Yes, it’s me again, nattering on about the cold, cold, horribly cold winter we’re having here in Minnesota—and a lot of other places too, I know. But, honestly, most of you in other states will be warm again far sooner than we will here in the tundra. So I feel entitled to go on about this a bit more and if you don’t agree, please don’t send me another email telling me that if I don’t love it in Minnesota, I should move. Move where? In with you? Awesome!
Anyway, as I was saying, a local meteorologist wrote the other day that Minnesotans are experiencing the coldest winter in 33 years. I didn’t live here then, but I believe him. Minnesotans are tough, but it’s been far below zero with mind-boggling wind chills for a long time now. Kids are bored at home because schools have been closed repeatedly. Parents are using up precious vacation days staying home with bored kids. And bored dogs wish they could go outside, but they can’t stand how cold their paws get, even with those awful booties that they hate.
We are a stir-crazy lot, motivated to do little more than lie on the couch and drink and order takeout while watching movie after movie. Or is that just me? BTW, I would highly recommend Seven Psychopaths and The Heat, but I thought Iron Man 3 was kind of meh even though I loved the first two.
What does this have to do with gardening? you wonder. Well, in an effort to stop spending so much time eating, drinking and watching movies, I recently tried focusing on spring to brighten my mood and, by golly, it worked! In addition to looking at a bunch of the garden-related photos I took last season, I also spent a few hours going through all of the seed and plant catalogs that have piled up on my living room coffee table. That was fun, especially because our sweet dog, Lily, helped by napping on me the whole time.
So if you’re bored and freezing and in need of some good cheer, I’ve posted a few photos below in the hope that they help a bit. And if you haven’t already started looking at your seed and plant catalogs, give it a go. I bet it will make you feel better to start thinking about what you’ll plant in just a few weeks or months, depending on where your live. I especially love Renee’s Garden, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (their catalog is a work of art—just ignore the religious quotes that pop up now and then), Seed Savers Exchange, Fedco Seeds, Prairie Moon Nursery and Territorial Seed Company.
That’s it for now. Hang in there. Spring is really, seriously, surely on the way.
Some of you might remember a post I wrote last year about the ethics of taking seeds from other people’s gardens. Sure, it’s hard to resist pinching a few seeds off of other people’s plants when you see something you just love and figure “they’ve got plenty to share, right?” But is that really okay? Is it stealing? What if they don’t want to share?
Haunted by these questions after reading a blog post about a gardener who got chased and yelled at by an angry homeowner after taking a few seeds that had fallen on the SIDEWALK, I decided to try hard not to take seeds without asking. (I just can’t say never, but mostly never I can do.) Anyway, I also decided to figure out a way to share seeds with other gardeners, and I’m happy to say that the Little Free Seed Bank I dreamed of has been up and running for over a month. Here it is!
This summer, my husband Mike and I installed one of those Little Free Library boxes on our boulevard. If you haven’t heard of these libraries, they’re popping up all over the country and they’re a great way to share books with neighbors. Our library has been busy ever since we put it up with people of all ages stopping by to take a book or leave a book.
While both shelves will normally be for books, we’ve reserved the top shelf of our library for seed sharing during the spring and fall. So far, available seeds include: angelica, black-eyed Susan, anise hyssop, zinnias, cleome, ‘Painted Lady’ heirloom sweet peas (love these), garlic chives and blue delphinium. Individual seed types are packaged in large envelopes and gardeners can put the seeds they would like into small coin envelopes or little plastic bags that were donated by a kind neighbor. Pencils are also on the shelf so people can label the envelopes before they forget what’s inside—I know I would. (Those who take the plastic bags will need to have good memories.)
Lots of gardeners have stopped by to take seeds in the last few weeks. I’m hoping interest in the Little Seed Bank will grow over time and soon we’ll have more seeds to share than we know what to do with. If you live in town and would like to drop off or pick up some seeds, email me (meleah at everydaygardener.com) and I’ll give you directions. The more the merrier!
Most every commercial potting mix contains sphagnum peat moss because it’s a good, lightweight, organic amendment that improves drainage, as well as water retention and air circulation. The downside to peat moss is that it isn’t a sustainable resource. Peat moss is the decomposing remains of living sphagnum moss, and it is harvested at unsustainable rates from bogs in a manner than involves scraping off the top layer of the living moss to get to the saleable product below.
This process destroys centuries-old bogs, doing away with wildlife habitat, releasing C02 into the air, and eliminating wetlands that help prevent flooding. Because of this, conservationists and scientists all over the world have been pushing for limits and even bans on peat moss harvesting.
In Britain, for example, where peat is often burned for fuel, harvesting has become so intense that the government has set goals for phasing out peat for home gardening use by 2020. Professional growers will need to go peat free by 2030. For more information, check out the Royal Horticulture Society’s website: http://www.rhs.org.uk/Gardening/Sustainable-gardening/Peat-and-the-environment/More-about-peat.
Most of the peat used by the horticultural industry in the U.S. comes from Canada where talk of limits and bans is also heating up. So, whether you are concerned about the sustainability of peat of not, now seems like as good a time as any to explore some peat-free potting soil options.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»
Spring is just around the corner, which means ordering seeds and plants tops most gardeners to-do lists at the moment. I grow heirlooms and hybrids, so the pile of catalogs on our coffee table is out of control. Normally, I find ordering seeds a relaxing experience, but this year I’ve been mulling over a couple of issues that have made placing orders more stressful.
The biggest one concerns GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms). There’s been a lot of buzz lately about the need to avoid buying GMO seeds for our gardens, and you’ve probably seen at least some of the various lists going around touting ”safe” seeds. Many people, including me, don’t want to buy seed that has been genetically modified. So I was happy to find out from my friend Jeff Gillman, a hort professor at the University of Minnesota, that GMO seed is not yet available to home gardeners.
Farmers have long been able to buy GMO seed, particularly for corn and soybeans, alfalfa and sugar beets. But, at least for now, that seed isn’t available to the general public so we can’t unwittingly buy them off the shelf or online—unless we pretend to be farmers for some weird reason. So where does the confusion come in? Well, maybe because you can mistakenly buy seeds from Voldemort, I mean Monsanto. And where there is Monsanto, we assume rightly or wrongly, there are GMOs.
How could you mistakenly buy from Monsanto? Well, as you may already know, the company has purchased many independent seed companies in the U.S. and abroad over the years. The biggest coup was in 2005 when Monsanto acquired Seminis, Inc., estimated to control more than 40 percent of the U.S. vegetable seed market and around 20 percent of the world market.Read More»
It’s great to know when a blog post is helpful in some way. So I was happy to hear from lots of you that last week’s tour of summer garden photos helped ease the pain of this long, cold winter. And I so appreciate everyone who wrote to help me identify those purple seed pods I posted. I was walking down an alley not far from my house last year and saw that plant poking up over the fence of someone’s backyard. I took a few photos of those pretty pods, hoping I could figure out what the plant was and, yes, you are all correct. It is Lablab purpureus, commonly known as hyacinth bean, Egyptian bean or Indian bean.
The vine is native to the tropical areas of Africa where the flowers and beans are a food source. (I got varying reports from people about the actual tastiness of these beans, and some readers cautioned against eating the beans raw.) According to several plant history websites, hyacinth bean was introduced into the American nursery trade in the early 19th century after having been a part of European gardens as far back as the early 1700s.Read More»
A few readers have emailed lately asking if I think it’s okay to just take a few seeds from plants in people’s gardens, or if I think they should ask first. It’s a good question, and one every gardener grapples with, I imagine. I admit that I have gathered a few seeds here and there from other people’s gardens. I didn’t go up into their yards or anything. But if a plant I liked was in a boulevard garden, or poking out of a fence or over a wall, I’d take a few seeds if it seemed like there were a lot to go around. I didn’t think much about this, probably because I wouldn’t mind if people took seeds from my gardens, at least not the ones that are accessible from the sidewalk.
But then the issue came up on our Master Gardener listserv, and I got those emails I mentioned from readers, and I realized that a lot of people consider taking seeds from other people’s plants a horrible thing to do. “It’s stealing,” one gardener wrote on our listserv. And many others agreed. Of course I see their point. And even though we stealers only take a few seeds, what if everyone who came along did that? What if the plant was special, maybe an heirloom grown by the gardener’s grandma and each year’s seeds were a precious treasure to be shared with family members?
I’ve thought about all of these things and decided that I won’t ever take seeds without asking again. But this doesn’t change the fact that I would be happy to share seeds from my own gardens, and I’m fine with people taking them without asking as long as you don’t venture into the yard and frighten our scared-of-everything dog, Lily. This whole thing has got me thinking about ways to share. I could put up a sign on the boulevard next season saying “Please feel free to take seeds from the boulevard gardens!” We live on a corner lot, so there are a lot of plants to choose from out there.
But I’m not sure how to let people know they’re welcome to seeds from plants inside the fence, too. We just need to know you’re coming so we can put Lily in the house. If you live around here, and you’re reading this, just email or call and we’ll tell you to come on over. For passersby, though, I obviously need a better system. I’m wondering if there’s a good a way to join up with other gardeners in the area to start a Little Free Seed Bank, modeled after the Little Free Library boxes that are popping up all over the place. If you haven’t seen these, homeowners, businesses, anyone who wants to, really, can give money to the program and get their own birdhouse-like box to stock with books that people can take and read for free. Take a book, leave a book, that’s the idea, and from what I can tell, it’s working beautifully.
Maybe there’s a way to do something like this with seeds, too. I threw this idea out to readers of my Everyday Gardener column in our local paper, The Southwest Journal, and several people emailed to say they’d be interested in working with me on trying to get a seed sharing plan off the ground next year. If you’re a local reader and you’re interested, too, please email and let me know. If you’re not local, but you like the idea and would like to know what we dream up, just email and I’ll keep in touch.
And, if you have a minute, I would also love to know what you think about sharing seeds in general. Would you be happy to share seeds from your garden with others? Would you want people to ask before they took seeds? Do you think it’s stealing to take a few seeds from people’s gardens without asking?
It dipped down to 28°F here in Minnesota the other night, so the day before I scrambled to harvest the last of the Sun Gold tomatoes that we’ve enjoyed all summer. I’m telling you, now that I’ve discovered this tasty, hybrid cherry tomato I will definitely plant one every year. And one is all you need because the indeterminate vine grew to nearly 6 feet tall this summer and produced sweet little orange tomatoes from June through, well, two days ago. And if the frost hadn’t hit, it would have just kept right on going.
As someone who is still learning how to grow many types of vegetables, I know how tricky it can be to figure out the best time to harvest in the fall. I’ve learned that you can’t rely on the stated days to maturity because that number can be affected by things like temperature, precipitation and the health and fertility of your soil. Instead, I’m learning which vegetables can tolerate frosts and freezes, as well as how to read the clues plants offer us at harvest time.
Generally, tender vegetables like tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants, snap beans, summer squash and peppers need to be harvested before a frost, which can occur at temps between 32°F and 36°F. But other vegetables like lettuce, spinach chives, carrots and parsnips can tolerate a light frost. Cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts can tolerate quite a bit of frost, but they should be harvested before a hard freeze—24°F or below. I always associate winter squash and pumpkins with very cold temperatures, so I didn’t realize until recently that those actually need to be harvested before frost arrives because frost can damage their rinds and shorten their storage potential.
I’ve learned that Brussels sprouts actually taste better if you let them experience frost, and this is supposedly true of kale, too, though my own totally unscientific testing suggests otherwise. (It seemed the same.) Broccoli should be harvested while florets are still tight. Carrots can take a frost, and I met a farmer the other night who swears carrots taste better after a light frost. Anybody else think that? And I learned by accident, because I missed it in the garden, that Swiss chard weathers a frost just fine. (Which is kind of too bad because I’m honestly a bit tired of eating chard at this point.)
But getting back to tomatoes, I picked mine green and put them in a big bag to ripen. But had I left them on the vine through the frost, I’ve noticed that some experts say it’s just fine to can frosted tomatoes while others say it is unwise because the frost affects the fruits’ pH level, lowering the acidity needed to make them safe for canning. Who’s right here? I would love to hear your thoughts.
Minnesota is known for extreme weather. We think nothing of a few 90-degree days followed by a 50-degree week, the drastic temperature changes producing everything from thunderstorms and hail to eerie green skies teaming with funnel clouds. “Meh,” we yawn. “We have basements.”
This year, though, things are really weird. After a winter that wasn’t, spring came early and between the already excessive rain, heat and humidity our gardens have gone wild.
Some of you might remember a column I wrote a few weeks ago about how we made a raised bed out of a livestock trough. Well, the tomato in that trough is huge now and the chard, kale and peppers are well on their way too.
I’ve never grown so many edibles in pots and raised beds, so every day when I go outside to check on them I’ll thrilled to find that everybody is still alive, even thriving—this despite the ravenous squirrels, rabbits, chipmunks and racoons that call our yard home. (We even saw a possum scuttle under our neighbor’s porch once.)
Here are a few pictures I took of the garden yesterday that I thought I would share. If you notice I’m doing something that you think could be a problem, please tell me! Like I said, I’ve never tried growing some of these things and I’ve certainly never tried putting so many edibles together in containers to maximize space.
Potatoes are new to the garden this year. I’m growing them in a fabric bag from Gardener’s Supply that I’m product testing. You fill the bag with soil as the potatoes grow. So far so good.
Apparently, Monsanto’s board of directors asked the company’s scientists to check into this whole global warming thing and find out whether it is real. And, if it did turn out to be real, they also wanted to know if global warming could have a harmful effect on crops.
Not surprisingly for those who dwell in the thinking world, the scientists answered “Yes” to both questions. Also not surprisingly, there were no headlines screaming “World is Screwed: Even Monsanto Says So!” There is, however, a good article by David Gustafson, one of the Monsanto scientists, in the June issue of Pest Management Science. I’m betting that it wasn’t widely read, though.Read More»