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.

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:

 

31 Days of Nature Challenge

Audrey over at AudreyWanders.com is instigating a nature challenge for the month of May, and you should sign up!

Here’s the description of the challenge:

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.

May 1 forecast. 😦

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:

Keep me posted—I’d love to hear what you’re up to!

Escape to Silver Mountain

April has flown by, and I can’t believe that it’s been over a month since I last posted. It’s not like anything too out of the ordinary has happened—there was work travel at the beginning of the month, maple sugaring on the weekends, and a lot of time getting our cottage up and running for spring—but I’ve been pulled in more directions than normal the past month and not able to write.

The weather has been yo-yoing between nice and not-so-nice. We’ll occasionally have a beautiful spring day, which will invariably be followed by days of cold, rainy weather.

When I looked at the weather forecast this week, Tuesday was supposed to be the best day of the week and so I planned to meet Sara at Silver Mountain to go for a hike and deliver some gardening goods. The “mountain” (which is only about 250 feel tall) in only about a half hour from my house, so it’s someplace that I seem to go about once a year. Usually I go there  in the fall to see how the colors are shaping up; I don’t know if I’ve ever been there in the spring.

View from near the top.

It was a gorgeous early spring day, with the temperature warm and near 70 degrees. The trail was pretty dry, and we meandered around the top of the mountain catching up on everything that was new since we last talked in the fall. The scenic views aren’t particularly exciting this time of year since the trees are only just starting to bud out. The real action this time of year is in the forest understory, where plants are just starting to pop up and flower.

Trailing arbutus.

As we walked along, Sara told me how Silver Mountain is amazing because its made out of the lava that used to be the center of a volcano. She told me this repeatedly, and each time we’d stop and try to imagine how where we were standing would have been somewhere inside of a volcano. Later on, we hit an area where the rock was smooth and undulating, almost like waves on water. A small sign tacked on a tree said ‘glacial striations’ to point out this phenomenon. I couldn’t help think that Glacial Striations would be a really good band name, and imagined a group of gray-haired individuals strumming guitars and signing upbeat oldies music

A particularly interesting patch of mosses and lichens.

We kept meandering and found a trail that seemed to lead down the mountain on the south side. Neither of us had ever been that way before, so we decided to go that way since it would be a slower route back and give us more time to be outside. We worked our way down the mountain, from rock outcrop through oak and pine and down to the bottom of the mountain, which is northern hardwood forest.

First trout lily flower of the year.

The spring ephemerals are just starting to come out, which is always exciting. These plants are visible for just a little while, popping up around the end of April or early May and only sticking around for a few weeks. I’ve been seeing wild leeks starting to come up since mid-April, but it’s only now that the other plants are starting to show and flower.

Bloodroot.

The trail we were on wound around the south side of the mountain and then curled northward back toward the parking area. It was not far from the parking area that we encountered a stretch of sheer cliffs. I’d heard that there were some cliffs on the mountain, but never seen them. A friend just recently mentioned that the area is becoming more popular for rock climbing, and I could immediately see why after seeing this clean, rock wall.

The east-ish side of Silver Mountain.

I feel a little silly that I’d never seen this part of the mountain before, even though I’ve probably hiked to the summit about 15 times in as many years and these cliff faces are not more than a quarter mile from the parking area. It’s a good reminder to explore places a bit more and not be in such a rush to get to the top. And, also, to revisit familiar places at different times of the year since a different season will make it a different place.

It is Spring, and it is Not Spring

I’m liking paradox lately. I’ve recently finished listening to Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert (amazing! highly recommended!) and she talks about the paradox of creativity in that book—perhaps I’ll talk about that in a future post, but in the meantime you should really just read that book.

I’m sure that having something both be and not be drives some people crazy. Those people probably think in terms of black and white. But I rarely see things as black or white; all ideas, thoughts, actions seem to be in countless shades of gray— if I ever see anything in terms of black or white, it’s really going to be black and white.

Anyway, as I was continuing to think about this transition from winter to spring, it occurred to me that I am living in a paradox:

It is spring. And it is not spring.

It is spring because we have tapped our maple trees and started making syrup. It is spring because the snow is melting and the rivers are open, and because there are geese and swans and cranes in the sky.

But it is not spring because there is still snow, and the sap in our buckets is frozen solid. And it is not spring because we went ice fishing today, and I cannot believe that one can ice fish in any season but winter.

Heading out on the lake.

It was a great day to go out. I haven’t ice fished in almost 10 years. Sexy and I went a few times long ago, but there was always a mishap: a broken heater, forgotten bait, something. So we only went a few times and I don’t think I ever caught anything. In recent years, I help out an our local fishing derby but don’t actually fish. But I’ve been wanting to spend more time outside, and this seemed like a good way to pass the time and a time of year (winter, not winter; spring, not spring) when there isn’t much else to do.

Our neighbor showed us where to go and lent me a shack, and we caught 17 crappies.

My share of the catch.

In trying to decide what season it currently is, it would be most appropriate to say mud season. I was thrilled to learn that there is a Russian word—rasputitsa—that describes when the roads go to hell during muddy spring and fall seasons. But if there were a mud season, I’d still be trying to figure out: Is today winter, or is it mud season? When does mud season officially become spring?

This is why paradox is better: because there are no crisp edges to seasons. It is spring. And it isn’t.