My Gardening Goals for 2018

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.

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My new, second garden at the cottage. This one is for veggies that don’t need much tending.

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.

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More work needed.

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.

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The compass plants in my garden are going bonkers, and it looks amazing!

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.

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I want to take cuttings from the viburnum bushes at my house and grow more for the cottage property.

Specific things I need to do:

  • Complete the management plan for our property and get it submitted to the American Tree Farm System.
  • 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.

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Before pic: The foundation gardens have been neglected and need a big makeover. We’re halfway there…

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.

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I made this online course for beginning gardeners. Check it out and/or tell your newbie gardener friends. 
  • 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!

Early Spring: Wild Leeks (and Recipe Roundup)

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.

Oodles of leeks in the woods.

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.

Digging leeks with a fork.

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.

Seeds on a leek plant.

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.

Here are a few others on my to-make list:

 

Clouds are for Everyone

Although it’s still winter, there are signs that spring is on its way. A week of unseasonably warm weather made me start a gardening project in February and we’ll be making maple syrup before too long. Like most years, I slipped into a bit of a funk starting sometime in November, which lasted into January. I think I fought it less this year, allowing myself to be lazy, to hibernate, and to explore winter in new ways—very slowly, and generally on snowshoes. By late January, I felt my energy start to go back up.

Light is a tremendous part of this. I definitely get a little bit S.A.D. in the winter with the short days. By late January, the days are lengthening so that there is some daylight left after work—enough that it’s easier to go snowshoeing or skiing, and a headlamp is optional rather than required.

But I think that the change in light conditions has as much to do with clouds as a longer day length. The clouds are much different now than during the darkest days of winter. Rather than the constant, overcast gray clouds that bring the lake-effect snow, there are more white, patchy, billowy clouds that let the sunshine be visible during the day.

I just finished reading The Cloudspotter’s Guide by Gavin Pretor-Pinney, founder of the the Cloud Appreciation Society. It’s a great book, and I definitely recommend you check it out, as it described the major types of clouds and conditions under which they form.

One time I was in southern Illinois in the spring and participating a competition to identify trees. I had no idea what one was and so I just wrote down “the tree with pretty pink flowers.” Of course, that was not the correct answer,  and all of the foresters from southern states giggled that us northerners were so clueless to not know such an obvious tree (it was a redbud, and I’ve never forgotten it since). That pretty much sums us my relationship with clouds: I’ve known that there is a difference between the fluffy white clouds and the thick gray ones and the patchy pretty ones that look really nice at sunset—but I could never tell you what they were called (stratus? nimbus? the ones that look like animals… Der…).

But now I know the different clouds… or at least I am learning them, and have a better appreciation for them.

I went to the cottage over the week to continue my tree-cutting project. It was about 20ºF and cloudy, with a bit of lake-effect snow falling. There was a strong wind from, oddly, the southwest that was blowing right in my face as I was cutting trees. It was not the most pleasant day to be out, but I was already at the property and figured I should cut at least one or two trees down. I cut most of the smaller trees already and upgraded to a larger saw for the remaining big trees, so each tree takes longer.

I was cutting down one tree, about 14 inches in diameter. While sawing, I was thinking about how boring it was to saw this tree, about how sluggish I felt, and about how my arms got tired after a few minutes. I stopped to take a break, and looked up to see the sunlight start to peek through the clouds.

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Of course, pictures never look as nice as in real life.

I’ve been thinking that lake-effect snow clouds, our most common winter clouds that can cover the sky for days and days, are probably status clouds—the low-lying, formless clouds that are essentially a layer of thick fog only a few thousand feet in the sky. It was nice that the sun was visible at all, a sign that the strong winds were breaking up the cloud layer. I watched the wind move the clouds around a while, the patch of sunlight moving accordingly, and then when back to sawing. When I was ready to leave, the clouds had opened more to allow more beams of sunlight through.

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This is an exciting amount of sun in the winter sky.

The sky continued to open, and by the time I trudged back to my car, there were even patches of blue sky. The wind and warmer temperatures had changed the clouds. I’m still learning, but I think these new clouds were probably stratocumulus—large, billowly rolls of clouds that are half-way between the thick, shapeless stratus clouds and the cotton balls of white fluff that are cumulus clouds.

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Meh. Another blurry photo… Sorry about that!

During the past few years I’ve really been trying to spend more time appreciating nature (which is really where this blog comes from), and I think one of the biggest changes that I’ve made is that I’m routinely paying more attention to the sky whenever I’m outside, even at night. I spent a lot of time last fall looking at the sky and enjoying the clouds in general, and that was nice. Now I’m looking forward to looking at the clouds with a bit more knowledge, and expecting that I’ll appreciate them even more.

What do your clouds look like?

First Snowshoe of Winter

The first “real” snow only came 10 days ago, but winter is already here in full force. Cold, blizzardy weather closed the local schools for 3 days and had everyone talking about the whiteout conditions. The season’s snowfall total is already more than 50 inches and technically it’s not even winter yet.

On Sunday afternoon, we got out our snowshoes and went to the cottage. It was extremely sunny out and very cold with the temperature hovering a degree or two above zero (in Fahrenheit). I wore tights and insulated pants, a few tops including a wool sweater and my winter coat, hat, a scarf to cover my face, and mittens over gloves—which was perfect for the conditions. I also wore my new boots, which seem to be plenty warm in the cold weather even though they aren’t insulated.

We parked the truck at the end of the plowed section of the road and walked in to the cottage and then continued on to the lake, a distance of about a mile. The snowshoeing itself was easy going on top of about a foot of dense, settled snow, and our traditional wood snowshoes sunk only an inch or two with each step. On the way back, we walked along the edge of the lake where a few inches of snow covered solid ice.

Winter is quiet. We saw very little sign of animals, just a few tracks. In the forest, deer are migrating to winter ground. Along the lake edge, muskrats have left some tracks on the top of their huts while other tracks suggest that a curious coyote is also in the neighborhood. I was disappointed that there wasn’t much too look at; it was not surprising to see only a few deer tracks when I went skiing in the woods behind our house on Saturday, but I was expected to see more action by the lake.

Regardless, it was great to get outside and see the place at a different time of year. I hope to get out before Christmas and continue my work with my ax and saw.

 

Ax and Saw: A Project for Fall and Winter

There are two quirks of my personality that have a habit of sabotaging me this time of year. One is my natural tendency to want to hibernate as the days get colder and darker, and I’ve written in the past about how I struggle in the fall to keep up my positive attitude and maintain healthy habits. The second is that I always want to be doing something productive. It’s hard for me to convince myself to go outside to take a leisurely walk on cloudy cool days because it doesn’t feel productive; I might, it feels like, as well stay inside and get something done around the house. For these reasons, I don’t go outside as much as I would like to in the fall, which also means that I don’t get much exercise either.

So this year, I conspired against myself. There is a row of box elder at the property, running along a tall bank on the edge of the old river channel. The trees are short and mangy, which is pretty much the standard with box elder. As we think about the work we want to do on the land, we see opportunity to plant different trees in this place.

Row of box elder along the old river channel.
Row of box elder along the old river channel.

I decided that my project for this fall and winter would be to take down this row of trees so that we can plant something else (probably oaks) there in the spring. Also, I decided that I would do as much of the work as possible using hand tools. Hopefully, I thought, having something productive to do during the cold months would be a convincing way to sidestep my tendency to cocoon this time of year. A few weeks ago I bought a small double-bit ax (which turned out to be more like a large hatchet) and small bow saw with an extra blade made for green wood. Then this weekend was the time to test it all out.

Overall, it was a good start to the project. I cut down a half dozen or so box elder trees. Some were only a few inches in diameter and it only took a few seconds to saw them down. It was interesting to see that box elder trees have pink wood at the boundary between the heartwood and the sapwood. This is a known trait of the species, but I just learned it while watching the saw kick out pink shavings as it cut through fresh wood.

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Small box elder stump.

I knocked down several smaller box elders and dragged the tops into the woods, piling it up to make homes for little critters and decomposing organisms (aka rabbitat). I also cut down some tag alders along the shore that seemed likely to compete with the future seedlings for light. Some of the tag alder I dropped directly into the old river channell, presuming that beavers will appreciate them once the water is fully iced over. Others I temporarily placed in a pile along the shore—in a week I’ll come back and see if beavers have taken advantage of the easy food source (and saved me some work of dragging the brush elsewhere).

The last tree that I decided to knock down that day was also the largest. It was about 8-10 inches around, and it took me a half hour of work to get it down. I alternated between using the ax to make a notch in the direction I wanted the tree to fall, and sawing on the opposite side. Much of the time I would saw while kneeling on the ground, making in easy to take small breaks, look around, and enjoy the day. After it dropped, I sawed off the smaller branches of the crown and carried them into the woods, leaving the large bole on the ground to deal with later. While picking up the last of the sticks, I heard a funny sound across the old channel and stopped to look and figure out what it was.

It was an otter. I quickly grabbed my tools and hurried the dogs to the cottage, and then came back with binoculars. Hiding behind the newly-fallen tree, I watched the otter feed in the old river, which was skimmed in a thin layer of soft ice. The otter would swim in the breaks between the ice, dive down, and resurface in another opening.

Watching an otter from behind a felled tree.
Watching an otter from behind a felled tree.

When I decided that I was going to cut down the trees by hand, some of my friends laughed at me a little and asked why I wouldn’t use a chainsaw. While I was dragging tree limbs into the woods, I could imagine my husband pointing out that we have a tractor that could make the job easier. I knew it would be hard, and I wasn’t sure if I would be able to do it. But in just a few hours, I removed about a quarter of the trees without too  much difficulty. It was exactly what I wanted: an excuse to go outside and work, so that I could really play.