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photo garden 2013 July



Four decades of Growing Good Food in Michigan's Upper Peninsula
~ ~ ~
Down to Earth Information, Experiences, Thoughts

        Welcome to my online garden! I can't take you into my garden in person but I'll do my best via online bytes. Gardening is as much fun now as it was when I started over forty years ago. I am a new gardener every time I step through the gate and onto the mulch; it is always a wonder. As a long-time organic gardener, I enjoy a cooperative and simple approach to growing food. I garden because it is my passion; it is also our food. 
        I plant open-pollinated seed and most are heirlooms. They have earned their spot in the line-up in my garden and in generations of gardens before mine. Those I don't grow myself I buy from independent seed companies specializing in open-pollinated varieties.
         We usually have a 75 to 90 day frost-free growing season, though there have been years when it has dropped below freezing every month. There really is no such thing as a "usual" year. Sometimes we get the hottest, the coldest, the wettest, the driest all in one season! It makes for very interesting gardening. I love the changes.
         I've been fortunate to be able to share gardening adventures with people over the years through  my writing and presentations, learning from them as much as they learn from me. I hope you will find encouragement and information here that you can use in your own gardening adventures.

winter squash harvest Sept. 2021October 18, 2021 -- First Frost!

What a growing season. After the spring drought and a few late frosts and freezes it continued on unusually hot with enough rain to keep things growing. And they did grow! With no frost until mid October there was no concern about crops maturing, even tomatoes. The big comments at the Farmers Markets in July was how tall everyone's corn was, and the crop came early. My winter squash was so enthusiastic I spent the fall giving away squash to anyone who would take it. Everyone had a lot of squash this year. In spite of the late onset of frost the fall was fairly "normal" with the usual variable weather which was nice, and comfortable.

June 21, 2021 -- Happy Solstice Rain!!mulched garden after rain

A full ONE INCH of rain last night! What a beautiful sound and a beautiful wet world this morning. With only a little more than an inch total over the past seven weeks this is a big boost. With more rain forecasted for the coming week there are a lot of relieved plants, trees, people, animals, insects, etc. around these parts. There's even a chance the clouds might hang around enough to keep the frost at bay tonight. That would be very nice! But I'll still cover unless the chances sound a whole lot better later today. With very strong NW winds (which makes covering a bit of a game) and gale warnings on both Superior and Michigan, it's a wild "bundle up" kind of day out there. It looks like a good day to get caught up on indoor projects. Welcome to summer!

June 19, 2021 -- Spring or Summer?

As I look at the calendar to the coming official start of summer in a few days I can't help but wonder just what the coming season is going to be like. Since spring brought us temperatures from the low 80's to the low 20's (and that roller-coaster continues), with little to no rain -- it's been interesting to say the least! But for the most part the green growing things are doing their best to stay green, and I've hauled more buckets of water than I've ever hauled. Thankfully, we've had enough good pumping days to keep our water tank re-supplied.

early strawberries, haskaps, rhubarbThere will be few if any apples this year thanks to the four-night frost-freeze event (right after my enthusiastic apple blooming post below) but there are strawberries (well covered during those freezes) and haskaps and the blueberry crop is looking good. And there is always the hardy rhubarb, tinged but not defeated by the freezes. I have to admit that with the extended local drought the apple trees are no doubt better off without having to try to produce a crop this year. It all works out in the end.

While I've been weeding and watering (and watering and watering) Steve cut, raked, and hauled a good supply of hay -- short this year but so appreciated. So now I'm spreading hay on the garden to keep what moisture we have in the ground for the plants. They're predicting a decent rain for the U.P. tomorrow night and there's hope it will include us this time. And the hay comes in handy for covering plants. With everything growing well and early (thanks to our unusually mild winter and warm spring) the blanket supply is hard pressed to cover everything during these late frosts/freezes we're having. They say another one is coming in a few nights but it would be quite OK with me if they are wrong. I'll cover anyway, just in case. The spring heat and the drought are quite unusual for us here but the frosts are very familiar. 

But there has been generous pickings of lettuce and spinach coming out of the garden, and green tomatoes on the small cherry tomato plants. Those early strawberries (an old variety that keeps it's berries close to the ground for warmth) have been a great treat, both on the table and in our breakfast sauce. A second variety is ripening now (I have four varieties, more or less ripening in succession). It had a harder time with the real low temps, even covered, since it's a modern variety that sets its fruit high on the plant, easy to pick but all too well exposed to the frosts (and the birds!). But it's a nice berry and I'm glad it's coming through with at least a partial crop.

haskaps in bowlThe haskaps are fun this year as this is the first year I'm getting enough to pick more than a sampling from the older (though still young) plants. And some of the youngest of the eight varieties I have are setting fruit for the first time so I get a taste of the differences between them all. They are mostly quite similar but ripen at different times so there is a fairly long season of harvest. They are an interesting fruit, aka honeyberries but they aren't as sweet as that name hints. They are more on the sour side, especially when not quite ripe, so one has to let them hang on the bush until they are ready to fall off and you hope to get them before the birds (or chipmunks) do. A bit of an odd look to them but they are an early and much appreciated fruit. And even better -- they are very hardy! They are doing just fine with all this crazy weather. They just keep on truckin' and that's a good way to go. There is always something good happening in the homestead garden and orchard.

first asparagus shoots of seasonMay 18, 2021 -- First Asparagus

It's a constant stream of Firsts and Welcome Back's this time of year - birds, plants, bugs, weather - an exciting time of year. Every moment is new, a lot of fun. And the first asparagus shoots are a very welcome and delicious return. This year they've been able to grow without the usual late spring freeze since our last cold night was May 12 (22 degrees) and with this ongoing very warm weather we're now getting I don't expect another. Grow on asparagus!  


May 10, 2021 -- Appreciating Windbreaks

We've had a stretch of pretty strong north winds but if one finds a place out of the wind it can be almost warm. A few of the plants from the greenhouse have ventured outside to start getting used to the outdoor environment, while their less hardy friends stay inside because they don't think  upper 40's is that warm. But those days are coming and soon they'll all be out basking in the fresh air. Meantime the brave early ones find it quite cozy on the south side of the wood shed where they can ignore that north wind.

seedlings on cart getting some sun

The plants aren't the only ones to appreciate a nice wind-break. Lilli found herself a nice new spot to sit and survey her kingdom. She sat there like that for quite some time before deciding all was well and she might as well head on in for her afternoon siesta. Or maybe she just needed a break from all that intense spring green.

 LilliB sitting by daffodils by front door

September 18, 2020 - First Hard Freeze of the Season

Night before last there was mention of scattered frost, which meant frost for sure in our frost-pocket little valley. It wasn't the first we'd had this month so the blankets were ready at hand and the necessary plants covered. It got down to 29 in the orchard, and would be warmer in the garden near the still warm ground. All was well. But yesterday they got a little more serious about it - Widespread Freeze - with possible 20's hinted. And a red warning box on the NOAA forecast page. That wasn't really necessary - if you'd lived here long enough you could feel it - but I certainly took them seriously. As usual I'd hoped for a few more growing weeks since, as is often the case, it's supposed to warm back up after this cold spell. But not to be, so yesterday, while Steve went out to cut firewood, I harvested. And they were right - it got down to 24 degrees out in the open. Cold enough!

A really nice full sweet pepper crop with many ripe, red peppers filled up their spot along two walls of the root cellar, plants with their fruit hung where the under-ripe peppers will continue to ripen and keep surprisingly fresh for quite awhile. A small basket of cherry tomatoes at various stages of ripe will brighten our salads for many weeks to come. The grapes had done their best in spite of buds being frozen twice in the spring, with a small crop with enough ripe for a batch of juice. If there had been more I would have covered them but instead I harvested. NEXT year I'll remember to cover them in the spring so they can get that needed extra long growing season. Grapes are an iffy crop here but I keep trying.

winter squash harvestSquash had a late start getting going this year, maybe due to the unusual record heat so I didn't know if there would be any ripe ones. But I had detected some orange amongst the very lush large leaves so I hoped. Turns out there was no need to worry, they loved this over-hot summer and made record time ripening. I think we'll have enough squash! There were five not quite ripe good sized fruit left in the plants so I double-blanket covered those to see if they can make it.

Of course, though the garden looks pretty wilted and done-in today, there is still much out there - potatoes and carrots, parsley, spinach and lettuce to move into the greenhouse when the cold really sets in. Meantime, there will be many warm days yet, and likely frosts, and the woodshed is cleaned out and ready to start filling. Autumn is a great time of year.

June 29, 2020 - Summer!garden June 29

Summer for me begins when the garden is all planted, growing and mulched, hopefully (and usually) by the end of June. And this year the garden came through right on time; it's happily settled in for the summer, feeding us well. But the coming "hot weather of July" that we usually plan for is a bit hard to figure since we've been getting those 80's July temperatures since the end of May! A strange year indeed. It's hard to guess just what July, and the rest of summer, will bring but we intend to enjoy it all the same. The mosquitoes, black flies and ticks are easing off, stacks of firewood are drying in the field, the orchard is looking good. Steve put the final touches on his Row Cruiser and it went for its first row of the season yesterday, along with my kayak, for a beautiful evening on the water. Other spring chores are finished so we're changing gears, planning to do some major work on the house and spending more time on the water. I think we're ready for July. We're ready for summer.

June 15, 2020 - A Bit of Cool, a Lot of Sunshine

garden covered blankets frostWe've had a short spell of frosty nights and some truly beautiful warm enough/cool enough sunny days for great working out of doors. Thankfully the frosts were light though it did require covering a good portion of the garden for four nights. It's a bit late in the month for frost but not all that unusual. Many plants are still in their protective cold frames; easy to manage. But this year with the very unusual heat (we just don't get 80 degrees in June!) (well, we didn't used to...) things like potatoes and beans and corn, a good portion of the garden, were up and running, spurred on by the heat and the rain, and not at all up to being frosted. So the stack of old garden blankets and sheets were brought out, with not one extra left over, and everyone made it through with no damage. Today they were dried and back in storage as the temps are again rising, with more 80 degree days forecasted. What a roller-coaster ride.

Garden Barrier #2 - August 10, 2017

perennial bedGardening is certainly one of my passions and it keeps me well occupied, but summer is full of other fun and interesting things to do so I've been looking at reducing some of the chores that don't please me so much, such as keeping the surrounding vegetation on its own side of the line I've drawn between garden and mowed area.** We've tilled around the garden, I've mulched around the garden with various materials, I've let it go and then spent hours pulling grass and sorrel roots out of the garden beds. There had to be a better way. One was to put in a barrier and this year we finally did that. Well, I decided and Steve did the putting. Most trips to Escanaba included a stop at Menards to pick up our quota of 20 inexpensive paving blocks. That was all we could safely haul in the Prius at one time. The stack grew and grew until Steve finally did the job, first along the south border in front of the raspberries. That seems to be working well so he dug in and went up along the east edge along my new Border Barrier Bed. (the west edge is waiting for more pavers to arrive, and the north border will likely wait until next year).

Years ago I had a patch of rhubarb growing behind the compost bins between them and the yard. It did a great job of keeping the grass back by heavily mulching that space with their large, thick leaves. I figured rhubarb had to be the ideal barrier plant but I really didn't want THAT much rhubarb. Surely there were other plants that would do, so the idea of a border barrier bed grew. I researched possibilities, imagined outcomes, made lists, bought a few plants but mostly ended up using what I had. One of the most challenging areas was along the asparagus bed which is along the east side of the garden. The grass and sorrel loved to make their way into that fertile soil and it was hard to get out. So I made a new adjacent bed, taking some of the asparagus space (there was more than we needed) (asparagus does not give up its space easily I soon found!) along with the current path, digging, raking, weeding, reconfiguring the space to suit me - 6 feet wide, half of the width for the asparagus, half for the new bed - so I can easily reach across to care for both from their respective sides - 45 ft long.

I filled the new bed with plants that will spread out to mulch their space but not spread so much as to invade the asparagus. At least that's the plan; we'll see. Some plants will take a few years to spread, others are already doing their best to fill their space. Mainstay and king of the mulch-barrier-plot Rhubarb is at either end, in-between sits Oregano, Russian Sage, Borage, Catnip, Tarragon, Stachys, Hyssop, Helenium, Coneflower, Lemon Lillies (these I know will need to be thinned often to keep them in their space - they are amazing spreaders!). In between all I planted annual Chard and Broccoli to help fill the spaces as the perennials grow. Chard is doing a great job and may end up being a permanent resident.

But I decided to help the barrier plants by putting in the extra paver block barrier. Thanks to Steve it actually happened. I like it. It looks a little more formal (in a homestead kind of way) than I'm used to but I know it will "rough up" in time. All the plants in the bed are sturdy, simple, varieties that don't require a lot of fussing and care and are all pollinator friendly, which was a requirement when choosing what to plant. I'm finding the asparagus isn't giving up easily and I'm 'weeding' it out of the new bed as much as I am the resident regular weeds. Disturbing the ground by digging and tilling is a sure bet way to grow a great crop of new weeds! But I know this will abate as the new area settles in.

**So what does one call a mowed area that isn't the traditional 'grass lawn' that most folks think of? We don't have that kind of lawn. We have mowed vegetation. We have not mowed vegetation. It's all a great diversity of plants, all sorts of plants and I'm working at adding even more. Some areas I mow, some I don't, it's all the same; field or lawn, wild or tame; inside the fence or outside the fence; around the garden, across the orchard, around the house (or on top of the house!). I haven't yet come up with the best words for the mowed areas and the not mowed areas of our homestead. If you have some ideas, let me know!

GARDEN - Looking Forward -  January 7, 2017

photo garden 2016I enjoy looking back at last season’s garden but mostly I’m looking ahead to the coming season. What do I want to change, what do I want to do different this year? Some decisions I don’t make until I’m standing in the garden with plants or seeds in hand, looking for a good spot for this or that, or a bit of extra room for just one more whatever. But I do write out a general plan; it helps me to have an overall idea. Most of what I grow has settled in nicely based on many years of what we like, what we eat, what grows best, what works here. But there’s always room for something new. And my biggest change this coming season will be to add more flowers and herbs and to mix things up a bit. Nothing exotic, just something more for the pollinators, and for fun.

I’ve been swimming in a sea full of ideas for the orchard, adding diversity, looking for understory ideas for the fruit trees, growing towards what some are calling nowadays a “forest garden”. And I realized I could easily do more of that in my vegetable garden. The two aren’t really separate, the roughly 50 x 80 ft vegetable plot being in the middle of the orchard, with berries in both, but on paper they are separate. And on paper my vegetable plot is very organized. Some things even stay that way in the garden -- corn, squash, potatoes, tomatoes tend to be in their own 4 x 32 ft plots. Except for those that end up elsewhere, leftovers when the main plot is full. And mostly the other crops are in smaller blocks, one next to another. It’s not that I don’t care for the companion planting idea, or ideal. It’s a practical thing, that often has to do with frosts.

I’ve had decades of having to suddenly cover tender growing plants when that late, or early, or mid summer frost is forecast. And I have a supply of old blankets stored in their own mouse proof cabinet ready for the task. And I have learned that it is much easier to cover the plants that need protection if they are all together in one space and not scattered here and there. Been there and done that! One does get better at these things.

There is actually plenty of diversity and interaction in my garden. When things get growing I can hardly get through some of the paths between plots, supposedly there to walk through. It can get to be quite a wonderful jungle. So why mix things up more? In some cases because it will work better for me. Snap beans planted in one row along the edge of a plot with something else in the middle is easier to harvest than a large block of beans, though a block works well for the dry beans since I only harvest them once. And spinach definitely likes to be singly along an edge. Coles don’t mind being in the middle, nor do flowers, at least not the simple ones I grow (zinnia, marigold, calendula, cosmos). Lettuce can use more shade mid summer so maybe I’ll put some plants amongst the corn.

I’m a bit tired of the herbs being in one block and most need to be divided anyway. I think they need to be spread out so one can appreciate them more as individuals. I’ve started transplanting some out and around and I’ll do more of that and throughout the garden. I think the vegetables will like that, too. And why not plant more flowers for the pollinators? I sure do appreciate them. I’ve ordered borage and nasturtiums. It’s been a long time since I’ve grown either of those and it’ll be fun to have them again.

One of my favorite flowers is buckwheat. It’s an easy summer loving crop, and I plant a little here and there as space permits. The bees and such love it. I let it flower then cut it down when it starts setting seed but there’s always plenty of volunteers around. It does grow large and rank, and I doubt anyone would accuse it of being sweet smelling but if the bees like it, I like it. And I let the broccoli flower for the bees as well. Many of the common garden vegetables are beautiful “gone to seed”, or flower and well loved by the pollinators.

It’s not a traditional flower garden by any means, nor the carefully designed permaculture/polyculture system that seems to be all the rage nowdays, but something that suits my practical side, my busy summer schedule, my love of lightly organized wild. I think it will be a fun garden, and I have no doubt it will feed us well as it has for almost forty years.

Looking Back - 2016 GARDEN YEAR - January 5, 2017

photo garden squash plantsA new year is here with infinite possibilities! There’s nothing quite like imagining working (playing) in the garden to warm you up on a cold winter’s evening. It may be zero degrees outside but in my mind it’s warm and sunny with green things growing all around as I look over my garden plan. What happened this past season? What worked, what didn’t, what seeds do I need to grow out this coming year, what do I need to buy? And I wonder anew at the abundant food that garden gave us. It’s always amazing but this year was over the top for some of the more heat loving crops.

Every year is different; that is one thing I can always depend on! And this past year it was record warmth. I usually figure, roughly, a frost free growing season from about the 2nd week in June till the first or second week in September. This year we had a mild spring, with a last frost mid May, then just one freeze June 7. Then we didn’t have another frost (freeze actually) until October 9. In between was unusually warm with plenty of rain. The corn and squash were beside themselves with joy and enthusiasm. And the sunflowers turned into trees that I almost had to get out an axe to cut down. The squash I grow is a relatively short season buttercup variety I got from Kathleen Plunket-Black of Plum Creek Seeds, a long time and very experienced seed saver in Arkansas WI. It’s rich, sweet and nutty, and I usually get a reasonable crop with maybe half the fruit maturing before frost. So I plant with that in mind. But this year not only did the vines grow with abandon setting fruit right and left (thankfully along the edge of the garden so they could sprawl out over the grass), every single one, except for one half grown late specimen, fully matured. Wow, did we have squash this year! I make a bit of squash soup but our favorite is to have plain cooked squash with our luncheon salad, almost every day. We never tire of it.

By contrast, two years ago we had a long, cool, wet spring and early summer. Fruit set was poor for many crops including the squash and cucumbers. The harvest was sparse to pathetic, and the big question among gardeners was “did you get any cucumbers? any squash?”. It was a rare one who did. Not even zucchini. Then this year one could hardly give cucumbers away. It was the year to make pickles for sure. I didn’t have any trouble finding homes for the extra winter squash though. It found its way into many a Thanksgiving dinner for which I was very thankful. Make hay while the sun shines, as they say, and eat squash when you have it. We do, and we are, along with a very appreciated abundance of other vegetables.

Copyright Susan Robishaw

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Have you read  "Frost Dancing - Tips from a Northern Gardener" ? A fun short read.

or "Homesteading Adventures"    Creating our backwoods homestead--the first 20 years.

and "Growing Berries for Food and Fun"   A journey you can use in your own garden.