Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Figure, Ground

The last time I posted here it was summer and things were muscular and bright in the garden. Now it's full on winter and the garden is full of dried stalks and wilted stems. The lake freezes and thaws. In terms of Land Scouting, it can be harder to get outside; the days are shorter and you've got to dress for the weather to be comfortable for longer than a short walk. While it can be uncomfortable to be cold, I think we tend to speak ill of winter too often. We focus on the lack of light, warmth, and movement, rather than reveling in what the dark, cold, and stillness do.

What they do is create negative space in the cycle of the seasons. Biologically many plants in our area need a period of winter to go into dormancy or to germinate seeds for the spring.  In design class we talk about negative space and how a "positive" figure is set off by a "negative" ground. You can think of negative space as the area around something or that which is not filled. Often successful design work had negative space that does as much as, if not more than, the positive figures like text or images. One of my teaching mentors talked about the importance of negative space in one's life: time unscheduled and unscripted. Too much of one and not the other creates a loud imbalance. This time resets the world, physically and mentally, and grounds the coming buds and blossoms. We need the rest and stillness of winter to appreciate the abundance and movement of summer.

So rather than curse the cold, short, dark days (or maybe you don't do this...) let's sit comfortably and patiently in winter, cultivating hygge as needed, as our half of the planet tilts back toward the sun.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Summer Shots

Some photos of flowers and things in the garden now. We're zone 5a/b and on Lake Michigan.

Benary's Giant Zinnia 
Egyptian Walking Onion bulblets


Resina Calendula

Flowering Tobacco (Nioctiana alata)

Thursday, June 30, 2016

New Land

A roadside gully on a hill
Last week I got to travel to a remote town in Idaho for a friend's wedding. In addition to the joy and buzz of the occasion it was a real kick to see such different land. We were in sight of the Sawtooth Mountains and surrounded by plants that thrive in high altitude and low rain. On our last day there I watched a woman emerge from her house (shown in the second photo below) carrying out containers full of small plants.  She took them indoors every night to spare them the frost. It made me glad to return to both the abundant water and recent warmth of Wisconsin.

 White blossoms, pale green stems, slightly furry, 8-10" tall clumps
Four containers with small plants. In the background, the Sawtooth Mountains
Lastly, for the newly married couple, this version of the Seven Jewish Wedding Blessings from Devon A. Lerner's book.

May you be generous and giving with each other.
May your sense of humor and playful spirit always continue to enliven your relationship.
May you always respect the diversity of humankind.
May you act with compassion to those less fortunate and with responsibility to the communities of which you are a part.
May you appreciate and complement each other's differences.
May you always share yourselves openly with your friends and family.
May your home be a haven of blessing and peace.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Go Wild Outside

I follow Fiona Bird on twitter where she’s often posting photos of seaweed, news about foraging, and generally interesting tidbits about land and plants. Bird tweeted about reviewing her book Let Your Kids Go Wild Outside (CICO Books), I contacted the publisher, received a copy in the mail, and have thoroughly enjoyed it.

This book is refreshing. The writing is bright, abundant, and inviting. It offers a lot of information and activities, but it doesn’t belabor the learning outcomes and educational values of the outdoor experience. Instead the emphasis is on discovery, play, and trusting the reader’s curiosity to guide her. Each chapter covers a different region: woods; meadows, hedgerows and hills; seashore; water and wetlands; and “my wild garden and kitchen.”

For each Bird gives information about the flora and fauna you’ll find, instructions for crafts to make with local plants and found materials, a little bit of natural history, and activities appropriate to the area. Almost all of the crafts and activities are free and made largely with biodegradable materials that can be returned to site when finished.  Although most of the activities are appropriate for younger children (some with supervision), older children and adults will find plenty to try. I’m especially excited to try making nettle cordage and artist’s charcoal from pussy willow branches! 

This book would be a helpful resource for outdoor educators or indoor educators wanting to get their students outside more. Likewise it would be a thoughtful gift for any young naturalist moving to (or vacationing in) new areas.  In fact I plan to getting a second copy for some young family friends.  My hat goes off to Bird for this thorough and accessible book. I look forward to returning to it as spring finally comes to Wisconsin.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Seeding towards spring

The vernal equinox was a couple of days ago, which means it's technically spring. You wouldn't know it to look out the window yesterday: snow, snow, wind, and more snow. Still, when all this snow melts (and it will) there are things budding up. I've seen garlic, peonies, and chamomile in our garden. The weeping willows have their early yellow buds and eventually the other trees will come budding along too.

In the meantime: I'm starting seeds indoors. Where I live the estimated last frost is early May. I've marked backwards on my calendar from there and am started different varieties accordingly. Many need 6-8 weeks indoors. The seeds going in the photo above are kept cozy by an electric heating mat. Even the seeds of cool-weather crops like kale or celery will germinate faster with warmer soil temperatures.

If you'd like to start seeds indoors but have never done it before, start with easier varieties. For example vegetables like spinach or tomatoes and flowers like nasturtium or sunflowers.  Google "seed swap" + "your location" to see if you can find someone in your area who will give you some of their seeds. Feel free to download, print out, and use this seed packet template. Seeds will be marked with a year, and although it's generally good to use more recent seeds, if they've been stored in a cool, dry, dark place, you may have luck with seeds 5 years or older. (If you do use older seeds, assume that fewer will germinate and plant more.)

I'm not going to go over all the specifics for starting seeds here because many wonderful and more experienced growers have covered the process at length here, here, and here. My only advice: Don't overwater your seeds! Know that while you can go out and spend as much money as you'd like to build a fancy set-up with grow lights, timers, and heat mats, you can also get pretty good results with a sunny window, well cleaned leftover plastic food containers, and careful attention.

The thrill of seeing those first tiny bits of green pushing through black soil is unparalleled. Once you get the hang of starting plants from seed, you'll have more than you know what to do with. Another opportunity to trade with fellow growers. Good luck and happy spring!

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Plant Garlic

About three weeks ago we welcomed our son into the world. He was due around the time first frost was predicted for our area. In the days before his birth we got a small cold snap that crippled tomatoes in the garden. We picked all the basil the night before and made double batches of pesto. After his birth, and with the support of my parents and husband, I was able to spend a couple precious minutes in the garden planting garlic.

I love growing garlic. You plant it in the fall, right around first frost, giving it just enough time to grow roots but not so much time that it will put up a lot of growth that would be killed by the cold winter temperatures. Most of the fall chores for the garden involve pulling out spent plants and preparing beds for winter-- tucking garlic bulbs into the soil is a forward-looking exception. 

The early rooting helps keep the bulb from being heaved out of the ground by freezing. Then the garlic waits under several inches of mulch through the winter. In the spring it will be one of the earliest things to come poking through the soil, green and hopeful. You can clip and use the slender curling scapes the hardneck garlic puts out in early summer. Harvest the garlic late in the summer when the stalks and fronds have begun to yellow. Let the heads of garlic dry in a cool dark place. 

Monday, October 5, 2015

Team Worm

Upon arriving these young guys announced they were on "Team Worm."
We had great weather and a nice turnout for the Worm Bin workshop two weeks ago. I talked about the basics of home-scale worm bins and we worked to drill holes in bins and get people set up with ample starter worms and bedding. I passed out this PDF on worms and recommended Mary Appelhof's excellent book Worms Eat My Garbage. A nice benefit of giving away so many handfuls of worms for the starter bins is that our home bin is now light enough to move into the basement for the winter.

Anna and Alaina getting pumped for vermicompost. 
On the subject of moving the bins in for the winter: I'm planning to build a new wider, double-stacked model to contain the rich liquid that drains through the bin. Last year I propped the bins up on 2x4s on top of plastic garbage bags. While that set up probably mitigated the mess (slightly) it did little to stem the flow of the rich vermicompost liquid. This year I hope the bottom bin will not only prevent the same dark mess, but will yield a highly concentrated liquid I can add to plants in spring. We shall see.

In fact, there's a lot of room for (and not much risk involved in) experimentation in home vermicomposting. My efforts pale in comparison to those Bentley Christie, self described Compost Guy and energetic cheerleader for worms, vermicompost, and home experiments. If you're growing excited about these things, I recommend his website Red Worm Composting where he describes with great enthusiasm (and ample puns) various methods and techniques.

Onward, upward, and on into the coming winter. Next up in my Land Scouting: saving seeds before first frost and documenting the fruit trees in our neighborhood.