Man do I love summer. I love sitting at the kitchen table with my kids at breakfast time and looking out the window. The dining room window gives us the perfect view of everything that is going on in the garden. We observe the squirrels burying their treasures in my strawberry patch. We watch the bees that hover from the borage to the flowers on the pole beans. We observe the dragonflies perching themselves on the tops of the tomato cages. My daughter and I identify them as White-faced Meadowhawk dragonflies. And the Robins pecking at the ground for worms. We celebrate when we see our resident Monarch butterfly fluttering through. Daily we check on the size of the Monarch caterpillars that are fattening up on our milkweed. Fostering a landscape where all of these creatures are happy to call home expands my sense of the community I belong to to include the Meadowhawk dragonflies, Monarch’s, Robins, and Milkweed.
Natural selection has resulted in flowers being flashy in order to attract pollinators. I think it’s also to attract kids. My daughter is obsessed with flowers. She loves to pick them and grow them and eat them and dissect them. This interest provides a great context for learning about how plants work, what flowers do, and what there role in the garden is. Her attraction to flowers has led to conversations about how flowers attract bugs like bees and butterflies. And bees and butterflies pollinate the flowers, which enable the plant to make seed and reproduce. I encourage her to only pick a few flowers so that they can reproduce and we can have more of them next year. We talk about how some flowers turn into food that we eat like tomatoes and squash. I encourage her not to pick any of those flowers. A month ago at the Children’s Museum she learned about the different parts of the flowers by dissecting different flowers and identifying the parts like the stamen and pistils. The other day she asked for a piece of paper and tape and I discovered she had picked a flower from the garden, dissected it, and taped all of the different parts onto her paper neatly inside the squares she had drawn. How impactful would that lesson at the Children’s museum have been if she didn’t have the context of our garden to immerse herself in everyday?
I watch in amazement at the way kids play and experiment and are such natural scientists. Provided a context that is full of plants, water, soil, and creatures, they are constantly coming up with questions, developing hypotheses, and testing hypotheses.
The long winter and short spring left me feeling really overwhelmed by the daunting list of garden chores I needed to complete in order to get plants in the ground. As I was sharing this anxiety with my partner in life, it led to one of those conversations that happen every month or two where we both conclude that “something’s gotta give.” So the brainstorming ensued. Maybe we should cut back on the kids’ activities. Maybe we should spend more time at home this summer. And then Scotty said it, “maybe we should cut back on the gardening.” “Hmmm…” I thought. This wasn’t something I had even considered. But he had a point. Ordering seeds, prepping beds, hauling compost and wood chips, planting, watering, weeding, harvesting, cooking, preserving, it all takes up a lot of time. If we downsized the garden, maybe just while the kids are little, it would take a lot of pressure off.
This got me thinking about how and why I’ve made gardening and cooking such a high priority. Of course there’s the obvious reasons: produce from the garden tastes better and it’s a lot healthier. But once I started thinking about, I realized that there’s so many more reasons.
- Exercise: it prevents me from having to get a membership at a gym and set aside more time to work out. Being outside and getting exercise also makes me and the kids sleep better at night.
- Decreases health care expenses: our broken health care system results in my family paying out of pocket for most of our health care expenses. Eating healthy foods and getting exercise is a means of preventing illness and reducing health care costs.
- Stress Reducer: When my mind is reeling, jumping from subject to subject as I attempt to take inventory of all of the seemingly monumental tasks I need to attend to, nothing is more effective at calming my mind than picking up my garden fork and digging in my garden. It gets my body moving, and allows my brain to wander where it needs to go and process the day. Not until my brain is given the space to do that am I again able to focus and be efficient.
- Moderates my kids’ behavior: when we stray from eating healthy and getting exercise my kids turn into moody, impatient, uncompromising monsters!
- A social outlet: our weekly visits to our community garden, attendance at work parties and garden celebrations builds relationships with our fellow gardeners. Going to the garden also serves a social purpose.
- Being part of a community: These relationships build a community of people that I highly value. I value it because I learn so much about gardening from these relationships and knowing my fellow community gardeners make me more accountable for taking care of my own garden. I also value it because my garden has connected me to people that I probably wouldn’t interact with in my day-to-day life. But our gardens give us something to talk about. It’s too easy today to surround yourself by people who are just like you…how boring! This community has also shown me the abundance of resources, energy, and good will that can be harnessed when people of diverse skills and backgrounds are brought together with a shared goal. My community garden is a vibrant, thriving, productive chunk of land because individuals have taken initiative, created a vision, shared their skills and resources, and made it happen!
And most important of all, gardening…
- …connects us to the planet: In the garden I learn first-hand about what this physical place that we live in is capable of producing. My kids learn the roles that bugs, worms, butterflies, birds, plants, soil, and water play in food production. We learn the rules of what Wendell Berry calls “the given order” or nature’s rules and systems, (in contrast to “the made order,” or the rules and systems that humans have created). Opportunities for my family to engage and experience first-hand the rules and systems of “the given order” provides a healthy balance to our increasing engagement with interfaces and technologies that live in “the Cloud” and reveal no clues as to the places or landscapes they are in fact dependent on.
Balance. I strive to find that perfect balance among all the different titles I give myself: mother, wife, educator, student, gardener, cook. What would my life feel like without the garden and without that responsibility of keeping all of those plants alive and making use of them? I’d have more time. And I’d need it to figure out other means of reducing stress, maintaining health, getting exercise, socializing, feeling like a part of a community, and connecting to our place. Maybe this year I’ll find that ideal balance by doing a few less rows of tomatoes.
Mid June and the garden is pretty much planted. The last two weeks have been a flurry of activity as I’ve scrambled to gather together all of the seeds, tools, amendments, and plants that I need in order to commence the de-weeding, compost spreading, raking, planting, watering, and mulching of our gardens. Now that that’s done, we patiently wait for the little sprouts to appear. In the meantime there’s time to catch up on my garden documentation—which I’ve been slacking on this year. I need to update my garden log, draw up my final garden maps, and report the happenings to this blog!
This year in the garden I will be attempting to simplify. My goal will be to harvest larger quantities of the foods we like to eat instead of trying to grow a little of everything we like to eat. This will hopefully make the harvesting and processing more efficient. I’m focusing on potatoes, tomatoes, garlic, onions, squash, carrots, and greens as our high-volume crops and growing just enough for fresh eating for everything else. Cabbage would be a high-volume item if the flea beetles hadn’t annihilated the plants at our community garden.
This is an interesting development since I didn’t have any issues with flea beetles in the soil last year. Last year my cabbage plants were a lot more robust and healthy than the ones I planted this year. I’m going to try to replace the attacked plants with some that have had time to size up in pots. We’ll see if they are able to be more resistant to these annoying pests.
Another goal for the season is to feature other gardeners more in the blog. My inspiration for starting this blog was thinking about how much I’ve learned about gardening from talking with and observing the practices of other gardeners. So far I’ve offered my own perspective. Now I’d like to share with you some of the people and gardens that have inspired me. What better place to start than Strawberry Hill, my community garden. Even if my visit there is a solitary event, which it often is, I learn so much just from seeing how other people do things in the garden. Right now I am totally impressed with how hard everyone is working to get their garden plots in shape. It is looking amazingly well-tended and beautiful!
So the transplants are growing. They aren’t in the most robust of condition, due to my inability to always prioritize their needs (they’re about sixth on my list of living things whose needs I prioritize, right after myself, and the dog). But my semi-neglect of their needs will provide an insightful learning opportunity to those of you who are just getting into seed starting (like many in attendance at my seed starting class).
Here is a picture of my tomatoes.
They are a little leggy. The legginess is probably due to the long weekend we had at the cabin last week. I didn’t want to leave the lights on the whole time, so I centered each flat in the middle of the window (one flat on my floating transplant counter and one on the dining room table) and put some aluminum foil wrapped around some foam insulation as a reflective backdrop behind each flat. The reflective power of the foil enhances the solar power, but still isn’t as effective as the lights.
The plants are also in need of food–when I took this picture about a week ago I hadn’t yet fertilized them. I can tell they need food because they are more of a dull green than a vibrant spring green. I since have fed them with fish emulsion and after two days, I see a difference.
One other nugget I’ve learned this year about seed starting is the importance of a good soil mix. I experimented with mixing my own very simple mix which consisted of equal parts peat moss, vermiculite, and perlite. For the flat I planted broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage, and kale in, the mix turned out to be a little more heavy on the perlite and lighter on the peat moss. The result is that it dries out a lot faster than my tomato flat. The plants are not quite as robust as I’d like because of it.
But all is not lost due to my semi-neglect! The next step is potting these plants up into larger containers and I am confident I can redeem myself to these slightly depressed plants if I provide a yummy soil mix for them to sink their roots into! Where will I get this yummy soil mix? I could mix my own. For a mix for plants at this stage (versus seeds, which don’t require any nutrients to germinate) I want it to have some nutrients in it. I’d use a recipe with compost as an ingredient and maybe some other nutrients like green sand. Elliot Colemon’s recipe from the book “The New Organic Grower” would probably be what I would use. But knowing that I don’t have all of the ingredients for that recipe on hand and I don’t have the room right now to store the excess bulk ingredients, I will probably just buy something. There is a vast range of quality when looking for seed starting mix. I’d look for something OMRI approved, which means it’s approved for organic growers. Usually it’s labeled on the bag as “OMRI Approved.” I can still remember the smell and texture of the Foxfarm soil mix I tried a couple years ago. It was on the spendy side but the texture was like chocolate cake and it smelled so earthy and nutrient-rich! Was the mix the reason why my plants looked so good that year? Did the slightly healthier looking plants really result in enough benefits to warrant the higher cost? Could I have achieved similar results with a cheaper mix and a consistent fertilizing schedule? There’s always more to learn in the garden.
Yesterday we harvested two, one gallon freezer bags of succulent spring spinach!!! We added a handful of sorrel from the garden to the mix to add some bite. It tastes sooo good to eat green fresh food from the garden again!! It’s been soooo long….
It’s April 16th and a snow storm rages outside my window. I feel like I’ve been here before! Unlike last year though, I do not have month old tomato plants on my dining room table. This year I held off on the seed starting until April 10th so my seedlings just shot up over the weekend.
Unlike last season, I’ve already harvested some greens that grew outside in my garden! I seeded some spinach in my mini greenhouse last fall. The greenhouse plastic caved in under the weight of the snow but apparently the snow did a good job of insulating because last week, after the snow had melted next to the south side of the house, my daughter noticed the green leaves! She exuberantly started picking and snacking, sharing her treasure with me and her little brother.
I love tasting those first greens in the garden in the spring. It’s what my body has been craving all winter.
I’ve tried to appease those cravings with spinach and kale from the store, grown far from here, but it just doesn’t compare to the real deal, laying dormant all winter, soaking up the nutrients I’ve supplied the soil, just waiting for the right conditions to come alive. Eating it, I come alive! Now we’ll see how hardy spinach is as it weathers this latest storm unprotected.
As I write this on a bitterly cold winter day (17 degrees below zero) it’s hard to think about growing things. Long-term weather forecasts are predicting another cool summer due in part to the ice coverage on Lake Superior, which is still growing thicker with ice as I write this. As a gardener, this has really got me thinking about what I can do get a jump on the season.
Starting seeds inside is a good way to get your garden season rolling despite the weather. Growing green plants inside with lights can also be a great defense against cabin fever. As discussed in the seed starting class I taught last week, you’ll want to keep a few things in mind in order to ensure your plants are robust and healthy enough to provide the season-extending benefits you’re hoping for. Here are a few tips:
- Don’t start your plants too early. Remember that as your plants grow they will need more space, light, and water. When the twelve tomato plants you started in 2 six-packs in February grow into 12, 6-inch pots in May, make sure you’re prepared for your tomato plants to take up your entire dining room table. I’ve been there!
- Provide enough light. If you don’t want spindly plants, you will need to provide more light than provided by a south-facing window. You can experiment with ways to enhance the natural light provided (making a reflector out of aluminum foil, etc.) but the tested method is using a shop light with one cool bulb and one warm bulb per flat. Keep the light just above (a half inch or so) the tops of the plants, adjusting as the plants grow.
- Feed your seedlings. Seeds don’t need food to germinate, but growing seedlings could use a square meal of fish emulsion or worm juice every other week or so (if using a sterile seed-starting mix). If you’re using a non-sterile potting mix that includes compost, your plants may not need additional feeding. Unfed seedlings can become spindly. Refer to the labels on your fertilizer for application instructions.
- Don’t forget to harden off your plants before exposure to the elements! Plants that have grown up inside are not prepared to face the elements outside. To prepare them, gradually expose them to the outside environment, first putting them out in a protected area for a few hours on a sunny afternoon. Put them out for a little longer the next day. You can continue to increase exposer to outside temperatures and wind until you just bring them in at night. I usually “harden off” my plants for at least a week (depending on the conditions) before putting them in their permanent homes outside. Error on the side of being overprotective because once your plants get “shocked,” by the elements, (you’ll know when it happens because your beautiful, robust plants will suddenly look scraggely and sad,) it will take a while for them to recover.
If it’s June and it’s still too cold for tomatoes, consider setting up a mini greenhouse to hold them in until temperatures stabilize. Here’s an example of one I used last season made with 2-foot lengths of rebar, plumber’s tubing, and plastic.
So as a stay-at-home mom, gardener, and educator, I’m always looking for ways to make gardening an enriching and educational experience for my kids. Lately I’ve found myself in this struggle between finding enriching activities for my three-year-old, and having the time to cook a good meal/do garden clean up/prepare the garden harvest for preservation. I’ve been wavering between feeling guilty for not giving my child my full attention, and feeling guilty for not making the most of every plant that took up space in my garden this season. But yesterday I relearned a lesson that I’ve learned many times before: the value of integration. I had a huge bucket full of kale that I needed to get in the freezer. I had a three-year-old that needed some attention. I combined the two with great success!
Together we cleaned out the sink. Sylva got to splash around in the cold water and make bubbles so she was happy. We then filled the clean sink with cold water, and began piling in batches of fluffy, dark green kale pieces.
Sylva happily swished the kale around in the sink and transferred the clean kale to the strainer as I kept pouring in more Kale.
As she swished and drained, we kept our eyes open for the tiniest kale leaves, which Sylva named her “cutie pies.” We thought of words to describe the two types of kale: Dino, “the bumpy kind” and Red Russian “the feathery kind.” As we worked we snacked on the kale, which I explained was some of the best kind of “growing food” you could eat.
I asked her what she thought we should make with the kale this winter. We talked about making soups and lasagna.
After the kale was cleaned, we got the steamer going and I explained how we would put the fluffy kale into the hot steamer for two minutes and it would flatten out and shrink up. I dumped the steamed kale into the cold water in the sink where Sylva stirred it around in order to cool it off. As the kale that filled up our five-gallon bucket was steamed, Sylva was amazed to discover that it all fit in a large mixing bowl. In total we ended up with 9 bags of about one cup of frozen Kale. But more importantly, Sylva got to: feel useful helping Mom with an important job, engage her senses, eat really nutritious kale, and become more familiar with a vegetable that is very well-adapted to our region, and becoming a staple in the development of a regional food system.
This experience reinforced to me that the ideal learning environment is one which engages the senses, integrates multiple disciplines, and has a purpose beyond just “learning”– a purpose that impacts the world outside of the classroom (like producing food). As a parent, this is freeing to remember because it means that I can have experiences with my kids that are enriching to them, and at the same time enable me to check one more job off of my “to do” list. It also reminded me that kids don’t need a constant inflow of the most up-to-date and developmentally-appropriate toys and educational gadgets in order to grow up and succeed. Mostly, they need adults to engage with them. The garden makes a wonderful environment to engage kids in learning!
So I’ve got a lot of loose ends to tie up! What a weird, long, fall it’s been. It’s mid-November and I still have kale in the garden and spinach in my mini-greenhouse! I wish it were because I was conducting some kind of experiment on the temperatures these hardy plants can handle…but it’s just because other things have taken a higher priority. Not including the neglect of my late-season kale and spinach harvest, I did do pretty well with making the most of my harvest. I’ve tallied up 93 quarts of food that I’ve canned of froze. Check out my planting and harvesting log for the complete end-of-season preservation totals.
Now to provide the end results of this season’s garden experiments: straw-bale gardening, polycultures, season extension, a focus on brassicas, and hugel beds. (Check out post “Building Resiliency into My Garden,” and others, for further explanation and results on these experiments).
Straw Bales: their harvest was meager. The harvest may have improved had I investigated the proper amount of fertilizers to provide the bales throughout the season but pumping fertilizers into the bales just isn’t my style. If I have a problem in my garden, I look to the soil. I have faith that if I provide the soil with what it needs, it will provide for my plants. But with straw bale gardening, you put your faith in the inputs and there’s not a long-term incentive to feed the soil. So I can see how straw bale gardening would be useful in certain applications–like locations where no other soil is available. But I wasn’t thrilled with my results in my own garden. One more factor was squirrels. I did spot a few with tiny potatoes clutched in their paws.
My experiments with establishing polycultures resulted in a much more aesthetically-pleasing and wild look to my garden, and fewer pests! I couldn’t assure you that fewer pests were a direct result of the polycultures, but there were fewer pests. In particular, my cabbage is usually full of caterpillars–not this year. Was it due to the polyculture I planted of cabbage, beets, onions, and potatoes? Or was it because I started my cabbage plants even before I started my tomato plants, potted them up into my tomato planter (not in individual pots) where their roots could intermingle and roam free, and set them out in my mini-greenhouse well before they were ready to be planted. When they did finally get into the ground, they were big and robust and well prepared to resist disease and pests. But back to polycultures: I planted pole beans with carrots, sunflowers, calendula and borage. I planted cumbers with lettuce, carrots with peas, and tomatoes with carrots and onions. I’ll try this again next year, rotating the groups of plants to different sections of the garden, and experimenting with spacing and timing, and see if I still have luck. (Check out my garden maps to see how these polycultures were laid out and see previous posts for pictures of some of these polycultures).
The hugel-bed experiment is on going. This fall I dug a hole about 2 1/2 – 3 feet deep, four feet wide, and eight feet long. I filled the hold with in-tact, jack pine logs, then rotted pine boards, then sand/dirt, and one square yard of manure to top it off.
I planted a mix of plants as a cover crop and will incorporate the cover crop into the bed to build soil.
I’m hoping next year I will be able to plant some small fruit trees. The rotting organic matter will provide good nutrients and will enable the ground to hold much more water in an area where the soil is almost pure sand.
Oh yes, and the last thing: extending the season. I planted spinach, lettuce, komatsuma, and mache in later August. Ideally I would have planted it earlier so things would have had time to size up a bit before the angle of the sun gets too low and temperatures go down too much. The lettuce and mache didn’t germinate too much, but the spinach and komatsuma did well. It’s still out there today and the spinach leaves are about four inches long or so.
Stay tuned as I post my end-of-season evaluation in the next couple of weeks. And then we’ll start thinking about next year!
So if you really want to rack up the tally of pounds harvested per-square-foot of your garden, grow some cabbage. In a previous post I used my three-year-old to lend some perspective to a picture of my biggest cabbage in my patch. That cabbage alone weighed in at just under ten pounds! Last week I spent an afternoon shredding cabbage heads and smashing the shreds into a five-gallon bucket with some salt to make sauerkraut.
I filled up a five-gallon bucket with 27 pounds of shredded cabbage from four heads of cabbage (the other 6 heads I’ll do after my carpal tunnel goes away). Now that’s some bang for you buck! And unlike food that is preserved using heat, fermented foods are alive with healthful bacteria. Fermenting guru Sandor Ellix Katz has found in his research (as outlined in his wonderful book Wild Fermentation) “the organisms of fermentation play a role in protecting us, as organisms among organisms, from disease,” (Katz, 8).
Since fermented foods can keep for several months in the refrigerator, I will be doing my best to ensure the consumption of all of this kraut before it is past its prime. I probably will end of freezing and/or canning some (no way will it all fit in my fridge) although it is soooo much tastier and better for you before freezing or canning. Anyone have some good sauerkraut recipes? Mom and Dad, good thing you’re “kraut-heads” from New Ulm because you will be getting some fermented treats for Christmas!
Keep your eyes on the DCGP web site for info. on a community kraut-making event they’re organizing this fall!
Finally my jungle garden is here! Man I love August.
Mid-July and the garden still wasn’t producing much more than lettuce and peas. But then it happens. Everything explodes and you’re regretfully pulling up plants that you crowded together earlier this spring when everything was so small. But how fleeting this moment of abundance is. At least that’s how it feels this year. I have aspirations of taking care of most of my family’s food needs year round from our own gardens. This year it has seemed like quite a daunting task, given how long it took summer to arrive.
My jungle garden just got here and already there are signs of its demise. The peas are slowing production, the lettuce is turning woody, leaves are beginning to yellow, the angle of the sun is changing. Basically we’ve got little more than a couple of months to harvest and “put up” everything we’ll need for the winter. All the more reason to grow to love sauerkraut, beets, and kale: all things that grow well around here, which I had no interest in before I started investigating the natural systems I rely on to eat. Keep an eye on the DCGP web site if you’re interested in adding pressure canning to your food preservation skills–I’ll be doing a class on it in September. We’re also organizing some community canning sessions. All are welcome!!
Today I planted a bed of winter greens: spinach, mache, arugula, and winter density lettuce. I’ll cover them with my mini-greenhouse and see how long they last into the fall. Today I noticed that the light is different–more like fall. I have been bracing myself for fall–I am soo not ready for another winter. So I’ll try to prolong the garden season as long as I can with my mini-greenhouse.