Food forests—if you haven’t yet heard of them, you will. The concept is best known in connection with permaculture, which goes beyond organic growing to create landscapes that exist in harmony with nature. Designed to include nut- and fruit-producing trees and shrubs, as well as many other edible and pollinator-friendly plants, food forests are not only interesting and enchanting. They provide food for people and wildlife. They also make if possible for people, particularly urban dwellers, to see up close how food is grown and experience the joy of picking something and eating it. Heck, they may even inspire some to add edible plants to their home gardens.
For all of those reasons and more, many cities around the country—and the world—have opted in the last 10 years or so to turn vacant city lots and patches of parks into food forests and community orchards. London; Victoria, British Columbia; Calgary and Toronto, Canada; Seattle, Washington; Bloomington, Indiana, Madison, Wisconsin; Asheville, North Carolina, Glendale, Ohio; and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, are just a few of those cities. More information on those projects and a list of others can found here.
Minneapolis makes the list with the Bancroft Meridian Garden Food Forest. The lot along 38th Street started out as a flower garden tended by the community, but in 2014 the group decided it was time to create a food forest that was more sustainable for people, wildlife and the land. Everyone in the community is welcome to stroll around pick a few berries, apples, herbs or other things. The idea is not to harvest the food, but to create an urban foraging space for all to enjoy.
More food forests will hopefully be a part of Minneapolis’ future. But one thing is clear: it is going to take advocacy from people like us to make that happen. Russ Henry, a longtime activist and landscape designer who is running for an at-large Park Board seat, and Ryan Seibold, who leads the Hiawatha Food Forest group, have been working for months to get a food forest started near Lake Hiawatha on the site of the frequently flooded Hiawatha Golf Course.
Public feedback has been positive for the most part. In many different public meetings, thousands of residents (golfers and non-golfers) have expressed support for the idea of restoring the wetlands, which were drained in the 1930s to create the golf course. Along the edge of the wetland on a little big higher ground, edibles could be planted to create a walkable food forest.
The idea was by far the most popular among those that were pitched during a March 16 “Innovation Lab.” Organized by Henry, the event drew more than 150 people who wanted to hear farmers, beekeepers, restaurateurs, composters and other interested folks offer their thoughts on transforming the local food system. “People like the idea of being able to do some food foraging in parks,” says Henry, who believes food forests have the potential to also connect people and build communities.Read More»
It’s nearly spring and that means my Little Free Seed Library will soon be up and running. As many of you know, I reserve the top shelf of our Little Free Library for seed sharing in the spring and fall. I will be stocking the library in mid-March with seeds from my garden, as well as several different types of seeds that people donated late in the fall. The library is located on the boulevard on the corner of 45th Street and Washburn Ave. S. in Linden Hills.
There are small, coin-sized envelopes available for those who want to take seeds, as well as pencils to write down what you’ve packaged up. Seeds that are available for the taking are either in their original packets or large envelopes that are labeled with the plants’ names. Please take what you want from those packets and large envelopes and leave the rest for others.
If you have seeds to share—and we can always use more—please bring them in their original packets or envelopes that are labeled so people can clearly see what’s available. And thank you very much to all who have helped make this seed-sharing library a success for the last several years. People stop by all the time during the summer to tell me that the sunflowers or tomatoes or cosmos in their yard came from the seed library. Sometimes they even get out their phones to show me photos of what they’re growing. It’s a joyful thing to be part of and all of us are making it possible. Way to go, us!
Help for the Bees
As you probably know, news about the health of bees continues to get worse. Just last December the rusty-patched bumblebee was declared endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service because their numbers have declined so much in the past 20 years. Other bumblebee species are also declining, as are populations of other types of bees.
Gardeners are in a unique position to help bees of all types. If you’d like some bee-friendly plant ideas, have a look at the University of Minnesota bee lab’s publication, Plants for Minnesota Bees. Plants on the list vary widely and are workable for home landscapes of many different types.
Don’t feel like buying new plants? No problem. If your lawn is chemical free, you can help pollinators by leaving some of your lawn weeds for them to feast on. White clover is everywhere is most people’s lawns, and it often blooms from mid-spring through the fall. Flowers on this not-that-bad-looking weed, which is recognizable for its three-leaved shape, are white and bees love them because they are wide enough to land on comfortably. White clover doesn’t need to be tall to bloom, so if you set your mower to 3 inches, your lawn will look reasonably neat and you’ll still leave plenty of nectar and pollen for your bee friends.
Dandelions are also a bee favorite. So while these weeds are less easy on the eyes, consider leaving a few in some area of your lawn. Those yellow flowers provide bees with nectar and pollen that they need to survive.
Again, though, be sure that areas you leave for bees are not treated with chemicals that will harm or kill them. No matter what your lawn service tells you, none of the chemicals used to treat grass are safe for pollinators—or other living things, for that matter. But that’s a separate column. For now, let’s set our sights on helping the bees. They need us now more than ever.
To help make our long winters less drab and dreary, I usually grow several different amaryllis plants so there is something colorful and blooming in the house between November and February. Normally, I toss the bulbs into the compost bins after they’re done flowering. But after talking to some master gardener friends who save and replant their amaryllis bulbs, I’ve decided to do the same. I figure, even if I didn’t pay a lot for the bulbs (they range in price), it would be nice to give the plants the opportunity to flower again if they’re able. If you’d like to try this, too, here are some tips you need to know.
Like other bulbs, amaryllis use their leaves to store up energy for next year. So once the flowers fade, cut them off so the spent blooms don’t go to seed, which uses up energy the bulb needs. Leave the long leaves intact. Yes it does look weird to have a bulb in a pot with goofy, long leaves poking out of it. But those green leaves will feed the bulb through photosynthesis if you leave the pot near a sunny window.
Keep watering and fertilizing the bulb as you did when it was flowering. I usually water once a week, which is when the soil starts to feel dry. It’s a good idea to fertilize every time you water. Use about half the amount suggested on the package of whatever type of fertilizer you use.
Once we make it past the last frost, put your amaryllis plants (in their pots) outside in a spot that’s not in direct sun. Like seedlings, they need some time to acclimate to being outdoors so over the course of a week or two, move the pots into more and more sun. Ideally, they need to end up in a place where they will get a minimum of 5 hours of sun daily. You can leave them on your patio in their pots, or bury the pots in the garden someplace for the summer. At this point the leaves may be yellowing, browning or otherwise looking awful. But even if they are still green, you can cut the foliage back to about 3 inches. Keep up the watering and fertilizing (now at full strength) during the summer and new leaves will grow.Read More»
As summer comes to an end, it’s tempting to bring tropical plants indoors for the winter. It’s not a bad idea, but as you probably already know, some of them don’t do so well in our cool, dry houses for months on end. The key is to offer the right amount of care, which sometimes means a lack of care, depending on the plant.
If you want to try to keep tropicals alive so you can bring them outdoors again in the spring, there are three ways to do it:
- Bring the plant in and let if just keep on growing in a warm sunny spot.
- Put the plant in a cool, dark place and let it go dormant.
- Take cuttings from plants you like, root them and pot them up so you can enjoy those new plants in the spring.
Going with option one means you need to have a sunny window where temperatures are between 60 and 75 degrees during the day and not below 45 at night. Jasmine, hibiscus, bougainvillea and small citrus trees are just a few of the plants that can survive the winter this way. If you don’t have that sort of sunny spot, you can always put plants under fluorescent lights or grow lights, but make sure you set a timer so they get about 12 hours of light daily.
If plants grow enough to get leggy, prune them back at least once. And do worry about a few dropped and/or yellowed leaves because that’s bound to happen, particularly right after you brings plants indoors. Water as needed, but don’t fertilize plants until spring. And be sure to inspect plants regularly for pests. If you find some they can usually be controlled by plopping the plants in the sink or shower and giving it a good blast with water.
Letting plants go dormant takes more of an understanding of plants’ individual needs. Good information on that can be found in the book, Bulbs in the Basement Geraniums on the Windowsill: How to Grow & Overwinter 165 Tender Plants by Alice and Brian McGowan. Basically, it all depends on whether the plants are woody, soft-stemmed or bulb-like. For example, elephant ears and caladiums should get a little bit frost nipped before they come inside so they understand that the season is over and it’s time to go dormant. They can either be stored in a cool, dark place right in their pots and your job is to keep the soil slightly moist until spring. Or, you can take them out of their pots, remove the stems and foliage and store only the bulbs. Read up on how to do that: everyone seems to have a way they like to do it.
Taking cuttings from plants that are difficult to overwinter, like coleus and geraniums, is easier than it sounds. If you’re going to do this, take the cuttings in the fall and toss the main plant (sometimes called the “mother” plant) in the compost bin. Instructions for taking cuttings and rooting them can be found in books, online and of course there are YouTube videos.
It’s fall cleanup time again. I’ve already started tossing tired annuals into the compost bin and putting away the fertilizer. Right now, plants need to be focusing on root development and storing energy rather than putting on new growth.
September is also a good time to finish dividing and moving plants since, ideally, most plants need a minimum of six weeks to establish enough of a root system to get them through the winter. That’s not to say, of course, that you should pass up a good plant sale. Heck, I’ve plopped plants into the ground a week from Halloween and crossed my fingers many times. That hasn’t always worked out so great, but it’s worth a try if there’s a good sale or you just couldn’t manage to get everything into the ground before it got cold.
If you collect seeds from some of your plants, October is a good time to do that. I’ll have the seed library going again in October so if you have extras, please consider dropping some off for others to share. If you don’t know where the seed library is, just email and I’ll give you the address. If you’re not interested in collecting seeds, consider leaving some perennials, like coneflowers and black-eyed Susans, standing for the winter. Birds will thank you for the snacks and the plants will look nice in the snow, at least for a while.
If you’ve still got energy for projects and are tired of dealing with sandy soil, fall is a good time for change. Sandy soil drains well, too well, really. So the soil is low in nutrients and moisture. To help, turn in things like composted manure, kitchen compost, shredded or mulched leaves and coconut coir (an alternative to peat moss). For areas that are just too large to change with amendments, try planting things that actually like sandy soil, such as hyssop, prairie onion, columbine, wild ginger, butterfly weed, common milkweed, whorled milkweed and many types of asters.
For those of you who are looking around your gardens and wishing there was more going on, here are some plants that you can go out and get now and enjoy next year. Helen’s flower (Helenium autumnale), which is also known as sneezeweed even though it won’t make you sneeze, has pretty blooms that are yellow, red and orange. New York asters (Aster novae-belgii) and New England asters (Aster novae-angliae) are both hardy and attractive to pollinators. When shopping, pay attention to how tall these can grow. Some varieties are under 2 feet tall, which I prefer, while others can grow as high as 4 to 5 feet and get a little bit gangly. Also check out aromatic asters (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium), which have bluish purple flowers and grow to only 1 to 3 feet tall.
Boltonia (Boltonia asteroides) is a great fall-blooming perennial that you don’t see very often. Plants can get as tall as 5 feet, but usually a bit shorter, with delicate stems and leaves. Flowers resemble daisies and can be white, pink or lavender. Blanket flower (Gaillardia) is another good option with its yellow/orange blooms that last well into the fall. I love turtlehead (Chelone), which blooms in white if you go with the native variety. I want more color in the fall so I plant a cultivar with pink blooms called ‘Hot Lips’.
Vines are overlooked as a source of fall color but they shouldn’t be. Virginia creeper is absolutely stunning in the fall, as is Boston ivy, silver lace vine, sweet Autumn clematis and climbing hydrangea.
At this point in the season, tomatoes are either doing great or tipping toward disaster. So in addition to offering some growing tips to help make tomatoes happy and healthy, I’ll explain some of the common things that can go wrong.
Probably the most important thing you need when growing tomatoes is sunlight—8 hours or more is best, but 6 will allow plants to produce a fair amount of fruit. If you don’t have a spot that gets even 6 hours of sun and someone is home a lot during the day, consider buying a few round, rolling plant stands. I got mine (which look like metal Frisbees on wheels) at Ikea, but most garden centers sell them now, too. Put your tomatoes in large pots, set them on the rolling plant stands and move them into the sun as it moves throughout the day.
Soil is key to tomato success too. They thrive in healthy soil, so it’s a good idea to work some compost and composted manure into the area before planting. If you’re planting in pots, just add those things into your potting mix. Halfway through the season, scratch a little more compost into the top of the soil around plants, but don’t add more manure. Too much nitrogen (N) will give you lots of leaves and little fruit. You want a fertilizer with more potassium (K) than nitrogen in it. Phosphorous (P) can also be on the low side, usually, since compost supplies a good amount of that. Product labels always show the N-P-K ratio like this: 10-10-10 or 5-2-1. You want something more like: 1-0-4 or 1-1-3. Seaweed (powdered or liquid kelp) is a great choice and is usually 1-0-4.
Tomatoes like water, but not too much. Water plants deeply but not so often, or so much, that you end up with soggy soil. That can lead to disease problems and, later in the season, to tomatoes that don’t taste like much because all that water got channeled into the plant’s fruit. If you’re growing tomatoes in pots, stop watering when you see water running out of the bottom of the pot. Watering consistently, every few days in hot weather—more often if plants are growing in pots—will also help prevent the dreaded blossom end rot. You know you have this common problem when your tomatoes have black spots on their bottoms. Consistent watering allows the fruits to get the calcium they need from the soil to develop properly.
Did you bury the stem at planting time? If not, do that next year by gently plucking off the plant’s branches below the top flush of leaves. Depending on the size of your transplant, you’re usually burying 2 to 6 inches of stem, and that’s a good thing because new roots will sprout all along that stem and help your tomatoes be strong and healthy.
Pruning tomatoes doesn’t need to be as complicated as it is often described. Tomatoes are classified by growth habit: determinate tomatoes—also called bush tomatoes—are bred to be more compact, usually about 4 feet tall while indeterminate varieties—also known as climbing or vining types—can grow to 6 feet tall or more. Determinate tomatoes don’t need much pruning beyond removing all of the suckers below the first flower cluster. Indeterminate tomatoes benefit from some pruning, but you don’t need to grow crazy. Basically, if you pinch out suckers and pare plants down to around stems, you’ll get bigger fruit and less sprawling growth. If you let plants be more unruly than that, you’ll get more fruit but you’ll have to deal with a more tangled mess of vines. Either way if fine, so don’t sweat it a whole bunch.
Are the leaves on your tomato plants curling up in hot weather? Don’t worry, that’s probably not a disease. It’s just how some tomato varieties react to the heat. This type of leaf roll usually starts on lower leaves and works its way up. It doesn’t look great, but it shouldn’t affect fruit development. Watering regularly and mulching the ground beneath your tomatoes can help keep this problem at bay.