The New Home Economics


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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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Summer Lessons Learned

Greetings! Every summer has to come to an end, and this one is no exception. We’re having a hot Labor Day weekend, but there can be no doubt the end is near–Minnesota’s first frost averages around September 21, only two weeks away. Obviously I hope it won’t come that early, but it definitely could.

It’s time to talk about what worked well for us this year and what gave us mixed results. It’s a great exercise to record your successes and failures–especially with gardening–because otherwise you might be doomed to repeat your mistakes.
ClotheslineFirst new thing for 2015: clothesline! Now that we have the large trellis over our deck in the back, it’s really easy to stretch out a couple of lines from the deck to the swingset. We’ve been putting it up on the weekends. Does it save a ton of money? Probably not, but this is one of those things that just makes sense. I expected to be quickly bored by the drudgery of hanging out sheets but in the end found that it really didn’t take any more time than loading up the dryer–they actually dry faster outside anyway.

Monarch Release

We released 16 monarchs that we had raised from caterpillars this year. I still see some butterflies flitting around, but their breeding season is over and they’re on their way south now.

Pigeon River Middle Falls Grand Portage

In August, we took a trip up to the very tip of Minnesota’s arrowhead, camping at Judge CR Magney State Park and hiking Grand Portage State Park (among other adventures). Here’s a view of Canada, across the Middle Falls on Pigeon River. I can only hope that the next time we see this it does not have a fence anywhere in the picture. Common sense will prevail, right? At least in this one small area?

Praying Mantis

On a whim, we bought an egg sac of praying mantises in May. They hatched in June, and we released them all over the yard. We didn’t see any for quite some time, then in the last two weeks we found two of them in different areas. THEY ARE HUGE. Also: they’re working. I have zero aphids on my flowers, which are usually covered with them by September.

Despite this effectiveness, I still have mixed feelings about the mantises. They’re not native to the United States–and they kill both beneficial and pesty insects. I’m particularly worried about whether they killed any monarch caterpillars. My proposed solution to the kids is to capture them and donate them, in a terrarium, to their school’s STEM teacher, who can feed them crickets in the winter. Now we just have to catch them.

Drying herbs

I get more forgetful all the time. So this year, when drying herbs, I wrote myself helpful notes at the bottom of the basket to help me remember what everything was. Many of them end up looking alike when they’re all dried out. You can always crush a leaf and eat it, in order to guess what it is, but this made it very easy.

carrots

Apparently my skill with carrots is similar to my skill with archery: wildly inconsistent. I tried the Chiot’s Run carrot method this year and got mixed results due to less-than-ideal germination rates. I had to reseed the entire thing in late June, and those newer carrots are just not catching up. I’m trying the method again next year (as far as the template part goes) but I’m going to put more seeds in each hole, and cover it with a little potting soil, not just the rice hulls.

Parsley and black-eyed susans

Parsley keeps growing wild all over my garden, and this year has been a banner year for it. These petite Black Eyed Susans are new; transplanted from a co-worker’s garden. I’m making tabouli this afternoon. One of the great things about curly parsley (besides the fact that it keeps coming back), is that it’s very frost tolerant. If it doesn’t get covered by snow, I can still harvest it into November.

Hops

This was the first year of growing brewing hops on our new trellis. They didn’t provide much shade, but from what I know of hops we’ll have much bigger plants next year, so hopefully we’ll get more screening and shade in years to come.

Kohlrabi chips

School started two weeks ago already. Minneapolis has a very early start. One of my kids’ favorite lunchbox treats is kohlrabi chips. Simply peel and slice kohlrabi, sprinkle with salt and pepper. They are delicious, easy, and nutritious. I am going to try harder with kohlrabi in the garden next year–it needs A LOT of sun for a long time, so I am going to give over some of my pumpkin and potato space at the community garden plot to some kohlrabi.

Broom Corn

I’ve never seen anything like this broom corn that Rowan planted this year. We got the seeds from his STEM teacher and planted it on a whim. It’s 14 feet tall! I don’t know if we’re actually going to make a broom with it, but we’ll definitely make some pretty dried flower arrangements or maybe even a shock of corn for Halloween decor. That stuff has been unreal, and survived a few high wind events to boot.

Solomon's Seal

Here’s another native plant I want you to think about: Solomon’s Seal. I’m growing it in a very challenging spot: dry shade. It took a few years to get established, but now it is starting to flourish and spread. It is a beautiful choice, particularly if you want to add more native plants to your garden and are afraid you might not be able to distinguish weeds from plants. It has a very distinctive form, is easy to grow, and birds like the berries (which are poisonous to humans, by the way). This one is in my back yard in some dry shade under a large Silver Maple, but next year I’m going to add some more in the front yard under my large Elm. I have tried *many* different ground covers under that Elm and have not had very good survival rates. So, here’s one to try for 2016.

Dried cranberry bean

Lest you think harvest season is nearing an end: we’re not even close to being done. We have at least half our potatoes still left at our community garden, all of our pumpkins, these True Red Cranberry dried beans (still growing; we don’t pick them until they’re dried out), and lots of cucumbers, tomatoes, and peppers still coming like crazy. Adam also hopes to harvest a deer: bow hunting opener is just two weeks away. He was unsuccessful last year, so we’ll see what happens.

I’m planning on harvesting another big round of herbs for drying as soon as the weather cools off–herbs tend to have better flavor when it’s cool. We also have quite a bit of kale growing in various places around the yard. In a couple weeks, I will pull out the seedy and weedy lettuce in my stock tank, transplant all the kale in there, and put on the hoop house. Then hopefully we’ll have kale into November–maybe December?

As for now, I’m off to the farmers’ market to buy some beets; as mine were a total fail this year. Despite everything I grow, I still go to the farmers’ market on a regular basis, but I look for very specific things. This year it was zucchini, kohlrabi and beets. I can’t grow everything, after all.

Happy Labor Day to you, and thanks for reading!


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A banner berry year

Apparently, it’s not just me: 2015 is a banner year for all berries in Minnesota! We’ve had bumper crops of strawberries and currants, and the raspberries are just getting started. We even got a handful of cherries from our tiny new cherry tree.

GrapesWe have quite a few grapes on our vine–I am not sure what variety these are but they make a nice jelly and aren’t bad to eat fresh either (they turn purple when ripe). We only get grapes on this thing every 2 years or so, due to multiple factors including rabbits frequently mowing the vine all the way back to the ground some winters.

I was thinking that we’d escaped any grapevine beetle action this year, but then I saw one through the window today! I raced outside with a container of soapy water and sure enough, found six of them, apparently engaging in a grapevine beetle orgy on just a couple of leaves. They didn’t even see me coming.

I don’t get too uptight about grapevine beetles; they don’t cause fatal damage to the plant. But six of them could defoliate the whole thing and that could hurt my grape harvest for this year–plus I want to control them as much as possible since I have two baby grape vines in the back yard that I’m keen to protect. So, to control them: just knock them into a container of soapy water. They’re very easy to catch.

I also saw a Japanese beetle on my hops today, so apparently pest season has begun. I use the same method of control for them, though they are slightly more wary than the grapevine beetles so you have to sneak up on them. Japanese beetles are significantly more worrisome than grapevine beetles because they feed on a whole bunch of different plants.

Currants

I’ve never had a red currant year like this one. We had to resort to making triple batches of Amy Thielen’s red currant compote this week. It’s delicious! We now have 12 half-pint jars of it in the freezer. We also made Adam’s favorite red currant pie.

Pickling gooseberries

Our gooseberries are nearly ready, and the bush is so laden with fruit that a couple branches broke off. We’ve been watching Mind of a Chef season 3 and I also recently read Fäviken (the book), so there’s been all kind of Magnus Nilsson-inspired cooking and preserving going on. Above, we salted green gooseberries, fermented them on the counter for two days, then put them into our pickle/beer fridge. We’ve also tried his herb salt recipe (here’s an adaption of it) and plan to make *a lot* more before the summer’s out.

ChamomileAnother garden success this year has been my herb spiral! I’m getting significantly more chamomile (shown above) than usual. I’m hoping to dry a greater variety of tea herbs, including a few new ones (to me) this year: stevia, lemon verbena, and feverfew. The stevia and lemon verbena have been instant hits, both fresh and dried. I’ve gotten a ridiculous amount of feverfew–perhaps three plants was a bit much?  I tried it the other night in a cup of hot tea and it tasted complex and interesting, but medicinal. I think I’ll need to blend it with some other herbs. And next year one plant will be plenty.

Haricot Verts

Things are coming along fine in the main garden, too. My carrots did not sprout nearly as well as I hoped, and my peppers are disappointingly small AGAIN this year, but everything else looks good, including this fourth picking of Maxibel haricot verts beans. I can’t recommend them enough, both in terms of productivity and taste.

FishingOne of our non-garden-related goals for this summer was to get out fishing more! The delightful result has been some gorgeous days at various MN lakes and several nights of fish tacos.

Monarch taking flightWe’ve released 7 monarch butterflies so far this year, with more caterpillars munching away in the critter cage as we speak. This one, which we released two weeks ago, sat on a coneflower for the longest time, and then as I leaned in as close as possible to take a photo, it suddenly flew away.

It’s not difficult to spot female monarchs laying eggs on milkweed plants. We watch for them, and then bring leaves (the eggs are always stuck on the underside of a leaf) in before the tiny caterpillars even hatch. This way we can ensure a very high survival rate–no worries about predators or bad weather.

I keep hearing from other people who have planted milkweed and not seen any monarchs yet in their yard, but I say: don’t lose hope. I think the reason why we started seeing them within two days of the first time we ever planted milkweed (no kidding) is because we live in close proximity to Lakes Nokomis and Hiawatha, both of which have large shoreline restoration projects with monarch habitat. So they’re in our neighborhood anyway. But if people keep planting milkweed as enthusiastically as they seem to be this year, we have reason to hope.

Anyway, that’s my update! You can always follow me on Twitter for ridiculous numbers of garden photos and updates on a day-to-day basis.

 

 


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Garden mania

Time for an epic garden update! We’ve been very busy the last two months, but we have much to show for it.

Ramp pestoWe’ve been having a very nice spring this year, neither too cold nor too warm, and it made for some early harvests of various wild things that grow in and near our yard. I pull out the entire patch of stinging nettle that grows under our old maple tree every spring, roots and all, and yet every year it comes back bigger. Hmm. This year we had enough to make pesto–we simply steamed the nettles briefly, then processed them with olive oil, lemon juice, some garlic, and whatever nuts we had on hand. I’m not a purist about pesto recipes; my favorite nutty addition is actually sunflower seeds.

Herb spiral in progressAnother April project was our herb spiral. First, we moved out all the coneflowers and other various perennials that were crowding this area—most ended up filling in our two new gardens. We priced different options for the stone; I originally wanted natural stone but we couldn’t afford it. So we went with these bricks. Shown in the photo is the bit of hugelkultur we used to help fill in. Bottom layer was sticks and logs, then went a whole bunch of last year’s leaves, then a whole bunch of compost, and finally topped with a few bags of topsoil. Saved us a bunch of money to not have to have a whole cubic yard or two of topsoil delivered; we just filled it in with what we had laying around. Read more about hugelkultur; it’s awesome.

Hugelkultur herb spiralAnd here’s the spiral, complete with planted herbs. We planted: cilantro, dill, two kinds of parsley, lemon balm, lemon verbena, sage, two kinds of chamomile, feverfew, stevia, two kinds of thyme, oregano, rosemary, and basil. I’m also growing catnip in a pot out back. We use many of these for herbal tea. Several are new to me for this year, so I’m very excited to try them.

Serviceberry in bloomSpeaking of our new gardens, our yard has supplied endless blooms this spring thanks to all our new shrubs. It started with the magnolia, then cherry, serviceberry (shown here), and this week we should see chokeberry, nannyberry and highbush cranberry blossoms. Our currants and gooseberries also bloomed somewhere in there, but they’re not terribly showy so I’m guessing nobody except me noticed. (I squealed with glee.)

New plantsFriday morning I made my annual pilgrimage to the Friends School Plant Sale. Is it me, or is that event getting completely out of control? I had to wait 2 hours just to get in. I picked up: two more currants (Ben Sarek and Red Lake), two more gooseberries (Pixwell and Hinnomaki Red), Dutchman’s pipe (an important larval food for butterflies), two grapevines for my new arbor (Frontenac Gris and Marquette), two cascade hops plants (also for the arbor), one prairie rose, one snowberry, and all my veggies. Phew. Good thing I had and stuck to a list.

I cannot emphasize enough how important it is, if you want to get into edible landscaping, to expand your mind beyond typical grocery store fruit. Currants, serviceberries and gooseberries can handle some shade and need little to no care, and they have wonderful flavor. Raspberries are pretty easy, too. I can’t say I’m too crazy about the flavor of my highbush cranberries or chokeberries (the name is appropos) but I could do *something* with them if I added sugar. Strawberries? A pain to keep weeded, plus the rabbits eat them. Blueberries? Require acidic soil.

Rhubarb PieSpeaking of fruit that I grow that’s easy–we harvested enough rhubarb yesterday to make a pie (shown here just before we applied the crumb topping). Rhubarb does need quite a bit of sun, but other than that, it’s easy. Just don’t get overzealous and pick more than half the stems of any one plant at one time.

Chiots Run Carrot MethodOver in the vegetable garden, which I also planted this weekend, I’m trying something new: the Chiot’s Run carrot method. Adam made me two different square foot templates; one with 9 holes and one with 16 holes. I used the 9-hole one to perfectly space out my parsnips and beets, and the 16-hole one for carrots. Read more about her method here; I followed it pretty much exactly. She doesn’t mention parsnips or beets, but I see no reason why the method wouldn’t work fine for them as well–they are planted slightly deeper than carrots, so I sprinkled fine soil over them first.

The only area I differed from Suzy’s plan is that I used brown rice hulls instead of vermiculite. My garden store doesn’t sell vermiculite and it seemed like the brown rice would probably accomplish the same thing. So stay tuned on that.

Carrots, doneI laid burlap over the carrots and parsnips until they start sprouting. This greatly reduces the number of times you have to water. Also, the burlap (along with the brown rice hulls) holds the seeds in place better, in the event of a hard rain.

Haricot VertsI’m also planting these Haricot Verts again this year. I planted them two or three years ago with great success–they were the most prolific and best-tasting bush bean I ever grew. And no, I have no idea what the correct pronunciation of their name is, having never taken French.

Vegetables: plantedA panorama of the complete vegetable garden after planting. The big shadow cast by my neighbor’s house is really one of my biggest gardening challenges in this northern latitude. My garden is full-sun, yes, but only from approximately May 15-July 30. So I try to be mindful of the “days to maturity” part of seed packets.

White trilliumLast but definitely not least, I am going to implore you, if you live anywhere near the Twin Cities, to visit the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden in Theodore Wirth Park. If you have any interest in learning how to garden with native plants, this is a great place to take a walk. Many of the plants are labelled, so you can learn their names. Yesterday the trilliums were in their full glory in the woodland.

Also: observe how beautiful and natural that dead, rotting log and all those leaves on the ground look. Leaving some wood and leaves to rot on the ground provides all the fertilizer native plants need while saving you time on maintaining your landscape.

Thanks for sticking with me this long! Hope your spring gardening is bringing you as much happiness as it brings me.

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