The New Home Economics


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Rabbit Damage

The rabbits. They’re especially destructive in winters like the one we’re having, with little snow cover. The day after Christmas, I saw this: Rabbit damage on viburnum, via The New Home Economics blog

One of my brand new viburnums with obvious rabbit damage—stripped bark and disappearing twigs galore. Obviously, my cut-in-half hardware cloth hoop did little to protect this plant. Since Christmas was over anyway, we took down the Christmas tree, clipped off all the branches, and used it as heavy mulch and rabbit-blocking aid.

Christmas tree branch mulch on viburnums, via The New Home Economics blog

I looked under the branches today and it does seem to have helped. I did the same thing with my blueberries, whose size had already been reduced by 50% by the time I got to them.

Blueberries with protective Christmas tree mulch, via The New Home Economics blog

They were very small to begin with, having been eaten to the ground last winter. They spent all of summer 2012 just trying to get re-established.

Raspberry hedge decimated by rabbits, via the New Home Economics blog

Things look even worse in the raspberry patch. If we don’t get significant snow cover soon, all canes will be eaten to the ground. A fresh dusting of snow today covered a truly astonishing amount of rabbit scat that was visible after a thaw last week.

Rabbit damage on crabapple shoots, via The New Home Economics blog

On the other hand, should I be thanking the buns for trimming the sprouts next to my sickly crab apple tree?

Rabbit damage on currant bush, via The New Home Economics blog

Many plants withstand a little rabbit damage. This established currant bush is a good example. You can see some bark nibbling going on, and maybe a handful of twigs eliminated, but for the most part we’re good here.

Red-twig dogwood with rabbit damage, via the New Home Economics blog

Here also, some minor damage near the bottom of a red-twig dogwood. It needs trimming every year anyway, so I’m not worried about it.

What to do about this? The most effective way to prevent rabbit damage is by blocking them, but blocking every single precious plant in my landscape would make my landscape ugly. Rabbits are one of the reasons why I chose stock tanks for my back yard container gardens, so I’ve found some creative ways around them.

The other big thing that we need to address is this:

Rabbit habitat, provided by friendly humans, via The New Home Economics blog

The previous owners of our home built a large deck about 4-6 inches off the ground right behind our house. I’m guessing it didn’t take the rabbits long to move in, and they were well-established—with several entrances and exits—by the time we bought this house 6 years ago. Then we started adding in all kinds of rabbit delicacies to the previously-sterile landscape, supporting the population even further…and… well… this problem is multi-faceted, suffice to say.

Magnolia in winter, via The New Home Economics

The one shrub they have no interest in: my magnolia, with its fantastic fur-covered toes that hold within them the first flowers of spring.

Killing rabbits is not a long-term solution to this problem. In any ecosystem—the inner city is definitely a unique one—if you remove a part of it, others will fill that niche. Translation: other bunnies will move in to a newly-vacant rabbit mansion under our deck.

So the next step is going to have to be: remove the habitat. I’m not excited about the expense of removing the deck and replacing it with a patio, but it’s got to be done. Will it get done this year? That remains to be seen.

What are your rabbit strategies? This is a problem I’ve been dealing with for quite some time:

Protecting baby plants from rabbits (summer 2012)
Rabbit damage, spring 2011 (after a VERY rough winter for the rabbits)
Me 1, rabbits 0 (protecting early spring tulips and strawberries)

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Yogurt: oven method

When I started making yogurt 3 years ago, I had a hard time finding information and recipes.  Now the internets are practically exploding with yogurt methods — crock pot, oven, yogurt maker, heating pad, back seat of your car, you name it. Yes, there is even heirloom yogurt now. (Thanks, Christina!)

Anyway, as my kids kept getting bigger I started having to make yogurt with my little yogurt maker twice a week. I have limited time, so I put the yogurt maker away for a while. Here’s how we’re doing it, three years later:

Start with a 1/2 gallon of the best whole milk you can get your hands on. Heat it to just around the boiling point, or 180 degrees F. Remove from heat, plunge into a sink full of cold water, and bring the temperature back down to 110-115 degrees F.

Stir in a cup or so of yogurt from your last batch. Whisk.

My oven has a setting called “proofing” — for people who have time to bake bread (some day I’ll get back into it, sniff) — it holds the oven at around 100-110 degrees.  Perfect. I bake my yogurt overnight usually, around 8-9 hours. Simple, and it makes quite a bit — usually around 80 ounces.  Still no plastic to recycle (though now the city of Minneapolis does take yogurt containers).

A little chunky for ya? That’s what happens when you use non-homogenized milk. Doesn’t bother me, honestly. A solid week’s worth of full fat yogurt from grass-fed cows who live less than an hour away (and who I’ve actually met) for only about $5. Cool!


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Detailed plant list

OK, people, we’re going deep into plant geek territory here today. Prepare yourself for latin names! My landscape plan shows where I’m planting all of these.

EVERY plant on this list is native to Minnesota/the upper midwest, and hardy to USDA zone 3, unless where otherwise noted.  Most of my information was pulled from the highly recommended book Landscaping with Native Plants of Minnesota, by Lynn Steiner.

Plants for my new shady rain garden

Lobelia Cardinalis
Cardinal flower
Height: 1-2 feet
Blooms late summer
Part sun to shade
I’m taking a chance planting this one in full shade — hopefully it will bloom; the flowers attract hummingbirds. This will be one of the taller plants in the rain garden, a focal point of sorts because of its bright red flowers.

Arisaema Triphyllum
Jack-in-the-pulpit
Height: 1-3 feet
Blooms early spring
Moderate to full shade
Jack-in-the-pulpit has large, tropical-looking leaves that will make it interesting in this deeply-shaded area. It also gets red fruits in late summer, which are poisonous. Native Americans had some interesting uses for this plant.  I’m growing it for looks. (Honestly!)

Mertensia Virginica

Virginia Bluebells

Virginia bluebells
Height: 1-2 feet
Blooms early spring
Part sun or shade
I added one of these to my front-yard garden two years ago and it is a cute little plant. The plants die back and go dormant in early June, so I plan to interplant them with ferns and meadow rue to fill in.

Thalictrum dioicum
Early meadow rue
Height: 1-3 feet
Blooms early spring
Light shade to deep shade
I’m following Lynn Steiner’s advice and using this exactly like I would use a fern, for its showy foliage.  I’ll interplant it with the Virginia bluebells and the ferns.

Polystichum acrostichoides
Christmas fern
Height: 1-2 feet
Partial shade to full shade
With dark green fronds that stays green into the winter, this is occasionally used for holiday decor. It’s a threatened species so it might be hard to find a nursery that sells it. If I can’t find it, I will try Athryium filix-femina, Lady fern.

So there you have it. A mass of jack-in-the pulpits, a mass of cardinal flowers, and a surrounding edge of rue, ferns, and Virginia bluebells. It was actually kinda hard to find shade loving flowers for a rain garden — I like ferns, but I’d like some flowers in there too.

Perennial screen under a maple tree

This is a dry shade situation, almost as challenging as a wet shade situation!  It will be interesting to see how this all turns out.

Viburnum trilobum
Highbush cranberry
Height: 10-12 feet tall, 10-12 feet wide in sun. I’m planning on 5-6 feet tall/wide for my mostly shady  spot. I’ll plant three of them to create a screen, and an understory layer under a mature maple tree.
Sun to shade
This is a very versatile native shrub for landscaping, and I can’t wait to plant it! It’s got beautiful flowers, and edible fruits (which also attract birds). I may go with another similar species called viburnum lentago (nannyberry) if it’s easier to find — apparently it is more shade-tolerant than trilobum.  Or perhaps I’ll plant one or two of each and see which does better.

Aquilegia canadensis
Wild columbine
Height: 1-2 feet
Blooms early spring-early summer
Full sun to full shade
One of my three main “under the viburnum” herbaceous perennials will be wild columbine. I added one of these in the front two years ago and love it — and so do the bees. It also attracts hummingbirds. This is such an easy plant to grow; I highly recommend it for just about any landscaping project.

Polygonatum biflorum
Giant Solomon’s seal
Height: 1-3 feet
Blooms early summer, dark purple berries in late summer
Light shade to full shade
The second of my three main perennials will be Giant Solomon’s seal, a super cool-looking plant with very light green foliage and dark purple berries in late summer which are prized by birds. It’s very tolerant of dry shade situations like mine.  Apparently, the roots of Solomon’s seal have a role in voodoo in the American south, but once again, I’m in it for the looks. (HONEST!)

Smilacina racemosa
False Solomon’s seal
Height: 1-3 feet
Blooms early summer, red marbled berries in late summer
Light shade to full shade
Third of my three main perennials is False Solomon’s seal, which ought to complement the other one perfectly well. It is apparently easy to grow but prefers acidic soil, so I may need to do a bit of amending around these plants. This one also had quite a few interesting uses to native Americans.

Allium tricoccum
Wild ramp
No bloom (??)
Full shade, but needs a bit of early spring sun (as in under deciduous trees)
Ramps! What permaculture garden is complete without ramps?!  I will finally have a place for them now.  These are a wild, hardy perennial member of the onion family, and their flavor is prized by foragers. I’ve never tried them, but I can’t wait!

A couple other ephemerals
Depending on what I can find, I will also add a few other native ephemerals (early spring blooming plants that die back before summer); namely Dutchman’s breeches (dicentra cucullaria), round-lobed hepatica (hepatica americana), and blood root (sanguinaria canadensis).

Wild Ginger

Filling in the rest of the groundcover
I will fill out the rest of the groundcover in this area with wild ginger (asarum canadense, not related to the ginger we eat), which fills in a nice carpet of green after spring ephemerals die out, and Maidenhair fern (adiantum pedatum) in the front, which is a small fern that is more tolerant than others of dry soil.

The arbor

I want to plant grape vines (these are not native) on the north side of the deck to grow up and over the arbor. My choices are somewhat limited by my hardiness zone.  There are several University of Minnesota cultivars that to consider, and I’ll probably plant 2-3 each of two different kinds. The two I’m most keen on are Edelweiss, which can be used for jellies/juicing OR wine, and Frontenac, a wine grape that is one of the U’s hardier and most disease-resistant.


Well there you have it; that oughtta do it for going completely broke on buying plants this year, huh?!  Since this is a very long-term project, I may wait until late June or July and try to get them after they go on sale. It will likely take until then to finish the hardscape parts of the project anyway.

One final thing: ALL of these plants (except the grapes), can be seen in their natural habitat at the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden & Bird Sanctuary, part of Theodore Wirth Park in north Minneapolis.  That place is a treasure and an inspiration. I cannot recommend it enough. Some of the more interesting notes about medicinal uses of plants in the list above came from a guide book I purchased there.

Update, 3/22/2012: D’oh, this post was over 1,000 words long and I still forgot one plant I want to add near my stock tanks: a western sand cherry shrub (link points to a PDF, sorry).


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The time for natural animal fats is NOW

I saw this a couple weeks ago and I can’t get it out of my head.

A mother orangutan hugs her daughter as bounty hunters move in - the pair was saved at the last minute by an animal rescue group

[original source article]

Palm oil, dudes. It’s in EVERYTHING. And the increasing demand for it is causing unprecedented rainforest destruction and killing of anything that stands in the way, including orangutans.

I see two ways of addressing this.  Number one: reduce the number of highly-processed foods we consume, since so many of them contain palm oil. It’s tricky to puzzle out which products have it, because it’s usually simply labeled “vegetable oil.”

But secondly, can we also get over ourselves and start using animal fats in cooking, as people did for millennia? I’m talking about lard. Beef tallow. Duck and goose fat. Buttah. Not only are these traditional fats rich in fat-soluble vitamins, they are also cheap and easy to produce locally since they are byproducts of the meat industry. They can also easily be obtained without resorting to pesticides, GMOs, or deforestation. A win for all of us, including small family farmers AND orangutans.

And don’t think you’re innocent if you shop at natural foods stores — many natural foods products contain palm oil because, let’s be honest here, it does have some health benefits and is seen as an alternative to highly processed, GMO-based oils such as corn, canola and soybean.

Don’t be afraid of lard, OK?

For many more resources on traditional fats, visit the Weston A Price Foundation.


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Milkapalooza!

Yes, there is an event called Milkapalooza, and yes of course we went to it this weekend. It was a blast. Anneke, it turns out, is a natural at milking cows:

The event featured tours of the Minars’ farm, and I eagerly soaked up every minute. This was our opportunity to see where our milk comes from! And considering how much yogurt, butter, and ice cream we make with their milk/cream, a fair amount of our family’s daily calories come from this patch of grass and cows near New Prague, Minnesota. Here are some of the highlights from the tour:

Here’s the winter hoop house (not sure if that’s the right term) — it’s a simple structure where the cows go in cold weather. There is no barn for them to sleep in — this is it.  The bedding at the bottom is turned frequently, and as it decomposes, it heats up (this is all part of the process, as those of you who compost know). The heat is plenty for the cows, even in Minnesota winters.

The milk parlor was a little dark, so sorry for the low quality.  I’ve only seen a handful of milk parlors, including my Grandpa Rensenbrink’s very low-tech one, so this was very impressive. They can milk 32 cows at once!  Looking at the picture, basically cows would be facing you. The person goes down a set of stairs into a galley where they have easy access to all the udders to hook up the machines. It was pretty neat and efficient, and very clean.

The family raises pigs and chickens too, but not for commerce necessarily (that I know of anyway). Those were some darn happy pigs. Anneke naturally thought they were completely adorable and said that one in particular looked exactly like Wilbur from Charlotte’s Web.

Finally, the cows themselves. My, what beautiful girls. The milking herd is about 150 cows, which seemed like a small number to me (not really sure on that though). They have several different breeds including brown jerseys like this one. So, Cedar Summit Farms is different from conventional and even some organic dairies in several key ways:

1. The cows eat grass, and stored hay in winter. Quite a bit of acreage is required to grow that much “pasture salad,” as the tour guide called it.  Apparently when they switched from grains to grass, milk production went down.  But so did costs, so things balanced out in the long term.

2. Calves get to stay with their mother for 4-6 weeks after birth. Apparently you get much healthier calves this way.

3. The cows live a bit longer than they would if they lived on concrete, inside, their whole lives.

4. The cows still become hamburger, after 5-6 pregnancy and lactation cycles.  Sorry, but it’s true.

I know very little about dairy farming. But I liked everything I saw and heard at the farm this weekend. There were so many things to think about — and I’ve already gone on and on about how much healthier grass-based dairy products are.

This is going to sound a bit melodramatic, but I looked at this farm and saw a way to save the rural America I grew up in and love.  By making farming a bit less efficient, you instantly need many, many more farmers than we currently have.  Farms get smaller again.  Families can be supported by a smallish farm.  Rural communities have an economy again.  Everyone wins.  You can set aside the health, environmental, and animal welfare implications of “agribusiness” as we know it, and the bare economic facts point to smaller, greener farms being much better for people and communities.

Now the challenge: how to talk people into making the switch to milk that costs twice as much. And, how to get the government to subsidize farm programs that actually benefit real farmers instead of corporations — because conventional dairy farming, like so much else in our society is partially a product of subsidies both to corn and oil. It’s not sustainable. Things have got to change.

[ Blushes, thanks you very kindly for reading this far, and steps off soap box ]


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Rabbit damage

It’s been a rough winter for the varmints living under our deck. Early, deep snowcover meant a scarcity of food for them for months. Now the snow is finally receding (note: not totally gone yet), and they are having a field day with my perennials.

Note the stripped bark from the top parts of these rose bush branches. Fortunately I always cut the them back to the green part every spring anyway.

A few weeks ago I pruned my crabapple tree, and I was super lazy about cleaning up the branches. I basically just piled them up and left them there. I am so glad I did now, because the rabbits have been feasting on those as well. Apple branches must be extra delicious. I like to think this pile of branches might be saving a perennial or two. I am seeing lots of damage everywhere, but nothing fatal except my grape vine, which probably wasn’t going to survive the winter anyway.

I may assent to Adam’s offer to get one of his old “wrist-rocket” slingshots from his parents’ house.  Apparently he used to kill striped gophers with one shot when he was a kid. Hasenpfeffer could be an Easter dish, right?

Somebody’s mocking me.

Ending on a positive note: look at those swelling magnolia buds. Spring is coming! Really, it is.


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Rendering duck fat

I always make a point of looking in the frozen meat section at Seward Co-op because it usually has a nice traditional foods-minded surprise or two.  I’ve found various different kinds of liver, chicken feet, homemade fish and chicken stock, and lard there.  Today: two packages of duck fat!  I took the smaller of the two, not knowing what to expect.

A little research revealed that duck fat, like lard, must be rendered.  It did take a couple hours, mostly unattended.  Also, it didn’t have nearly the strong smell that the pork lard had. The kitchen just smelled vaguely chickeny.

I used this method:

1. Place cut-up pieces of duck fat in water.  About 2 c. water for 1 pound of duck fat. I probably could have gotten by with slightly less water.

2. Bring to a simmer and cook over low heat until all the water boils off and the cracklings start to get browned.

3. Drain through cheesecloth into half-pint jars. I’m not sure how long this will keep in the refrigerator, but I’d guess 4-6 weeks at the most. Hence the tiny containers. Extra containers can go in the freezer.

Yield: 1.5 half-pints of duck fat (or, nearly 1 pint).  We used it to fry some potatoes and patty-pan squash for supper, and they turned out great.  The ever-so-slight chicken flavor was only detectable in some bites, and it was not unpleasant at all. This experiment went much better than my lard one!

Apparently, duck fat is a very gourmet, very French thing to use in cooking (even Jamie Oliver recommends it). Traditionally in Germany they also made schmaltz with duck or goose fat — a butter replacement that they spread on bread, apparently. I’m reading a book about traditional German cooking right now which may lead to both the roasting of a goose and the making of some schmaltz. (I already make sauer kraut on the regular basis so I’ve got that covered.) The schmaltz recipe in the book calls for an apple and an onion to be cooked with the fat and discarded with the cracklings.

Our supper tonight: potatoes and patty-pan squash cooked in duck fat with thyme and orange zest, plain couscous, and a massaged kale salad.  A yummy way to celebrate the start of Daylight Savings Time.