Wednesday, May 23, 2012

a little help from my friends

the raingarden- going crazy with all the moisture

I was planning to rant this week- venting my continuing frustration over all of the things wrong in the world right now- economically, ecologically, politically- and of all the little problems in my own life that I'm not able to solve- in particular the community garden's problems with MnDOT.

But at least that problem seems to be solved at the moment. 

Pat, a long-time acquaintance, writer of books, and editor of several small local newspapers is (to my surprise) also a regular reader of this blog. She took it upon herself to write Jon Tevlin, columnist for the Star Tribune and explain what was going on with the community garden and ask if he could help.

He then took it upon himself to look into the matter and make a few calls to people at MnDOT and ask what what was going on.  Somehow (funny how that works) the call from a columnist from the city's largest newspaper was more effective than our pleas, or even those of the city public works department.

The article he wrote can be seen here.  Like all newspapers, they have to make money, so if you've already read 20 of their articles this month, you're out of luck until June.  I'd summarize the article by calling it a very very positive, pro-garden article, with a happy ending and even a bit funny.  I deny ever asking anyone 'why they hate vegetables' by the way.  Those were his words.

It seems to have done the job.  As of yesterday afternoon, the word from the former deniers of permits was that the department of transportation was now going to allow the garden, with some unspecified "conditions".  I suppose conditions are better than not having a community garden at all.  But I still wonder what sort of conditions they'll be.

Also in good news, I plan to get together with fellow gardening and peak-resource blogger Andy over at Autonomy Acres soon to pick up some fig cuttings he just got in, and hopefully give him some cuttings from my yard in return.

My black currant cuttings I had been rooting at the edge of the rain garden for the last year went to Hunter Duncan of Off the Grid in Minneapolis (who has also recently released a couple of books by the way) to add to his phenomenal, and still growing, backyard permaculture experiment (though he'll never call it that).

It feels good to make contact with others working on and writing about the same issues in this area.  I feel hopeful today, and hope that it can carry me through  the week.   We will be taking our first real family vacation of the year over the long weekend and I'm looking forward to it-- our first post-cancer family getaway.  I need, Gita needs, the kids need to de-stress after this long, dark winter.  Resolving the community garden issue means that I won't be thinking about it over the weekend, which means that I really will be able to relax.

siberian iris in the raingarden
I've been sipping on a glass of carrot wine while writing tonight.  It's from the batch that I started in late fall/early winter with the surplus carrots from our garden and grapes from my dad's garden.  It's ready now, and I'm working on a cloudy glass that I poured off from the lees, or the yeasty stuff at the bottom of the barrel (literally- the bottom of the barrel, or carboy, as it is).

It fermented to almost dry and has a nice clean, slightly nutty taste to it.  I'll bottle it soon, and post photos.  I have five gallons of crystal clear, orangeish carrot wine, which makes kind of a nice visual. 

I'm not sure what I should follow it up with.  I'm going to have a bumper crop of currants this year if all of the green currants come ripe, so that might be what it'll be.  Of course, the kids are as excited for the currants as I am this year, so I'll have competition.

So much to do, so little time.  I have to remind myself that I'm fortunate to be able to do so many things at the same time that I lament my lack of any free time.  I find time to write this blog, but just barely. 

But I wouldn't give up any of it.  Thanks for taking the time to read. 


Tuesday, May 15, 2012

sweet spring

chinese apricots- this photo is already a few days old- the largest are now larger than quarters
I always love the arrival of spring.  This year has been especially good. 

The stars this spring have been the apricot and plum trees I bought two summers ago.

I bought them from a mail order place, and they arrived in a long cardboard box packed with damp newspaper.   I couldn't get to them right away, so I put them in a cool corner of the basement for a couple of days.  Then I took them outside and potted them in some old plastic pots I had left over from some container trees I had bought at one time.

Not sure where I was going to end up putting them in the end, I heeled them into the side of the slope in our yard- enough to keep the pots cool and moist, but not enough for the pots to get completely buried in the soil.

They stayed there all summer, then when fall came, I started on the epic, backbreaking backyard project which is not yet finished, and they found a new spot in the shady corner of the yard, with leaves piled all around the pot for winter protection.

Then I finally planted them in the planters next to the patio steps in the spring when the epic, backbreaking project was nearer completion. 

To be honest, I'm sort of surprised they survived all the planting and transplanting, but I guess that's just proof that they're tough trees- or that they're meant to be there.

'black ice' plums- now the size of peas
The apricot now has five fruits growing healthily.  Each already has a little bit of blush on the south facing side.  The plum is doing even better.  It's covered with what appear to be hundreds of pea-size plums at this point.  I have no idea if this little eight-foot tall tree will be able to bear this many fruit at this point- or if I should be thinning it out.  This is a problem I haven't had before.  I've thinned a  bit-- but-- it sure would be nice to have a big crop of plums. 

Our yard played host to a dozen screaming preschool-age girls this Saturday during my daughter's  birthday party.  Since it was an outdoor party, I did as much as I could to spruce the backyard up- and that took a lot as I've spent a lot less time in the yard this winter and spring than usual with all that has been going on.

As I was cleaning the yard up, I wondered if I should do something to camouflage the garden.  I personally find vegetable gardens to be attractive, but I wasn't sure if anyone else coming to the party would.  I had some ideas, but in the end, just put up some new chicken wire, and left it open for view.

What surprised me was how many of the kids' parents were interested in it.  Some commented on how their gardens were doing- others on how nice it looked, and by the way, what was I growing?

It's indicative of a shift that's taking place all around the city right now.  Where vegetable gardens were at one time seen as something ranging on a spectrum from rustic and quaint to a dangerous rat-attracting nuisance by all sorts of folks, including city planners; now they're cool. Minneapolis, and now Saint Paul are rushing to pass new urban agriculture ordinances to make it easier to produce and sell fresh vegetables in the city.  I even overheard the bus driver on the bus I catch home from work telling one of the other passengers "I need to get myself a plot at a community garden this year... I really want to get into that."

radishes, mustard greens, spinach
Which makes it all the more surprising the obstacles that our group working to start a new community garden in St. Paul have run into.

It hasn't been the city staff.  We've been working with the Saint Paul Public Works department, and they've been as helpful as could be expected.  Actually, much more helpful than expected- helping to make the project happen and offering a grant and interest-free loans to assist with water hook-up.  We had found what we thought was a perfect site- with good soil, open southern exposure, access to water, and lots of space- almost an acre of it in the middle of a moderately dense urban neighborhood.

The problem came when it was discovered that part or all of the land (all, as we have found out now) was actually owned by MnDOT- the Minnesota Department of Transportation, not by the city of St. Paul, as we, and the city, had believed.

And, in a one-sentence statement, we were told, with no explanation, that MnDOT was no longer issuing permits for community gardens on their rights-of way. 

This threw everything into chaos.  We had the whole thing designed already.  We had approvals from the neighborhood and the city.  We had worked on this for a year.  We were only two days away from having our lottery to determine who would get a plot and who wouldn't and 48 people had signed up for the 31 plots that were left after our committee had their pick.

We tried to figure out why MnDOT would do something like this.  Why would one of the state's largest landowners, not allow citizens to grow food on public land, at a time when more people than ever were in need of space to grow healthy food?   On land, no less, that had been seized by eminent domain in the 1960's to build interstate 94 through the heart of the Twin Cities, and that wasn't currently adjacent to the freeway.  Land that's currently nothing more than mowed grass and scrub trees, with stolen goods and furniture dumped at the edges and in out-of-sight corners.

We thought- we hoped- that we could provide a benefit to the neighborhood, by becoming the eyes on the street that are missing since MnDOT tore down the majority of the homes that made up the neighborhood.  That we could derive a benefit for ourselves- fresh vegetables- while also benefiting the community. 

We went ahead with the lottery anyway, and divvied out the plots that we were no longer so sure would exist.  And we waited.

Nothing happened for weeks.  So now we're fighting back.  My past interactions with MnDOT don't give me much hope that they'll act quickly, but we've now taken it to the state elected officials- the ones who control their budget- to see if they'll listen to them.  That was on Friday.  Apparently there is to be a meeting tomorrow. 

The Minnesota lawmakers acted quickly to build a billion-dollar stadium for a mediocre football team last week.  I wonder if they can do the same for our community garden.

But enough politics.  The backyard garden is still growing.

little man climbing rocks at como park
Fava beans (the Windsor variety again) are over a foot tall now, and I was able to pick some marble-sized radishes for salad today.  Spinach and cilantro are just big enough to harvest and the raab broccoli is looking anemic, but developing florets with this hot weather.

Asparagus is going to seed now and has been over for at least two weeks now.  If I had been on top of things, we could have had a banner crop of fern fiddleheads, but that'll have to wait until next year now.

Overall, the garden is growing really well.  I put a couple of bags of leaves I saved from last fall and this spring  in between the rows today after noticing that the soil was already starting to dry out.  The garden is at the point now where it usually is at the beginning of June.

But still no tomatoes.  That will have to come soon.  They wait for no-one.  Gita's battle with cancer has taken a toll on my window ledge crops, but I'll get around that.  I'll talk more about that next time.