The New Home Economics


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Fall

The time for spookiness and voting has arrived. I assumed this spider was dead until I picked it up to show it to the kids and got a very chilling surprise. (Yes, I shrieked.)

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It’s an orb weaver spider, and I’ve never seen one this large before. It was moving pretty slowly but still too fast for me.

I gave the kids my old D-SLR camera and got myself a newer (used) one; they’ve been going crazy with photography ever since. Here’s a spooky spider picture from Anneke that was not quite what any of us expected to see when we uploaded it to the computer.

She also snapped these lovely purple asters, one of the only flowers still blooming here at the end of October. Our mid-October frosts and brief snowfall mean there are no bees around anymore to pollinate them.

Over at my Sabathani Community Garden plot, cover crops are up and running, although I don’t expect them to grow a whole lot more. My new goal is to do this every year–it’s so important for soil health. We’ll be ready to harvest our horseradish (large bushy plants in the center and left) soon. Generally mid-November is a good time, after a couple of hard freezes but before the ground is frozen.

This year was my first successful attempt at growing leeks. I never did get around to hilling them up, so they’re a little green, but just fine for our purposes. They were actually quite easy to grow and the entire family (except me) is now tired of potato leek soup. I don’t think I’ll be all the way through these or my kale until the end of November.

October means time to bring in all our tropical plants from outside. We managed to find spots for our Meyer lemon, an avocado tree, and three grapefruits. The kids have gone a little crazy for houseplants and I don’t discourage them from any botany pursuits, so our house is getting a little over-run. They’re going to bring us some much-needed green in the coming months.

The weirder a plant looks, the weaker our resistance to it.

I killed a Christmas Cactus two years ago, so I’m trying again.

Anneke’s been asking for a fiddle leaf fig for ages now, and I finally saw a tiny, inexpensive one at Mother Earth Gardens yesterday and gave my consent. Then we came home and read about how quickly they grow. We’ll see, I guess!

Fort Snelling State Park is very close to our house, so it’s a frequent getaway when we just need some nature time. Shown is the Highway 55 bridge over Picnic Island. The kids have been learning about the tragic history of this area, giving all of it new significance when we visit. I’m glad that bdote has been preserved in at least a semi-natural state. Photo by Anneke.

Stay warm, friends.


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Not professional landscapers

“We’re not professional landscapers,” said the sewer line contractor who tore up my yard 10 days ago.

“No shit,” I thought to myself, but I tried to keep it cool.

It took three days and by day two I realized it would be healthier if I didn’t watch. After it was over, however, I quickly moved from horrified to excited about redesigning this area of the yard. It’s an opportunity, right?

Last weekend I laid out the edging bricks for a redesigned path in the area that was dug. This path used to curve from the house to the street, but since we already have two paths that do that in the front, I wondered if we really needed a third (I’ve always wondered this, though it did look nice). The new path starts by the house but will end with a circular mini-patio, big enough for our bird bath to sit in its center as a focal point. It will allow me easy access to all the flower beds around it, and be just a little bit different from other areas of the yard. I’m excited to see it take shape.

When laying out new hardscape features, it helps to take pictures from different angles like this, to help you see if you have your scale and positioning correct before you start permanently installing bricks. This may change a bit before all is said and done.

I’ve got the area about 1/3 replanted, but the rest will have to wait until next spring when there is more selection at area nurseries. In the meantime I’m going to see about getting some chopped up leaf mulch this fall to help enrich the soil a bit.

Even though my front yard is looking shabby, interesting things are happening out back. For example, my second wine grape harvest:

Ten pounds of Marquette grapes. Both grapes that we grow are University of Minnesota hybrids.

16 pounds of Frontenac Gris grapes! These were in much better shape than the Marquettes. They didn’t get hit quite as hard by Japanese beetles, and they were at their peak of ripeness when we picked them on August 26; the Marquettes were slightly over ripe and quite a few had to be tossed.

We spent some time with a very patient and helpful employee of Northern Brewer talking about what went wrong last year and getting some great advice about what to do differently.

We tasted both wines at every stage this time, trying to understand better how the flavors develop. We also purchased a bottle of Frontenac Gris from the local wine shop so we could compare. The professional wine is on the right, our cloudier version on the left. Honestly, I didn’t care for the flavor of the professional version—it was way too sweet. Yet ours was so sour that it tasted like really strong kombucha. The professionals must have added sugar.

Anyway, we added the bottle of professional wine to our gallon of amateur wine to just cut down the sour flavor a tiny bit, and we liked the result, so we bottled it. And now we wait.

Over in the vegetable garden, my cover crop looks beautiful! It’s a mixture of rye grass and field peas, and my intent is not to turn it in until next spring. We’ll see if it survives the winter, as promised by the seed company where I purchased it.

Over at our Sabathani community garden, we’re finally harvesting some Waltham Butternut Squash. I’ve never seen such slow-growing squash plants. After looking unhappy the entire summer, they finally started spreading out and flowering in mid-August. I have read that Walthams are slow, but I think there’s more going on here than that. We’ve got soil fertility issues at Sabathani as well. Before September is out I am going to harvest what I can, rip everything out, and plant a cover crop there too.

Speaking of squash… Here’s a picture of our neighbor’s yard. Our house is the white one in the background behind the fence. In this spot used to be a very large crimson king maple tree that cast deep shade over this area and a good bit of our back yard too. Shortly after it was cut down in June, a pumpkin or squash of some sort sprouted from a bit of dropped compost next to our bin.

Fast forward just a handful of weeks and it started invading our neighbor’s yard through the fence. He was delighted, so he let it grow. It is now the largest pumpkin plant I’ve ever seen, and as far as I can tell it’s just one plant! This area is at least 30 feet wide by 15 feet deep and it’s still going. It’s occupying some of our yard and driveway too.

It’s got several strange-looking pumpkins or squash that I can’t identify, though the leaves look exactly like the leaves of musquee de provence pumpkins, which we grew two years ago. We’ll see what happens.

Last but not least, I recently read The Complete Gardener, by British gardener/TV personality Monty Don. I watched his Netflix show Big Dreams, Small Spaces earlier this year and liked his attitude, so put myself on a waiting list from the library to read some of his books. (He must be gaining popularity here as well.)

I went through my usual range of emotions when reading a gardening book from somewhere very different from Minnesota. First, jealousy: his snowdrops bloom IN JANUARY. Second, relief: slugs are a huge issue there, and they have two different types of cabbage butterflies.

I picked up a handful of ideas to try in my own garden, including spreading wood ash from our fireplace around our currants and gooseberries. He also grows significantly more comfrey than I do and uses the leaves as a mulch around some of his garden vegetables. It’s an excellent idea that I’ve tried before, but ought to do more.

His style is more formal than mine; yet it’s completely appropriate for the place where he gardens. The book is full of gorgeous pictures and good general advice—especially for people who are new to concepts in organic gardening.

We’re running headlong into fall—it is 43 degrees F here as I write this and my husband is sitting in a deer stand up north. I feel ready, though. I have a lot of open spots to fill in spring 2019 so my winter garden planning process is going to be more involved than usual. I’m looking forward to it.

 


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Late Summer

I received 2 free packets of zinnia seeds last winter, and decided on a whim to try sprouting them. They were so easy. I didn’t have a plan for the plants so I just put them in groups of 5 all over the yard to see how they’d do in different light conditions. I’ve found them to be pretty flexible but a bit less floppy when they get plenty of sun. Pollinators love them! Here’s another non-native plant that gets my stamp of approval.

This little skipper spent several minutes nectaring.

 

I dig all the variations in color and form on the zinnias.

Walking around the yard, this scene caught my eye from some distance. How weird! It appears that a cicada decided to shed its exoskeleton while posing on a flower. The cicadas were almost as loud as the airplanes last night. (I live near the airport. You get used to it.)

Want to attract pollinators to your garden? Plant joe-pye weed. It comes in a few different heights. The original wild variety gets quite tall—perhaps 5 feet—and can get a little floppy. It was meant to be mixed in with other tall-grass prairie plants such as big bluestem. I plan to create a little tallgrass prairie oasis next to my garage next year. It will include divisions of this joe pye plant, plus big bluestem, prairie blazing star, Jerusalem artichokes, and (of course) milkweed. Can’t wait to get started on that project.

I also started nasturtiums from seed this spring. I ended up with so many plants that I scattered them all over the yard in pots, hanging baskets, and this window box on my garden shed. Little did I know: nasturtiums attract hummingbirds! We’ve always hoped to attract a hummingbird to our garden and Anneke has been dutifully filling, cleaning, and refilling a hummingbird feeder for two years in hopes of seeing one. A male ruby-throat has been stopping by several times a day now, but he skips the feeder and goes for the nasturtiums. Figures.

Everything is just OK in the garden. Honestly the annual vegetable garden is the most challenging part of my yard, between the pests, the diseases, the soil amendments, the weeding, etc. My permaculture fruit guilds by comparison are much easier to maintain. I’m really going to rethink my vegetable garden design for 2019 to see what I can do about improving soil health—even if it means the short-term cost of going a summer without certain vegetables.

Can you help me identify this mystery pepper? It’s not “Tangerine Dream”—the pepper I thought I’d bought. I am afraid to try it because it’s really hot—Adam said it reminded him of a habanero. I think it might be a hot lemon pepper.

Here’s another mis-labeled pepper from the Friends’ School Plant Sale. (This is not the first time this has happened to me with that sale.) I think these are likely cayenne. Well, at any rate the squirrels are not touching them. I am a big wimp when it comes to peppers, but we’ll pickle these all the same.

This year I tried interplanting my shallots into my strawberry bed, and I’m happy with the results. Some of them are very large and impressive. Most are average, and a few are tiny. A decent harvest.

Here’s an illustration of why you really do need a certain number of plants for this whole eating from the garden thing to work out right. I have 5 okra plants in part-shade so they’re not hyper-productive. I get 3-4 pods, every 3-4 days. It’s just not ever quite enough to cook with. Next year I’m going to try 10 plants, and put them in full sun. Then we’ll get good and tired of okra. Okra is a great edible landscaping plant—the flowers look like hibiscus.

Here’s a little nostalgia for today. My Rowan, age 4, left and age 11, right. Still helping me in the garden.

Here’s a garden friend that I spotted on my hydrangea this morning: a goldenrod soldier beetle. They feed on other insects including cucumber beetles. I don’t know if goldenrod is necessary to attract this beetle. The name might simply refer to its color. I usually see it on calendula flowers.

And here’s evidence of a garden foe that I’ve been battling for over a month now: the dreaded Japanese beetle. After last year’s near defoliation of my grapevine, I was hyper-vigilant this year. At least twice a day since around July 4 we’ve been out there killing as many as we can, but they are seemingly unstoppable. My best guess is that our grapevine is about 30-40% defoliated. Next year we will most likely resort to spraying neem oil, earlier in the season. We’re almost ready to harvest now so it’s too late for this year.

You can see there is also some Japanese beetle damage on my large cherry tree. However, in this case it’s only 5-10% of the leaves that are affected, so I’m willing to tolerate it. It won’t harm the plant at all. Generally if 10% or fewer of leaves on a tree like this are affected, you have nothing to worry about. Trees in the Prunus genus (cherry, chokecherry, plum) support a wide variety of insect larvae—especially butterflies and moths—so if you can tolerate a little damage, you’ll be giving your area birds a huge boost. Insect larvae are the primary food they feed to their young in the nest.

My back yard is going through a major transformation, due to a large tree being removed. I’m starting to get used to how bare it feels, and starting to come up with all kinds of ideas for what I want to plant next year in my three new full-sun spots. Formerly they were two very deep shade and one part-shade spot, so my options have changed considerably. For now we put in zinnias and sunflowers, just to hold us over until certain other projects are done. It probably won’t get fully planted until next spring, and that’s OK.

We only have two weeks left of summer and then my three people—who have been helping me in the garden every single day—will all go back to school. Sigh.


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Desperate times

I’m having a challenging summer—is it just me? Do I say this every year?

We found and were raising more monarchs than we ever have, only to discover that many of them were afflicted with something I’d never heard of: monarch black death, a virus that spreads easily (especially when you have 50+ of them in a single holding tank). We’ve lost quite a few caterpillars. We have our fingers crossed for the ones that made it to chrysalis stage—we’ll see what they look like when they come out.

My cucumbers are also suffering. It’s hard to say, based on the U of MN’s “What’s Wrong With My Plant” tool, what’s going on. They either have downy mildew, alternaria leaf blight, anthracnose, or some combo of the three. Thinking back to last summer, I’m almost positive they were afflicted then, too. But I made two key mistakes: I composted the plants in my own pile, then I planted cucumbers again in the same spot. WHAT was I thinking?

Cucumbers on a trellis, with disease

Here’s the “before” picture, a week or two ago.

Cucumbers

And today, after removing a bunch leaves for a second time. The leaves near the top are still OK, so I’m keeping them for now in hopes of getting a modest cucumber harvest. Happily, my Mexican Sour Gherkin cucumbers (right) are totally unaffected and producing like crazy.

Mexican Sour Gherkin cucumb

I love these little gherkins! They have a great sour flavor, almost as if they were already pickled.

I have the same exact situation with my tomato plants, though thankfully they’re not quite as bad off. I suspect their issue is septoria leaf spot.

For both the tomatoes and the cucumbers, I’ve been removing affected leaves and sending those leaves out to the city compost—managed compost systems like that get hot enough to kill common vegetable afflictions. My pile is too cool.

But I may need to take a further step, and it’s a radical one: I will likely refrain from planting ANY tomatoes or cucumbers in 2019 in my main garden. I haven’t decided yet how much of the garden I’m going to devote to cover crops and better soil health. I’ll be thinking about that this winter.

Okra

I could interplant some veggies into my flower beds, as I’ve done this year with okra. It looks great with my wildflowers!

A thing happened last week that was unexpected: my southerly neighbor cut down his mature Crimson King Maple tree. It had deeply shaded the southern half of my back yard.  I designed my yard around that tree by putting things like my wood shed and compost pile there—since few things would grow there.

But with a giant open space that is now full sun, it was finally time to add the plant I’ve been dreaming about since we bought this house in 2006: A HONEYCRISP APPLE TREE!

new honeycrisp apple tree

Behind this fence used to dwell a very large maple tree—in front of it now dwells a very nice young apple tree from Bachmann’s. I’ve started buying more of my trees there to take advantage of their warranty (two years you join their loyalty program, one year if not). We went with a dwarf size apple tree because it’s underneath two different power lines.

When our sewer line is redone later this summer I’m going to thin and move a bunch of sun-loving plants from the front to the back, and then put new shade lovers in front. I like having more sun to work with, but the back yard also feels strangely naked. Thankfully two of our three mature trees are still in place.

raspberries

Raspberry season is underway—and an underwhelming one it is. What you see above is about an average picking every day, whereas usually we’d get quarts. The raspberries are among many plants I’ve neglected a bit over the past two years. It’s time to start thinking harder about long-term health and maintenance.

I’m very happy to report that I have not yet spotted any spotted wing drosophila larvae in my raspberries this year—though they’re in Minnesota now they have yet to find my yard.

Anneke’s been very busy hunting Japanese beetles for me. She’s killed at least one hundred of them already. I’m starting to depend on her for help while I’m gone at work. But since I’m home today, it’s time to get back out there.


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June / Solstice

Hello! Summer is in full swing, and we have garden challenges galore—from four-lined plant bugs to weeds, weeds, weeds, to the impending doom of a complete main line sewer replacement in August. On the other hand, we ate a kohlrabi from our garden yesterday and it was delicious. Here’s what we’ve been up to the past few weeks.

I spent 4 crazy days in Grand Marais with 80 or so 5th graders (including my two). We endured a severe thunderstorm, one and a half days of cold rain, and then on the final day, damp cold to wrap it up—we were eating cold cereal outside at 40 degrees. On the other hand, we hiked 8 miles of the Superior Hiking Trail during one glorious, mostly rain-free day and I had the privilege of seeing trillium in bloom along the Brule River.

The trail was a bit muddy!

We came home to find that our 40 or so monarch caterpillars had grown a bit under Adam’s care while we were gone.

We released most of them yesterday, in a butterfly bonanza.

This one kindly posed on a milkweed with long-horned milkweed beetle just long enough for me to take some iconic monarch pictures.

Last year, squash vine borers hit my community garden plot hard, so during a rainy period in early June I put down beneficial nematodes. They’ve worked great for me in the past; it’s been about 5 years since I last did this and it was time to refresh the population. You can buy them on a sponge from a garden store (I bought mine at Mother Earth Gardens in Minneapolis). You soak the sponge in water for at least several minutes (rain water is preferable here)—I used a 1/2 gallon jar. Then you can dilute it quite a bit. I split mine into 8 cups and diluted each with 2 gallons of water to water in to my squash hills (background, behind the weeds).

Nematodes can be beneficial for Japanese Beetle control—but only at certain times of the year. I found this article from University of Minnesota’s Jeff Hahn to be very helpful and I plan to try and put some nematodes down in late July if the weather cooperates. They survive better if it’s rainy and a little cooler.

On the home front, I watered in my comfrey compost tea on my vegetables and raspberries yesterday. I’ve seen differing advice about how long to brew this concoction, but I hardly ever brew it for more than 2-3 weeks. I checked it Friday night and saw that it was full of mosquito larvae, so it was time to get rid of it, lest they hatch and make us miserable. I dilute this about 1:3, but again opinions differ on how much you should dilute it as well. Err on the side of caution, I say. It’s powerful. (And STINKY.)

We went to the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden two weeks ago to see the Showy Lady’s Slippers in bloom—unfortunately none of my pictures of them turned out very well. But I caught this bumble on some wild indigo. I recently realized wild indigo (also called blue false indigo) is *not* native to North America.

However, it’s a beautiful plant that supports pollinators, so maybe it’s… not so bad? I was surprised at how much it dominated the prairie area of Eloise Butler. It’s such a unique plant, perfect when you want something shrub-like, such as along a path. It dies all the way to the ground in the winter, so there’s none of the normal winter shrub care needed.

The kids continue to obsess over their fairy gardens; yesterday they added patios to them with some old leftover slate tiles we had lying around.

Anneke made this new fairy house out of clay over the winter, and added a few accessories from Mother Earth Gardens this spring.

I felt that a good cleansing fire was in order for solstice on Thursday night—we borrowed a neighbor’s fire pit and now I don’t want to give it back. We are having a string of gorgeous weather and I just want to be out in it as much as possible. Think I’ll head out there right now.


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Memorial Day 2018

I like to photograph my garden every year on Memorial Day to track where we’re at from a phenology perspective. From the plants’ point of view, we look roughly average, but from a human point of view it’s been anything but.

I swam in a lake in 95 degree heat yesterday; just under 4 weeks ago that lake had ice on it. It’s been a wild swing from winter to summer, seemingly overnight.

We got some bad news this week. Our main line sewer needs to be replaced and pretty much everything in the foreground of this picture will need to go. I’ll know more next week. I was very upset at first but I’m now trying to look at it as an opportunity.

It was such a weird week. This also happened: a red-tailed hawk caught a squirrel in our yard and landed with it on our deck for a minute or two. I was astounded at its size. And not terribly sorry to lose a squirrel, honestly—the hawk dispatched it quickly and efficiently.

Did you know that wild sarsparilla get flowers? They’re hidden under the leaves. I found these on the plants that get a little bit of sunlight each day—in deep shade, I couldn’t find any flowers.

I love the way the gooseberries, wild columbine, and serviceberries are intermingling in our back yard.

My interplanting of shallots and strawberries is coming along swimmingly. The strawberries are thriving in their new raised bed (new in summer 2017). It’s wise to periodically (every 3-5 years) dig up all your strawberry plants, amend the soil, weed thoroughly, and replant them. They get so overrun with weeds over time. Raising them up like this has kept the rabbits from them and made it easier to keep them weeded.

They’re currently covered with blossoms and tiny green strawberries. I’ve been watering them daily to keep them going strong through this heat wave.

One plant that is LOVING the heat is my Meyer Lemon tree. It spends winters inside and generally looks unhappy the whole time, but the second we bring it out in the spring, it starts to revive.

Peppers are also off to a good start with their ollas for water. I’m curious to see how this experiment works out.

My community garden plot is all planted—it’s double in size for this year as my good friend who gardens next to me is taking a year off from her plot. Crossing my fingers that we’ll have a veritable squash kingdom come August, if we can keep the vine borers away.

Last but not least, monarch season has begun! I’ve only seen one, but Anneke found 40 eggs in our yard two nights ago. If all these survive, we’ll have a household record number of releases, in the first round of the migration.

How are you surviving the heat?

 


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Finally, spring

Prince was right: sometimes it does snow in April. It snowed quite a bit this April, so I’m squeezing all my garden work into May—I’ve done some all-day marathon weeding, dividing, and replanting sessions and I’m about halfway done, optimistically.

But my cherry tree is blooming:

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Last year, Adam increased the size of several of my garden beds when he did his paver path project. He also created a new berm in front, which I started planting last August. Then I went to a Wild Ones conference in February and decided I must add another garden bed to the back yard. We now will only have one very small patch of grass.

All of this is to say that I have many spaces to fill in, and nearly all of them are shady. Fortunately, I watched all available episodes of Big Dreams, Small Spaces on Netflix this winter, and it’s making me look at my gardens with new eyes. Monty Don has come to America and I am now a fan.

My biggest takeaway from the show is that you don’t need hundreds of different kinds of plants in your garden. In more than one episode Don asserts that a garden really only needs ten types of plants. TEN!? I’ve always known repetition is a key element of design, but this made me think about it in a new way—I have easily 45 different varieties of plants, counting vegetables and fruits.

The show made me realize why I love my garden best in July. Could it be because coneflowers—a repeating element that ties every area of my yard together—are in full bloom?

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(photo from last year)

This time of year is when my lack of repetition makes my front yard garden less appealing than it could be. I have only one small patch of tulips that are pretty. It’s time to take Monty Don’s advice.

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Since my bloodroot in the back yard were spreading quite a bit, I divided them and planted them all over my front yard gardens. Step one.

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My Jacob’s Ladder, another pretty and easy-to-grow woodland plant, also had spread quite a bit. So this patch has been divided and moved around, too. (Photo from last year.)

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I’m also dividing and replanting Solomon’s Seal. It’s a gorgeous native woodland perennial, and easy to maintain. I first planted it in the dry shade under a silver maple and it’s thriving there. This will be another unifying theme in my shade gardens.

All of this dividing and replanting is also saving me a little money, which is nice. Things are moving along in the vegetable gardening realm as well:

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I put my lettuce out very late. I was putting together the hoop house and realized I actually didn’t need it, so instead I put some chicken wire on the frame to keep squirrels out—they LOVE digging up freshly planted seedlings. The wire did not keep Buckles the black lab from lying on the lettuce one night, but the lettuce recovered nicely and we’re now starting to pick some. I should be able to remove the wire this weekend.

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Another idea I read about over the winter was interplanting strawberries and shallots. I’m curious to see how it will turn out. I’m putting my husband’s saved beard hair trimmings on the strawberries every other day or so until the plants get big enough that the rabbits lose interest.

I’ve got onions, carrots, and leeks planted in the garden, but that’s it. Everything was so late that I didn’t bother with peas or radishes this year. I don’t plan on putting in tomatoes or peppers until next weekend, the 19th or 20th. The weather has been a little too volatile this spring.

Happy spring to you; I hope to be back with my annual Memorial Day phenology photo shoot at the end of the month.