Sharin’ of the Green

Last St. Patrick’s Day, I planted peas. This St. Patrick’s Day, we’re still locked solidly in winter, with a blizzard warning in effect.

But it wasn’t hard to chase the late winter blues away spending an afternoon in Elk’s Bluff Winter Greenhouse, surrounded by beds and hanging planters crammed with greens gorgeous enough for the devil on my shoulder to suggest that sinking down on my knees and grazing might be an option.

Luckily, there was a full salad bowl included with lunch at the Deep Winter Producer’s Association meeting just north of Montevideo, and no one looked askance when I filled my plate twice.

Carol Ford and Chuck Waibel led the discussion, along with hosts Tim and Shelly Elkington, for a group of about twenty would-be winter greenhouse producers from as far away as the Iron Range.

With their Garden Goddess Enterprises in Milan, Chuck and Carol are pioneers in the practice of passive solar greenhouse design and production here in Minnesota, and their presentations and book, The Northlands Winter Greenhouse Manual, have spawned many similar projects throughout the colder latitudes.

Elk’s Bluff isn’t far, distance-wise, from Garden Goddess, but the Elkingtons have engineered a larger greenhouse with some different design features from the original. The meeting covered a few of those differences, but also featured some discussion of what benefits an association might have for clusters of winter producers–including building parties, aggregated materials and supply sourcing, and ongoing consulting services.

John and I are considering designs for a new garage/shop/summer kitchen building on the farmstead we’re purchasing, so we were there to gather information for a potential addition to this building-of-all-trades. And, well, I figured there might be something good and green to eat, too!

Marketing the bounty of the greenhouses has not posed much of a challenge for the producers–just the mention of fresh food in winter has created customer lists far longer than the small-scale producers can supply. One producer remembered a call from a manager of one of the Twin Cities farmers markets, pleading with her to bring her greens into Minneapolis. The resounding cry from the assembled crowd: “let ’em beg–we feed our own first.”

No doubt a collection of intrepid producers will at some point tap into that lucrative market, but here on the western edge of Minnesota, it would seem a crime to produce such a lovely abundance with such low energy inputs, only to burn tanks-full of gas to cart it across the state.

And, in my humble opinion, the cities don’t need to get every good thing first. A network of winter producers supplying rural Minnesota with the best, freshest food available can just as well add another layer of goodness to our good life here.

I sat down with the greenhouse manual late yesterday afternoon, before our traditional Irish supper of bacon and cabbage, and finished the thing before breakfast this morning. It looks totally doable, and pretty easy to add on to our existing plan, and so I handed it off to John for further consideration.

Instead of sugar plums, my slumber in between was punctuated by visions of buttercrunch and arugula, dancing along with me in a warm, sunny, and moist place to laugh off the winter blues.

Three Inch Rain

I was chatting with my neighbor, Wayne, this morning as I surveyed the garden for signs of drought stress after yesterday’s nearly 100-degree heat. We haven’t had rain to speak of in weeks.

Flooding the Tomato Forest

Wayne told me a guy down the block claimed they’d had a three-inch rain the other morning.

“How the heck could you have a three inch rain when we got almost nothing?” Wayne asked.

“Well,” the neighbor said. “We got a drop. And then we got another drop three inches away.”

Building in Resilience

First rain–a lot of it at once. Now it’s dry again.

When I raked and shaped the raised beds in my new gardens here, I got a lot of questions about what I was doing and why. And, if I know my western Minnesota well enough by now, for every voiced question, there are ten who drive by and think, “what the heck is she doing?”–but never actually stop and ask.

Based on my own observations about the soil here, as well as my neighbor’s comments about the back lot being poorly drained, this is what I was preparing for:

In the process of raking up these beds, I incorporated a lot of the organic matter into them, and even with the two-inch deluge, there was very little erosion off these mounds. Had the garden been level, the plants would have been sitting in muck, their roots starving for oxygen.

Now that it’s dry out, the plants are still doing well–the clay soil holds water well, and there’s still plenty of moisture deep in the mounds. The tomatoes have really taken off!

Before that series of storms, I planted the lower part of this same garden with a buckwheat cover crop. I thought about trying to build more beds and plant more vegetables, but I’ve been busy enough to know my time limitations for garden work.

Thick-sown, fast-growing buckwheat makes a good weed-suppressing summer cover, and its heart-shaped leaves (and later white blooms) are really pretty! I’ll let it bloom for a bit before I cut it down for mulch–giving bees more reason to hang around the garden while the other crops are blooming.

As I mow the lawn, I’ve been adding more mulch to these gardens. I’m not sure I have my system just right at this point, but I’m laying the fresh clippings in the aisles to dry down and then raking them up on the mounds to help preserve moisture.

The yellow storage onions got weeded and the aisles mulched in the last couple of days as I mowed various areas of the lawn. I’ve been trying to split up the mowing into a rotation–some areas are lusher than others and need more frequent attention, and I also try not to mow down all the clover blossoms at one time in order that the bees stick around.

At some point in the season, I’m hoping to have all the bare ground covered. The natural state of soil is to be covered–so you can take your pick if it’s going to be mulch, plants you want, or weeds you don’t.

The spring-sown cover crop is still going strong in the other garden, and instead of tilling it under, I’m mowing and cutting every couple of weeks–keeping it in a sort of living mulch that is also fixing lots of nitrogen thanks to the vetch and what’s left of the field peas. But I’ve cleared a few small spaces to make room for beans and squashes.

I should probably not jinx myself by saying this, but last year across town, the rabbits took every one of my beans. This year, I haven’t protected these Gold of Bacau plants, but they haven’t been plundered. There is a rabbit living under one of my sheds, but apparently she has different tastes–the only damage I found after a brief getaway last weekend was my shallots had their tops eaten off.

I wonder if that means the rabbit is French, and/or the meat is pre-seasoned? Maybe I should leave a glass of wine out there, too, but I don’t really want to encourage her.

Another hopefully-success this year is that I finally have some decent-looking Fish pepper plants. I have been intrigued by this variety for some time now, but their germination is not always great, and I’ve had many die or never come up. This must be a magical year!

The plants are pretty with their variegated foliage, and the peppers are supposedly stripey as well. This is an heirloom used in crab shacks on the East Coast–their spicy and fruity flavor is reputedly excellent with fish and other seafood. While we’re distant from the ocean, I do have some local fisherman friends who might appreciate these (and might therefore invite me over for fish fry!).

Here’s to a bountiful growing season!

Twitter, E-Mail, and Blogs, Oh My! Online Marketing Workshop for Farmers March 19 in Milan

Are you interested in marketing your farm and its products online but don’t know where to start? Join Land Stewardship Project and University of Minnesota Extension for a workshop highlighting some of the many available social media and internet marketing tools, such as Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and websites, and how they can be used to connect your farm to potential customers throughout the region.

Ryan Pesch, U of M Extension educator, will delve into the specifics of online marketing tools (from free to $$) and provide individual assistance to farmers wanting to get started using these tools. Regional producers will discuss their online marketing strategies, the costs, the benefits, and how to build customer relationships by telling their farm story to an online audience.

Join us at the Milan Community School in Milan, MN on Monday, March 19 from 9-noon. Light refreshments will be provided. Fee for the workshop is $10 for LSP members and $15 for non-members. RSVP to Rebecca Terk, LSP Community Based Food Systems Organizer: (320) 305-9685 or

This workshop will also occur in southeast Minnesota on March 27th. For details about the location or to RSVP, please contact LSP’s Caroline van Schaik: (507) 523-3366 or


Conversation About Building Healthy, Vibrant Communities in Big Stone County January 19

Clean Up the River Environment (CURE) is organizing a series of listening sessions in Western Minnesota–starting in Big Stone County on January 19th.

How do we build healthy, vibrant and sustainable communities? What is your vision for Big Stone County? What is your passion…art, local foods, farming, safe water, clean lakes, good education, local economy? Come and add to the conversation…

Please join us at the January 19 Listening Session in Clinton to Explore Ways to Improve Local Quality of Life.

A public “listening session” is being organized on Thursday, January 19th at the Clinton Memorial Building from 5 to 9 p.m. for local area residents to gather and discuss how to improve the quality of life in the Big Stone region. The session will take the form of an “open space” meeting where those that show up set the agenda and lead the discussion.

A home-style meal will be served at 5 p.m. with the formal meeting beginning at 6 p.m.

The event is free, but pre-registration is required by calling 1-877-269-2873 or emailing: by Jan 17th.

The Clinton Listening Session is one of 6 sessions being convened in Western Minnesota by Clean Up the River Environment (CURE) in collaboration with InCommons – a community-based initiative that connects Minnesotans – face-to-face and online – so they can find and share tools, knowledge and resources to solve problems.

I hope to see you there!