Thursday, October 13, 2016


The breath of autumn is now well upon us. It scatters the leaves as well as my mind, and puts the quick into my step. As in life and age, autumn has a way of shifting the unimportant away. In our cold clime that first freeze can be an icy slope. One descends from warmth to frozen in a day or two. No lollygag of a New York City autumn -there is terminus.

The paper wasps have finally crawled deeply into buildings and the ants have long left the work atop their mounds. There is a grasshopper on the garage wall, but no longer in the garden. Flies find their way in as do lady beetles and what remains of the mosquito swarm has descended into the basement stairwell.  A woolly bear and a large wood spider hastened from the unfinished studio. A week ago I heard the frog's last chirp.

Last week we had our first frost, and tonight, should the skies clear, we will have our first freeze. We can now accept bringing in plants, out of sympathy for them, as we do with our pets. Will the lantana come in? Will the begonia tubers be saved? Should I unearth the rosemary and pot it?

Despite better planning, the fall vegetables have not gone as hoped. Cauliflower was a wash, and the broccoli too. Green beans just a week or two too late and nibbled. Brussels sprouts have more leaf than sprout thus far. Spring planted broccoli continues to flourish. Eggplants always do better until they just can't and I have yet to harvest the majority of potatoes.

Although it is nearing winter (it comes earlier here), there are still several outdoor projects to complete. I need to replace a porch balustrade, cedar plank the utility room landing and replace several mossy and rotted plank ends on the porch. There is a window frame to repair -it should not go another winter, but it is on the second floor and I don't prefer ladders. A brick walkway has remained a gravel trench. The gutters continue to fill with leaves -this can wait, but not beyond snowfall. Warmer temperatures are required to apply a second coat of paint to the alcove where siding, sill, and door were replaced by the height of summer. The studio has much remaining, but there is now power and today the concrete contractor is placing the insulation foam. Progress. Should I call the mudjacker for the sidewalk that cants to the house? Is there time? Is there money?

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Milkweed Zoo

Milkweed growing has been a great success for most of the six (or was it seven?) varieties I sprouted last spring. Doing particularly well is A. incarnata (swamp milkweed), A. verticillata (whorled milkweed), and A. tuberosa (butterfly weed). Take a look at those hardy roots on that sixteen inch tall swamp milkweed. The five inch deep cell trays that were terrible for vegetable starting were great for milkweed because I could leave them to develop strong roots without worry about setting them out too late.

I've planted out in the yard and woods a majority of the plants, and all that remain in cell trays are only unplanted due to the continual and relentless mosquito attack this late summer. We've had a highly unusual, severely wet and humid August and September which has had a deleterious effect on some of our vegetables, our studio building progress, and even our mood. It's even bringing on an early, brown autumn as wet Septembers are prone to instigate.

But enough about that. We did have a couple of dry, sunny days, one of which had me near the greenhouse bed of giant Asclepias syriaca, common milkweed in mid August. The milkweed, leaning from height and heavy rains well into our potato bed needed to be put back in its place. Being milkweed and August, I anticipated finding Monarch caterpillars, but there were none. What I did find, however, is a startlingly rich collection of other insects. Some were feeding on the plants while others were feeding on those feeding on the plants, and still some feeding on the litter of those feeding on the plants.

Black-legged Meadow Katydid.

Possibly a Blue Mud Dauber or maybe even a Steel-blue Cricket Hunter, and of course -an ant.

Mating Lady Beetles -likely the good, bad, and ugly kind otherwise known as Harmonia axyridis because they eat plant pests (good), were introduced by us humans (bad), and enter the house by the thousands in autumn (ugly).

And their offspring meeting an ant.

But what of this offspring, with its yellow coloration, different patterning, black legs, and little or no spines? After much digging, I'm going with the Ash Grey Lady Beetle, Olla v-nigrum -I do recall seeing a wine-colored 15-Spotted Lady Beetle earlier this year, submitted to BugGuide and identified. We'll see what the insect community has to say about this guy.

A Large Milkweed Bug, Oncopeltus fasciatus.

Paper Wasps.

Red ant. Which kind? So many kinds...

Flower Crab Spider

Another kind of flower crab -notice the chunky hind quarter? The females change color to match their surroundings.

Yellow Jacket.

Had I spent even more time I would have found even more creatures; frogs, crickets, grasshoppers, moth larvae (Tussock Moth comes to mind). Check out this good post on the merits of maintaining a balanced ecology of the butterfly garden. Yes, we plant milkweeds for the Monarchs, but nature has its own way and we have ours. It's likely better to let nature take its course while we do what we can to better the circumstances of all living things.

I like the moment when the ant meets the paper wasp.

The monarch caterpillars do not seem to be fond of the old, possibly tough, Common Milkweed near the greenhouse and vegetable garden. No, they were found of a young A. syriaca, the butterfly weed (A. tuberosa) and the Swamp Milkweed (A. incarnata). I prefer the last two, myself, for their nicer flower, form, and spread and so it is that these species, butterfly and plant, are in our flower garden.

It was only a matter of hours between the two photos, above.

Two weeks later, chrysalis still intact, metamorphosis nearly complete, and because it is late in the season, we wait for what some call the "super Monarch" -the one that flies all the way to Mexico and then breeds next year's northerly migrating offspring.

Plenty of nectar nearby.

To kick off the long flight.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Minnesota Grown

At Minneapolis' large Lyndale market, on late summer weekends, you'll find lots of folks perusing, window shopping, often eating some kind of corn, brat (said brot) or danish. There is a difference from the markets I have become accustomed to back in NYC, largely Brooklyn's Grand Army Plaza or the Union Square Greenmarket. Those markets have served as a kind of model and have skewed my experience of the markets here in Minnesota.

On the wooden table are paper trays, each carrying two or three tomatoes. I'll get to the trays in a minute, but let's fix on the sign. It says "Home Grown Tomatoes $5 each tray." For those regular to or familiar with Greenmarket might wonder if these folks are farmers or neighborhood gardeners. Home grown?

"Home Grown" to a Minnesotan means that this produce was grown locally, probably within 100 miles. You might think, "isn't that obvious, or isn't that required to be a part of the market?" Well no, here it is not. At the market you will find several resellers -distributors of produce from bananas to corn grown by someone else and likely somewhere else in the world. Not to be kept in check by ideological purity, this market believes if you're out for home grown tomatoes you may also want to pick up your weekly supply of bananas. So it is that you see little placards, usually handwritten, stating that these tomatoes are grown by us farmers, locally. When you don't, whether it is or isn't, home grown remains in question.

Trays. I'm not sure why this has come to be the accepted presentation of produce at Minnesotan farmers' markets, but it is the norm for most markets. It serves to keep people from squeezing every tomato because one doesn't pick through the trays, or even the half pecks or bushels. You must buy the whole bucket.

At the crowded weekend markets there will be enough trays displayed on tables to give you a feeling of plenty, but that ordered plenty is nothing like the cornucopian dream overflowing tables under some of Grand Army's tents. That display of abundance offers such deep reassurance, it leaves you feeling rich and spending more, whereas the ordered compartmentalization of produce on Minnesota farm market tables leaves you feeling that you've received your share.

The scant baskets at small town farmers' markets presents like a Soviet dispensary. A single basket of tomatoes, two of potatoes, and three of pickling cucumbers hardly seems worth the effort for the farmer or for us. All of which leads me to think of the nature of these markets, how they are, in broad generalization, an urban affair that caters to the whims and desires of an urban mind that requires such comfort as the perception of overabundance in the countryside. I am a bit conflicted on whether or not to indulge this fantasy or whether or not farmers should, yet I do enjoy its effect no less for being aware of it.

The Minnesota climate favors vegetables suited to three months of long day growth, little in the way of tree fruit, melons or any other long season, heat-loving produce. The staples are there: tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers, eggplant, bell peppers, etcetera, but the markets lack surprise and adventurous experiments. Are Minnesotan diets less adventurous? Do regional culinary traditions create limits?

Fresh produce farming in Minnesota has largely shifted from a German/Norwegian/Polish to a Hmong enterprise. This demographic shift has brought most of any new variety to the market. In fact, any excitement in going to market lay in the good southeast Asian produce available. Are the neatly arranged baskets and nearly flawless produce a Hmong introduction?

Minnesota agriculture is a 20 billion dollar industry, but the majority of that is giant farm commodity production: corn, soy, barley, wheat, oats, sugar beets. The vast, vast majority of farmers in Minnesota are white men of an average age of 56 operating on 25 million acres or nearly half of the state's land area. Of the tens of thousands of farmers, less than 500 identify as Asian American. At the Lyndale location of the Minneapolis Farmers' Market, I hazard the guess that half of the vendors are Asian American. This alone tells me we would have much less fresh, "home grown" produce available to us if these farmers weren't so enterprising.

Few of these market farmers are growing organic produce, however. It's not that people aren't buying it or that it won't be found in nearly every large grocery store. Yet, at the weekend farmers' market, I think I saw one farmer out of several dozen that claimed "natural" or "no pesticide." My guess is that certification is a long and costly process to the market farmers, but there is also a short growing season and weather hazards a plenty. The yield reductions of organic growing, alone, could turn a profit into a loss.

As of the 2012 census, there were seventy three thousand farms in Minnesota. Of that number, roughly seventeen thousand have sales of less than $1000. Of that same number, roughly ten thousand have sales over $500,000. The other farmers, all 56,000 of them, have sales somewhere between $1000 and $500,000. These are not profits or even salary, just receipts.

To keep yields up, market growers might require more labor and land, and I'm not convinced the traditional Minneapolis Farm Market customer is as willing to part with more cash for higher priced, locally grown organic. Local farmers may have a hard time competing with the Cascadian Farms or Earthbound Farms you find at Whole Foods.

As much as I would like to enjoy the Minneapolis Farmers' Market or even our small local markets, I don't visit them often (I do go to a local apple grower for apples in season and our farm park for meats). Although our vegetable garden is small it provides us with three to four months of no pesticide produce and our local cooperative market fills in for much of the rest of the year. Sometimes I think of getting my garlic growing going again and I wonder whether or not I could find local customers willing to pay high prices for the crop. My experience has been that city-dwelling New Yorkers are excited by their connoisseurship of the authentic, the obscure, the unusual in all things, even produce. I cannot say, yet, if that is true for the folks of Minneapolis -although if beer is any indication (better local beer here than anything I've had), it is possible.