Archive for August, 2009

IMG_6528Back in the day, I worked for a large agricultural supply cooperative in Minnesota, which sold seed to farmers. To say that the co-op’s seed guys were fixated on nitrogen fixation would be an understatement. Nitrogen fixing is the process by which certain legumes take nitrogen from the air (N2) and, with the help of bacteria, transform it to nitrogen plants can use (NH3). Farmers love this beneficial habit because they can plant corn (a huge nitrogen user) after soybeans (a nitrogen fixer) and not have to add as much fertilizer. The co-op’s seed guys had a special soybean seed that was a nitrogen fixing machine — but that’s another story.

Recently, a fellow gardener brought up the issue of whether green beans in Minnesota were in the ground long enough to fix nitrogen. I have always assumed so — but his comment got me wondering. This weekend I pulled up one of my bush bean plants to check and there they were — those warty little nobs on the root of the bean that signal nitrogen fixation. How much nitrogen is fixed depends on the soil, the bean, and a number of other factors that are beyond my pay grade. But it is a good idea to rotate beans into garden beds in which the soil may have been depleted by heavy nitrogen using plants, such as tomatoes. It’s also a good idea to simply cut the beat plant down to soil level at the end of the season, leaving the warty, nitrogen-rich roots in the soil to decompose.

Nitrogen fixing is one of the reasons many gardeners will plant a cover crop of legumes on new garden beds. The University of Minnesota has a good article about nitrogen fixation and another one on cover crops that you might want to read for additional information.


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current_coverThe September/October issue of Northern Gardener is on newsstands now and it’s packed with practical and interesting articles for fall gardening. For instance, if you want to plant a tree —  and fall is a great time for tree planting — Nancy Rose offers 10 choices for yard or street trees that are not green ash. How about adding some perennials, now that they are on sale? Tom Krischan has suggestions of plants to add to your yard to attract butterflies and hummingbirds. (Tom’s wife, garden photographer Donna Krischan, supplied the wonderful image of a monarch on a milkweed plant for the cover.)  Or, what about re-doing a  section of your garden as a “know maintenance” garden — one that you can maintain in less than 20 minutes a week? I interviewed Roy Diblik of Northwind Perennial Farm and author of Small Perennial Gardens: The Know Maintenance Approach, on his ideas for using well-behaved, companionable plants for creating beautiful and low maintenance gardens. You can find the magazine on newsstands or stop by the MSHS booth at the State Fair and sign up for a subscription or membership.

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Bee Condo Attacked!

IMG_6522Well, nature is cruel, and yesterday I witnessed a downy woodpecker pecking at the bee babies in my bee condo. (I had the camera with me because I’ve been trying with no luck to get a photo of a hummingbird who has been frequenting the yard for several days.) This morning, I checked the condo and found all of the mud-plug holes had been dug out — so either the bees all hatched at once or there is a very full woodpecker somewhere in my neighborhood.  On the good news side, literally swarms of bees have been around my garden this summer, especially near the raspberry plants. I’m hoping to be very full of raspberries in another week or two.

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BigBoytheTomatoGuyThis year, the Minnesota State Horticulture Society’s educational booth at the Minnesota State Fair is all about vegetable gardening. With the theme, “Grow Your Own! Enjoy Gardening All Year Round,” the educational area will feature information on canning and dehydrating, indoor seed starting, square foot gardening, and water conservation. (With gardens bursting with produce, now is the ideal time to think about canning and dehydrating.) You cannot miss the booth in the Agriculture/Horticulture building — just look for Big Boy, the Tomato Guy, the new MSHS mascot. Big Boy will be available to pose for photos.

In addition to the educational area, the hort society has a booth with merchandise including a large selection of books, garden gloves, garden art and many fun, garden-themed T-shirts. You can also sign up for a membership or a subscription to Northern Gardener. Stop by, and talk with any of the helpful, knowledgeable volunteers. The fair opens Thursday, Aug. 27, and runs through Labor Day.

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IMG_6514If you had a chance to see the movie Julie and Julia, you know it’s full of images of fantastic food. But the scene that made me salivate was the one in which Julie Powell (played by former Chanhassen Dinner Theater actress Amy Adams) prepares bruschetta for her husband, and he devours it with messy gusto. With tomatoes finally coming in, it was time for some bruschetta.

I made the tomato topping first, dicing up three kinds of tomatoes and adding a couple of tablespoons each of chopped basil and parsley from the garden. To the veggies, I added a good shake of salt and pepper and two tablespoons of olive oil. This macerated in a bowl on the counter for 45 minutes or so. Then, I sauteed slices of Brick Oven baguettes in a combo of olive oil and a dab of butter (in deference to Julia Child) flavored slightly with garlic.  Normally, I would not fry the bread for bruschetta, but that’s the way the movie did it, so why not! At dinner, we piled the tomatoes on the bread. If you can set the bruschetta up a few minutes ahead of time to let the juices seep into the bread, it tastes even better.

I don’t usually review books or movies here, but Julie and Julia is a hoot. It’s based on two books, Powell’s book of the same title, which is entertaining in the way some memoirs are — you are glad to be reading about this person and not living with her — and Julia Child’s My Life in France, which is a heartfelt tribute to France and especially to Child’s husband, Paul.

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Dirt Matters

For a visual reminder of why soil matters so much to the health and vigor of plants, see the two photos below. These are identical sunflower plants. I planted them on the same day late in the spring. The plants are located less than 20 feet apart in identical full-sun exposure. Why are some of the sunflowers only waist-high, while others are over my head? One word: Dirt.

IMG_6500The short sunflowers are planted in the little meadow between our yard and the path around the city storm-water drainage ponds. I’ve never improved that soil — it’s just what the city and the builder left behind after building our house. It is, as soil scientists might say, lean.

IMG_6505The tall sunflowers were planted on the edge of my vegetable garden. A few years ago, a load of landscaper’s black dirt was dumped there for use in another garden. I didn’t need all the dirt I ordered, so I left it there. This spring, I installed a lasagna garden for planting tomatoes, a rich mix of dirt and compost. The soil near that bed is very close to garden perfection: well-drained, humus-filled soil.

Not every plant thrives in rich soil — nasturtiums, sedum, and many herbs prefer a slightly lean soil — however, if you’re plants aren’t as tall or robust as you would like, consider giving your dirt a boost.

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Rain Report

After a fairly dry summer, we’ve certainly been making up for it over the past two weeks. On Aug. 7 and 8, my rain gauge collected 2.75 inches of rain; over this past weekend, it picked up another inch. Today, after extremely heavy rains, the gauge had 1.75 inches in it — with more rain predicted for tomorrow. This brings our total for the year to 10.24 inches, according to the weather underground report. We’re catching up, but still only about half way to the average rainfall for this area by mid-August. Let it rain!

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