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.


  1. Please tell us what varieties of apricots and plums you planted. My Manchurian apricot hasn't even flowered, and it's been almost 10 years since I got it. And if you don't mind, if you had a good experience with the mail order company, I love to know who it was. Please?

    If you really want your vegetable garden to look pretty, check out Square Foot Gardening at http://www.melbartholomew.com/

    One suggestion for dealing with the bureaucracy: emphasize that you're not asking them to make an exception to their rule, the land already is an exception to the rule because it is not adjacent to the highway. I can certainly understand why they don't want a bunch of people stopping at all hours of the day on a busy highway to tend their plots, but that isn't the case here. That said, they have no incentive to act quickly, unless of course the elected officials who control their budget do get involved.

  2. Hi John,

    Thanks for the advice on dealing with bureaucrats. I'll keep it in mind as we slog through this. We've already involved the state reps who control their budget, so we'll see if they listen to them.
    As for the trees- the apricot is simply listed as a "Chinese apricot". My understanding is that it's identical to what has been sold as a "sweet pit" apricot or as a "Chinese Pioneer" apricot. The plum is a new variety just introduced a few years ago by the University of Wisconsin-River Falls called "Black Ice" which is supposed to produce a plum unlike any other available in zones 3 and 4.
    I bought both from Fedco Trees, based in central Maine. The other reliable supplier of mail-order trees and shrubs I've bought from is Jung Seeds of Wisconsin. Both are in the zone 4/5 area, so for me that's important, being in the warmer end of zone 4. I've ordered shrubs from Oregon, and they aren't well adapted to the winters here.

    1. Cool! Thanks for the info. I've had good experiences with seeds from Fedco and Jung, but I've never tried buying trees from them. I will definitely keep them in mind if and when I am looking for more trees or shrubs.

  3. Most Americans think eating vegetable mean eating salad, but when you have garden you can use vegetables multiple ways.

    Pick up lots of green and wash it thoroughly and salted it in garlic and olive oil for about 10 minutes in medium heat, ready to eat. It's cooked and you can eat with anything, meat, pasta, brown rice or any other side dish.