Archive for March, 2008

img_1513.jpgI have been feeling pretty glum the past few days, what with winter seeming to drag on in a gray and unpleasant way. So, today I resolved to perk up with a long walk. The temps were flirting with 50, and the wind had died down at last. While the signs of winter’s continued presence are visible in the form of ice on the ponds behind our house and patches of snow dotting the Northfield Golf Club, spring is showing itself as well. I noticed several trees with big buds on them, and the birds were chattering away. After dinner, I discovered this very encouraging sign of spring: bulb foliage! I’ve been looking for bulb leaves the past few days, and here they are at last. This variegated-leafed bulb is a tulip called ‘Red Riding Hood’.


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img_1294.jpgMalcolm Burleigh, an award winning grower and breeder of cacti and succulents, approached me last summer with an idea for an article in Northern Gardener about the pH of city water and its effect on plants. Malcolm and one of his cactus-growing friends from California had discovered that city water tends to be much more alkaline than rain water and that the change in pH made a big difference in plant performance. Rain water generally has a pH of 5.6–compared to a pH of city water in St. Paul (where Malcolm lives) of 8.2 and in Northfield of 7.4. The result, according to Malcolm, is that plants don’t perform well when they are watered with city water rather than rain. A retired chemist, he recommends adjusting pH downward with the addition of acid, usually vinegar or a low-pH fertilizer. For gardeners in St. Paul, he recommends one-half tablespoon of vinegar in five gallons of water. Malcolm has noted remarkable improvements in his flowers and cacti since adjusting the pH of his water.

This got me thinking about last summer. Even though I watered my vegetable and flower beds and pots regularly during the dry part of the summer (basically June and July), nothing seemed to perk them up like a good rain. Now that may well be because they got a better dousing with rain than they did with me half-heartedly hitting them with the hose, but it could also be the quality of the water. Since reading Malcolm’s article, I have been doing an unscientific test of his theory on my houseplants. I water about once a week and give the plants a good drink with tap water that has been adjusted with vinegar. (I only mix up a gallon at a time, so I need about a half teaspoon.) They do look better, especially the cutting above, which I think is a ficus. In my family, it is known as “the Grandma plant” because it came from my father’s mother’s house and has been kept going by my mom and sister since Grandma died in 1985.

Adjusting pH for houseplants is one thing–an entire garden is another. Malcolm uses a watering system that involves a sump pump, a 45-gallon garbage pail, and an octopus hose system. I don’t have the technical skills to set that up, but I may look at ways to collect rain water to use on my gardens during dry spells. I’ve seen many rain barrels around Northfield, so apparently others are considering ways to harvest rain water as well. If you’re interested in reading Malcolm’s entire article, check it out here: water.pdf

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I just received a press release from Garden Writers of America on the organization’s 2008 trend survey. The highlight of the survey is a significant increase in the number of homeowners saying they plan to spend money this year on vegetable and fruit gardening. The survey found 39% of homeowners are planning expenditures in the area of vegetable or fruit gardening in 2008 compared to 32% who said they planned to vegetable garden in 2007. That’s a pretty big jump, and makes vegetable and fruit gardening second behind spending on lawn care, which topped the list at 54%. Annual flowers (38%), trees and shrubs (35%) and perennial flowers (31%) filled out the list of landscaping activities homeowners planned to spend on this year.

The press release suggests that rising gas prices, increased food prices and an overall sluggish economy might be the causes of increased interest in vegetable gardening. While I think that’s true, it’s only part of the story. The local food movement, inspired by Italy’s Slow Food and books like Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Vegetable Miracle and Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon’s s the 100 Mile Diet, has increased awareness about the ethics of food choices. Moreover, concerns about food safety, prompted by high-profile cases involving food made in China and food contamination issues involving spinach and peanut butter, have made many people just a bit more wary about the food they buy. In any case, for a whole bunch of reasons related to the environment, the economy, and uncertainty about globalization and technology, more people are turning to gardening.

While the forces propelling it are disturbing, the trend is good. Food you grow is cheap, healthy, fresh as can be, and the effort involved in gardening is good exercise and soul satisfying. I think a lot of us underestimate how much food we could grow, if we chose to. I was reading not too long ago about the Victory Gardens of World War II. These home and community gardens grew about 40 percent of the produce consumed in the U.S. in some of the war years. Could we do that now? I’m not sure. The average homeowner has fewer skills in both growing food and preserving it than the gardeners of the 1940s and we have a perception at least that we are much busier than people were then. But we’ve got the Internet, and I’ve found that nearly every garden question I have can be answered there.

My own garden plans for this spring include at least one additional raised bed for vegetables. Will I grow 40 percent of my family’s produce, even for the summer? No way. But I’m wondering if it might be a good idea to measure how much of our produce I do grow. I’ve never kept track of how many tomatoes, green beans, and raspberries I harvest–I’m often just so thrilled to get anything, given our climate and my personal battles with gophers. It’s an idea. For those growing vegetables for the first time this summer, just enjoy the experience and the rewards.

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img_1395small.jpgA real highlight of the Rice County Horticulture Day Saturday at St. Olaf College was the presentation by Pam Strouth and Cheryl Steinberg of Bloom Floral Design in Faribault. Apparently Pam and Cheryl are TV personalities in Faribault where they host a regular show on floral design on the local cable channel. While both Pam and Cheryl were trained at the Koehler and Dramm Institute of Floristry, the premier floral design program in Minnesota, they have a down-home, relaxed take on using flowers in your home. They combine their expertise with fun. You’ve got to have a light heart to do a floral arrangement that uses a carburetor for a vase, as the Bloom designers once did for a motor-loving client.

For the horticulture day, they did a presentation on how to use flowers, leaves, and branches from your garden for floral displays. They showed a clip from their cable program in which they walked around a friend’s yard, snipping leaves, branches and flowers with abandon. Then, using similar elements to those shown in the program, each designer put together a full, lush arrangement in a few minutes. They conceded that with floral design, you either have the eye or you don’t. (I’m afraid I don’t.) But they also think you can learn and offered a few tips for doing arrangements.

img_1410.jpgPam builds the base first–putting in any draping plants, such as these elephant ears, and a base of greens before adding the flowers and colorful elements, in this case a lily, goldenrod, and an iris. Cheryl uses the rule of threes. She started with three tulips for her vase, which then grew to include greens, goldenrod, and branches. Starting with three of your main focus gives your arrangement the right equilibrium and after that you cannot go wrong. Both displays were done in old watering cans, and the designers urged gardeners to use fun and unusual containers for vases. Now, if I could just find a spare carburetor….

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fs_061003_seeley_4_2.jpgDr. Mark Seeley, author of the Minnesota Weather Almanac and a regular radio commentator on climate and weather, spoke at the Rice County Horticultural Day this morning. Seeley gave the full-house of gardeners attending the event an overview on how the weather is changing in Minnesota, with a few ideas on how to accommodate it.

Here are my take-aways from the talk:

  • It’s not that the highs are getting higher, it’s that the lows are getting higher. Higher average night-time low temperatures and higher temperatures in winter are what most of us have been observing when we’ve noticed climate change in the past decade or two. Seeley’s graphs show clearly that we are in a shifting weather pattern and the shifts are heavily concentrated in winter.
  • It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity. In addition to higher low temperatures, we are seeing rises in humidity to the point where the heat emergency days in Minnesota in the past few years have largely been due to high humidity (70 degree dew points) coupled with sort of high temperatures (90s). I noted that Rice County was one of several counties that had experienced more than 10 days where dew points were above 80 in the past few years. These weather patterns have also produced larger numbers of thunderstorms, resulting in more rain falling in gushes rather than trickles.
  • It’s not just SUVs causing the problem. While emissions from vehicles and industry (especially less-clean industries in developing countries like China and India) are part of the problem, Seeley is passionate that people not overlook other causes of climate change, including natural factors and the changes in land use. Every time a wild area becomes a corn field or a corn field becomes a housing development we are changing the land and environment, and that, in turn, can change the climate. (I’ve observed this first hand over the past 9 years as our neighborhood went from cornfield to suburb-like, and the spring frog noises changed from delightfully deafening to faint.) Some changes are small–extra driveways, grass instead of prairie–but they add up. Some are huge, such as the destruction of large amounts of boreal forests in Alberta, Canada, to mine for tar sands.
  • Despite the changes, it can still get darn cold in Minnesota. Seeley recalled a day in February 1996 when temperatures dropped to 35 below zero. For the gardeners in attendance, his message seemed similar to one I’ve heard from others who watch climate: go ahead and try higher zone plants, but be prepared to lose them in a bad winter.
  • Finally, we need to pay attention to this. Little changes can add up–and things that sound like a great idea (I’m thinking ethanol here) may not be so great after all. As gardeners, we can put more oxygen into the air, and we can watch and care for our own little corners of the earth. I’m on a multi-year plan to reduce lawn and increase gardens on our lot because gardens, especially those planted with flowers and shrubs suited to Minnesota’s bizarre climate, can handle the changes better and require less in the way of nutrients and water to survive. Is that a big deal? No. But it’s one thing I can do.

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Definitely, a Par 5

img_1359.jpgimg_1371.jpgThe Northfield Public Library was a real flurry of activity about 5 this evening as members of the Teen Advisory Board set up the holes for tonight’s Cabin Fever Mini Golf Tournament. My hole, number 6, is at least a par five. It is a dog-leg, and golfers will need to go around several obstacles and through some fenced pathways before reaching the hole. Special thanks to John Daniels of Bachman’s for providing the plants, which included a couple of gorgeous Cineraria and a cool little shrub on a stick. Tee times are at 6 and 8 p.m. tonight. I believe there are still some open slots.

img_1381.jpgThe hole that will probably inspire the most conversation is this one at left, sponsored by College City Beverage. Golfers will need to get their ball in the plumbing pipe, which takes it from the top floor of the library to the lower floor where the hole is. As always, librarian Lynne Young takes the ruckus in stride. Good luck to all the golfers!

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img_1325.jpgI don’t know why, but I am always surprised when some new gardening endeavor actually turns out. About a month ago, I decided to try to force some red-twig dogwood branches. I followed the instructions for making a sugar water/bleach concoction to give the branches food and, presumably, protection from bacteria. The branches went into the cool, not too light basement. A couple of weeks ago, I went down there to add some more liquid and check things out. There were definite signs of leaf buds.

img_1330.jpgToday, I checked them again and, lo and behold, the branches had tiny leaves and some little knobby growths that look like they might be blossoms. Rock-and-Roll Gardener advised me that I would probably only get leaves, but we’ll see what happens. Per the instructions, I have moved the branches up to a sunnier locale in the kitchen. With any luck, we’ll have something blooming in time for our early Easter.

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