Happy Friday, happy May!   Can you believe it’s already time to begin another month of the #garden365 Photo Challenge?

This is the time of year that gardeners have been waiting for:  long, warm days spent in the garden, preparing for the season ahead, spreading compost, hardening off seedlings, and watching in awe as things begin to  thrive and produce.  If you have been on the fence about joining in, there is no better time to start capturing your garden in photographs than right now!

#garden365 May Prompts

As a reminder, 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).

(for additional information about the #garden365 Photo Challenge, see this post)

 

If you’re joining in this month, let me know in the comments so I can be sure to follow along!

Good Garden Reads: The CSA Cookbook

Next month will mark 5 years of my very own backyard garden and the humble beginnings of this blog.  I can’t recall exactly when I first discovered Garden Betty, but sometime during that first year of gardening on my own, Linda Ly’s smart and fierce approach to edible gardening quickly became one of my favorite garden reads and I’ve followed along ever since. From practical growing advice to kitchen inspiration,  I’ve always been able to glean something new and interesting from her posts, so when I was offered the opportunity to review Linda’s new cookbook, I was thrilled! I could not wait to see how all of the bits and pieces she has shared over recent months had finally come together in The CSA Cookbook!

Good Garden Reads: The CSA Cookbook

The CSA Cookbook is a fantastic garden-to-table cookbook.  The garden-centric recipes are straightforward and have reasonable lists of fresh from the garden ingredients and common pantry staples.  I can easily see myself coming home from work, taking a quick walk through the garden to harvest a few ingredients, and then settling in to make one of these recipes for dinner before tackling my list of garden chores for the night. Likewise, you could easily open your CSA box or unpack your farmer’s market bag and do the same.

I can also see a number of these recipes becoming seasonal staples in our meal rotations!

Good Garden Reads: The CSA Cookbook

What I enjoy most about this cookbook is that it is definitely a gardener’s cookbook.   From combining ingredients that are in season together (can it please be August so I can try Squash Blossom and Roasted Poblano Tacos?), to inspiring creative twists on classic garden combinations, like Spicy Minty Tomato Sauce, The CSA Cookbook reads more like the personal kitchen gardening journal of an adventurous gardener than a run-of-the-mill vegetable cookbook.  Experienced and new gardeners alike will find inspiration not only for what to do with the harvest, but perhaps also what to add to next year’s garden plans as well.

There are also tons of helpful tips and tricks for growing, harvesting, and storing garden produce throughout the book, advice on using the whole vegetable, tip to top, and I really love that Linda provides suggestions for substitutions if you don’t happen to have a specific variety or type of a particular vegetable used in a recipe.   As someone who regularly makes pesto out of anything green (radish greens, spinach, kale), makes salads out of my broccoli stems, and substitutes different types of hot peppers into recipes to see how the flavor changes, I definitely appreciate the endless possibilities of this use-what-you-have approach to garden cooking.

Good Garden Reads: The CSA Cookbook

My only disappointment is that I don’t have a garden full of veggies yet to start cooking right now!   But rest assured, I have a few bright flavored spring recipes bookmarked for the moment things start to come out of the garden, and I plan to be cooking from The CSA Cookbook all season long.

If you’re looking for a great cookbook to use with the garden harvest this season, The CSA Cookbook is definitely worth a look (and it’s published by Voyager, right here in Minnesota!).  To learn more, check out The CSA Cookbook page on Garden Betty

Full disclosure: I received a copy of The CSA Cookbook for review.  All opinions are my own.

 

 

 

 

In Preparation for Rhubarb Season

This week might be off to a dreary start, but these April showers are definitely welcome as the garden continues to wake up after a drier than usual winter.  The rhubarb is making the most dramatic changes from day to day, which has me thinking about rhubarb everything lately. I can hardly wait to start harvesting long, lovely stalks of rhubarb, and I am on a serious mission to find some fun new recipes to test drive with the upcoming harvest.  Judging by the steady increase in traffic to my rhubarb posts and pins, I am not the only one with rhubarb on my mind these days (if you have questions about growing, cooking, and preserving with rhubarb, this post is a very good place to start).

What are your plans for the rhubarb harvest this year?

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Take Time to Stop an Smell the Tomatoes

One of my favorite things about seed starting time is that moment when the scents and smells of the garden start to come to life. Releasing the very same scent that fills the garden during a late summer tomato harvest with little more than a light touch from even the smallest of true leaves is something that will never, ever get old.  I trimmed up the onion seedlings last week and I just couldn’t get over how fresh they smelled!  The soft sage leaves pack a powerful, heady aroma.  Even the teeny, tiny true leaves on the lavender and rosemary are packed with an intoxicating perfume.    It’s starting to smell like a garden!

 

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And just like that, the first month of the #garden365 Photo Challenge is in the books:

And what a month it has been!  Last night Mike and I raised our bottles of hard cider to the fact that we survived March.  That might sound a little dramatic, but there is no doubt that this has been one of the most intense months of our married life.  In addition to working full time, we have been renovating a 1940s investment property, and the fact that I somehow also managed to also start my seeds, get an occasional post up here on the blog, and take at least a photo a day of my gardening activities, feels worthy of a celebratory beverage.

As overwhelming as the last month has felt at times, this photo challenge has been something that has kept me grounded through days dominated by decisions about refinishing hardwood floors, and late nights repairing plaster walls.  Making time to slow down and focus on a very specific prompt amid a hectic pace not only saved my sanity, but it gave me some good insights into how I am growing in my garden photography through this challenge.  Here’s a quick look at some of the highlights from the first month:

#garden365 3/10: patience

Biggest Challenge:

Starting this photo challenge in March, I knew that one of my biggest challenges was going to be keeping my daily photos from getting repetitive.  Most of my gardening is happening under the grow lights this time of year and I didn’t want to end up with twenty-some nearly identical photos of seedlings in newspaper pots.  Throughout the month I was intentional about seeking out subjects other than seedlings when I could, and when I did photograph seedlings, I tried to play with the subject, angles, lighting, and background to give each photo slightly different look and feel.

#garden365 3/25: fresh

Favorite Photo: 

I absolutely love how this photo of a purple cauliflower seedling turned out.  Inspiration struck at the very last minute to photograph the seedling like that before I potted it up and I ended up liking it much more than the photo I was originally going to share that day.  The colors are probably my favorite part of the photo (so much so that I forego using an Instagram filter), but I also really like the action depicted, the depth of field, and the detail of the fallen bits of soil.

#garden365 3/30: water

Least Favorite Photo: 

I am totally the kind of perfectionist who would rather not post at all than post something I’m not happy with, but when you’re posting a photo a day (and your time is limited), sometimes you just have to go with the best you can do.  I had tried so hard to capture a different photo of water droplets on a seedling, but I just couldn’t get the iphone camera to capture it with the right light exposure and clarity.   I opted instead for this photo instead because I liked the composition, but I really wish the water was more of a focal point.  I will definitely be spending some more time playing around with photographing water droplets.

#garden365 3/24: plant

Most Surprising Photo: 

I photographed this purple coneflower seed about a half dozen different ways before settling on this this particular photo.  I was really surprised at the way the iphone camera caught the detail of the seeds, right down to the rough edges of the outer seed casing.  I am surprised at how much I am drawn into this photo every time I stop to look at it again.  I’ve taken photos of scattered seed before, but this seed is such a different kind of seed, and much more rugged than what I would usually do.  I really like how it turned out.

#garden365 3/12: reminder

Technical Notes: 

Most of my photos this month were taken with the camera on my iphone5; two were taken with my Nikon D3300.  I used the VSCO app on a few of the photos; I need to spend a little more time getting familiar with its capabilities, but I really like having lighter touch presets as an alternative to heavy filters.  One technical issue I need to keep in mind going forward is that photos that look clear and focus on my phone don’t always look that clear and focused when viewed at full size!

On to April! 

And now on to what you’re really here for: April’s prompts!  We’ve had a great group of gardeners and photographers participating in March, and I’ve already heard from several gardeners who plan to join the challenge this month.  I hope you’ll consider joining in as well!

April Prompts for the #garden365 Photo Challenge

As a reminder, 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).

(for additional information about the #garden365 Photo Challenge, see this post)

 

If you’re joining in this month, let me know in the comments so I can be sure to follow along!

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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