Archive for ‘Gardening’

January 2, 2016

Updates – Yard Edition

And, here we are again! I am sincerely sorry about the lack of updates. Being a mother and being a student is like working a full-time job and then punching in at a part-time job in the evenings. But, it’s winter break right now, and I finally feel like I’ve caught my breath again.

So, here are some things that happened since my last write. I have quite a few updates, so I’m planning on breaking them up into several different posts. Stay tuned, my dumplings.

Harvest totals

My harvest totals were a bit low this year. This being my fourth growing season, I’ve learned a few things about the general environment of my garden; what grows well, what doesn’t grow well, and why. In terms of what does well, tomatillos are an easy, prolific plant. I’ve grown them now for two years in a row, and I’m to the point where I find tomatillo salsa (salsa verde) preferable to tomato salsa. I use this recipe. The only downside of it is that it’s not acidic enough to can without a pressure canner. My dad also made a batch this summer and adapted it for water-bath canning, so I’ll have to give that a try next year. A word of caution with tomatillos: they take up a lot of space. They’re a floppy, leggy plant, and they often send up volunteers the next summer that don’t produce nearly as well. Now that I’m aware of this, I’ll be more diligent about pulling up the volunteers. Some of them nearly took over the potato patch this year. Other plants that did well were greens (kale, chard, and spinach), and root crops (beets and carrots). This is two years in a row that those particular crops have performed well, which tells me my soil health and texture is improving.

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My garlic harvest was wonderful. My dad gave me some bulbs from a grower local to his area, and they produced the most beautiful, uniform offspring. It’s like stock-photo garlic. I don’t know the variety, but the gentlemen he bought it from is an Irishman by the name of Flaherty, so for the time being, Flaherty garlic is now my staple garlic. I seeded just a small row of some of the other heirloom varieties in the fall. We use garlic in basically every meal we eat, and although it’s fairly inexpensive to purchase at the grocery store, there really is no comparison between the two in terms of flavor and fragrance. I’m glad to have a big bag of it down in the basement.

I also grew pumpkins again this summer, after taking a break last year. I know they’re more ornamental than practical, but I like growing them. There’s something absurd about a giant orange pumpkin just hanging out in the vines. I grow ‘Cinderalla’ pumpkins, which are a French heirloom. This year, I had three large squash set, and three smaller ones. They decorated the front porch. If I had been a bit more diligent, I could have boiled some of them down for pumpkin mash, but, well, babies. Next year I’m growing another variety in addition to ‘Cinderalla’, so perhaps I’ll set some aside for boiling down.

The final thing that performed well was a new addition: broomcorn. I’ve had an old packet of seeds sitting around for a few years, and finally got around to planting them when the weather started staying warm. Corn is a tough thing for me to grow (more on that later), but broomcorn really did great. Now, granted, it’s another purely ornamental thing, but I enjoyed the bright brooms that it produced.

Not everything grew well, though. It was a bad summer for rabbit damage. They mowed down my corn, edamame, and beans. I tried to be diligent about spraying my pepper spray, but it was hard to keep up with it, mostly because I didn’t want to be handling it when I was out in the yard with Finn. I suppose it’s nothing a good fence won’t solve, though. I’ve tried growing popcorn for three years now, and I’m determined to make it happen someday.

After an amazing onion harvest last year, this year was awful. I’m almost certain it had to do with soil texture. I rotate my crops, and the particular triangle I planted them in this year really needed some amendments. The ground was hard, and didn’t hold water evenly. Next summer, I’ll put the onions in one of the areas I’ve been amending with green manure and compost. I really, really enjoyed having onions in storage all winter, and I would like to make that a regular thing. I’ve always had trouble with tomatoes, though. I have several theories on this. The first is that my timing is off in terms of seeding dates. I’ve been starting them around the first weekend in May, because I don’t want them to get leggy under the grown lights before its warm enough to put them outside. However, they’re never quite big enough around planting time, and so I’ve been transplanting them mid-June. This year, I’ll try earlier seed dates. My other theory (one I’m hoping is NOT true) has to do with the giant black walnut tree in our neighbor’s yard. Its crown just barely reaches the far southeastern edge of my garden. Black Walnuts have allopathic properties; that is, they secret a chemical called juglione which is toxic to plants in the nightshade family (tomatoes, potatoes, and peppers). If any of the fruit, leaves, or roots come into contact with these particular plants, it can either kill them entirely or inhibit their health. Obviously, I can’t do anything about my neighbor’s tree, so I’m crossing my fingers that this isn’t the case. I will say that I have better success with cherry/grape tomatoes than large fruits, and I also have no issues growing potatoes, so that gives me a bit of hope.

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My overall consensus is that my soil still has a long way to go. I may have to pay for another load of compost/topsoil this spring, or look into spreading some gypsum. I think my nutrient balance is fine, but the heavy clay is difficult to work with.

Maintenance stuff

I did another ladybug release this summer. This is my third year in a row. I always have good success with them, and they keep the aphids at bay. We had an unusually warm fall, and curiously, I saw a good many ladybugs clustering along the south side of the house and garage. I don’t know if this means that they’re establishing themselves in our yard, or if it was weather-related.

I also did a weird, mad-scientist-type-experiment. I ordered some beneficial nematodes and sprayed the garden/yard with them. Basically, I got this sponge full of faint, grey powder, which I had to immerse in water. The powder turned into a sort of thin sludge. Those are the nematodes. They’re invisible to the naked eye. Once rehydrated, you distribute them via garden sprayer in the soil at the base of your plants. They burrow down, where they start feasting on the larvae of pest bugs. It’s really weird. But I do have to admit, I had very few pest problems this summer. Also, the little monsters are good for keeping flea populations down in your yard. We had a horrific flea outbreak last fall, just before Finn was born, and so I’m all for doing anything to keep that under control. In a neighborhood where dogs and squirrels run amok, fighting fleas in the yard is difficult. However, both the dog and the cat haven’t had a single flea on them for months. I don’t know if the nematodes have anything to do with this, but it certainly didn’t hurt anything to send them out into the gardens.

We had an excellent compost yield this fall. Enough to put a thick layer on one of the large triangles, and a thin layer over another. Compost is so beautiful. So loamy, and fragrant, and dark.

Finally, I continued on my quest of planting for pollinators. One of the easiest ways to do this is by bordering your gardens with marigolds and nasturtiums. These plants do double-duty; the bees love the bright red flowers, and they help repel pests. Guys, I had monarch butterflies in my garden this summer. I can’t remember the last time I saw a monarch butterfly. We had honeybees, bumblebees, and hummingbirds, too. The presence of so many pollinator is a sure sign that our yard’s environment is really improving.

Fence it in

Jason dug all the posts for my fence. Gah. I love that man. I love that he loves digging holes, and making fence plans. What a guy. The posts are untreated cedar. It’s quite pricey, but it lasts a long time without needing to be treated for weatherization. And it smells like the Garden of Eden. Hopefully this summer we’ll begin to set the actual fencing in place.

Ornamental gardens

Having been inspired by my first semester in hort school, I decided that our front yard needed some help. I dug up the mailbox garden and put in two quarter-circle plots on either side of the front walk, where it connects to the sidewalk. There’s some flowering bulbs out there, waiting for spring, as well as some hollyhocks and some vining plants.

I also re-dug the front foundation gardens and set the borders on a curve, lining them with some landscaping rocks I found on a vacant lot (which may or may not have been up for grabs. I’m still not sure). After re-doing the borders, I added some ornamental grasses, native perennials, and some flowering herbs. I did most of the work in the fall, so I’ll be interested to see what makes it through the winter. If all goes well, our front yard will look much better in the future.

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Finally, I attacked the south garden. It was time. The rosebushes were getting leggy and sickly, the bishop weed was completely out of control, and what healthy perennials were managing to survive just weren’t worth it. I pulled almost everything up, leaving the healthy parts of the rosebushes, the clematis, and the honeysuckle vine. In place of the old plants, I transplanted my two lavender bushes, and purchased some ‘Elijah Blue’ grass, as well as some creeping thyme for the border. Further down, away from the concrete, I put in an ‘Annabelle’ hydrangea. It was a sad, tiny thing, on fall clearance, so we’ll see if it even survives the winter. The bishop weed is very difficult to eradicate. Since the initial clean-up, I’ve gone through four or five times already and dug up more rhizomes. I know it will be probably a good year or two before its completely gone, but I think it’s worth the effort. Bishop weed is invasive, not to mention unattractive. If everything survives, the south garden will be much more orderly and well-maintained.

Overall, it’s been the year of major design changes in the yard. We’ve lived here for enough growing seasons that I know what looks good and what is just ugly, easy-to-grow filler plant material. Next summer, I’m going to continue establishing perennials in the front gardens, keeping the south garden clear, and potentially starting a rain garden in the gully between our house and the next property to the north. As usual, there’s never a dull moment in our yard.

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May 20, 2014

Fresh Spinach…finally!

Remember this?

Yeah. I do. I tried planting another round of greens in the fall but winter came so soon that they never got very big. So, aside from a bag of spinach from my dad’s garden, I never got a fresh salad last year.

This spring, I noticed that the spinach I planted in the fall had somehow lasted through the winter and was growing quite well. After a few weeks of sporadic warm weather, it looked like this:

I picked one of the two rows and we ate fresh salads all week! After last year’s disastrous attempts at growing greens, I was ecstatic.

As if that wasn’t enough, I had gone fishing with my dad the weekend before and had a couple pounds of walleye fillets that we ate with the salad. I also made fried potatoes – obviously, those were store bought.

It’s great that two things I really enjoy doing – fishing and gardening – produced such a delicious meal. Mmm. I would eat this every night, if I could.

April 28, 2014

A little dirt

While I’d love to be able to say that spring has finally arrived in Wisconsin…the best I can do right now is say that the snow finally melted ;). And, if we’re lucky and the sun is out, Boo and I can manage to emerge from our back door and get some yard work done. Because, you know. Summer will come, someday. I’d like to have some seeds in the ground for when it actually does arrive!

Sitting on the porch swing waiting for my dirt to arrive!

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This year, I’ve made the choice to cut back on a few extra spring activities – I will not be assisting with managing the community garden, and I’ll be working less weekends at the flower nursery. I decided to do this because I really wanted to focus on getting our edible garden dug, laid out, and amended. If you recall, last year we started breaking sod for the ultimate garden plan. Winter came up so quickly that we only got a little over halfway before the ground froze.

All winter, I re-evaluated the success of my first full gardening year. I had decent harvests in some areas, mediocre in others, and downright terrible in the rest. I knew that with so much new garden, the soil would be lacking the texture and nutrients that it needed. Milwaukee soil is notoriously heavy and depleted – growing a carrot in newly broken garden is pretty much impossible.

So, I decided that the best plan would be to bite the bullet and pay to have some good soil hauled in. I shopped around, had a hard time finding a place that would deliver, and finally was able to track down 4 yards of topsoil/compost blend for a reasonable price. I wanted to get it on the garden before I started planting, and I wanted to start planting, so we had to hurry up! I scheduled the delivery for Saturday.

Friday night, Jason went out to till under the winter cover crops, only to find out that the throttle on my little monster wouldn’t engage. Bummer. He took it in right away the next morning to a local repair shop, and they think that the gear box is worn out. Even though the engine is still in great condition, replacing the gear box would cost more money than the tiller is worth. I guess that’s the risk when you buy used. We ended up renting a newer model for a couple of hours so we could get the dirt worked up. Jason had some indoor projects to take care of and so I put on my rubber boots and tore it up.

Happiness is a freshly tilled garden #spring #littlehomeinthebigcity

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Dirt warrior.

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I finished just before the topsoil was scheduled to arrive. While on the phone with the delivery company, we got our second tough piece of news for the day: they weren’t comfortable driving across the lawn because of the risk of getting stuck. They would have to dump all of the soil in the driveway and then it would be up to Jason and I to haul it in wheelbarrow loads back to the garden. Well, it’s a good thing we’re both young and healthy….

When I started hauling the first, I realized that it would make more sense to actually section off the shape of the gardens, including the center feature for my strawberry patch. That way, I wouldn’t be putting down my precious topsoil on areas that would be pathways.

Progress on the ultimate garden plan. Middle section will be y strawberry patch! #littlehomeinthebigcity

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Jason had mapped out the dimensions of the gardens last fall, based off of the design I had in mind. Using his blueprints, I scrounged up whatever stones I could find around our property and framed in the center bed. Then, I started filling in the other sections with topsoil. Long term, we’ll edge them with pavers bricks or field stone. We don’t have much in the way of spare rocks in our area, other than the little ones that get dug up when we break sod, so we’ll have to keep our eyes open for discarded stone piles when we’re driving.

You guuuuys. My dream garden is really happening!

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Jason came out and helped me after I finished the first big triangle and the center garden. Things went much, much faster after that – he can fill the wheelbarrow with twice as much dirt as I can! I also moved the cabbage frame, for the time being. I was having problems with it being against the neighbor’s fence because the weeds would grow up in between her fence and the frame, and I could never get at them. Obviously, once we build a real fence around the whole garden, I won’t need the frame at all.

It’s still very “half-finished”, but I’m already in love with it. It’s so amazing to see my dream garden actually coming to life. We still have about a yard and a half of topsoil under the tarp in our driveway, and we’re hoping that it will be enough to fill in the rest of the sections once we get the sod lifted.

Before the sun set, I planted my potatoes. I didn’t add the amendments to the raised bed – the soil in there is actually looking really good this year. I filled the whole thing with potatoes – six pounds total. It’s a mix of red and whites, all of them ready for harvest at different stages. I intend to feed us potatoes all of next winter.

The next day, once the rain stopped, I put on a few layers and ran outside to seed some of my early crops – peas, carrots, beets, chard, arugula, spinach, and radishes. I’ve hard a hard time with most of these varieties due to our heavy, lean soil, but I’m hoping that this year will be different. I would really enjoy a skillet of sauteed beets or a huge salad with fresh peas and radishes. Now, if only it would warm up in Wisconsin…they’re predicting highs in the mid-forties all of next week. Welcome to May!

P.S. Sorry about my weird Instagram embedding. I’m having a hard time getting my photos to link from my Flickr account, which is how I normally embed them. They keep showing up too small.

October 24, 2013

I’m digging, I’m searching right through that luggage…

I for sure just referenced a rap song in my title.

Anyway, gosh, where have we been? In Milwaukee, mostly. Playing disk golf and enjoying piling our friends into our cozy house on the weekends. Watching a couple from our house church get married and then getting our groove on at the reception. Because the church that dances together stays together, right?

I’ve also been feeling pretty inspired to write. Obviously, not blog posts. But I’ve parked myself on the couch or at Colecterra* pretty much any chance that I have some free time because, well, I’m writing a novel. That feels weird to say. I don’t really have any intent of submitting it for publishing, but for me to even undertake such a huge project is kind of empowering. I’ve written 12 chapters. And honestly, I could write 12 more. It’s gotten to be that engaging for me.

We have another HUGE project that’s taking up all of our free daylight hours:

That’s right, the vegetable garden is growing! Boo mapped out the dimensions of it and helped me create a final design. I’ll scan it and post it here at some point, but to give you some idea of what it will look like, we’re going to create a large rectangle at the ground level. It will expand from the eastern edge of the existing raised bed to the compost bin and have a circular feature in the center. I’d like it to be a multi-level thing, with strawberries on the bottom tier, pollinator-attracting flowers in the middle, and some sort of trellis or spire on the top. Or maybe a blueberry bush. For right now, I’m just going to work on cultivating the strawberries along the border of the circular garden, leaving the middle open for future building up. The remaining garden will have pathways laid out diagonally. Essentially, I’ll have four large triangles for vegetables.

I’m still debating about it, but I may use the existing raised bed exclusively as an herb garden. Again, I’d like it to have a few different levels and look like more than just a big box. Also, some herbs can spread too easily and will need to be contained in their own separate boxes anyway. We’ll see!

Eventually, we’re going to fence the whole thing in to keep out the hungry bunnies. This will also allow us to build in some garden benches and trellises.

In the meantime, we are quite busy DIGGING! It’s hard work! Boo’s been doing most of the sod-breaking because he wants to dig down deeper and move the sod to some bare spots we have near the house. We joke that he’s working at Jason’s Sod Farm. Anyway, digging that deep requires lifting heavier shovelfuls and I’m just too scrawny!

So, I’ve been keeping busy by cleaning out the old plants and then going through the whole thing with my trusty rototiller. After everything is cleared out, I’m going to seed most of the garden in winter cover crops.

It’s  big chore, and we very well don’t get everything done before the ground freezes. We still have to rake/mulch leaves, clean the gutters, and wash the windows before it gets too cold, and we only have so many hours of daylight. But I’m already so amazed at how big the garden has become. I can’t wait to see the whole thing in action!

*Our local coffee chain, Alterra, recently changed their name to Colectivo. While I respect their reasons for doing it, I’m not personally a big fan of the new name. So, to rebel a little bit, I often refer to it as Colecterra or Altivo.

September 30, 2013

‘Tis the Season

For mums and cornstalks and gourds, naturally:

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Yesterday, I went over to Bayside Garden Center to pick up some tulip bulbs and seed garlic, and while I’m not usually one to spend money on flowers that are just for a short season, they had really good prices on mums, asters, and ornamental cabbage, so I loaded up. I’m waiting a little while longer to harvest my three Cinderalla pumpkins – I want to decorate with them, but I also want one or two to last long enough for making my own pumpkin puree. I’ve also been harvesting the corn bit by bit, and as after I take the ears off I cut down the stalk, so they’ll be more bundles in the upcoming weeks :).

We’ve had beautiful weather the past week – warm and sunny. As is normal in the fall, I find myself mimicing the squirrels and trying to get everything in order for winter. It’s mostly looked like a lot of cleaning – the poly house, the front porch, the gardens that are done producing…I’m also feeling the urge to go after my closet in a ruthless manner and have a serious decluttering session. More on that later.

Well, the only issue with all of this is that it’s also the season for colds. Neither Jason or I often get sick, but we were on vacation earlier this month and spent many, many hours on planes and buses and trains and I think the result of it was that we came into contact with a bad virus that’s kept us functioning at minimum efficiency for the past week. The fact that I felt good enough to go run errands AND clean the porch all in one day is progress :/. I’m not a fan at all of taking over-the-counter stuff; instead, I’ve been loading up on herbal teas, raw honey, apple cider vinegar, Vitamin C, and LOTS of rest. Even though it’s taking a long time to kick this cold, it’s nice to know that I’m building my body up while I heal instead of messing around with weird-colored syrups and pills. True story: I once cured myself of a 4-month cough that antibiotics, inhalers, and cough syrup hadn’t helped at all by drinking diluted ACV every night.

Anyway, autumn is going to be a season of planning for the garden and I’m excited to share some of those plans! As I start to feel better and have more energy, look for more posts.

September 15, 2013

Magical Melons

This year, for the first time, I attempted to grow two varieties of musk melons: Minnesota Midget and Collective Farm Woman. I would say both have been a success so far.

I ate the first Minnesota Midget variety over Labor Day weekend. The one that I harvested was ripe and a little on the small side – about the size of an apple. I wish I had taken a photo, but I was too anxious to cut it open and see what it tasted like! It had to be the cutest melon I’ve ever eaten.

The flavor was good – not amazing, but certainly good. Given how easy they were to grow, I think I would give them another go around. They would be especially fun if you have kids at home who want to grow a plant of their own. Maybe if I’m still involved in the community garden next year, I’ll start some of these for a kid’s plot.

September 14, 2013

Blooms in the yard – August Edition

I love having enough space to grow a few cut flowers around my yard. We always, always had them growing up and there’s nothing prettier than a vase of fresh cut flowers on the table.

My marigolds that I planted for companion purposes are also looking great. In fact, I think I may grow them in my windowboxes next year – they were so easy to start and filled in so well. And of course, the bees love them!

September 12, 2013

Corn-fed city

So, one of my Three Sisters gardens is producing an amazing crop of dent corn.

I’m not sure if this is the blue or green dent corn…but either way, it looks like I may have some homegrown cornmeal this winter. Exciting stuff!

The other two weren’t doing well, and I kind of assumed they wouldn’t produce but lo and behold, both have started to tassle and are forming ears.

I can already foresee the vigilant war I’ll have to wage against the squirrels when the corn starts to ripen and dry out.

Growing up in rural Wisconsin, I loved playing in the cornfields. It felt like being in a jungle or something. I was looking at the dent corn and realizing that I had forgotten how tall it grows! Even now that I’m an adult (albeit a short adult) the height that something can grow in just a short season amazes me.

September 10, 2013

More pickles

Two weekends ago, I set aside an afternoon for harvesting and pickling.

I know that pickled food isn’t exactly “healthy” – you’re cooking out most of the nutrients from the fruit in the water bath. However, home canned pickles are a much more sensible treat than potato chips, and we enjoy eating them all winter long.

I ended up with quite a haul:

Yum. I’ll have one more round of bush beans before the cold weather comes, and should end up with a few more pints worth to pickle. Not only will we have enough to snack on, but I should be able to give some as gifts.

September 8, 2013

An Unfortunate Incident

Sometime around the end of August, a big tree branch dropped from our Elm tree and fell right smack in the middle of one of my Three Sisters gardens. It took out a few stalks of Strawberry popcorn and some pole bean plants, and bent the gourd frame all out of shape.

However, there was a silver lining: while cleaning up the damaged plants, I noticed that the Rattlesnake Pole beans had started producing:

It was good motivation to gear up for a weekend of pickling – more on that later.

It was also a somber reminder that we are going to need to take that tree down someday sooner than later. We have a love-hate relationship with it – it’s such a beautiful old tree and provides habitat for lots of birds. However, it shades a lot of the garden, and it’s growing right next to both the house and the garage. I wish we could somehow transfer it to the back of our long yard!