In Praise of the Como Conservatory

Winter Respite imageReaders of this blog know that I am a big fan of the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory at Como Park in St. Paul. During the coldest time of the year, I love to visit the conservatory to soak up the humidity and warmth as well as to admire the exotic plants.It’s a bit like taking a trip to the tropics, without leaving town.

This year happens to be the 100th anniversary of the conservatory at Como Park and so we decided to mark that event with an article in Northern Gardener. I was thrilled to be able to write this piece and show some of my photos of the conservatory. You can read the article online by clicking the image above, or you can see it in the January/February 2015 issue of Northern Gardener.

What’s your favorite way to get through the winter?

Eek! Mice in the Straw-Bale Garden

bale harvest
The bales produced great potatoes and flowers.

With fall coming on so quickly, I’ve finished with the straw-bale gardens for the year. I had good tomato harvests from the bales, and I can see where in certain circumstances bales would be the way to go with vegetables.

The vegetables grew well, were disease-free (one of the biggest benefits of the bales, in my opinion) and had good harvests.

I did have one of the typical problems with my bales, however — mice!

I had one bale in my main vegetable area that I used to grow potatoes. I harvested the spuds early, broke the bale up and used large chunks of the straw to mulch around some of my tomato plants that were sprawling a bit. A part of the bale (not more than 9-by-9-by-6 inches) was left where it had been. A few weeks later, while working in the garden, I saw three mice emerge from the bale. Eeek!!! I dispatched (what a nice, clinical description) two of the mice with a garden fork I happen to be holding and the third scampered off.

bales decompose
The bales insides turn into compost after several months.

That event prompted some aggressive watering of the remaining bales. If you do straw-bale gardening, you must water the bales regularly to keep them growing and to avoid infestations by mice. I watered my bales every day or every other day, depending on rainfall and how hot it was.

With some trepidation, I approached the remaining four bales this weekend to dismantle them and spread the straw around other parts of my garden. Happily, the watering worked, and there were no signs of mice in the four bales that had grown tomatoes and zinnias.

Will I do straw bales next year? Maybe. They work, especially if you want to give your soil a break. I’m also considering using stock tanks with bales inside or with potting soil.

Hanging Tomatoes to Extend the Garden Season

Brandywine ripening
Half-ripe Brandywine tomato

For many northern gardeners, the recent bouts with frost have come too soon. I don’t want to say good-bye to my flowers yet, and I have dozens of green tomatoes still on the vine. When a light frost struck the garden last night, I decided it was time to take action.

The most recent issue of Northern Gardener has an article about ways to stretch the vegetable gardening season. One of the tips was to hang tomato plants upside down to harvest more tomatoes. So, instead of picking each tomato and wrapping it in newspaper, I yanked out several plants by the roots. The article, written by author and blogger Colleen Vanderlinden, suggests hanging the tomato plants in the basement or garage. I was a bit concerned about the mess with that idea, so instead, I hung them on a drying rack we normally use for clothes on our back patio. I’ll cover the rack at night with a blanket or plastic sheet and put it close to the house to keep it cozy.

Hanging tomatoes
Three huge tomato plants hanging from a drying rack in hopes of getting ripe. Not pretty, but I am getting tomatoes to ripen.

According to the article, the tomatoes will ripen gradually and you can pick them over several weeks. Of course, with their roots out of the ground, the plants will eventually shrivel. At that point, I will harvest any remaining fruits and put the rest of the plant in the compost pile. I’ve never heard of this idea before, but it sounds like a great way to extend the vegetable season.

What are you doing to extend the harvest season this year?