Vegetable Garden Evolution

We’re all somewhere on the  garden path. Some of us have a few pots, maybe indoor herbs, maybe a farm.  Our family is working to make the most of our big suburban backyard. One year ago, almost to the day, I was completing the prep for our new vegetable garden! We’ve been through a  bit of an explosion in our backyard over the last few years. And this expanded space is the latest in what we’ve dubbed ‘musical gardens’. Well, these beauties are staying put!

In order to add the amount of growing space we wanted fast, we went with a well known no till option called “Lasagna Gardening”. Just one growing season in and I’m amazed at what a great addition these beds have been!

In The Beginning…

When we moved in 10 years ago our backyard had spruce trees, overgrown bridal wreath and an almost dead hydrangea. And a lawn of mostly creeping charlie. No garden in site. Needless to say, we’ve added A LOT of perennials, bushes, trees, chickens, pathways, and yes- Gardens. Of course the creeping charlie will forever be part of our landscape as well… But let’s focus on the Vegetable Garden here.

You can see the old garden fence to the back , boy we had a lot of wood to split and chip!

We had a happy 24’ X 20’ fenced in vegetable garden for years, where I grew a good amount of food, and enjoyed learning more about organic gardening practices along the way. We changed part of the space into 3 raised beds a few years back. Each  bed measuring 4’ X 8’ with a large strawberry patch in front and open edges for potatoes and pots.

But as most gardeners know, you eventually outgrow your space. And then once you start looking at how to change one part of the garden you can quickly move half your yard around. Hence the ‘musical gardens”. And, if I do say so- we rocked that tune!

Down to Earth

We started the project by removing a dying spruce. This would allow more light to an otherwise shady part of the yard.

Chipping the branches gave us a great source of carbon to decompose in the raised beds- and to add the the pathways.

We ended up fencing in 24’ X 50’. The fence was a must for us, our yard is home to a myriad of bunny families. This new safe space accommodated the 4 raised beds, room for row crops along the edges, some pots, and a garden table. The design always included some kind of arch/pergola/trellis, but not until we started building it did we know exactly what and where it would be! 😊 I am very lucky my husband is a carpenter and doesn’t shy away from hard work! OK, I love the physical labor part too!

Little bit of everything, keeping good ratios of green to brown along the way.

We filled the four new beds using the ‘lasagna gardening’ technique. This means a quick no till start to the bottom layer. I did ‘fork’ the compacted lawn to get more air flow in the top layer (and invite worms to venture upwards). We started with layers of cardboard and soy inked newspapers. Then a hefty layer of our compost to get things moving. I can’t wait to add some ‘worm poop’ next spring from our very own “Vermicompost”! On top of that, wood ships, leaves, wood ashes, and plant clippings etc that I would have thrown into the compost pile along with spent chicken coop straw all got layered up!

Halfway point for loading the compost from the yard waste site.

Then we went to the Ramsey County Yard Waste Site with a friend’s trailer and shoveled in a WHOLE LOT of finished compost- for FREE. This is a great service both for dropping off yard waste and for the amazing free compost they offer. A quick google search will find your county’s info.

Then, luck struck again, when a friends who’s parents’ offered up their used straw bales from their Summer’s Straw Bale garden. The partially decomposed straw bales were like gardening gold to me! (Thank you Mark and Theresa Moe!)

That is true joy on my face, loaded straw bales ready to bring more life to my home gardens!

Garden Evolution Notes

And like most projects that you jump into feet first; I learned a lot about what not to do! Like, if I had it to do over again, I should have put the straw under the top compost layer! And maybe even followed this permaculture expert’s recipe for lasagna garden building instead. What I do know is that even though there’s some heat generated from the decomposition, it doesn’t compare to the sun’s rays on black dirt! As a result my straw-topped beds warmed much slower than my older prepped and previously tilled beds.

Topping off the garden beds before winter!

But wow the lasagna gardening made easy work of  creating great soil over weedy lawn. Not having to till and weed out that nasty, hard packed ground was worth it! I was able to plant in those beds in early May (with a row cover over b/c you all remember that crazy late blizzard this year, right!?) on compost I had layered in early October!

The proof is in the produce!

 

Suburban Homesteading

We feel like we’re getting there. Joining the ranks of other folks who enjoy growing more of their own food on their land, even if they have a regular sized lot. We’ve got a slightly larger than normal lot size, but this is a far cry from the acreage of a farmstead. We still have so many possibilities – dreams to be planted and bear fruit here… and each season we learn more, grow more, and become more deeply rooted to this beautiful place we call HOME.

After I ripped out 3 Eggplant, 2 Bell Peppers and a patch of Okra – AND dug up the potatoes that were in this space. VERY productive garden soil!

This year (like all years) is unique and beautiful and challenging and rewarding… all rolled into fabulous meals, and a freezer bulging with bags of frozen goodness. Shelves stocked with mason jars of Summer harvests.  And a pantry bursting with dried herbs and teas. Those, along with our home made maple  syrup, venison and eggs keep us eating local long after the tomatoes have stopped. And with the seeds I’ve collected from the gardens, I’m halfway back to my starting point next Spring.

I hope my ‘real world’ story helps you decide if you’re ready to help your gardens evolve and grow too. It has been a lot of work but, for me- the rewards are worth every drop of sweat equity! Let me know if you have any questions, or suggestions about adding growing space in your yard.

Get your forks in the dirt!
Michelle

 

 

 

5 Steps To Prepare Your Garden For Winter

 

Freeze Baby!

And just like that, it’s time to prepare your garden for Winter! We skipped right over frost warnings and went straight to a freeze warning for tonight. Oh Minnesota, somehow your sweet Summer song always lulls me into forgetting about Winter lurking around the corner. It seems like yesterday I was sweating away, swatting mosquitoes, harvesting the abundance from my gardens. So how on earth is there a freeze warning for tomorrow!?!

Ramsey County Master Gardeners at your service

Since I’m aware the fast change always catches me off guard, I asked friend and local Master Gardener, Brianna Godhe, to give us her take on getting our vegetable gardens ready for the inevitable. The Ramsey County Master Gardeners have been a great asset to our local gardening community, recently attending a Harvest Party, available for Q&A.

Take it away Brianna-

Tucking the Vegetable Garden into Bed

As the days get shorter and the evenings get cooler, it’s time to think about preparing your vegetable garden for winter. It’s hard to think about ice and snow in September when the sun is still warm but you want to be ready. Our average first frost date– that is, the date when we can expect a hard frost which will kill the tender and warm-season crops in your garden – for St. Paul, MN is October 9. It can happen anytime from the end of September to the end of October. It’s a hard truth: once the State Fair ends, our gardening days are numbered.

To be ready, here are some general guidelines for preparing the garden for winter. These will put you in the best position for starting again when the snow melts next spring.

Steps to Prepare Your Garden for Winter

Step 1: Pick the remaining vegetables

Many of the common vegetable garden plants like peppers, tomatoes, green beans, and eggplant will die when exposed to the first frost. If there’s a frost warning for your area, consider that your last chance to harvest those more delicate vegetables.

Other crops are a little more tolerant of cool weather and, if you have the opportunity, it’s worthwhile to leave them in the garden a little longer. The cool temperatures encourage them to convert some of their starches to sugars as a kind of natural anti-freeze, while also making them taste a little sweeter. These include cole crops (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbages and kale), and most root vegetables (beets, carrots, and parsnips). Just make sure to remove them before the ground freezes. If you haven’t harvested them before that happens, usually in early November, they will be stuck in the ground forever. Don’t let it happen to you.

Michelle’s VERY late carrot harvest from last year (Dec 8)- The ground was frosty, but my layer of straw and leaves kept the carrots from freezing underneath. It looked silly, but made for some super sweet carrots!

Step 2: Remove all remaining vegetation

Since just about all of our vegetables are annuals, there is no point to keeping that plant material in the garden over winter; they aren’t going to re-sprout in the spring. If your plants were healthy, you can put the remaining plant material (i.e. the leaves, stems, vines, unripe fruit and roots) in your home compost. Be sure to cut it into small pieces so it breaks down faster.

If the plant material was diseased with any fungi, bacteria, or viruses, you will need to either bury it 6-12 inches to breakdown the pathogens, burn it with approval from your city, or dispose of it with a city yard waste program. (Remember: you can’t put plant debris in the trash!) This is important because many of those pathogens can survive the cold of winter and will infect new plants next year if not treated properly. For the same reason, when you are day-dreaming about the garden for next season, plan to rotate your crops, or place them in a new spot in your garden, which further protects them from lingering disease issues.

Step 3: Test your soil

An at home kits are not nearly as accurate as sending samples into the U of MN, but a good way to get kids involved!

If you have the chance, your local Extension program can analyze a sample of the soil from your gardens and make recommendations about how to make it more productive next year. These tests aren’t limited to the vegetable garden. You can submit samples from anywhere in your yard to get more information about those areas and what you can do to improve them. If you get the results back before the ground freezes, you can even treat the area by adding compost or specific amendments in the fall for a faster start in the spring. For gardeners in Minnesota the University of Minnesota’s Soil Testing Lab is a great resource.

Step 4: Insulate your garden beds

Michelle shoveling off snow and adding a layer of black fabric last Spring to speed along soil warming because of un-decomposed hay.

Without the plants growing on top, your garden soil is exposed to the elements the full force of winter. The soil will expand and contract with the freeze/thaw cycles, which can wreak havoc on the beneficial microbial life in the top foot of your gardens. To preserve your soil, the best thing to do is insulate it. You can do this using cover crops, like winter rye planted in September/October, or you can simply rake fallen leaves on top to act as a blanket. If you mulch your leaves beforehand, you can leave them on the garden bed and they will compost in-place, adding fertilizer to your garden without needing to do anything more. In the spring, you’ll cut down the cover crops and remove any leaves to help the soil warm up to a temperature that helps seeds germinate. (If you leave them covered, your garden beds will stay frozen much longer. You don’t want that.) **See Photo

 Step 5: Clean your garden tools

Once your beds are cleared and protected, take a look at your gardening tools. This includes your shovels, shears, rakes, hoes, stakes, trellises, buckets, pots and any seed-starting trays. After removing any dirt and plant debris, clean the surfaces with a 1:9 solution of bleach and water. (For example, 1 cup bleach and 9 cups water)

Brianna with a Big Ole Brussel Sprout plant!

This is a good practice generally but it’s especially important if your garden tools had any encounters with fungi, molds, bacteria or viruses during the growing season. Using a bleach solution prevents the pathogens from infecting new plants the next time the tools are used. Make sure the cleaned tools are completely dry and properly oiled so they won’t rust.

Make sure to disconnect your hose and watering equipment and empty it of water so it doesn’t burst. If you have bird baths, watering cans, or rain barrels, make sure they are empty and store them upside down to prevent any lingering moisture from expanding and cracking the frames.

That’s it. Your vegetable gardening season is complete for the year. Great job!

Brianna Gohde – Ramsey County Master Gardener

University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardener volunteers use research-based horticultural knowledge to inspire change and promote healthy people, healthy landscapes, and a healthy planet.

Extending the Season

Are you like me and try to eek out those few extra days of growth in your vegetable gardens? If you want to know the numbers I’ve added this chart from Farmer’s Almanac.  It shows the lowest temps at which different vegetables can survive. If you want to try and extend the season a little longer like trying row covers or other garden tactics, here’s a  great Farmers Almanac Article to get you started.

Feeling Prepared for Winter

Thanks so much Brianna! I know I need reminders (especially about taking care of my tools!)

Ready or not- here we go!

I’d also like to add that while cleaning out our annual vegetable gardens for the Winter, it’s a great idea to leave your perennials. These seed heads ans stems give the birds and insects food and homes over our harsh winters.

Having a plan always makes transitions easier. I hope this helps you and your gardens get set  for the next season!

Dig In!
Michelle

 

Harvest Party to Celebrate Local Food!

Are you ready to party in the Garden!?!

This Harvest Party grew from the BearPower organization. White Bear Lake is lucky to have the efforts and talents of this group of dedicated people. They’re working to bring healthy living to our community in so many different ways.

I’ve been digging into coordinating this BearPower Harvest Party with the BearPower team and loving finding the best of the best to help celebrate community grown food. We’ve brought together the cream of the crop local chefs to prepare all that lovingly grown food. Add to that a great mix of activities to take over our White Bear Area YMCA gardens for the day and you’ve got a can’t miss event! We’ve got FREE food,  games,  information, samples and activities to get you growing your love of good food!

More Information by clicking on the -> Facebook Event Page

The Details:

Sunday Sept 23rd @12:00-3:00PM
White Bear Area YMCA Community Garden
2100 Orchard Lane, White Bear Lake, MN 55110
Indoors @ the YMCA if raining

Harvest Party Food

Tamarack Nature Center Gardens

All the food at the harvest Party was grown in local community gardens, including WBL district schools, HealthPartners White Bear Lake Clinic, Tamarack Nature Center, and the YMCA community gardens! 5 of the beds growing food for the event are part of the awesome local initiative, “Giving Gardens“. Making sure we have enough food to fill in the gaps, All Good Organics local farm has pledged to donate from their recent harvests as well!

Chef Challenge

A chef challenge meal, created from all the locally grown food will be served starting at noon. We’ll keep serving until every last veggie has been eaten. If there’s simply too much food, extras will go the White Bear Area Food Shelf.

The food service will include some freshly made soups and grilled veggies. Huge thanks to  local chefs, Ben Pratt of Ingredients Café + The Burger Bar and Matt Ellison of Bonfire Restaurants, who will be creating tasty creations with all the veggies we throw at them! I can’t wait to see what they come up with 🙂

Vote for your favorite food on your way out!

Glen Oliphant of United Methodist Church, WBL with freshly harvested potatoes and herbs to go into the breads!

Bread baked by White Bear Lake United Methodist Church in their Community Bread Oven during a community bread bake on Saturday will also be donated. Ciabatta and Focaccia were mentioned when I was talking with one of the bakers! Our garden-grown herbs and potatoes will be used in making the breads.

Nancy Jacobson with some freshly harvested apples!

Pine Tree Apple Orchard is donating crates of freshly picked apples for the event as well. The apples will be handed out by volunteers from the White Bear Area Emergency Food Shelf. Please think about making a monetary donation to the food shelf to help make sure all our neighbors have access to good food!

It is so amazing to be able to say that ALL the veggies were grown and/or donated by community members!

Harvest Party Activities

We’ve got a little something for everyone during the Harvest Party!

Chomp at an earlier YMCA Garden Event

BearPower ‘larger than life’ games and the famous carrot mascot, “Chomp” will be perusing the party ready for photos.

Insect Hotel We will be group building a “beneficial bug hotel” Stop by to add your mark and help pollinate our YMCA gardens!

Beets from the YMCA gardens

White Bear Lake Schools will have a table, highlighting the gardens and gardeners (mostly kids) that grew food for the event!

The YMCA will have information on renting a garden bed in the gardens next season. We will also be handing out a limited number of strawberry plants that YMCA Summer Power kids helped propagate!

Sunflowers in the YMCA garden

White Bear Lake Seed Library will be doing Seed Saving Demos with plants growing in the gardens. Take home Seeds to get your garden growing next year! We’ll be working with sunflower and marigold seeds to name a few!

Ramsey County Master Gardeners will be onsite ready for your questions, and info on getting the most out of your Fall garden, and how to prepare it for Winter.

Health Partners Health Club will be onsite with info on eating healthy and demos.

All Good Organics farmer will be onsite with info on growing organic and a few surprises. This farm has dedicated to fill in produce that we need to round out the harvest party meal.

Butch and Kris from All Good Organics

Keeping it Local

As YMCA Community Garden coordinator, I’m wearing a few hats during this event, I’ll be onsite with a Forks in the Dirt information table about the impact of eating local and samples to share!

I LOVE how this whole event began; a well-loved local doctor, Elsa Keeler, had a vision to bring families together over locally grown healthy food. Just look what that one well rooted idea has become!

Staying True to Doing Good

Hanging with some of the YMCA garden Club kids

One of the reasons I started blogging was to highlight all the good that is happening around us.

Forks in the Dirt’s motto is “Crossing paths with Farmers, Food and Doing Good”

And with this event, I got to be part of making that good happen. I have learned so much about our community and how strongly we believe in AND follow through with showing up for one another. It makes me proud to be part of this community 🙂

The amount and diversity of Community Gardens in our area truly amazes me. It really is a testament to people wanting to be more connected to the food they eat, and the land they inhabit. If you are interested in joining any of the local community gardens, read my earlier blog post all about our local gardens!

Can’t wait to Dig into some good food and good conversations- hope to see you there!

Michelle

 

Seed Saving for Home Gardeners

Garden Fresh Food

It is that time of year gardeners… Everything is ripening, and FAST in the garden right now. So right now is the time to start looking at your plants’ produce not just as food- but also as seed for next year’s garden crops. Time to start seed saving!

I started saving seeds because I got behind on picking my pole beans. When I found a few (ok, lots) of bean pods that were swollen and starting to yellow and a light bulb turned on. I didn’t have to toss these inedible beans into the compost- I could let these keep growing and save these to plant for more beans next year.

It was a sublimely empowering moment. One I want you to have too!

Beginners Luck

I got lucky starting with one of the easiest seeds to save. For the first few years I saved mostly bean varieties and native flowers. I’m still a novice when it comes to saving seeds. Which is why I’m the perfect person to pass the torch: if I can do it – you can too! I want you to feel that same kind of power that saving your own seeds invites.

The Barn + Diane’s Garden at Heritage Farm, Seed Savers Exchange. Photo Credit: Molly Moe

Seed Savers Exchange

Diane Ott Whealy and I in her magical heirloom garden. Photo credit Molly Moe

First- I want to give a shout out to the Seed Savers Exchange for their recent Summer Conference and Campout on Heritage Farm. I’m still buzzing with all the new information I brought home. I had to share some of what I learned with you all!

They’ve built a vibrant community of dedicated volunteers and staff, all starting with co-founders Diane Ott Whealy and Kent Whealy in 1975. I was lucky enough to meander through Diane’s gardens with her at the beginning of the weekend.

New Friends from Southern Exposure Seeds! Photo credit Molly Moe

Today, the 890-acre Heritage Farm in Decorah, Iowa grows over 20,000 plant species and has 13,000 members. Meeting some of these wonderful members and staff at their annual conference and campout has increased both my understanding of seed saving and my excitement for it.  I mean with an onsite Seed Swap with people from all over- how could I not get more excited!?!

Carl Gaudian from Albert Lea seed, and a whole lot of Barley seed! Photo credit Molly Moe

I was also gifted a few pounds of cover crop from Carl at Albert Lea Seed for the White Bear area Food Shelf “Community Roots Garden” that I help out with. These are good people! The future of the wonderfully diverse world of seeds is in some very caring and competent hands indeed!

If you garden, you’ve likely already benefited from the work of Seed Savers Exchange staff, volunteers and members. There are treasure troves of information on their site and at the store- visit online or in person, often!

Heirloom vs Hybrid Seeds

Me geeking out over all the seeds! Photo credit Molly Moe

You may have heard more about heirloom varieties lately. I think this is directly linked to more home gardeners digging a little deeper into growing their own. Along with not wanting to grow anything genetically modified in a lab, more gardeners are wanting to save their own seeds. One of the inherent values of an heirloom plant’s strength lies in its ability to reproduce itself. And to keep reproducing stronger plants that are better suited for the exact location they are grown in each season. Win/Win!

Save the Right Seeds

Start with seeds worth saving. Find out if the plants growing in your garden are heirloom or hybrids. Seeds from Hybrid plants will not grow the same plant. They will likely revert back to one of the two plants that were combined to make the hybrid. Heirloom varieties will grow the same plant again next year.

Of the heirloom plants, it also helps to find out if they are ‘open-pollinated’ or ‘self-pollinated’ plants as open pollinated plants may ‘cross-pollinate’ with other kinds of plants in the same family. Stick with me one more sentence. Think two kinds of cucumbers grown close together and a bee buzzing between them- those cucumbers will likely have a little of each plants pollen shared between them- so you’ll get a mix of the plants with seeds from those plants.

Read my “Seed Saving Starts Now” blog for a different take on growing seeds to save.
Pam from the White Bear Lake Seed Library, who really knows her stuff contributed lots of the information!

Save the Very Best Seeds

Some Tiger’s Eye Beans for shelling – and saving

Save seeds from the best plants in your garden- selecting these ‘top performing’ plants will build seed and plants for next year. This is how us humans domesticated and increased our harvests from wild seeds over the centuries- but it is still worth doing over a few years. After 8 years of saving Pole Bean Seeds mine produce better than the original packet I bought – just saying.

Tricks to Save Tricky Seeds

Catching Corn Vit/mache seeds

I’ve got some old tulle (thank you sister’s wedding) that I use to wrap unsuspecting plants that are slowly setting seed to catch seeds as they fall. This is because I’m too lazy + forgetful to trust myself to get out and shake seeds into a collection bag every day many days in a row as seeds ripen.

Patience with Nature

One on one time with Lee in the gardens. Photo credit Molly Moe

One thing to keep in mind when starting to save seeds is theat we’re really just helping nature along. Waiting long enough for Mother Nature to do her work is a big part of the initial learning curve. …Both waiting for the seed to be ripe enough on the plant and waiting long enough for the seed to be dry enough to put into storage!

As Lee Butala, president and executive director of Seed Savers Exchange, told me, “Plants will tell you when their seeds are ready. They give you signs, like color changes or simply starting to fall off the plant. Lettuces for example are like dandelions with their seeds; it becomes obvious.” Lee knows what he’s talking about. He is after all the co-editor of our award-winning book The Seed Garden: The Art and Practice of Seed Saving”.

Riding back from the orchard with Rochelle

Not all seeds are as showy with their seed ripeness, which brings me to Heritage Farm Field crew Leader, Rochelle’s advice, “spend a little time learning about the plant you are saving seeds from. Each crop has some specific information on how to work with it- but don’t be afraid to mess up. There are so many easy plants to start with.”

So let’s start with…

EASY TO SAVE SEEDS

Beans + Peas + Lettuces + Tomatoes

Saving Pea + Bean Seeds

These two have such similar saving techniques- I’ve lumped them together 😊 You can save bean and pea seeds on the plant and let them mature rather than eat them.

Peas and Beans are self-pollinating plants. You don’t have to worry about them cross-pollinating and mixing the strains. To save your seed, wait until the peas/beans are ripe, and then wait some more- until they are brown and drying on the vine. The pods will become papery, turning a yellow to brown color. Ideally, you should be able to hear the dry seeds rattling inside. I’ve read this is usually about 4 weeks after the peas and beans are ready for eating- I’m not organized enough to keep track) but it sounds about right.

I usually leave them in their pods in a paper bag  to dry further in a dry closet until I happen on them in winter and then shell them out, keeping them in paper envelopes or bags.… I am going to try to be more intentional this season- but if that’s all I’ve done has worked in the past you know you can handle this.

Saving Tomato Seeds

Tomatoes may cross-pollinate with each other, so if you are serious about saving these- plan on growing different varieties on opposite ends of your garden. The good news on saving these seeds is that you get to save your seeds and eat your tomatoes too! Tomato seeds are ripe the same time as their fruits– Yay!!

There are two main schools of thought on how to save tomato seeds. Fermenting then drying and just drying. Anyone who’s eaten a tomato probably knows about the little gelatin glob that encapsulates each seed. This gelatin helps the tomato seed to hold off on germinating by needing to break down and through the glob before germination begins. So, some people want to get rid of the gel by fermenting it away before drying, and some think that drying alone breaks it down enough. I *plan* on trying both methods as the season progresses and seeing if I find any difference. #nerdalert.

Saving Lettuce Seeds

Bella before she devoured all my arugula flowers + seeds

I’ve never really saved these before; so lucky me, I’m learning this one as I write! You’ll need to let lettuce bolt and send up its flower and seed stalk before collecting those seeds. I do know that chickens love arugula seeds- part of why I didn’t get to save any last year- I’m such a softy!

Lettuce seeds send out showy little seed poof balls. You can roll/crush into a bowl or bucket- then blow away the chaff (extra plant material) Lee Butalla likened it to dandelion seed heads.

If you want a good visual, watch this video– it was the best I found about saving lettuce seeds. 

Seed Storage

This is one place I need to get MUCH better as I am saving way more seed varieties this year. It is recommended to store them in a glass jar or plastic bag. Air tight containers will hold seeds viable for longer, you just need to make sure they are fully dried out before sealing it to avoid growing mold instead of more food 😉 So far I mostly keep them in paper bags or paper envelopes in a cool dark area. I’m not suggesting that as a best practice- but so far so good!

Seed Saving Next Steps

I will suggest our checking out the Seed Savers Exchange website for more online tips.  Our local White Bear Lake Seed Library, run by Pam, gives ‘seed saving talks’ quite frequently. The next ‘Seed Talk’ event is August 14th @ 6:30pm, in the downtown White Bear Lake public library. This is a great group of gardeners to get to know! PS- The White Bear Lake Seed Library is looking for Butterfly Weed flower seeds to replenish their stocks- save ’em if you’ve got ’em!

Happy Seed Saver, Jim- Ready to Help!

Once you get the hang of it, Lee Buttala of SSE suggested, “to grow a few plants dedicated for seeds. Many plants grow in such a way that you can’t use them for both eating and seed saving.” This way you really can have your salad and …eat it next year too!

I hope I’ve inspired you to start saving your own seeds!  Like most things in life getting started is the hardest part- so please ask for help! Ask me- or find another local seed saver, there is such a great community of people working to ensure diversity in seeds. I mean you could meet somebody like Jim at a seed swap and learn SO MUCH!

Seed Libraries are starting to pop up all over too. And if you want to geek out on seed libraries like I have been- subscribing to the “Cool Beans” newsletter is well worth it!

Off to collect some calendula seeds… and dig into some of the amazing food ripening in my gardens!

Dig In!
Michelle

 

Farmers Markets Summer 2018

Get your Fix of Farm Fresh the easy way, there’s a farmers market almost everyday!

I really like really local food… So of course I wanted to share my favorite Farmers Markets in my corner of the Twin Cities with you!

I shop these markets to: buy ‘new to me’ varieties to test before I grow myself, buy in bulk for preserving and to buy the crops farmers have started early or keep growing late in greenhouses to extend our local fresh food season. I also love chatting with the farmers and vendors, and I get some good insight into my own home gardens listening to the experts.

We are absolutely feeling the bounty of local farmers’ hard work up North right now. The food rolling in is dripping with sun ripened sweetness; from the cucumbers  to the zucchinis. And with a little planning, can be served on your table the same day it was picked! These Summer bounties make our MN Winters worth it, am I right!?!

For tips and secrets on ‘how to’ shop a Farmers Market like a pro, read this article! 

Summer 2018 Farmers Markets

Monday:

Little Canada Farmers Market:
Jul 9-Oct 8: Mon 2:30-6p.
Located at 2920 Rice St in the Hardware Hank parking lot

 

Wednesday:

Aldrich Arena:
May 16-Oct 31: Wed 8a-Noon.
N side of Aldrich Arena parking lot, 1850 White Bear Ave.

Vadnais Heights:
Jun 20-Oct.17: Wed 2-6p.
1155 E County Rd E in the parking lot of the Helene Houle Medical Center

Oakdale:
Jun-Oct: 2-6p.
1584 Hadley Ave next to City Hall at Richard Walton Park

 

Friday: 

White Bear Lake:
Jun 29-Oct 26: Fri 8a-Noon.
Hwy 61 & 4th St. on Washington Ave.

Saturday:

Mahtomedi:
Jun 16-Sep 22: Sat 8a-Noon.
Aat the crossroads of Mahtomedi Ave (Hwy 244) & Stillwater Rd.

Stillwater:
Jun-Oct: 7:30a-Noon.
Corner of 3rd & Pine St.

St Paul Farmers Market:
April 28-Nov 18: Sat 6a-1p
290 E 5th St, Lowertown St. Paul

Sunday:

St Paul Farmers Market:
April 28-Nov 18: Sun 8a-1
290 E 5th St, Lowertown St. Paul

Didn’t find a market in the right spot at the right time? Search the MNGrown farmers market database  to chose from the more than 180 Farmers Markets (WOW). I was even able to grab farm fresh food on our way to a recent camping destination using this search tool 😊

Costas Farm Greenhouse Farmstand

Between these markets you can sample food from most of the farmers I’ve interviewed for my blog. Read up on them before you head out to learn a little more about who you are buying from…

Mhonpaj’s Garden
Costa’s Farm and Greenhouse
Heinel Farms

All Good Organics Farm Stand

And if you want to pick up something on a day there isn’t a market running… swing by Costa’s or All Good Organics on site farm stands, fresh from the farm doesn’t get better than this!

Now let’s get out there and enjoy this beautiful + bountiful Summer season while it lasts!

Do you have a favorite farmers market? I’d love to hear about it 🙂

Forks at the ready,  Let’s Dig in!
Michelle

 

Blueberry Fields Forever

Blueberry Bliss

Guests from the 2017 picking season. Photo courtesy of Blueberry Fields of Stillwater.

Pick Your Own Farms bring together the best of summer- getting to spend time in the great outdoors in a beautiful setting, with friends + family, all working towards a tasty end goal; buckets full of blueberries! This is local food Summertime bliss. Blueberry Fields of Stillwater brings a sweet mixture of this bliss to their guests each Summer.

Is it the farm’s rolling hills and pastoral setting? Or the acres of immaculately maintained spacious rows all bursting with blueberries? Maybe it’s all the energy and love that farmers Bev and Mike O’Connor have poured into the land? Regardless of the ‘why’ you can feel the unique calm of this farm as you stroll down into the fields. Just wait until you taste the sun sweetened blueberries!

Bev in her happy place!

If you’ve never picked your own blueberries before no worries, they’re every bit as easy as strawberries and raspberries. You can just roll them between your fingers and the ripe ones will kind of fall off. You can easily tell the ripe from unripe berries.

The farm has two acres of blueberries now in the third year of organic production. There are seven varieties to give us all a wonderful selection and extended picking season. From the first sun-sweetened Polaris berries to the late-season Superior berries they have it planned out so you get to come and pick at your leisure. Always check their Facebook, Instagram, website or phone line (651-351-0492) for the latest picking updates.

Slow Food Movement

My boys picking blueberries last Summer

Picking different kinds of berries offers different kinds of experiences. Blueberry picking is not as fast paced as strawberry picking. The berries are smaller, but the bushes bigger, so you can set down a stool and just loose yourself in picking. “Something just happens in these fields when they’ve got a few groups picking, voices can carry and conversations continue over rows. We also get quite a few couples on dates. Everyone slows down a bit while they’re here. That’s our hope, that this is a beautiful place to pick the best blueberries- but also that you leave a little refreshed.”

Building a Blueberry Farm

Bev takes her time; even when they are busiest on weekends during their 3-4 week PYO season. Usually there are three ‘picking’ times on each bush. The first are usually the biggest berries, and mildly sweet. The second round produces the sweetest berries. The third produces smaller berries but usually the sweetest. Each year is a little different though,  Mother Nature’s way of reminding us she’s still in charge!

Bev has also taken the time to work on the soil. Increasing from 1% organic matter when they started testing in 2005 and increased it to 5% in 2018 (Most MN Soil is around 2% organic matter so this is kind of a big deal!). That organic matter helps maintain moisture, feed the plants and helps the bushes fight infections. I also think it helps these berries burst with a flavor unique to this location.

Local Food Flavor

Isn’t that why we love Pick Your Own Farms? To be able to taste the difference in these locally grown fruits verses the store bought and shipped varieties (from as far as Chile in the winter and California/Florida, Maine/Michigan as the summer progresses). And one thing I’ll ask, when you go- pick as much as you can! Blueberries freeze VERY well- just roll in a towel to get any stubborn stems off and freeze on a sheet pan, then pop into a freezer bag.

“They smell amazing in the middle of winter, opening a bag of frozen berries in February brings you right back to that sunny day on our farm,” says Bev. I can attest to it, they smell amazing even frozen. I’ve opened bags of organic frozen blueberries from Costco in February and they don’t smell.  At All. I ran out of the berries we picked last summer way back in November. I am not letting that happen again!

What About Growing Your Own?

I love our two blueberry bushes (and the few handfuls of tasty berries we harvest from them) growing in our home garden. But they look nothing like the full, glossy leaved, ‘dripping with berries’ bushes at this farm! Bev shares links to their favorite growing practice websites right on their website. These folks are truly passionate about blueberries, and want spread the love.

I also have two small Aronia Berry plants, another native Super Food berry, read more about these berries and their amazing properties HERE. I love that berry bushes are a perennial form of food in my yard.

When you’re looking down over the immaculate rows of bushes you can’t help but notice all the netting! This is another reason to leave mass blueberry production to the pros. This labor-intensive practice keeps the birds out, and also why you pick only where they have lifted the netting off.  Bev and her helpers will direct you to the best berries for the day.

Blueberries in/on Your Bucket List

Me and my boys visited for the first time last year and knew this was a place we’d be returning to. Sure enough it was on my boys’ 2018 Summer Bucket List too. I can’t wait to get back there with them and pick all morning. Now that I know they’ve got a handwashing station and a ‘berrywashing’ station, we can plan to stay a while and enjoy the ‘fruits of our labors’ (ha) under one of their well thought out shaded rest areas, the breezy top of the hill overlooking the fields would be my pick!

The Minnesota Grown website show 31 PYO Pick Your Own Blueberry Farms in the state, we’re lucky that one of the very few to be growing with organic practices is also the closest to us! They’re even working on using essential oils in place of pesticides with a grant from the MN Dept of Agriculture AGRI Sustainable Agriculture Demonstration Grant. Just another way these farmers are staying true to their mission of creating a healthy, refreshing experience.

Berry Nutritious

Bev’s previous profession was nursing, so she well acquainted with the value of good health. She loves being able to share these  super food berries with visitors. Blueberries are packed full of antioxidants and other vitamins and minerals, are low in calories and have many other health benefits. They also taste amazing. Especially when you can eat a few sun warmed berries sitting in the shade overlooking the fields you just picked them from.

Know before you go:

Blueberry Fields of Stillwater- 9450 Mendel Road Stillwater, MN 55082

  • $4.50/lb cash or check and $4.62/lb paying with credit card
  • Picking buckets and boxes provided
  • Bring water, sunscreen and bug spray
  • No pesticides are used so there may be bees in the field
  • Kids are welcome, please read their Kid Tips
  • Handicap Accessible bathroom on site, uneven ground
  • Check their online, or call 651-351-0492 for up to date picking info
  • Earlier is better, they open at 8

 

I can’t wait to get back and pick buckets of blueberries this summer, and this time I’ll be more prepared. I hope you will be too. If you’re too far from Blueberry Fields of Stillwater to make it out there, I know Bev would still want you to find a place to pick your own, closer to your home. The Minnesota Grown website can help you find your closest berry patch. Type in “Blueberries” in the product search bar 🙂

Bev’s favorite way to eat them is still warm from the sun, or just thawing after coming out of the freezer, I agree with both.  I also see a blueberry cobbler in my near future! What will you make with yours?

ps- Don’t forget to pick enough to last the long haul through winter…

Looking forward to Digging In to blueberry season!
Michelle

 

Local Food For Thought

I love that when I took a step back and looked at why I care about local food so much, the answers came full circle! Of course, nature had her answer all wrapped up like that. And just for the record, no one knows exactly what ‘local food’ means… some say it is food grown ‘within 100 miles’ of the purchase, others say ‘in my state’.

Here’s a quick(ish) look into why I believe taking the extra effort to eat local pays off in dividends larger than we can measure.

Nothing beats sun ripened home grown tomatoes!

Local Food Tastes Better 

Fresh + local food just tastes better. Exhibit A> The Tomato. Homegrown varieties will leave you smiling as you savor the layers of flavor that drip off the sun warmed juices. The store bought, often packaged version of tomatoes  we get up North in winter are pale pink, mealy, styrofoam imposters. Don’t even get me started on eggs 😉

Nutritional Value

Food loses nutrients after it is harvested- up to 30% in three short days! Being able to pick a salad out of my garden or buy from a farmer that harvested earlier that day means more nutritional ‘bang’ for my buck or my work than buying food that was shipped across the country. Not to mention food flown/shipped here from another continent before it was ripe. Continue reading

Worms at Work: Vermicomposting 101

Compost is Key

We all know compost is good for your garden soil, and that I’m a big fan of incorporating composting into the garden cycle- but did you know that worm castings are nature’s effortless and ideal answer to up-cycling!? Vermicomposting is the practice of using worms to decompose food scraps and using their worm poop (aka worm castings) to grow more great  food. 

Melanie with some impressive garlic- must be the worm castings!

I asked local vermicomposting expert, Melanie Harding, to help us understand more about using worms to transform trash into treasure. Melanie has been Tamarack Nature Center’s Naturalist Coordinator for going on 5 years. She’s most happy when she gets to help people have those light bulb moments when they make a nature connection. Her info here will have light bulbs going off all over the place!

So… let’s all learn a little more from Melanie:

I have a deep respect for decomposers – those marvelous creatures that recycle nature’s leftovers into the building blocks of new life. That probably doesn’t surprise people who know me, as I have been working in the field of environmental education for more than 25 years. But when someone finds out I have worms living in my kitchen, the reaction is usually surprise…followed by disgust…and eventually curiosity. Those who are curious enough to ask about the three bins stacked inconspicuously in the corner, open a proverbial “can of worms” at my house. I have worms living in my kitchen and I love to talk about them!

Everyone can help with the worms!

Continue reading

There’s something comforting about meeting people who are doing exactly what they’re supposed to be doing. It’s even better when they’ve taken over the family farm; better for the land, the crops, the animals- and better for us lucky people who get to eat the food they raise.

Butch and Kris Cardinal of All Good Organics have worked hard to find their groove and they’ve really hit their stride after figuring out their unique niches.

The farm on April 20th, 2018 – thank goodness we’re all melted now!

Butch is a 5th generation farmer – OF THE SAME LAND. His family has been farming their slice of heaven at 6657 Centerville Road in Hugo since 1866. The way they have farmed has swung the pendulum over their 152 years of land stewardship. “Everything was organic back when my dad was born- but then, by the 40’s chemical fertilizers and pesticides showed up. And these guys were of the mind that if a little is good, more is better. When my dad came home from WW2 it was all about the chemicals; they meant less weeding,” but it took over 50 years for most farmers to figure out that the chemicals had some major downsides.

Pulling produce from the greenhouse all winter long!

Butch knew what we could grow as a conventional grower with the pesticides and herbicides, but he’s worked with them and didn’t want them around-. “I mean, just read the labels and directions on some of them, if I need to put on full suits and respirators to apply, I don’t want that stuff sticking around in my soil or my food.”

So when his dad asked him to help with some pumpkins years ago, he countered with wanting to grow organic vegetables too. They’d been growing conventional hay for years prior.

So, Butch brought the farm back to organic practices, and they’ve been certified since 2010. By USDA NOP (National Organic Program) the transition period is three years. Now they plant 25 acres of vegetables, many started in the 1,800 square foot greenhouse. Like most organic farms, they’ve got a ‘full circle’ approach, using each resource in many ways, and always keeping their eyes open for opportunities.

Butch and Kris in front of their Farm Store

Continue reading

One Year of Digging In!

Ringing in 2018!

Let’s Celebrate One Year of Forks in the Dirt!

Looking back over the first year of sharing food stories and info with whoever would listen- I had to stop and say THANK YOU! Thanks for making me so happy I took that leap of faith!!

I’ve learned more than I could have imagined; about growing food, farmers, food systems and building websites- but I also had a chance to distill what is important to me. I got to hang out with dozens of farmers on lovingly cared for land. I got to eat my way through a delicious summer and ate mostly locally grown (home preserved) food all winter.

Karin Costa helping my boys get their weekly sweet corn fix!

Officially, my website had 4,469 reads and lots of engagement over the many different posts on the blog, Facebook and Instagram… again, thanks for showing up!

*Some* of the topics covered:
Composting, Community Gardens, Farmers,  CSA’s, Planting Tips, Farmers Market Shopping Tips, Farm + Food Events, Raising Backyard Chickens, Pollinators, Food Hubs, ForagingHealthy Eating Recipes + Canning Recipes, Food Shelves, Growing for Food Shelves, the first ever Winter WBL Farmers Market and our WBL Seed Library– wheee! Continue reading

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