The New Home Economics


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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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High Season

Now that raspberries are done, I have a moment to catch my breath. Let’s take a look around:

I was hoping for jaw-dropping before-and-after pictures of our back yard landscape project by now, but I honestly don’t think it’s going to look all that impressive before next year. As you can see, the grass is quite unhappy right now—and honestly, it’s so hard to keep grass looking nice this time of year that I’m not even trying. I have plans for it this fall; fall is a great time to seed and do general turf up-keep.

The new plants (in the now-woodchipped areas of the lawn) are all surviving, but are still quite small. I am really excited to see what this will look like when the viburnums along the fence get to their full size.

Closer to the house, the stock tanks are coming along fine. Red Russian Kale (on the left) is unstoppable. We have cut nearly all the leaves off those plants many times this summer, and it just keeps coming back. I had thought about re-planting more of it in August, but this appears to be fine for the rest of the season.

starting seeds for fall planting

Speaking of which, I’m starting some new lettuces and greens for late summer hoop house/stock tank planting. I’ve never tried this before. Will be moving them outside as soon as this heat wave breaks.  It WILL break.

The tropical parts of my garden, naturally, are loving this summer. My one hill of zucchini is enormous, and we’ve been picking approximately one standard-size and a handful of cherry tomatoes every day for about a week.

My green beans (‘Maxibel Haricot Verts’) have been taking a short break from producing beans to double in size and put out new flowers. Round two, coming right up!

My garlic-to-parsnips succession plan did not work out. Only a handful of parsnips sprouted, so I sowed some turnip seeds in the open spots. They sprouted almost overnight, so I’m hopeful I’ll be able to get a few small ones (center top of picture). I’m also exhorting my 4 rosemary plants to get bigger; they have been uninspiring this year. Getting plenty of chamomile for this winter’s permaculture tea, though!

banana peppers with disease

Not everything is rosy, of course. This banana pepper plant has had strange growth habits and some leaf curling all summer. I thought about ripping it out a few weeks ago, but then suddenly it started to grow like crazy. Still no blooms, though. At this point I may as well see it through.

Thanks, city of Minneapolis

In other sad news, the city decided that we needed a new sidewalk, since our very old boulevard elm tree had pushed up the old one. I understand that a concrete professional’s main job is to lay straight, square concrete, but in order to do so, the crew removed at least 70% of this tree’s most important roots. Then they helpfully made this cut-out, as if the tree would be here for years to come. It will likely be dead by this time next year, thanks to their work. Adam saw the tree roots on the lawn that night and said “That’s it. We’re moving to the country.” (An empty threat, since I work downtown and refuse to be a long-haul commuter.)

OK, let’s get back to more positive updates. All six of the ostrich ferns that I added this spring looked dead, until a week or two ago suddenly they all had new life. I’m sensing fiddleheads in our kitchen next spring!

Also, the one heirloom melon seed (‘Sakata Sweet’) that sprouted has turned into quite the impressive plant, covered with blooms. This particular melon is supposed to reach softball size, so trellising it shouldn’t be a problem.

Christmas Lima Beans

Finally, I had all but finished my garden plan when I realized I had forgotten Christmas Lima Beans. Since the kids have declared them a yearly holiday tradition, I decided to just try throwing them into this corner, which rarely sees much action. Result: wow! This year is going much better than last, for all beans.

I’ve made two quarts of pickles so far, but judging by my cucumber plants, I have many more pickles in my near future:

What’s happening in your garden right now?


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And now, squash vine borers

Well, that’s it. I’m pretty much ready to throw in the towel on 2011’s garden. It’s been one thing after another around here — thank goodness I don’t have to actually sustain my family on this garden because we’d be facing one lean winter. Earlier this week I noticed my squash and pumpkin vines were looking a little wilty. Then today they seemed a LOT wilty:

I could see this little guy from several feet away:

squash vine borer

It’s a squash vine borer. This is my first experience with them. We ended up pulling out ALL of the squash and pumpkin plants. So depressing. They were full of these little worms. I didn’t dare compost them, so we bagged everything up and threw it in the garbage.

The good news: these borers do not attack cucumber plants, so hopefully my pickle crop is still safe.

U of M Extension has some really great info on preventing squash vine borers.  Among the ideas:

You can physically exclude adult borers by placing floating row covers over your vine crops when they start to vine (or for non-vining varieties, starting late June or early July) or when you first detect squash vine borer adults. Keep the barriers in place for about two weeks after the first adult borer has been seen. Be sure the row covers are securely anchored to prevent adults from moving underneath it.

Caution: Generally do not use floating row covers anytime crops are flowering. This prevents bees from pollinating your vegetables…

My favorite garden pest book suggested pulling out all the diseased parts, squashing every worm you find, then pushing the healthy part of the vine into the soil and piling some compost on top in hopes that it will send out roots and maybe (maybe) I’ll have a chance of still getting a pumpkin.  I tried it with one really healthy-looking vine, but I’ll be surprised if it works.

Well, there’s always next year I guess.  Here’s a picture of the adult, for future reference:

adult squash vine borer

I never saw these guys in late June, but they look a bit like boxelder bugs — which we had A LOT of, so they probably just blended right in.

First time I’ve tried to grow pumpkins and squash, and it was a fail. Really, maybe I’ll just plant my entire garden with garlic, chamomile, and mint next year. Fail-proof, right?


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The New Normal

Various economists are referring to this extremely slow “recovery” as The New Normal.  Economy aside, I can’t think of a better phrase to describe our crazy summer of working, volunteering, gardening, and now a frenetic preserving and preparing for our next new normal.  We have exactly one week left before Adam goes back to work full-time, for the first time since the kids were born.  Starting August 30, we will have two full-time working adults and two full-time-in-daycare kids.  To say I’m nervous is an understatement.  I’ve been channeling some of that into preparing for winter as if we are about to be snowed in for 9 full months.  (I wish!)

This weekend, we canned 50 lbs of tomatoes.  After squirreling the kids away at Grandma’s on Friday afternoon, Adam came home and prepared a fortifying dinner for us:

Homemade liver & barley sausage, great-Grandpa Miller’s Great-Grandma Elwell’s secret recipe, with homemade ketchup, kraut, and new potatoes.  And Surly Furious.  Doesn’t get much more local or delicious than that.  Next, we set up:

Lots of boiling water is involved in this canning business.  Good thing it was 90 degrees and really humid.

When the steam cleared a little after 5 p.m. on Saturday, we counted our results:

32 pints of tomatoes
6 pints of spaghetti/pizza sauce
4 pints of ketchup

I didn’t spend that entire 24 hours canning, don’t worry: I took 8 hours off for sleeping.  And I was on my own all day Saturday which slowed down the process a bit.  Adam got the trim painted on the house while I canned.

Let’s move on to a garden update.  I’ve not been taking the best care of this blog or the garden, so it’s changed quite a bit since I last took pictures of each plant grouping in June:

Here are the parsnips (and garlic) in mid-June.  Here they are now:

Every year, parsnips look so shabby and pathetic for so long, that I always wonder if they will ever take off.  We took the garlic out in late July and that seemed to really kick-start the parsnips, and the green tops are now absolutely huge.  We’ll see how the actual parsnips look; we have at least a month to wait (I hope).  Parsnip harvest begins with the first freeze.

My banana peppers in mid-June:

They didn’t look all that impressive.  I also had two cauliflowers in there, neither of which turned out very well.  I think the weather got too hot for them.  Here’s the banana pepper jungle today:

(Also, notice the encroaching cucumbers on the fence.)  Each banana pepper plant has turned into a huge, sprawling bush, so laden with fruit that their branches end up dragging on the ground when we don’t keep up with the picking.  Seriously.  I never thought that 11 pepper plants would be too many.  But there, I said it.

Here are my cabbages in mid-June:

(And my thumb, apparently?!)  I thinned these out two times after this picture was taken, and also harvested 4 cabbages.  This patch was supposed to be cabbage and celeriac, but the celeriac never sprouted as far as I can tell.  You can see the tiny cucumber seedlings in the bottom left corner.  Here’s how the same patch looks today:

(Again, encroaching cukes)  The tiny cucumber cage is directly to the left of this frame.  I planted about 7-8 plants, and have been training them up onto the rabbit-proof fence fortress that surrounds the garden.

Finally, the green beans, which shot up astoundingly fast in June:

And the green beans today, which are just about done:

What kind of yield am I getting from my wee urban farm?  I never thought you’d ask.  We organized our basement freezer today, and here’s what we found:

11 quarts raspberries: we’ve already used 3, and ate a LOT fresh.  This is about double what we got last year.
8 quarts green beans (also ate many fresh)
5 batches of pesto

So that’s the frozen stuff, and the canned tomatoes were listed at the top.  What about the fermented stuff?  Behold, I present to you… another personal failure:

We planned on building a root cellar this year.  It makes SO much sense.  It’s a huge walk-in refrigerator that requires no electricity.  Two weeks ago when our main kitchen refrigerator was overflowing with fermented foods, we finally realized it just wasn’t going to happen.  We found a small secondhand refrigerator, which we installed in the basement.  New ferments added daily.  The final tally is going to be so ridiculous that I can’t venture a guess right now.  Here’s a clue: we’ve ditched quart-size jars in favor of half-gallons.  And we keep buying more half-gallon jars.  Today we started a gallon each of banana peppers, pickles and sauerkraut:

A root cellar has been downgraded to the “someday” list.  We just have bigger priorities right now.  Here’s one:

There’s my little guy, making his very first batch of kraut.


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The perfect is the enemy of the good

This phrase has been in my mind lately — I read it in reference to farming several times over the past few months. It makes sense: there are many really great family farmers out there who may not be certified organic but are still doing right by their animals and their land. Many of them can’t afford the lengthy and expensive process to become certified organic.

In my own life, it has become painfully obvious that I have really overstretched myself lately.  The Master Gardener program + starting a new job + trying to get my own garden efforts for 2010 underway + parenting two two-year-olds is really taking a toll.  I have been really short-tempered lately and my heart is just not in everything I’m doing (at least, not as much as I’d like it to be).

I usually try to be as positive as possible on the blog, but on the other hand I don’t want you all to think it’s constant sunshine and lollipops around here, either.  Here are two recent big FAILS and the silver lining in the second one:

Firstly, this pizza.  What a disaster.  We had some bread dough in the refrigerator that needed to be used up.  Adam was not around and I tried to make pizza with the same method I’ve seen him use: assembling the pizza on the wooden peel and then sliding it onto the hot pizza stone into the oven.  Well, it stuck to the peel and the only way I could slide it off was to fold it up and turn it into this horrible-looking calzone.  Which I then baked and served anyway, even though it was super doughy in the middle.  Nice to know I can be relied upon for a simple meal when Dad’s not at home, eh?

Next up on my walk of shame:

Last fall, when I pruned out all my dead raspberry canes, I must have been completely brain dead afterwards because it seems I put the entire giant pile of them into my compost pile.  Many of them were very thick and woody — these things do not break down quickly or well.

So after the entire winter, this part of the compost bin, which should have been completely full by now of beautiful, dark, rich, compost… was full of… soggy sticks.  However, when I pulled out all the sticks and put them somewhere else, I did manage to find a little bit of good stuff:

I’m going to try and plant the garden this week!  We’re having such an early spring, there’s no reason not to get a jump-start on some of cold-tolerant veggies like peas, cabbage, and radishes.

My goal for this week (aside from getting my garden in) is to be kind to myself.  Silly that this must be a conscious goal, yes?


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A cheesy confession

It’s likely that nobody remembers my bold proclamation in mid-September about how I was going to start making cheese.  I got this book from the library.  I read the first four pages of it, at least.

But I never got around to picking up ingredients to make any of the cheese recipes.  Then one day it was due back at the library, so back it went.  So I think that maybe cheese-making, beyond simple yogurt cheese, is something that I’m going to put on my mental back burner for a while.

I thought I should be honest about this, lest you all think that I’m some kind of superwoman.


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Garden update (the dead and dying edition)

September is here.  The end is near.  A little over a week ago it started getting down into the low 50s every single night.  Fall has arrived, a bit early, and after a very cool summer.  Let’s assess the damage, and note the encroaching zucchini in nearly every picture:

beets0903My attempt at late-season beets gets a big ole FAIL.  I’m guessing there’s just not enough light between two two-story buildings anymore at this point to get something going from seed like this.  Note to self for next year: July 4 is probably about as late as I can plant anything.  These were planted right around July 15 I think.

brussels2-0903

Brussels sprouts: are these a FAIL or not?  I can’t decide.  Do those look like sprouts to you?  They’re not very well-formed sprouts.  But they definitely like the cooler weather.

polebeans0903Pole beans: almost ready to harvest, yay!  I picked a couple already that were all dried up and yellow.  Look what I found inside:

hidatsabeansThis is why they’re called “Hidatsa Shield Figure” — it’s like a little bean holding a shield.  Well, sorta.

cucumbers0903Cukes are not long for this world.

peppers0903Couple more banana peppers on.  I’m hoping that I have enough to make another batch of fermented banana peppers.  They are by far the most delicious fermented thing I’ve made yet.  You can just barely see to the right, the baby kale.  Another “mid-season” attempt.  These at least got to a micro size; and we might be able to get one meal out of them.

parsnips0903One good thing about the fall: it’s almost parsnip time!  They are ready and waiting for a frost.

tomatoes0903Tomatoes are also dying off.  They sure hate the cold nights.  I don’t know if we’re going to get any more, although there are still quite a few green ones on there.  Might be time for some fried green tomatoes one of these nights.

Well that’s it.  Garden is winding down for 2009 already.  I’m both relieved and sad at the same time.