Another Rain Gauge Photo

rain gaugeWe got almost 3 more inches of rain last night in a noisy, lightning- and hail-filled late night storm. That’s on top of the 7-plus inches last Thursday. The drainage ponds near our house were full, but not over flowing this morning, but several of the bike paths I normally take to downtown were covered with water.  Here’s hoping for a dry week!

Well, We Did Need Rain…

full rain gauge
Yes, it is full -- more than 6 inches!

It’s a bit hard to tell from the photo, but my rain gauge, which holds more than 6 inches is full. Rain started at about 10:30 a.m. and this was taken just after 7 p.m. Gardens are flooded. Hope all are safe.



Covering Up

Bring on the freeze!

My very unofficial thermometer read about 24 degrees F at 7 a.m. today, and there were definite signs of a freeze around the neighborhood. Last night, I covered up my little cherry tree out front in hopes of keeping it a bit warmer against the freeze.

I was surprised how big that tree has gotten! Even using two sheets sown together and an extra queen size sheet, I wasn’t able to cover the entire tree. I plan to leave the ghost covering on through Thursday morning when the freezing night-time temps are predicted to pass.

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like . . .

The holiday decorations are going up around Northfield. Today, I watched (from the cozy confines of the Bittersweet Cafe) as a crew from the Archer House hung a swag of greenery and decorated the window boxes along the railing with greenery, red twig dogwood, dried flowers and bows. Elsewhere, the local beautification crew has filled the planters on Bridge Square with greenery and seasonal decorations as well as the big planter near the Northfield Public Library.

I haven’t put my holiday containers together, yet, but I expect to do it next week, and have already gathered some birch logs and other materials to give it a different look. This birch log snowman is part of the holiday decorations at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.

What will your holiday containers look like this year?



Storm Damage or Garden Opportunity?

Before the storm

My daughters often accuse me of being a pessimist, which may be a natural inclination or a learned trait from my early career as a journalist. Whatever. I can barely contain my joy at the storm damage we incurred this Saturday.

While many of our friends and neighbors lost big trees or faced hours (more than 24 in a few cases) without power, we only dealt with the uprooting of three overgrown sumacs at the back of our yard. I had trimmed these guys back earlier this summer in an attempt to open up the bed they are in, but there is only so much you can do with an overgrown sumac. Did I mention the suckers? These plants send shoots up all over the bed and into the meadow behind it, making sucker pulling one of my most frequent garden chores.

After the storm -- those hostas are now in serious sun!

So, after cutting the dangerous or damaging branches out of the rubble Saturday, I called a local landscaper to have him come to pull out the stumps and  — while he’s at it – take out the overgrown burning bush and lilacs nearby, too. My plan is to just look at this area for a month or so and put some new things in later in the fall. An evergreen might be nice, maybe one with blue needles? Or a weeping variety? How about a smokebush or three? Possibly a serviceberry or another hardy Minnesota shrub?

I’m planning to look long and hard at the borrowed view I get from my neighbor’s beautiful evergreens there, and try to plant something to complement that aspect. My other mantra will be “not too much.” While the temptation is always to put in more plants to make a bed look good right away, I know from experience how quickly plants grow to mature size and how much hassle it is to have plants that are too big for their space.

The prospect of this unexpected garden opportunity has me feeling positively optimistic!

‘Praying Hands’ Hosta and the Minnesotan Who Discovered It

'Praying Hands' hosta has yellow edges and upright, twisted leaves.

On Saturday, I was fortunate to be invited to Knecht’s Nurseries and Landscaping in Northfield for a special visit of the Rochester-based Shades of Green Hosta Society. These dedicated hosta enthusiasts were on a bus tour that included a visit to Leif and Deb Knecht’s garden and a chance to meet Northfield resident Jerry Williams, the man who discovered and named ‘Praying Hands’ hosta, the 2011 Hosta of the Year.

Before his talk, I chatted with Jerry, a delightful almost 84-year-old, and he told me how he discovered ‘Praying Hands’. Hostas are interesting because while breeders have done much to create new hosta cultivars, the plants themselves often put out what are called “sports,” new naturally occurring variations, and much discovery and development of hostas has been done by enthusiastic and knowledgeable amateurs.

Jerry Williams tells the story of 'Praying Hands'

“What’s This?”

Jerry and his late wife Lorraine had a home on Lake Hubert in northern Minnesota, which included almost 3 acres of wooded land and, while they had not been gardeners before, the couple decided to plant the area with hostas. (Eventually they would have about 300 varieties.) Sometime in the late 1980s, they visited a nursery in Pequot Lakes. Mn. At the back of the nursery, Jerry spotted one unusual hosta with bright green, narrow, twisted leaves, edged in yellow. The plant had no tag and when he asked the nursery owner, “What’s this?,” the owner didn’t know. “How much?” Jerry asked. “$3.95.” Sold!

Jerry planted it in his gardens at the lake and tried to find the plant in various hosta references, but it was never listed. Later, he gave a division to each of his two daughters, just to make sure the hosta lived on in case he lost his plant.  As time went on, Jerry became more interested in hostas and in 1994, he took a division of the plant to the Minnesota Hosta Society meeting. He put it down in front of two of Minnesota’s premier hosta experts — the late Ken Anderson and Hideko Gowan. Both said they had never seen the plant and suggested Jerry name it and register it (kind of like a patent for hostas).

Naming a hosta is an important step, since many hosta enthusiasts choose plants based in part on their names. It was Jerry’s eldest daughter who suggested ‘Praying Hands’, saying that the plant’s twisted, upright leaves reminded her of Albrecht Durer’s famous painting of his brother’s hands in prayer. Jerry continued to mostly give the plant away to fellow hosta lovers, but in 1996, one of his friends won first prize at the Midwest Regional Hosta Society Convention with ‘Praying Hands’.

Eventually, the plant came on the market, and its popularity grew, culminating in being named Hosta of the Year, which designates the plant as being not only beautiful, but hardy and reliable.

A few years ago, Jerry’s wife died. He later married her twin sister, Florraine, and they moved to a townhome in Northfield. (They met playing in the St. Olaf College band in the 1940s.) While he does not garden any more, Jerry loves to visit with gardeners and talk about his hosta.

Jerry believes that because the nursery where he found ‘Praying Hands’ carried only common hostas, it’s most likely that ‘Praying Hands’ was a result of bee-pollination, rather than being a natural sport. While there is no way to prove it, Jerry believes the parent plants are most likely Hosta fortuneii aureomarginata and Hosta lancifolia.

That the plant randomly occurred is a delight of nature (and just another reason to love and protect bees), but that it has persisted and now graces so many gardens demonstrates the value of the work and knowledge that enthusiastic amateurs bring to horticulture. As Jerry told me, “Wasn’t it just lucky that I was the one to find it?”

Yes, it certainly was.

Composting on a Grand Scale

See the pile of compost in the image at left? That pile represents all of the food waste from St. Olaf College from a year. Amazing.

I was one of a dozen or so University of Minnesota-Extension Master Gardeners from Rice County who had a chance to tour St. Olaf’s composting facility, its student farm, and its food-service operations last week. We were led by St. Olaf Facilities Director Pete Sandberg and Peter Abrahamson, general manager of the food service and former executive chef at the college.

With about 2,650 students plus faculty, staff and visitors (St. Olaf has a well-deserved reputation as one of the best places in Northfield to eat), the school serves about 32,000 meals a week and generates 700 pounds a day of food waste, including meat, dairy, napkins and other compostibles.  The system that St. Olaf uses to take leftover pizza, hamburger buns and banana peels and turn them into garden gold is efficient, high tech and helps the college in its efforts to reduce its impact on the environment.

OK, not the prettiest picture ever put on this blog, but this is what the food waste looks like as it goes to the composter.

When students return their trays to the college dishwashing area, all the compostibles are collected and ground to a pulp. The liquid is taken out of the waste and every day St. Olaf facilities workers take the pulp out to the compost facility, which is located on St. Olaf land near the Northfield Hospital.

As Pete Sandberg unlocks the door, Peter Abrahamson explains the food to compost cycle. That pile of wood chips provides dry, brown matter to compost with the food waste.

At the facility, the food waste (a green for composting purposes) is mixed with wood chips (a brown), and over the course of 14 to 21 days, it moves slowly through a large composting machine. The interior of the composting facility has what Sandberg called “a barn smell,” but other than that the process is relatively odor-free.

Not quite done. Pete Sandberg shows the Master Gardeners the inside of the composting machine.

After its time in the composter, the mostly finished compost is moved outside to piles. It’s still very hot inside and the composting process continues in these piles, where the compost will sit for several months to a year as it finishes cooking. The facilities workers turn the compost regularly using backhoes to keep the piles going.

Once it is finished cooking, the compost is used all over St. Olaf’s campus — in the flower beds and containers, as well as on the St. Olaf student farm, STOGROW. Bon Apetit, the food services provider at the college, buys all of the vegetables produced at the student farm and uses them in meals during the growing season.

Tomato seedlings at the STGROW farm.

St. Olaf has received national attention for its efforts to reduce its impact on the environment. The school’s composting, farming, and food service programs allow it to “close the circle,” as Abrahamson said, using waste from food to grow more food. While these kinds of systems are not available to home gardeners, increasingly institutions are taking composting seriously and finding better ways to make compost on a grand scale.

For more information on St. Olaf’s composting efforts, check out this video that the college’s PR department put together.