The New Home Economics


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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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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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The three Rs

Single sort has arrived!

Single sort recycling has arrived in Minneapolis! Welcome to a new era where more than 18% of Minneapolitans recycle!

Wait, what? Yes, it’s true. One of the reasons Minneapolis switched to single sort is to increase recycling numbers. The old system was somewhat complex, but still, I am perplexed that, as recently as 2012, 80% of people in my fair city were still not taking this simplest of steps. This is a move in the right direction.

And look at the size of that cart! The idea is to make absolutely sure that anything people can dream up to recycle will fit in there. Maybe someday the city will make garbage carts smaller; ours is never more than half full. It’s a bit demotivating when you pay the same price for your garbage cart every month whether it’s got 1 bag of garbage in it or is overflowing every single week.

Solving problems like that on a city-wide scale is really tough. I don’t want to downplay it. But I also don’t feel like waiting around for city governments (or any government, really) to figure these things out when there are so many changes I can make at the household level. Therefore, I can’t waste this opportunity to bring up a key point:

Recycling should be lower priority than Reducing and Re-using.

Producing less waste in the first place should be our top priority (and I’m talking about waste at every level, including emissions). There is a new book out which I’ve recently added to my “must read” list; the author also has a blog: Zero Waste Home. There’s also a local blog with a similar theme: The Trashbasher (although she updates less frequently).

I’m really excited to see this idea getting momentum. It’s not just about buying less, it’s about creating opportunities to close as many loops as we can. It’s a cup of permaculture tea, applied to every aspect of our lives. Overwhelming, but maybe less so when taken one thing at a time.

So, yay to single sort recycling, but let’s all get going on our compost piles too, OK? Or maybe do a little bulk shopping at the grocery store? What are you doing to reduce waste? This is an area that, for me, needs constant inspiration, lest I slip back into old habits out of sheer exhaustion. So, inspire me please!


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Community Gardening

Wow, the past two weeks have been busy. It all started on May 9 with the Friends Plant Sale. Since then, I’ve been going non-stop. One big occupier of my time has been the community garden behind Sabathani Community Center on 38th Street in Minneapolis. I’m currently in my 4th year of coordinating the master gardener demonstration plot there. This year things got more complicated, because some other Master Gardeners and I decided to use the demonstration garden as a true teaching garden, and teach a class, en español, to a group of new gardeners. The class has had its share of hiccups, mostly weather-related, but we’re on our way.

Here’s the layout of the Master Gardener demo plot for 2013. I always try to keep this simple, and dedicate lots of space to collards and kale. When I take our harvests to the food shelf every week, I get mobbed for my greens. I also tried to include examples of what I knew my students wanted to plant, so I could demonstrate.

Sample layout for a 10' x 20' garden, via the New Home Economics

Adam and I and some fellow MGs planted 75% of this last week, and then I planted the rest on Tuesday night (in 55 degree drizzle) for a planting demonstration. Here’s what the garden looks like as of today:

Community garden plot, 10'x20'

I haven’t gotten straw mulch down around the plants yet, because straw has suddenly become VERY hard to come by in Minneapolis, thanks to the straw bale gardening trend. But I got toilet paper collars (for cut worms) around the peppers and tomatoes today. That crooked trellis in the background will be for tomatoes, grown similarly to how I grow mine.

This week, I asked the main community garden coordinator about an empty plot that was near the demo plot, and whether anyone was using it this year. She gave her blessing, and I suddenly had to quickly come up with another 10’x20′ plan for myself! I wanted to keep things simple, and I’ve always wanted to try winter squash, so that’s what we planted today: 14 hills of it! Am I crazy?!

Digging up a neglected community garden plot in Minneapolis

Today Adam, my best friend CJ, and I dug up the VERY WEEDY plot (she’s sharing the plot with us), while the kids made dandelion chains in another abandoned plot nearby. Then we sowed 5 hills of pie pumpkins, 4 hills of acorn squash, and 5 hills of butternut squash. Later CJ added a few rows of radishes. Here’s what it looks like now:

hills of squash

Again, I had to conserve what little straw I had left, so I only put it on the actual hills for now. Tomorrow we’re going up north to visit our parents, and my dad, who knows actual farmers, has procured two bales of straw for me. So everything will get mulched in good time!

I’m relatively new to growing squash. I’ve only tried it the one time before in my garden, and it ended early with squash vine borers. Hoping to avoid that here, I’ll add some nematodes in the next couple weeks. Got any advice about winter squash for me?


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All plastic is oil: the movie Collapse

Collapse

The book that the documentary was based on.

I added the documentary Collapse to my Netflix queue at least two years ago, after a friend earnestly implored me to see it. It’s a profile of a guy named Michael Ruppert, whose blog/self-published newsletter predicted—with scary accuracy—the economic collapse of 2009. Back when the movie came out, I added his website to my RSS reader, but I had to stop reading after a while because I felt like I was going to have a panic attack if I read one more article about peak oil.

I was filled with dread at the prospect of watching the movie, but this weekend I finally got up the nerve. Honestly, it wasn’t that scary. As a matter of fact, as soon as the movie was over, Adam joked, “Wait, wait, don’t tell me, THIS is why you want to get chickens, right?”

If you’ve read about climate change, and if you’ve ever heard of the giant pool of money, most of the information that Ruppert presents is now old news. We’re probably past peak oil. Capitalism itself is unsustainable because infinite growth is not achievable on a planet with finite resources.

Honestly, this stuff doesn’t scare me that much anymore. I guess I’ve moved into the acceptance phase—I’m much more focused on what I can do about it.

Yet, I’ve also found myself slipping into old habits lately as our personal economic situation has improved. The kids are in school now; we’re not as desperately broke as we were when I first started writing this blog. For the past month or two, I’ve been noticing that our small “plastics” recycling bin has actually been full every time the recycling goes out. This is a clue that I’m not doing all I can to reduce plastic in my life. My goal is generally to only have to take the plastics bin out once or twice a year.

So I’m glad I watched this; if nothing else it was a good reminder that, indeed, all plastic is oil. Learning to live without plastic now will make it easier to adjust later when it’s no longer cheap and plentiful. Besides, given the facts that it’s nearly impossible to recycle AND possibly leaches chemicals into your food, it’s really not a great choice anyway.

I liked what Mr. Ruppert had to say. Yes, he’s a bit of a Lone Gunman, but he also advocates community building and local food networks and truly believes that we can confront this crisis if we change our paradigms. The revolution is at our doorstep—but it doesn’t need to be a violent one. We all need to quit wasting our time yelling about trivial political issues (related: turn off our TVs), and pull together to figure out how we survive the coming challenges. Planting a garden is a great place to start. I am IN. Are you?

(We’ll return to our regular posts about gardening and recipes later in the week, I promise!)


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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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Design with Nature

I just signed up for the Design with Nature conference later this month!  I’m super excited.  I’ve been wanting to learn more about landscaping.  Naturally, I’ll take copious notes and report back to you all what I learn.

The conference is February 26 at the St. Paul Campus of the University of Minnesota.  Read all about it.