For me, the words “neighborhood sweep” bring to mind the busting up of meth labs and prostitute rings, or maybe less dramatically, a big litter cleanup day in which everybody pitches in. But on Friday, we got a letter from the City of Minneapolis Department of Regulatory Services Housing Inspection Services Division advising us that we were being cited in response to a NEIGHBORHOOD SWEEP (yes, all caps) for the “conditions” of the gardens along the sidewalk on one side of our house. Failing to correct the NUISANCE CONDITIONS (perhaps they should be cited for errant use of all caps) could, they advised, result in the city arranging to do the job one way or another at some future date.
What were those nuisance conditions, you ask? Fall flowers, mostly New England asters and a couple of varieties of golden rod, but I admit that a few black-eyed Susan’s and blackberry lilies also ran afoul of the law by encroaching here and there on the public sidewalk. Growing primarily in our boulevard gardens and heavy with seeds, in the case of the lilies, and blooms in the case of the rest of the flowers, the plants were indeed lolling out onto the walkway an inch or two in a few places.
And there was one rogue aster leaning out at an awkward angle at about fourth-grader height. We also have a river birch in our yard and its wispy branches, which we routinely trim, are at least six feet above the sidewalk. The rule, we now know, is seven feet.
Even with all of this mayhem and out-of-control bramble, two people could have handily pushed a couple of shopping carts or strollers side by side down the walk and been brushed only slightly, if at all, by plants. There are no fat shrubs hogging space or heavy, low-hanging tree limbs threatening to bump heads or poke eyes out. So while it is understandable that in a civilized society we need to have rules about things like keeping public sidewalks clear, this citation seemed outside the bounds of reasonableness to me.
Our neighbors can attest to the fact that we spend a lot of time pulling weeds, pruning and trimming plants, and just generally working hard to keep our yard looking good and out of people’s way. We’ve never had anyone complain about problems getting down the sidewalk. Honestly, people walking by often go out of their way to stop and tell us how much they appreciate the peaceful pocket of nature we’ve cultivated in the city.
Families stop to watch the bees, butterflies and dragonflies flitting from plant to plant. We answer all sorts of gardening questions, and have learned a lot from other gardeners too. People as far away as several blocks often stop to tell us that we’ve inspired them to start their own gardens, and many of us share seeds and plants.
It pained us to cut down flowers that bees and birds were actively feeding on last weekend because rules are rules. And I couldn’t help wondering how many other gardeners had been cited and were experiencing the same thing. So I want to ask whoever is listening, what can we do as a city to rethink rules that require a level of obedience from nature that simply isn’t possible while ensuring that our sidewalks remain safe and traversable? For every person whose day is made brighter by urban gardens, and every creature, especially pollinators, that seeks those gardens out for habitat, it’s a question we need to consider.
Every year I promise my husband that I will cut down on the number of tomato plants in our backyard, but I never do it. I can’t. There are so many varieties that I feel I can’t live without: Sun Gold, Black Krim, Green Zebra and Speckled Roman, to name a few. And then friends always foist tomatoes on me that I just can’t refuse because I can’t say no to a plant that needs a home, and I’ve got room, right? Happily, some of those unexpected tomatoes that crowd our back patio often turn out to be amazing, like the Bloody Butcher heirloom tomatoes my friend Naomi gave me this year. (The name alone made them irresistible, and they’re tasty too.)
The trouble is, come September we have prepared all manner of tomato dishes, given tomatoes away to friends and neighbors and our countertops are still loaded with bounty. I’ve tried various methods of preserving tomatoes for later, making sauce—lots of sauce, and freezing. (I’m too lazy to can.) But I wanted to try something new this year and my friend Sarah suggested roasting them. Boy was she right. Roasting is easy, fast and the result seems like something that will be much more enjoyable in the middle of winter when fresh tomatoes are just a memory.
Here’s how you do it. Pre-heat your oven to 275 degrees. Cut tomatoes into halves or quarters, depending on their size. You want something about the size you would use in a salad. Lay the pieces flesh side up on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Don’t crowd them together too much, and make sure the baking sheet has a rim on it or you’ll have tomato juice all over the inside of your oven.
Roast the tomatoes plain or spice them up by adding fresh or dried herbs like basil, oregano, thyme or rosemary. You can also add garlic, chopped or as whole cloves, if you like. Before placing the baking sheet in the oven, drizzle the tomatoes with olive oil and sprinkle them with a bit of salt and pepper. Sarah says the longer you roast them the better, which means a minimum of three hours, but five or more will give you a more complex, caramelized flavor.
What you end up with varies depending on how watery your tomatoes were to start with. Drier varieties look and taste a lot like sundried tomatoes. While those that have more water, most heirlooms fall into this category, will be crinkly and delicious, but softer. Let the tomatoes cool on the tray and then put them in freezer bags in portions you can use when making pizza, soup, pasta, sauces or whatever you like in the winter. If you like to give food as gifts, freeze some of your roasted tomatoes in mason jars of various sizes, or just give the jars filled with tasty goodness away right away.
I love the longer shadows and golden light that come with September. But I can hardly believe that summer is nearly over. It went by so fast, though I did manage to get to a few garden tours.
Here are a few of the photos I took of some of the lovely moments along the way.
Let’s start with paths.
And now for water features, large and small.
Comfy sitting areas.
And things I just like.
It’s nice when something gross turns out to be useful (like how sheep sweat, lanolin, makes chewing gum softer). So I’m happy to report, in answer to a reader’s question some time ago, that, yes, Eurasian watermilfoil harvested from area lakes can be used in helpful ways, including as a soil amendment, fertilizer and even mulch.
First, though, if you’re not sure what Eurasian milfoil is, it’s that stringy, slimy plant that those big, blue boat harvesters remove from the lakes every summer. First detected in Minnesota in Lake Minnetonka in 1987, it is an invasive aquatic species that has spread to waterways across the state. The plant produces thick mats on the surface of the water and tangled stems and masses below, making it difficult, if not impossible, to swim and boat enjoyably. It can also disturb aquatic ecosystems by displacing native aquatic plants.
Acres of watermilfoil are removed from Minneapolis’ Chain of Lakes annually by the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board’s mechanical harvesters. The machines usually cut off the top 3 to 4 feel of the plant, which can grow up to 15-feet long (super spooky to swim through). If you walk the paths around the lakes, you’ve probably seen (and smelled) piles of it onshore or at the boat launch.
Too Much Trash
Rachael Crabb, the Park Board’s water resources supervisor, says that once the milfoil is harvested, it’s dumped in small piles in a designated spot to dry out. Though terribly unwieldy when wet, milfoil is much easier to handle once it shrinks and composts down a bit. Until recently, the Park Board stored drying milfoil at a site at Fort Snelling. This worked well for the forestry division because whenever they needed to add organic matter to a soil mix, they could just take some from the piles.
The only problem, says Crabb, was—trash. In the lakes, all of that tangled milfoil acts like a magnet for all manner of garbage that winds up in the water in one way or another. Trying to separate the trash from the drying piles was time consuming and inefficient. So, last summer, the Park Board started looking at other options and found that the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum was happy to take the milfoil off their hands. “It’s a trek out there, but it’s the best option we have right now,” Crabb explains, adding that the first delivery is scheduled for later this year.
Soil Building and Mulching
As it happens, the arboretum has been using milfoil from the Lake Minnetonka Water Conservation District as a soil amendment for about a decade. “After it dries and turns into a nice compost, we usually use a manure spreader to put it on the research fields in November,” Peter Moe, director of operations and research, told me. In addition to supplying a bit of nitrogen, the milfoil makes a good amendment because the organic matter helps loosen the arboretum’s clay soil, improving its water-holding capacity and fertility.
In addition to being a good source of free organic matter, Moe says milfoil harvested from area lakes is desirable because it doesn’t have any weed seeds in it. “It’s such a valuable material, even if there is some trash to deal with, we would be very happy to have whatever the Park Board delivers,” he explains. “Our soils here in Carver County are very difficult to plant in if you don’t have enough organic matter, especially in the spring.”
It’s not a pretty sight, but Eurasian milfoil can be used as garden mulch (if you don’t mind the fishy smell as it dries). While researching this story, I talked with several gardeners who’ve tried it successfully. But here’s the thing, because it is an invasive species, it’s not a good idea for all of us to go running down to the lake to collect Eurasian milfoil for our gardens. Seeds and fragments could easily end up in waterways and spread the problem. In fact, Crabb pointed out that the interconnected storm sewer network could even transport milfoil to lakes that aren’t yet infested with it.
While it would of course have been best to keep Eurasian milfoil out of our waters, now that it’s here, it has proven to offer a few benefits. Even where there are thick milfoil mats on the surface of the lake, there are areas where native plants with low light requirements can grow intermixed with the milfoil stems below. Eurasian milfoil also helps make lakes clearer by keeping sediment settled out and using up dissolved phosphorous that would otherwise become food for algae.
And although native plant communities are always preferable to an abundance of Eurasian milfoil, thick milfoil growth can provide good habitat for young fish, as well as protection from large predators. “Milfoil has a more difficult time dominating where a diverse community of native aquatic plants is growing,” says Crabb, who, as part of her job, does aquatic plant surveys of Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board lakes. “We found 10 or 15 native species in Lake Calhoun a couple of years ago, so there are still a few areas in the lakes where native plants have been able to thrive, which is really amazing and a good sign that the lake is healthy even though we have Eurasian Milfoil,” she says.
My husband Mike and I were disappointed this spring when a Robin couple suddenly stopped building a nest above our back door and skedaddled for what we presume were more private spaces. Our friends Sher and Sarah were much more fortunate. Under the shelter of their front porch, robins built a nest, settled in and had a big family. Every spare minute, Sher and Sarah watched the robins coming and going with worms and other indiscernible food items that they dropped, and sometimes stuffed, into the four babies’ upturned beaks before hurrying back out for more.
All the jostling and wing flapping and cheeping was mesmerizing to watch, and they sat out on the porch quietly observing as often as they could. Sher is a freelance photographer, so she carefully climbed a ladder to get a shot when she could without disturbing the robin family. I want to share some of Sher’s photos with you because they’re beautiful, and they also offer a glimpse of something most of us never get to see, especially up close.
Here’s a good piece of gardening advice. If someone says that they have a ginormous amount of a certain plant and they want to give you some, RUN AWAY.
With few exceptions, if a plant has taken over that person’s garden, it will take over yours too because it is evil—or invasive—whatever you want to call it. It doesn’t care. In fact, it may employ trickery to try to get you to take it home and plant it.
That’s definitely the case with creeping bellflower (Campanula rapunculoides). Even if you don’t know the name, you’ve probably noticed this horrible-to-the-core plant because it’s tall and showy with pretty purple bell-shaped flowers. It’s also everywhere that it can possibly get a foothold, especially this year because the plant likes moist soil and we’ve had so much rain.
Native to Europe, creeping bellflower was actually introduced to North America as a lovely new ornamental (I’m not sure when) and it quickly became popular with unsuspecting gardeners. In fact, I frequently see this plant on tables at plant sales or potted up and sitting on the sidewalk outside of people’s houses with a “Free” sign on it. (To be fair, it isn’t invasive everywhere like it is here in the Midwest.) The problem is, creeping bellflower has a very strong and extensive root system so it spreads quickly and will easily take over your garden and choke out other plants.
It’s also hard to get rid of. I’m not a big fan of chemicals, and they don’t work very well on bellflower anyway, so I’m going to explain two non-chemical ways to kill this miserable plant. Basically, you can dig it out or smother it. I often do some of both. No matter which way you go, it will take years to eradicate this flower-weed creature. Or, like me, you may just get to the point where it’s at least tamed enough that you can cope with ripping out a few of them each year.Read More»