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Archive for November, 2008

Black Friday, Green Saturday

Now that Black Friday is over, can I suggest another totally made-up holiday? Let’s call it Green Saturday, and we can all go out and either buy or find greenery to decorate our homes for the holidays. I stopped at a local Christmas tree lot this morning and spent about 10 minutes picking out some greens for a holiday pot that I will be putting out front later this weekend. Tomorrow, I’ll cut a few branches from my red-twig dogwood bushes, dig through my ornament box, and — with any luck — have something pretty to put on the porch that won’t require big charges on my Mastercard or standing in line at a mall at 4 a.m.

Happy Green Saturday!

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img_43731I suspect my sister, Suzy, is among the many holiday hostesses looking at a leafy, lovely poinsettia this morning and wondering, how do I take care of this? I bought several of the gorgeous poinsettias being sold by the Northfield High School choir recently and gave a big, white one to Suzy, who hosted 26 family and friends at Thanksgiving dinner yesterday.

I checked a few sources and came up with these steps to keep a poinsettia healthy:

  • Try to give it 6 hours of indirect sunlight a day. (That may be tricky in Minnesota in December, but choose the poinsettia’s spot with light in mind.) Many sites recommend a south, east or west window, but the plant should not touch the cold glass.
  • Check the soil in the pot daily and give it a good drink whenever it feels dry to the touch. You should make sure the pot has a drainage hole (poke some holes in the foil wrapping, too). When you water, give the plant enough that the water runs out the hole in the bottom. If the plant is on a plate to catch the drips, be sure to empty the water so the plant’s roots don’t get too soggy.
  • If you want to keep your poinsettia as a houseplant, give it a dose of all-purpose houseplant food after the blooming season and once a month through winter.
The yellow knobs at the juncture of the brachts are the poinsettia flowers.

The yellow knobs at the juncture of the brachts are the poinsettia flowers.

For more information on poinsettia history (did you know poinsettia’s were named after the U.S.’s first ambassador to Mexico, John Roberts Poinsett?), selection, and care, check out this great site at the University of Illinois extension.

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Dried Bean Philosophy

Pretty, but not dried yet.

What follows: A rambling discourse written over several days about dried beans, home gardens, and the creative impulse.

The Cherokee Trail of Tears beans I planted this summer tasted great green, but also can be used as a dried bean. I’ve never grown dried beans before so I left a few pods on the vines late this summer to get a harvest of dried beans. These are exceptionally handsome beans. I loved the bright purple of the beans in their pods before they dried out, and the shiny black pearl look of the beans after the pod has dried.

My harvest was small — only about 4 cups of dried beans once I’d taken the pods off, but they will make a delicious black bean soup some cold winter day. As I was cracking open the pods and collecting the beans a couple of weeks ago — one of those repetitive, contemplative tasks we don’t get enough of anymore — I couldn’t help thinking how important a harvest like this would have been 100 or more years ago. Dried beans were an accessible, cheap form of protein then — the kind of food people depended on in difficult times. To grow enough beans for a family, how many rows would I need — and how many hours would it take to shell and clean and store all of those beans?

There are many books out now about growing your own food, both of the how-to and we-did-it variety. And, I love both kinds, though I know that I’m unlikely to ever adopt anything remotely close to a “back to the land” lifestyle. So, what is the lure of the idea of growing your own?

Some of it may stem from the natural anxiety people feel about the world today. It seems a scarier place than it has been in the past, and that’s understandable, what with superbugs, global warming, food contamination, wars, terrorism, and the endless stream of gore and violence against women and children that passes for entertainment in our culture. Being self-sufficient — or at least reading about it — may give us a sense of protection against those anxieties; something along the lines of, “If it all falls apart, I can grow my own food.”

But I also think the desire to be self-sufficient and capable, through gardening, is a desire for a more creative, hands-on, day-to-day life than many of us have. Recently, I re-read a book of essays by the late Paul Gruchow called Grass Roots: The Universe of Home (Milkweed, 1995).

One of the extraordinary privileges of my youth was that I worked for a few months at the Worthington Daily Globe in southwestern Minnesota, where Paul Gruchow was then managing editor. Though the Globe covered the same kinds of mundane and exciting issues other small papers did, Paul’s tough editorial eye and gentle prodding ensured we wrote with as much grace and empathy as each of us young, green writers could muster. Working at the Globe was like attending an MFA program in writing, and I got paid $200 a week besides.

In Grass Roots, Paul has an essay that is both about preserving tomatoes and about his mother, a rural housewife. Here’s the paragraph that got me thinking:

Until I sat thinking about her in my own kitchen that Saturday, I would have said that my mother was a plain country woman with few ambitions, but I realize now how wrong that perception was. When she was not canning, she baked her wonderful bread, or wove rugs from scraps of discarded clothing, or made crazywork quilts, or brewed wines….or sewed elaborate wedding and christening gowns and prom formals on consignment, or made clothes that we ourselves wore. Scarcely a day of her life passed in which she did not create something intended to be beautiful or delectable as well as practical.

I don’t want to romanticize what was a very hard existence, but the ability to create something people need that is also lovely or tasty or amusing or inspiring — this is a source of satisfaction I think most people want and need. Happily, it is a satisfaction available in things as simple as shelling dried beans or planting a few tomatoes.

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While no one in Minnesota has a right to complain about it being cold in November, I can’t help but feel we are being rushed into winter this year. Just two Mondays ago, the temperatures were near 70 and I was scooting around town on my bike. Shortly after that, the bottom fell out. We’ve had snow, slush, rain, cold, colder, and gray, gray, gray for the past couple of weeks.

Saturday, at least the sun was out, so I headed outside to do some last minute chores, including taking the last of my lawn waste to the city compost pile and emptying and cleaning out my containers. Cleaning containers is a big job, but I’ve been convinced (mostly by Master Gardener Terry Yockey) that it’s essential to do in order to prevent diseases from spreading from year to year. You can do this in the spring, too, but I like to get it done in the fall.

First, dump out the soil and spent plants and roots. (It’s not a good idea to re-use potting soil. Put it in the compost, instead.) Then, I take a stiff brush and get as much soil off the inside of the pot as possible. Plastic pots tend to clean up easily, but roots and dirt really like to stick to terra cotta. When the pots have been brushed out, wash them in a big sink with laundry detergent and bleach. Rinse them well, let them dry and put them away for winter.  When spring comes, you’re ready to go.

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Today I completed a really unpleasant, but totally necessary job. I disassembled and moved my compost pile in an attempt to get rid of habitat that I suspect has been attracting undesirables to our yard.

For several months, bunnies have been running rampant in my garden, nibbling beans down to the nub and leaving their calling cards around for my dog, Lily, to munch on. (Yuck.) I knew we had another animal in the yard, too, but the signs were less clear. Walking across the grass, I would sometimes feel the ground give under my foot. Then, I started to notice tunnel-like patterns, with raised areas, which sometimes (not always) were raised again the day after I would push them down. My neighbor’s cat, Leo, started hanging out in the yard. But, unlike the pocket gophers who tormented me two summers ago, these critters did not leave huge mounds of dirt in the yard that seemed to scream, “Ha, ha, let’s pretend you’re Bill Murray in Caddyshack!”

Yet another sign of critters.

Yet another sign of critters.

Recently, a neighbor, who grew up on a farm and knows all about critters, confirmed that we likely have a mole.  I’ve also noticed chew marks on one of my smaller trees, which might indicated voles, too. One of the standard ways to deal with critters is to remove potential habitat, such as a messy compost pile. Oh-oh. My bad.

My compost pile, which grew to two piles over the past couple of years, is not one of those neat, enclosed affairs turning out black gold every six weeks. The first pile was enclosed in a wire cage, about 4 feet across and 4 feet high. The height of the cage made it hard for me to turn it, and consequently, I did not, and it seemed nothing ever rotted in there. It became a pile of dry weeds and sticks. So, I started a second pile next to it. At first, this was just a pile of sod removed from the yard to which I’d add spent perennials, weedings, and  vegetable kitchen scraps. This baby rotted like crazy, which I think was mostly due to  the dirt clinging to the sod that was the foundation of the pile and the fact that I could flip it around without climbing on a ladder.

Well, it took a couple of afternoons of work, but both piles have been flattened. I did not find any critters or obvious critter nests, but that doesn’t mean that they weren’t there. Here’s the good news: Both piles yielded a remarkable amount of compost. After I took apart the cage and pulled all the dry stuff off the top of the first pile, I pulled out four wheel-barrows full of gorgeous compost that had sunk to the bottom. The second pile yielded three smaller wheel-barrows of compost. I spread most of this on my raspberry and vegetable beds. I took a big load of the dry stuff to the Northfield compost heap, which is open through Nov. 16, and I also started a smaller, open compost pile closer to the vegetable garden.

What to do next year? I’m not sure. While doing research for this post, I came across this video on how to make a raised compost bin that you can rotate, mostly using things from around the house. It’s a good idea, and the couple in the video are kind of cute.

Final note: The cherry tree with the bite marks on it now has a nice collar of hardware cloth to prevent future chewing, I hope.

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img_4365As has been blogged about elsewhere, a beaver family has taken up residence in my neighborhood. At first, I found the beavers fascinating, watching them swim in the pond and seeing their dam get built, and then rebuilt after the city pulled it down several weeks ago, listening for the slap of their tails on the water. Others spotted the beavers toddling around the wild area, looking larger than expected. Now, as fascinating as these creatures remain, I’m feeling a bit threatened as well.

The beavers have pretty much cleared out the trees that they are likely to go for in an area one of my neighbors refers to as “the flats,” that is the public land and a couple of private lots closest to the beaver dam. Our property is about an eighth of a mile away from the dam and just a short distance from one of the beaver ponds. I’m pretty sure a hungry beaver could  make the trip easily. So, with that in mind, I have surrounded several trees in our backyard with hardware wire.

According to several beaver sites, beavers prefer aspen trees–and, indeed, the yard that has suffered the most beaver damage so far had a beautiful stand of aspen on it. But beavers also like willow, cottonwood, birch, maple, oak, and cherry trees. I have a couple of nice oaks and a cherry in my yard, as well as two conveniently placed (if you are a beaver) apple trees. I didn’t wrap any of the bushes…at least not yet.

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November is a slow month in the garden, with not much to do but rake the last leaves and clean up. But many people like to give their homes a sprucing up for the holidays, and if you are new to designing holiday pots and other decorations, there are lots of opportunities to learn at MSHS and local garden centers. Here’s a rundown of the events that I have heard about in recent weeks. If you know of another, please add it in the comment section.

  • This Thursday (Nov. 13), MSHS is sponsoring a class on wreaths and tree-top containers at Nature’s Harvest, a garden center and retail boutique in Wayzata. Contact MSHS to see if there is still room in the class.
  • Another option on Thursday (Nov. 13), is a program being offered at the Mustard Seed Landscape and Design Center in Chaska is on Winter Container Gardening. There is a limit on attendees, so you may want to call ahead to make sure there is room.
  • Bachman’s is having holiday decorating workshops over several weekends in November and December. Several have already been held, but next Saturday (Nov. 15) they will be hosting one on gardening for birds and the following Saturday (Nov. 22) is Bachman’s open house with a program on how to create “wow” holiday decorations. These are all held at the Lyndale Avenue store in Minneapolis. Check the Bachman’s site for details.
  • kissing-ballIf you like history as well as gardening, consider signing up for the joint MSHS-Minnesota Historical Society program on Kissing Balls, which will be conducted at the Alexander Ramsey House in St. Paul Saturday, Nov. 15. Kissing Balls, which are round groups of greens and decorations, date from the 18th Century, but were popular with the Victorians, too. The two-hour class includes a tour of the Alexander Ramsey House, a fabulous example of mid-19th Century architecture. Check out the MSHS Web site for details on cost and registration.
  • Now, here’s a holiday decorating event that sounds like a lot of fun. Buell’s Landscape Center in Hastings is hosting a “Working Women, Winter and Wine” event Saturday, Nov. 22, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. The event includes a chance to make your own holiday planters and wreaths, sales of holiday decorating supplies, massage therapy, cheese and wine. It’s enough to make you glad it’s winter.

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