Prelude to Spring: Raspberry Canes

As I mentioned earlier this week, despite our warmer than average weather, the gardens are still too wet to do anything (though I am kind of tempted to broadcast sow a little mix of chard, lettuce, and spinach seed on the edge of one of my raised beds, just to see where this crazy spring weather takes us).    And while I might be out of the garden beds for a while yet, we do have a few areas of the yard surrounded by woodchips that allow me to get in and take a closer look at spring’s progress in the garden.

This is a precarious time of year.  On one hand, I would love to see things starting to come to life a little more, but I also know what that can mean in the bigger scheme of things in Minnesota in spring.  Early onset of warm temps followed by a return to freezing temperatures can be detrimental for those with fruit trees, for example.  In our yard, most of our perennials are pretty hardy, so even if we have another snow fall or slip below freezing again, it won’t bother these plants much.

Prelude to Spring: Horseradish

In fact, last week I discovered that my own point of reference for hardy needs a little recalibration.  It used to be that the rhubarb was the first thing to stir in the garden in early spring, but this year, I discovered the horseradish looking like this just one week after our last subzero temperatures.  Now in its second year, I will be able to dig my first harvest this fall!

Prelude to Spring: Oregano

The oregano stayed green all winter long under the ice and snow (and if it’s possible, I think it even spread), but other than that the herb garden is still pretty quiet.  Last spring I planted some two year old asparagus crowns at the far end, so I am anxiously awaiting their reappearance this spring!

I am also anxious to see if any of the annual flowers were able to self-sow along the outer edge and if we will have another pair of wrens nest in the garden this year.

Prelude to Spring: Rhubarb

And though it may have been knocked out of first place, the rhubarb still doesn’t disappoint.  I haven’t taken the time to pull back the remains of last year’s growth yet, but there are a good number of buds visible within the last week.   The rhubarb is planted in a pretty premium space for early spring, with the best southern exposure our yard has to offer, so once it gets going, the wrinkly green leaves are never too far behind.

Prelude to Spring

Without much precipitation in either the liquid or frozen variety in sight, I just might be able to start some of the easier clean up around the yard in the coming weeks, like picking up after the backyard wildlife, who certainly seemed to have enjoyed the remains of the sunflowers.  The sunflowers were blooming last fall right up until the bitter cold end, so while the squirrels may have been disappointed to find some of the seeds still immature, they have cleaned up most of what was left and finding the remains in odd places around the yard has been kind of fun.   Maybe some of their well-hidden seed stashes will even sprout up a few new plants in the same way their hidden peanuts tend to sprout up around the yard and garden every spring.

After two years of long, cold springs, I am increasingly grateful for this slow, steady march towards the change of seasons.  I know it might be fleeting, but for now, it is pretty dang perfect.

How is spring progressing in your garden?

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Garden Beginnings

How is March half over already!?  And more importantly, how beautiful was our weather this past week!?  We hit 70 degrees this weekend and my resolve finally broke:  I started the tomato seeds (I know, I probably jinxed it for all of Minnesota, and I very well may have to bribe all of you next month with heirloom tomato seedlings when we get a big snowstorm and you remember how I pushed our luck).

Even with our unusually warm weather, it’s still too early and too wet to do much outdoors, but this is a great time to give you a quick look at how the garden is taking shape under the lights indoors:

Garden Beginnings

These little White Soul Alpine Strawberries are about the size of a pencil eraser right now and I just can’t get over those little strawberry leaves!  So stinkin’ cute! I’ve read conflicting information about the actual hardiness of this variety, so my plan is to grow only a few in-ground this year while keeping the others in a container for easier overwintering indoors until I feel more confident about  how they’ll fare in our zone 4b winters.

Garden Beginnings

The other newcomer to the seed starting set up this year is the artichokes.  I am just in awe of these silvery-green seedlings!  Since they are completely new to me, every slight change feels pretty momentous and it has been really fun to watch them transform over the past few weeks.  Artichokes are typically biennial, but here in Minnesota we can grow them as an annual by exposing them to a few cool nights in the spring to trick the plants into thinking they’ve already survived a winter and are due to produce.   I’ve talked with other local gardeners who have had success with this variety (Green Globe), so I’m optimistic about my chances.

Garden Beginnings

Meanwhile, the usual suspects are growing along right on schedule.

The peppers are in a variety of stages of growth.  Most have germinated, but there are a few still in the “nursery” flat under a germination cover.   I’m sure they will germinate in time, but with it feeling more like mid-April than mid-March this past week, I will admit to feeling brief moments of panic of being behind schedule, even though I know I’m not.  Seeing the beginnings of some true leaves on the more mature seedlings has helped set my mind at ease

Garden Beginnings

Here’s a first for me:  This is two pepper seedlings growing out of the same seed (variety is Ralph Thompson Squash).  At first I assumed there must have been two seeds stuck together, but if you follow the stems down, they are both attached to the same radicle (the first root that emerges from the seed). I’m totally curious to see how this unique plant continues to grow!

Garden Beginnings

My favorite part of my daily garden tending routine has become petting the little herb seedlings.  Now that they have true leaves, I love how just a light brush over the seedlings releases the scent of lavender, rosemary, and sage.  It smells so fresh!  I’m thinking that in about another week I will need to pot these up into their own containers.

Garden Beginnings

Just a week ago I posted a photo of some of the brassica babies on Instagram, and now they look completely different.  So much has changed in only a week’s time!  This kind of instant gratification is good to mix in with some of the slower-growing seedlings this time of year.  It helps balance out the patience needed to wait for peppers to germinate and itty bitty strawberries to grow larger.

How is your garden taking shape this month?

Bees in the Garden: Beekeeping Class

I may have mentioned once or twice a hundred times my interest in adding bees to our backyard garden.   I can’t even tell you when it all began, but for at least the last three or four years it has been an increasingly serious topic of conversation at our house.

Mike and I were easily on board with the idea of backyard bees, but we felt that before we could fully commit, we had to do our homework well.  Beekeeping is a pretty big undertaking, especially in our northern climate and I didn’t want to rush into it lightly.  Our suburban backyard is a completely different setting than the family farm where my dad used to keep bees, and I wanted some assurances that we actually do have a suitable site for the hive in our backyard and of course a better understanding of what we needed to do to properly care for the colony and get it through winter in Minnesota.

Bees in the Garden: Beekeeping Class

I’ve read a number of backyard beekeeping books in the past two years, but I found it somewhat difficult to navigate without a good frame of reference (I’ll say more about that in a minute).  Fortunately, we have a great resource here in Minnesota in the University of Minnesota Bee Lab, and after talking about taking the first year beekeeping class for the better part of a year, Mike registered me for the class as my birthday present last November.

And that is how I spent last Saturday with 239 fellow wannabe beekeepers learning about beekeeping in Minnesota.

[Pardon the grainy quality of some of the photos, the lighting in the room was difficult and my phone was less intrusive than my camera while the instructors were presenting.]

Bees in the Garden: Beekeeping Class

The class focused on one tried and true method for keeping bees in Minnesota. This is exactly the context I was looking for to help me wade through the pros and cons of different types of hives and equipment, make sense of differing advice on where to best situate a hive in a backyard setting, and interpret the relativity of the use of “cold climate” in various books.

From bee biology to the practical how-to’s of tending bees during the first year in Minnesota, I found myself hanging on every word from the instructors (renowned bee expert Dr. Marla Spivak and expert apiculture technician Gary Reuter).    Eight hours flew by and by the end of the day I thought to myself, I can totally do this! 

Bees in the Garden: Beekeeping Class

That’s not to dismiss the fact that it is still a big commitment and a lot of work.  Like raising any type of livestock, there are risks and responsibilities that we will have to take very seriously.  Hiving bees in April in Minnesota is always going to be a little unpredictable, regular sampling for varroa mites is a must, and ensuring that the colony has about 200 pounds of honey stores for the winter is still a little daunting, but I definitely feel more confident in my ability to learn and do all of these things, and we’ve made the very exciting decision to move forward with adding bees to the garden.

Bees in the Garden: Beekeeping Class

We have also made the decision to take it slow and do it right.

While there are technically enough days between now and mid-April to build our brood boxes and hive our first package of bees, we realistically don’t have the time to get it all done with everything else we having going on right now, so we’re taking this season to get ready for bees and will order our first package of bees next winter.

On our to-do list for this year:

  • Prepare the hive site and build a hive base
  • Assemble and paint brood boxes and supers
  • Practice lighting and using the smoker
  • Sign up for a few sessions in the Bee Squad Mentoring Apiary to get some firsthand experience working with bees
  • Plant more perennial flowers + herbs throughout the yard
  • Talk to our immediate neighbors and educate them on our plans

I am excited to share more about this new endeavor as we move forward – watch for future posts with additional details and preparations in the coming months!

TGIF

It’s been a long, busy week,  but it’s finally Friday!   The 10 day forecast has us heading into the 40s and 50s, and they are saying that we are officially done with subzero weather for the season!  If this weather pattern holds beyond next week, I might push my luck and start the tomatoes early, but we’ll see. The other seedlings are thriving!  I now have lavender, rosemary, sage, asters, butterfly weed, onions, alpine strawberries, and artichokes growing under the lights.  The brassicas and peppers are germinating and will join the rest this weekend.  However fleeting it might be, it’s starting to feel like spring, and I’d say that calls for a Friday dance party (the onion seedlings seem to be on the same page).

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Seed Starting Q + A, Part 2

This week’s installment of Seed Starting Q + A is all about soil and light.  If you have a seed starting question, let me know in the comments and your question will be added to future installments (and if you’ve already submitted a question and it’s not here, it’s still coming!).

Seed Starting Q + A, Part 2

 

Q: What are the advantages of mixing your own seed starting mix versus buying it ready to go?

A: There are two big advantages to mixing your own seed starting medium.  The first is that you know what is in it.  If you are trying to avoid certain ingredients, such as chemical fertilizers or peat, mixing your own can save you the time and hassle of searching around for precisely what you want and ensure that you know exactly what is going into your seed starting mix.

The other big advantage is cost savings.  For equal quantities of finished product, you can mix your own for a fraction of the cost of commercial seed starting medium.

Seed Starting Q + A, Part 2

 

Q: What is the best kind of grow light to get for seed starting?

A: Finding the best lights for seed starting comes down to three things:  the bulbs, the build, and the budget.

Most important are the bulbs that go in the fixture.  The standard for seed starting is two cool white florescent bulbs.  This is the most affordable option and is perfectly suited for growing healthy, happy seedlings.  If you like, you can take it up a notch with full spectrum bulbs or create “fuller spectrum” light by using one cool and one warm light bulb, but in the end, spectrum doesn’t matter nearly as much as intensity.

The build of the light fixture plays a huge role in maintaining good light intensity.  You want to keep your lights about 2 inches directly above the seedlings at all times.  Seed starting set ups vary, but in general this means a fixture that hangs from adjustable chains or a fixture that is attached to an adjustable stand.  As long as you can adjust the light (or the shelf beneath the light) as the seedlings grow, the fixture is long and wide enough to cover your seed trays, and it can accommodate the right type of bulbs, it’s a good fixture for seed starting (you can find my set up here).

Which brings us to budget:  you can purchase a quality light fixture for seed starting for anywhere from under twenty dollars to several hundred dollars.  I am of the opinion that you don’t need to break the bank on this one unless you truly want to splurge on the higher end equipment or are growing really large quantities of seedlings.  A simple fixture with quality bulbs will provide what you need for almost all home seed starting projects.

Seed Starting Q + A, Part 2

 

Q: Do I really need a grow light?

A: There is a very good reason that most reliable gardening sources will encourage you to use a grow light: it works.  Seedlings grown directly under high intensity lights simply do better than seedlings grown in front of a window.

That said, if you are growing a small number of plants and have enough room to get them right up on the windowsill, it can be done.  If you want to go this route, be sure to put your seedlings in front of a south-facing window for the best light throughout the day.  You will have to rotate your seedlings on a regular basis because they will lean into the light.  Using a windowsill will also increase your chances of having longer, leggy seedlings, so be a little more conservative on your seed starting timeline.  Also, try to avoid lining up your seedlings too deep in front of the window to prevent the outer rows from trying to grow over the inner rows for more light.  Finally, do pay attention to the temperature of the soil for windowsill seedlings.  The sunlight may be warm, but cold drafts can inhibit growth and the seedlings ability to take up nutrients.

Seed Starting Q + A, Part 2

 

Q: How often should I replace the bulbs in my grow lights?

A: When you buy bulbs, the life of the bulb should be listed on the packaging.  The bulbs I purchased several years ago are 18,000 hour bulbs.  On average, I run my lights for about 12 hours a day for 2-3 months, which amounts to somewhere around 1000 hours per season (give or take), so I’m pretty much set for a good number of years.  There are gardeners who swear by replacing them every year, but to me that just seems wasteful, particularly given what goes into properly disposing of florescent bulbs.  Certainly, if your lights start to flicker, are noticeably dim, or do not fire up reliably, it’s time to change them, but if you are well within the useful life of the bulb, they are emitting enough light for your seedlings.

 

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Starting to Sprout

I’m not sure which one I am more excited about: the sprouting herbs and flowers, or the amount of gorgeous late day sunlight  filtering through the windows.    Either way, it feels like spring is finally on its way!

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At the beginning of the year I set a goal for myself of taking at least one photo of my gardening activities every day for an entire year.

It has only been a couple of months, but it has already been a really good challenge.  I find myself being more intentional in my photography, focusing on developing the technical aspects  and stretching myself creatively – the very things I set out to do.  I’ve shared just a few of these photos on Instagram and here on the blog, but I’ve been trying to find a more formal way to share and document this experience.  As I was trying to figure out the right format, I found myself really drawn to the “photo a day” challenges on Instagram.  It seemed perfect, but all of my searches for a garden-related challenge to join came up empty.

So… I decided to create one.  And starting March 1st, I’m formally inviting you to join me!

#Garden365 Photo Challenge: March 2015

 

Here’s how it works:

At the beginning of each month I will post a list of prompts.  Save this list somewhere where you can reference it throughout the month (pin it, share it, tweet it, ‘gram it – whatever works best for you).

Use the daily prompts to capture a photo of your garden or gardening activity.  The prompts are intentionally open-ended to allow for your own creative interpretation of how it might relate to what’s going on (or not going on) in your garden on that particular day.

Post your photos with the hashtag #garden365.  This will help other participants find your photos, lead you to what others are posting, and help you find other gardeners to follow.  The challenge is geared towards Instagram, but feel free to post to whichever social networks you use most (just be sure to use #garden365 so we can find you).

 

There are no requirements for participation.  You don’t have to blog, belong to a specific social media site, create a new account, consider yourself an expert gardener or photographer, or even share every single day.  Just join in and help cultivate a garden of images that will serve as a source of information and inspiration for other gardeners.

Where you take it from there is up to you.  I’m considering a monthly wrap up post with some of my favorite photos and a few reflections (if there is enough interest in this, I might even set up a link up for other bloggers to do the same).  I would also encourage you to include other garden-related tags (#gardenchat, etc.) in addition to #garden365 to link up with an even larger online gardening community.

I know starting this challenge in March while many of us are still facing a lot of snow and ice might seem hard, but with spring just around the corner, there really is no better time to start capturing your gardening activity.  If you need a little inspiration to get started, check out the Garden Photography 101 series I wrote for MNLocavore last summer for some thoughts on why, how, and what to photograph in your garden.  I have also started a Garden Photography board on Pinterest board, where I will be adding resources throughout the challenge.

 

Are you in?  Let me know in the comments below so I can follow along!

 

‘Tis the season…

Seed Starting Q + A

…to get ready for seed starting!

As we finally start to close in on spring, many of us are starting to get things in order for seed starting (maybe you’ve even started a few things already) and with that comes a lot of questions.  There is no other time of year that generates more question in my inbox, so today I’m answering some of your questions about seed starting.  If you’ve submitted a question and don’t see it here, don’t worry–your question will appear in a future installment of Seed Starting Q + A!

Seed Starting Q + A

 

Q: Is it too late to start seeds?  I see lots of posts about seed starting already and I feel like I’m behind!

A: I know the feeling!  It seems as soon as February hits, so does the flood of seed starting chatter in the gardening world and that can make even the most prepared gardener feel a little behind.

Timing really depends on where you are and what you are growing.   Seed starting timelines are based on your average last frost date.   Once you determine your last frost date, work backwards to determine when to start certain types of seeds indoors.   I use this timeline for creating my own seed starting schedule.  The nice thing about seed starting is that it is pretty forgiving.  If you do miss your target date–even by as much as a week or so–you can still get in the game.

Seed Starting Q + A

Q: Does starting seeds extra early give the plants an advantage later on?

A:  As tempting as it might be to start your seeds extra early in hopes of having larger, more mature transplants and an earlier harvest, be a little cautious in doing so. The reason for starting seeds indoors is that it gives your longer-season crops the head start they need to mature within your growing season.  Ideally, you want to grow them out until they have several sets of true leaves, and then get them out and established in the garden as soon as possible.   The shorter the time between when a seedling is ready to be transplanted and when it goes into the garden, the easier that transition will be for the plant and the sooner it can get down to the real work of maturing towards a harvest.

Some gardeners might reason that starting with a more mature plant will get there faster, but there are some important things to consider before you rush out and start your tomatoes today:

First, if you are going to try to grow out more mature seedlings, you must have a really good set up.  This means an abundance of high intensity light, warmth, and space.   Second, you have to be willing to spend a lot of time tending to your seedlings to ensure you are meeting their growing needs and that they are developing strong.  This means extra time potting up into fresh seed starting medium and larger pots, diluting fish emulsion or fertilizers to meet the growing demand for nutrients, and time spent constantly adjusting lights and expanding your space to accommodate the growing plants and prevent leggy or stunted growth.

When the time comes, hardening off can be a little more difficult with more mature seedlings.  Longer tender stems and more top-heavy plants can be more susceptible to damage when first exposed to wind and rain than their lower-to-the-soil counterparts. Transplanting can also be more stressful on a more mature plant and the transplant can take longer to get established and resume vigorous growth, which might set you back as much as you had hoped to gain by starting with a larger plant.  And of course, everything so far is under the assumption that Mother Nature has not thrown a curve ball in the form of a cold, wet spring or late frost that delays getting those transplants into the garden on time, which can even further extend your hard work and put even more stress on the plants.

Will all of that extra work pay off in the form of an earlier harvest or healthier plant? It might, but it’s not likely that come August you will see any difference between an extra early-start tomato plant and an on-time tomato plant (except for the time and energy you put into it).  If you are after early harvests, a better alternative is to select early-maturing varieties.

 

Seed Starting Q + A

 

Q: I see you order most of your seeds from seed companies.  Is that a better way to go than buying from the store displays?

A:  When it comes to deciding between placing a seed order or shopping the seed displays, it really boils down to your personal preferences.  One is not intrinsically better than the other, and each has their own advantages and disadvantages. I order most of my seed because I grow heirloom varieties, and it is harder to find a good selection of heirloom varieties in most store displays.  If you can find what you want in the seed displays, by all means go that route.  It will save you time and money on shipping.  If you’re having a harder time finding what you want in the displays, then placing an order is probably the better way to go.   Most gardeners (myself included) do a little bit of both.  Every year I order a few varieties that are only available by order, and I pick up a few more commonly available packets (like herbs and annual flowers) from in-store displays.

 

Seed Starting Q + A

 

Q: I feel like I could spend a fortune just to start a few plants for my small garden.  I would love to see some tips for seed starting without spending a lot of money.

A:  Seed starting can definitely get spendy– if you let it.  There are tons of things you can do stay on budget and keep costs to a minimum.

The biggest thing you can do is stick to the basics.  Check out this post from last year, where I break down what supplies are essential and which ones you can skip.  I also include a lot of suggestions for low and no cost options, which is the other big thing you can do: use what you already have.  Chances are your recycling bin contains newspaper and a few plastic containers, which can easily be turned into seed starting containers and trays, or you might have a shop light fixture in the basement or garage that could be commandeered for a few weeks and just needs some fresh bulbs.   This will leave your budget intact for the things you can’t get around purchasing.

Some other suggestions for keeping seed starting costs down:

  • When it comes to purchasing, be a smart consumer. Whenever possible, buy locally to avoid additional shipping costs, keep an eye out for sales and free shipping offers, and plan ahead and hit up end of season clearance sales.
  • Pool your resources with a friend or two. Split the cost of a small bag of starter mix or share seeds from the same packets to avoid having to purchase more than you need for a single season.  (Added bonus: seed starting party!)
  • Swap seed. So you splurged on a packet of beautiful heirloom tomato seed that contains 20 years’ worth of seed (at least in your small garden), now use your surplus to obtain the kale, peppers, and squash seed you’d like to round out your garden.

 

Do you have seed starting questions?  Let me know and I will include it in future installments of Seed Starting Q + A!

The Love of Gardening

“The love of gardening is a seed that once sown never dies, but
grows to the enduring happiness that the love of gardening gives”

- Gertrude Jekyll, horticulturist and garden designer, 1843-1932

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A Wintery Mix

Even by Minnesota standards, Tuesday’s weather was a little rough.  Freezing rain, sleet, snow, thundersnow… we saw it all and I had more than a double commute to prove it.

The skies were overcast most of the day, but just as the sun was setting, the snow started to pick up again and the light filtering through the clouds changed pretty dramatically.  It was bizarre and beautiful at the same.  I quickly grabbed my camera and trudged through the snow to take advantage of this most unusual impromptu garden photo op.  Everything was bathed in warm, rosy tones, as big white snowflakes fell and gathered on leftover leaves and barren stalks.  I didn’t even realize the full extent of the effect until I had pulled the images off the camera to find that every photo looked as if a sepia tone filter had already been applied.

This is my most favorite photo of the set (the one I captured on Instagram is a close second).   I love the way the snow is clinging to what’s left of last fall’s raspberries and the bokeh effect of the snowflakes.  Leave it to Mother Nature to make a snow day look and feel warm and cozy.

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