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.
Well gardener friends, at this dark time when we are up to our eyeballs in bad news about pretty much everything and politicians are compounding our worries by behaving like raised-by-wolves toddlers, let me offer a spot of sunshine. In case you haven’t heard, two positive things have happened for the planet—or at least our local slice of it—in recent weeks.
Good thing number 1: At long last, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture has confirmed that neonicotinoids, a commonly used group of pesticides, are highly toxic to honeybees—even when they are used in accordance with the law. How is this good news? You ask. Well, despite mounting evidence, the suggestion that neonics are likely one of many things contributing to the decline of honeybees remains heatedly disputed.
Now, investigators from the state Department of Agriculture have found that in fact the hives of two beekeepers were decimated by toxic dust that drifted from the cornfield of a neighbor. The seeds the neighbor planted had been coated with clothianidin, a neonicotinoid that is routinely used to coat agriculturally grown corn and soybeans in the United States. The insecticide protects the seeds from insects in the soil. It also protects the plants themselves because all parts contain the toxin, making the whole corn or soybean plant poisonous.
According to a Star Tribune story on March 20, Bayer CropScience, the maker of neonic pesticides, has acknowledged that toxic drift from cornfields planted with treated seeds can be harmful to bees and other pollinators. However, they say the problem is rare. Beekeepers and bee researchers beg to differ, countering that drift is a common and ongoing issue.
Both beekeepers will be compensated for the loss of their hives under a 2014 law that enables beekeepers to collect damages even though, technically, no law was broken because seed treating is not currently considered a pesticide application. What? Anyway, yes there is much to be done on this issue, but the Department of Agriculture’s action makes Minnesota the first state to declare, as a finding of fact, that neonics are harmful to bees.
Fellow gardeners, the seeds available to us are not coated with neonics, but we can continue to do out part to help bees and the Earth by saying NO to plants that are sprayed and/or soil-drenched with the neonicotinoid pesticides. Ask before you buy. Together we can make a change.
Good Thing Number 2
On March 16, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (MPRB) voted to stop using glyphosate (the active ingredient in the weed killer, Roundup) in neighborhood parks. Activists have been calling on the park board to ban chemical use in Minneapolis parks for several months. (See the Southwest Journal story I wrote on the issue in October for more information.) Little progress has been made so far. But during a park board meeting on the 16th, more than 40 people showed up to voice their opposition to the use of pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals in public parks. Many others called and emailed.
This public outpouring of concern about the health effects of glyphosate and other chemicals, in addition to a recent update board members received on when and where staff use chemicals, seems to have sparked the move to stop using Roundup. But eliminating the use of one chemical in neighborhood parks is a long way from the shift to chemical-free, organic park management that activists would like to see.
In the absence of glyphosate, which has been increasingly linked to health and environmental problems, the board is free to continue using many other pesticides and herbicides that could potentially cause harm. The vote also allows them to continue using Roundup in regional parks at Lake Calhoun and Minnehaha Falls, as well as on ball fields and golf courses.
Based on what has been said about the issue, only commissioner Brad Bourn is openly in favor of moving to an organic approach to managing Minneapolis parks. Commissioner John Erwin strongly supports reducing the use of chemicals. The rest of the board—all of them elected by the public—don’t seem to see chemical-free parks in our future. Do you? If so, now is the time to email the commissioners, particularly Scott Vreeland, who has repeatedly said this is an issue that only activists care about. From what I hear from neighbors and readers who frequent our parks with their children and dogs, I am certain he is mistaken.
Hello dear readers. It’s been quite a while since I’ve posted a blog. Life gets too busy sometimes and you have to let go of at least a few things or you’ll go batty. (At least that’s how I work.) Now that the load has lightened up a bit, I’m back and I’ll try to post much more regularly going forward—at least during the growing season.
First off, happy spring! If you live nearby I want to let you know that the Little Free Seed Library is up and running again at my house, so please come on over and leave some seeds to share with others. Or take some home for yourself. This season, I’m happy to say that we have a few more items to share thanks to Do It Green! Minnesota.
The Minneapolis-based non-profit has long been committed to sustainability and promoting healthy communities, and with support from the Gannett Foundation they started up their own Do It Green! Seed, which provides free native and organic seeds to Twin Cities residents. They also distribute educational information about seed saving and other topics, and when they heard about my seed library, they kindly gave me a variety of seeds to share with you. They also gave me many copies of two handouts: One explains how to choose quality seeds and save seeds, and the other covers the different types of milkweeds home gardeners can plant to help monarch butterflies.
Both handouts will be in the library as long as supplies last. Or, you can print your own copy of Do It Green!’s Seed Saving handout by clicking on a link you’ll find on their website. Their site also offers a link to a very nice seed label that you can print and use on your own envelopes when saving seeds at home. Those of you who visit the library at my house will see that label on the seed packets donated by Do It Green!, which include swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) and organic China rose radish, garlic chives and cilantro.Read More»
I love gardening, but once September comes, I admit I’m ready to start packing things up and settling in for winter when I can get back to other things I enjoy like reading. That being the case, I tend to get an early start on doing things like tossing spent annuals and vegetables in the compost bin. While I’m doing that, I try to give away plants I’ve got too many of or don’t like anymore—I finally gave away that dreadful Vanilla Strawberry hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata ‘Renhy’) I’ve been complaining about forever. Honestly, it’s a gorgeous plant in many ways, but the huge flower heads spend most of their time hanging down like the noggins of pouting children. Not. For. Me.
The other thing I do, which I’m sure looks kind of strange, is talk to my plants. Yes, it’s true that scientific studies have produced mixed results on whether talking to and/or playing music for plants has beneficial effects. But I don’t care. I enjoy crawling around on my hands and knees talking with my garden. ‘You don’t look very happy here, so how about we move you over there,” I’ll say to perennials that clearly aren’t blooming well because they need more sun now that the honey locust has gotten taller. Or, ‘I’m sorry, but I simply can’t let every single goatsbeard seedling grow up into a giant 4-foot-tall shrub, so you’ve just got to go.’ Neighbors joke: “Talking to yourself again?” I laugh, ha, ha, ha, knowing that no, I’m doing something so much weirder. I’m talking to (or maybe with) my plants.
I wouldn’t try to explain this to non-plant people, but I figure you wouldn’t be reading this blog if you didn’t love plants. So you probably understand what I mean when I say that I think of my gardens as a living creature, maybe even a friend in some ways. That being the case, when my husband, Mike, kindly offers to help with fall cleanup by using the hedge trimmer to more efficiently cut back plants, I cringe. “The hedge trimmer!” I can almost hear the plants scream. Still, I let him have at it on a couple of areas full of hostas. And then I just can’t bear it, so I go on working with my hand pruner, cutting to the ground leafy things while leaving perennials with seeds for the birds like black-eyed Susan, grey-headed coneflower, globe thistle, Joe Pye weed and golden rod.
As I move slowly from bed to bed in the fall, I take the time to do things like pull weeds along with stray maple and oak seedlings, dig up and toss out plants that are diseased and take note of sparse or overgrown spots. Like you probably do, I have a plant wish list and I’m always looking for an opportunity to squeeze something new in somewhere. Topping the list right now is Persicaria, not the variety with white flowers that you may think of as knotweed. I’d like to get ‘Firetail’, which is commonly known as mountain fleece. Hardy to our frigid Zone 4, ‘Firetail’ has pretty pink/red blooms that last from June to October. Plants are bushy, loved by butterflies, and grow 3 to 4 feet wide and tall in full sun to part shade. But I digress.
Let’s get back to plant whispering. Even if you don’t believe that talking to plants is helpful to them, it probably will be to you. Kneeling in the dirt, thanking plants for their brilliant fall leaves and interesting seedpods while apologizing for my role in their powdery mildew problem and other troubles, I feel calm and happy. Hours go by and it seems like only minutes. And all of the list making, teeth grinding, rush, rush, rush of life slips away as I enjoy the breeze, the sun on my face and watching the butterflies and bees taking the last sips of the season. Everyone should be so lucky to have a love they can get lost in.
Come on over gardener friends! It’s time once again to start sharing seeds at the Little Free Seed Library at my house. As many of you know from all my going on about it, the top shelf of our Little Free Library morphs into a place to share seeds every spring and fall. The library is located on the boulevard on the corner of 45th Street and Washburn Ave. S. in Linden Hills. (For more information and photos, check out this blog post from a couple of years ago.
I’ve already started putting seeds in there from my garden, but it would be great if many of you could bring some seeds too. If you do, please bring them in envelopes or baggies labeled with the name of the plant—one type of seed per container. If you would like to, and have the time, the label (or a piece of paper taped to the envelope or baggie) could include helpful tips like whether the seeds should be direct sown in fall or spring or started indoors before planting. That stuff isn’t necessary, though, if you just want to bring seeds, great!
When I started the Little Free Seed Library, I envisioned having all sorts of information inside about individual seeds and things like saving, starting and storing seeds. Three years on, I haven’t done that yet. I’m having trouble coming up with a way to make that stuff shareable without killing a zillion trees making handouts. I’m thinking about doing some laminated pages that people could look at without taking them. But if your brains are like mine, what you read probably won’t stick long.
Maybe people with smartphones could take pictures of the pages to read later? And yet, I hate to make things reliant on having a phone in your hand all the time. It’s not like I hate technology or anything, quite the opposite. But it makes me sad for the world to see so many people walking around this beautiful, amazing planet with their eyes glued to a stupid phone screen when they could be checking out a cool plant or bird, or maybe even talking with the real-live humans walking right beside them.
But I digress. Maybe laminated sheets are the way to go. If you have better ideas, I’d be grateful to hear them so please email me at my blog. If you come to get seeds and find some you’d like, there are small envelopes inside the box to put them in. You’ll also find pencils so you can label what you’re taking home. As I write this, the library so far includes these seeds: Royalty Purple Pod heirloom bush beans, Pot of Gold chard, Straight Eight heirloom cucumbers, blackberry lily, tropical milkweed (an annual milkweed), red swamp milkweed, black-eyed Susan, Queen Anne’s lace, hyacinth bean, white cleome, purple cleome, gray-headed coneflower and anise hyssop. There will be much more coming soon, and I leave seeds out for sharing until later in November when the whole library gets turned over to books once again.Read More»