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The purpose of this blog is to follow one community gardener (me, Katie Hanson) through a gardening season here in the Twin Ports. I plan to share the tools that I use to plan my gardening season, as well as sharing the trials and successes that the season brings. I will make weekly postings about what I’m doing in my garden throughout the season with the hopes that new gardeners can learn from my experience and mistakes, and experienced gardeners will contribute their own insight. I hope that readers will engage with this blog in order to illustrate the vast array of gardening strategies, styles, and techniques out there. There is no one way to grow a garden and I have found that my most valuable tools in the garden are my fellow members of the gardening community I’ve found with the Duluth Community Garden Program!!!! So please see this blog as an interactive tool to foster greater community among gardeners.

Stay tuned, comment often, and happy gardening!

Crazy Garden Lady

My Gardening Buddies

That’s what my neighbors were calling me as they peered out their windows and walked their dogs past our yard. I’ve been reading Sepp Holzer, the “Rebel Farmer” again. So I’m trying another Hugelkultur experiment. This time in the front yard. Hugelkultur is a method of making raised beds, developed by Sepp Holzer, that’s kind of like sheet mulching except that you use logs and branches as the base layer and the beds end up being much taller. So I decided to try some more experimenting in the garden where I had my two-year-old straw bales (that I grew tomatoes in last year), and my potato patch. I had eight straw bales in that garden in the late stages of decomposition. I raked that all off the bed and marked out two L-shaped beds. I dug out the top 8 inches or so of soil from those two beds and made a pile.

The straw and soil layers for the Hugel Bed.

The straw and soil layers for the Hugel Bed.

I then took some pruned branches from the lilac bush, some pine cones from the spruce tree and some other too-bulky-for-the-compost-pile materials I had around. I laid that material down in the two beds. I covered it with some sod I had sitting in a pile from previous projects.

Branches, brush, and sod layers.

Branches, brush, and sod layers.

Then I added a layer of food scraps and straw that was about half way to finished compost. Shoveling moldy grapefruit and rotting squash skins from my wheelbarrow into my front yard is the part that earns me the label “Crazy Garden Lady.” Every time I do it I feel this urgency to quickly cover it up before the nose of some neighbor dog detects stinky compost-pile goodies and has a snack, the evidence of which appears a few hours later on the neighbor’s carpet. The only dog that I’ve caught in the act has been my own. After cleaning up the evidence she left behind, in the interest of neighborly relations, I’d like to keep it that way. To cover up the stench of rotting food scraps, I threw on a thick layer of that two-year-old, very decomposed straw. On top of that I laid down the soil from the pile I had just made. The beds ended up being about three feet high with the sides being at least at a 45 degree angle, per Sepp’s recommendation. Sepp suggests seeding them right away while the soil is nice and loose so Sylva and I gathered together all of our lettuce, greens, radish, and spring turnip seeds that were more than two years old, mixed them together, and sprinkled them all over the two beds. Salad goodies will be the first round of succession before I plant the squash crop in them in June. The final touch was a light mulch of straw to keep in the moisture and prevent run off in a heavy rain. We’ll see what comes up!

The seeded beds!

The seeded beds!

I love the idea of Hugelkultur because it doesn’t require me to purchase anything and it allows me to incorporate a lot of organic materials that tend to pile up in the yard because they don’t work well in the compost pile. The height of the beds can have the affect of creating microclimates. I’m hoping the height will prevent the problem I have with invading roots from a close-by Maple tree that out-competes the veggies I plant for water and nutrients. While Hugel Bed construction was underway there was a lot of other things going on as well. I discovered a mole that was living in the compost pile. The kids were captivated. They spent a good half hour just watching it wiggle and worm around in the soil. A few hours later when we went to look for him again we found him “sleeping” in the same spot we left him. After some observations, and a little poking, the mole was declared dead.

Sylva and her mole friend.

Sylva and her mole friend.

We hypothesized about what did her in. Maybe someone accidently stepped on her. Maybe she was already sick. Maybe she missed her family and so she died. This all was of little concern to Milo but Sylva decided to put her in a Tubberware container with some compost and bleeding heart flowers placed ceremoniously beside her and wait to see if she would come back to life. At some point Sylva was able to accept that her little mole friend was not coming back, because she completely forgot about her and hours later I found her body in a sealed Tupperware container baking in the sun. When I asked Sylva to do something with her, she said “sure” and unceremoniously tossed her back in the compost pile to eventually fertilize the garden. Besides Mrs. Mole, I had two other successful attempts at keeping the kids occupied so I could do the garden work. Attempt number one: big cooler + water. It’s true, kids need to play with water. It was not a warm day today. I don’t even think it hit 50. But the kids were playing with the rain barrel water, getting soaked of course, and loving it. It started with me asking them to help me water my beds. At first they dutifully filled their watering cans and watered my beds. But then they decided that was too much work and they just wanted to play with the water from the rain barrel. So in an attempt to distract them from emptying my rain barrel and flooding out the garden, I got out the big cooler that we used to chill drinks at the birthday party last weekend (which still had water in it) and suggested they play with that water. They thought that was a great idea and started making “compost stew.” They threw in compost, dandelions, chives, sticks, wood chips, etc. That kept them busy for over an hour!

Compost Stew!!

Compost Stew!!

Attempt number two: community garden camp out. Pitching a tent and bringing the sleeping bags to the community garden worked perfectly to get the kids to go along with my agenda of having a gardening marathon today.

The tent at Strawberry Hill.

The tent at Strawberry Hill.

At the end of the day, I’m feeling so satisfied that I spent the whole day outside, my body is tired, and my kids had fun. We all got some fresh air, exercise, and quality time together. Tomorrow is Mother’s Day. Scott won’t be around to make me breakfast because he’s gone on a canoe trip (it’s fishing opener). But Sylva insists she will be making breakfast for me tomorrow. After today I feel so refreshed and rejuvenated about life and being a mother. What more could I ask for?

I’m diggin’ in!

What a weekend! We were at our cabin near Barnes, WI–land of warmer temperatures, ticks, and sandy soil. Two out of three of those features I was very grateful for last weekend because they enabled me to do some early prep work in the garden! It all started with a little gentle pruning of the encroaching forest…which turned into some serious logging. I was planning to do some thinning with my hand saw in order to add another hour or two of good sunlight to the garden. But I forgot to pack the handsaw so my husband got out the chainsaw. He likes his chainsaw. We ended up with a lot more sun, and a lot more firewood. That took care of one of the problems with the cabin garden. The other problem is the sandy soil. Things dry out really fast and there’s not a lot of microbial life. Even though we add compost every year, we still haven’t been getting a lot of production out of it. I decided to try another hugel bed experiment. (See my previous post from November 2013 to read about prior experiments). I started digging.

I dug a hole between 2 and 3 feet deep and about three feet in circumference. I gathered rotting pieces of wood from the forest and filled up the hole. I added some straw and leaves, and then topped off the mounds with the soil and sand I just took out of the hole. I plotted out my holes evenly throughout the space and 3 hours later, ended up with 6 mounds. Once my manure pile thaws out (it’s in a shady spot behind the shed,) I’ll spread manure on each mound. I also plan to get enough compost to spread a thick layer over every mound.

One of six holes.

One of six holes.

 

Check out the strands of mycelia growing on these babies!

Check out the strands of mycelia growing on these babies!

A full hole.

A full hole.

My hypothesis, based on what I’ve read in the books “Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture” and “Teaming with Microbes” by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis, is that the rotting wood will hold water in the soil for the roots to absorb, as well as provide a hospitable home for microbial life, solving two of our most pressing issues at the cabin garden and vastly improving our squash production. There is some conflicting advice that I got from these books that I will be focusing on too. Teaming with Microbes emphasizes that different types of plants prefer different types of nitrogen that are accessed based on whether the microbial life in your soil is dominated by bacteria or fungi. According to Teaming with Microbes, annual plants prefer bacteria-dominated soil whereas perennials prefer fungi domination. Sepp Holzer claims that burying rotting wood in the soil is good for food production in general—not distinguishing between bacteria-dominated soil or fungi-dominated soil. The rotting wood I threw into my holes had strands of mycelia already established and will likely foster fungi-domination. How will my squash (a bacteria-loving annual plant) like this? Will this make an impact on production? Stay tuned!

Learning A Sense of Place; Why I Blog About My Garden

So last summer things kind of went off the rails. My husband, Scott, and I embarked on a new adventure, going into business together as the owners/operators of White Cedar Studio, a custom jewelry design studio located in Superior’s old police headquarters (also known as “The Red Mug Building”). The summer was a little heavy on remodeling and light on gardening. The gardens survived and we grew a bunch of food but the blog took a back seat.

But that’s how life goes. And I’m back.

Maybe my spring fever has gotten the best of me but I think this season is going to be the best one in years! For starters, the snow is already melted and it’s only April 1! Reason 2: my kids are getting older and becoming easier to engage in the garden so that they understand the repercussions of walking in the beds and trampling the seedlings.

Getting out in the spring woods!

Getting out in the spring woods!

And if they don’t feel like gardening, they can find other things to do to entertain themselves while I’m working. Reason 3: I am not going to over book myself so that I don’t have time to take care of my gardens.

So here it comes, the huge list of all of the wonderful things I’m going to accomplish this year in the garden. Let me paint you a picture of a lush, vibrant, wild garden where every inch is covered with plants or mulch, and all plants are utilized to their fullest potential. This garden is one that I never have to water. It has zero pest problems or disease. This is my vision.

I have “spring vision.” It’s kind of like double vision—it’s where you envision you can accomplish double what you actually will. It plagues pretty much every gardener I know here in the Northland where you have the long, long winter where you are deprived not only of light but access to anything that’s living and green besides maybe a couple of houseplants. The only thing to do to keep you sane is to read gardening books and seed catalogs, while you plan, research, dream, design, and plot out next season’s garden.

It’s April first and that’s where I’m at. So here it comes, my goals for the season:

  1. Learn to brew and utilize compost tea to provide a population boost to the microbes in my soil in an effort to rely more on the microbial life of the soil as a defense against nutrient deficiency, disease, and pests. (Teaming with Microbes was one of my winter reads).
  2. Find more ways to engage my kids in the garden so that by the end of the season they get excited when I tell them we’re going to spend the morning at Strawberry Hill (our community garden).
  3. Companion planting: continue experimenting to find more communities of plants that benefit from growing together (plant guilds).
  4. Write posts about my experiences at least every other week and share my garden maps, garden activity log, garden survey, and end of season evaluation on this blog.

Ok. So that wasn’t too grandiose, was it? It feels good to say it because now I feel accountable to the readers of my humble little blog. And that’s a good kind of pressure because I need to write. It’s good for me. It keeps me sane. It gives me those moments where I think to myself, “yeah, now I remember what’s important,” and solidifies those important moments in my memory.

Let me elaborate on why I find sharing experiences in the garden to be important. Gardening allows me to engage with the world on a pretty intimate level. The garden attracts birds, bees, dragonflies, hummingbirds, worms, squirrels, bunnies, etc. And then there are the creatures that I can’t even see in the soil. There is this whole community of creatures in the soil that I wouldn’t have any awareness of at all if I didn’t garden. Even if I can’t see them, I can perceive the effects of their existence. By planting plants in their community and manipulating their homes in the soil, I gain an understanding and appreciation for them. They react to my actions and I react to theirs. I’m in relationship with them. They are an integral part of my community, my place. Some are my friends, and some are not.

Understanding my physical place that I occupy on the planet has always been important to me. In college I self-designed a major entitled “Learning a Sense of Place.” I was concerned about the amount of attention that people were not paying to their physical environments. I began to recognize a trend where more and more, fostering meaningful connections with people (or “community”) did not require sharing a physical place. This concerned me because I hypothesized that the more time we spent engaged in “virtual communities,” the less time we would have to foster meaningful connections to a given physical place. What I mean by “meaningful connections to a given physical place” is this: you have awareness of the living plants and animals you are living with and the systems you all rely on to exist. Your definition of “community” expands to encompass more than just people, but plants and animals as well. You have an understanding of the seasonal calendar, when different plants bloom, what different animals eat different times of the year, when different animals are passing through, when others mate, etc. When something out-of-the-ordinary occurs that impacts certain plants or animals or the systems they rely on to survive, you are aware. You can identify the impacts. You can advocate for those non-human members of your community. In college I was worried that if people spent too much time on their computers, they wouldn’t have enough time leftover to get to know their physical place on the planet.

It may seem ironic, given these concerns, that here I am typing away on this blog instead of digging in the dirt. But since college I think I’m my own evidence that my hypothesis about the correlation between time spent in “virtual communities” and connection to place, is not always true. Writing on this blog makes me a more intentional gardener. It inspires me to expand my knowledge of gardening and broaden my awareness of the other life I share this place with. Writing about these things on this blog allows me to express what I perceive to be the most valuable thing that is in me to express and hopefully inspires others to prioritize making time to dig in, deepen, and broaden their own sense of their physical place on the planet.

The practice of gardening is a series of experiments that lead to insights. I want to prevent flea beetles from eating my cabbage transplants this year–I hypothesize that applying a foliar spray of aerated compost tea will provide the microorganisms to combat the flea beetle infestation. I test my hypothesis and gain an insight. These sorts of experiments are conducted year by year as I learn that chunk of earth that is my garden. As the years go by I become more accurate in my hypotheses. I take my insights and apply them to the greater world. I remember the mycelia, protozoa, bacteria and nematodes when I’m grocery shopping, filling out my ballot, sitting at the parent/teacher conference…

Gardening is what I do to learn my sense of place. Writing on this blog allows me to reflect on and share with others what I learn from being aware of the physical space I inhabit on the planet. Learning a sense of my place reminds me that I’m a part of a community so much bigger than myself, so much bigger than the human species, with so much diversity and so much to learn about. That feels good.

Kids Need Plants, Water, Soil, and Creatures

meadowhawk

A White-faced Meadowhawk Dragonfly

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.

Milo checking on the size of our resident Monarch butterfly.

Milo checking on the size of our resident Monarch caterpillar.  

Our resident Monarch caterpillar.

Our resident Monarch caterpillar.

IMG_0113

Sylva in her garden.

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.

Why I Garden

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.

Spring Apple Blossoms

Spring Apple Blossoms

  • 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!

    The View from Strawberry Hill

    The view from Strawberry Hill this spring before the ice went out.

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.

2014 Garden Goals and Inspiration from my Fellow Community Gardeners

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.

Beautiful Chinese Cabbage Transplants Pre-Flea Beetles

Beautiful Chinese Cabbage Transplants Pre-Flea Beetles

Flea Beetle Infestation

Flea Beetle Investation

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!

Nice strategy for protecting those warmth-loving plants.

Nice strategy for protecting those warmth-loving plants.

Nice and simple trellising system for peas.

Nice and simple trellising system for peas.

Check out the size of these plants! This guy got on it early and has created a pretty maintenance-free plot with the landscaping fabric and straw used as defenses against the weeds. And the hoop house will help extend the season too!

This gardener got on it early and has created a pretty maintenance-free plot with the landscaping fabric and straw used as defenses against the weeds. And the hoop house will help extend the season too!

Check out the size of these plants! Isn't having any flea beetle issues either, evidence that a larger, healthier plant is more resistant to pests.

Check out the size of these plants! Isn’t having any flea beetle issues either, evidence that a larger, healthier plant is more resistant to pests.

 

Nicely Mulched! I know who to get advice from about growing blueberries--look at those!

Nicely Mulched! I know who to get advice from about growing blueberries–look at those!

Transplants are growing!

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.

Tomato transplants in need of fertilizer.

Tomato transplants in need of fertilizer.

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.
Spring Spinach Harvest!

Spring Spinach Harvest!

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….

 

 

First harvest and a snowstorm rages…

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.

My seed starting helper.

My seed starting helper.

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.

Sylva munching on our first harvest of spinach, April 7!

Sylva munching on our first harvest of spinach, April 7!

I love tasting those first greens in the garden in the spring. It’s what my body has been craving all winter.

Milo chewing on some garden spinach.

Milo chewing on some garden spinach.

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.

Growing Seedlings to get a Jumpstart the Season

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.

Just had to include a picture of things growing. Remember what it's like when things grow? Remember what the ground looks like when it's not covered in a thick, thick blanket of snow? (I'm going crazy).

Just had to include a picture of things growing. Remember what it’s like when things grow? Remember what the ground looks like when it’s not covered in a thick, thick blanket of snow? (I’m going crazy).

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:

  1. 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!
  2. 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.

    My Indoor Set Up

    My Indoor Set Up

  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Mini-greenhouse.

Mini-greenhouse.

Authentic Learning in the Kitchen

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.

Fluffy Green Kale!

Fluffy Green Kale!

Sylva happily swished the kale around in the sink and transferred the clean kale to the strainer as I kept pouring in more Kale.

Sylva Washing Kale

Sylva Washing 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.

Having a Kale Snack

Having a Kale Snack

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!

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