Gardener Profile: Getting to Know Me and My Garden

I was on a Facebook page for a gardening group, and someone initiated one of those “get to know you” types of posts. This doesn’t answer every question, but it does provide you with a good introduction to me and my garden.

Nick Name?
Mrs. GreenJeans

What does your nick name stand for?
I’m not entirely sure, but years ago a neighbor (he’s quite the character) started calling me that because I was always working in my little garden plot.

Age?
Thirtysomething

Where do you live or used to live?
In the woods. In the western Upper Peninsula (UP) of Michigan, for the past 15 years or so. I grew up in Wisconsin, about 5 hours south of where I live now.

Zone?
The plant hardiness zone is about 4b/5a here because our winter minimum temperatures are moderated by Lake Superior. However, our growing season is short and more like areas that are 3b/4a.

20160405_172255.jpg
My garden in early spring.

Do you work or where did you work before?
My background is in forestry, and my professional work is related to compiling and communicating scientific information related to forests. It’s really awesome.

Other hobbies besides gardening?
The bigger ones are: biking, triathlons, playing outside, writing.

How long have you been gardening?
When I was about 15, I was inspired by my summer job at a farm market and dug up a patch of sod in my parent’s yard to make a garden. I can’t remember if I stuck with long enough to plant anything, but I certainly didn’t grow anything. I started gardening for real when I was 22, and I’ve been gardening at our current home for the past 10 seasons.

Where is your garden located and what is its size?
I have a bunch of gardens, and a lot of plants. We have about 3 acres in the country, and I have a few different garden areas:

  • My vegetable garden (about 30 ft x 40 ft), which is where I spend most my energy.
  • Perennial fruits are near there. There are grapes growing on the north fence of the vegetable garden, and blueberries planted on the other side
  • A wildflower garden containing prairie plants that are native to the area in Wisconsin where I grew up.
  • Foundation plantings around the house, consisting almost entirely of plants I got for free.
  • The woods, which we use for making maple syrup and which I’d like to garden.

We also have another property with a small vegetable garden for things that take up space and don’t need much tending (e.g., potatoes) and a bunch of woods and wetlands.

Courses in Horticulture?
I took plant taxonomy and some other classes in college and got a minor in plant science. In 2017, I completed the Master Gardener coursework.

What are your specialties in gardening?
I’m really good at moving the same soil around to different places because I change my mind on how I want things arranged. I bet that some of my raised beds have moved 3-4 times. Also, I don’t have a rototiller, so I do all my soil prep and weeding with hand tools and elbow grease.

DSCN0515
Grapes!

Favorite Flower?
Monarda (bergamot, bee balm). I love the smell.

Favorite Tree/Shrub?
Elm. I love the shape and all the textures.

What has been the best-performing plant/plants in your gardens?
Probably potatoes. Because I’m not that skilled of a gardener, but I’m good at moving soil around.

Most challenging plant?
I can never grow cabbages or cruciferous veggies (except kale) in my garden. Something eats them.

Favorite gardening quote?
Maybe that proverb “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”

Favorite gardening magazines?
Not right now, but I’m taking suggestions.

Favorite garden website?
Not in particular. I feel like I’m always searching Google for something really weird.

Do you belong to any garden societies or clubs?
Not yet.

Do you have a gardening webpage?
Right here!

Favorite garden books?
I was gifted a copy of The Vegetable Gardeners Bible when first started gardening, and it’s always been a great reference. For native plants, the catalog from Prairie Nursery contains as much information as a book and is fun to look at.

Favorite tool(s)?
A digging fork and a stirrup hoe. Add in a shovel, a five-gallon bucket, and a good pair of gloves and I could do just about anything.

wpid-20150711_094253.jpg
I could seriously write a love letter to my stirrup hoe.

What has been your best garden purchased or project?
I buy vegetable starts for things like tomatoes and peppers. I suppose it’s more fashionable to save your seeds and grow your own, but I have no interest in growing plants indoors. Buying starter plants saves me time, and I think is cost-effective since I’m not buying supplies or running grow lights.

Any projects in the works or planned?
Where do I start? Let’s save that for a future post…

If you had an unlimited budget, what would you do with your garden?
I’d make all of our property into a giant food forest.

If you could invent a plant, what would it look like?
A tree that grew chocolate, year-round, in my backyard.

Describe an experience with a garden pest that had you ready to throw in the trowel?
Anytime I tried to grow cabbages, ever.

What advice do you have for the novice gardener?
Follow your curiosity. Just do what’s fun. Nobody was ever born with a green thumb.

What is your motivation for gardening?
I garden for so many reasons that it’s hard to say. Perhaps it’s that gardening does so many things at once. If I’m gardening, I’m spending time outside and relieving stress and moving my body and learning stuff and growing healthy food and making habitats for critters and making the world happier.

Garden Experiment 2: Wine Cap Mushroom Cultivation

Perhaps buoyed by the unexpected success of my previous garden experiment, I’ve started another. This time, I’m trying to cultivate the wine cap (aka Stropharia) mushrooms in my garden. The wine caps are about the simplest of any to grow, which seems like a good fit for me since I’ve only had mixed success with growing shitakes in the past.

There are a handful of sites providing instructions on how to grow wine caps (links provided below), all of which were so short that I felt they were leaving out important information. But they weren’t leaving information out—it’s just that simple. I got my spawn from Field and Forest Products, a company out of northern Wisconsin.

Mushroom spawn, via the internet and mail.

The mushroom grows well in part sun to light shade, so I picked an area in prairie garden underneath a red maple tree. This area is full sun this time of year (i.e., before the leaves come out) but then is lightly shaded during the summer. Possibly because of the shade, few plants seem to creep into this area and it stays pretty clean with only mulch and minimal weeding. It’s also not far out the back door of our house, which makes it a good place to grow edibles.

Clean garden area on the edge of our yard.

I raked up the mulch, moving it just slightly to try to smother out some grass on our septic lawn. (I try to kill the lawn whenever I can.) Then I covered the area with about 1 inch of straw. Based on the instructions, it would have been better if I would have used hardwood sawdust or fine wood chips for the base, or if I would have soaked the straw for a few days first. But between spending time at the cottage and work travel, my time to work on this is limited and I decided to go for it anyway just using dry straw.

Spreading straw, a base layer about 1-inch deep.

Since I didn’t pre-soak my straw, I gave it a good spray with the hose to get some moisture close to the soil. I crumbled up the sawdust spawn and spread that over the straw, and then covered that with the remaining straw so that it was a few inches deep. Then I set up a sprinkler and gave the whole area a good long soak.

New mushroom bed, ready to go.

I kept the sprinkler in place so that I can water the area again if we don’t get rain for a while. But otherwise, I just have to wait and see what happens. Stay tuned!

Instructions

Here are instructions on “planting” wine cap spawn from:

Garden Experiment 1 Update: Raised Bed Hoop House

We had a big thaw back in February, and I put all my cabin fever energy into build a raised garden bed that was, conveniently, taller than the piles of snow around it.

I planted it, watered it, and rolled the plastic up like a snug burrito. When things warmed up in early April, I opened it up and was excited to see that the seeds had germinated. I watered everything and wrapped it back up.

Spinach seedlings, early April

A few weeks later I opened things up and there were more plants, but they were still tiny. I figured everything was stunted by the alternating temperatures if winter cold and daytime high, made worse by my negligence in watering. I wrapped everything up again, and figured it would be a loss.

Raised bed, largely neglected.

I planted onions a week ago and needed to waster them because it’s been a warm, sunny, dry, wonderful week. After that, I figured I open up the bed and see what had happened. I expected dry soil and stunted plants. But instead it was lovely:

Raised bed, almost 3 months after planting

Things were exactly as I’d originally hoped, and better than I ever would have actually expected for starting a garden in February.

This experiment was a success!

I cut some greens, watered everything, and wrapped that burrito back up again.

Gardening Experiment 1: Raised Bed Gardening (in February!)

Okay, I couldn’t help it. We had a week of unseasonably warm weather in mid-February. The sap started running on February 17th (no tapping yet, though). The snow melted back severely and we didn’t even know if we would be able to snowshoe to the cottage without trudging through 18 inches of “mashed potatoes.”

So what else could I possibly do besides garden?!?!

I’ve been reading a lot of permaculture plans lately, and have been interested in the idea of zones. Basically, you orient your yard/homestead/property into a series of zones based on the intensity of use. Zone 0 is your residence and zone 1 is the area nearest your residence that’s very accessible and perfect for veggie gardens, animal pens, and anything you need to tend to frequently. The zones continue outward until zone 5 which is called “wilderness” where nature can do its thing.

This is such a simple idea that it seems obvious. Of course one should have their gardens right next to the house—it’s so convenient to have veggies out your front door! But my garden is unfortunately in the wrong location; it’s on the other side of the garage in what is probably zone 2, which has the best light but is not the most convenient.

Our 2.75-acre yard, by zones.
Our 2.75-acre yard, by zones.

I decided that I wanted a veggie garden closer to the house—at least for a few things that we eat all of the time. I spent a ton of time working on the gardens around the house last summer, so I’m not willing to tear those up yet. The soils there are pretty crummy, anyway. And most importantly, it’s (despite the sunshine and 50º temps) still February and there’s still all that snow on the ground

The clear solution was to build a raised bed close to the house. I built a raised bed using a pattern that I designed a few years ago. The placement is genius—we put the raised bed inside of an existing (but under-developed) garden right outside our back door. The raised beds hovers over the stupid covers for our septic tank, which was a weird spot in our yard anyway. Very sneaky!

20170220_113220.jpg
The mounds of leaves are the covers for our septic tank.

Then, I designed a hoop house to go over the raised bed. It took a few tries to figure out how to do it, but this seems pretty stable.

PVC frame for a hoophouse.
PVC frame for a hoophouse.

I filled it with two big bales of potting mix (all of our soil and compost is buried), which is pretty fancy. I planted cold-hardy greens—lettuce, spinach, mizuna, and arugula— on February 22. Then we put a 4-mil plastic cover over it.

The finished product, before it started snowing again.
The finished product, before it started snowing again.

And now we wait and hope that things grow, despite the snow.

(Want to know what happened? Check it out here!)

Planning Next Year’s Veggie Garden: 5 Questions for You to Consider

It’s never too early to start planning next summer’s garden! Although it will still be several months before the snow melts and ground is ready to plant, I already have a stack of seed catalogs begging for my attention.

I’m working on a talk about vegetable garden planning that I’ll give at the library next week. As part of that, I identified five questions that I hope will help you hone in on what you need to do to have a successful vegetable garden this year.

1. What worked well (or didn’t work at all) last year?

It’s always helpful to start next year’s garden planning by thinking about last year’s garden. It’s usually easy to remember the highlights from last year, and notes recording the seeds sown, crops grown, and other details are usually easy to dig up. (A note about notes: writing things down is tremendously valuable; start doing it now if you don’t already do so!)  I usually think through each of the different plants and think about what worked and what didn’t work so well. For example:

  • Did I grow the right amount of that plant?
  • Do I want to grow the same amount (or more or less) next year?
  • Were the plants productive and healthy?
  • If not, what problems need to be addressed next year?

For example, last summer I grew about 20 tomato plants that I purchased as transplants from two local greenhouses. It was the right amount of plants overall, except that I want more cherry tomato plants because they produce well in our short season. Production was poor last year, especially given the good growing conditions that we had. Both greenhouses had issues with their plants last year (aphids at one place; nutrient deficiencies at another); I’ll still purchase plants from these greenhouses next year but will be more observant. The poor growth also indicated that I need to put more time into improving my soils, which I started last year by planting some cover crops. That’s tomatoes, and I go through the same thinking for every plant in my garden.

Seed catalogs!
Seed catalogs!

2. Is there anything new you want to try this year?

Winter is a great time to get ideas for new things to try out. Many gardeners love the time that they spend flipping through their seed catalogs, particularly on cold and snowy days when the activity provides an opportunity to mentally get away from dreary weather. Consider whether you want to try new varieties for any of the principal crops that you grow (like purple carrots or a faster-growing pea) as well as altogether new plants to try (short-season melons, anyone?). Also consider whether you want to try any new methods for season extension, pest control, or soil improvement. This is the time of year to brainstorm and research.

3. What do you really eat?

Vegetable gardening is about growing food, and this question relates to the one above in asking whether you are growing an amount of vegetables that is in line with your consumption. There may be some things that you plant that you don’t like or can’t keep up with. Zucchini is a classic example, as one or a few zucchini plants will often produce more than a household could ever use. I’ve heard people joke of locking their car doors in summer so that someone won’t be able to send them home with an extra zucchini. When I worked at a farm market in high school, we gave out zucchini brownie recipes to entice people to buy them. (Note: If you’ve ever looking to sell zucchini, that strategy totally works!) So, unless you’re eating zucchini noodles every night in the summer, you can probably get by with just one or two plants.

Too many zucchini! (via Oregon State Dept. of Horticulture)
Too many zucchini! (via Oregon State Dept. of Horticulture)

Instead, plan to plant more of what you really eat. This past year was the first time I planted onions from starter plants. I planted about 100 plants across one and a half beds (an area about 3 feet by 12 feet). They grew well, and I had fresh onions until November or December. Next year I want to grow at least as many—perhaps even more—and want to include some red onions in the mix as well.

4. Are there any issues you need to address before you can plant?

As you are figuring out what plants you want to grow next summer (and ogling those sexy seed catalogs!), you’ll also want to consider what work you may need to do before you can plant. If you haven’t tested your soils recently, it would be wise to do that in early spring well ahead of planting time. Doing so would provide important information for determining whether soils need nutrient or organic matter additions ahead of the growing season. Improvements may be needed to the physical garden structures, such as erecting a fence to keep deer out, building or repairing raised garden beds, or setting up an irrigation system. Any methods that are used to extend the growing season, such as high tunnels or cold frames, may create additional work that needs to happen before you can plant.

5. How much time and effort do you realistically have?

Winter garden planning involves a lot of daydreams and big ideas (which is why it is so fun!), but it can be all too easy to create unrealistic expectations of what you can realistically accomplish. Just as you thought about what worked well (or not) with your plant production last year, consider how well you were you able to find time to tend your garden. Are there times of the year that your garden creates stress because you can’t find time to stay on top of it? And if so, which set of tasks (e.g., planting, weeding, harvesting, or putting food up) is the most overwhelming? Depending on your situation, you may be able to identify a problem that you can fix to make things less chaotic, such as figuring out a better watering system so that you don’t have to spend all your time dragging hoses around. Or, if you find that you’re not able to keep up during many parts of the season, it may be a sign that you’ve bitten off more than you can chew and may need to downsize.

Hopefully these questions will get you off to a good start. Happy garden planning!

2016 Gardens in Review, Part 2

When I was thinking about the past garden year, I was mainly thinking about my vegetable garden. Who knew that I would have so much to say about perennials? But I did have a lot to say, enough to make have an entire post on my perennial gardens. Now, I’ll focus on my vegetable garden.

This year I took the the Master Gardener class and went to a season extension workshop at the North Farm, both of which really motivated me to spend more time gardening this year. It also motivated me to spend more time planning, which I didn’t anticipate but I do appreciate because it allowed me to use my garden space much better than I ever have before. I’ve always been one to push the boundaries of our short growing season by planting lettuce as soon as the snow melts, but I now have a better foundation for understanding how to really get more out of my garden.

My new view on gardening is this: there is not a single garden season. Rather, being a gardener is perhaps like being a professional athlete. Really!—hear me out on this. There is not a single garden season that lasts from May to September, with the rest of the year being dormant for both garden and gardener. Nope, the gardener’s season is like that of the professional athlete. There is a pre-season intended for getting ready; it involves new gear, sore muscles, and even a few pre-season games in the form of early-season greens. The regular season is what always comes to mind: the weekly routine of planting, weeding, and watering where the big stars like tomatoes and peppers get all the press. During the post-season, you reap what you sowed earlier the year; if you didn’t perform well in the earlier seasons, its too late now. And while people don’t talk about the off-season, it’s a critical time for taking some time to relax and recover while also building the foundation for the next year. Continue reading “2016 Gardens in Review, Part 2”

2016 Gardens in Review, Part 1

Last week I was feeling pretty unmotivated in the evenings and watched a lot more TV than normal. The weather was generally okay, in that cool, damp, mid-fall kind of way. Part of me wanted to go outside, but a bigger part of me was lazy and couldn’t think of anything to do outside, so I stayed in.

Upon reflection, I realized what the problem was: the gardening season is practically over. I didn’t know what to do with myself since cool weather, short nights, and dying plants were making it difficult to garden in the evenings. And that was bumming me out.

The garden season isn’t quite over yet. Amazingly enough, we still haven’t had our real first frost—last year it came late around October 18 and this year it will be even later. Plus, there are still a handful of chores that I can focus on before the snow flies: weeding grasses, fixing the garden door, amending soils, and maybe experimenting with planting seeds in winter. I still have a friend’s tiller that I borrowed earlier this year (in April!) and haven’t returned, so there’s also the opportunity to create more garden spaces too.

A bee enjoying comfrey.
A bee enjoying comfrey.

Perennial Fruits

One of my garden goals for 2016 was to establish more perennial fruits—raspberries, blueberries, and strawberries—and so I spent a lot of time working on this early in the season. Continue reading “2016 Gardens in Review, Part 1”

A Three-Day Weekend Full of Outside Time

I had a three-day weekend with lots of outside time, but I didn’t take any pictures. Doh!

After work on Thursday, I did a short outdoor workout. Then, because it was gorgeous outside in the evening and rain was in the forecast for Friday, I spent an hour in the garden. I enjoy gardening in the evening, and need to remember to do more of it next year so that I keep my weekends free. I wrapped up my gardening before dusk, quickly packed my things, and went out to the property to sleep outside on Thursday night.

It rained Friday morning, so I spent the morning inside puttering around the house and cleaning. When it cleared up in the afternoon, I went outside to continue working in the garden. My garden wasn’t so great this year (more on that in an upcoming post), so I’ve been pulling up plants as soon as their productivity wanes Continue reading “A Three-Day Weekend Full of Outside Time”