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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Permaculture Principle 11: Use Edges and Value the Marginal

Where are the edges in your yard?

  • The edge of the house and the yard? That space has its own microclimate. It is typically protected from wind but may not get enough water.
  • The edge of the yard and the sidewalk? This space has lots of visitors. Plants may need to survive dog urine showers and sidewalk salt.
  • The edge of a yard and a driveway? Snow will be piling up here – up and up. Delicate shrubs may not like getting hit with snow from the plow.
  • The boulevard between the sidewalk and the street? Another microclimate, more challenging soil conditions, more public traffic.
  • The open yard and the side of a fence? Think about shade, protection and structure.
In 2014, we added a side yard fence. Now I can begin adding a shade flower garden within the border of a fence.

In 2014, we added a side yard fence. Now I can begin adding a shade flower garden within the border of a fence.

Edges can be hard places to work with, but they present a lot of interesting opportunity and natural diversity. “Weeds” tend to appear in those places where it’s harder to survive. Is it truly a problem plant? Is it a plant misplaced? Or is it a plant you don’t yet know?

We’ve spent a bit of time in the last two years learning about wild edibles. We attended a foraging class with Charley Underwood through Exco, experimental community education of the Twin Cities. Not only did we learn to identify some of these plants, we got a chance to eat them.

Ilze Mueller has conducted “weed walks” through her community garden with folks from Transition Longfellow.

Friend Elizabeth Blair told us about the Minnesota Mycological Society, which sponsors mushroom walks. Whenever a new mushroom pops up in our yard, she comes over to identify it for us.

When I posted a question about whether my chokecherry tree was the right kind to harvest from – chokecherry or chokeberry, but only one is “edible” – a naturalist who is a member on the Transition Facebook page came to my yard and showed me around it in a whole new way!

Before we judge a being that lives along the edges too harshly, we should try to understand who and what they are and the benefits they bring.

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Permaculture Principle 10: Use and Value Diversity

Efforts are underway in our city to develop more seed saving capacity by training more seed savers. I believe another goal is to grow out seed in our local area so it can acclimatize to changing local conditions.

I was trained in how to segregate tomato plants, document their growth, and save their seeds. I was given 16 plants and I spent the summer worrying about my new babies – the Hugh tomato.

Suppose they didn’t grow? Would this plant be lost for all time?

Diversity is like an insurance policy buffering us against disaster, disease and failure. You never know when we may need the unique qualities of this or that version of a plant. For example, this year I grew four types of tomatoes. Two of them became mushy and split due to inconsistent watering (excess rain and my fault). Two of them did just fine, so I still had tomatoes to eat but not enough to can.

The Hugh Tomato (when not segregated – it develops a peachy hugh when it crosses with red tomatoes)

I am absolutely fascinated by the story of seeds. Each generation of a plant carries forward everything its parents learned about living on the earth – how to deal with wind and water, lots or little nutrients, lots or little sun, an ever increasing amount of carbon. That plant ALSO learns and its seeds carry that knowledge into the next generation. It adapts – sometime better and sometimes worse.

What my Hugh tomatoes learned was how to be tasty! Some of them – the ones that weren’t under protective cover — cross-bred with red tomatoes on the other side of the garden and they were amazingly beautiful, yellow with a blushing pink bottom J. (I didn’t save those seeds for Seed Savers; I kept a few of those.)

Planning for a Diverse Harvest

Winter seed sowing - awaiting the warmth of spring

Winter seed sowing – awaiting the warmth of spring

I’m sure it’s obvious but be sure to plan for early, mid and late season crops so you’ve got something to eat all the time. Transition Longfellow hosts a winter seed sowing workshop every year. We plant early spring crops – spinach, lettuce – in milk cartons and leave them out in the snow. As the weather warms, they grow when they’re ready. By springtime I’ve got 50 little lettuces ready to put in the ground.

And then I inevitably make the mistake of actually putting 50 lettuces in the ground because I’m enthusiastic. It’s a mistake because I can’t use that many at once. I need 10 lettuces in week one … and 10 in week two … and 10 in week three. I need to put in kale and collards, too, not just lettuce. This ensures I’ve got something all summer long and into frost season, and that my garden isn’t overgrown.

I will admit that I don’t worry too much if I find that some of my plants have gone to seed. I harvest lettuce seeds. I’ve had kale and collards regrow from where I left them in the ground the year before. It’s free food.

The garden's marigold border

The garden’s marigold border

Another part of diversity in my garden is planting flowers along with the vegetables. I always have one garden with a marigold border for my husband. My new favorite is borage flowers and I must admit I let them go a bit wild because I love to eat the flowers. We have lots of happy pollinators.

Diversity Can Be Messy

Permaculture values the wild places. They need to be protected. Earlier I wrote about zones. A permaculture design usually includes a ‘zone 5’ area which is left for nature to do as it will. I’ve got spaces in my yard I don’t touch – and spaces I touch only once a year.

When I see a “weed,” I wonder about its potential. Will it put out a pretty flower later if I leave it now? I’ll love it for its qualities – it’s airy and light, it’s pleasantly lobed, it’s functional, it has lovely purple flowers (yeah, you know the one I’m talking about). I’ve often been rewarded by beautiful wild flowers for my efforts – such as the lovely flower of the yellow goat’s beard.

Because my love is in the details, I sometimes overlook the fact that too many of these unexpected visitors will make my garden look unkempt. That’s why it’s good to have an area you can leave to its own devices and love for its many surprises.

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Permaculture Principle 9: Use Small and Slow Solutions

Make the least change for the greatest possible effect. – Bill Mollison

Small and slow systems are easier to maintain than big ones, make better use of local resources, and produce more sustainable outcomes. – David Holmgren

Small and slow solutions will be increasingly important in an energy-constrained future. Large, fast solutions typically use more energy and are more expensive. It may be appropriate to use a lot of energy to set up a system, but in the long run the system should be self-sustaining.

I think an example of a slow solution – maybe the only example I can think of, since I’m bad at doing things slowly – is our raised garden beds. We now have 18 raised beds but we didn’t start there. We started with four.

The latest installation of raised beds

The latest installation of raised beds

They worked well and helped us achieve the goal we were seeking: making it easier for me to keep the garden weeded even when my back was acting up. I quite enjoyed weeding them. I could sit on the edge and reach everything. It takes about 15 minutes to weed one bed. I can easily do three or four in a day.

The next year I added five more. It continued to work well, so in the fall of 2014 we went all out and added nine more. Now we’re done. I hope this investment proves to be, as Bill Mollison would say, appropriately scaled. We’ll know if I can maintain them without feeling overwhelmed.

If I were to do anything differently, it would be that I would not have added more beds until I had figured out the best way to keep them watered. But that’s not a new problem. I’m always struggling with my water setup.

For the Love of Perennials

Perennial plants are the epitome of slow and small solutions. In my garden, rhubarb and raspberry took a bit of time to get established but once they are contented, I do nothing for them but harvest!

I want MORE of these kinds of crops – more sorrel, more asparagus, more horseradish, more dill (evidently I’m not going to have any trouble getting more of those last two). I’m hoping that next year I’ll find that the ground cherries have reseeded themselves.

The Big Picture of Slow Versus Fast Solutions

Soaking and fermenting food takes a few days or weeks before it’s ready to eat but the food then requires no cooking – not fossil fuel inputs for cooking or for storing!

Biking takes more time but is so much more enjoyable than driving. I check out gardens. I can say hi to neighbors. I can observe more of what is going on around me. Because I was biking, I have stopped at small shops in our neighborhood that have become new favorites.

Slow and small has some very big advantages.

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Thinking About Consumption: “Highest Use”

One of the things I’ve been thinking about is whether I am using something for its “highest use ” or “highest purpose” – something like electricity or space or whatever. If what I’m doing is not its highest use (general lighting rather than task lighting, for example) could I avoid using it if there is a negative cost to it (walk through a dimly lit room)? Is there something else I could do?

I recently became aware of the fact that desktop computers use a lot more power than laptops (supposedly), which use more power than tablets and phones. When I turn on my very old desktop computer for some small task, or just to stay connected to Facebook, how much electricity am I actually using? I decided to look it up.

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