The New Home Economics


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Harvest time

It’s time for me to come clean. After last week’s native plants manifesto, I realized I’m a giant hypocrite because I plant an entire garden of non-native annuals every single year. Yep, that would be my vegetable gardens. And I’m not giving them up. So, now that my confession is over and you’ve forgiven me (right?), let’s talk about something positive: the harvest.

Long Island Cheese PumpkinsWe have more Long Island Cheese pumpkins than we know what to do with. My decision to grow them this year (at our community garden plot) was 100% fueled by this post and accompanying recipe. We made the soup last night and it was good. Subtle, but good. Once cured, these pumpkins do have a pretty great flavor. I’ll bake them up one at a time (because I can literally only fit one at a time in my oven) and freeze the flesh for pies, breads, pancakes, etc.  I’ve also given a few away to friends and family. So fun to have a big success!

Romanesco Broccolli failNo year is complete without a few fails: my Romanesco Broccolli still has not formed heads and I don’t see how it will now, since the sun has now dipped behind my neighbor’s roofline for most of the day. I also crowded too many plants in this little space. The broccoli and cauliflower really shaded the purple kohlrabi. There are one or two edible kohlrabis in there, but the rest are mostly greens. I’ll still cook them up—all are edible. I think we ran out of the large amounts of sunlight the Romanescos need, just at the time they need them. This particular spot is truly a short-season garden.

HopsSpeaking of fails, here’s another one that only recently came to light.  We started talking to a fellow home-brewer at National Night Out, and realized that we are not growing the right kind of hops (he informed us with his nose in the air). We have Golden Hops; apparently they’re not really recommended for brewing. No wonder the homebrew we made with them last year didn’t taste quite right! We were planning on removing this vine anyway next year. It has gotten too big for this little garden spot, and we might just let it die and replace it with Cascade, or another traditional brewing hops plant. Even Master Gardeners can make big mistakes!

Blueberry preservesEnough of the fails, in a year where we have SO MUCH for which to be thankful. One of those things was the opportunity for me to take a Friday off work in August so that the family could go pick blueberries in eastern Wisconsin. We made quite a few (18?) half-pints of this simply amazing blueberry preserves recipe, and have been enjoying it weekly since.

TomatoesI never grow enough tomatoes for canning, so as usual I purchased 40 lbs of canning tomatoes from Gardens of Eagan—the best value I’ve been able to find at $1/lb. I had grand plans, and my best friend and I thought we could drink wine and can tomatoes at the same time. You can imagine how much we actually got done!  We processed 1/3 of them raw, while another 1/3 of them baked in the oven using Trout Caviar‘s roasted tomato recipe. We intended to can the roasted tomatoes in these half pints (we use them as a pizza sauce base), but ended up freezing them because my patience for the canning process is wearing thin, in general.

Tomato PasteLater that week I still had 1/3 of the tomatoes to use up, so Adam and I tried our hands at tomato paste, using this recipe. It was easy! I’ll definitely do that again. We froze the resulting paste in ice cube trays and I have a feeling it will be gone before the new year.

tomatopaste2Frozen cubes of tomato paste, ready to be used.

La Ratte fingerling potatoesWe dug up three final hills of “La Ratte” fingerling potatoes the first weekend of September, from our community garden plot. They seem to be storing pretty well so far, but we’ll use them up before we really test how long they can last.

Chamomile flowersI didn’t dry quite as much mint as I usually do, but I doubled my usual amount of dried chamomile flowers for tea this winter. Good thing too; we’ve already run through one minor illness in the first month of school.

Little Bluestem grass in the fallOver in the prairie boulevard, Little Bluestem is turning absolutely gorgeous.

Aromatic AsterIn the backyard woodland garden, this wee little aromatic aster (mixed in with some lemon balm) is adding a nice little splash of color.

We have two remaining harvests in our community garden plot, too: our brussels sprouts and Anneke’s strawberry popcorn, which is close to being ready. Part of me wishes we would have a freeze to sweeten up those brussels. We’re living on borrowed time right now here in the Twin Cities; the average first frost date is September 21.

I hope this post has illustrated that every year in the garden, you have some successes and some failures. This blog is part of how I keep track of mine. It’s all part of the process, right?!


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Book Review: Bringing Nature Home

Bringing Nature Home by Douglas TallamyBringing Nature Home
How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants
by Douglas Tallamy

The bad news about birds just keeps on coming. Climate change. Habitat loss. You name it. We could lose more than 300 species of birds just to climate change alone. And not just in the U.S.  Sir David Attenborough recently saidevery space in Britain must be used to help wildlife” to avoid catastrophic die-off of key species.

What are we to do?  I refuse to sit around and do nothing or give in to despair, because friends: there *is* something we can all do. Will it stop climate change or restore our pristine environment? No. But we can help bridge the gap between where we are now and where we need to be in the future, with one simple step.

CHOOSE NATIVE PLANTS FOR YOUR LANDSCAPE.

I just finished this excellent little book, and honestly Tallamy was preaching to the choir with me because I was nodding my head emphatically at every paragraph.

Tallamy’s angle on saving birds is that by planting native plants, we support native insects, which in turn support birds. Honestly, I used to think about supporting wild birds mostly in terms of plants that produced berries for them to eat. But a huge percentage of a bird’s diet comes from the insect world (bats and rodents, too), especially when they are raising their young.

But how bad are things, really?  Here in Minnesota, in particular, we value our outside spaces so much that we seem surrounded by “nature” all the time. But the problem is our nature is not exactly all natural: we plant non-native species that offer no value to wildlife, or worse, turf grass that requires constant pollution to maintain and *still* offers no value to wildlife.

A handful of the staggering statistics cited by Tallamy:

– The United States’ songbird population has declined 50% in the last 50 years.

– Only 3-5% (depending on whom you ask) of the land in the lower 48 United States is still undisturbed.

– 50,000 alien species of plants and animals have colonized North America.

There is a simple relationship between species survival and habitat area. If you destroy half of a natural area, half of the species within that area will die. Tallamy extrapolates that we could lose 97% of our native North American species of plants, insects, and animals. Think about that. Pretty sobering.

So why do people buy non-native ornamental plants for their landscapes? At this point, it’s hard to see why you would. After reading this book, I definitely won’t. But unfortunately the nursery industry is going to cater to what its customers are asking for and not enough of them are asking for natives.

Tallamy gives many examples of the woes brought upon our continent by foreign ornamentals; it’s not just that they displace native plants, but they also often bring new foreign pests and diseases along with them, that thrive in an area where no natural predator has developed to keep them in check. Hello, Emerald Ash Borer.

So what native plants should we prioritize in our landscapes? Here’s where this book starts to take a helpful turn for the positive. Tallamy gives detailed descriptions of several native species that support not just one but many species of insects that in turn support the rest of the ecosystem.

Tallamy uses lepidoptera (butterflies) as his test and ranks woody plants by how many different lepidoptera species they support. He chose lepidoptera mainly because large bodies of research exist about them. Using lepidoptera as an indicator of value is not perfect, but it is very interesting. For example, our native North American Oak trees (genus Quercus) support 534 different butterfly species! Wow. Coming in close second are our native Willows (genus Salix), Cherry & plum (genus Prunus), and Birch (Betula). For shrubs, he lists blueberries & cranberries (Vaccinium) & hazelnut (Corylus).

He then describes—in detail—the insect world that depends on several of these key species, showing how the support goes up the food chain. For example, downy woodpeckers like to forage for insects in the soft wood of large willow trees.

One of my favorite chapters was “What does bird food look like?” with detailed descriptions of several bugs, where they live, what plants they need, etc. I never thought of milkweed beetles as bird food, for example.

Aphids on native sunflowersAfter reading this book, I am looking at scenes like this with a different attitude. Multiple levels of the food chain in action right here on this dying compass plant. Aphids, ants, you name it. I’ve also been seeing goldfinches and other birds I had never previously seen around here, all over my yard this year. It’s so rewarding.

So. If you are *at all* concerned by the mounting body of evidence that we are at the doorstep of a massive extinction event, give this book a shot. I *highly* recommend it. Then start deciding what native plants you’d like to add to your landscape—shrubs and small trees can still be planted here in the northland for another two weeks at least, as long as you keep them well-watered until the ground freezes hard. OK? OK.

Maybe the sea change has already begun: the Washington Post just published a piece on this very topic! Positive change that I can be a part of? SIGN ME UP.