The New Home Economics


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Growing soil sprouts indoors

I heard about Peter Burke’s book for the first time last spring. I had already started lettuce outside, so I figured I’d wait until fall to give it a read. I requested it from the library in late October, and honestly: this one’s a game-changer. I don’t say that lightly!

Year-Round Indoor Salad Gardening by Peter Burke

Book: Year-Round Indoor Salad Gardening: How to Grow Nutrient-Dense, Soil-Sprouted Greens in Less Than 10 Days, by Peter Burke.

What really excited me about Burke’s process is that is has a low start-up cost. He doesn’t use grow lights, and he grows his sprouts in reusable foil half-loaf pans, wonderful for people short on money, time, and space.

I read the whole book and it seemed silly not to give it a try. My initial investment was around $40—and even if it completely failed, I would be able to use everything I bought in my regular garden next summer.

Soil Sprouts - getting started, via The New Home Economics

It was a gorgeous fall day so I worked outside this first time. The seeds I sprouted, from left to right: radish, sunflower, buckwheat, pea, and broccoli. After soaking the seeds overnight and preparing some seed starting mix (you add compost and liquid kelp to it), spread the seeds out on the surface and cover with soaked, folded up newspaper. Place in a dark, warm cupboard–warmth is important to get them to sprout quickly and without rotting.

Newly sprouted soil sprouts, via The New Home Economics

Here’s what mine looked like after several days. My buckwheat (left) did not germinate very well at all this first round; I think it was because the furnace was not running very much that week, so the cupboard was not at an ideal temperature. At this point, they did not look appetizing at all. The kids said “EW!”

Soil Sprouts, ready to eat

After placing them in a bright window for a few days, they started to look much better!

Soil Sprout Salad, via The New Home Economics

Here they are all cut up and ready to eat. I was still very skeptical at this point. Would the kids even be willing to try them? Happily, the kids tried AND liked them very much. We ate our third sprout harvest last night. Next week, I’m going to increase my production from one to two meals per week. Burke grows enough to eat these every day… will I get to that level some day? Perhaps.

I did have to order more seeds already and soon I will have to order more seed-sprouting mix. But my total cost per meal is less than what I’d pay for California lettuce, and tastes fresher. Also, because these are the “seed leaf” of the plant and not the true leaves, the nutrition levels are higher than normal lettuce. They taste so good that Anneke has been sneaking sprouts before we even harvest them.

Soil Sprouts at Seward Co-op, via The New Home Economics

At the Seward Co-op the other day, I saw that I’m not the only one experimenting with these. The prices don’t seem too terrible, but suffice to say it’s still cheaper to DIY this one.

My favorites are the sunflower and pea shoots. The buckwheat shoots taste delicious but continue to be the poorest in germination rates, though I’ve seen improvement since that first round.

This book is now on my DEFINTELY BUY list. I highly recommend giving this a try.


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Progress and change

We’re going through lots of changes here in south Minneapolis. Some are seasonal—it’s going to freeze tomorrow. Others feel more substantial.

Blake the dog

We said goodbye to our old friend Blake on Saturday, September 10. Adam and I adopted him as a puppy in May of 2001; he was 15 years old. Rowan and Anneke have never experienced life without him until now—I caught Rowan sitting quietly with him several times in the week leading up to his final vet appointment. We’ll get another dog someday. But I don’t know that I’ll ever love another animal as much as I loved Blake—my dog baby before I had human babies.

All I do is laundry

Our other major life change is that Adam went back to full-time employment this fall after years of being part-time. As a result, our weekends have become something of a race to do ALL the laundry, housework, gardening, shopping, and everything else. We’re not ready to give up yet, though—with several major household appliances and a car all over the age of 15, we need to build savings.

Garden Shed, 2016

Here’s a more pleasant “life” update, or what feels like a life update, anyway. The garden shed that Adam started building five—yes, FIVE—years ago is finally complete. He nearly finished in 2011, but ran out of cedar shakes around halfway up the sides. It took 5 years of diligent Craigslist searching to find someone willing to sell such a small number of shakes needed to finish the job. I’ve been using the garden shed these 5 years, but it’s nice that it finally also looks done on the outside.

Garden shed, 2011

For comparison purposes, here are Adam and the kids working on it in 2011, when they were four. I think Rowan has more than doubled in height. His hair’s a bit longer too. Ah, tweens.

Pollinators of Native Plants

I’ve been making progress on my reading list this year. I recently finished Pollinators of Native Plants: Attract, Observe and Identify Pollinators and Beneficial Insects with Native Plants, by Twin Cities author Heather Holm. As a graphic designer, I found the layout of the book to be a little bit distracting, but in the end the content overcame the layout. This is a fantastic resource; I bought it so that I can have it on hand every time the kids see some new bug in the garden.

I’ve read so much about native plants, but so little about insects, and what a world there is to discover. For example, I never knew how tiny most native bees are—I thought they were all variations on bumblebees, but most are so tiny you most likely never even notice them unless you’re really looking. The other surprising thing was the great variety in shapes and sizes of the various wasps, syrphid flies, and other pollinators native to the midwest.

Thread waist wasp on goldenrod, via The New Home Economics

I was immediately able to identify the wasp on the left as a thread-waist wasp on my goldenrod thanks to this book. On the right, most likely a bumblebee, but it could also be one of several bumblebee mimics. I’m no longer certain!

Learning about our great variety of pollinators drives home the realization that the number of native midwestern insects that we fear because of stinging is such a very small part of the whole population. I have killed nests of yellowjackets in my yard before, but to lump all bees and wasps together with them really does the larger number of them a major disservice. It’s truly becoming one of my life’s missions to help people understand the difference between bees and wasps, and now also between different types of wasps! Because let’s face it: wasps are beneficial, too. How could they not be, when they evolved with our ecosystem right alongside bees, flowers, and everything else?

Trees and Shrubs of Minnesota

I also just finished Trees and Shrubs of Minnesota, by Welby R. Smith. This is also a wonderful resource—especially if you own land or live in the country and want to try and identify the plants growing on your property. It contains general information, distribution, and specific identifying characteristics to help you distinguish even between different types of, for example, currants. I had no idea how many different types of wild currants we have in our state. With four distinct biomes, there’s a lot to cover. This book would not be appropriate for bringing along on a hike; it’s way too big and heavy. This is on my official Christmas list for 2016.

Elephants Ears

With the frost coming tomorrow, several important chores needed to happen this past weekend. Chief on Anneke’s mind was potting up her elephant’s ears and bringing them in for the winter. I’m not sure how this happened, but my kid has become obsessed with tropical plants. And the elephants ears keep multiplying—this started as one plant only 3 years ago. I composted a few of them when she wasn’t looking. She now has a large plant shelf in her room supporting new roommates for the winter, most of which she started from seed on her own: 5 elephants ears, 1 avocado tree, 4 grapefruit trees, and a venus fly trap. She “let” me keep my Meyer lemon in the living room. It’s a silly plant zoo around here.

Musquee de Provence pumpkins, via The New Home Economics

Our Musquee de Provence pumpkins also got hauled in from the community garden plot at Sabathani. There should be four more of these; we lost two to rotting and two to thievery. I was surprised at the thievery—this is the first time my garden has ever been hit. I just hope those thieves cook them up and eat them, because they are DELICIOUS. We made one into a pie on Sunday and it was brightest-orange colored pumpkin pie I’ve ever seen.

Milkweed bugs

Winter is coming. Quick, let’s have a milkweed bug swarm! I could spend all day, every day in my garden observing all the crazy things that go on there. As a proud Minnesotan I do appreciate the winter, though. Enjoy autumn, everyone.

 


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Country in the city

We keep talking about moving to the country. I don’t think it’s going to happen anytime soon; I’m starting to wonder if it ever needs to happen. How would our lives be different if we lived in the country? What would we do, that we don’t do now?

9YO girl shoots a recurve bow in Minnesota

Archery?

Fruits of our labor, via the New Home Economics

Raising lots of different fruits right in our yard?

Tiger Swallowtail, via The New Home Economics

Photographing butterflies and bees on wildflowers?

Rescuing baby ducks out of a storm drain, via The New Home Economics

Rescuing baby ducks out of a storm drain? Do they have storm drains in the country? It was pretty satisfying seeing that Mama duck waddle away with all 7 babies in tow after our exciting experience which included lowering my child into a storm drain and stopping traffic on Cedar Avenue…for…ducks.

Honestly, we would do most of the same things we do now, but we’d add in a long car commute (and say goodbye to my beloved daily bike commutes), or try to find a job out there—and that’s no easy task. I guess city life isn’t what I thought it would be, growing up on the edge of a cornfield in the last part of the last century. But it’s better in so many ways. (I haven’t figured out how to have a goat in my back yard, yet.)

Isle Royale National Park

Anyway, we went to Isle Royale National Park in June, after talking about it for approximately 20 years. It was everything I had dreamed it would be; my life-long moose drought ended with seeing three actual moose in the wild. It was wonderful.

Bison at Blue Mounds State Park

Three weeks later we went on an impromptu trip to Blue Mounds State Park, in the very opposite corner of our state. From the boreal forest to the prairie—there is so much to love about both of these biomes. In my fantasy world of moving to the country, I find some acreage that includes both of them. The kids surprised me by emphatically declaring that they preferred Isle Royale, but I had to point out that Blue Mounds was a significantly cheaper and easier trip.

Thimbleberry, at Isle Royale National Park

When we go on these trips, I always take obnoxious numbers of wildflower photos. Isle Royale was covered in thimbleberry plants, which were new to me. A member of the rose family, they get a bright red, raspberry-like berry later in the summer. A little research upon our return told me that Prairie Restorations, a local native plant nursery, stocks these! I’m going to try them next year in a new mixed bed I am planning. I will be sure to find out first whether they require acidic soil; I frequently saw them next to Bunchberries, which do require acidic soil and failed to thrive in my yard.

Pink wedding bouquet, via The New Home Economics

A friend got married two weeks ago, and I was able to provide a beautiful bridal bouquet for her from my yard! Fortunately she’s not the kind of person to mind if a few bees were buzzing around her bouquet.

Living out of doors, via The New Home Economics

Two years ago, we added this trellis above our deck. Last year, I planted hops and grapevines around it, and this year the plants really got established and started actually providing us with mid-day shade. However, the deck/arbor are on the west side of the house and the setting sun is still intense around supper time. We added this sun shade to the arbor, and the sense of privacy and shade have been great. Plus: we’ll get our first real hops harvest this year. Adam wants to brew one batch of fresh hops beer, then I hope to barter the rest to a brewing neighbor in exchange for a growler of the finished product. Next year, perhaps, we’ll get our first real batch of wine grapes.

Banana and jalapeno peppers, via The New Home Economics

Garlic, via The New Home Economics

Harvest season is in full swing. Above, jalapeño and sweet banana peppers ready for pickling. I’m growing my peppers all in pots this year, scattered around the sunniest parts of my flower garden. This could end up being a permanent change.

Next, my garlic. I had an epiphany last fall: WHY was I using up several square feet of my precious little fenced vegetable garden space for a food that rabbits *don’t* eat? So I planted garlic cloves all over my flower beds in the fall. They all came up, and that was great, but unfortunately many of them got shaded out by taller plants as they were maturing. As a result, my bulbs are rather small. I’m still happy to have them, though.

I love the home and yard we’re creating here in South Minneapolis. So maybe I should spend some time enjoying it rather than wonder if I’m missing out on anything. How is your summer harvest going?


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Book reviews: Minnesota’s Bounty and The Vegetable Gardener’s Guide to Permaculture

I read two garden-related books this spring, and am finally getting around to reviewing them here.

A Vegetable Gardener's Guide to Permaculture

The Vegetable Gardener’s Guide to Permaculture: Creating an edible ecosystem
by Christopher Shein, with Julie Thompson

I approached this book as I do all permaculture books: with skepticism. There are three aspects of many (most?) permaculture books that bother me. First, they are written by and for people living in more moderate climates than the upper midwestern United States. Second, they are written by people who have no profession other than doing permaculture stuff. Is this my bias, or is this generally true? Finally, they often encourage the planting of non-native, invasive species such as bamboo without warnings about the potential consequences to local ecosystems.

Having said all that, of course I support any book that makes the principles of permaculture accessible for normal people, and this book fills that niche just fine. It features gorgeous photos of permaculture principles at work in some very productive California gardens.

This book includes lots of practical advice for the novice vegetable gardener; for example defining monoculture vs polyculture and outlining the benefits of growing many different types of things. I have seen this in my own garden this year: instead of growing just one type of leafy green, I’m growing kale, swiss chard, collard greens, French sorrel, and mesclun lettuce mix. When my collards were under attack from cabbage worms several weeks ago, we ate lettuce instead. Now that my collards have recovered and my swiss chard is full of leaf miners, well, you get the idea. When you plant a variety of things, a crop failure of one is not devastating.

Another criticism that I could lodge at some permaculture books is an oversimplified view of how nitrogen-fixing crops work. Until very recently, I too was under the impression that placing any nitrogen-loving plant next to a nitrogen-fixing plant was a solid move all throughout the growing season. But that’s not true. And I could have learned how it worked just by checking Wikipedia!

It’s a subtle difference, but it’s important: nitrogen-fixing plants (such as legumes like beans and peas) have little nodes on their roots. These nodes are where excess nitrogen (pulled from the air) is stored. When the plant dies, this nitrogen is released into the soil as the nodes/root system break down. So yes, they benefit the soil, but only after they die.

This explains why I had to eventually consider my interplanting of snow peas and cucumbers to be a fail. I tried it for two years—it made so much sense to me that my cucumbers could climb up the snow peas and then eventually just replace them on the same trellis.

Interplanting cucumbers and snow peas

The problem was, right up until the moment the snow peas died, they were actually competing with the cucumbers for water and nutrients. My cucumbers’ growth was slow until the snow peas finally died off in early July. When the peas died off, the cucumbers really came to life (which supports the science that nitrogen is released when the plant dies). In a long growing season, this might be OK, but not with my short Minnesota window. My yields of cucumbers were less than in previous years.

I suspect that many “dynamic accumulators” in permaculture are just like this. Take comfrey, for example. The plant doesn’t do much for you when you just leave is sitting in its spot (except spread and become invasive). You must remove much of its foliage several times per growing season and either add it to your compost, make comfrey compost tea with it, or use the leaves as a weed-suppressing mulch. If you’re not willing to commit to that, you should think hard before planting it.

I made comfrey compost tea earlier this summer, and WOW did it smell awful!

Comfrey Compost Tea

I pulled out most of my comfrey plant (don’t worry, it came right back), placed it in two 5-gallon buckets, then let it ferment for 2 weeks. Then I watered it down about 50% and poured it on many vegetables and shrubs. Everything responded well to the treatment except my peppers, which looked a little stressed afterwards. If I use it on them again, I will water it down further (to 25% or less).

But I digress. I checked The Vegetable Gardener’s Guide to Permaculture out of the library, but I won’t be buying it. It gave me a few new ideas, but was mostly review. It’s fine for beginner vegetable growers and people who are curious about permaculture, but not really for me.

Minnesota's Bounty, A Farmers Market Cookbook

Minnesota’s Bounty
The Farmers Market Cookbook
by Beth Dooley

Here’s a book written just for me and my fellow cold-climate gardeners! It’s a list of many different vegetables that one can find at our great Minnesota Farmers Markets, from common vegetables like potatoes and peppers to the more unique varieties: bitter melon, okra, sunchokes and the like. There’s also a short section for meat and fish, such as lamb, poultry, and bison.

For each item, Dooley provides at least one recipe (usually three or more), plus Quick Ideas—simple preparations with ingredients you’ll already have on hand. My favorite “quick idea” was the idea of soaking rhubarb overnight in water, discarding the stalks, then sweetening to taste for a rhubarb-ade.

I tried several of the recipes, and they were all satisfactory and easy to follow. The shining star was a salad of radishes, cucumbers, and tomatoes with a cider vinegar-honey-fresh mint dressing. I cheated a little and bought hydroponic cucumbers and tomatoes so that I could make it before the book was due back at the library. It was delightful, and I’ll be copying down that recipe to make it again.

I also tried a stir-fried bison with spring vegetables recipe that was a little bit ho-hum. The sauce was not very flavorful—I’m spoiled by a husband who doesn’t even use a recipe to make a damn good stir-fry sauce. Shall I pin him down on his methodology and share it with you? I will try.

The primary reason I checked this book out was in search of savory rhubarb recipes—I would like to move beyond cakes, pies, scones, etc. This book did have a delicious rhubarb “pandowdy” recipe (a type of upside-down pie), but no savory ideas. I will try to check out Kim Ode’s Rhubarb Renaissance next. I get more rhubarb than I can use; I’ve become that neighbor who gives away rhubarb to anyone who will take it.

I enjoyed this book, but I don’t think I’ll buy this one either. I have somewhat limited book shelf space, so my standards are pretty high for a cook book. Ingredients-based books like this are great, because they provide a resource for that moment of “what do I do with all these collards?” But then again, it’s even easier to just google “collard green recipe” or “red currant recipe.” That was how we found our beloved red currant pie recipe, which Adam is making right now!

Do you know any savory rhubarb recipes? I’d love to hear about them.


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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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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.