Spring is almost, kind of, possibly (but don’t get your hopes up yet) in the air here in Minnesota. So let’s buck up and talk about gardening!
First, if you’re a local gardener and you’ve ever wanted to try straw bale gardening—or find out what you’re doing wrong while straw bale gardening—head over to the State Fair grounds on Saturday, April 26, for Straw Bale Garden Education Day.
Joel Karsten, author of Straw Bale Gardens: The Breakthrough Method for Growing Vegetables Anywhere, Earlier and with No Weeding, will be teaching seminars and selling and signing books at this free event that runs from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the north parking lot off Snelling Avenue. (Check out this blog post I wrote last year about Joel to find out more about him and straw bale gardening.)
If you’ve got room in your car, Otten Bros. Garden Center will be on site for Straw Bale Education day selling everything you need to start your own straw bale garden this season, including straw bales. Free coffee and cookies will be available as long as they last.
Want to win a free copy of Joel’s book? Great! I’ve got two to give away this week. To win, just comment on this post with a few sentences about why you’d like to try straw bale gardening or, if you’ve already tried it, how things went for you. Winners will be randomly chosen since I can’t think of a better way to do that sort of thing, and I’ll be in touch to your addresses.
Macy’s Flower Show
Every year, just when Minnesotans need it most, Macy’s Flower Show opens and thousands of us stumble in, blinking in disbelief after having seen nothing but white for so long, eager for the chance to gaze at plants and smell fragrant blooms and dirt again. This year’s show ended last Sunday, April 6, and if you missed it, make a note in your calendar right now so you’re sure to see it next March.
Yes, the show does take place in the department store’s 8th-floor auditorium. But if you’re inclined to diss this event because it’s in a store, I’m here to tell you that they start in January and transform that auditorium into something truly magical every year. This year’s theme was The Secret Garden and, as always, Bachman’s designed the show’s many displays, which featured flowers, plants and trees from around the world—many of them hardy in Minnesota.Read More»
People have been talking about straw bale gardening for years and, I admit, I haven’t really paid much attention. It’s not that I wasn’t curious about the idea. It just wasn’t on the top of my list of things to try until recently when I got the opportunity to talk with Joel Karsten about his new book Straw Bale Gardens: The Breakthrough Method for Growing Vegetables Anywhere, Earlier and with No Weeding.
Karsten isn’t just another gardener talking about straw bale gardening. He invented straw bale gardening. That’s right; he came up with the idea for a growing technique that has now become an international sensation. And it all started when he was a kid growing up on a farm right here in Minnesota.
Farmers, he told me, have no need for piles of wet, unruly straw. So when a bale would break open for one reason or another and get rained on, his family would push it up against the barn to break down over time. “I always noticed that those stacked up, broken bales would have the biggest, tallest weeds growing out of them, so I knew there was nutrition in there,” Karsten recalls, adding that he didn’t think much more about it until 15 years later.
By then, he had earned a bachelor’s degree in horticulture from the University of Minnesota, and he and his wife Patty had just bought a house in Roseville. After looking forward to gardening at their new home, they were disappointed when they realized that their whole lot consisted of little more than construction debris in which nothing was going to grow well. Then, Karsten remembered those straw bales. “And I thought, what if I just line those bales up and try growing vegetables in them as they decompose?” he recalls.Read More»
I read a lot of gardening books, and though most have something to offer, many just cover the same old ground in one way or another. So I was happy to find a copy of Michele Owens’ book, Grow the Good Life: Why a Vegetable Garden Will Make You Happy, Wealthy, and Wise, at the library recently. It was a rainy, cold weekend and I’d heard good things about the book, so I planned on curling up on the couch with it, and a couple of others I picked out. As it turned out, those other books just lay there unopened on the coffee table because I couldn’t put Owens’ book down until I finished it.
If you’re not familiar with Michele Owens’ garden writing for Organic Gardening and other magazines, you can get a good understanding of who she is and what she believes in by checking out her blog posts on Garden Rant, which she founded a few years back with a handful of similarly smart, funny and straight-talking garden writers. As a former political speech writer and author of several best-selling business books, Owens is keenly aware of the need to do her research before writing and throughout the book she cites the work of many horticulturists, ecologists, microbiologists and others. But all these facts do not a snoozy tome make because she is adept at interweaving studies, facts and figures with her own passionate commentary as an experienced gardener who loves plants, nature and growing vegetables.
Because she’s married to a journalist who covers climate change, Owens gets a dinnertime update on just how much stress our warming world is putting on agriculture all over the world. This understanding, coupled with a love of good, healthy food, drives her to motivate people, everyone, not just gardeners, to grow at least some food in their own backyards. Sure, that will help relieve some pressure on the world’s food supply, she writes. But growing things to eat is also just a joyful, uplifting thing to do; just ask anyone who has ever grown even one tomato plant in a pot on a balcony or back patio. There really is nothing like being able to walk outside and pick something you’ve grown yourself and pop it in your mouth, or serve it up for dinner.Read More»
There’s a lot to love about the Minnesota State Fair, but the contests have always been on my Top-10 list. Across the fairgrounds, everything from pies and jellies to seed art and orchids compete for praise and ribbons. Standing in front of the brightly lit cases and displays, it’s not always clear why one chocolate chip cookie beat out another, or why the dahlia on the left is superior to the one on the right when both were displayed singly in empty Michelob bottles.
But when you get to the Horticulture Building and enter the vegetable room, things become much more straightforward . Sure, there is still some head scratching to do over the difference between, say, the award-winning red potatoes and the losers. But it is immediately clear how the winner of the “Largest Scalloped Squash” contest nabbed that title.
And the same is true of the “Largest Banana Squash” and the seemingly vast yet strangely uncrowded category of “Largest Squash (other than banana or scalloped).” The rules are simple: You are the biggest; you win. Giant pumpkins don’t have it so easy. In the world of pumpkins of unusual size, weight is what matters, and the biggest pumpkin isn’t necessarily the heaviest.
I know this because I just finished reading Susan Warren’s Backyard Giants: The Passionate, Heartbreaking, and Glorious Quest to Grow the Biggest Pumpkin Ever. If the subtitle sounds hyperbolic, let me assure you, it isn’t. Warren, who is a deputy bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal, spent a season with a handful of the many enthusiastic and, okay, obsessive people who grow giant pumpkins all over the world.
Dick and Ron Wallace, a father and son team who have been growing giant pumpkins in Rhode Island for years, are the main duo we get to know. But there are other endearing growers at the center of this book, and Warren followed them all as they endured bugs, heat, rain, lightning, rot, ulcers, varmints, foaming stump slime, financial pain, jealousy, heartbreak and more in hopes of growing the world’s heaviest pumpkin in 2006.
It sounds weird, I know, but the ups and downs of the growing season were so suspenseful, I honestly couldn’t wait to get to the end of the book and find out who wins. Now all I need to do is check to see if there are any giant pumpkin weigh-offs going on around here yet this season. If I’ve missed them, I am definitely going to get to one next year. The results of the 2012 Giant Pumpkin Commonwealth weigh-offs are still coming in. But you can check them here if you’re interested. In 2011, Jim and Kelsey Bryson of Ontario won the world record with a pumpkin that weighed in at 1,818.5 pounds. Check out of photo of them and their otherworldly pumpkin here.
Peaceful people, I’m telling you what: By the time you get to the point in “Turn Here Sweet Corn” where Atina Diffley is fighting to defend her Eagan, Minnesota, farm against Koch Industries’ attempts to run a crude-oil pipeline through it, you’re going to want to get yourself a pitchfork and help her and her husband Martin stand their ground.
Published by the University of Minnesota Press earlier this year, Diffley’s memoir is often billed as a David vs. Goliath tale, an inside look at organic farming and a love story combined. That’s an apt description, but readers will likely gravitate to the thread that draws them in. What kept me turning pages was the love. Love between Atina and Martin, love of growing healthy food organically, love of the land and other loves more difficult to define.
“Turn Here Sweet Corn” may have been the words Diffley read on a roadside sign when first visiting Martin’s Gardens of Eagan farm. But those words could just as easily be read as a term of endearment coined by a farmer for his/her love. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Diffley thinks that too as this is no ordinary memoir, and it’s no farming primer either. Warm and lyrical, Diffley’s writing is enviably good by any standard.Read More»
Years ago, when I was a news reporter at a weekly paper, an editor yelled in my face that I wasn’t fit to be a journalist because I was too easily “spun.” It wasn’t the first time this guy had wigged out at my inability to see the world in the same black and white way that he did. But it was the last. Maybe I am easily spun. I didn’t deny it. I prefer to think, that I can usually tell the difference between someone who is selling something and someone who is offering their informed opinion—whether I agree with them or not.
Sure, it does mess with a well-defined story idea when research and sources don’t take you in the direction you thought you were going to go. But that happens sometimes. In fact it happened with this story I’m posting here, which is a longer version of a recent article I wrote for Norther Gardener magazine about using weeds as soil indicators.
I have read and heard for years that weeds can be good soil indicators, and gardeners who understand what their weeds are saying can remedy soil problems accordingly. “Read your weeds,” people often say. I never paid the idea much mind. But last summer, after hearing that advice for what felt like the zillionth time, I decided to look into it.Read More»