One of the most challenging things about garden blogging this time of year is the light–or more accurately, the lack thereof. Most days I leave for work hours before the sun comes up, and return home late in the afternoon with just a small window of opportunity to photograph in natural light. It’s not necessarily always a negative, but there are a lot of days that I just simply cannot capture what I need or want for a new post before the sun sets. These days I’m quite happy to see that window increase ever so slightly as the sun hugs the southern horizon a little less tightly and the daylight linger a little longer every day. The sunny days are also starting to outnumber the overcast days (or at least so it seems). It will definitely be a while before I see golden sunflowers again, but in the meantime, I’m grateful for the gift of a little more light to better see the beauty in what’s left of last season’s blooms.
The garden planning has officially begun!
This weekend I made the leap from casually paging through my favorite seed catalogs, to making some initial lists. At this early stage in planning, I find myself mostly focused on the new-to-me varieties that have potential to fill in around the tried and true varieties that have already earned their place in the garden. Some of these varieties have been on my radar for a while through various avenues, while others are entirely new to me this year and have just caught my attention for one reason or another.
Last year I made a similar list and it was not only fun to share some of the varieties I was really excited about, but it was also very helpful in getting some feedback from other gardeners who are more familiar with some of these new-to-me varieties. So again I welcome you share any first-hand experience you might have with these varieties!
Here are the new-to-me varieties I would like to try in 2015:
- Romanesco Broccoli: I have long been curious about the reported excellent flavor of this remarkable looking brassica.
- Ralph Thompson’s Squash Pepper: A beautiful ribbed sweet pepper that also packs some heat? Yes, I definitely want to try this limited public offering from the Seed Saver’s Exchange Yearbook.
- Isis Candy Tomato: This super sweet bicolor cherry is really beautiful. It is reported to produce slightly less prolific yields than most cherry-types (which appeals to me as the only cherry tomato lover in our household), but the variety gets high praises for flavor.
- German Extra Hardy Garlic: Could this very winter-hardy variety break by current streak of bad luck with garlic? This variety is reported to be one of the best for roasting, so I sure hope so!
- Garbanzo Bean: Because, homegrown hummus – need I say more?
- Strawberry Popcorn: These little ears of red popcorn have a nostalgic place in my childhood garden memories, so I’m playing around with the idea of doing another three sisters planting this year.
- Paradicsom Alaku Sarga Szentes Pepper: It’s a mouthful of a name, but these sweet yellow peppers are simply beautiful. You guys know how much I love deeply ribbed peppers, and it’s an early variety, which is always a bonus here in zone 4b.
- Pink Accordion Tomato: This is a ribbed tomato, very similar in appearance to Gezahnte, a variety I was interested in last year, but I had zero luck in getting even one seed from the packet to germinate. I’m hoping this one is a little less finicky.
- Purple of Sicily Cauliflower: I’ve had excellent luck with brassicas in my garden the past few years, so I’m feeling ready to tackle cauliflower for the first time.
- Cream of Saskatchewan Watermelon: This white-fleshed water watermelon has been on my radar for a number of years because it is well suited for growing in northern climates.
- Mustard Habanero: Last year I used the last of my traditional habanero seed, which means I can finally add this one to the list! The range of colors this unique habanero variety goes through before arriving at the typical bright orange makes this an attractive alternative.
- Brightest Brilliant Rainbow Quinoa: Now that I know I can successfully grow quinoa in Minnesota, I want to give it another try with this colorful mix.
- Buen Gusto Horno Squash: Not that I need more squash seed, but the ribbed texture and beautiful green color make this variety very tempting! It is reported to be excellent for storage and culinary use as well.
- Calypso Bean: Sometimes also called Orca or Yin Yang beans, these striking black and white beans are reported to have amazing texture when cooked.
- Little Gem Lettuce: I really like the compact growth of this pretty green romaine-type lettuce. I also really like that it is reported to be more heat tolerant than most lettuce varieties.
What new-to-you varieties are you hoping to try this year?
With a fresh blanket of snow this week, the only thing visible in my fledgling herb and pollinator garden right now is the row of zinnias along the fence. Last fall I saved seed from three of my favorite flowers, but left the rest for the birds to pick apart (and if I get a few self-sown zinnias next spring, I won’t be disappointed). A few days ago I decided to bundle up and face the subzero weather for a little walk around the garden, and I captured this series of photos. I just love how each one has a distinct structure.
This is the time of year that we look forward.
It’s the start of a new year, the coldest month, a time of preparation for another garden season. It’s a time for setting goals, dreaming about possibilities, and setting the bar. A time to start fresh and recalibrate. A time to dream and create. A time to define one’s trajectory for the New Year in some kind of tangible terms by way of resolutions and themes. Or perhaps, simply a time to count down the days until the days are longer, the sun is stronger, and ground is workable again.
Like many of you, a significant portion of my thoughts about what is yet to be have centered around the garden (and by extension, the blog). I’ve tentatively started to page through my favorite seed catalogs, and I’ve penciled in a lot of ideas and notes in my editorial calendar, but so far most of my thoughts have been a bit broader as I enter my 5th year of blogging and my 5th year gardening at our current home.
The past two years have been pretty intense years. I went from one extreme where I took on two community garden plots in addition to my home gardens, to the other extreme where I intentionally scaled my plans way back to accommodate other priorities. In and out of the garden, the pace was exhausting.
This year, I’m looking forward to redefining the scale and scope of the garden. I want to find a happy medium between spending too many hours every night at the community garden and letting my raised bed garden fend for itself; between canning 54 tomato plants worth of salsa and skipping the salsa all together. For me, re-definition isn’t as much about change as it is about getting back to basics, I want to be more intentional in my plans and projects. I want to focus more on the bigger vision of our backyard space. I want to create balance, find inspiration, and seek knowledge.
I’m ready to get creative in protecting my squash from squirrels. I can’t wait to take the University of Minnesota beekeeping class next month. I want to plant cherry tomatoes again. I’m going to try really, really hard to use more seed from my existing seed stash than I order this year. I will actually rotate my tomatoes this year. I’m looking forward to getting dirt under my fingernails as I turn the blank canvas in the photo above into a thriving garden once again.
On the blog, I have a lingering list of some relatively minor “look and feel” changes I want to accomplish. Now a little over a year into my self-hosted WordPress baptism by fire, I (still) need to clean up a few functional items from the transition, as well as make a few tweaks to the overall design now that I’ve lived with it for a while and can better see where some improvement is needed.
I am looking forward to having more time to focus on content. I want to grow as a writer and photographer. I want to play with all the bells and whistles on my new camera and master some new tricks. I want to garden and write intentionally this year. This year I hope to cultivate a more thoughtful garden community around the blog and its associated social media accounts.
I have made a very conscious effort to maintain a good balance of content here, trying not to stray too far from who I am as a gardener and writer. I’ve tried to balance the how-to posts with the garden storytelling, keenly aware of how easy it is to fall into the trap of creating content that only appeals to a certain end (i.e. Pinterest). Don’t get me wrong, Pinterest is a great tool for gardeners (and a huge driver of traffic to my blog). I use it on almost a daily basis, but I every time I sit down to write a new post, I have an internal struggle over text-overlaid photos and hashtags. I want to continue to make sure that my style of gardening, writing, and photography remains true to who I am.
I’m looking forward to planning, planting, growing, and harvesting with each of you. I’m looking forward to continuing to garden with those of you who have been around for a while, and meeting new gardeners who will join us along the way this year.
I’m looking forward to a good year.
Now that I’ve shared the lessons learned in the 2014 garden, now it’s time to recount some of the sweet successes!
I created a garden in an underutilized backyard space
The squash garden was probably the largest project I tackled this year, and I am really happy with how it turned out. Previously, this space was not very useful other than as a catch all for firewood, wind-fallen tree branches, and of course lots of weeds. It was a lot of work for a space that didn’t bring any added value. Now, it’s a great low maintenance garden space that is productive and attracts pollinators.
I harvested the best crop of rhubarb to date
My newly divided rhubarb patch grew more vigorously than ever this year! After a year of rest and regrowth, I applied a side dressing of compost and manure this spring, and then simply watched in awe as the rhubarb patch exceeded my expectations just one year after a pretty significant disruption. No complaints here, though, I happily enjoyed all things rhubarb right up until the 4th of July!
I expanded my seed saving efforts
I’ve kind of come to the conclusion that seed saving is one of my favorite parts of gardening. I love photographing the plants as they evolve from flower to seed, and there is really nothing more satisfying that growing seed that you saved from last year’s garden. This year I added lettuce, broccoli (post forthcoming), zinnias, cosmos, and some new herbs to my repertoire.
I discovered a new favorite paste tomato
After documenting my search for a great heirloom paste tomato in 2013, many of you suggested I try Striped Roman. I was lucky to snag some seed in a seed trade last fall and grew them out this year along with my favorites from last year and Jersey Giant (another great pick!). Not only are these tomatoes gorgeous, but they are incredibly flavorful as well. This one is going to have a permanent place in my garden for years to come.
I started using coconut coir in place of peat for seed starting
Much has been said in gardening circles regarding the sustainability of using peat for horticultural purposes. That issue has certainly weighed on me as well, but even on a practical level, working with peat can be downright frustrating when you are trying to get fresh starter mix to take on moisture, or you come back from a long weekend and find seedlings pots that are completely dried out. This year was the first year that I tried coco coir as an alternative, and I don’t plan to ever go back to peat.
I spent more time preserving “outside the jar”
2013 was a huge canning year for me, so this year not only did I not have a need to go crazy with the canner, I also didn’t have a lot of time. What I did do was spend more time on other preservation endeavors, like ground cayenne pepper, dry beans, and creative ways to put up kale.
I grew my first head of lettuce
For years I have longed to grow a beautiful head of lettuce in the garden. My previous attempts were always thwarted by early stretches of hot weather that caused the plants to bolt before they could produce a head of lettuce. This year, some late germinating fall seeded lettuce go an early start and I was able to harvest several large heads of beautiful red romaine lettuce.
I started the cucurbits indoors
This is the second year that I have grown absolutely everything in my vegetable garden from seed, but it was the first year that I decided to start my cucurbits indoors. This was a really fun seed starting project, as the seedlings have a lot of character and change quite a bit from week to week–sometimes even day to day– and seeing how the squirrels behaved in the squash garden this year, I’m really glad I decided to go for it.
The permanent herb + pollinator garden is off to a good start
This is one of those projects that I really wish I had been able to devote a little more time and energy to this year, but for the first year of a new garden, it actually did quite well. I planted asparagus, lots of herbs, some perennial and self-sowing annual flowers, and of course, the dry beans on the arbor. It will be a good foundation to build on this coming year!
I tried winter sowing
Throwing a container of soil and seeds into the snow and cold sounds crazy in a normal year, but in the middle of last January’s record-breaking cold, it really felt like a leap of faith. I think that’s what made it all the more satisfying when I started to see little dill, kale, and lettuce spouts popping up shortly after the snow melted.
Here’s to another great year in the garden!
It’s that time of year again! Today I’m recounting some of the lessons learned in the 2014 garden:
When winter gives you a polar vortex, make mojitos
No doubt about it, 2014 started out in a very memorable way: here in Minnesota we experienced three separate stretches of seriously sub-zero temperatures (the stuff that When I was your age… stories are made of). Watching my overwintered mint plant grow and thrive during two months of unrelenting cold convinced me that I should always plan to have something growing during the winter months to to take the edge off our cold reality. And since there’s not much you can do to change the course of a polar vortex, you might as well celebrate it with a windowsill-grown mojito!
You can leave the parsnips in the ground over winter (even a really bad winter) and they’ll come back!
As temperatures plummeted in January and February, the worry about what the extreme cold might do to what was in the ground under the snow started to set in. Thankfully, my hardy zone 4 perennials came through like champs and proved that I really didn’t have anything to worry about, but I certainly wasn’t expecting anything out of the poor parsnips I abandoned in the garden last December when I overestimated the time it would take for the ground to freeze. I hadn’t given them a second thought until I started to see those beautiful bright greens emerge from the parsnip tops. Overwintered parsnips are pretty delicious, so this is a lesson I’m happy to learn over and over again.
It’s time to upgrade the rabbit fence
After enjoying a year of bunny rabbit-free gardening in 2013, we returned home from our vacation last February to the tell-tale signs that a rabbit had moved in under our new deck, and sure enough, as spring progressed there were a lot of baby bunny sightings around the yard. The trusty old rabbit fence came out, but those little ones still managed to get in there and feast on the brassicas and devour the pepper seedlings. I eventually did get it shored up, but next year there will be no messing around; that garden is going to be secure from the start!
Next year, direct sow the Ground Cherries
Say it with me: If at first you don’t succeed… My attempts at ground cherry seed starting were pretty rough this year. I tried everything in my seed starting bag of tricks to no avail — until I gave up and just scratched what was left of the seed into the ground and then ended up with more ground cherry seedlings than I could reasonably let grow. Lesson learned: next year, they’re going directly into the ground!
You can never plant too many Mexican Sour Gherkins
Okay, maybe you could, but these little cukes are seriously good–garden candy at its finest! Very few of them ever made it out of the garden, and if I did maintain enough restraint to make a batch of cucumber salsa, that didn’t last long, either! I thought 12 plants would be plenty, but clearly I underestimated the addictive qualities of these delicious little bites. Their petite scale is well suited for dense planting, so I should be able to increase the number of plants next year without needing too much extra space.
Rue is pretty, but look, don’t touch
Yes, I had read all the warnings before I even planted the seed. I knew that Rue could cause contact dermatitis, but I planted it anyway because it was so pretty (and said to deter Japanese Beetles). And I was very, very careful with it—right up until that one time I wasn’t. I only had blisters on a small area on my thumb, but it was painful enough that I ended up pulling it all out and throwing it away. I’d love to try it again, but I’m going to have to give its placement a little more thought.
If I want backyard-grown squash, I’m going to have to fight for it
First it was the slugs, then it was the squirrels, but my first year challenges in the squash garden haven’t deterred me yet. I have a good game plan to battle the slugs, but I still need to figure out a good strategy to protect the developing squash from the squirrels. Suggestions welcome!
Sometimes tomatoes ripen faster off the vine
This was not the best year for tomatoes. A late start and a lack of summer heat set the stage for the latest date I’ve ever harvested the first ripe tomato (September 5th!). I still ended up with a fairly decent harvest, but not until I decided to just start harvesting the green ones to ripen in flats. I’m thinking I might need to stack the deck with a couple of earlier varieties next year, just in case.
Sometimes life outside of the garden takes priority
This year was a pretty eventful year outside of the garden. With lots of weddings, pinched nerves, campaign season, and many other important events, I was a pretty hands off gardener for most of the season. I did my best to keep up on harvesting and watering, but for the most part I kind of just left the garden to grow on its own. No pruning, weeding, or otherwise fussing over my vegetables. There was no time for extra projects, and hardly time to can anything. I didn’t come anywhere close to my goals for the garden or the blog this year, and that’s okay. I wouldn’t trade my new sister in law or my husband’s success for all the ripe tomatoes in the world.
Take time to rest, recover, and recharge
When it became clear that, ready or not, winter was arriving early, I was pretty disappointed. I had really been counting on a nice long fall to make up for all of the gardening time I missed out on this year. But perhaps the early arrival was just what I needed to recover from a busy year. The past year has been so busy and so rushed, the garden started to become less of a source of inspiration and more of a list of chores. The extra time off this winter is a good thing; I’m excited to come back to the garden next year with renewed energy, appreciation, and focus.
Be sure to check back tomorrow for this year’s Sweet Successes in the garden!
The past week has been a joyful whirl of celebrations, time spent with family and friends, rustic home-cooked meals, and traditions new and old. This year I’ve made it a personal challenge to be more mindful of the little things, like the the scent of fresh rosemary that has infused into just about everything in our home, the way the lights sparkle on the tree, and how last night’s snowfall clings to the trees. I’ll be back in full force next week, but in the meantime I truly hope that each of you are finding the same joy, peace, and comfort in this sacred season. From my garden to yours, Merry Christmas!
Confession: This is one of the hardest times of the year to sit down and write about gardening.
This is the time of year that doesn’t feel like it truly belongs to one garden season or the other. Last season’s garden is well into its winter hibernation; next season’s garden consists of a small stack of seed catalogs that are starting to pile up, waiting for a snowy day in January.
Yes, there are still a few lingering garden projects, like grinding the cayenne peppers and packing up saved seed. In the kitchen, the garden continues to nourish us. And of course there is always a photo op in the garden if you look close enough – but these days I find myself more inclined to snapping a quick photo on Instagram and less inspired to sit down and write.
This time of year, I find myself looking forward more than looking back. It’s not so much an impatient, I just want time to go faster kind of looking forward, but more of a creative time to dream and anticipate what next season might hold: the possibilities of taking my photography to another level, the things I will learn in beekeeping class, and how our little suburban homestead might evolve and change when winter gives way to spring again.
I find myself energized by all of this potential, and so when I do sit down to write, I find myself filling the pages of my editorial calendar instead of finalizing that draft of the broccoli seed saving post or editing the series of snowy sunflower photographs I shot last week. Rather than force it, I’ve decided to follow this lead and go with it.
Embracing the silence and stillness of this season is not always easy, but I do believe it makes what lies ahead all the better for it.
‘Twas the night before Thanksgiving… and with all the cold and snow we’ve already had this year, I’m not ashamed to admit that I am finding myself in the mood for everything Christmas already. Don’t get me wrong, tomorrow will definitely be all about Thanksgiving traditions and time spent with family, but on this snowy night, I can’t help but start to think about trimming out the tree, listening to Christmas music, and the joy of finding the perfect gift for those near and dear to me.
Once again I have put together a collection of gifts for gardeners to help you find inspiration for the gardener on your list (and maybe even fill in your own wish list, too!):
- I love the look and feel of these Reclaimed Wood Garden Stakes – perfect if the gardener on your list has a natural or rustic garden style!
- It can be hard to find garden-themed jewelry that isn’t a novelty piece, but I really love how this Tomato Pendant walks the fine line of playful, yet simple and totally wearable.
- I love this concept! These Vegetable and Herb Scented Candles are packaged in plantable paper embedded with tomato or thyme seed – this would make a great hostess gift!
- Stuff the stocking of your favorite gardener with this After the Garden Goat Soap made with ground tart cherry pits to scrub away the dirt and goat milk to sooth your hands after a long day in the garden.
- Who doesn’t love a good garden cocktail? Pair up a copy of The Drunken Botanist with a Mason Jar Shaker for a fun and practical gift!
- I have been longing for a kitchen compost pail that doesn’t look like a kitchen compost pail. This Coffee Pot Kitchen Compost Pail is discreet enough to sit on the kitchen counter while still having enough capacity to be functional.
- Love the look and feel of vintage seed packet designs? Then you’ll love these Vintage Seed Packet Note Cards featuring the designs of D. Landreth Seed Packets. The back of the seed packet is even printed on the back of the notecard!
- Show your favorite local farmers some love with this great Farmer’s Market Tote. It would also make a great tote for hauling supplies to and from the community garden, or packing up your seed catalogs and garden journal for a weekend garden planning retreat!
- I had no idea that such a thing existed , but these All Weather Notebooks would be perfect for keeping garden plans and notes organized and protected from the dirt, water, and mud during spring planting.
- A Bee Feeder would be a fun addition to the garden, especially if your garden isn’t very established yet. This simple structure can help attract pollinators and provide a supplemental food source during times when there aren’t many flowers blooming.
- For the kitchen gardener, this Root Vegetable Storage Bin makes longer term storage of the fall root vegetable harvest easy.
- Looking for a super practical gift? Help your favorite gardener stock up on seed starting supplies like these CowPots (made out of composted manure). Throw in a few seed packets or a gift certificate to your favorite seed company, and you’ve got a guaranteed hit!
- For the gardener who spends a lot of time in the garden tweeting, instagramming, and sharing photos, consider a garden themed phone case. I’m loving some of these vintage vegetable and Women’s Land Army designs!
- What do you get for the gardener that has it all? How about an Olla (a large clay vessel used for slow-release irrigation) to make the job of watering the garden easier!
Finally, in this season of giving, consider supporting a charity that promotes gardening and small scale farming as a means to self-sufficiency and hunger relief. Organizations like Heifer International and Oxfam America allow you to give the gift of gardening, which in turn provides families in need with a means to not only grow food for their own table, but to make a living at market as well (photo credit: Heifer International)
Looking for more ideas? Check out the Gifts for Gardeners Pinterest Board!
With our quick transition from fall to winter this year, I suddenly found myself with a lot of kale on my hands. The gradual late season harvest I had envisioned months ago when I started the seeds came to an abrupt end when it became clear we were heading for a prolonged arctic blast. With way more kale in the refrigerator than we could reasonably eat fresh between the two of us, I needed a plan to put it up.
The most common approach to preserving kale is to blanch and freeze it. This is actually a pretty efficient way to preserve greens, but for someone like me who is not even lukewarm on cooked greens, I find the texture somewhat limiting. It is also possible to pressure can kale, but again: texture, not to mention what the high processing temperature and long processing time does to the quality of the final product.
There has to be a better option, right? Something more creative, more versatile, and more palatable to address an end of season kale glut. The answer, of course is a resounding yes! Here’s a quick peek at what’s been going on in my kitchen over the last week:
Kale Smoothie Starters
Fill your blender with fresh kale, pour in your favorite smoothie liquid (I use unsweetened almond milk), and puree until smooth. Freeze the puree in ice cube trays or a mini muffin pan for ready-to-use kale for your breakfast smoothies. I store these kale-packed cubes in a large freezer bag, making it super easy to grab and add to the blender with a wide variety of tasty ingredients.
Some might think kale chips are a little overrated, but they really are a fun and easy way to use up a big bunch of kale. They crisp up nicely and can be dressed up or down to suit just about any taste. Simply toss well in olive oil and season with anything from a little sea salt to a complex blend of your favorite spices (check out this helpful post for some great tips to ensure that your kale chips come out of the oven perfectly every time). Unfortunately kale chips are not well suited for long term storage (not that they will last that long anyway), but they can be successfully stored short term in a brown paper lunch bag.
Use your food processor to combine a handful of walnuts (so good with kale!), a few big garlic cloves, a couple of cups of kale, olive oil, and parmesan cheese for an interpretation of a classic perfect for the fall and winter months ahead. Pesto can easily be frozen if you omit the cheese (the texture doesn’t hold well when the cheese is frozen, so add that in when you thaw it out). Freeze larger quantities in freezer safe containers for pasta or a delicious spread on fresh bread, or portion it out into ice cube trays or muffin pans for smaller quantities perfect for cooking or smaller servings.
Take homemade pasta one step further by incorporating kale into the pasta dough. I used this simple recipe, substituting kale for the spinach. Of course you can cook the pasta fresh, but it also very easily lends itself to drying for longer term storage. You can also utilize kale in filling for ravioli or in gnocchi, both of which can be frozen for future use.
Kale Flakes + Kale Powder
Dehydrated kale can be crushed into flakes or ground into powder and used in the same way you would use your favorite herbs. I add kale flakes to burgers, meatballs, pasta sauce, soup, eggs, and flatbread, just to name a few of my favorites. Use a dehydrator if you have one, or a parchment paper lined baking sheet at a low temperature in the oven works really well, too.
Do you have a favorite way to put up kale?
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