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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

Archery?

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?


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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.


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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.

sawflies

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.

Gooseberries

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.

Grapes

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.

Lettuce

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

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.

Currants

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.

Strawberries

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.

Backyard

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.

outdoormovie

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!”


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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…


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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.


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Garden Plan 2016

Hello again friends! I hope you had a wonderful holiday season. Now that my yard and gardens are buried in snow, it’s time to start planning for next season. Here’s the layout I came up with for this year. Click to enlarge:

Layout of garden // via The New Home Economics

Not terribly different from the last 2-3 years, honestly. Just a couple of new things I’m trying:

Peppers: I’m not growing peppers in the main vegetable garden this year. Rather, I’m going to plant 3-4 of them each in 3-4 big containers which I’ll spread around the sunniest parts of the front yard flower beds. I have some extra space in my cherry tree garden while I wait for the tree and surrounding shrubs to get bigger (I got tired of weeding this in 2015). I’ve not had good yields of peppers the past 2 years, so I want to give the garden a break from at least one nightshade vegetable.

Spacing: each year I have to re-learn the spacing lesson. I’m going to try once again to control myself when it comes to how many plants I try to cram into each area (exception: I’ve gotten good at crowding onions). It’s hard when you have a tiny garden!

Sabathani Community Garden: after two years of growing only pumpkins and potatoes there, we’re going to add just a couple of other things: namely kohlrabi and (maybe) some radishes and/or onions if I end up with extra.

Other than that, we’re just continuing to try and rotate things through. I’m growing two trellis’ worth of cucumbers, in hopes that I’ll produce enough for the squirrels AND me (rather than just enough for them). I also doubled the number of onions, because onions fresh from the garden are SO good. We plant onion “starts” quite close together go down the row, picking every other green onion to allow the remaining onions to get bigger. Last year, only a handful ever got close to full size.

I’m trying two new-to-me varieties of vegetables this year:

Watermelon Radish, via Seed Savers Exchange

First is the Watermelon Radish. It’s not just for looks either; these are seriously delicious. We first tried them at the farmers’ market last summer but have purchased them from the co-op several times since. I may try to squeeze a row of these in at my community garden plot. I ordered this (and all my seeds) from Seed Savers Exchange in Iowa.

Musquee de Provence pumpkin

Next up is the gorgeous Musquee de Provence pumpkin. I love Long Island Cheese pumpkins, but after two years in a row it’s time to try something new. Crossing my fingers for a long enough growing season–these need 110 days!

It might be useful to review some of my past garden plans. I keep making the same mistakes!

2015 Garden Plan

Garden Layout for 2015

The biggest problem with the 2015 garden plan was that I did not leave enough space for the beets (top right). The parsnips got shaded by the grapevine, leaned over the beets, which leaned over the carrots, and NONE of them sprouted very well. (It sure looked good when I planted it in May, though!) I also continue to have poor results with radishes (yet continue to not give up). My peppers also did not do well–I picked them up at the Friends Plant Sale as I often do, and many of them were spindly and weak. A dose of too-strong compost tea (oops) then killed some of them.

BUT! But. We had great crops of peas and beans. We *would* have had great crops of tomatoes and cucumbers had the ___ ___ squirrels not eaten so many. I was on the right track with planting smaller-sized tomatoes last year, but this year I might plant all F1 hybrid tomatoes and skip the heirlooms. When squirrels take so many, I need a plant that seriously produces.

2014 Garden Plan

2014 Garden Plan

Aaah, 2014: the Crazy Garden. The main thing I remember: this was *way* too many plants for the center-left spot. Even though that is the biggest spot of the garden, to think I could do carrots, kohlrabi, beets, chard, broccolli AND cauliflower was way too much. At most, 3 broccoli or cauliflower plants would have fit this area, along with maybe two rows of something smaller like chard or carrots. Kohlrabi plants also get pretty big. The other issue with the broccolli, kohlrabi, AND cauliflower was that they took too long to get to maturity–by the time the plants got ready to make heads, they stopped getting enough sunlight to do so–I didn’t get anything from those plants.

The longer I garden in this spot the more I’m checking the “days to maturity” on the seed packets / plant labels. The season of full sun is short between two 2-story buildings. Although brussels sprouts also did not do a whole lot at Sabathani (which gets plenty of sun for a very long season)–perhaps insufficient soil fertility? They just never amounted to much. This was part of the reason why I abandoned pretty much all cruciferous vegetables in 2015–I’d had it from the previous year.

2013 Garden Plan

2013 Garden Layout

For 2013, I remember the zucchini taking over the whole left section of the garden, and basil never getting tall enough because the garlic was so huge. You’ll notice I do not have garlic in my garden for 2016. I’ve been thinking a lot about rabbits and squirrels. And I can’t afford to use space in this rabbit-proof enclosure for plants that rabbits don’t eat. So I planted garlic all over my flower beds in front of the house this fall. I can identify garlic plants easily enough that I’m not worried about finding them.

Rabbits don’t eat tomatoes, either, but I have the tomato trellis here and very little sunny space elsewhere. So here they remain.

2012 Garden Plan

2012 Garden Plan

Oh boy, we are heading into the deep recesses of my memory: 2012. And clearly I didn’t learn from my mistakes in 2012 when planning my 2014 garden, because I crammed to many large cruciferous veggies in that left-middle spot again. Looking at these old plans makes me very grateful for my new herb spiral garden, which frees up the space I used to dedicate to them. My garden plans get more simple each year.

2011 Garden Plan

Garden layout 2011

Speaking of complicated garden plans, wow. This one sure looks neat as designed. This was before I built my tomato trellis, so it was the last year we used tomato cages. It was also the year we installed our four wall trellises. I really upped my garden game in 2011! But this plan was so complex. It took me a very long time to plan each section, and once again I crammed too many things into the center-left section (story of my gardening life). The celeriacs never amounted to anything and the cabbages took over and crushed everything around them. See the size of the “tomato” circles? My cabbage circles should have been the same size, in this design.

The thing I like about this design though is the biodiversity in each plot–meant to thwart garden pests that I struggled with my first few years of gardening. But since I started adding more and more native plants to my yard in 2012, the number of pests I have to deal with has plummeted. My biggest challenge now is maintaining fertility in this intensely-gardened soil, and continuing to tweak the varieties that I choose to take advantage of the intense but short period of full sun between two houses.

What am I going to do about fertility this year? Last year I added a large amount of Happy Frog Soil Conditioner to each of the beds, but the results were not as spectacular as I hoped. Disappointing, because I have great luck with that in my container gardens each year. I thought about trying lime this year, but our soil is alkaline so that might do more harm than good. Readers, can you comment on that? This was an interesting read about lime.

Any other advice for me? Is it time to finally take my own Master Gardener advice and just get a dang soil test?!


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Pumpkin Spice Latte and other fall happenings

It’s really, really fall! Time to take millions of Instagrams of your feet in boots and your hands in mittens, preferably holding a pumpkin spice latte! But first… FIRST! Let’s talk about gardening.

Chard with leaf miner damage, via New Home Economics

I like to review my successes and failures at the end of each season. For learning purposes, you know. One of my failures this year was a leafminer infestation on my chard. I wasn’t sure what was going on, but I used the always-helpful “What’s wrong with my plant?” resource and sure enough, it turned out to be leafminers. The leaf shown in the picture has multiple things going on, because I also noticed towards the end of summer that goldfinches were landing in the tank and picking at these leaves, presumably to get those tiny worms.

Anyway I think leafminer season is over now because my chard perked up a bit this week. So today I cleared out all the junk in my main stock tank and moved a bunch of kale in, from various places in the yard.

Kale in a stock tank

I have a hoop house that fits on top of this tank; I will add it in a few weeks when it starts getting really cold. We haven’t even had a freeze here in Minneapolis yet, so this has been quite the long growing season. I should be able to extend my harvest quite a bit with the hoop house, but I’m not expecting much more growth out of anything.

Coir seed starting pods

While cleaning out the tank I found a bunch of these coconut coir seed starting pods that I planted there in March. I had used them to start a bunch of greens indoors. Looks like they basically did not break down… at all. So many products that promise to break down in the soil do not actually do that in one growing season. It would have been better to cut these all off with a scissors at the time of planting, as the clerk at my favorite garden store suggested when I first bought them.

Autumn Joy Sedum, via The New Home Economics

Another thing I learned this year (every year?) is: nature truly does abhor a vaccuum. If you have a blank spot in your garden, it will fill with weeds over… and over. I added a large new perennial garden in front this year, and because the perennials were still so small, it got very weedy. Just as I was beginning to feel overwhelmed with it all, I remembered to take 5 steps north and look at my established flower beds. They hardly need any maintenance at this point, because there is no room for weeds to grow. Picture, above: Autumn Joy Sedum, which is in full gorgeous bloom right now. It is not a native, but I still recommend it because bees love it and.. well, obviously, it blooms in autumn.

Purple Dome Aster with honey bees, via The New Home Economics

Speaking of fall blooming plants: my purple dome asters are spectacular this year! This one was covered in honey bees today. You’re welcome, local apiary owner! Purple dome asters *are* a native, and so easy to grow. Well-behaved too. (Meaning: they won’t spread like weeds all over everywhere.)

Potato harvest at Sabathani Community Garden

Another success: we’ve been eating all the potatoes we can hold out of our community garden plot for two months going strong now. And the most successful variety? Some red ones that we planted from a handful of co-op potatoes that had sprouted in our cupboard. Go figure. I think I know where I’m getting my seed potatoes next year…

Our prettier pumpkins, via the New Home Economics

But now on to the MAIN AUTUMN EVENT. Pumpkins, of course! I grew Long Island Cheese pumpkins for the second year in a row because aesthetically, really, they just can’t be beat. They also taste great. These five are our prettiest of the bunch. I put together a little autumnal display on our coffee table last weekend and within 3 hours the table was full of homework, Harry Potter books, Pokemon cards, you name it. So here it is: an autumnal display IN A REAL HOUSE.

Not so pretty pumpkins, via The New Home Economics

We also had a few pumpkins that were *NOT* pretty. You can even see the moldy patch on the bottom one. They got attacked by squirrels, slugs, you name it. But each one was still mostly good, so I was determined to still use them up. And that’s what did today. Step 1: Cut them up with a very large knife.

Pumpkins ready to bake

Step 2: Arrange them in pans. I usually cut pumpkins in half and bake them cut side down (so they don’t dry out), but these had to be chunked up to get rid of the bad parts. Put in 350 (F) degree oven. Go out in garden and completely forget about pumpkins baking in oven.

Baked pumpkins, ready to preserve, via the New Home Economics

Step 3: smell the pumpkin baking from outside and take them out of the oven. Let cool for a while. Scoop into ice cube trays for freezing. (Once frozen, transfer to gallon freezer bags.) I like the cube method; you can take as much as you need this way. It takes 5-8 cubes to make a cup of pureed pumpkin, depending on the water content of your particular squash. Also: I don’t always puree the pumpkin before using it. Pies: yes, puree it. Breads: nah.

Ingredients for pumpkin spice latte, via The New Home Economics

Step 4: assemble the ingredients for a Pumpkin Spice Latte.

Recipe: Pumpkin Spice Latte (for one)

1 1/2 c. whole milk
2 shots of espresso
2 Tablespoons pumpkin
1 Tablespoon maple syrup
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1 pinch nutmeg
(Or 1 teaspoon “pumpkin pie spice”)

Gently heat the pumpkin, milk, syrup, and spices in a sauce pan over low-med heat until nice and hot. Whisk frequently so your milk doesn’t scorch.

Immersion blending pumpkin spice latte

Step 5: Immersion blend your milk and pumpkin mixture. This gives you a nice frothy top. You can skip this step if you’re using already-pureed pumpkin.

PSL FACE!

Finally, the most important step of all. Step 6: Take a selfie with your pumpkin spice latte and post it to the social media channel of your choice.

Happy Fall!

 

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