The New Home Economics


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Progress and change

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

Blake the dog

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

All I do is laundry

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

Garden Shed, 2016

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

Garden shed, 2011

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

Pollinators of Native Plants

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

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

Thread waist wasp on goldenrod, via The New Home Economics

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

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

Trees and Shrubs of Minnesota

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

Elephants Ears

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

Musquee de Provence pumpkins, via The New Home Economics

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

Milkweed bugs

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

 


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Onions and integrity

A northern vegetable garden, prepped

I can’t remember the last time I’ve had the garden prepped and partially planted this early. The soil has been amended, the soaker hoses are in place, and cool season crops are planted.

Cool and warm season crops are a major topic at the Master Gardener classes I teach. In a nutshell, cool season crops are any edible that you can plant while there is still a chance of frost. We still have about a month until our “average last frost” date in Minneapolis, but many plants can withstand and even thrive in cool temperatures.

With that in mind, I planted collard greens, swiss chard (from seed), two types of radishes, onions, and carrots. I planted my peas two weeks ago; they’re about two inches tall now. Lettuce was sown in February, in my mini hoop house. This turned out to be a little bit premature. It took three full weeks to sprout, and then grew so slowly that it is now approximately the same size as the lettuce I started in the house a few weeks later. I do like experimenting.

Drilling holes in soaker hose

Speaking of experimenting, I have spent the last few years pondering how to make my soaker hoses work better when hooked up to rain barrels, which have very low pressure. The hoses are designed to be hooked up to a regular outdoor faucet, so when using the rain barrel there was never enough pressure to push water through the hose walls and empty the barrel completely.

Drilling tiny holes in these was a risk, no doubt, but I’ve grown annoyed enough with these things that I was willing to try it. Adam drilled holes every 6-12 inches, then we hooked them up to the barrel to test. It worked pretty much how I hoped it would. There is no doubt that the plants closer to the barrel will get more of the rainwater, but overall it will be a more efficient use of this precious resource.

Planting onion starts

Rowan and I spent Sunday afternoon planting onion starts. It’s a tedious process. My method is to dig a little trench, lay out 6-10 onions in a row, then carefully fill in around each one. I plant them fairly close together—around 1-2 inches—because we thin and eat them as scallions all summer long. The few that remain until late summer will actually form bulbs, but few ever make it that long. Green onions from the garden are just too much of a treat.

Rowan planting onions

We bought our onion starts at Mother Earth Gardens. Rowan heard me comment about garden stores with integrity, and asked what that word meant. Here’s how I explained it. It was WARM this weekend, unseasonably hot. It felt like the right weather to plant tomatoes. Many big box stores are probably already selling tomatoes. Mother Earth probably could have sold some this weekend, but they didn’t have any out. Why? Because anyone who plants a tomato this early in Minnesota is at risk of failure if we get a frost (which we might). They want their customers to be successful gardeners, even though it might mean lower profits. Integrity. He totally gets it. (Obviously, since he’s helping his mom plant onions on a Sunday.)

Trout Lilies at Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden

We also made a quick visit to Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden. The spring ephemerals are nearly at peak, with thousands of trout lilies (above) in full bloom and trillium about to open.

The forecast is looking great for cool season crop starting this week—cooler and a little bit rainy. Perfect! I can taste the radishes already…


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This year, let’s plant for bees

It seems like the Save the Bees Movement has really gained traction this winter, doesn’t it? And thank God. I’ve had so many people ask me about what they should plant to attract bees and butterflies to their yard!

So, let’s start with some basics… First, what are bees and what are wasps? This one’s easy. Bees are fuzzy, wasps are shiny. Both are beneficial, but only one is a “pollinator.” Here are some images that should help:

Wasp on milkweed in MinnesotaHere is a wasp on some milkweed in my back yard. Notice that it’s shiny. Wasps may not pollinate our fruit and vegetable plants, but they do eat the insects that eat our fruits and vegetables. I once killed a nest of yellowjackets in my yard, but not until after my kids suffered several stings each. You have to use your best judgement on what you’re willing to tolerate as far as wasps are concerned, and be sure of what you have before you whip out the pesticide. Also, follow the label instructions to the letter. If you don’t, you’re not only breaking the law, but you could cause undue pain to a local honeybee keeper. In short, try a little tolerance.

Bee on Anise HyssopHere is a bee on some anise hyssop in my back yard. Sorry this picture is less than ideal, but you can see that it’s fuzzy. If you look from a different angle you’d also notice that its hairy legs are covered with yellow pollen. Bees eat pollen, and in the process they give us fruit, vegetables, tree nuts and honey.

Minnesota has more than 350 native bee species, and most of them live in the ground or in hollow stems of trees. So one thing you could do to help bees would be to make a bee hotel. Click here for 1 million + ideas.

But more importantly, we need to diversify our monoculture landscapes. Lawns=monoculture. Corn and soybeans=monoculture. And putting in non-native sterile nursery plants like tulips, marigolds, and daylilies (I’m guilty of having tulips) does not help, since they don’t provide pollen. Buying plants from big box stores is even worse, since many of these are treated with neonicotinoids, a pesticide that stays in the plant for… the U of M is currently embarking on research to find out how long. Neonics kill every insect that partakes of the plant, beneficial or not. Read local food writer Dara Grumdahl’s excellent Panic in Bloom for more on neonicotinoids.

Good news: it is now getting easier to find nursery plants that are neonic-free. The Friends School Plant Sale is 100% neonic-free. Bachmann’s recently announced that they are going neonic-free. The Hennepin Master Gardeners plant sale is neonic-free by design, since the plants are dug up from our own yards. Mother Earth Gardens in south and NE Minneapolis is also neonic-free. If none of these places are near you, go to a nursery. ASK QUESTIONS. If they are unable to tell you whether the plant is neonic-free, do not buy. I can’t say enough about the importance of avoiding big box stores for your plants (and not just because of pesticides; the plants are lower quality). Real nurseries will know what they have and be able to talk about it. Here is a helpful index of bee-friendly plant retailers in the Twin Cities.

So, now that we’ve covered all those topics, we get to the fun one: what should you plant? In a nutshell, go native. Most every wildflower that is native to our area will have some benefit for pollinators. Many non-natives do as well; I can think of several including dandelions, clover, dill, fennel, and the various vegetable plants that bees love to visit. Seed clover in your lawn! It will feed your grass (clover fixes nitrogen in the soil, which feeds grass) AND benefit bees.

If you’re really a gardening newbie, you could consider buying a butterfly or pollinator package, such as this delightful one from the Friends Sale. It’s a great place to start, since most plants that are beneficial to butterflies are also beneficial to bees. I would recommend buying and planting actual seedlings over one of those ubiquitous, cheap “butterfly garden in a can”-type seed packages. If you are newer to gardening it will be difficult to tell, especially with native seedlings, what is a weed.

The University of Minnesota Bee Lab also has a really nice list of native plants that help bees, and the required site conditions for each. Here’s another PDF from The Xerces Society that talks about both native and non-native plants for bees.

Great St. Jon's WortMany native flowers are stunningly beautiful as well as beneficial, such as this Great St. John’s Wort, also in my back yard.

If you’re adding pollinator plants for the first time, start small and simple. You don’t have to tear out your whole yard. But try a little plot with, say, some milkweed, bee balm, a couple of sunflowers, anise hyssop, and maybe an early spring ephemeral such as bloodroot. Note this spot must be full sun to part shade for these to thrive. And THRIVE they will; they are all very easy to grow. There’s a reason why milkweed has the word weed in its name. But I like easy, quite honestly, and I like this even more:

Anneke with MonarchQuestions? Ideas? Let’s save some bees! (Well, and let’s save the monarchs too, but that’s a whole ‘nother post.)

 


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Overwintering

Here we are. That point when even the most hardy Minnesotans are completely fed up with winter. Last weekend we had some gorgeous weather, and I started some seeds both indoors and out.

Outdoor seed sowingThis is my third time trying outdoor seed sowing. The first was a total failure, but last year I had some success with plants that would tend to reseed themselves anyway, such as calendula and nasturtium. So this year I planted chamomile, calendula, nasturtium, morning glories and moonflowers.

Outdoor seed sowing one week laterMy group of milk jugs, one week later. Sigh. I’m glad they are covered with an insulating blanket of snow, though, because we’re supposed to get another round of arctic air this week.

Indoor seed startingI started my lettuce and kale seeds indoors last weekend as well. It’s too early for anything else. Lettuce and kale seeds/seedlings do better in a really cool environment, so I have this in the basement now and the plants are significantly less leggy than they used to be on top of the refrigerator. I hope to plant these out in the hoop house in late March or early April, depending on what sort of spring we have.

Sprouted lettuce!My lettuce and kale seedlings, this morning. The tin foil, in case you’re wondering, reflects the light to spread it around; otherwise the plants in the middle tend to grow much faster. I’ve also started using these little terra cotta pots for starting seeds. I’ve tried MANY different things, and I like the results I’m getting with these, plus they fit the “must be reusable, recycled, or compostable” bill.

Fits and starts, right? That’s spring in Minnesota. Watering these little greenies every day has brought me a little joy every day this week.


Today is the fifth anniversary of my very first post on this blog. I can’t believe it’s been five years! This started as a comment I made on Snarkmarket about baking bread and growing your own food, and morphed into a chapter that I was VERY honored to write for the book, The New Liberal Arts (free PDF download here). Since then, my life has changed a bit. I got a different job, I became a Hennepin County Master Gardener, I went through at least 3 bikes; really, it goes on and on. More than that, though, look how much my twin kids changed:

My kids, Feb 2009Enjoying the outdoors during a rare thawing day in February 2009.

My kids, Feb 20145 years later, still playing outside all winter long.

Cheers! Here’s to another five years. Thanks for reading.


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Crazy Garden 2014

We reached a point in this past year where the kids simultaneously became more interested in gardening and less interested in trying new foods. We haven’t eaten mushrooms in ages! Oh, I miss them so. Last fall, in an attempt to tempt them into something new, I started buying only the crazy-colored vegetables at the farmers market. Orange cauliflower. Purple broccoli. Golden beets. Then we all got an idea: what if we planned our next year’s garden around crazy vegetables?! I give you our 2014 garden plan:

A kid-friendly garden for 2014(click to enlarge)

We still have some standards in there, like bush beans, tomatoes, peppers, and onions. But we’re really going to try and mix things up this year. Here are some of the new things we’re trying:

Romanesco Broccoli

Romanesco Broccoli (click image for source)

Cheddar cauliflower

Cheddar cauliflower (click image for source)

Purple Kohlrabi

Purple Kohlrabi (click image for source)

Golden beets

Golden beets (click image for source)

Rainbow chard

Rainbow chard (click image for source)

Dragon carrots

Dragon carrots (click image for source)

Easter egg radishes

Easter egg radishes (click image for source)

Red noodle bean / yard long bean

Red noodle bean, aka yard long bean.

I’ve grown some of these before, including the easter egg radishes, rainbow chard, and dragon carrots, but never a whole garden full. You’ll also notice on the plan that I’ve included a 10’x20′ plot at Sabathani with Long Island Cheese pumpkins, potatoes, and brussels sprouts. I’m applying for a permanent plot there this year—last year my friend CJ and I filled a spare 10’x20′ plot full of pumpkins and squash, and our relative success has me inspired to make this a permanent thing. I can’t get there every day, so I have to choose plants that can survive a few days without weeding/watering/harvesting. I’m very excited about this development!

Our three stock tank gardens in the back won’t change significantly this year, although Anneke really wants to try elephants’ ears in hers. I’m letting the kids pick out their plants for their tanks when we get the Friends School catalog in a few weeks. Of course I’d love it if they planted edibles, but I’m not going to force them. My large stock tank will be planted in greens hopefully in very early April. (Or late March? Dare I hope?)

So there you have it! Our edible garden plans for 2014. Of course I have “landscape” garden plans too, as always. My prairie garden in my boulevard still has about a 10’x6′ space to fill, and I may add another currant bush somewhere. When there’s this much snow on the ground it’s easy to get carried away. Happy garden planning season, everyone!


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Two books

I managed to read two gardening-related books this summer (and a healthy dose of fiction, don’t worry).

How to Move Like a Gardener - Book Review via The New Home EconomicsHow to Move Like a Gardener: Planting and Preparing Medicines from Plants
by Deb Soule of Avena Botanicals

I first heard of this book through SouleMama, a parenting/gardening/homesteading blog I’ve been reading for several years. The author of that blog is a fan of Avena Botanicals products, and one thing that this book is very successful at is making me want to try one of their tinctures, teas, or lotions.

However, I am more interested in making medicines from plants myself, and this book fell a little short for me. The title was a little misleading for me; most of the book is a vivid, interesting description of how the Avena Botanicals farm is run and their philosophy of agriculture, spirituality, and even tools. They follow biodynamic agriculture principles, and this was my first introduction to it.

Biodynamic agriculture goes far beyond organic. For example, one of the “biodynamic preparations” that Soule describes involves packing a cow’s horn with manure, burying it for several months, unearthing it, then stirring the now-composted manure into fresh rainwater for an entire hour, then spraying it on crops. All these things must be done at specific times of day AND specific times of year. There are several other biodynamic preparations described in much greater detail in the book.

Honestly, I don’t think that this or strategies like moon-cycle planting are whack, I’ve just never personally tried them. Maybe I ought to. At the very least, by combining meditation with farming, Soule is able to achieve a level of harmony and inner peace with her land and her work on it that must make it a very special place indeed.

The last third of the book is devoted to descriptions of medicinal plants, with advice about cultivating and collecting for each, as well as indications, preparation and dosage. I wished the “preparation” part would have been a bit more detailed—I wanted recipes for tinctures, lotions and the like. She uses many herbs I had never previously heard of, such as gotu kola, ashwaganda, and schisandra, while also providing detail on more common plants such as lavender, rosemary, dandelion and nettle.

A few North American native plants are represented, including Solomon’s Seal and Echinacea.

Beyond excessive wintertime herbal tea drinking, I don’t know how far down the herbal medicine route I’m going to go, but I find it all fascinating. This book was not exactly what I thought it would be, but it was interesting, and a good reminder to me of the importance of intimately knowing your piece of land and all its microclimates—and how valuable that knowledge can be.

The Secrets of Wildflowers, a book review via The New Home EconomicsThe Secrets of Wildflowers
A Delightful Feast of Little-Known Facts, Folklore, and History
by Jack Sanders

I bought this book at the 2013 Wild Ones conference in February after paging through my neighbor’s copy. Unlike Soule, Sanders almost exclusively covers North American native wildflowers, including a handful of non-natives that have spread so excessively through our continent that they are here to stay; for example, Coltsfoot, Dandelion, Bindweed, and Chicory.

Each plant is given what can only be described as a short story, comprised of a great variety of details including botanical descriptions, historical medicinal uses, names and naming controversies, modern medicinal uses, and poems.

I found this book entertaining because so many of the plants I’ve recently added to my landscape are included, such as monardas, St. Johnsworts, asclepias (millkweeds), wild geraniums, celandine poppies, and wild columbine. It also made me very curious about some plants that I’ve never seen but will now seek out in the woods, including may apples, jewelweed and indian pipes. After reading this book, I identified a handful of plants while hiking, including jack-in-the-pulpits and baneberries.

The writing is entertaining and accessible, if you have interest in native plants. I enjoyed it, and will be picking it back up as I choose new landscape plants for next year. Reading a story about each plant is so much more memorable and interesting than simply scanning a table of characteristics.


The other day, we were on a hike and Rowan picked up some seeds off the ground. “What plant did these come from, mom?” I had to admit I didn’t know. Then Anneke piped up. “Those are totally from a basswood tree. See? There it is!”  My kids have a much more highly-developed sense of place than I did at their age. I spent time on the edges of cornfields and cow pastures, but I never learned the names of plants or observed at the level that my kids do. Learning about where I live—the plants, animals, and insects that are native to my corner of the earth—enriches my life in so many ways beyond merely gardening.

One of my favorite blogs lately has been Ben Hewitt’s account of his family’s very successful homesteading adventure. Recently, he said:

Stop thinking of yourself as a steward of the land. That’s the same old, tired story of humans over nature.

Instead, think of the land as the steward of you. And treat it with the respect your caregiver deserves, dammit.

Just think about that. Isn’t it wonderful?


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Beetles, zucchinis and french tomatoes

Hello! Here’s what’s been happening this week.

Millkweed BeetleWe’ve got a handful of milkweed beetles chomping away right next to our deck. They’re not causing any major damage, and they are kinda cute (it’s the antennae, I think), so we’re just having fun observing them. Anneke has spent many hours watching them, has named them all, and claims she can tell them each apart. Who needs summer school? Just add milkweed to your yard and you’ll be amazed how many different insects you’ll learn about.

CalendulaAnneke’s calendula is also in full, bright, glorious bloom right now. She is so proud, having raised these from seed.

Stock tank gardens and flower tunnelAll three of our stock tank gardens are looking great. Rowan’s filled in nicely with the dragon wing begonia, Anneke’s got her calendula, and between them is something new for this year: a tunnel! We planted two cup and saucer vines in Anneke’s tank, and have been tucking them in almost daily to get them to grow down the other side. They started blooming this week too. My lettuce is staying surprisingly nice in the largest (back of this picture) tank, considering how hot it’s been. Having it in part-shade definitely helps.

Jaune Flamee tomatoesOver in the main garden, another banner tomato year is taking shape. In particular, this Jaune Flamee heirloom is loaded with fruit.

zucchiniZucchini is almost ready to pick! I am excited to make my Grandma Rensenbrink’s zucchini cake again soon, among other things. We saw a squash vine borer adult flitting about yesterday, so I immediately ran to Mother Earth Gardens and picked up some nematodes. I put them around our zucchini and kale (since I’ve also seen a lot of cabbage butterflies around). I also took some to Sabathani for my squash garden there.

A 10x20 squash gardenSpeaking of Sabathani, my squash garden is doing well. The pumpkins (left) are looking the best, but in general everything is staying healthy so far. (Yes, I’m aware there’s a piece of garbage that I somehow missed. This is a community garden after all!)

communitygardeningThe master gardener plot that I manage there has also yielded a couple of harvests of greens and cilantro for the Sabathani food shelf already. The peppers and tomatoes have so far been looking rather uninspiring, so I gave them a top dressing of aged horse manure yesterday. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that if you live in the city you will never have the very important psychological experience of shoveling manure, because it’s simply not true.

soakerFinally, now that the weather is heating up and drying out, I am once again giving thanks for soaker hoses. If you are going to have a garden, there is no reason not to invest in them. Standing around with a hose is for amateurs. Word.

We’re eating our first green bean harvest tonight. Hurray for high season!