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Our GARDEN BLOG covers all things garden, including planting, organic strategies, and things relevent to the season.

Our HOW TO blog teaches you how to do things like plant seeds or make jam.

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My Yard Smells like Poo

Posted on May 23, 2016 at 10:10 AM Comments comments (0)

Spring is full of sights, sounds, and especially smells.  From the early smells of rain and mud, (which includes wet dogs, and very smellys wet tennis shoes) to the mid spring wonder of the apple blossoms and fragrant lily of the valley they are all remniscent of spring. 

Today though, there is a different smell, and to me it is just as beautiful. It's Poo.  I just finished spreading 250 pounds of cow manure on the garden beds. That is in addition to a winter's worth of rabbit and chicken wastes.  One of the most challenging parts of urban farming is how to keep it clean, pleasant, and unobtrusive. City chickens have become more accepted in recent years, but most neighborhoods still have that one or two hold outs who are afraid that the "girls" making your breakfast eggs will ruin their morning coffee on the back patio with their smells and sounds.

We manage this by putting all the poo to work, on an organic basis. We compost all chicken waste immediately, cleaning out the chicken coop and yard every few weeks.  Chicken wastes are very high in ammonia, and will burn plants if put on the garden right away....this same ammonia is what can make backyard chickens smelly on a hot, or very wet day. 

So the chicken wastes go in a compost pile, covered with dry browns ( such as raked leaves) to soak up the moisture, and lots of greens (such as weeds pulled from the garden and grass clippings) for high nitrogen to speed up their decay in to useful garden gold.  We let that pile work all summer, startina new one every spring, and recycling the previous years pile into the garden for bountiful harvests.

The bunny poo is less harsh, and we often take it straight from the rabbit hutches to top dress around the plants in the garden season, giving cabbages and asparagus a little nitrogren kick right when they need it most! It looks a little funny, little round pellets all around the plants, but they grow like crazy!! And no chemical in our cabbages!  

In the winter and fall it goes right onto the compost pile.  Brad says that he keep checking to see if Galdalf and Stormageddon ( What happens when you let a 10 year old name his rabbits) have laid any eggs yet, but until they do.....Their main contribution to the family is fertilizer! 

So I breathe deep today and smell the garden soil, mingled with poo, and it is good.  I can smell the Roses that will bloom in June, and taste those first tomatoes that are just setting blooms. 

Spring Races In- The Spring Garden

Posted on May 5, 2016 at 1:20 PM Comments comments (0)

It hardly seems possible that just a few short weeks ago, the only green thing in our garden world was the tips of the chives, poking out of the snow, for the yard, garden and neighbor house are a riot of colors !

The garden in spring is, to me as delightful as the 64 count crayon box is to a kindergartener.  So bright, brilliant, and full of endless possibilities! Looking on the 20 + different shades of green, I feel that anything could happen.  There is promise in the air. The buds on the pear trees and apple trees are fat, and breaking open, already speaking of the sweet, aromatic, juicy fruit we will harvest in September and October. The Forsythia bush, brown and quiet just a day or two ago, is bright yellow, announcing itself to the world.  It says, I feel, "Wake Up! Winter is over!"

I feel the same, turning the soil, and watching my radishes, peas, lettuces, and kales poke their heads up through the soil. Wide awake, and ready to devote another summer and fall to filling freezer, pantry and root cellar with amazing, local and homegrown food to nourish the boys, through their 12th, 14th, and 17th years. 

While we are not, here in Eagle River past our last frost date, that doesn't mean it isn't garden season yet! I planted the peas when the snow melted and they are several inches tall today. Fast sprouting kales, lettuce, and radishes are working on their third sets of leaves already, and slow to germinate carrots have just poked their fine feathery first leaves out of the soil today.  Onions and garlic planted in the fall are racing to the sun, and we have eating snippets of their piquant tops in several salads and a paricularily fine dinner of Vietnamese noodles this past week.

In the greenhouse the tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and more are waiting patiently for frost free nights and toasty warm soil to be set out into the garden, in the garden, the weeds are growing tall already, and I have to go out and keep them in check.

Today, on your evening walk, look for those different greens, as well as the yellows, and reds, and purples that are springing forth.

Spring will out

Posted on April 11, 2016 at 9:10 PM Comments comments (0)

It can feel like this winter will never end, at times. Like today, on the 11th of April, when we still have almost 8 inches of snow blanketing the garden beds and cold frames. But as my grandmother said when I was potty training my oldest son....all things eventually come to a natural end. So while it is 20 degrees and snowy, a few clues say that Spring is closer than it appears to the casual window observer. After all Robins and chives never lie. The chives poke through the snow, hopefully, and the Robin waits patiently on a post in my garden. I too wait, but less patiently.

"Poor Man's Fertilizer"

Posted on March 31, 2016 at 11:35 AM Comments comments (0)

Poor Man's Fertilizer 

It is four days after Easter here in the Northwoods, and it is snowing. Not little cutesy flakes that melt when they hit the ground, but the big, fluffy, sticky flakes that cover the grass in a few minutes.  So while I sit here, mourning that I can't spend another day of our Spring break turning garden beds and planting bulbs, I got instead to thinking of the snow itself.  

Poor Man's Fertilizer my grandfather called it. Old Yankee Farmers valued this early snow, often waiting to plow fields until there was a Late Spring snow on them.  Why?  They still had farming instincts, often lost and forgotten these days, and they passed them from father to son.  This one said that there were good, vital, important things int hat snow, and they should capture them. They were right.

They weren't chemists, they were farmers.   So they didn't know, on a scientific basis, what we can say today.  My middle school son can tell me that the atmosphere of our planet is 78% nitrogen.   Any home gardener can tell you that nitrogen is in fertilizers, and helps promote green, healthy plant growth.  Here is the rest of the story, in layman's terms....Nitrogen is all around us, in air, water and soil.  However,  much of it ( almost all) is not usable by plants or animals, because it is in the wrong form.  

Your tomato plants can only use it to make green leafy fronds when it is converted. Fixed we say.  This can be done a few ways, by bonding to oxygen, making a usable nitrate, by bonding to hydrogen, making a usable ammonia (NH3), or by fixing to the soil particles through a microbial action, involving a specific bacteria (Rhizobiaceae, α-Proteobacteria). This bacterium can only do it's job, if we haven't killed it off through the use of harsh chemicals, such as pesticides and commercial fertilizers.  Thus the "Poor Man's" adage, if you are too poor for the fertilizer, you still have the microbes! More truly, if you are an organic gardener or farmer, you are intentionally creating a microbe friendly soil.

While forming in midair, the snow flakes abosorb or trap the nitogen from the atmosphere, carrying it to soil with them.  Rain, and lightning do this as well. The reason that snow is the valuable source for us, is the way the nutrients and nitrogen are released.  With rain, it saturates the soil, and then runs off, into rivers, streets and swamps.  With the winter snow, it melts onto frozen ground, again, running off.  This lovely Spring snow though, falls onto warmed, thawed soil, and melts slowly, like a time release fertilizer.  The microbes can fix it to be absorbed by the crocuses just poking though the soil, the bulbs just breaking dormancy, and the roots of the fruit trees just starting to bud out.  

It isn't a lot, if you look from the commercial farming industry point of view.  Studies show that nitrogen fixed by snow amounts to about 2 to 10 pounds of nitrates a year, per acre.  When you read a bag of fertilizer, or talk to a commodities farmer you are talking hundred of pounds per acre.  From the organic farmer's view though, as an additive to good soil conservation, compost inputs, and a living bio-diverse soil....That snow is the icing on my garden today.

Spring Thoughts and Deeds

Posted on March 25, 2016 at 6:15 PM Comments comments (0)

Spring is on us once more. Oops, spoke too soon, it is gone again. Oh, wait, nevermind, it's back.

This is life in Northern Wisconsin. With a record mild winter behind us, and a  fickle spring teasing us, starting your garden can feel like folly.    The snow melted early this year, with  a record 63 degrees Farenheit on the 12th of March.   Since then we have flitted btween single digit temps and 50  degree days like a toddler changing toys. 

Mornings start with frost and hard ground, but by evening the soil is soft and the greenhouse temperature today topped 90 degrees with the afternoon sun. We had a rough start to our garden season this year, having started our seedlings nice and early, with the peppers planted on the 27th of February. But last weeken on a 17 degree night, the heater malfunctioned and the whole greenhouse froze! Except the hardy celery, which is none the worse for the wear.  

So we are back at square one, with our peppers and tomatoes replanted, and we await, here on a beautiful good friday, the germination of our crops.   The chickens are out in the yard this evening, turning the soil and pecking away happily.  They are great at working the compost in to the beds, with their scratching and digging.

I asked Luke a little while ago, if he could put them back in their yard, and he said " Five more minutes for them, Please Mom?" Like the boys the chickens want to play outside.

I too have sat at my computer long enough, back to the greenhouse and cold frame for me! Happy Good Friday!

Running the Sap Lines 2014

Posted on May 3, 2014 at 12:30 AM Comments comments (0)

So Maple Syrup season has again come to a close.  The winter flew by and dragged on forever at the same time.  It's time to pull the taps, and start planting in the open garden.  Time to get out the sheets and prepare for late spring frosts. 

But first, let's look at  Maple Syrup  for one last entry, as the last drips of sap "tik tik tik" into the milk jugs my bohemian grandfather taught me to catch tree sugar in.  

Wisconsin is 3rd in the Nation for Maple Syrup production.  Following Vermont and Maine, in 2013 265,000 gallons were produced in the Badger state last year. This years numbers will be lower than that I am sure.  It was a poor and strange sap run this year, with many stops and starts, and the wrong combination of warm days and cold nights.  The temperatures that are ideal for spring sap flow are 25 degrees at night, and 45-50 degrees during the day. 

Accordning to a Cornell University study-

Around 300 different natural flavor compounds have been found in pure maple syrup, though not all in the same syrup. Your nose detects most of these compounds. There is a compound linked to maple flavor that is present in all pure maple products, but varies in amount between producers and time of year. Other prominent flavors are sugars, caramel, and vanilla. Nutty, buttery, floral (honey), cereal, chocolate, and coffee flavors can be found in some syrups. As is the case for most natural products, maple syrups have complex flavor chemistry to delight your sense of taste and smell.

Maple syrup can be substituted for white sugar in cooking. Use 1 cup maple syrup for 1 cup white sugar. Reduce liquid in recipe by 3 Tablespoons for each cup of syrup used. Maple sugar can replace white sugar in equal amounts.The sugar in maple syrup is sucrose with small amounts of glucose and fructose sugar. White sugar is sucrose. There is no direct scientific evidence that maple syrup is healthier than white sugar. Diabetics need to treat maple syrup and sugar as they do other sugar products. Because it is a less refined sugar, maple products contain minerals, antioxidants, and other compounds that have been shown to have health advantages in other foods.


We waded through almost 100" of snow to set our taps in late March, and then waited patiently through more subzero temps, and more snow, before the trees began at last to drip sap through our taps.  The snow was deep, but I didn't realize how much there really was, until it began to melt....The last few sap runs of the season, standing finally on bare earth, there are taps that Luke, who turned nine years old over the winter, can't reach! They were set in the trees while I stood on the record breaking snow fall accumulations.

We did make enough syrup to make it through the next year, and it tastes, as always, better than I remember.

Winter Gardening?

Posted on December 27, 2013 at 6:35 PM Comments comments (0)

So as always, summer flew by in  a blur. The weeds raced, the zucchini took over, canning and harvest filled our golden days to bursting. And then with a flash, frost came, and the garden was finished. Or is it?

For us, here in Wisconsin, the garden has not yet gone completely to sleep even now. We have crisp green kale, and mache/corn salad still in our coldframes. On a sunny sunday afternoon I don all my winter gear and venture out into -15 F weather, and sweep snow from the top of the cold frame. With a scissors in my mittened hand I cut a few bunches of kale (siberian variety) to put in our inside warming Portuguese Kale and Sausage soup. (recipe to follow) I tuck the greens back into the coldframe and put abit of the snow back around the edges to insulate my precious winter greens. 

This past Tuesday was Christmas eve, and lunchtime found me digging in the snow at the south corner of the greenhouse. I dug about 2 feet into the snowbank and came up with an especially precious treasure, fresh thyme for our Christmas Eve pork loin roast. With rosemary from the windowsill (potted and brought in this fall), our roast smelled fantastic in the oven all afternoon, and it tasted even better!

Much of the winter garden is not for winter eating though, under fiberglass row covers sit, waiting for spring, greens, and cabbages, and young beets, just biding their time until the days begin to lengthen. Until then, we'll eat the swiss chard and kale, and dream of tomatoes and scallions.

Portuguese Kale Soup

1 lb spicy Italian sausage, sliced and browned.

When the sausage is browned well, add 1 cup diced onion, and several cloved of minced fresh garlic. Set aside. 

In a large stockpot boil 4 cups of diced potatoes of your choice ( We like red ones) in salted water. 

When they are tender, drain and add chicken or vegetable broth, sufficient to cover, homemade about 4 cups, or two cans. 

Then add in the sausage, onion and garlic mix, along with some fresh or dried basil and oregano ( you can also use Italian seasoning). Let simmer for atleast half an hour. 

About 15 minutes before serving add in about 3 cups of washed kale, torn into small pieces. Let simmer another 15 minutes, on low. 

Serve hot with a crusty bread. 

Weeding and Hilling

Posted on June 24, 2013 at 4:30 PM Comments comments (0)

So for most of us, the garden is in. That's not to say you dont still have seed packets in every shirt pocket,  stack of bills, and even a few in the freezer.  However, by late June, the lion's share of the actual planting is done.  Our vegetables are up and running, most of the berry bushes that we put in as bareroots in April are out of dormancy, the fruit trees blossoms have fallen and they are making fat little green apples and pears.  So at what point are you done?  The answer is a tricky one really. 

Now that the garden is in, the real work begins. Of course you know I'm mostly referring to weeding.  The weeds somehow always stay one step ahead. I weed for atleast a half hour every day. No sooner than the onions are surrounded by clean dark soils with out any crabgrass or purslane, than I look over a row, or three to the broccoli I weeded  over the weekend, and find it is overrun.  No sooner have I picked the peas than i notice the beans are ready to pick and the lettuce needs cutting. A gardener (or farmer)'s work is never done.  So for most of July I am weeding, hilling, thinning and picking,  (not to mention, blanching, freezing, and drying).

After spending several 90 degree days weeeding, I see weeds in my dreams.  My knees are perpetually stained earth colored, and there will be soil under my fingernails until the snow flies. In short, in the hot July days, weeds overrun not just the garden, but  the mind as well.  Not all weeds are an evil though: many  such as, purslane, plantain and lambs quarters, make it into our dinner salads daily. The chickens and the rabbit convert many pounds of weeds weekly into fertilizer and eggs. We also use them in the compost pile to create free nitrogen.

How to weed is a common question. There are many tools on the market, meant to remove weeds, hoes, and hooks, and even one named after a rodent.  There are attatchements for tractor and mowers meant for cultivating. If you grow your plants as densely as I do however, you are left with one choice.  Your hands. For the most part, only my hand can get between the plants in our gardens, with out also ripping up the plants that belong there.  I some times use a small hand rake to loosen them, and early in the season I can use a hoe or rake to scratch out weeks, but in just a few weeks, there is too little space between rows and plants to use any kind of tools.  There are additional benefits to intensely close plantings, besides more yield in a small space than with a more conventional  (as directed on the seed packet) layout.  Much of my garden is self mulching, meaning that the vegetable plants over lap each other so much that there is not enough sun,water or space for weeds. This is particularily true in the tomato, bean, and squash beds, where the plants are large and leafy.

There are always weeds in the lettuce, carrots, onions and garlic bed, no matter how vigilant we are . It can be disheartening to look across the garden and see weeds marching throughout.  It is much more gratifying to look at the one or two beds you just weeded, and admire the dark unbroken soil that lies between the cabbages.

Recycling in the Northwoods

Posted on June 18, 2013 at 5:55 PM Comments comments (1)

If you've found your way to our blog, you are probably doing something, or many things to live a greener life, such as eating organic foods, and properly disposing of hazardous wastes. Most of us also put out a separate bin on garbage day for our recycling. What are we putting in that bin however? It bears a second's thought. The majority of us who recycle put our glass, such as pasta sauce jars or wine bottles, as well as our metal cans from veggies or canned fruit. Then you get to plastics, which is a hazier area, even for an avid recycler. Recently I decided, enough waffling about which ones to put in the bin, and which ones to toss. I went on the website of our recycling service. What I learned surprised me.

The service in Eagle River accepts all plastics numbered 1-7. They also accept and recycle things like toasters (small metal appliances) and faucets. They also accept most kinds of paper. They cannot recycle cellophane, carbon paper, or the backing from computer printed labels.

Until now we were not recycling paper, most often it was used to heat our garage in the winter. Upon learning it is recycled here, I did as I usually do, a little reading on the subject. Here is what I learned about recycling paper.

According to the EPA- every ton of paper recycled saves enough energy to power the average American home for 6 months., saves 7,000 gallons of water, and saves 3.3 cubic feet of landfill space or carbon put off by incineration. In 1990 the US Forestry and Paper industry (represented by the AF&PA) voluntarily set a recovery goal rate of 40%, meaning that they would collect and reuse 40% of the paper used by consumers. In 2007 the actual recovery rate of paper passed 56%. As of 1994, officially, more paper was recycled, than found its way to landfills.

Almost 40% of the raw materials used in paper mills is post consumer (recovered) material. More than 3/4 of paper mills in the USA use some recovered paper to make their products. More than 140 paper mills use exclusively recovered paper as their raw material.

About 70 million tons of paper and paperboard are used in the US every year. Every page of electric bill, or notice about the football program at your child's grade school that we casually toss into a trash bin can and should be recycled. Also every cereal box and envelope. In many communities, you do not even have to keep separate bins, recyclables are co-mingled, meaning that you can put all of your glass, paper, and cans, and plastic into one bin, and they are sorted later at the recycling facility.

What kinds of things are made from recycled paper? It may surprise you to learn that in addition to writing paper and folders and the like, all of the following are commonly made of recycled and recovered paper. Masking tape, Paper money,Globes,Bandages, Dust masks, Hospital gowns, Coffee filters, Lamp shades, Car insulation, Animal bedding, Planting pots for seedlings, Egg cartons.

In my eyes, it is a much more responsible use of our trees, water, and landfill space, to reuse the paper that comes thru our house every day. So let's put that junk mail to work!

What can you do? According to the EPA more than 23,000 communities offer curbside pickup an d paper recycling services. You can visit www.earth911.com to find services near you. Go to recycling search at the top right of the screen and enter your zip code. Earth 911 also offers many innovatives ways to reuse things, rather than putting them in the landfill.

Welcome to the Summer Garden

Posted on June 4, 2013 at 12:55 AM Comments comments (0)

So it's June. Last night we covered plants, for hopefully the last time, as temperatures dropped well into the low thirties, and frost advisories were announced on the local public radio station. There is a lot to cover now!! We have all of the tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants in, having worked straight through Memorial Day (our taditional day for planting tomatoes). Our cabbage and broccoli, put in early in April are coming along nicely, and after some much needed rain, the first planting of beans is up. (I stagger those plantings throughout June to keep from being buried in beans in July).

We have planted most of the squash, (winter and Summer types), the cucumbers(5 types), and four types of melons. These later warm crops are not up yet, but in probably a few days the cukes will start to pop through the soil. The flower seeds scattered at the edges of our beds and paths for the bees are popping up more and more each day. The corn and pumpkins are tucked in thier hills, with some turkey craw pole beans that we bought on the Cherokee Indian Reservation in NC poked in around them. With every rain, the garden's ratio of brown to green tips more heavily in the green's favor.

Also we (and Annabeth) survived our first chicken health scare. The longer grass available to our hens with the rain resulted in a case of sour crop. The hen's crop holds grit and digests (chews, if you will) their grain and greens. If a hen gets a long string of grass in their, without sufficient grit, or a lump of undigested grain, it results in something like an acid stomach in a human. Unlike we humans, though, a chicken cannot burp, or vomit. The process to clear a sour or obstructed crop is not a pretty one! It involves two humans, a towel wrapped upside down chicken, and quite often green slime on your shoes. Several days later howerver, our blonde hen is no longer drooopy tailed and moping in a corner, she is vocal, social, and perky once again.

So all is well in the garden and the chicken run, and today's project is to make several rhubarb jams for the farmer's market.