner, which enables even more eating straight out of the garden. For my regular flower/herb/native plant beds, I use wood chips, which are FREE and also a little more acceptable for keeping my front-of-house yard attractive to normal people.

Since there are plenty of experienced gardeners who read this blog, what am I forgetting? Surely something? Post a comment!


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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!