Being Part of a Transition Group

Beginning the Transition Journey

When my husband and I sat down at a coffee shop in 2010 to talk with two other people about starting a Transition group, I would not have imagined all of the things I would learn and do over the next 7 years. Transition Longfellow has been an expansive experience.

I tell people Transition is a way of thinking and a direction, as well as a local and global grassroots movement. That sounds pretty high falutin. What does it really mean?

Transition Gives Us Back our Self Determination

Every day we make innumerable decisions that individually and collectively have an impact on our world. Our culture pushes us to make those decisions based on what we “want” and  what we “deserve.” And our consumer society is set up to short-circuit our decision-making process by making some things easy (turn up the thermostat), convenient (get in the car), and distractingly addictive (Facebook). It makes other (often better) things quite difficult (carpooling) or expensive (solar).

When you dig deeper into the issues Transition looks at – food resilience, cutting carbon, reducing our dependence on fossil fuels – it changes the way you look at your everday decisions. You ask yourself different questions: “What is the carbon footprint or the collective impact of of this decision? Could I do this another way? Do I really need to do this at all?”

You make decisions in a new way.

Transition Provides Direction

One of the first activities Transition groups do is engage their community in a visioning process to identify what a healthy, sustainable future would look like in their area. What  direction do we need and want to go? The answer to that question will be different in different places. It may be water issues in New Mexico and seed sovereignty in India. I heard from a student, who had visited a Transition group in Bolivia, say that improving male-female relationships and overcoming the damaging effects of machismo was one of the first things the group she visited chose to tackle.

In my neighborhood it could be improving mass transit, getting safer bike lanes, helping to get more homes weatherized and insulated, increasing the number of solar installations on rooftops or getting more people signed up for solar gardens, helping people grow more food, or helping people identify and prepare for the effects of climate change.

In my mind, I see all of those “good things” as part of a big river flowing in the direction of a sustainable, healthy future. There are many streams of effort feeding that river and everyone can be part of it. In fact, millions of people are taking hundreds of millions of actions. Even when some governments or some businesses put up a damn to try to divert us, this is one great big roiling river. We are not alone.

Transition Provides a Structure for Personal Exploration

My husband and my involvement in Transition Longfellow has inspired us to try so many new things: from dropping a car, to finding a new home for 1,079 possessions, to creating an edible landscape and learning to preserve our own foods. We’re more interesting people ourselves because of it – and we’re also more skilled.

Last fall I got to meet Brianna Harrington and learn about her project, the 15/30 Challenge. I’m so impressed by her efforts to raise awareness of the tragic wastefulness of fast fashion. From the massive diversion of water to grow fiber, to the childhoods and health lost in sweatshops, to the dumping of used clothes on African nations, ruining their clothing industry and impoverishing their culture, cheap clothes for us has had devastated effects across the globe. I hope to take her challenge soon – once I know how to use Instagram to share my efforts :).

Transition Builds the Local Community and Economy

We have met many, many neighbors. Although I’d lived here 23 years, it wasn’t until we started a Transition group that I knew more than a handful of neighbors. I’ve met at least 150 new people and made dozens of real friends. Some of these people became my support system as I took on the task of providing home care for my dying mother. They cared for me as I cared for her.

As we move further into climate change and feel more of its effects on our health and safety, these relationships within our commuity will become even more important.

We have found role models all across the metro area who are doing things to reduce their use of fossil fuels and live a more sustainable life. Lee Olson taught us to grow sprouts. Annette taught us to make jam. Bruce and Aggie inspire us to grow big with their huge garden. And our new friend Lisa is helping us think about preparedness.

We have found businesses to take us in the right direction. Ralph Jacobson from Innovative Power Systems and Bruce Stahlberg from Affordable Energy Solutions have helped us reduce our home energy use. The folks at Gandhi Mahal restaurant have demonstrated how a restaurant can source its food hyper-locally, growing its own veggies and fish IN THE CITY! The Tiny Diner has become a hub for learning and growing by offering food growing classes.

That river of Transition needs businesses of all sizes and business professionals in all fields to stop and ask the questions:

  • “What is the carbon footprint or the collective impact of of this decision?”
  • “Could we do this another way”
  • “Do we really need to do this at all?”

And when they do, Transition can make those actions visible so we can support and learn from those efforts. So we can see that we are, in fact, all in this together.

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We Choose to Live With Roommates

What the Realtor Doesn’t Know

A few of the 24 garden beds

We were approached last spring by a realtor who was hoping we wanted to sell our house. I’m always thinking, “Maybe we’d like to have a smaller house on 5 acres. Maybe I’d like to plant a small orchard, grow a larger garden. Maybe my real future is in hazelnuts and sour cherries ….”

So I said yes, he could come by and give me an estimate of the value of my house on today’s market. I warned him our house wasn’t typical; and as I expected, he was unsure whether what we had going on here – our veggie gardens, fruit trees and edible landscape, solar PV and solar hot air, etc. – was a good thing or undesirable.

When he called back to give us a figure, using comps that were in no way comparable, he tried to sell us on the idea by saying we could finally get our own place (we have one) and stop living with roommates.

He doesn’t get it.

We  live with roommates for a lot of good reasons.

  • There is an affordable housing shortage in our community and we can provide some truly affordable space.
  • We earn some extra income, which we use to make repairs and upgrades to this 97-year-old house (most recently replumbing the laundry room).
  • It cuts our carbon footprint in half – and yes, that factored into our decision making! You can’t shrink your house but you can share it.
  • It increases security for all of us. We live in a city and I love it, but there is crime. With four people living and often working at home, there is someone here a lot of the time.
  • It keeps my husband and I in touch with younger folks. It’s amazing how age-segregated our society is! I want to stay connected with what younger people are thinking and doing. Our roommates are usually younger and the good ones bring friends with them.
  • When we rent to international students, we get to learn a lot about others cultures and we try new foods, like those scrumptious Colombian cheesy rolls. Yum!

While not a big factor in our decision-making, there are other benefits as well.

  • We own a lot of stuff cuz, uh, we’re “old.” By sharing kitchenware, towels, appliances, electronics, camping gear, etc., our roommates don’t need to buy it and we’ve reduced the pressure of consumerism.
  • We live in a bungalow community of mostly small, single-family homes. When we increase the number of people living here, we increase density, which is a factor in getting better bus frequency, and in attracting more local businesses!

Sometimes we don’t have the best roommates. Sometimes they aren’t that friendly or they have unfortunate habits (I’m sure we do, too). But with all of these benefits and the many ways house sharing supports our values, it’s really worth it to keep trying to find folks who are a good fit. Few decisions will have this big an impact.

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Would It Make Financial Sense to Drop A Car?

What is Car Ownership Really Costing Us?

NERD ALERT – Looking at the numbers

One of the things I love about the Longfellow neighborhood – and a big reason I wanted to live here – was its close proximity to everything. That made it possible, in 2010, for my husband and I make the decision to become a one-car household. In the past 7 years we’ve found that to be a pretty easy lifestyle change, with only an occasional inconvenience. In fact, it’s been so easy that I’ve begun to wonder if we’re ready to go even further and give up car ownership altogether.

The Dollars and Cents of Transportation (Including Carbon)

According to AAA, in 2017 the average auto driver spent $706 a month to own and operate their vehicle for an average of 15,000 miles. Think about it: that’s almost as much as the rent on an efficiency apartment in Minneapolis! And that figure doesn’t include the cost of car payments – or the cost of its associated carbon footprint.

So what does transportation cost my two-person family? I took a look at NerdWallet’s Car Cost Calculator and then factored in the rest of our transportation costs.

  • Gas: Our car gets about 25 mpg in the city. We drive 6,000 to 7,000 miles a year so we used about 280 gallons of gas @ $2.30/gallon = $644/yr. Let’s account for the full cost of that gas by looking at the amount of CO2 we produced. Burning a gallon of E10 gas produces 18.9 pounds of CO2 so our 280 gallons produced 5,292 pounds of carbon, or 2.6 tons. If we carbon-tax ourselves at, let’s say $40 per ton, we’d pay an extra $104/yr.
  • Insurance for two: about $1,200/yr
  • Maintenance and repairs: If the past 6 months are typical, it would be about $200 a month or $2,400 /yr
  • Car Payment: Zero, our car is 12 years old.
  • Parking: $20/month or $240/yr
  • Taxes: $45/yr

Car Ownership = $5,381/yr

We also use mass transit. We spend $80 a month ($960/yr) to take the bus and light rail, which saves us, at minimum, $120 a month in parking ($1,440/yr) and the absolute nightmare of driving downtown. We hopped on the bus to get to the Ordway last month and saved parking and a whole lot of hassle fighting traffic to multiple sports events!

Taking the bus shaves 30% off my husbad’s work-related carbon footprint, according to Transit Screen. Taking the light rail shaves another 30%. Driving fewer miles keeps our insurance lower, too.

Total Transit Cost Per Year: $6,341/yr

What if we dropped our other car and …

  • Took the Bus: Bought one all-you-can-ride monthly bus card and one stored-value card for when we need to travel together ($103/month or $1,236/yr)
  • Biked more: Peter could ride his bike to work to save money from May-October, while finally getting in some exercise. His employer offers a secure bike garage at his building so he would pay nothing. (If his employer didn’t have the locker option, he could rent a bike locker from Metro Transit.) (-$120/yr)
  • Used Hour Car Sharing Service: $8.50 an hour and 100 miles free (no charge for gas or miles) with $55/yr fee (x2). We’d need to bus to the closest car sharing hub about 2 miles away.  If I used a car 3 days a week for maybe 8 hours that would be $292/month or $3,504/yr. Hour Car provides insurance so we’d save (-$1,200). Hour Car pays for the gas, too, so we wouldn’t spend -$644. If I still drove the same number of miles, I’d still have the same carbon footprint ($1o4 carbon tax) and I’d still be paying to park ($240/yr).
  • Rented a car for vacation: We could borrow a friend’s car for a few days or we could rent an Hour Car for $75 a day for the weekend, or rent a car at the airport for $350 a week. Last year we took a 2-week trip and traveled by train and bus. If we had to plan separately for transportation, it would make us more aware of the true cost of our trip.

Transit Cost Without Car Ownership: $5,074/yr -$5,194

Cost for Convenience: around $1,147-$1,267

That’s not as much of a difference as I expected. And if we took a 2-week vacation and paid to rent a car, it would be half that savings. But it’s possible that making this change would result in more changes. That we’d look for opportunities to carpool, or we’d drive even less.

We’ve talked it over and we’re going to try a month-long no-car challenge so see how it goes.




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Energy Workshop is a Call to Action

I attended a day-long seminar at the engineering school at the U of M back in October: “Energy from Renewables: Confronting Global Collapse.” It was a mix of hope and despair. Lots of good information, much of it new to me. And a clear message that our timeline for action is really, really short. Various speakers offered guidance on steps we need to take right now, and glimpses of amazing technologies that we can only hope will be perfected and rolled out in the near future.

After attending that seminar, any talk about 2050 is no longer credible to me. We do not have that long to make a significant change. According to folks at The Solutions Project, we need to shift to 80% renewables by 2030. So tell me what we can do today and by 2020 and by 2025.

Energy Seminar Lights a Fire

Action 1: Work immediately on energy efficiency in every possible way. Dig into your energy bills. Cut!

Action 2: Reduce your carbon footprint immediately. If you drive more than 8,000 miles a year, lease an electric car. Some things may need to fly, but you and I are not among them.

Sculpture in Sebastapol

Action 3: Electrify your life. Shift everything you can to electric and shift your electricity to solar or other renewables. If you can afford rooftop solar, do it now (and with batteries). If you can’t but want it, see if you can do a bulk buy deal with some neighbors to get the price down. If you can’t do that, buy into a community solar garden even if it doesn’t save you money.

Stop thinking that money is your return on investment. A livable climate is the only return that counts right now. Invest in life.

Action 4: Think twice about rice. That food is responsible for 46% of all crop-related greenhouse gas emissions. Eat local, reduce meat consumption, support responsible farmers. Know that when raised right, grazing animals are good for the land. (Think about it, they evolved together and this country used to be home to millions of buffalo.)

Action 5: If you own land, reforest and food forest. Gardeners, do not buy peat.

Action 6: Practice hospitality now, in a variety of ways, so you will be prepared to practice it in earnest in the not too distant future. Greenland has lost a trillion tons of ice in four years and ice melt is accelerating, as is sea level rise. Your Florida relatives may soon be living with you.

Our business schools are a training ground for climate denial, which prevents action from occurring and regulations from being adopted. Our business schools need to be confronted and transformed.

The media has been a tool in the hands of deniers. They need to be held accountable. In 1996, the Minnesota News Council DID hold one of them accountable for turning to a famous climate denier for “balance” in a news story. The News Council no longer exists, but you and I are still here. We must raise a ruckus to shine a light on false stories, false premises, false “fairness.”

“When it comes to the environment, the invisible hand never picks up the check.” — Kim Stanley Robinson

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Apiaceae Family – Fennel and Parsnip

This time we’ll look at two less frequently grown plants in the Apiaceae family of vegetables – parsnip and bulb fennel. I’ve grown parsnips and I’ve tried to grow bulb fennel, with no success.


I’ve planted what was identified as bulb producing fennel a couple of times and I’ve never been able to grow a bulb; only tall and exuberant fronds with lots of flowers and seeds. That’s not to say it can’t be done.

So why bother if I’m only getting the leafy plant? Because I like the fennel seeds that follow the flowering, a tasty treat that freshens your breath and aids indigestion. Chew them when they’re still a bit green for a lovely pop of flavor. Fennel seeds can also be used in cooking and as a flavoring. It tastes like anise. The feathery fronds are edible and can be added to salads. If you are lucky enough to get a root, chop it up and add raw to salads. It’s delightful.

Letting this plant go to seed, however, is problematic. You’ll have a LOT of fennel seeds and next year you will a have a LOT of fennel everywhere. Fennel can create a veritable wall of delicious vegetation that is not easy to remove as it has a long taproot.

Fennel has a few more benefits that might just make it worthwhile. It is highly repellent to fleas; you can put dried fennel leaves in a kennel to protect your dog. It also repels aphids. And it attracts some of the bugs you’d like to see in your garden – ladybugs, hoverflies, and parasitic wasps (the good ones).

Because it has a taproot, it does not like to be transplanted. Sow it where you intend for it to grow. And sow it by itself; fennel has no plant companions.

Fennel can withstand cold weather but harvest before freezing.

Health Benefits of fennel: Fennel (the bulb) has a good amount of dietary fiber, as well as vitamin C, folate and potassium.


Parsnip seeds deteriorate quickly so get new seeds every year. If you are trying to save seeds, you’ll need to let the plant overwinter and go to seed the following year. It’s a biennial. Mother Earth News suggests sprouting your seeds first in a wet paper towel in an airtight container, and then planting them once the first seeds have sprouted. They need 110 to 120 days so plant them in early spring in loose, fertile soil. They’ll do well with an application of compost and regular weeding. And keep them consistently moist. These are thirsty plants!

Harvesting and Storing Parsnips: Harvest them AFTER the first frost. The cold weather makes them sweeter. In fact, parsnips contain more sugar than carrots, and are comparable to bananas! Don’t let them get too big or they can become woody. You can leave them in the ground and continue to harvest through the winter (a straw mulch over the row will make it easier to dig them out). Or avoid the risk of over-maturity by pulling them out in the fall, washing them, and taking off the tops. Now they’re ready to store in the fridge (not freezer) in a plastic bag. They’ll keep up to two months.

Pests: Several insects find parsnips a tasty treat. Their leaves can be invaded by celery leaf miner larvae and the root can be damaged by carrot fly larvae. Parsnips are also vulnerable to a whole host of diseases – parsnip canker (choose a resistant variety), two kinds of root rot (in which case, remove them from your property and don’t plant parsnips in that spot for four years), powdery mildew, and numerous viruses.

Health Benefits of Parsnips: With everything that could go wrong with parsnips, why bother? Because parsnips are a very healthy food. They have anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory and anti-fungal properties. They are a great source of soluble and insoluble fiber – the kind that can reduce blood cholesterol. It is high in vitamin C and many of the B vitamins, as well as K and E. And they contain lots of mineral. Most of the vitamins and minerals are found close to the skin so peel it finely or cook it whole.

Cooking parsnips: While you could eat it raw, it’s usually baked, fried as chips, roasted with other root vegetables, or boiled and mashed like potatoes. You can cube it and add it to soups or stews, or you can remove the cubes and use the starchy cooking water to thicken broths. Don’t overcook it; which is easy to do because it contains so much sugar.

You can even make wine with Parsnips!

Food Safety Note for Parsnips

Parsnip stems and leaves contain a photosensitive chemical that causes skin redness, burning and blisters if the skin is exposed to sunlight after handling. This is a type of chemical burn, not an allergic reaction. That’s why you want to remove the leaves and stems right away.

Parsnips are also one of those vegetables that people with a birch pollen allergy may react to, with itching, burning, and breathing difficulties.

Wild Plants in the Family: Cow Parsnip

Cow parsnip is a native plant found in many counties in Minnesota. It’s in the same family as parsnip and Native peoples are reported to have eaten the young leaves and stalks, but unless you know what you’re doing, it’s best to leave this parsnip cousin alone. Wild parsnip contain toxic chemicals called furanocoumarins. Like regular parsnips, the juice from the leaves and stems are photo-toxic, causing a severe and persistent rash when the skin is exposed to sunlight. If you get any of the juice on your hands when pulling this plant out of your garden, wash your hands immediately.

An Extremely Dangerous Relative: Giant Hogweed

While researching this family, I learned about giant hogweed. This plant sounds like it came out of an X-File episode. Like parsnips, its sap has photo-toxic effects, but this plant takes it to the extreme. If you come in contact with it, the blistering can be so severe as to require hospitalization and it can leave lifelong scars and skin discoloration. If it comes in contact with your eyes, it can cause blindness.

It is most common on the East Coast but has been moving steadily westward. It was recently found in Wisconsin… so it’s heading our way.

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Apiaceae Family: The Carrots or Parsley Family

The Apiaceae family of plants and herbs is also called the Parsley or Carrot family. It contains some of the most commonly used vegetables – carrots, celery, celeriac, fennel and parsnip – and many of our favorite aromatic herbs – chervil, parsley, cilantro, dill, cilantro, cumin, caraway, anise, lovage and angelica.

It also includes some deadly relatives — poison hemlock and water hemlock – with the same flat white umbrella of flowers that has given this family its other Latin name (umbelliferae). Many beneficial garden insects love this type of flower. For example, if carrots are left to flower they will attract a beneficial predatory wasp.

Another common trait found in this family is hollow stems. Children have been poisoned when they accidentally used hemlock stems for straws thinking they were a wild carrot plant. Best to plant these veggies and herbs yourself rather than forage, unless you really know your Apiaceae plants.

Apiaceae plants have a few more tricks up their sleeve. Some contain a chemical in their sap that cause burn-like blisters and can change the pigmentation of skin exposed to it, which can happen during harvest on a sunny day. Some can cause mild to severe allergic reactions in people who have an allergy to birch trees or mugwort. Who knew these common veggies lived in such an unsavory family!

This is such a large edible family so I’ll write about carrots and celery in this post, fennel and parsnip in the next post, and the herbs in a following post.



Carrots grow well in my Minneapolis urban garden – especially well last year. They like full sun but tolerate some shade. They like loose, well-drained soil that’s higher in potassium and lower in nitrogen. If you’ve got a nitrogen rich soil because you’ve been studiously adding compost each year, you’re likely to have hairy, misshapen carrots. (Oh, so that’s been my problem!)

Screen shot 2016-01-24 at 11.37.10 AM

A useful book to learn about companion planting.

Carrots achieved literary fame with the book “Carrots Love Tomatoes” … and they do. Tomatoes can shade carrots, which are sensitive to heat, and the tomato plant secretes a chemical that repels insects that harm carrots. But if you plant the two too close, all that shade will stunt carrot growth. I interplanted my carrots with taller plants last summer and they didn’t do much until I harvested the other plants and gave the carrots full sun at the end of August. By the end of September they were nice and big.

Radishes and carrots are ideal for planting together; harvest the radishes in 45 days and then let the carrots keep growing into the space left behind.

Carrots are vulnerable to carrot root fly. Onions, leeks and chives repel carrot root flies. They also provide the carrot plant with dappled shade, so they make good companion plants. Don’t plant them by brother parsnip or you’ll attract a double dose of carrot flies.

Carrots are also vulnerable to root knot nematodes. Marigolds repel nematodes, but I’ve read that they need to be grown in that area for a year before they’re going to be most effective at that job. We regularly grow marigolds to repel pests but I was unaware of the need to have planted in that space the prior year.

Serving Carrots for Greatest Nutrition: Everyone knows the bright orange of carrots comes from its beta-carotene, but did you know that only 3% of that beta-carotene can be accessed during digestion when you eat carrots raw? (I should say, I’m not a food scientists; I learned this while researching carrots.) Beta-carotene is 10 times more accessible when the carrots are cooked or pureed. Carrot greens are also edible when harvested young. They can be used in a stir fry or salad.

Storing Carrots: Carrots are long-lasting veggies, capable of being stored for months in the refrigerator or throughout the winter if placed – unwashed – in a bucket of sand and wood shavings or in soil between 32 to 40 °F. You can also keep harvesting them right out of the ground!

Food Safety Note for Carrots

Some people have an allergic reaction to carrots. If, like me, you’re allergic to birch tree pollen or mugwort, your immune system can become confused by a protein in carrot that is very similar to the tree pollen, which is the cause of the reaction. Cooking it does not help.


This is a powerhouse plant. The stalk is eaten as a vegetable; the leaves as a seasoning, and the seeds as a spice (but don’t eat seeds you buy for planting; they are often treated with a fungicide). Add salt to celery seed and you’ve made celery salt, a common Cajun and Creole seasoning. Chop the stalks up and add in carrots and onion and you’ve got the holy trinity of French cooking, mirepoix.

Because celery requires a long growing season, it’s not typically grown in a home garden in Minnesota. Maybe we’ll be able to grow celery as we get further into climate change … but you might not want to. It requires a lot of special care, such as planting in deep trenches to prevent light from reaching the stem.

Health Benefits of Celery: Some research says celery seeds and celery juice reduce high blood pressure.

Storing Celery: Celery looks fragile but that’s deceiving. It can be stored up to 7 weeks at temps between 32 to 36 °F.

Food Safety Notes for Celery

Even if I could, I won’t be growing celery anytime soon. It is one of the most allergenic vegetables. For some people, eating celery can result in fatal anaphylactic shock. The allergen is not deactivated by cooking. Celeriac (or celery root) is more reactive than the stalk, and the seeds more still. Since celery seeds are used in a variety of products, this can be quite a problem.

Celery juice and celery juice powder is a common natural preservative because it is high in nitrates. Because it’s a plant-based nitrate, I’ve read that food producers can use it and still label their product “nitrate free” or “no added nitrates.” If you are sensitive to nitrates and get migraines, you may need to take care when eating celery and other high-nitrate vegetables — beets, lettuce, radishes and spinach.

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Plant Families: Fabaceae (part 2)

Another post about those marvelous nitrogen-fixing legumes found in the Fabaceae family. This month we’ll look at peas, lentils and peanuts!


Peas are one of my absolute favorite vegetables for so many reasons:

  • They are a cool weather crop so I can start them early in the season when I’m just itching to get out in the garden. They will germinate with temps as low as 40F.
  • They are super easy, requiring no fertilizers, no thinning of seedlings … really, no fuss!
  • They can be susceptible to powdery mildew but there are disease resistant varieties and because you can plant seeds so early in the season, powdery mildew may not be around yet. I have a big problem with powdery mildew on squash but I’ve grown peas trouble-free for a decade.

Planting Peas: I grow peas on trellises or along a wire fence because I like to see the pretty pea flowers and it’s easier to see the pods for harvest, but there are varieties that don’t need a trellis. When you plant, cover the seed with an inch of soil in the spring and 2 inches of soil in summer for a second crop. YES, you can get a second crop! You won’t need to do much watering for your first crop because we get so much rain here in the spring, but if you do a second crop you will need to water. August can get pretty dry and hot, which peas don’t appreciate.

For more pea-growing info check out the University of Minnesota extension service website.

Harvesting Peas: Like beans, you can eat peas in multiple ways: pea pods (with immature peas inside), fresh sweet peas without the pod, and dried peas at the end of the season. You can also eat the shoots of the pea vine! (Check out this recipe from Bon Appetit.)

If you grew the pea pod but didn’t get out there to harvest it regularly, you’ll find the pods to be too tough to eat. That’s okay, you can harvest the peas out of the pod and eat them fresh.

When is it time to do a second planting? When you don’t see any more flowers on the vine, your peas are done for the season. That could be the end of June. Take advantage of the nitrogen-fixing properties of peas by pulling down the vines and putting them directly back into the soil. Wait two weeks and then start your second planting.


Lentils are a great food for people with diabetes and are a wonderful source of fiber, protein, folate, thiamin, phosphorus and iron. But that doesn’t mean you should try to grow it in your home garden. The seed pods typically hold only a couple of seeds and you’ll need 15,600 to 100,000 seeds to add up to a pound of lentils.

Maybe you want to grow a few to use for seed art … but this is one plant that’s better grown in very large quantities in vast fields – somewhere else, like North Dakota. It will get mildew if planted too close together. It grows best in cool, semi-arid places. And it doesn’t like high humidity or waterlogged roots.

Food Safety Note for Lentils

Lentils are high in phytate, an anti-oxidant compound that interferes with the absorption of dietary iron, zinc, and manganese. Soaking and cooking reduces phytate levels. It’s not likely to be a problem in a well-rounded diet but why not just prepare lentils properly and avoid any concern. Soak lentils overnight in warm water. (Dr. Andrew Weil suggests soaking in yogurt, buttermilk or water with lemon juice or vinegar). Cook lentils fully.


The peanuts that grow in Minnesota are Valencia-style peanuts, which have 3 to 6 nuts per pod. The plants are said to grow 50 inches tall and spread about 30 inches but we’ve grown these for two years now and they have never gotten above 2 feet (up and out).

They have lovely rounded deep-green leaves and are very attractive plants. You won’t get a lot of peanuts from each one but it’s a nice enough novelty plant. You can grow peanuts as a companion plant with beet and potatoes but they don’t like to be in the shade so if your potatoes get large, don’t plant them together.

Most peanuts require a long growing season but Valencia requires 95 to 100 days. They like full sun and rich soil. Mulch peanuts to keep soil from becoming hard and dried out. Give each plant plenty of room – at least 18” around it. The flower stems will dip down into the soil so you want to leave them room to do so.

Harvesting Peanuts: Harvest when the leaves turn yellow and begin to wither. Pull up the entire plant, carefully so you get the roots where the peanuts are growing. Dig around for any you missed. You can hang the entire plant up to dry in a warm, dry place for about two weeks. Then you can remove the peanuts from the hulls when they are completely dry.

WATCH OUT FOR SQUIRRELS! In 2015, squirrels visited our yard one evening in September and utterly decimated the plants. We got not a single nut. Next year we’ll put fencing around and netting over the plants.

Cooking Peanuts: Roast Valencia peanuts in a 350-degree oven for 30 minutes to an hour or boil them, which is said to bring out even more flavor.

Food Safety Note for Peanuts

Peanut allergies are one of the most common allergies in the U.S. Peanuts contain several proteins not found in other foods and those proteins stimulate an immune response in many people. Some research suggests that roasting makes the problem worse; in China, where peanuts are typically boiled, fewer people have peanut reactions. Other than allergies, I found no other food safety issues.

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Plant Families: Fabaceae (part 1)

I’m going to start the plant family discussion with the most marvelous of all families – Fabaceae (legumes). Not only are beans a very healthy food choice for us, they’re a healthy choice for your soil.

Legumes can, in a sense, pull nitrogen from the air and “fix” it in the soil. They’re not doing this incredible magic trick alone. The plant works with Rhizobium bacteria that live around the roots of the plant. Most soils in Minnesota have adequate amounts of these soil bacteria but you can also purchase powdered Rhizobium to pre-treat your seeds to ensure that the legume is doing its nitrogen-fixing best. In the Longfellow neighborhood where I live Mother Earth Gardens carries legume inoculant (a fine powder that you use to coat the seed prior to planting). Be sure to tell the staff if you are planting beans or peas; they use difficult inoculants.

So how does this nitrogen-fixing work to benefit the soil? When the plants are used as “green manure” and left on the garden to decompose, their nitrogen stores are released back into the soil. If you compost the plants, those nutrients become part of your compost pile, available for use when you add compost into your garden.

In organic farming, legumes are planted in rotation – two years of other crops, one year of a legume crop. You can easily do this in your home garden, too. Just remember where you planted your legumes.

Many legumes grow really well in Minnesota. Crops you may plant include:

  • Beans (hundreds of varieties)
  • Peas
  • Peanuts (YES, one variety can grow in Minnesota and you’ll find it at the Friend’s School Plant Sale)
  • Clover (Dutch white clover makes a lovely low-maintenance ground cover interspersed in your grass; it fixes nitrogen for your lawn and provides a tasty food for bees)
  • Lupines – although they aren’t edible, these gorgeous spikey purple flowers also fix nitrogen (see interesting blog post about that here)

My favorite purple pole bean

It’s Easy to Go Overboard with Beans

It’s easy to go overboard with beans and I usually do because I love to see the profusion of flowers on my favorite bean vines – a purple podded pole bean. Before you plunk down money for seeds, ask yourself four questions:

  1. How will beans fit into my overall garden design?

If you’ve got ample space specifically geared toward food production, a sea of bush beans will have a neat appearance. You can add a bit of pizzazz by choosing snap beans with yellow, purple or striped pods for a colorful garden. (Unfortunately, they lose their color after cooking.)

If you have less space, consider a pole bean on a bean teepee or a trellis. Beans can grow quite tall if given a chance so don’t plant any sun-loving vegetables behind them. You might lean a trellis against the house to provide shade from summer sun. I do this and then harvest them from behind the trellis.


Pole beans

  1. How often do I get out in the garden?

Some beans need to be harvested a couple of times a week or they will become fibrous and not good to eat. KNOW YOURSELF and be realistic. If you’re a lazy gardener (nothing wrong with that), dried beans are a great choice.

  1. Does my family regularly eat or can beans?

A couple of pole bean plants can produce ample green beans for fresh eating and will continue to produce for many weeks.

A row of knee-high bush beans will give you a flush of green beans (also called snap beans or string beans) all at one time. If you love canning dilly beans, bush beans are your best bet.

  1. How much space am I willing to devote to my bean passion?

If you love dried beans for meals – and who wouldn’t; they are a great source of fiber, full of resistant starch that helps lower cholesterol, they have a tremendous shelf life and the seeds are easy to save – you’re going to need a lot of garden space.

You’ll need a lot of plants in order to harvest a pound or more of beans. And you’re going to need to leave those plants in the ground for an entire growing season before you have anything show for your effort. Dried beans are harvested after the plant has died and dried out.

How do you know when the bean is dry enough? Open up the pod and remove one seed? Try to bite into it: beans that barely dent when bitten are the right level of dryness. Don’t eat it! Dried beans need to be cooked … read further down the page to learn why.

Planting Beans

Most beans like the soil to be at least 60°F when you plant the seeds or seedlings. Bean seeds will rot in cold, wet soil so don’t jump the gun by planting too early. You can start seeds indoors if you have grow lights.

Many beans grow well here but I’ll draw your attention to a couple of cool-season beans that you might not have considered before: chickpeas and fava beans.

  • Chickpeas (garbanzo beans) are not technically a bean or a pea – what they are is finicky. I haven’t tried to grow them … I’m not sure I will. Chickpeas are frost tolerant but they need 100 days to harvest and they prefer daytime temps around 70 to 80º and night time temperatures above 65ºF. These plants hate to have their roots disturbed. Sow them indoors in a paper pot. Don’t soak the seeds or overwater them; the seeds will crack. Transplant the pot and plant into the garden when the plants are 3 to 4 inches tall. Be careful when weeding so you don’t disturb the roots. A high nitrogen soil is going to reduce production so don’t add a nitrogen fertilizer. Don’t use overhead watering; do Chickpeas are susceptible to an array of pests and disease. If you do plant it, be sure to rotate the crop every 3 years to avoid soil-borne disease. Don’t interplant with garlic.
  • Fava beans are a cool-season crop that grow best in temperatures from 60° to 65°F, but they will grow in temps as low as 40°F and as warm as 75°F. Sow fava beans as soon as the soil can be worked in the spring. They take 80 to 100 days to reach harvest. I know people who have had great success with fava beans in my neighborhood.

Food Safety Note for Beans

A number of dried beans, for example red kidney beans and white beans (cannellini), contain toxins. This is not a problem if prepared properly. Dried beans must be thoroughly cooked; remember to leave yourself time to soak them. Dried beans should not be sprouted. Read up on the best way to cook the beans you are considering planting so you’ll know how to cook them right.

Soybeans are tricky beans. They contain an enzyme that prevents the digestion of proteins. Do NOT eat soybeans raw. I’m not a food scientist so I’m not going to tell you exactly what to do – I’m just going to say, DO YOUR RESEARCH. Soybeans are particularly problematic. Fermentation is probably the safest way to process soybeans – it’s the traditional way of using them.

Home-canned beans are one of the most common sources of botulism food poisoning. If you are canning beans you must use a pressure canner. Beans pickled with vinegar contain enough acid to be safe to can with a hot-water bath canner so if you followed the recipe, you should be safe with those home-canned dilly beans.

Note that the USDA has reviewed and revised canning recipes and instructions in recent years. If you are canning from on your mother’s or grandmothers’ recipes and instructions, you may be at increased risk of food-borne illness. Check out the National Center for Home Food Preservation for new instructions.

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A Year of Studying Plant Families

In 2015, Transition Longfellow’s 1st Saturday discussion group focused on “plant families” – foods and herbs that are related to each other. The goal of the discussion was to help people learn about planting, growing, harvesting, cooking and storing different kinds of foods. Since foods in the same food family may have similar growing requirements, we thought we’d talk about them together.

Hosting this conversation was a wonderful opportunity to learn more myself. Why oh why don’t our schools do more to teach people the essential skills of proper food prep, cooking and food storage! Monthly research was eye opening. I learned:

  • Which vegetables contain “anti nutrients” that, if not properly prepared, can have a negative effect on nutritional intake.
  • Which vegetables could result in a skin burn when harvested because they contain a light-sensitizing chemical.
  • Which vegetables/herbs are most likely to be allergenic. As I have a large number of allergies, it was valuable to study which vegetables and herbs can be cross-reactive for people with allergies to ragweed or birch trees.

In this next series of blog posts, I’m going to share my plant families research, and write a little about my experience growing some of these vegetables in my Minnesota garden. I’ll write about the:

  • Fabaceae family, which includes legumes like beans, peas, and peanuts
  • Apiaceae (also called Umbelliferae) family, which includes celery, carrot, parsley and other aromatic plants with hollow stems
  • Asteraceae (composite) family, which includes lettuces and artichoke
  • Cucurbitaceae family, which includes vining plants like cucumbers, squash, pumpkins, and melons
  • Brassica (mustard) family, which includes so many of my favorite foods, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, collards, Brussels sprouts, radishes, and turnips
  • Amaryllidaceae family – actually, the subfamily Allioideae, which contains allium onions, garlic, chives, shallots
  • Lamiaceae family of herbs, which including mint, basil, rosemary, thyme, oregano, sage and lavender
  • Solanaceae (or nightshade) family, which includes so many favorite vegetables: tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, tomatillos and potatoes
  • Chenopodiaceae family, which includes beet, Swiss chard, spinach

I hope you enjoy this series and I look forward to hearing your experiences of growing these tasty foods in your own garden.

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Permaculture Principle 12: Creatively Use and Respond to Change

Where is change happening in your yard – and in your life?

The sun has been a primary change agent. When an old apple tree was struck by lightening and came down, we gained a sunny back yard and a much larger vegetable garden. When an ash tree came down, we gained a side yard vegetable garden, solar electric and solar hot air. When the city-owned boulevard trees grew too tall, we lost half of our side yard garden and we lost the ability to plant late season crops.

People are a major change agent. Because I live on a corner lot, my space is vulnerable to theft and I’ve certainly experienced a lot of it. As a poor single mom, it was devastating when my children’s bikes were stolen and the first gift from my husband — a concrete lion for my front stairs – was taken in the middle of the day. We didn’t have the money to replace them, at least not for a long time.

It makes one want to give up. Or get angry – I’m more of an anger person than a giving up person. I continued to invest in the things that would bring us happiness – like a hammock, which I chained to a tree. I invested more in things that went into the ground rather than on top of it, thinking it would not be as attractive to thieves.

That’s only partly true. In 2014, someone stole my boulevard plants the day after I put them in the ground. In 2013, someone stole my entire pepper harvest. That was the worst betrayal.

We hope the right kind of fence will create better boundaries without closing off the opportunity to socialize with our community.

We hope the right kind of fence will create better boundaries without closing off the opportunity to socialize with our community.

I spent a good bit of time trying to figure out how I could both invite the community in and also create a boundary. I wanted to say yes to engagement but also, “Respect my space!” (I’ve since learned of the term creative placemaking, and I am learning more about how people respond to place.)

We decided to install a fence. Several neighbors came by to say they were unhappy to see us putting up a fence. They loved to see the garden. I feel the same way, but when I explained why and that it would not be a privacy fence, they understood. We’ll see if we’ve found the right balance.

Children are major change agents: When they hit their mid teens, our kids had nothing more to say to us so we built a patio and firepit. Every evening my husband would sit by the firepit smoking a pipe (which he no longer does) and the kids would come out to chat. Usually there was no fire. But on weekends their friends would come over and we’d have a fire and maybe do some cooking outdoors or hang out until midnight. This was the most important space and the most important time – words could be spoken.

City regulations are major change agents: Sitting around a fire late into the evening is no longer possible. The city changed its rules about fires in response to air quality concerns. I feel that as a loss, although not such a big loss now that the kids are grown and gone. Sitting around a fire in the evening is a special experience of bonding and social connection and I haven’t found a way yet to creatively respond to that loss.

So here we are at the end of the year and this blog post is ending on a far different note than I expected when I started it. On the face of it, permaculture principle 12 sounds all hopeful and positive, but change often comes from difficult situations and is accompanied by feelings of anger and sadness and loss. How do we deal with that?

I think we go back to permaculture principle 1: We stop. We observe. We interact with the new space and the new reality. Then we take an action – and we wait to see what happens next.

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