The New Home Economics


2 Comments

In the mid-summer garden

If you’re going to have a garden, and you’re going to have kids, I highly recommend marrying a teacher. Adam has been busy all summer long working on landscaping projects, and by the time he’s done our gardens are going to be at a new level. Meanwhile, the kids and dog are … REALLY taking it easy:

Hammock reading time, via The New Home Economics

Here’s a sneak peek of Adam’s big project:

A new brick path, via The New Home Economics

He’s edging all of our primary flower, fruit, and vegetable gardens and putting in pretty brick paths to tie everything together. He’s going to rent a wet saw this week for all the half-bricks that he needs here.

Snip N Drip hose system, via The New Home Economics

Another new thing I’m trying this year: I purchased a “Snip N Drip” soaker hose system for the main vegetable garden, because my old soaker hoses basically fell apart (they lasted 10+ years so that’s not too bad). So far, so good except for one factor: there is not nearly enough pressure from the rain barrel to be able to use it with this system. So when I need to water the garden I’m using tap water. The rain barrel water is hardly going to waste though; I’m using it on my fruit trees and bushes.

Interplanted onions and parsnips, via The New Home Economics

My vegetable garden is looking very lush right now. Here we have interplanted onions and parsnips, which seems to be working quite nicely. At the back, two collard green plants. (One of which, oddly, is blue? Hmm.)

Squirrel proof tomato cage, via The New Home Economics

My new squirrel-proof tomato cage is great. The plants are suckering a little more than usual because it’s not super easy to get in there and prune them, but I’m fine with it.

Tomatoes, via The New Home Economics

I cannot wait for fresh tomatoes!

Wine grapes, via The New Home Economics

I think we’ll get a wine grape harvest this year, for the first time! These are Marquette grapes, a University of Minnesota hybrid. I’m not growing these in a 100% conventional way. If I were farming grapes with “maximum harvest” as my only goal, I’d grow them more like this. But since this is my home garden, I’m trying to accomplish several things here—I’m stacking up functions of plants and structures, to put it in permaculture words. So these grapevines also provide shade and beauty in the yard in addition to fruit. I’m just crossing my fingers that squirrels won’t eat all the grapes before I get to them.

Grapevine and hops arbor, via The New Home Economics

Here’s a view of the arbor from further away. The grape is on the right nearest corner, in the middle on both sides are hops (climbing up twine). We got a nice hops harvest last year.

Gooseberries, via The New Home Economics

We had a minor infestation of currant/gooseberry sawflies in May but an hour or two of hand-picking took care of it, and they haven’t been back. There is supposed to be a second generation of them in June or July but I’ve never seen one. My [somewhat educated] guess is that this is due to the high number of wasps, ladybugs, and other predators that fill my yard by mid-June. Having lots of wildflowers surrounding my fruits creates a healthier ecosystem and less work for me.

Raspberries, via The New Home Economics

It’s almost raspberry season, hurray! The kids have already eaten a handful of them.

Red currants, via The New Home Economics

My original red currant bush is now at least 8 years old. I’m not really sure when I planted it. The bush doesn’t look so great anymore. I gave it a good pruning this spring and now it looks worse (yet it’s still fruiting like crazy). I am strongly considering doing a “renewal pruning” and just cutting it to the ground next spring, so it can get a fresh start. We added a second red currant bush two years ago, so we’d still get a small harvest.

Front yard cherry tree garden, via The New Home Economics

Our front yard cherry tree garden is filling in nicely, now in its third or fourth year. (I’m losing track of time.) The maximum size of this tree was supposed to be 10-15 feet and it’s already at least 10 feet and not showing any signs of slowing down. We finally had a large enough cherry harvest this year for a pie AND some delicious sour cherry muffins.

Garbage cans, before, via The New Home Economics

Wait, why am I showing you my ugly alley garbage can area?! I “upgraded” to a smaller garbage cart this year, and now this area looks better:

Garbage cans, after, via The New Home Economics

When I saw just how small the new garbage cart was, I got a little nervous. But we’re now several weeks in and it hasn’t gotten filled to overflowing even one time, despite Adam having some construction waste from his various projects. My only gripe about it is this: this garbage can is less than half the size of the previous one, but the discount per month is only $5. Doesn’t…quite…compute. But I do understand that a huge part of the cost of garbage removal is operating the trucks and paying the humans, so I will [try not to] complain.

A huge pile of soil, via The New Home Economics

All of this edging and path-making has left us with a very large pile of sod and soil. Instead of getting rid of it, I had a brainstorm: why not make a berm!? So… we’re making a berm garden in the front, under the shade of a large elm. Since it will become such a major focal point in the front yard, I want it to be very pretty but still use all native plants. I think the biggest plant will be a pagoda dogwood. I’ll surround it with pretty woodland plants like solomon’s seal, bloodroot, and wild ginger.

Asiatic lily, via The New Home Economics

Look, I’m not a purist. Eleven years ago when we first bought this house, I was not yet turned on to native plants and I planted these beautiful Asiatic lilies. If they ever die, I’ll definitely replace them with natives, but for now… they are very pretty, yes?

I hope you have a peaceful Fourth of July.


3 Comments

Spring happenings

Planting onion starts, via The New Home Economics

It’s all starting. I planted my snow peas last weekend, but that was about it. I had to take time off work this week to stay home with my spring break kids, so I accomplished a lot in the garden. Today, I put in my onion starts—I buy them at Mother Earth Gardens. Yes, planting the thread-like baby onions is a little tedious, but on a glorious partly-cloudy 60 degree morning, well, I guess it depends on your level of tolerance. I was just happy to be out planting and it was soon done.

I also planted some radishes—they weren’t part of my garden plan for this year because for the last several years they’ve performed so dismally for me. But I was staring at the garden on Thursday (true story), and I realized that I have a month (at least) before I could plant tomatoes. Radishes are supposed to take around 30 days, so I decided to try them once again, but this time at least two weeks earlier than I’ve ever planted them before. They like cool, rainy weather, so fingers crossed that this time I’ll see radish success. I planted them precisely where I plan to plant tomatoes. Will this work? We’ll see.

Sprouting serviceberry branches, via The New Home Economics

Anneke and I also attempted some propagation this past month or two. Here are several branches I trimmed from our serviceberry. Adam is keen on adding all kinds of native shrubs to his family’s hunting land, for deer, turkeys, and other game animals to munch on. After starting this experiment, however, I read that in order to propagate shrubs like this you need to trim off an actual sucker with roots, not just a branch. More details on propagating serviceberries can be found here. I’m going to try starting some from seed this summer! So even though this was a fail, we learned and we are now attempting to propagate one sucker that I was able to find.

In other disappointing news, our Sabathani community garden is in trouble. Plans to build a new senior housing complex right next to it mean that, best-case scenario, our garden will be closed for an entire year starting this fall and re-opening in spring 2019. Worst-case scenario, the space will only be available on a very limited basis to residents of that complex. Everything is very much in flux right now and I won’t be able to move forward with my food forest idea for at least a couple of years, if ever. Maybe that’s OK though. I do take on more than I ought.

First bloodroot of 2017, via The New Home Economics

The first bloodroots of 2017 opened up in my yard today. Aren’t they sweet! That’s my thumbnail for size reference. They do sometimes get bigger than this, but not much. I will be interested to see if I can spot any pollinators on them. I’ve seen a couple wasps and quite a few boxelder bugs flying around, but that’s it so far.

Red Lake Currant in early spring, via The New Home Economics

Ben Sarek black currant in early spring, via The New Home Economics

As of today, my Red Lake currant bushes (one of them pictured, top) are barely doing anything while my Ben Sarek black currant bush (pictured, bottom) is almost leafed out. It’s fascinating how different varieties of the same plant will behave.

Soil sprouted radishes, via The New Home Economics

We’ve been eating soil sprouts all winter long, and I really don’t see any reason to stop growing them now that spring is here. I want to try mixing things up, and growing 5 trays of pea shoots, for example, and stir frying them. I really enjoy doing this and highly recommend the book—Year-Round Indoor Salad Gardening. Pictured are some radish sprouts; we used them as a topping on black bean and sausage soup.

What’s happening in your garden so far? I can’t remember ever getting going as early as I have this year, partially due to having such a mild winter.


Leave a comment

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.

 


2 Comments

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.


2 Comments

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.


1 Comment

Cover cropping

A first for me, in 2013: I am using cover crops both at my home garden and at the Sabathani community garden plot that I manage. Here’s Sabathani:

Cover crop of buckwheat and annual rye, via New Home EconomicsI planted this nearly a month ago, on September 16. Over the last two years at least, our plot at Sabathani has been riddled with disease. I’ve got the weeds under control now, but the insects and diseases translated to a less-than-average crop last year and a poor one this year.

Since the plot was producing next to nothing in early September anyway, I ripped out all the plants and put in buckwheat and annual rye. It might take a few years of doing this and other measures, but I’m hoping that by increasing soil fertility, I can improve my yield at this plot.

So, cover crops. How do they help? Mostly, they are about suppressing new weeds and creating a bunch of organic matter that is easily turned over into the soil in spring. On-site composting! There are a number of different options depending on your needs. I chose buckwheat and annual rye because they will both be killed by a frost, so in the spring I’ll simply have to turn the dead plant material over and start anew. Also, Southside Farm Supply (my new favorite neighborhood store) had both in stock, so that was also frankly a big point in their favor.

I was so impressed by how this went at Sabathani, that I decided to rip out most of my home garden yesterday, too (except the kale, Christmas lima beans, and rosemary).

Garden almost put to bed for winter, via The New Home EconomicsI hemmed and hawed about this for a couple of weeks, but as we are now nearly a full month past the first average frost date, it was now or never. Hopefully the seeds will have time to sprout and grow an inch or two before we get a killing frost.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about short-term vs. long-term gain. The plants that I removed yesterday were still very much alive and producing, albeit very little. But this year, anyway, I decided that the long-term health of my soil was more important than another handful of tomatoes and (maybe) one more quart of pickles. We’ll see if my strategy pays off.

It seems like I have fewer pest and disease problems every year at my house. 2012 and 2013 were VERY different years, weather-wise; yet I had what I would deem a mostly successful garden both years, with few problems. Could it be that I’m getting better with practice? Well, I wouldn’t want to brag.

I found a couple of University of Minnesota Extension resources on cover crops that I thought were quite useful:

Cover Crop Options (table of crops, when to plant, benefits of each, etc.)

Why you should consider using cover crops in 2012 (I’d add, “or any year”)

Both of the above links are written for farmers, but they are completely applicable to home gardeners interested in improving their soil.

The hard part about Minnesota, of course, is that our growing season is so short, and our winter so harsh—it can be hard to fit a few weeks in for growing a cover crop. In milder climates, cover crops are planted in the fall and grow all winter. Not so here in the north land, where NOTHING grows all winter. Uh oh, here comes another “I’m annoyed by permaculture people whose ideas/advice are all based on living in milder climates” moment. Well, at any rate, you have to try and make the most of where you live, and a Minnesota winter has its charms, too.

What do you think? Was it even worth it to plant a cover crop at my home garden this late in the game?


7 Comments

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.