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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New windows

This was supposed to be a triumphant post about how we saved money for three years to install new windows in our house…but… we didn’t quite save enough and we now have a small loan as a result. But oh well, a small loan is better than a huge one! Here’s how we did it.

When our twin kids started all-day Kindergarten (free at our school, thank goodness) in the fall of 2012, we immediately started putting every cent that we used to spend on daycare into savings. We were accustomed to living frugally, so it didn’t really feel like much of a sacrifice. Every time our savings account reached $2,000, we paid $1,000 of it towards one of our various debts. In this way, we paid off all our debt in one year. Yes, we were lucky to not have an *extreme* amount of debt.

Next, we saved for a little over a year, trying to get at least $15,000 saved up for new windows, which we’ve needed since we bought this house in 2007. Check out how awesome Rowan’s old window looked every winter, all winter:

Old double hung window covered with frostIn addition to being completely covered with frost all winter, our windows were also extremely drafty. During the coldest parts of the winter, it sometimes felt like there was a slight breeze inside the house. Most of the storm windows were barely functional, and were difficult to open more than 4-5 inches in the summer, making it hard for us to get good ventilation when we wanted it.

So, while we waited to have enough money to actually do this, we started doing some research. We read about energy ratings, learned what fenestration is, and made some decisions about materials.  Our goal was to get the most energy-efficient and durable window possible for the price. This three-part series in the Star Tribune was particularly helpful for getting started (part 1, part 2, part 3). I also spent some time on the Green Building Advisor website, which is where I first heard about triple-glazing, and about the brand we ended up going with, Fibertec windows.

I had fiberglass in mind from the very beginning, but we thought we should still get a few different types of bids. Our first bid was from a local builder/remodeler who installed Marvin Infinity windows (double-glazed fiberglass). The sticker shock was a little intense on this bid, which helped us realize that we couldn’t afford to redesign our picture window opening, as we had originally hoped. They seemed like nice windows, though.

Our second bid was from a friend of a co-worker, who installs very basic double hung vinyl windows, and the price was half of the bid on the Infinity windows. HALF!  But the windows didn’t seem nearly as nice. We decided to get a third and final quote from Above and Beyond Construction, who install Fibertec windows.

The bid came in between the first and the second, we both agreed that we liked these windows the best of the three, AND the company had hundreds of positive reviews on Angie’s List. They were also the only company that offered a lifetime warranty on the windows, which says a lot about their durability. Here’s how the windows’ ratings stand up:

Fibertec energy ratingsFor what it’s worth, that’s the lowest U-Factor you can get. Now, these are not spectacular as far as solar heat gain goes, and if our house was better-positioned we could factor in solar heat gain. If I was building a new house I would DEFINITELY think about solar heat gain and how we could maximize it both with positioning and glazing of windows. But our house is not positioned to gain any benefit from the sun, here in the inner city, butted up right next to our southerly neighbors’ house. The visible transmittance is also just above the minimum that Green Builders recommended of .40.

So anyway, we did it, and guess what? We love our windows. Some before and after photos:

Living room, beforeThe living room, at night, December 31, 2014. The old double-hung windows letting in their final drafts. Above & Beyond started on New Year’s Day because they needed to time their work with the temperature being above 32 degrees (F).

Kitchen, duringThe kitchen, during installation. To shave a little bit of money off the total cost, Adam did all the interior trim work. These are the new windows.

Kitchen, afterAnd the breakfast nook with new windows and trim, complete. Nice!

We had a very cold snap right away after installation was complete, and we noticed the difference right away. When the temp got down around 0 degrees F and colder, our furnace used to run nearly constantly. Now it was shutting off and staying off for many minutes before cycling back on again. Our three doors are still very old and drafty, so if we can save up and replace those, we will really start hitting new highs with efficiency.

Living room, afterAn after view of the living room.

Triple-glazed windows are supposed to be harder to see out of than double-glazed. I’ve not noticed a difference except occasionally at night, when trying to look at the moon at an angle, there is a definite triple reflection. They are also harder to see into, and we have already had several birds fly into them–so far all of them survived the collision though, thank goodness.

Here’s a view of one of the windows when open:

window openWhat, you don’t open your windows when there’s still snow on the ground? As you can see this is a casement-style window, which means you crank it open. We chose these over double-hung (where you lift the sash to open the window) for the simple reason that casements are more energy-efficient–you get a better seal when you don’t have all those moving parts.

These also have a much bigger glass surface area than our old windows, and certainly bigger than the vinyl windows that we got a bid for. We decided to go with the square pattern on top to complement the cape cod style of our house.

exterior of house with new windowsCute, yes? For the middle of winter, anyway. We were a little nervous about tampering with the period style of our house–houses from the 1950s really ought to have double hung windows, but we hoped the square pattern would alleviate that a bit.

So there you have it: the new windows process, which seemed VERY LONG at times (especially during the three years of financial preparation). So far, though, no regrets. We’ll have them paid for by mid-summer as long as everything goes according to plan. A 6-month loan is better than a 3-year loan.

At this point, I would have to say that I recommend both Fibertec and Above and Beyond Construction. Questions? I’ll probably forget everything about this process within a few months, so best ask me now. I had already forgotten the names of the two other companies we got bids from! Thanks for reading, as always.


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Uh oh.

We’ve got a bit of a problem here.

  flooded rain garden

When we installed our rain garden last spring, we did our homework and found that our soil had excellent drainage. When it was not frozen. I’m not really sure why, as a lifelong Minnesotan, I did not consider winter in my design. Denial, perhaps?

Our [ancient, crumbling] garage sits on a foundation that is level (or once was level) with the ground. The wood framing and siding are attached to this foundation and are therefore rotten all the way around the bottom. This is not new. Fifty-plus years of flooding every March have made it happen. It’s flooded every one of the six Marches that we’ve lived here, save 2012 (which was a very strange year).

Now, instead of fixing the problem with my little rain garden, I’ve actually made it slightly worse, because now the rain garden is actually overflowing directly into the garage. Here’s a diagram to help you understand. The rain garden is dark gray:

Rain garden too close to the garage

The blue arrows represent melting snow draining into the rain garden. The brown arrows represent water draining out of the rain garden and into the garage, the driveway, and eventually the alley every afternoon (and freezing solid every night, which makes getting my bike out of the garage interesting).

We’ve obviously got work to do. The question is, what should we do? I’ve come up with two options.

Option 1:

Option 1 for fixed rain garden

We move the rain garden and all its plants (if they’re still alive) out approximately one foot, and make it more oval-shaped. We add a berm all along the edge of the garage under the eave, being sure that the drip line lands in such a way that water will slide down into the rain garden, not back into the garage. We try to alter the elevations slightly so that the water overflows out into the driveway/alley (it already does this now, in addition to going into the garage).

I’m not super jazzed about having to step over a berm to enter the garage through the service door, but I’m less enthused about tearing down the garage, putting in a proper foundation, and building a new garage, which, really, is what we ought to do. We’ll be able to afford that in approximately 10 years when we’re dead.

Option 2:

Option 2 is a little bit harder.

I like option 2 a little bit better for one main reason: it relocates the annual puddle/ice skating rink to underneath the swingset rather than the walkway/driveway. The hard part is that it is a lot more work. It adds one more berm on the left, in an inconvenient location by the back gate, and then there’s a lot more digging to create a depression where one does not currently exist (between the rain garden and the swingset). Also: I’m not 100% certain that this plan would work, since it fights the natural tendency of our yard to drain towards the garage, instead of away from it. Am I trying to make a river flow the wrong way, here?

One thing to remember is that we only deal with an overflowing rain garden during this time of year. When the ground is not frozen, it functions beautifully. We had several storms last summer/fall and it handled all the run-off water beautifully with NO overflow. March. It really… makes us into better people. Right?

What would you do in this situation?


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Book review: The Resilient Gardener

The Resilient GardenerThe Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times

by Carol Deppe

The title of this book is a bit heavy-handed; I probably wouldn’t have looked it up if my favorite permaculture blog hadn’t recommended it.

Yet, her broad definition of “hard times” resonated with me. Would your garden survive if you were unable to water it for two weeks? Weed it for three weeks? This concept was brought home to me long before I read this book, when Adam had a random injury in August that left him unable to do any lifting for well over a month. I had to do everything during that time, and it was both eye-opening and exhausting.

So, what if I, the primary gardener in the family, get a random injury? Or what if we have a drought and the city imposes watering limits (a very real possibility, actually)? I actually think these two questions should be asked about ANY landscape, not just a food-producing one.

Before I go any further, I should outline my recommendation regarding this book. Choose whichever of the following best applies to you:

1. If you live in Willamette Valley, Oregon and garden at any scale: BUY this book.

2. If you live anywhere else, and own or have access to acreage and have a desire to increase self-sufficiency by raising some staple crops like corn, beans, squash, or potatoes: BORROW this book from the library. (You may end up buying it.)

3. If you do not meet conditions 1 or 2: well, borrow it only if the topic really interests you.

This book suffers from the same problem affecting nearly all gardening (especially permaculture-oriented) books I read: warm climate-itis. The upper midwest is just a whole different ball game in gardening (though that’s not all bad, either).

Still, there are some useful nuggets in here. Here are a handful:

Plant spacing for resilience. Deppe grows corn, squash, beans, and potatoes enough to be self-sufficient on them as well as sell at market (i.e. she grows a shit ton of all four on acreage). The Willamette valley gets very dry in summer, but she grows most of her crops with little to no irrigation. She achieves this, in part, by increasing plant spacing to even double the amount recommended on the seed packet.

Timing. Because her region has rain at specific times (lots in the winter but very little in the summer) she plants strategically so that crops that need more water are maturing at the time when her region tends to get water. (This does not apply to the upper midwest, but still worth noting.)

Potatoes. She outlines three strategies for planting potatoes: hilling up, trenching, or growing in mulch, with details about how to determine which strategy is best for you. My own potato tower experiment was not successful, but I think that hilling up is probably a classic Minnesota potato strategy for a very good reason.

Ducks vs. Chickens. Deppe’s chapter on ducks offers a great comparison on determining whether you should raise ducks or chickens, and how raising fowl can have a dramatic effect on your resiliency. They can be a great choice if the land you live on happens to not be ideal for growing vegetables or fruit. Unfortunately they are not a choice for me right now, because of problems with obtaining a city permit.

Corn. Deppe has a real fondness for the lowly corn plant, and this book has great in-depth information on types of corn (flour, flint, dent), reasons and how-to’s for growing each, seed-saving and breeding techniques, and even recipes. As a person who is gluten-intolerant, she has a keen interest in providing high-quality non-wheat flour for herself—there are several interesting gluten-free recipes in the book.

Beans. One of the shortest chapters, but Deppe still manages to make a nice case for growing drying beans, and offers advice for those of us who still romanticize the old interplanting corn, beans, and squash myth. Deppe’s answer: it can be done, but mind your spacing and choose varieties that are suited for it.

I would love to think that someday Adam and I might be able to afford to buy a handful of acres somewhere in Minnesota or western Wisconsin. But since we likely wouldn’t be able to live there for many years, what crops (if any) could I realistically grow on this fantasy land, which I would only visit once per week in the best of times? Deppe’s book gave me LOTS of ideas to dream on, for now.


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Going native

I was just reading through some recent posts, and realized that I forgot one of the most important reasons why I had my most successful gardening year ever in 2012.

I had very few pest problems this year, and with our mild winter/early spring I had actually expected an increase in pests. Two reasons: first, I added beneficial nematodes to the garden in early June, all around my zucchini plants. I later saw (and failed to catch) adult squash vine borers in there, so I know they laid eggs, but the nematodes must have done their job because my zucchini plants looked gorgeous all summer.

Second, and more important: I have added a great variety of native plants to my yard and garden over the past two years, and I can’t believe how many more birds, butterflies and spiders are around. I actually watched two birds flying in and out of the vegetable garden one day, feasting on crickets. HUGE spiders set up shop in several areas of the yard this summer.

American Highbush Cranberry (viburnum trilobum) is just one of the native shrubs I added this spring. They’re absolutely gorgeous right now, and next year they should produce berries.

I keep saving seed and replanting Florence Fennel from a packet I originally bought several years ago (I also get MANY volunteers). This fennel frustrates me because it seems that no matter what part of the yard I plant it in, I almost never get a bulb worthy of dicing. I get lots of neat foliage, and I use the seeds and feathery leaves interchangeably with dill, but I am ready to try a different variety—I keep dreaming of cucumber fennel salad and never getting around to making it. Anyway, when I pulled out the remaining fennel plants this weekend, look what I found! Weird fennel carrot-like roots!? So, we boiled them up with some parsnips and mashed them. Not too shabby.

Garden’s not done yet! I’ve never seen a better chard plant than this one; it’s been completely cut down several times and just keeps coming back. Apparently it’s hardy to about 15 degrees (F), so we’ll probably want to use it up by the end of November or so.

With all the native plants we added this year, our need for leaf mulch increased to the point that we no longer need to bag/dispose of ANY leaves. We raked them off the small grass area, and threw the extras on the raspberries. So there’s one chore greatly reduced, at least. Leaf mulch is exactly what native plants want and like—after all it’s what they’d get in the forest.

A friend of mine was touring my garden this summer, and seemed perplexed at all the work I’m putting into adding natives that supply only a little food at most. Why not focus more on adding as many vegetable and fruit areas as humanly possible? Well, that’s likely the direction I would have gone, if I didn’t have so much shade. Since I can’t grow traditional vegetables and fruits in the vast majority of my yard, I had to improvise. I am SO glad I did: even if you can’t eat all of the plants I’ve added, they still greatly benefit the plants that I CAN eat by increasing biodiversity in my little south Minneapolis yard.

There’s also the permaculture aspect of this: in order to achieve greater sustainability we need to expand our definition of edible and explore the native plants of our regions. In that vein, I will be more than thrilled to welcome nannyberries, highbush cranberries, gooseberries, fiddlehead ferns, and even more herbal teas to my table next year. Now if I can just get my hands on some ramps and a serviceberry bush or two, I’ll be set!


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Project: complete!

Back in April, I applied for a grant from the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District. Their stormwater best management practices cost-share program helps homeowners in the district pay for landscape projects that help reduce run-off and support wildlife. I figured my back yard landscape project was a good candidate with its native plants and the rain garden. Found out last week that I got the grant!  It should cover all the plants. Awesome!

Knowing that the funding was secure, I bought the rest of the plants needed to complete the project this weekend. Fortunately Mother Earth Gardens in Minneapolis had everything I needed (mostly ferns).

Let’s dig in to the process:

First I wrote down the common and latin names, quantity, and location preferences for each plant. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of at least jotting down the latin name of each plant you buy. If you don’t, it is very difficult to know exactly what you have a few years from now.

Then I set the plants, still in containers, in their places to be sure of arrangement. Many of the plants I put in this spring are still tiny in their rabbit-proof cages, so I hope they survive the winter.

Next I made detailed maps of each planted area. This will be a big help next spring.

One of the three planted areas: a deeply shaded area between the compost bin and the wood shed where no grass has ever grown. The shrub in the picture is a alternate-leaved dogwood, also called pagoda dogwood (cornus alternifolia). Originally I had this area marked as “leave empty for potential chicken coop” but Adam put his foot down about the chicken issue. Plants it is. For now.

The other large planted area is along the north fence line, under a beautiful mature maple tree. It’s not much to see right now, but it should look much more filled-in next year. In a few years the 3 viburnums (2 trilobums and 1 lentago) will hopefully get big enough to provide a bit of screening.

I added six of these maidenhair ferns (adiantum pedatum). They are a great groundcover.

I was so jazzed to find Christmas Ferns (polystichum acrostichoides) that I bought 5 of them even though I technically only needed two. They’re an evergreen fern often used in holiday floral arrangements; hence the name.

I also added some cardinal flowers (lobelia cardinalis), though not in the rain garden as originally intended. They need a bit more sun than I originally thought, so they went into the sunniest part of the maple tree garden.

I definitely varied from my original plan, but the differences are relatively minor. Also, the edges of the rain garden need a bit more contouring before I post pictures.  I cannot wait to see all of this next year!


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Back yard project

Our back yard project has been progressing slowly but surely over the past month or two. Here’s where we’re at:

In late March/early April Adam busted out the entire sidewalk with a sledgehammer. Though Adam hauled away all the big pieces, the kids got busy hauling smaller pieces with their dump trucks.

pile of concrete to be recycled

What a ham!

Adam piled the concrete in the back alley. With faint hopes of avoiding dumpster fees, we posted an ad on Craigslist — free concrete to any taker.  Low and behold, the entire pile was gone a week!  Then Adam busted out the 2nd half of the sidewalk, made an equally big pile, and that went too.  All of this concrete will see a second life as part of numerous DIY projects — we had quite a few different people stop by and each took at least 5 or 6 pieces. Cool.

The latest step in the project is filling in the trench with topsoil.  Then comes sheet mulching, then finally, planting.  I’m afraid we are not going to be far enough along to buy all our plants at this weekend’s Friends Plant Sale, but… there are a fair number of nurseries near the Twin Cities that specialize in native plants so we still ought to be able to find everything we need.  Hoping for Memorial Day weekend or so, at this point.

Stay tuned!