My Gardening Goals for 2018: Fall Edition

It’s fall, and it’s really starting to feel like it. The first signal was when the days became noticeably shorter. Now, temperatures are dropping, and leaves are changing color. Geese are flying high in long Vs, heading south.

After a hectic and scattered summer that kept me away from gardening more than I wanted or expected, I have a lot to do yet this year. Before the snow flies. In two or three months.

Here’s my current list of fall garden projects, which is certainly incomplete:

Task Timing Priority
Removal of invasive barberry using herbicide (need to research too) Oct. Opportunistic
Site visits of a few friend’s gardens (consultations) Sept. Medium
Plant garlic Mid-Sept. Highest
Learn to chainsaw/Help take down trees anytime Opportunistic
Innoculate mushroom logs Sept. Medium
Plan and plant cottage foundation area Sept.-Oct. Medium
Transplant silver maple seedlings to woods Late Sept. Highest
Protect seedlings from deer browse (need to research too) by Nov. High
Soil test in new garden area by Nov. Medium
Get a plastic barrel for winter compost by Dec. High

What’s on your list for this fall?

Join the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge

The Million Pollinator Garden Challenge is a nationwide effort to encouraging people to  preserve and create gardens and landscapes that benefit pollinators like bees, butterflies, birds, and bats. Run by the National Pollinator Garden Network, the challenge encourages gardeners to “bee counted” and maps pollinator gardens across America.

screenshot of a map that shows the locations of many gardens, centered on the United States
Pollinator garden locations for the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge.

According to the website, pollinator gardens should:

  • use plants that provide nectar and pollen sources
  • provide a water source
  • be situated in sunny areas with wind breaks
  • create large “pollinator targets” of native or non-invasive plants
  • establish continuous bloom throughout the growing season
  • eliminate or minimize the impact of pesticides

What does it take to join?

Pollinator gardens are registered through the Pollinator Partnership website.  It takes just a few minutes to enter an email address, garden name and description, and location.

There are other pollinator programs that can be used to certify your garden habitat, such as those for the MonarchWatch’s Certified Monarch Waystations and the National Wildlife Federation’s Certified Wildlife Habitat program.

I registered by prairie garden. I also plan to look into each of these programs in the future, so stay tuned for future posts!

My Gardening Goals for 2018: End of Summer Update

Way back in March, I wrote up my gardening goals for 2018. Now it’s six months later, and I’m long overdue for an update on how the season has shaped up.

1. Grow More of Our Own Food

Even though I put the most time and effort into my vegetable garden compared to my other gardens, there are a lot of years where I feel like I’m not necessarily getting a lot out of it. I weed and weed, and yet I don’t always get a good harvest. This year I decided to double-down and grow more food.

I certainly grew more food this year than ever before. I got off to a good start last fall with a large planting of garlic. My attempts to plant lettuce in February were successful too, and it was awesome to have fresh greens in May. I changed my planting approach this year and used the square foot gardening method where seeds are planted on a grid rather than in rows. This worked out great, and I grew (and froze) a ton of green beans this year. Overall, I upped my game and grew more of these plants this year: garlic, green beans, peas, and kale. I also grew a good amount of onions, potatoes, tomatoes (which actually ripened in August with our warm weather this year!), and parsley.

Garden panorama, August 2018.

I had hoped to do more succession planting of plants like lettuce, spinach, carrots, and beets, but the spring got away on me and I never got my second or third plantings in; next year, I should plant 3-4 times as many carrots and beets all at once, and lettuce whenever I can. My peppers never amounted to anything, and I have no idea why. I ran out of room to grow squash and melons. I did a little bit of mushroom inoculation with some friends, but still have an entire bag of spawn in my fridge.

Early lettuce in May.

2. Improve My Garden Soils

I finally gathered up soil samples for my garden and sent them into a lab. The test results were helpful, but I’ll admit that I haven’t done a lot to work on my soils. I added a bit of wood ash and compost to me vegetable garden while planting, but not a lot more. I would love to have more compost, but I never seem to make as much as I need.

Soil samples!

One thing that is kind of funny is that the reason that my gardening efforts didn’t go as smoothly this year as I would have liked is because I ended up spending the summer at our cottage. My primary vegetable garden was 15 minutes away; this distance meant that I couldn’t weed for 20 minutes in the evening, and the weeds were absolutely out of control this year. The silver lining? When I finally did get around to weeding that overgrown mess, it resulted in a lot of green material. I’m hoping I”ll have a lot more compost next year, thanks to all those weeds!

3. Expand My Perennial Gardens

My prairie garden in situated in front of our septic mound, forming a nice border that helps keep the ugly mound out of view (or at least less obvious). For a bunch of years, I’ve been trying to smother out the grass on a portion of the septic mound figuring that I would eventually convert the grass to… something prairie-like. I thought I was going to have to grow a special mix of plants selected for use on top of septics. But then I was able to ask Neil Diboll of Prairie Nursery my question at a gardening event this spring, and he said that any herbaceous plants are fine—it’s the trees and woody plants that can damage a septic.

The straw-covered area was prepped for expanding my prairie garden.

With that knowledge, I took the seeds that I collected from my prairie garden last fall and spread them over one-third of the septic mound that was bare soil and prepared. I had to weed it twice this summer, but it was relatively easy since the weeds were much taller than the seedlings I was trying to tend. I just had to pull out the tall stuff, and let everything underneath continue to grow. On the other side of the prairie bed, I used cardboard and mulch to smother out a strip of grass. That area is now ready to transplant into.

The prairie garden in summer. Hopefully next year the area on top of the mound will be flowering too.

4. Tend Trees and Shrubs at the Cottage Property

This is a major work in progress. One big item is that we submitted the management plan for our property and it’s now in the American Tree Farm System. I had planned to do more work this year to remove invasive plants, but realized that our barberry problem is much bigger than I thought; rather than hand-pull, I need to research herbicide options.

I gathered up silver maple seedlings this spring and attempted to plant some. That was slightly successful, but I had even better success when a June storm led to a few days of flooding in my onion patch, and a bunch of silver maple germinated as weeds. I’ve allowed some of those seedlings to grow over the summer and will try to transplant them this fall. I took some cuttings of other plants, but did not get the plants to root before they gathered mold (who knew that was possible?). I fenced our five apple trees to prevent further deer damage. I transplanted three grape plants from my vegetable garden to the property, but the deer found them before I could get some fencing up. I also tucked some free conifer seedlings into a few places, but need to protect them from deer before winter.

As I said 6 months ago, there’s a ton to do and I’m just figuring out where to start.

These tires were the start of my mini-tree nursery. I’m hoping that they’ll work like big, temporary pots.

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. This spring, I worked with a new staff member at the Keweenaw Land Trust, and we got the garden planted. Another big garden project for me was helping to organize a Native Plants Symposium that was held in mid-March. It was a huge success, with nearly 70 people in attendance and a bunch of great speakers. I had a lot of fun and hope we do it again next year.

6. Teach Others How to Garden

It took me a long time (really much longer than it should have) to realize that I love to talk to other people about gardening. In particular, I love getting other people excited about gardening, and I decided that I wanted to spend more time helping others to garden. I created an online course, A Beginner’s Guide to Gardening in Cold Climates, to cover some basic material. And I launched a six-week garden challenge in the spring.

Setting up a new flower bed at the cottage.

Unfortunately, a lot of my efforts in this arena stalled for the summer. Right in the midst of the online challenge, my computer died (making key files inaccessible for over month) and we relocated to our cottage, which did not have internet access at the time. As you can imagine, the abrupt loss of computer and internet access really stymied any work I was doing related to online courses, challenges, and blogging—and partially explains my lack of posting for much of the summer.

But, as I get resettled into a new routine (and get to know my new computer), I am getting excited to get back into writing and teaching about gardening. I already have a few posts up my sleeve, so be sure to check back in to hear about my gardening goals for this fall.

How was your garden this summer? I’d love to hear about it!

Join the Ultimate Veggie Gardener Challenge!

The weather has finally warmed up and we’ve catapulted from blustery cold and a blizzard a to warm (almost hot!)and sunny during the past week. The snow is melting quickly, and it will only be a few more days before my garden will be visible for the first time in months.

I’m excited for gardening, especially since I set so many gardening-related goals that I want to make progress on. I’ve been having fun encouraging others to garden through the online course and in other ways, and I want to keep that going. So I’m setting up an online challenge to help people (like you, dear reader!) get started on their veggie gardens this spring.

About the Ultimate Gardening Challenge

So what is this thing? This challenge will help you through the steps of setting up and planting your vegetable garden. It consists of two parts:

  • Weekly emails coaching you though the basics of site assessment, garden planning, planting, soil improvement, and more.
  • Access to a Facebook group to ask questions and share your successes with others in the challenge.

Sign up now! The challenge starts on April 30 and runs through June 10. You’ll receive an email every week describing that week’s theme and activities for starting your garden off right.

Who should take the challenge?

The challenge is open to designed to get new gardeners started on their way to vegetable success. It’s designed with beginning gardeners in mind, although more experienced gardeners are welcome to participate. The challenge program is designed for those living in relatively cold climates where experienced gardeners tend to plant tomatoes at the end of May or early June (see blue areas on the map).

Map of Average Last Spring Freeze Dates (via NOAA)

It’s Easy

All you need is an interest in gardening and access to a bit of soil and a trowel. Some additional tools will be handy, but you do not need any special equipment, gardening experience, or a large garden to be join the challenge. Container, patio, and small gardens are also welcome!

Okay, yeah, so this feels kinda like a big commercial, but I hope you’ll consider signing up—it’s free and will be a whole lot of fun. 🙂

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!