I got an email from the president of a club I was previously active in.
I haven’t seen you at our meetings for a while. Just wondered if there’s anything I can help with, or if you plan to return.
Hope to hear from you soon!
It was such a nice email. I was happy that they were reaching out (to me! Theylike me!) and I also thought it was also a very smart thing for them to do for the health of their organization.
The truth was, I did think about returning. I still paid my dues. I had the regular meetings on my calendar and every other week when I got the meeting reminders, I would consider whether it was a good time to return to meetings. But the meeting times didn’t work well for my schedule, and so I wouldn’t go. My plan had been to pay my dues for another 6 months and see if my interest returned.
Then the email came. I started to reply that I’d been busy, but hoped that I’d return someday to see everyone. I had the email mostly composed when it the thought occurred to me: I could just quit now. Why am I waiting?
Rip Off that Band-Aid
True confession: I love books in the “self improvement” category. My recreational reading often entails books on personal growth, behavioral psychology, or productivity. It’s just how I’m wired.
But even if you don’t like that type of book, I’d probably still recommend Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less to you. Should you read this book? Well, has anyone ever asked you how you’re doing, and your reply involved some variant of “busy”? If so, then yes.
The premise of the book is “less, but better.” Focus on fewer things, those that are essential for your happiness and well being. The author, Greg McKeown, recommends ruthlessly eliminating everything that is not essential. If something is not an absolute, jump-up-and-down, exuberant YES!, it is a very firm No. One a scale of 1 to 10, he says you should only do things that are a 10.
But what if you’re not that ruthless?
I’m not. I struggle with making decisions, and can’t imagine feeling the certainty of an absolute yes about anything. So that’s why I like this version:
Go ahead and rate how you feel about the activity or action on a scale of 1 to 10—but you can’t use the number 7. All of a sudden, everything below a 7 drops away as being lackluster and everything that remains rises to the surface as being important. It’s the 7s—the things that sound a little interesting, a little fun—that will suck all of your time away if you don’t stop them.
I had been letting the club linger in my inbox and on my calendar, even though it was not even a 7. Once I realized this, I deleted the email I’d been writing and started a new one, one that said this wasn’t a priority* for me now and that it was time to quit.
It probably wasn’t the answer that she wanted, and it even caught me by surprise. But the decision was an immediate relief. The feeling was like when you clean out a cabinet and you feel so good that you want to clean out the entire room. I couldn’t help but wonder: What else can I quit doing?
I haven’t quit anything else—yet—but I could probably benefit from doing less but better. What about you?
*In Essentialism, Greg McKeown also points out the the word “priority” originally referred to the single thing that was most important of all. It had this meaning for hundreds of years, and it was only in the 1900s that the plural version came into being.
Not convinced enough to read the Essentialism book yet? Check out this podcast with the author that hits a lot of the main points.
There may be 2 feet of snow on the ground, but the 2018 gardening season is here! I finally ordered my seeds this week and I also planted my raised bed hoop house with greens and am hoping for an early harvest of greens like I was able to get last year. This is an exciting time of year, and I have so many ideas in mind for this coming gardening season. Writing down my major goals for this year will help me stay focused!
1. Grow More of Our Own Food
I didn’t do my annual garden review last year, but 2017 turned out to be a good garden year even though the entire summer was extremely cool and wet. One major breakthrough was that I started a second garden (approximately 20×30 feet) at our cottage; I grew potatoes and squash in this new space, which freed up my fenced-in vegetable garden for the plants that need more tending or regular picking—the lettuce, green beans, tomatoes, and everything else.
This year, I want to grow a lot more of our own food. I don’t typically put a lot of food up in the summer or fall, but I feel like my gardening and eating habits are becoming more aligned (i.e., I’m finally eating my vegetables!!) that it’s seems realistic that I will be able to grow more of what we will actually eat.
Specific things I need to do:
Increase the amount of garlic (I planted a ridiculous amount last fall), onions, and potatoes that I plant, as well as try planting some leeks and squash. These will all go in the cottage garden (which will probably need to be expanded) where they won’t need a lot of tending.
Focus the primary home garden space on the things that we eat most and on some things that can be frozen. I anticipate allocating more room to beans, kale, carrots, and beets.
Use the square foot gardening method to better allocate space in my garden and to plant seeds more efficiently. Also plan for succession planting.
The vegetable garden fence will need some major repairs…
Purchase floating row cover fabric and get more hoops for season extension. Also consider whether it would be helpful to build a very small greenhouse.
Coordinate with a friend to “borrow” some space in their root cellar.
Do the research and then implement a fertilization schedule on the fruit trees and shrubs.
Inoculate logs with mushroom spawn so that I can grow my own mushrooms.
2. Improve My Garden Soils
A friend told be recently that her biggest question at a newbie gardener was learning about her garden soils. “All the books say it’s so important,” she said. It’s so true—a garden is only as good as its soil.
And yet, I’ve been the biggest slacker when it comes to improving the soils in my garden. It’s been holding be back for a few years, and I really have a lot of work to start addressing all the issues that I have with my soils: the acidity and lack of organic matter and everything else.
Specific things I need to do:
Get a soil test. I even have a soil sample from my vegetable garden in a container in my basement—I just need to mail it in. I need to do a soil test on my cottage garden bed and on the perennial beds too.
Start adding amendments early. I’m sure more lime will be needed to raise the pH, and I might need to add nutrients. It would have been good to do this last fall, so I’ll have to add amendments early in the season so that they can start to be worked in before planting.
Up my compost game. My non-food compost pile needs to be moved to a better location so that I can be turned more regularly with the tractor. And I need to add a lot more to it too, which might mean growing more of some plants (like comfrey) that produce a lot of material that can be composted.
Get a plastic barrel for a compost tumbler. This will be especially handy for collecting compost next winter.
Continue to play around with green manures and cover crops, particularly this fall.
3. Expand My Perennial Gardens
This is lower priority that my vegetable gardening, but there are a few places where I would like to expand my perennial beds and strategically kill my lawn in areas that are harder to mow. I am hoping to expand my prairie garden to get rid of a small strip of grass and to cover the septic mound. I also want to expand the foundation plantings on the east side a bit to make mowing a bit easier, but I’m not willing to devote much time or energy to that.
Specific things I need to do:
Look up which prairie plants that are okay to plant on septic mounds, and then determine which I can get from my own garden (transplants or seeds) and what I might need to buy.
Do more research on sheet composting (lasagna gardening), and then use that method to smother grass in the areas where I want to expand my garden. Ideally, I’d do this early in the garden season, so that the areas are ready to plant in late summer or fall when I might have more time.
Consider whether I should be growing more herbs in the front garden bed so that they are convenient, and if so, determine which perennials should me moved to the new areas.
4. Tend Trees and Shrubs at the Cottage Property
There’s so much I want to do at the cottage, and I think this year will mostly be determining where to start. We want to remove some existing trees (before emerald ash borer does it for us) and plant a wider variety of tree and shrub species that will diversify the forest and enhance habitat for wildlife.
Cut and poison the stumps of the box elder trees that I cut down last winter, and prepare the area for planting the oak trees we have in mind. Then get the trees, plant them, and protect them from hungry deer and beavers.
Do research on how to propagate shrubs using rooted cuttings. Gather wood at the right time from shrubs like elderberry, ninebark, and red-osier dogwood and start experimenting. Plant bundles of willow at the Point and protect them (last year the beavers stole the cuttings I planted!).
Determine where trees need to be thinned and make lots of firewood.
Make a wish list of plants that I want on the property (e.g., elderberry, silver maple, basswood) and go on scouting trips to find places where I can gather seeds or cuttings of those plants. Look for silver maple seedlings along sand bars on the river.
Continue work to remove invasive honeysuckle and barberry.
Improve fencing in the orchard. This probably involves making a large number of tree cages that can be moved around the property as needed over time.
Identify the mystery plant I found last fall!
5. Create Demonstration Gardens for My Master Gardener Project
Last year I worked with a few friends to start rehabilitating some neglected garden beds at the Marsin Nature Retreat as part of our work for the Extension Master Gardener volunteer program. We made good progress, hosting 3 workshops and getting a large garden ready for planting. The work this year will be to plant this garden area and then decide which derelict beds are next.
Specific things I need to do:
Work with my gardening co-conspirators and others to create a wish list of our desired plants for the area. Then host a “plant drive” to get donations for what we want.
Plant the area that’s been prepared with the plants that we receive and establish nursery beds to hold extra plants that can be propagated for future use.
6. Teach Others How to Garden
Do you ever have it happen where you don’t realize something about yourself? For years I knew that I liked gardening, and it seemed pretty normal because lots of people I know have gardens and grow a bit of food. It has only been in the past year or two that I realized that I love gardening, and that I spend way more time on it than most people. This became most apparent to me when I realized that I love talking to people about gardening, and that I often find myself answering gardening questions for my friends.
One of my friends bought a house last year and she wants to have her first garden this year—she knows almost nothing about gardening and is truly starting from scratch. And I have a handful other friends who are looking for advice on how to improve their veggies gardens this summer. And, for me, it’s all really exciting.
To start answering all these questions, I made an online course, A Beginner’s Guide to Gardening in Cold Climates, using the awesome online education platform Udemy. The course is designed to help people with no experience (and living in places that have a true winter season) create their first gardens. I posted the course as soon as I had the minimum materials, but there are a lot of improvements that could be made.
Continue improving the course by adding new material and making the existing lectures better. And publicize it too.
Do a few garden visits this year to help my friends get their gardens going. I think I can be especially helpful with soil testing and helping people figure out what soil amendments they need since I did that in the demonstration garden last year and will be doing it in my gardens this fall.
Post more information on this website, or on other gardening sites, to address common questions and stumbling blocks.
Wow! That’s a lot of things to do! I’m pretty confident that I’ll be able to do most of it, even though it is a major list. And I’m excited for all of it. Happy gardening!
Foraging is something I’ve said that I want to do more of this year. I keep waiting and waiting, but it’s still early spring. Even a week ago we had enough snow to cover the ground.
The forest is just starting to wake up for spring. And, in this case, waking up seems to be more like the prolonged lingering one does on a weekend morning when you really don’t want to get out of bed. The earth is sleeping in, and won’t wake up and get going until it has to.
This makes me extra grateful for leeks (aka ramps, aka Allium tricoccum). The leeks started to emerge a few weeks ago, just after the silver maple began to bud out and the geese started to come back. Now the leeks have grown to their full height and are found in large patches in the woods near our property.
I’ve been going out to collect leeks in the woods. I don’t collect the ones nearest to us; instead, I make sure to go a little farther into the woods and find areas where they are especially dense.
Often I’ll just use a scissors to cut of the green leaves, removing a handful here and there to thin out the patches. I figure that this only temporarily sets back the plants and doesn’t disturb the soil. Most the time the leaves are enough anyway, adding just a bit of onion-garlic taste to a dish.
One day I went out with a digging fork to dig up entire plants, and I suspect that I’ll do this more in later spring as the leaves start to decline and the bulbs grow. The digging fork is preferable to a shovel, as it helps lift and break apart the soil so that it is easier to grab individual plants without breaking them. Just like when I cut the tops off, I only disturb a small number of plants in any one place. I dig up a forkful on one location and then move several feet away to a new place to minimize disturbance on the site.
There are still seeds on many of the leek plants left over from last year. I’ve been gathering some of these and placing them in the hole as I replace the disturbed soil. If the seeds are still viable, hopefully they’ll grow new plants for next year. When I cut the roots off of the plants to cook them, I dig a hole in the right type of soil and bury them close to the cottage, hoping some of those might manage to grow into new plants as well. And perhaps I’ll gather some seeds and plant those as well.
Cooking with Leeks
I’m still gathering and playing with recipes for leeks, but here are a few that have caught my eye and my imagination:
Wild & Wonderful Ramp Chowder (via Health Starts in the Kitchen) — I made this simple chowder for dinner and it worked really well. Not being one to ever follow a recipe as written, I only used about half the cream and cheese that the recipe called for and instead cooked about a quarter of a cauliflower and creamed it with an immersion blender to get the thick, creamy consistency.
Ramp Pesto (via Hunter Angler Gardener Cook) — To be honest, I didn’t follow this recipe too closely at all, and I borrowed a lot of ideas from this simpler one that omits the fancy cheese and uses sunflower seeds in place of pine nuts. In this case, the recipe mash-up was important because the first one described the importance of blanching the leek leaves in order to keep the pesto from turning that yucky brown color. The result from the recipe mash-up was amazing.
31 Days of Nature is a challenge to spend every day of May 2017 outdoors. All you have to do is spend at least 30 minutes outdoors each day. In order to make the 30 minutes count, you have to get your hands or feet on the earth in some way, shape, or form.
I’m going to play along, even though I’m a little nervous about being able to pull it off. I’m especially nervous about May 1, given the forecast for 40 degrees, rain, and strong wind.
I’m good at getting outside when the weather is nice and when my schedule allows, but I still wimp out a lot more than I’d like to when it’s not as easy to go out. This should be a good opportunity to see when and where I run into resistance and experiment with getting over it.
I hope you’ll do the challenge too!
Here are a few ideas for what to do this May to spend time outside:
I have a lot of questions. Many of these are of the existential what-does-it-all-mean variety that I suspect I’ll never have answers to.
But, for the purposes of this blog, I generally have two big questions that I’m trying to learn more about:
1) What are the ways that nature can enhance our health and happiness?
I think we generally have intuitive sense that nature is good for us, that it’s good to get fresh air, to go for a walk, to get a way from it all. As I dig more deeply into this subject, it’s amazing to learn just how good spending time in nature is for people and for entire communities. In many ways, it’s the perfect antidote to our many of our modern problems, including stress, busyness, and disconnection. Time with nature can reduce anxiety, improve creativity, and boost immunity to diseases like cancer. It can lead to longer lifespans and provide inspiration and a sense of belonging.
2) What are some practical ways to spend more time with nature?
With all of those benefits, it seems clear that many of us could benefit from spending more time with nature. But how to we realistically do that when we feel busy and overstretched? Where do we find time in the day to go outside when the rest of the world is increasingly inside? I struggle with this as much as anybody—even living rurally and being a moderately outdoorsy person, I still have plenty of days where I don’t spend any time outside or connected to nature. This is why I’m interested in finding ways to experience ordinary, everyday nature as I am in planning big, wild adventures.
That’s where my mind is these days, so I hope that you’ll come back and learn more with me!
Admission: I avoided snowshoeing for the longest time. It always seemed so slow and boring compared to cross country skiing. My thinking was: Why plod when you can race?!?! But I changed my tune this winter and have been snowshoeing a lot, to visit the cottage, to find chaga, to gather water (more on that in a future post).
I contributed a post to the Hike Like a Woman site that went live today (and we still have snow here!). It’s called “Winter is for Snowshoeing,” and you should read it and check out the posts by other Hike Like a Woman contributors and ambassadors. Read it now!
Across many of the podcasts, websites, and books that I enjoy, there is a seemingly constant focus on finding that one thing that captivates your attention, sucks you in, and takes you along for the ride.
Call it your passion, your purpose, or your calling—call it whatever you want—once you find and unleash it, you’ll know exactly what to do with the rest of your life.
Perhaps this sounds ridiculous on the surface, but then so many people—including folks like Steve Jobs—talk about it so, well, passionately that it’s hard to dismiss the idea. And so I got sucked in and spent a long time wondering: What’s my passion? What’s that one lovely, magical idea that makes my soul sing and that I’ll pursue to the end of the earth?
I spent a few years looking. I didn’t find it, and that was dissatisfying. There just doesn’t seem to be one big, all-encompassing thing that I love more than anything else.
The author Elizabeth Gilbert knows her passion—to write—but after years of telling people to follow their passion, she realized that there were people like me that just didn’t get it. And so she came up with a great analogy that describes this divide.
There are people who know their passion, the one thing that really captivates them. These are the people that can focus day in and day out on that one single thing, diving deeper and deeper. There’s one thing they want to do and they love it. These people just hit that one thing over and over. She calls these people jackhammers because of this singular focus, but I’d rather call these people woodpeckers.
Why? Because she also points out that there is another type of person, whom she calls hummingbirds. Rather than keep hammering (or pecking) away at one single thing, these people have a much broader set of interests. They float over the landscape sampling a variety of ideas and cross-pollinating the various things that they find.
(Some people are using the term multipotentialite for this roaming set of interests. But while I agree with the idea, I can’t quite get behind the term. I’d rather be a hummingbird.)
Now, instead of telling people to find their passion, she tells them to follow their curiosity. I like that idea a lot better! I can’t embed the video, but you really should check it out here.
What about you? Are you a woodpecker or a hummingbird?
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 nowif 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.
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.
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!