Bright Sun, Howling Wind

windowsill lettuces 3-28-15I have been reading through old pieces of writing trying to find poems and seeds of poems to develop for a manuscript I’m putting together. I found a draft written in late April that talked about wanting to plant out in the raised beds– and harvesting rhubarb. I remember those old days when I thought I couldn’t plant outside until after the last frost date– which in these parts is May 15. And I remember the look on my friend Connie’s face when she realized I was waiting so long, and how I then learned the meaning of “when the soil can be worked.”

Today I’m all about the windowsill and the micro-climate. Things are starting to germinate out in the cold frame, where it is nice and toasty even though it’s cold and windy outside. It’s maple syrup time right now, when the freezing night/thawing day cycle is in full swing and the sap is flowing and if it was only warm for a few days at a time I’d start hardening off the kale and spinach for transplant. If it would get even in the high 20s at night I’d go ahead and put the spinach out in the cold frame.

But I’m holding off. It’s only late March– and March is going out like a lion this year. One can start planting seeds, maybe, but moving delicate seedlings? Not quite yet. I even got myself to hold off planting the tomatoes and peppers, since next week after Easter will be plenty fine. I ruthlessly thinned the kale and herb pots (only one kale plant or basil plant per small pot now).

To console myself, I’m growing a tray of sunflower sprouts. So, so fantastic. After only three days, they look like this:

sunflower sprouts 3-28-15

With luck, in another four days, they’ll look like this:

sunflower sprouts

And speaking of killing young kale plants that have struggled valiantly to grow under a light, these chicks are making me feel like an evil chicken trafficker. When I stick my arm in to check the water or add more food, they run under their lamp and chirp in fear. If I reach for one of them, they complain loudly and try to climb the box. Their reaction to me, even when I’m speaking in my most soothing voice and even though I’m such a benevolent overlord, is straight up panic. I need to detach.

chicks Apr 28 15 2

Of course, there is also the situation with Fred.

My niece has suggested I name them Eenie, Meenie, Miney, Moe… and Fred. I knew right away which one was Fred, because there is one who gets pushed out away from the lamp more often. Well, Fred had a big piece of poop stuck to his butt yesterday. I cleaned the box, put in fresh straw and water and a better feeder that they won’t be able to poop in, and picked up Fred to remove the poop. It was really stuck on there. So now, I’m afraid, Fred has a bald butt.

Which makes it easier to tell which one is Fred. But also probably is a good reason for them to fear me. (Fred is in the back in this picture, with his butt keeping warm under the lamp. See how he’s giving me the evil eye?)

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Arrival of the Chickens

One of Steve’s favorite stories about his daughter Julia is about getting chickens. They drove out to the hatchery one spring morning and picked up a small box packed with baby chicks. A few years at the beginning they got as many as 50 chicks a season.

Steve remembers coming up the drive and Julia spotting her cousin Paul and leaning out the car window yelling: “Paul! We got the chickens!

I feel every bit asUnknown excited as Julia with my first chickens. I went to the Cold Spring Country Store as soon as the coop was built and ordered them to arrive today. Four for me and four for our family farm neighbors Annie and Tim. I read the descriptions in the booklet and chose Silver Laced Wyandotte. One, they are beautiful. Two, they are good layers. They will lay brown eggs, which to my mind is better than white but not quite as good as blue. The blue and green eggs tend to be smaller.

IMG_9603They are in the basement in a box lined with hay and hopefully will figure out the water and food situation soon. They have a warm light and that’s made them settle down and stop cheeping quite a bit.

Saturday we had a burn of the prairie. It was very well attended, as burns go. The ground is still frozen but it was still and the foliage is dry so the burn went well. It was like a mobile bonfire, with people walking around on the edge where it was warm. There were a few areas that they didn’t get to before full dark. Last night it snowed, so now we wait for it to dry out and get another permit and hopefully have another window for burning the rest.

Although it’s cold and we’re mostly feeling out of sorts, waiting and waiting to get on with things, there is no question that spring will be here soon. And when it does, there will be chickens.

garden coop close



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Greenhouse Visit

jeff and mary sueLast Wednesday (pre-junket) I went to visit a greenhouse in Buffalo, Minnesota. The greenhouse is part of the alternative/technical high school in Buffalo, but was not being used this year. Two farmers rented the space to grow greens and plant starts.

rows of greensJeff Aldrich and his wife Mary Sue Stevens began planting greens in December and have been selling them at the Local Roots Food Co-op and local venues. This co-op is an unusual model, taking online orders for pick-up on distribution day. It is working somewhat like a food hub/farmer’s market hybrid. It is a great thing for the farmers, as they can post what they have available and bring exactly what they’ve sold. Jeff and Mary Sue have a model somewhat like mine– gardens scattered on the property and access to the greenhouse.

broccoli plantsDan has a 7-acre farm in Hutchinson and has used his greenhouse space to grow greens for clients in the Twin Cities and Hutchinson and to start plants for his CSA. On March 11, he was taking 72 large broccoli seedlings to transplant into his hoop house under another cover. He said they would be safe there unless it goes below 10 degrees outside. And though we do expect more snow before spring arrives for good, it will probably not go that low.

planting board

planting board row maker

At this point I have basic questions about greenhouses like how much does heat cost (way too much for us to consider heating our greenhouse through the winter) and how do you water (by hose) and how and what are you planting. Jeff, Mary Sue, and Dan are planting different types of lettuce in trays, without even using cells. They fill the trays with potting mix, stamp in rows with a piece of plywood with ridges on it, put some vermiculite on top of the seed, and there you go. They say you don’t need to thin if you plant in rows.

Dan was also taking some trays to harvest, wash, and package in 6-ounce bags of mixed greens.

My visit had been postponed because there was an infestation of aphids at the greenhouse. Aphids are the scourge of greenhouses, and of basically any warm, moist climate, I’m thinking. I had not seen aphids before, but they supposedly come in three types: yellow, green, and red. These were yellow. They are tiny and remind me of the little bugs that kill houseplants. (I have never had success growing houseplants.)

It is disheartening. Beneficial insects have been purchased and green-lacewing1-123x123released: lacewings and ladybugs. The ladybugs seem to be mostly walking around checking out the space, or checking out each other and getting busy (wink wink), but not eating aphids. Maybe aphids are an aphrodisiac for ladybugs.

After visiting, I’d have to say it was hard to see an end game with the aphids. At that point Jeff and Mary Sue were harvesting whatever they could and trying to figure out what they were likely to lose and how to thoroughly clean the place, let the beneficials work, and then get started on the tomato and pepper planting. This may be another argument for shutting down a greenhouse for December 15 – February 15. Let every bad bug freeze to death.

sunflower sprouts

I learned a lot in my short visit. My favorite thing by far was to see the trays of sunflower sprouts. Sunflower sprouts! They grow big, thick shoots in 10days that you can harvest and throw on salads or in a stir fry (think of the sunflower/tahini dressing possibilities) or just eat by the fistful. They definitely beat the wimpy sprouts I’ve been making in jars on my kitchen counter.


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Coolest Small Town in America

photo-42I am here in the coolest small town in America, Grand Marais, Minnesota. So says Budget Travel magazine. They have a point. Here at the very northern point of Minnesota along the Lake Superior shoreline, there is a town with some mighty fine restaurants, including the Angry Trout and the Crooked Spoon. I don’t know about you, but there will always be a place in my heart for towns where you can dream of having a little house on a very large body of water. Here’s the house:

photo-38As always in towns like this, I’m tempted to apply for a summer job at a place like “Best Donuts” or one of the fudge shops. I wouldn’t presume to think I could get hired at the Ben Franklin, which is clearly for year-round residents.

photo-37I’m on a bit of a “junket” with The Saint John’s Bible. I’m doing a talk tonight and a workshop tomorrow morning, before heading off to Kentucky for a visit with an old friend who lives in Louisville and a talk at Berea College. I’m being very well hosted by Bob and Ginny Padzieski. That photo at the top? That’s the view from where I’m staying. It’s only in the 30s here (going to be in the 60s at home today) but it’s a lovely day for knocking around a town as cool as this one.

It’s filled with people who walk with purpose (they’re wearing boots), many of them artists. Lots of the year-round folks chose to retire here, moving north from wherever they lived before. That is a particular type of person. Last night at a “grazing” fundraiser for the high school I met some of them. They all talked about how much is going on in Grand Marais, and how busy they are.


photo-40On the way home we passed this church, which has been converted into the home and art studio of Betsy Bowen, one of my favorite Minnesota artists. Right now I’m taking advantage of the free wifi in the very cool and well-appointed public library. But I’m itching to get back out there, for a little walk in the hills before lunch.

photo-43Oh, and there’s a food co-op. Where you can get stuff like the local jam I had for breakfast. Take a gander at these ingredients. That’s some zing.



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spring forward (and drink kombucha!)

photo-40Tonight the clocks, if modern enough, will spring forward all on their own. The sun is already setting near 7 p.m., so starting tomorrow it will set at 8.

We spring forward into more sunlight and, although it will snow more before winter is over, the snow won’t last long from here on out. Today it was in the 40s and we got a real sense of spring. I opened up the cold frame and felt inside. The soil was hot and dry. It’s so tempting to throw some seeds in there, but I’ll try to contain myself. It’s way too early. If the temperature goes below 20 degrees at night, young plants will freeze. I’ll stick to the indoor lights in the new plant room for a few more weeks.

Every year the goal is to start eating fresh produce earlier and end later. Today I had the great experience of eating the very last of the 2014 potatoes and also the very first small salad from greens growing on the windowsill under a fluorescent light. Earliest spring met late summer.

kombucha 3 days

Because it is still winter, I’ve been playing around with new projects. “The year of ferment” is over, but a good fermentation project is always welcome. A few weeks ago My sister-in-law gave me a piece of her kombucha mother. I plopped it in some sugary green tea and in five days I filtered some into a pint jar. It was delicious, like really good, flavorful iced tea. Not much fizz, but tasty.

Steve said it looked like something from the bottom of the pond (to be fair, he was also looking at a jar with chia seeds in it). He’s not far off when the green tea has left grassy dust along the bottom of the jar and the mother is trailing strands of yeast. The mother looks like a milky jellyfish. The compact disc Annie gave to me has expanded in my larger container.

photo-35Kombucha is made by fermenting tea with caffeine and a large quantity of sugar (3/4 cup for 2 quarts of tea). The mother eats sugar and grows on it. The tea loses its sugar and gains probiotics and vitamin C. The health benefits of kombucha are not proven and are probably overstated, but it tastes good and supposedly improves digestion. It has occurred to me, however, that I might not be letting it ferment long enough, and just enjoying an excuse to drink sweet tea!

If you want to make your own kombucha, find someone who can give you a piece of their mother, or you can buy one online. This is the best site about kombucha I’ve found:

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The Coop

A friend on Facebook recently woke up on her birthday and went out of her house to find her husband bought her a shiny new car and there it was with a big bow on it. We all know this moment– from television commercials, mostly. My female creative writing students regularly featured this moment in their short stories (said husbands were usually firemen and the cars ranged from Lexus to Mercedes).

garden with coopMy choice in husbands (and lifestyle) is such that I am quite sure I will never have such a moment. However, when I looked out the bedroom window yesterday at my garden I got an equally wonderful surprise– a chicken coop made by my husband had been delivered! I was so excited. I just love the way the garden looks– more like a little village with the cold frame and coop.

I’ve been wanting a chicken coop for a few years. It needed to be varmint-proof and big enough for four chickens, easy to clean and sturdy. I showed Steve a bunch of designs from a website, including one that had incorporated four toilet seats for reaching in and getting the eggs behind the chicken’s backs.

chicken coop sideMy chicken coop is decidedly a Steve Heymans design. It echoes the shape of our house, with one long sloping side and plenty of windows. His new favorite material is polycarbonate, so that was put to good use. The bar across the door will keep the varmints from breaking in. There’s a shelf for roosting (easily removed for cleaning). What is not there yet is the covered run, which will extend from one side and allow the chickens easy access in and out without being in danger from predators in the air.

thermometerIt is still very cold outside. But I’m driving over to the Cold Spring Country Store today to order the chicks. They’ll arrive at the end of the month. The idea is to get them started inside so we’ll start getting eggs earlier. We’ll move them to the coop when it’s warm. Then in winter we will move the whole coop, either to the furniture shop or the barn or even the greenhouse.

And so, I (will soon) have my very own animals in their own little house on the farm!


chicken coop front

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Squash and Pepper Soup

photo(1)At certain points in the gardening season, when things are coming in fast and furious, many gardeners give up careful canning and preservation strategies and just start chopping up stuff and throwing it in the freezer.

I made quite a few loaves of zucchini bread this summer, but near the end I just sliced a bunch, blanched it, and threw it in freezer bags. A little later I got tired of making red pepper sauce but still had paprika peppers, so I diced them and threw them in the freezer.

I figured I’d throw the peppers in soups and stews, but wasn’t sure what I’d do with the sure-to-be-mushy zucchini. Until someone on FB mentioned zucchini soup!

photoLast night I wanted to make a soup with the last of the butternut squashes (a small one) and decided to raid the freezer for other ingredients– as much garden as I could muster on March 1.

The result was just the most flavorful, excellent soup ever. I’m sticking to my big epiphany of the winter being how much flavor red peppers add to stews/soups. Here’s the recipe.


Squash and Pepper Soup

1 medium onion, finely diced
1 medium stalk celery, diced
1 medium carrot, diced
olive oil
3-5 cloves garlic, smashed or finely diced
3 cups butternut squash, diced/cubed (mine as fresh, but could be frozen or pureed)
2-3 cups zucchini (one medium, again fresh or frozen)
2-3 cups diced sweet red pepper
2 Tbs chipotle peppers in adobo sauce or other hot red peppers
14 oz can of tomatoes (or a few tomatoes, fresh or frozen, or the half jar I had in the fridge)
4-6 cups of chicken broth (or vegetable)
2 Tbs sour cream, cream, or yogurt (if you want it creamier, which I do)

Begin with the mirepoix: onion/celery/carrot in olive oil simmered on low for 10 minutes (no browning). Add garlic and saute 1 minute until fragrant.

While the vegetables are sauteing, cook the butternut squash in boiling water for 5-8 minutes. Drain (keep some liquid if you are using vegetable broth).

Add the two types of squash and peppers and saute a couple minutes. Add the tomatoes and broth and simmer 10-15 minutes. You want all the ingredients to be very soft. Blend it in a blender or with an immersion blender until smooth. (The zucchini skin gives great green flecks and the red pepper lovely red flecks in the golden orange soup.) Stir in the sour cream if desired and serve hot with bread and butter.

Serves 6

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