Tuesday, September 10, 2019

At Home

It was back in July when we spotted the first giant puffball of the season. This was early -too early to our senses. By August's middle the water table had been coming back up, not quite draining after a moderate rainfall. The temperatures had descended to the mid to high seventies and steadily declined into the mid to high sixties by the last week of August and first of September. The trees prepared themselves, the monarchs passed through, the squirrels returned to the lawn, and the rains fell. Our autumn is upon us, and has been since mid August. I have casually mentioned to some that the season had changed, before the Minnesota State Fair -typically a late summer festival. For my observation I received a squint and pursed lips, huh blended into hmm.

To perceive the early arrival of autumn is nothing special. To read the language of our environment and to understand its meaning, in the Western mind, is like understanding Latin. Most will see an archaic text, pass over it, and only occasionally fathoming the root of some current verbiage. Millions of years of evolving, hundreds of thousands of years within this epoch of variable, yet recognizable, climate and species and still we have lost the ability to be at home in the world. I write 'at home' to indicate that set of cues that are so familiar as to become understood inconspicuously.

Our trip to Yellowstone National Park, the primary stimulus for these thoughts, offered some very unfamiliar cues. If you haven't been, go. The park is massive, often taking several hours to get from one site to your lodging. There are bison, and more worrying -grizzly bears. You are walking on a volcano, something difficult to dislodge from your steaming, sulfur-scented consciousness.


Every season I have five, ten, maybe twenty projects to accomplish during the warm season. I typically finish three, especially when the warm season lasts only three months. This year's major project was to complete the renovation of the front lawn-vegetable garden. Above, eggplants, peppers, and cucumbers.

vegetable garden raised bed in a frame mulch
The far left raised bed was refurbished as it had been made from scrap decking, then a new ten foot bed was built and installed, and the remaining two beds moved from last year's location. The framing and mulching was accomplished in early June and then I moved on to other projects.

tomato plants raised bed in a frame mulch
After our return from Yellowstone I set about laying the sod. We chose sod to cover the area previously covered in black plastic laid to smother creeping charlie. Sod is outside of my experience, and I messed up. When laying sod it is best to have prepped the ground ahead of time, it's best to get it unrolled in a day or two. I had to stretch it over four days and nearly composted the sod on its pallet because I hadn't the time to prepare the soil, pull the volunteer tomatoes (what was I thinking?), or deal with the unknown habits of sedge that had grown where the beds had stood the year before. 

It was only continual rain storms and the early autumn temperatures that spared me the near-total loss of live grass. I credit this for its return from tawny mush to lively green, albeit a few patches of dead remain. Although I've been spared the shame of spending a small fortune on sod and then killing it, the lack of soil preparation will undoubtedly reduce the benefits of sod over seed in the long run.

We've had a good year for brassica, getting two months of broccoli from under twelve square feet. BT worked well on the cabbage worms after I removed the floating cover fabric. I've also observed that deer do not seem to care for kale when there is so much else to eat in your garden.

My July planting of green beans were trimmed quite well by the four-legged pruning crew. But, they came back and I now have a steady supply to snack on in between mosquito raids. Unlike a national park (the "wilderness"), our place is home to us and many other creatures. Living with them feels much more natural than any wilderness experience I've had.

A new garden bed grows out an area of removed hydrangea. Scraps of plants, all flowering blue-purple, have been planted throughout the summer. In the background, the browning of a wet autumn.

Saturday, August 3, 2019


Minimally sprawling, open pollinated cucumbers named Little Leaf -from Fedco Seeds. Well, they sprawl less than the Burpee cukes that went in last year, but if it weren't for some clever trellising, the would certainly have sprawled into the paths. They are now supplying about ten cucumbers (picklers) a day. In front, peppers and eggplant; both late producers. Behind, trashy solutions.

The plastic is in place to take out the creeping charlie. It will be removed in late August (late August is so close!) to put down sod. Why sod? The mat keeps out the weeds and minimizes a return of charlie. Here, where the planters were last year, we've had many seedlings of last year's vegetables. Growing up in a cool, moist winter climate, I'd never seen tomatoes sprout from last year's fallen, but in Minnesota's freezer like conditions -the seeds don't rot. We've got several of these in the plastic zone and many more were planted out at the neighbor's farm (where I keep the garlic -which is nearly all harvested).

Adjacent to the tomato is a snapping turtle's nest of eggs to be hatched, we hope, sooner than later. Betsy wants to leave a patch of soil for the mother turtle to return to yearly -but I'd rather it not be in the middle of the grass I'm about to plant. I suspect she'll find the bare patch of soil if I leave it nearby. Funny thing is that I never see any turtles around our place -yet I know there is a giant snapper living out there, somewhere, and then two dozen or so babies head towards the wetlands in fall.

The hydrangea -floppy top. Heavy, as soon as the first real rain hits them, over they go. This year they have been eaten by the deer, pom poms and all. Sometimes they enter the vegetable garden for a second course, should they not get their fill on hydrangea. They've also eaten down the thorny, climbing rose on the trellis -leaving only a full top above their reach. They eat tomato vines, cucumber vines, even buckthorn this year. At my neighbor's garden, they've not only pruned my tomatoes to an even sixteen inches and peppers to eight, they've consumed his giant pumpkin plant -spines and all, a first. They haven't touch the dino kale, potatoes, and garlic.

In summer, gardens do their thing -as do we. This year it is a medley of siding, painting, customer projects, teaching, and exhibitions. I see the work to be done in the garden and it must wait. Seedlings in trays suffer my inattention -yet I keep my eye on these things just enough for them to tug at my desire to do more than is humanly possible.

The front garden is being encroached on by the woods, particularly younger maples that quickly shade out sun loving plants. Oaks and ironwoods do not do this. It's hard to take down living creatures, but the maples will likely meet the chainsaw come late autumn -after I pick up a new chainsaw. The old Stihl croaked last year as I cleared a fallen maple from a path.

Around that front garden is a retaining wall into which I have been ever so slowly moving large stones. The soil is miserable under road bed stuff from last year's gravel driveway rehab. I've got compost to add to the mix, over there, in the shade, now two years old, waiting for my attention and a shovel. Afterward, maybe in autumn, plants will be re-organized to deal with the expanded garden.

One of two woodland edge prairie-savanna hardly-gardens I planted after the studio was finished. These change every year. Without a supply of fresh black-eyed susan seed, it looks rather green. Prairie seed mixes can be rudbekia lush, but the plant tends to diminish once shaded out by perennial grasses and forbs. It's a biennial, so the third season the profusion is limited to small, fuzzy leaves -often at the edge of where they showed up en masse the year before. Each season different plants dominate -this year will no doubt be asters and goldenrod, to the point at which I will likely be thinning them out. Lavender-colored Monarda fistulosa in the background.

The second prairie-savanna garden has a dumpster in front of it, so no pictures of that this summer. The dumpster takes in insulation, wood, old rotting siding and a window or two. I've been replacing siding, piecemeal, every warm season as I convert the house from the pukey-pink paint you can see in the background, above, to the umber-magenta grey visible in the foreground. This garden, along a path from a back door to the studio, is hosta-heavy, magically invisible to the deer thus far.

The brilliant, but less prolific (in these drier conditions ) than I wish American Bellflower, Campanulastrum americanum, is blue-purple in the background. To the left, the very prolific Blue Lobelia, Lobelia siphilitica, about to bloom and a black-eyed susan that found a way to full form.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

It May Be July

framed  vegetable garden neat vegetable garden ordered garden artist and builder
Just finished putting together the new vegetable beds. Four raised beds, each about 12 inches tall. The herb bed was the first, back near the greenhouse. Then the two nearer, each already around for a couple of seasons, but moved yearly. After attempting to grow vegetables plunked in the middle of the  lawn, I soon realized that it wasn’t going to work.  We didn’t want to mow around sprawling vines and the shade allowed aggressive creeping charlie to truly creep.

I concocted this new scheme, very much wood chipped, framed by cedar ripped on the table saw and spiked with rebar to hold it in place. Once dreamed up, I set about building the final raised bed. The lawn will be rebuilt on three sides, plenty far from the beds.

tomato support system western red cedar raised beds
Tomatoes are supported by two zinc-coated irrigation pipes plugged into 5/4 cedar deck boards also ripped on the table saw. String is attached to the leading vines and wound over the pipe. The tension created with this type of system keeps tomato vines from ever flopping over. I’ve never applied this system before, mostly due to laziness and lack of necessity. It’s neat -I like that, but it requires a willingness to reduce the number of tomato producing leaders. We won’t need so many as all our other tomato starts are planted in the neighbor’s garden, just downhill from the garlic. 

raised beds western red cedar
This was the same, June 21, not much more than three weeks ago.