Tuesday, August 27, 2013


Bats are an important part of our Minnesota ecosystems. Seven different species of bats are native to Minnesota--little brown myotis, big brown bat, northern myotis, tri-colored bat, silver-haired bat, eastern red bat, and the hoary bat. 
File:Flickr - Furryscaly - Countertop Bat.jpg
Big Brown Bat, Image from wikimedia commons, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Flickr_-_Furryscaly_-_Countertop_Bat.jpg
All native Minnesota bats are quite small, with most weighing less than one ounce.  All Minnesota bats are insectivorous. This makes them wonderful mammals to have around the garden, as they will reduce mosquito populations. Bats also eat beetles, and can be used to help control unwanted pests like the Japanese Beetle.
Making the bat house

Populations of bats are decreasing in Minnesota, as habitat is being destroyed. Bats often nest in hollowed out trees which, in the urban landscape, are removed quickly.  Putting up a bat house in your yard can help provide habitat and a safe nesting space for bats! I decided to build one for the Display Garden out of some recycled cedar (remember the arbor that blew over in a storm?).
Finished Product

Basic construction of a bat house is pretty straight forward. It's basically a box made of rough wood (or with notches cut into it) with some ventilation and an opening in the bottom.  The house can have one or many chambers, depending on how complex you are willing to make it.
I made a single chambered box, similar to the plans from the Organization for Bat Conservation. Check out their website. Build a bat house
For more information on Minnesota's bats, visit the MN DNR website. DNR on Bats

Saturday, August 24, 2013

What's blooming and ripening in the garden this week!

 We have lots of grapes ripening in the garden. These are the UMN cultivar 'Frontenac Gris', one of four major releases of cold hardy wine grapes for Minnesota. Others are 'Frontenac', 'Marquette', and 'La Crescent'. They have also released three varieties of table grapes-- 'Bluebell', 'Swenson Red' and 'Edelweiss'.  Hopefully we can get to them before the birds!
 Our hops are blooming! We have Golden Hops, variety 'Aurea'. These are grown for ornamental purposes more than brewing. They look beautiful on the grape arbor. The foliage and hops both add a nice bright green spark!
 We have several varieties of garden phlox, ranging in color from white to striped to hot pink. They provide a nice bloom in the garden later in the year than most other flowers we have.
 The clematis is sending out lots of flowers. Clematis is in the buttercup family, Ranunculaceae. Ours are climbing on a trellis north of the grape arbor.
 Cardinal Flower is looking great this year. Lobelia cardinalis loves wet soils, so ours is growing on the pond edge where the soil gets a little soggy. It's wild habitat is along streams and ponds, so it's doing really well here.
 False sunflower, or heliopsis, has been sending out blooms almost all summer. It pairs well with Joe Pye weed, another tall plant. The heliopsis adds a nice bright yellow flower to the garden. It's a prairie flower and has few insect, soil, or disease problems and can tolerate drought well.
Evening Primrose makes a wonderful low growing ground cover in the landscape. It's drought tolerate and easy to grow. The blooms are huge and the wrinkly foliage adds some interesting texture.
 Goldenrod is a Minnesota native plant.  It's a good plant for attracting beneficial insects and pollinators. Ours is constantly covered with bees. It's a fast spreading plant so beware that it may spread into places you didn't want it.
 The balloon flower on the west end of the garden is doing great!  It's grown quite tall and has been blooming continuously for the past few weeks.
 Moss roses are a fun annual for path borders or rock gardens. Sometimes they will even reseed themselves, as this one has done. The succulent-like foliage and the bright colored flowers are a great addition to the path near the ginkgo in the garden.
Our Honeycrisp apples are almost ready! Dwarf apple trees look great in the landscape and provide you with a delicious crop. The Honeycrisp is one of the most popular apple releases from the University.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Growing Blueberries in Minnesota

File:Blueberries on branch.jpg
Photo from Wikimedia Commons,
We just planted 3 new blueberry bushes in the garden! To celebrate, I thought I would write a little about how to grow blueberries in Minnesota.
1. Choosing a site: Blueberries love sun. The sunnier the spot, the more blossoms and fruits the plant will produce.  Select a site away from large trees to reduce competition for water and nutrients. Also, make sure there is good air circulation to avoid disease damage.
2. Soil requirements: Blueberries prefer a well-drained soil high in organic matter. They REQUIRE acidic soil. If you have neutral soil, amend it with peat moss before planting. You can do this in an entire bed, or by digging a hole larger than your plant and mixing in peat moss.
3. Planting: Blueberries are best planted in spring, about 3' apart. Dig the hole deep enough to cover the top roots with a few inches of soil and mulch with a couple inches of peat.
4. Care: In the first few years, it is recommended that flowers be removed to encourage the plant to grow, rather than expend energy on fruit and flowers. Pruning should be done minimally at first, to only remove dead wood, or wood that doesn't seem to be growing. Blueberry bushes are slow to grow, so be patient. On a mature plant, pruning can be done in the spring to shape the bush and encourage new growth.
5. Potential problems: Birds love blueberries. If this is a problem in your yard, netting can be used to keep them off of your crops. Sometimes rabbits will girdle the bush in the winter; fencing can prevent this. Overall, there are relatively few problems with pests and disease for blueberries.
The University of Minnesota has several blueberry cultivars developed for northern climates. Check them out! Blueberry Varieties
For more information on growing blueberries, visit the extension page:
Extension Article on Blueberries

Hoover E, Rosen C, Luby J. Blueberries for Home Landscapes. University of Minnesota Extension. http://www.extension.umn.edu/distribution/horticulture/DG3463.html. Accessed 8/9/13.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

The Art of Food Preservation

It's getting to be that time of year again! If you're green thumb is paying off, you might be running into more produce than you can consume.  Preserving your own food is a key skill for any gardener to have. By preserving your food, you can enjoy your garden year round. And if you don't have a garden, or can eat everything you grow fresh, consider finding some bulk produce at the farmer's market and using that to stock your pantry for the winter.  There are many ways to preserve your fruits and veggies, so I will highlight a few of the main methods.

Canning is the art of preserving food in sterilized jars by cooking it to kill bacteria. People can everything, from tomatoes to meat.  When canning vegetables or fruits, first consider the acidity of what you are canning. Non-acidic foods include most garden vegetables. These require pickling first, or the use of a pressure cooker. Acidic foods, like tomatoes or strawberries, can be done by hot-water bath methods. Jams and jellies can be canned this way as well, since the sugar acts as a preservative. Cleanliness is key to healthy canning. Sterilizing jars, ladles, funnels, lids, and anything else you'll be using is a vital step. Use vinegar to wipe down counters and keep a fresh stock of clean linens handy.  Mother Earth News has a very comprehensive guide to home canning. Or check out a book from the library. Canning is a long and hot process, so be prepared to spend the day in the kitchen.
Mother Earth News Canning Guide

Pickling uses acid to lower the pH of foods, thus killing harmful bacteria.  Other than the obvious pickled cucumber, you can pickle just about anything from boiled eggs to green beans. Pickled beets and pickled brussel sprouts are two of my personal favorites. Serious Eats has some unique pickling recipes that I personally plan on trying this summer. My grandma's refrigerator pickles are super easy and delicious. They will also stay good in the fridge, no canning required, for months. Give it a try!
8 cups cucumbers, sliced into rounds
1 cup onion
2 cups sugar
1 cup white vinegar
1 t celery seed
1 t mustard seed
Sprinkle the salt on cukes and let sit overnight. The next day, warm up the vinegar. Add sugar, celery seed, and mustard seed. Stir until dissolved. Pour over cucumbers and refrigerate.
 Serious Eats Pickling Recipes

Drying, or dehydrating foods, is a fun alternative to canning or freezing foods. Dehydrated foods can be stored in the cupboard and take up less space than canned foods. There's also no concern about botulism. Dried foods are also great for camping or backpacking trips.  Store bought foods meant for this purpose are expensive, so doing it yourself saves a bunch of money.  Basically, you just need a food dehydrator. Some people just use their oven for this purpose. Or do it the old fashioned way: use the sun!   Check out these recipes from the Backpacking Chef.
Backpacking Chef Recipes

Freezing is one of the simplest, easiest ways to preserve your food. If you have a chest freezer, this is the way to go for a lot of fruits and veggies. Since there's no cooking involved, all of the nutrients in the food are preserved. I like to freeze tomatoes, berries, and bell peppers.  I've also frozen some herbs from my garden.  Herbs like rosemary and thyme can be frozen still on the sprig, while herbs like basil and parsley are best chopped and frozen into ice cubes with a little bit of water. When I freeze berries, I first set them on trays, and then bag them once they are frozen. This prevents them from becoming one big chunk of strawberries. With tomatoes, I blanch them first to remove the skin. Colorado Extension has a good paper on freezing vegetables. Freezing Veggies

Friday, July 26, 2013

Horticulture Night at the University of Minnesota Morris Campus

Every year, the University of Minnesota Morris Campus hosts Horticulture Night, a public event meant to get people excited about horticulture. Morgan and I were lucky to be able to leave the garden for a day to check out this special event.  Seeing the gardens at Morris was a treat in and of itself.  Many of the University's annual plants are trialed at Morris' garden, so the beds are full of brightly colored flowers.  It is clear that many people are invested in maintaining the garden.  It was fun to get some ideas on how to use annuals more effectively.
Throughout the night, educational presentations are given throughout the garden. You can take a tour of the gardens or farm, learn about vegetable garden, see a healthy cooking demonstration, learn about the University's meat processing program (yes, we watched half a pig getting processed!), hear presentations from entomologists and soils scientists, and more.
I definitely recommend this event to anyone interested in gardening.  There are even activities for the kids.  Check out our pictures, and save the date on your calendar for next year!

Perennial garden- lots of Hosta varieties!

Just one of many annual gardens at Morris

More Annuals

Pond with mini cattails- there's even a waterfall!

Cooking demo- zucchini salsa, melon salsa, and blackened flank steak. Samples included!

Hops fort in the children's garden

Hen's and Chick's T-Rex

Biggest Bean Teepee I've ever seen

Friday, July 19, 2013

Japanese Beetles: Invasion

File:Jbadult.jpgThe Japanese beetles have arrived!  All week, we have been working to control the population and minimize damage.  It seems appropriate to write a little about this pest, and give a few pointers on how it can be controlled in the garden.

Japanese beetles are, obviously, native to Japan. In Japan, the beetle is controlled by natural predators.  However, in the U.S. this is not the case and the Japanese Beetle has proved to be a formidable pest.  It was first found in 1916 in New Jersey. Since then, it has spread to almost all states east of the Mississippi, and has found it's way into Minnesota in the 1990's.

Japanese Beetles damage plants by skeletonizing leaves and sometimes other plant parts, like fruit or flowers.  The larvae feed on grass roots, and can cause serious damage to turf.  Over 300 plants can host the beetles.  In our garden, the beetles seem to prefer roses, fruit trees, grapes, hollyhocks, and a few like milkweed.  In eastern states, the beetle can be controlled by a soil bacteria.  However, it won't survive in Minnesota, so we have had to think of other means of control.  A healthy tree should be able to survive an attack from Japanese beetles, but a stressed or diseased tree may not.
File:Japanese Beetles on Pasture Rose, Ottawa.jpg

The Japanese beetle is easy to identify by it's distinct coloration.  It's back is a copper color, while the thorax and head are a glittery sapphire green.  The beetle is about a half inch long.  They spread by flying. In the garden, we find them most often inside of a rose bloom, often in groups of 4 to 8 insects per flower.  If you notice brown patches on your lawn, Japanese beetle larvae may be the cause.  Roll back the sod and look for large, white, c-shaped grubs and a lack of a healthy root system.  

In the garden, we are utilizing two methods of control: Kaolin clay and hand picking.  Kaolin clay is a natural control, and is approved for use in organic production.  We used a backpack sprayer to apply a Kaolin clay and water mixture to our fruit trees and grape vines.  It works as a repellant to many harmful insects, including the Japanese beetle.  When we hand pick the beetles, we put them immediately into water.  A little insecticidal soap will work to kill them in the water, but we have just been feeding them to the chickens on campus instead.  Like I mentioned before, we have been finding them mostly inside of roses.

Pheromone traps are available, but not recommended.  Recent studies have shown that more insects are attracted to the garden than are actually caught by the pheromone traps.

Several insecticides will also work to control Japanese beetles. For more information on insecticide use, check out the Extension website.
UMN Extension: Japanese Beetles

Japanese beetles are in Minnesota to stay.  While there are many control methods that should be utilized by gardeners, there is no way to eradicate them.  In addition to controlling populations, gardeners should practice good horticulture to keep trees, shrubs, and perennials.  Healthy plants are less likely to suffer fatal damage from Japanese beetles. 

For more information on Japanese beetles, refer to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and your local extension office.

Images from wikimedia commons

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Rain Gardens

File:Bioretention cell rain garden US winter.jpg
Photo from: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bioretention_cell_rain_garden_US_winter.jpg

We took a field trip to the landscape arboretum a couple weeks ago, which got me thinking about rain gardens.  I thought I would share a short how-to on rain garden design, and talk about why they are so wonderful.

Rain gardens use deep-rooted plants in a slightly depressed area to capture rain water runoff before it goes into storm drains.  When water flows off of a lawn, it contains all sorts of nasty stuff--lawn chemicals, salt, oil, sediment, etc.  When this contaminated water flows directly off of our yards and into the storm drain, it ends up in our lakes and rivers. Rain gardens are able to capture this water, and the plants, mulch, and soil essentially filter out the pollutants.  Plants in the garden use the water, putting fresh clean water back into the cycle. It's a beautiful thing. So how do you go about designing and building such an awesome garden?

First things first- select your site. The garden should be at least 10 feet from your foundation, and should be built in a location where water naturally flows (i.e. at the bottom of a small slope). Underground drainage systems can be installed to direct the flow of water, but that's beyond my knowledge. Before digging, of course call 811 to have the city mark your gas and electric lines of course.

Have your soil checked out to make sure that drainage will happen properly. The University of Minnesota does affordable soil tests. If the soil is too clayey or too sandy, it can be amended with compost.  Sand or sandy loam is preferable for rain gardens. 

Now that you have all that out of the way, it's time to start digging. Ideally the garden should be dug out about six inches.  This can be a trench or just a flat area.

Then comes the fun part--planting! Native plants are ideal for the rain garden, as they generally have good, deep roots and will create beneficial insect habitat.  They also usually require less inputs, like fertilizers.  Trees, shrubs, wildflowers, and grasses can all have a place in a rain garden, depending on the size.  Check out the Minnesota DNR website for more information on native MN plants.
Minnesota Native Plants: DNR

Lastly, add a few inches of mulch. Woodchips work well. This will help plants get established, suppress weeds, and prevent soil erosion.  Water plants regularly while they get established. Maintenance is pretty simple in the garden. Regular weeding and mulching are basically the only things you should need to do.  Once the plants are well established, their deep roots should be very drought tolerant.