Hugo Feed Mill: Local Icon

Walking into the Hugo Feed Mill & Hardware reminds us all why we call the good old days good. This place really is that special, not that you’d ever hear it from them…

This is a place that withstands the test of time and triumphs with knowledge blended with caring. I mean, when was the last time a store’s sales person actually listened to you; and then actually knew what you needed, had it for a fair price and did what it was supposed to. Obviously, their customers love them.

Steve Marier runs the Mill and is a fourth generation Marier Mill Manager (say that three times fast). He could easily double as the town historian. He’s been a part of Hugo’s shift from agricultural land to housing developments and Hugo feed mill is still thriving because he and his family desire to adapt to best serve their neighbors.

Walk Down Memory Lane

Steve remembers shoveling and delivering coal to homes and farms on the rail line, along with the huge pile of corn cobs that would get dumped in the parking lot after combining time. The mill itself was built in 1917, it’s been in Steve’s family since 1925. For many years it was mainly a country grain business, grinding local grains for feed.

I remember being a young girl, 8 or 9, and going ‘up to the Mill’ to get mallard ducklings to raise on our family’s pond. Since then Hugo Feed Mill has held a special place in this Urban homesteader’s heart. More history on their website.

It’s their up-to-date practices, with the latest products and applications mixed perfectly with their ability to help you grow that keeps customers coming back.


Their greenhouse is open for the season with herbs and bedding plants. They’ll be overflowing with their signature HUGE selection of peppers and tomatoes by May 18th; thank you cold and wet Minnesota Spring.

Steve helping me find the right plant last Summer

Steve, aka “Dr. Pepper” estimates around 425 peppers 175 tomatoes varieties to be available in the Greenhouse this Spring.
They hold planting parties and tasting events on site. Steve also gives ‘Pepper Talks’ around town. Follow them on their Facebook Page, or sign up for their “timely tips’ email list to stay in the know on their events and specials.

The Mill is a great community partner as well. They give seed and starter plants to Giving Gardens each year. Giving Gardens is a non-profit helping neighbors grow food for themselves and food shelves.

They also tend a Kids Potting Bench where kids can pot up a free flower. Special flowers and pots available for some special kids over Mother’s Day weekend!

**Mention this blog or that you saw it on their Facebook page to get the special Mother’s Day plants!**

Happy Mothers Day from Hugo Feed Mill

Garden Supplies

A peek into their store

A full line of soil amendments, fertilizers and seeds is waiting inside the store. From sprinklers to live traps they have everything the home gardener could need- and if its not in their store they can likely order it for you. I learn something new each time I shop there.

Chick Orders

Two of our chicks from earlier this Spring

Their chick orders, minimum order of 5 per breed, run now through the end of May. They have over 20 breeds of chickens, and mallards. This is the first place I bought chicks, a dozen years ago. If you stop in when they have the chicks waiting to be picked up you might even catch a glimpse, and they sometimes have extras (another good reason to follow them on Facebook). More about raising urban chickens HERE.

My favorite place to get straw & feed

I also get all my straw from them for my backyard flock’s coop bedding. These bales also make a great base for straw bale gardens!

And their organic chicken feed, Nature’s Grown Organic, is my girls’ absolute favorite.

… & Hardware

Find farm supplies like fencing and stock tanks. Horse supplies like bedding and barn lime, bird feeders and seed and pet foods, even plumbing and electrical items (which I admit I didn’t really know!).

The Old Mill

Attached to the old mill is the storage and granary part of the business. Backing up to the loading dock always makes me feel like a little more of a farm girl than I really am 😉

There is always something new to find at Hugo Feed Mill, whether feed, seed or knowledge you’ll have to go find out for yourself.

I feel lucky to have had Hugo feed mill in my neighborhood for all of my years here, and close to 100 years in their family.

Let me know if you stop into Hugo Feed Mill- and be sure to tell me what you learned when you were there. They’re great at helping you get your fork in the dirt too!

Dig In,

Springing into Local Food

Spring Snap Peas!

Hello Spring!

The birds are singing, the ground has thawed and green is unfurling itself before our very eyes. Spring is officially here and that means the locally grown food is soon to follow!

Whether in backyard gardens or further away farms, nearby hidden foraging spots (like when I forage for ramps!), under lakes or deep in forests; our local food systems are waking up! This awakening is happening both with spring’s seasonal arrival and a mirrored cultural movement back towards local food.

Two Years Digging In

I’ve been fascinated with the why’s and how’s of the local food movement and its deeper deep roots. This is a huge part of why I started up Forks in the Dirt just over two years ago (Happy Anniversary!)

My littlest guy planting seeds, two years ago

The food we eat intimately impacts our daily lives, but for decades we’ve moved further and further away from that simple fact. Big business focused on making food more economical while inadvertently minimizing the dire nutritional and ecological implications. This focus was beneficial in some ways, and detrimental in others. Turns out growing food with an end goal of mass production and longest shelf life hurts our collective health, bank accounts and entire eco-system.

High fives all around for us waking up to those realities as a society. 

Choose Locally Grown

One of the easiest ways you can ‘be the change’ with our food system is realizing that you vote with your dollars three times a day. The food you buy effects the food chain in so many ways. Here’s an earlier article I wrote that touches more on WHY local food matters: Local Food For Thought.

Think about all the places you can make a choice about the food you eat:

  • Who grew the seed that grew your food
  • Who owns the land that grew your food
  • How many miles did your food travel
  • Who tended the land and livestock that became your food
  • What chemicals have been added to your food
Farmer Jessy of Gilbertson Farms and some tasty, humanely raised meats.

Answers to those questions are inherently baked into each meal and every snack you eat.

It can get overwhelming fast (another hint that our food system is broken)! But asking yourself just one of these questions a day will get you thinking about how much effort (and who’s effort) goes into each plate you eat.

I think the local food movement is an attempt to make food simple again. A pull to take back some control over what we put into our bodies.

What do you think?

My Local Food Journey So Far

So far I’ve had a winding but fun ride down the local food road. 

I started growing more of my own food years ago. Then I got to know a few more farmers that grew food. We raised backyard chickens. I learned how to can, freeze and dry more food. I still buy much of my food from local grocery stores, but I grow my own or buy local when I can. For me its about finding a balance that works for my family.

*Important Reminder*
Everyone’s scales are weighted differently to begin with so there’s no reason to compare!*

Farmer Molly of Niemczyck’s

I’m in awe of the abundance of the amount and diversity of food right here (like within a 20 mile radius!!) year round. From Deep Winter Greenhouses and Aquaponics providing fresh locally grown food through the dead of winter, to urban farmers changing the way we provide food to our neighbors during the growing season- change is happening, and fast.

Changes coming from places like the North Circle Food Hub,  The Good Acre and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA’s) plus more MN Farmers Markets than ever.
Gardening in general is up 200% in the last decade, according to the National Gardening Association annual report. Knowing where your food comes from just feels good.

Growing Hope

I recently attended Schoolyard Garden & Local Food conferences at the MN Landscape Arboretum and the message was loud and clear; Minnesotans are already awake to the food we are eating. There is currently a MN Farm to School Bill being decided in our state legislature, feel free to weigh in on that bill! I can’t wait to see how we collectively work to make our food system work better for us all.

Farmer May Lee of Mhonpaj’s Garden

As we head into spring and summer when locally grown food is SO VERY abundant, I encourage you to renew your commitment to: eat more local, healthy foods, grow something you can eat, buy from a local farmer. Get to know some of your food’s roots and see how your relationship to your food changes.

You can call me an urban homesteader, a dreamer, or just someone who puts her time where her mouth is. Any way you slice it, life has been pretty tasty lately. Thanks for digging in with me these last few years!

Looking forward to this season as we keep on digging in and crossing paths with farmers, food and doing good! What will you grow this season?


Fresh Eggs to Chicken Soup

This is our family’s story of how we transitioned through loving our backyard chickens to ultimately culling them
after they stopped laying.

For us crazy chicken people it’s *finally* time to place our orders and prepare for our hearts and homes to be overrun with cuteness and chicken poop. We pick up our new girls next week from EggPlant Urban Farm Supply and we can’t wait!

Living the Good Life

But this story is about our Old Girls, our first flock at this home, because although no one likes to talk about it- even those adorable baby chicks get old. My advice is to have a plan BEFORE you bring them home. It’s helpful to know what you’ll do once they stop laying, get sick, or just really old.

Truth Talking

This was a more emotional experience than I was prepared for. Much more so than when I’d had them in a farm setting, or that one time we had to cull a nasty rooster. We had 4 hens in our backyard chicken flock which my oldest son named Netty, Betty, Stella, Bella. They were regularly carried around, hand fed and in general, doted on.

I need you to know that for our family,
two things can and do co-exist:

1. I loved raising and tending to my girls; from fluffy baby chicks, to their awkward adolescence, molting, bumblefoot, vent gleet, even on -15F days where I had to change their water multiple times a day. They’re really endearing animals. Tending to their needs and completely spoiling them was our pleasure. Getting those eggs was awesome too!

2.I loved knowing where this meat came from: When the time came, we knew the girls had enjoyed a life far better than any of their counterparts who end up in a grocery store come from.

Now, I still get an occasional emergency rotisserie from Costco- but on average I really like knowing where my food comes from.

So, for us- once we got over the emotional roller coaster, the answer was clear. We’d be butchering our hens before Winter set in.

How We Decided it was Time

My family hadn’t gotten more than an egg a week from the girls since the end of August. I think I was in denial for quite a while…

Beetle Feeder Mania

After almost 2 full years of happily laying in the nesting boxes I began to find eggs scattered in the backyard. This was likely related to the Japanese Beetle ‘feeder’ I had made for the girls. They became so obsessed with the beetles that they didn’t return to their nesting boxes to lay their eggs in fear of missing the next bug!

The Perfect Storm

Bumble Foot Wrapping

Two of our four hens contracted bumble foot in late July and I figured the ‘no eggs’ was directly related to them taking their sweet time healing from that. Also a shout out to my dear friend, Nicole- a vet tech who helped with the initial backyard surgery. I owe you one girl!

Then one of the Ameraucana’s went into a full molt, then a Black Australorp followed. Hens usually slow down or stop laying while molting because feathers are all protein, and that takes A LOT to regrow your whole feather duster.

Egg Eaters

As I mentioned earlier, the hens weren’t going back to their nesting boxes to lay, so they were laying in the yard. Eggs laying around usually leads to one thing; egg eating. They were likely all eating eggs by the end. I only ever found a few remnant shells, but all four hens wouldn’t stop laying at the same time.

We tried many things to deter egg eating, and encourage laying in the coop. Replacing their finely crushed egg shells with oyster calcium in case that was the issue. Placing ‘false eggs’ for the nesting boxes and continuing to use the herbs that I grew to help promote laying and keep/get them healthy.

Since we had an egg eater, we couldn’t give them to a farmer to enjoy their retirement only to wreak havoc by teaching a new flock of hens to eat eggs…

It was Time

So, I guess once the molting was over, I had to ask myself a hard question. Was I going to keep a flock of non-laying hens through a cold Minnesota Winter? Cold winters can mean boredom for the girls. I’ve used lots of ways to combat boredom before- from scratch blocks, hanging cabbages, new roosts, swings etc., but this time it didn’t seem like a good trade off.

The idea of doing all that work without return didn’t sit well with my homesteader heart.

it was time

Having “The Talk” with our Kids

We talked to our sons about it at length. My husband and I reminded them of our discussion back when we first got the baby chicks that they would have to say goodbye to our backyard chickens at some point.  Our one son was fine with it, our other boy cried for hours when we first brought it up. He was sad about losing them for weeks.

Eventually, the butchering day came.

After a major refresher (thank you YouTube) we prepped for it and had a day when our boys were going to be gone for a 5 hour stretch…


Not going to sugar coat it; that was difficult. I was sad. I kept trying to remember that we gave them a good life. Then, as there was work to be done, I just kind of came to terms with it.

The birds have now all been stewed and souped on. Even my boy who swore he wouldn’t eat any of the meat, chose to and really liked the soup. And I have to say the bone broth was really amazing.

So, love it or hate it; that’s this Suburban Homesteader’s story.

This time around my boys are just as excited to get our new baby chicks. If anything, we’re all wiser, and if anything we will lavish even more love on this new generation of backyard birds because of our previous girls. We are definitely more appreciative of the meat we eat because of this experience.

If you are (still) interested in raising backyard chickens, read my Chickens in the Hood blog for more how to info.

One thing I know for sure; I’ll never judge another person’s decision on anything like this. It is such a personal choice. One that I am proud our family made.

Those girls will always have a special place in my heart, they were good teachers in so many ways.

I’m curious; if you have chickens, what are your plans for when they stop laying? Obviously, no judgment here 😉

I can’t wait to share photos of my new fluffy babies with you all!


Home Grown Garden Resources

Local Info to Get You Growing

If you’re here, you’re likely looking to dig into your garden resources a little deeper. Let’s take a tour of the places and faces of our local gardening scene!

More and more of us are gardening, specifically- more Americans are growing our own food, 1 in 3 of us- according to the National Gardening Association’s survey.

It is obvious from the quality and range of people and organizations ready to help, our corner of the Twin Cities loves their homegrown food! This post has a sister “Garden Resources” page with links that will be updated regularly- so check back to stay in the know!

WBL Seed Library

Our very own White Bear Lake Public Library houses the volunteer run WBL Seed Library. 1,500 seed packets found new homes in 2018. In that same year, locals grew and/or donated seeds and helped to pack 1,420 seed packets for distribution. Join the email list at the website to stay in the know about packing and class events. A seed library is just what it sounds like, a place where you can “check out” a packet of seeds to grow, enjoy the fruits or flowers of your labor. Then, bring back enough seeds to replenish and hopefully increase the seed stock for the next season. All for free! More info about our seed library and seed saving in the article Seed Saving Starts Now !

For a full list of my favorite seed companies check out the Garden Resources Page

Ramsey County Master Gardeners

We’re so lucky our great state values farming and gardening! Part of the University of Minnesota extension services, the Master Gardener program educates volunteers. These volunteers educate residents in proven, eco-friendly gardening techniques to improve our environment.

These garden gurus keep a busy schedule visiting the community at events (like at the WBL Winter Farmers Market) answering questions and giving presentations at their seasonal sites. They hold a Diagnostic Clinic which is open May 1 through September 30 on Wednesdays and Saturdays, located at 2020 White Bear Ave. Maplewood, a.k.a. “The Barn”.

The Master Gardeners also have a great website at with lots of garden resource info, or send a question via email via the “Ask a Master Gardener” link on the site. This site goes from soil sampling and seed sowing, to preserving the harvest. Search ‘vegetables’ “calendar’ or ‘preserve and prepare’ from HERE. Or just go right to THIS LINK to check out recommendations for specific veggies you want to grow!

The U of MN BEE LAB is another amazing resource for gardeners looking to work with nature and her ultimate pollinating machines. Resources on plant options, City Beekeeping rules and native pollinator trends abound.

Two gardening classes taught by a Master Gardener are being offered through WBL Community Services & Recreation this Spring: Flowers for Pollinators and Vegetables for Everyone.

taught by Ramsey County master gardners

Hugo Feed Mill

The Hugo Feed Mill and Hardware couples down-home customer service with up to date knowledge and passion for helping their neighbors grow real, good food. Steve, aka “Dr. Pepper” anticipates around 350 pepper and 150 tomato varieties will be available this Spring. The greenhouse opens early May with bedding plants then starts overflowing with tomatoes and peppers by mid-May.

Steve in his bursting Greenhouse!

The Hugo Feed Mill hosts planting parties, tasting events and always have knowledgeable caring staff on site to answer questions. Steve also gives ‘Pepper Talks’ around town. Follow the Hugo Feed Mill on Facebook or sign up for their “timely tips’ email list from the website to stay up to date.

Another favorite local urban homesteading store I adore is Egg|Plant Urban Farm Supply. Both Hugo Feed Mill and Egg|Plant sell chicks each spring as well!!

more info on chickens in the Hood

Local Plant Sales for 2019

These plant sales will start your garden off on the right foot. Good for your garden, the pollinators, your harvests and the community. Plants grown for these sales are never treated with Neonicotinoid pesticides, are almost always non-GMO, locally raised by experts- and the sales directly benefit some great gardening programs.

Friends School Plant Sale
May 10th-12th, (times vary daily) at the State Fair Grounds

With more than 2,450 plant varieties this may be the largest single plant sale in the U.S. It is a fundraising event for the Friends School of Minnesota, a small Quaker K-8 school in St. Paul. Plants are grown as naturally as possible, 80% from local gr

Ramsey County Master Gardeners Plant Sale
May 18
, 8am-2pm at “The Barn” 2020 White Bear Ave. Maplewood

The proceeds from this sale benefit the University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardener programs in Ramsey County. And being held at “The Barn” gives you a chance to check that local landmark out at the same time.

Landscape Revival Plant Sale
June 1
, 9am-1pm at the Shepherd of the Hills Church 3920 Victoria St N, Shoreview
June 8, 9am-1 pm at the Oakdale City Hall, 1584 Hadley Ave N, Oakdale

These sales offer gardeners one convenient location to shop for Minnesota native plants from six local native growers and learn how to use the plants from conservation organizations.

The goal of Landscape Revival is to promote the use of native plants by educating about their benefits for wildlife habitat, pollinators and water quality.

Garden Clubs

We have a few local garden groups to choose from. The Mahtomedi Garden Club meets monthly over the Winter months. They also host an annual Garden Tour, 2019’s is set for Sunday, June 23rd, noon-4pm. The Saint Paul Garden Club draws many locals focusing on public gardens in our capital city. They host a luscious annual flower show. Wild Ones focuses on native plant gardening, going beyond pollinator friendly.

Community Gardens

I coordinate the YMCA Community Gardens, so feel free to contact me directly if you are interested in renting a raised bed there!

Our town boasts some fabulous community gardens. These are places where all levels of gardeners grow together. Some of these have classes, and ‘in service’ times when a more experienced gardener will be on site. The Mahtomedi Community Gardens, the WBL United Methodist Community Gardens and the YMCA Community Gardens. All have information on how to rent a bed online or by calling their main numbers.

Many Paths to Eating Local

If you love fresh and local food but not gardening, you can support our local farmers by signing up for a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) and I have a blog post all about some great local CSA options in the CSA’s So Many Ways Blog Post. Or if you’re like me and grow a lot, but not everything your family eats, try shopping our very own White Bear Lake Farmers Markets, starting up the last Friday in June. I have some Farmers Market Shopping Tips for you too. If you’d like to check out more on some specific farmers, dig into my Farmers page, which links to interviews with local small farms.

For more “How To” info, please go to out my “Local Garden Resources” Page. You can always check out the Forks in the Dirt Blog, Facebook page, or Instagram feed where I sift through lots of local food info and have full blog posts on CSA’s, gardening tips, upcoming garden events and recipes for using your harvest.

Whichever way you choose to eat locally, I hope you Dig Your Food!

Syrup in the City: Maple Sugaring Tips

I love seeing the metal buckets and blue bags hanging on trees around town this time of year! Those bag are the symbol of two things I love dearly: Spring + people harvesting food from nature! I’ve noticed with growing glee that these buckets and bags have been multiplying in recent years! I hope the trend continues, because maple sugaring is such a simple way to forage your own food, reduce your carbon footprint, add nutrients to your sweetener- all while adding another homesteading skill to your list. Bonus: there’s very little that can go wrong, it just takes some time.

Drill In!

The process is easier than you think, and I’ve got some tips on how to make maple sugaring smooth like Sunday morning (pancakes).

Tool Time

My attempt to label my maple sugaring tools 🙂

A Spile (#1) gets ‘tapped’ into the tree, and something collects the sap.
There are a few different ways to collect sap, but for most backyard enthusiasts, sap saks or buckets are the way to go. We use these 3 part sak system. You wrap the blue bags (2) around the collars (3) and slide into the holder (4). There’s a hole in holder that fits tight to the notch in the spile. Once you get the sap saks on, be sure to tug down to make sure the bags are nice and tight (I’ve had one bag get full and work its way off, lesson learned after one bag!) Some people have hose running right from the spile to a closed bucket, but for us these sap saks work great.

The only ‘modification’ we’ve had to make is because of the squirrels… one year they must have gotten a taste of the sap, and wanted more, so they chewed a hole in the bottom corner of a sak! Saddest sap collection morning ever. So, we took a page from the squirrel vs. bird feeder wars and used coconut oil on the outside bottom ridge of the bag to sprinkle cayenne pepper onto- they never bothered the bags again 😉

Tips and Tricks

We’ve been tapping our maple tree for 7 years now, learning something new each season. Mostly, each sap run is SO DIFFERENT, and that is definitely part of what makes it so fun!
Some things we’ve figured out so far:

  • Each tree is different, our tree gets her juices flowing later than most- a true late bloomer
  • We are wood-fire lovers and will forever boil sap with a wood fire source
  • Wood ash in your sap doesn’t affect the final flavor …much
  • Straining sap through cheesecloth
    (before boiling) is very important
  • Our one big old Maple tree with two taps in it is *almost* enough for us

But by far the coolest and trickiest thing about Maple sugaring we’ve learned so far is how to condense maple sap without ALL the boiling…

Freeze Maple Sap Before Boiling

Using the “Freeze then Fire” Technique

We collect the sap in saks and pour that off into 5 gallon buckets then use our chest freezer (or just leave it outside if its dropping below freezing) to freeze overnight or longer. After freezing, we transfer the frozen sap to a ‘draining bucket’ (another 5 gallon bucket with holes drilled in the bottom) and let that sit at room temperature until about a third of it has melted. The melted portion has dripped through to the bottom bucket, (usually ready by evening if we take it out in the morning) that’s the precious sugary portion. 

Getting the fires going!

Toss the still frozen ice outside and put the condensed sap back in the freezer for a repeat freeze-thaw cycle, this time keeping the first half of the melted liquid.  The result should be a liquid that has increased from 1-3% sugar to 5-16% sugar. Meaning a MUCH shorter boil time!

Tip: I use a wine cork screw to screw into the frozen sap
and lift it out of the bucket- so much easier!

Sweet Success

I love this method because it allows us to hold large amounts of sap all together even if the weather gets too warm to keep it outside. It also helps with sap flow starts and stops and not loose any sap to getting too warm for too long. *You’ll know your sap has turned if it starts to look cloudy, this happens if the sap is held above 40 F for very long. We had to toss two full buckets our first year, it was heartbreaking!

Tap those Trees!

Yes, you can tap other trees besides Maple trees.

All Maple trees have the potential for syrup, with Sugar Maples coming in with the highest sugar content in aw sap- 2.0%. Our Silver Maple is estimated to have about 1.7% sugar content. Other native Midwest trees that can be tapped include box elder and paper birch. There are lots of trees that can be tapped depending on where you are, here’s the LINK to the best list I’ve found so far.

I’ll also throw out there that apartment and condo dwellers can ask their associations if they can tap trees on the land surrounding their spaces- How about a Spring Syrup Social to bring us out of hibernation! 😊

Why So Sappy?

Basically, it is the freeze thaw cycle that gets the tree’s internal pressure pumping.  Specifically, according to Botanics in the Kitchen article

“Three primary processes can cause xylem sap to flow:  transpiration, root pressure and stem pressure.“  Umm, have I mentioned I love nature lately?! Right now, our 2019 March forecast is looking spot on for tapping ASAP!

Time to Gear Up

Tools of the trade, Beer optional.

Lots of places have equipment for collecting sap, ranging from your simple taps, brackets and bags to buckets and tubing galore. My online pick is Tap My Trees. Locally, Fleet Farm and Egg|Plant Urban Farm Supply have got you covered. Egg|Plant has great staff that will talk you through any specific questions!

We love our maple sap for so many reasons… Pancakes taste better and my Crunchiest Granola Recipe wouldn’t be the same (or as cost effective) without homemade maple syrup. We also bake with it often, and use it to sweeten tea. And there are so many other trace elements and benefits to be found in that bottle of liquid sugar.

Burn Baby Burn

Lots of firewood is key to a successful Maple Syrup venture!

But first you do have to boil the heck out of it! Making syrup from sap means condensing sap in a ratio of about 40:1. That means it takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. Like I said, lots of boiling! We have a very rudimentary set up (it looks ridiculous in the photo!). But you know what, it works for us. We burn wood that would otherwise sit around rotting, and we put basically no money into the blocks or stand (we use old shelving standards for cross pieces).It is not the most efficient way to do things, but it is the way that makes us happy, and the kids LOVE keeping the fire going!

Slightly frozen syrup just out of the freezer

We always finish off boiling the sap down inside on the stove. We go by a consistency and temperature reading from a candy thermometer. Professionals will tell you it is not syrup unless you can tell the brix (sugar content) is at 66%. But I’m simply too cheap to buy a hydrometer, and my taste buds thoroughly enjoy 63%, 59% and 68% sugar content in my maple syrup. I do always store in the freezer, and it sometimes freezes a little… also a sign of less than perfect sugar content. Again, my taste buds never complain and it stays fresh a full year out.

Sweet Homestead Skill

Beautiful Amber Syrup

My advice with maple sugaring is to start small, because once you collect it you have to boil it 😉 Kind of like with all things homesteading, talking with someone who has done this before if you have questions along the way helps you take that first step. And I’m all about taking that first step; whether it’s drilling into your first tree or digging into your first garden. Ask away if you have any questions, another great online community is the Facebook Group: Minnesota Maple Syrup Makers, just ask to join if you’re interested. This is a fun process, but it does take time to boil all that sap down!

And, if you try it once and say forget it, check out our MN Grown website for a list of Minnesota Harvested and boiled syrup and support our local makers.

Drill In,

Using Flowers to Bring Beneficial Bugs into your Vegetable Garden

It doesn’t take rocket science to understand why we love flowers. I mean just look at these beauties! They are Nature’s purest form of eye candy!

Flower Power

As I’ve grown up (well, a little anyways) and understand more of the science behind why flowers naturally create a more balanced garden, I’ve fallen head over heels all over again. They are essential for organic vegetable gardening. Plus my gardens are more colorful, fruitful and ALIVE because of these growing works of art. I mean who wouldn’t want to get a chance to work with beautiful nature to grow more and bigger veggies!

Swallowtail on a Zinnia

While planning and plotting a fresh new local garden (I’m loving my design + consult sessions!) I kept hearing myself going on and on about the importance of saving space for flowers in the garden. Turns out I’m pretty jazzed about the power of pollinators and beneficial insects in the vegetable garden. So, I figured if it was that important to gush about one on one, it was probably worth a deeper dive here 😊

All About the Annuals

I talk more about using flowers in companion planting and garden planning in the blog post Garden Dreams to Garden Goals. But honestly, just bringing in the nectar sources from any of these flowers will make your garden hum – literally! The flowers listed here can all be started by seed. I tend to direct sow them into the garden soil (follow soil temperature guidelines on seed packet) because I run out of room under my grow lights. But you can start any of the plants listed indoors to get an early bloom- aka nectar source going. And, please- take all these ideas with a pinch of salt (or garden lime- who has the tequila), because what works for one garden(er) won’t necessarily work for another. And therein lies the ephemeral magic of gardening!


Variety: Calendula Resina, Seed Savers Exchange

This flower IS sunshine reflected. I’d grow this plant for its bright blooms alone, but the powerful medicinal properties make it (dare I say) my favorite beneficial garden flower. Calendula was one of the first flowers I grew for its herbal properties. It has taught me so much, so of course it holds a special place in my big old flower loving heart. Calendula also attracts the good guys such as ladybugs, lacewings and hoverflies that help control aphids, thrips and other destructive pests. Easy to start from seed, I have direct sown in mid-May and gotten bumper crops of petals late in the season. If you want earlier harvests start seeds indoors, though I’ve heard they are a bit tricky to transplant. I grow a swath of these among my rhubarb in the veggie patch and in another sunny corner of the yard to ensure I have enough of the powerful petals to make some of my soothing calendula salve. They seem to be deer and rabbit safe. They do tend to reseed, so plant where you’re OK with them continuing to pop up.


In front of my veggie garden gate

Variety: Sonata Mix

These are true show stoppers and can easily take over a LARGE portion of the garden. They run tall, 5-6 feet, and a packet of seeds can cover a good 4 square feet. That being said, I’ll always have some of these beauties in my gardens, because- well, just look at them! The color and simple yet full petal design combined with being drought tolerant makes them a keeper! They also play their part in happy garden insect play- attracting the bright green/metallic long-legged fly, (shown on white Cosmos) hover flies, bees, parasitic wasps, butterflies and even bird. The chickadees and hummingbirds frequented mine last Summer. Those beneficial bugs and birds nibble the pests (aphids, squash beetles etc) that prefer to eat my veggies.


From the YMCA Community Gardens, growing WB Seed Library Marigolds

Varieties: French Marigold (Tagetes patula)
Mexican Marigolds (Tagetes minuta) + Lemon Gem (Tagetes tenufolia)

I’ll admit there was a time I thought I was too cool for the old school marigold. But when you plant true varieties (not the puffed up hybrids please!) they attract all the right insects and are so easy to collect seeds from, you’ll never want for color again! My favorites just might be from the White Bear Lake Seed Library (read more about the WBL Seed Library HERE). I planted these in both my home garden and the YMCA Community Gardens last Summer and they were marvelous! The kids especially loved their vibrant colors and collecting all those seeds (there’s a reason everyone had them in their gardens for centuries). Technically they produce a substance called alpha-terthienyl, a chemical that suppresses nasty nematodes and cabbage worms. Some botanists think the smell conceals other vegetable odors too, keeping more bugs further away from your precious crops! Marigolds keep my tomatoes, peppers and eggplants happy by keeping away some bad bugs!


Variety Pictured: Magellan Mix from Jung Seed

Zinnias deter cucumber beetles and tomato worms. They attract predatory wasps and hover flies, which eat insects that would otherwise destroy garden plants. Zinnias attract hummingbirds, which eat whiteflies before those flies can damage tomatoes, cucumbers and potatoes. They manage to do all that while bringing a striking color pop to the garden border. The colors look like you amped up the ‘color saturation’ filter every time. They *can form tidy little rows of color blasts- depending on the variety you chose. Heights range from 12 inches to 5 feet, and every color under the sun. Which also means there will be a zinnia you’ll fall for 😉 And they keep blooming into the fall here in Minnesota. A pollinator favorite, these zingers brighten the veggie patch with their own colors and their colorful visitors.

Sweet Alyssum

Variety: Carpet of Snow

Full disclosure, I’ve meant to plant this for years, but somehow last year was the first time it made it into my gardens. Tucked in along the rows of potatoes. They were pretty much teeny tiny powerhouses of pure plant magic. And as I started writing this, I realize that I once again forgot to order them… Good thing Gardens always give you another season 😉

Garden Growth

Cosmos just outside the garden gate

The concept that I can work with nature, using plant’s natural chemical reactions has captured my imagination and keeps me exploring! The practice of using trap crops (plants that draw insects to them rather than nearby vegetable plants) and companion planting (using certain plants to mutually benefit each other’s growth) is fascinating. I practice the basics both in how I plant my veggies and which flowers I plant where. But I never get too hung up on specifics, I figure it has to look good to me as much as the bugs 😉

My boys releasing a monarch we raised onto one of the zinnia borders.

As I mentioned earlier, there are as many ways to garden as there are gardens. And soil is a living breathing, changing medium to work with, different even a few feet over let alone in a different town or state. But we can sway things in our favor- and make our gardens more colorful lively places at the same time by bringing in a mix of proven flower power.

Buzzy corner of the garden! flowering herbs, zinnias, and chamomile (on ground below the pots) created a pollinator hot spot!

I’m continuing to learn new and better combinations, varieties and uses for these multi-tasking beauties.

For an easy way to ID some of the common insect visitors, check out the very visual Good Bug/Bad Bug book. Written by Jessica Walliser, I will attest that kids and adults alike enjoy being identifying bugs using this book! She also has a great podcast episode with Garden Expert, Joe Lamp’l on The Joe Gardener Show. So cool to get a glimpse of just how much is going on in our gardens!!

Mix of Zinnias in July

Everyone has their own list of favorites flowers. Maybe developed because of a friend giving you a plant, memories of grandma’s garden, or even an Instagram photo…  so tell me, what are your favorites and why??? Are you adding any flowers to your vegetable patch this season?

I’m working on a perennial pollinator guide next, so many flowers to chose from!

Ready to Dig In and get planting!

Minnesota Farm to School Bill

A new Farm to School Bill has just been introduced and it could mean lots of healthy, local food for school-age kids statewide!

This bill would make grant money available to stakeholders in all stages of the food system. It has the potential to make the local food system flow more naturally from local farmer to local school kids. The $2 million in grant money would be available to different cogs within the local food chain.

Sign The Farm To School Petition HERE

Farmer Butch of All Good Organics talking pumpkins with a little local.

Farmers would be able to apply for technical assistance to help them cut through some of the red tape in selling to schools (there is a LOT). Schools would be able to apply for reimbursement in working with purchasing from individual farms, transportation and packaging costs. There’s even a portion that would be available for school gardens and agricultural education related to local foods.

From the Ground Up

 “This seems like a great opportunity to connect local food supplies with kids in our community. Programs like this do our kids a great service in understanding the food supply chain and how we access those resources,” says principal John Leininger. Leininger is at Matoska International Elementary School in White Bear Lake, which has started a small gardening program on site.

Matoska International Elementary teachers and school garden leaders, Dawn Maple and Angela Bianco

“This bill could be really helpful for schools to implement or increase their farm to school offerings, with school credited recipes and other pre-done marketing templates without having to reinvent the wheel with our already limited resources,” said Bridget Lehn, MBA, RD, Nutrition Services Coordinator for White Bear Lake Area Schools, referring to the state level “Farm to School Coordinator” position that is part of the bill.

Local Food Hub, The Good Acre, which works directly with local farmers says, “We 100% support it!” and for good reason. They’ve seen first-hand how farmers working with similar programs have grown and flourished.

Local Food Impact

School lunches reach more kids than any restaurant or monthly supplemental programs can. There is a social aspect as well; kids that see other kids eating fresh fruits and veggies at the lunch table next to them are more likely to try the same things. It should be noted that the funds they are proposing would be for local produce as well as meat and dairy products. 

According to the National Farm to School Network, every dollar invested in farm to school programs generates $2.16 to the local economy. Kids get more nutritious foods, farmers can make ends meet, and a few more

“This bill is good for local farmers. It’s good for our children, and it’s good for local economies too,” said Rep. Todd Lippert, DFL-Northfield, who sponsored the bill along with Sen. Michael Goggin, R-Red Wing.

Your Voice Matters

A similar bill made it through the house and senate committees in 2017, but ultimately wasn’t included in a final spending bill. So, if you think the health of our kids and our local economy is worthwhile, let your representatives know that you support this bill by calling or emailing them today!

Find your representative by clicking HERE.

thank you

Here’s the MPR Story Link, and the Winona Daily News coverage for further information.

I usually focus on what we can do individually to impact our Food System. But, when we have a chance to do something collectively to help our kids AND local farmers I needed to share it with you all.
I’m really curious, what do you think about Farm to School initiatives?

Dig In,

My Top 5 NEW Garden Veggies

Many of us have our tried and true favorite Garden Veggies to grow. Salad greens, tomatoes, green beans, snap peas… so much deliciousness I could never pick out so few as five to highlight from my whole garden.

So instead, I’m sharing my favorite NEW veggies from last Summer’s garden. I love growing ‘new to me’ varieties every year, and usually try out quite a few unique plants each year. Once you start growing from seed a whole new world of flavors opens up to you, and my taste buds will never be satisfied with the same old same old again. For more information on starting seeds, check out my Seed Saving Starts Now blog.

This is a review of my five favorite new to me vegetable varieties.


EAT: fresh, roasted or in stir fry

If ever there was a Diva Vegetable, here she is! The unexpected fractal patterns on this vegetable, paired with the lime green color sets her up to steal the show. The taste is milder than cauliflower, almost nutty. And my kids LOVED IT. It grew well for me in the Spring and Fall. I got seeds from Jung’s Seed Co. and these germinated and grew just as well as their white amazing variety. The purple graffiti was a complete wash for me though.

I loved how the Romanesco’s leaved covered each little pyramid point. The plant itself was even bigger than an average cauliflower, and that’s saying something. Even with taking up considerable space in the garden, I’ll be growing even more this season. I’ll be interplanting  beets and spinach for an early harvest before these girls take over the beds.

Tall Utah Celery

EAT: fresh, in soups, as celery salt

This Celery makes the cut because after being scared to grow it I jumped in last year. Guess what, No worries! There are many varieties that don’t need blanching, are so flavorful, yet not bitter! I started them from seed last February, so they do take time, but they are 100% worth it! They don’t take up too much space and play well with others in the garden. I chopped and froze some for soup when I had an abundance.

I also dehydrated and blitzed the leaves for celery salt, which I use in soups and stews.

So, for $3.25 for a packet of Tall Utah from seedsaversexchange I ate fresh cut celery all summer, still have some frozen, and I’ve just started new babies under my grow lights for the coming season!

Glass Gem Corn

EAT: Popped with a drizzle of butter

I’ve been crushing over this for so long, so glad I dove back into these rainbow colored corn rows! This is a flint corn, not a sweet corn, so no fresh eating off the cob. They’re so beautiful you want to have time to enjoy their beauty for a stretch first anyway

We fed some fresh mini-cobs to our hens. I’ve planted some for “corn shoots” micro-greens with varying success, and by far our favorite- popping! I’ve saved some cobs to plant with the kids’ garden clubs I run in the summer (HEARTS) I hadn’t grown any corn for a few seasons after a ‘bad bug’ year, those can take a while to get over… I still had all kinds of insects around the corn this year- just none burrowing into the corn. (whew!) $3.25 for a packet, from Seed Savers Exchange, I planted 3X16 foot bed.


EAT: fresh from the vine, sliced in salads

These little cuties are as adorable as they are delicious! They also go by the names ‘Mexican sour gherkin’ and ‘mouse melons’. They have a slightly citrus/sour cucumber taste that becomes more pronounced the bigger/more mature they get. These guys were slow to get started, (they like it hotter to germinate) and I totally underestimated how they much they would grow- AND how many little cucamelons they’d produce! Still, giving these away was much easier than say, a zucchini. My kids loved picking these garden veggies as much as eating them- until those really hot late August days after eating these daily… we still have some ‘pickled’ versions in the fridge- both a garlic and a straight ferment- they are a bit more sour than a regular fermented pickle, but add a great kick to salads and cheese trays! We’ll be growing these on a full size trellis this summer instead of in with our beans, lesson learned! Seeds from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, which shows up online as Rare Seeds

Berner Rose Tomato

EAT: like an apple, plus any other way you eat tomatoes.

This tomato was the workhorse of my dreams last summer. I was gifted seeds from family in Switzerland, the true “Berner Rose”, a Swiss heirloom variety of German Pink.  These were the best germinating and hardiest of all my tomato plants from the start. These are a potato leaf determinate plant that gave me the tastiest tomatoes that didn’t split, wilt or get any diseases. I’ll know to use thicker stakes on these this year because they produce SO MANY tomatoes on each cluster, my gardens looked a little like a mouse trap by September. Still have gallon bags of frozen, a few jars of sauce and salsa- these are the tomatoes that just keep giving! Thank you to my cousin, Seraina, for the thoughtful gift 😊 I wish shipping the tomatoes back to her was a viable option !


So, have I inspired you to try any new garden veggies in your garden? Or maybe to buy a new variety from farmers markets yet? Let me know if you plan to grow any of these varieties or have questions I didn’t answer above. I can’t wait to DIG IN!


Winter Market: January Refresh

This Farmers Market brings the best of Minnesota’s harvests deep into Winter and features a few new health-focused vendors along with local favorites. Join us for the White Bear Lake Winter Farmers Market Season Finale; 9am-1pm on January 12th, 2019. Browse over a dozen local vendors indoors at Tamarack Nature Center, 5287 Otter Lake Road, WBT, MN 55110.

Shop Local, Eat Local + Healthy!

We can all use a little health boost after the Holidays, right! Bonus if we’re feasting on food grown close to home. Yes, even in January Minnesotan’s can enjoy local food. Like fresh greens, locally and humanely raised meats, fresh eggs and cheese- along with local honey, storage vegetable crops, breads, soups, and our furthest sourced food: wild Alaskan caught salmon!

Thanks to our neighbor farmers using high tunnels, greenhouses and indoor lights we can enjoy fresh food through the Winter. We’ll also have a wide variety of canned and frozen produce, jams and herbal products available. We welcome the “Brick Oven Bus” food truck and Platense handmade Empanadas to tide you over while shopping.

January Gift Basket Giveaway!!

Vendors have come together to offer an amazing assortment of local love- Register to win the day of. Details HERE!

Community Driven Market

This market is a true community driven event, bringing together many local community organizations. Pine Tree Apple Orchard donates free Cider tastings, which the White Bear Area Foodshelf volunteers serve up.

WBL Seed Library table

Our own White Bear Lake Seed Library will be sharing seed saving ans starting information. Ramsey County Master Gardeners will be onsite answering gardening questions and giving out free “table top” organics recycling kits. The Pollinator Friendly Alliance will have info on how to help our wild pollinators! Tamarack Nature Center will be sampling their honey and maple syrup and have a take home “seed art” project.

The coordinator of the market, Michelle Bruhn, also runs Forks in the Dirt and will be sharing some vegetable garden planning techniques. You can also register to WIN a One Hour “Veggie Garden Planning Session” with Michelle right HERE.

January Market Vendors

All Good Organics: variety of fall and winter vegetables, spices, sauerkraut.

Bell’s Maple Syrup: Pure Maple Syrup tapped from Sugar Maples in Cushing, MN.

Dahl Hobbie Farm:  Raw honey, honey-based 12 spice cough soothing formula, jams.

Eichtens Cheese & Bison:  variety of locally sourced cheeses, sausages and wild rice.

Gilbertson Farm: humanely raised beef and pork, chicken and eggs.

Great Harvest: yeast breads, rolls, scones, cookies and scruffins.

Hart & Soul Herbal: quality controlled, naturally sustainable herbal products.

Ingredients Cafe: scratch made soups and handmade gnocchi to go.

Platense: Tasty Argentinian handmade frosted nuts, popcorn + serving ready to eat Empanadas.

Morsels: Handmade granola bars + bites, cookies, cupcakes and caramels

Sailor Mercy: Hand crafted batches of immune boosting Elderberry Syrup.

Sassafras Health Foods: Promoting Healthy Living as a way of life with supplements and other whole food based items.

Unity Farms:  A variety of popping corn, spices and cold processed soaps.

Weeds Greens: High quality and huge variety of locally grown microgreens.

Wild Run Salmon: Wild caught Alaskan Salmon sold by the fisherman.

Me and Chomp the Carrot at the December Market

As market coordinator, my mission is to help us all make healthier, more sustainable food choices. Our choices result in healthier lives for us and our planet! Follow the WBL  Winter Market Facebook Event Page for up to date information and specials. Full vendor and community table list on Forks in the Dirt on the WBL Market page.

*Don’t forget to bring Cash as not all vendors take cards*

Dig Into the New Year with me and our local growers and vendors!


Growing Goals

I hope you’ve all been enjoying the Holidays! The addition of our wood burning stove has added greatly to our sense of Hygge during this Minnesota Winter.
For many of us this time of year brings deeper self-reflection. I’ve been taking stock of the past year and dreaming of the next since before the Winter Solstice. So much happened in the last 365 days
that I hadn’t planned for that it feels a little silly to make more than a rough outline for the coming 365. And yet without a plan I follow too many tangents…

Frozen Gardenscape

And yet, life grows on. Even with a frozen surface (and finally some snow), our Earth is still breathing deep and slow- readying herself for another round of explosive growth come spring. But Mother Earth has slowed down too for the time being; so I’m doing my best to follow suit. In this busy time of year (holidays), life (with two littles), and building a business (Forks) it is becoming apparent I NEED to make time and space for me. Time for self-care and listening to my own thoughts. Time for taking charge of my own health beyond gardening and healthy eating.

Being able to look back and see the goals I set for myself and how they played out and how they affected how I spent my time- is almost more revealing than if they were accomplished or not. I am a stubborn one so if I set a goal, I’m likely to make sure it happens. Beware the woman who takes on too much, she gets grumpy with overwhelm. Anyone else over the overwhelm!?!

Taking a Look Back

I love being able to look back at goals I set from the previous year. Last year I did this in a BLOG POST. The goals are listed below-

My 2018 goals for Forks in the Dirt:
*Meeting and writing about more local farmers – Yup and it was FUN
*Inspiring awareness in the food choices we make,- I think So (not sure ow to measure this one) What do you think??
*Expanding the White Bear Lake Winter Farmers Market.  Check- Three markets attended by 800 people, with more vendors, food trucks and new community info partners

My personal goals for 2018:
*Planning for and planting our doubled vegetable garden space – We planted and grew in all the spaces of the garden
*Preserving more of my own food (dehydrating, freezing, fermenting and canning) -I gave away more food, so there’s less in my freezer but canned a little more
*Finding a local sustainable source for organic oats and chicken meat  –Yes on the chicken meat, and I have a source for Oats just haven’t gotten there yet
*Becoming a better Chicken + Kid Mom  –Well, My kids are still alive- my chickens are not. More on this in a future blog post.
*Finding more of that elusive “Balance” – EPIC FAIL

What I could see from looking back was that EPIC FAIL– the “Balance” ties into what I was already feeling the need to focus on for 2019. A part of that balance for me is giving myself grace when I don’t measure up (OK, more like a huge part).

What do you want to Grow?

What you water will grow

Finding those sweet spots when you lose yourself in the work because you are so fully engaged is what I long for- you too? For me those moments come in many aspects of gardening- the planning, the planting, the tending, the harvesting, the cooking of the food I get to grow. It also comes in writing; at least in the beginning when I’m so excited tot share an idea- not so much the editing 😉. Meeting like minded garden geeks is another way I fuel my passions as well. Setting up interviews to learn more from farmers and others working towards local food ways is a priority. Volunteering at the food shelves also helps me get out of my ‘self’. So, more of all that is on the books for 2019.

Meeting Amazing Garden Minded People like Diane with Seed Savers Exchange

enJOY the JOY

Now to show you all just how nerdy I can get… there is a phenomenon recently proven by neuroscience that I want to share. The Velcro vs Teflon paradox. The basic concept is that you need to appreciate (or contemplate) positive thoughts longer to have the same effect as a negative thought. The positive thoughts or feelings slide away unless you savor them consciously for at least 15-30 seconds. Within that time, the thought positively imprints and can stay with you. You can listen more HERE during 13:20-14:30 minutes in this Liturgists podcast with Richard Rohr (two of my favorites together). Or read more about the idea of savoring positivity HERE.

Time to unwind in front of the WoodStove

Both my Wood Stove and Winter break time with my boys has helped me set this practice into motion. I hope I can keep with it because I can already feel the effects!

Goal Setting

I will set more measurable goals as well. Starting more veggie seeds under grow lights and building a cold frame (FINALLY!). I’ve also recently fallen in love again with Indigenous Foods and plan to explore those foods and farmers more this year. Along with goals like keeping up my volunteering at the food shelves and working with more children in my town, both at the WBL YMCA and at the elementary schools.
*But these goals will all take a seat behind my main focus of growing my self.*

I love a good book, and I found a few new favorites this last year. Did you find a book that did your garden or soul good? Please share it with me!

A few of my favorite books from 2018:

Year Round Gardener & Veggie Garden Re-Mix: by Nikki Jabbour

Sioux Chef: By Sean Sherman + Beth Dooley

Lab Girl: by Hope Jahren

OK- EnJOY these last days of 2018 and here’s to a big old CHEERS to 2019- looking forward to digging in and growing with you all!

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