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Archive for January, 2009

My attempt to capture a bee at work on a daylily.

My attempt to capture a bee at work on a daylily.

If you want to take better pictures of your garden (or for that matter, your kids, birds, places you visit, sporting events or anything else), the first thing you need to learn is your camera — and what controls it offers you. That was the message of Eileen Herrling, a Wisconsin-based photographer, who led the shortest 3-hour class I’ve ever attended last night — and not because the class ended early. Eileen had about 50 eager photographer/gardeners at Garden Visions thumbing through their manuals, clicking into the controls of their cameras, taking pictures of Coke cans, focusing and refocusing to figure out what controls each of us would have when shooting in the garden.

Even point-and-shoot digital cameras have features that allow photographers to tighten their focus or clear up the background of a photo. Here are three of Eileen’s take-away lessons:

  • If you have a digital SLR camera, learn to use F-stops and Time-values to enhance your images. (If you have a point and shoot, start using the little mountain and flower settings for different pictures.) An easy way to remember f-stops: Small f-stop (f-4), narrow depth of field; large f-stop (f-11 or above), wider depth of field.
  • Eileen has a couple of very firm don’ts. Don’t use digital zoom, unless you like (or think the shot is worth) grainy pictures. Don’t use automatic, which turns all the controls over to the camera. If you have a program mode, use that for your first picture to get the shot, then start playing with your controls to get a really good shot.
  • Develop a digital work-flow system. I’m taking this one to heart. I have about 2,000 garden shots (a few of which are pretty good) sitting on the hard-drives of two computers. That’s a no-no. Not only do the shots eat up storage space (I take pictures in the largest setting, which is what Eileen recommends), but one spilled drink (well, two spilled drinks) and I could lose it all. What your storage system looks like — disks, a remote drive — is up to you, but have one and keep it organized.

If possible, this class made me even more eager to get out in the garden and take a few pictures.

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You can tell it’s been a tough winter when 550 gardeners get together to talk plants in Wausau in January. I spoke with one of the organizers of Garden Visions a couple of weeks ago and she said more than 350 people had signed up already and the organizers expected to top their goal of 400 attendees. This morning, organizers announced that 550 people were attending.

How do you know you’re at a convention of gardeners? The pool area of the hotel is quiet by 10 p.m., and the patrons ask the bartender to switch the TV to HGTV.

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Winter is school time for gardeners. So, tomorrow I’m off to Wausau, WI, for the Second Annual Garden Visions conference, sponsored by the North Central Wisconsin and Portage County Master Gardeners. It promises to be a great program, with several Minnesota garden stars, such as Jeff Gillman of the University of Minnesota and renowned nature photographer Stan Tekiela, on the agenda. I’ll be bringing my camera and laptop, and hope to do a bit of blogging while I’m there.

If you are interested in learning more about gardening, now is the time to take a class. Both MSHS and the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum have excellent classes this time of year on everything from mushrooming to garden design. The big rush of garden classes sponsored by garden clubs and local extension offices usually begins in March.

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A Mighty Oak Cracked

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A closeup of the crack

img_4529Something both surprising and a little worrisome has happened to one of my favorite trees. A crack about 6 feet long and as wide as my pinky finger in some spots has opened up along the trunk of the oak that sits on the north side of our house.

As far as I can tell, the crack opened up over the weekend, likely the result of the fluctuations in temperatures over the past couple of weeks. Most Minnesotans would say it’s been just plain cold this entire month, but local weather sources here have recorded temperatures as low as 32 below zero F and as high as 32 above zero F over the past 10 days. I checked the University of Minnesota extension web site, which indicates that these cracks are not uncommon during severe cold. With luck, the tree will heal itself over the summer and survive with only a large scar to show for the experience. Without luck, the crack could be the entry point for insects or disease. Here’s hoping.

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Pole beans at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. Some are using corn for support.

As vegetable gardeners salivate over catalogs during the long winter nights, the perennial question emerges: Should I plant bush or pole beans? During the Vegetable Gardening 101 class I attended at Just Food Co-op, Laura Frerichs of Loon Organics offered a good summary of the pros and cons of each.

Bush Beans: Generally, they are earlier to harvest, with beans ready to pick 55 to 60 days after you plant the seed (if the soil is not too cool). They do not require support and some people think that bush beans have a snappier flavor than pole beans. Negatives are that it takes a fair amount of space to grow a substantial crop of bush beans.

Pole Beans: While pole beans take a little longer to produce fruit (65 to 75 days), they produce over a longer period of time, as long as you keep picking. You need to pick pole beans every couple of days for the plants to continue producing–if you neglect them a week, the plant decides its reproductive job is complete and gives up. You do have to provide a trellis, but because they grow up, pole beans can be planted in a relatively small space. Also, the trellises can be cute.

I’m planning to grow both this summer in a 4-by-8 foot raised bed that will be given over entirely to beans. The reason: Beans are nitrogen fixers — that is, they take nitrogen from the air and put it in the soil, with the help of some fungi or microbes. Planting a nitrogen fixing plant is a good way to add a little fertility to your garden. The bed in question was a bit of slacker last year in terms of productivity, so I gave it a good pile of compost this fall and it gets beans this year. We’ll see if that perks things up.

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Cute scarecrow at the Greenvale Community Garden.

I sat in on Just Food Co-op’s first of two classes on vegetable gardening last night. Conducted by Laura Frerichs, co-owner of Loon Organics, the class covered the basics of getting started with a vegetable garden, from picking a sunny spot (a must) to prepping the soil (healthy soil = healthy plants) to using row covers to extend the season. The room was packed and the crowd looked to be a mix of experienced gardeners and beginners.

Here are three new things I learned at the presentation:

  1. The best time to weed is before the weeds emerge. If you turn over your soil with a hoe, you may notice little “white hairs.” These are weeds-to-be. Expose them to air and sun and they die, saving you lots of trouble down the road,
  2. Consider investing in a soil thermometer. I don’t have one of these, but plan to pick one up. Lettuce, spinach, chard and other cool season crops can be planted when the soil temperature is as low as 45 degrees F, and like being planted before soils temps get into the 60s. In contrast,  beans, tomato starts and other warm season crops, don’t want to be planted until the soil is near the 70s.
  3. I’ve always been a little confused by “days to harvest” listings on seed packets and Laura offered a clarification. Here’s the scoop: For cool season crops that you direct seed in the garden, the days to harvest means days from planting the seed. However, for warm season crops that need to be started indoors or purchased as plant starts (something Laura recommends for beginning gardeners), the days to harvest means the number of days from the date of transplant. She advises northern gardeners to look at those days carefully. If a melon takes 110 or 120 days to produce edible fruit, and you cannot get the plant start in the ground until June 1 — well, you know what your odds are.

This is the first of two gardening classes the co-op is offering. Next Thursday (Jan. 29), Erin Johnson and Ben Doherty of Open Hands Farm will lead a discussion of “What to Plant,” beginning at 5 p.m. in the co-op meeting room. Ben and Erin produce wonderful organic vegetables and a knock-your-socks-off salad mix that they sell at the Northfield Farmers’ Market. Should be a great event.

If you don’t live in Northfield, check out the MSHS calendar for other vegetable gardening classes.

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I’ve been reading Julie Moir Messervy’s excellent new book, Home Outside: Creating the Landscape You Love, which gives homeowners several techniques for figuring out what they want from their yard and garden and how to achieve it. One of her suggestions is to name your landscape. Here’s what she says:

Naming helps you establish a theme that will provide an underlying blueprint for the way you develop your property in the future. Sometimes a characteristic of the area or region you live in will suggest a theme; sometimes an attribute, style or feature of your house will give a clue, or a particular landscape or garden highlight from your experience will surface as a theme you’d like to develop on your land.

Messervy gives examples of names like Tight Squeeze (a narrow lot); The Back Forty (a Midwesterner reclaiming her roots in the city); or Rosecroft (a cottage with lots of roses). This prompted some thoughts about my own landscape, and I took a survey of those at home about what we might call our property. My husband suggested Hillside, since our house is built into a hill. Descriptive, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. The 16-year-old declined to participate, saying her brain was dead from studying for finals.

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Wildflowers could inspire a name.

This exercise does prompt some hard thinking. What is it that’s special about our property? The ponds nearby (Pond Pinnacle?), the little meadow out back (Wildflower Ridge?), the plethora of critters that inhabit the garden (Mole Manor?), or maybe it’s our garage hanging off the front of the place (Snout House Haven?) Clearly, I need to think more about this.

What would you call your garden?

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