Posts Tagged ‘community garden’
In mid-October, I harvested about two-and-a-half gallons of fingerling and red-skinned potatoes. I’d left the potatoes in the ground way too long; rodents had tunneled under the tubers and had eaten many of them—perhaps almost as many as I harvested.
October 23 was the community garden’s “drop dead” date. I received an email at the beginning of October telling me I had to be done with my plots by the 24th; management would mow the plots and plant barley on that date.
I couldn’t get motivated to take things down in the weeks leading up to the 24th. The average first frost date in this area is October 21, but forecasts were for warm days into November.
Unfortunately, I had a chemotherapy session scheduled for Monday, October 17th. The Friday, Saturday, and Sunday after chemo are particularly brutal: my muscles feel as though I’ve been marching for a week without rest, I feel as though I should be sleeping, and my digestive tract is making me guess whether and when access to plumbing might be necessary.
I’ve been trying to establish a new variety of winter squash using seeds I harvested from a hybrid that happened accidentally in my small kitchen garden several years ago. These are the fruits from this year’s effort. Sadly, I believe the discoloration on the skin is black rot. The flesh is still edible, but black rot is systemic meaning it can live in the cells of the plants. Seeds from these fruits are likely to carry the disease, so it would be wrong to share them with other gardeners. I’m afraid disease has made my new squash variety a dead-end.
Nope. I didn’t let chemo dictate my behavior. I’m deadline-oriented, so naturally I waited until the weekend to finish taking down my community garden plots. It was a forced march.
Back on October 10th, I had dug potatoes and harvested squash and sorghum seed heads. Much remained. Tomatoes and peppers were at various stages of ripe, sorghum stalks still stood, canna lily roots still supported leaf and flower stalks, and tomato trellises needed to come down.
My Small Kitchen Garden Falls
On Sunday morning (probably more like early afternoon), I drove to the community garden and dragged myself, painfully slowly, through the remaining tasks. The worst of it was removing tomato trellises.
With hanging string trellises, some 68 7-foot lengths of binder twine hung from a wooden support structure. At home, I’d simply cut the strings off the trellises and let them drop to the ground along with the tomato plants they supported. They’d winter under leaves and rot into the soil through the 2017 growing season (I don’t till the soil).
I harvested about 2 gallons of sweet peppers on October 23rd. I’m afraid they’ve remained in the bag you see in this photo and have experienced many too warm days and several too cold days. I hope to feel well enough this week to work through stuff I harvested on October 23. With luck, I’ll find a few still-usable peppers to put up in the freezer.
At the community garden, it seemed risky to leave the binder’s twine wrapped around the tomato plants. A mower blade would most certainly catch the twine and wrap it around the mower’s drive shaft. I didn’t want to create extra work for someone else, so I untwisted the binder’s twine from the tomato plants… this took more than an hour.
I disassembled the wooden support structure for the hanging string trellises and loaded the wooden stakes into the bed of my pickup truck. Then I harvested the sorghum stalks and loaded them into the truck. Finally, I dug the canna lilies. It felt as though I’d worked for twentyten hours, though it was closer to three.
Tomatoes and peppers would have continued to ripen for another three weeks. It made me sad to have given up on them so early, but rules are rules, and the community garden is an awesome resource—particularly for a gardener challenged by illness. Photos tell the story of my last day of the season when I took down my vegetable garden.
From a package of “Festival Mix” cayenne pepper seeds, a plant produced purple peppers that turned red when fully ripe. Sadly, the plant was laden with under ripe fruits when I had to shut down my community garden plots.
Some of the last tomatoes on my vines this October were the mystery paste tomatoes I acquired years ago from a local gardener. I harvested these along with Roma, Stupice, and a few varieties I couldn’t identify, and left them for three weeks in a bucket on an end table in the living room. Finally, a few days ago, I sorted the rotten tomatoes from the healthy ones. If all goes well, I’ll process the ripe ones this week and serve up the green ones as fried green tomatoes.
The first variety of tomato to ripen in my small kitchen garden was also one of the last to produce viable fruits. I harvested these Stupice tomatoes on October 23 just before I tore down my hanging string tomato trellises.
A theme of this article is that my community garden plots didn’t agree with the mid-October cease-and-desist order. This sorghum seed head makes the point: the seeds aren’t ready! I had already harvested any ripe seeds, but there were many young stalks at various stages of the reproductive cycle.
When I cut the mature sorghum stalks, I discovered emergent shoots; more shoots from each plant than had grown to harvest. This leads me to think that in the tropics, sorghum may be a perennial. Perhaps you can harvest the seeds to make flour or porridge, cut mature stalks to extract sugar, and then wait four months and do the whole thing again.
Another holdout against the cease and desist order: a squash blossom. I believe this flower was on one of my hybrid-derived squash plants, but there were also flowers on the zucchini I had planted back in May! In fact, on October 23, I harvested two beautiful zucchini squashes from six-month-old plants. In past years, I’d started a second planting of zucchini mid-summer after the spring-planted vines had withered.
Despite bacterial disease, aggressive hornworms, and disgusting tomato fruit worms, many of my tomato plants were trying to remain relevant on October 23rd. There were at least a dozen blossoms through the tomato patch, and many buds about to open. Sadly, it all had to make way for the mower and seed-planter. I hope to garden the same two plots next season. I may be grumbling for having been forced off of my normal gardening methods, but it’s all for the good of the soil. I truly appreciate the quality effort with which the county manages its community garden.
That gash of exposed soil was the first planting bed in my community garden plot. Digging up the meadow was, perhaps, easier than digging a new bed in a lawn, but way more work than I wanted to do. In about an hour, I’d turned soil and removed weeds to create a two-foot-wide, 20-foot long planting bed.
When I rented a 30’ by 30’ plot at a community garden this spring, I hoped to work the plot without tilling it. However, as I explained in my last post, Small Kitchen Garden Goes Community, I didn’t get an actual garden plot; I got a meadow.
The no-till approach I had in mind was to bury the entire garden in mulch; I started looking for farmers who had spoiled hay to sell. I had learned from reading the works of Ruth Stout that weeds generally can’t grow up through a six-inch layer of hay—and any that do will eventually give up if you keep piling hay on top.
Building Soil Without Tilling
Soil quality is a huge issue for vegetable gardening. If you start a garden on bad soil, your best course of action is to figure out what the soil lacks and add those things. Usually, there’s tilling involved.
I cleverly followed the curvature of the Earth when I dug my community garden plot’s first bed… The darker blobs of soil are compost I wheeled some 200 yards from the far end of the community garden.
Building decent soil without tilling is a three-or-more-year project (unless you’re rich; you can have perfect soil in a few days if you have enough money). As a no-till gardener with modest resources, you collect autumn leaves, lawn clippings, horse manure, spoiled hay… whatever organic waste people might be anxious to get rid of. This you spread on the soil, and you continue to add more organic matter month-after-month.
Organic stuff closest to the original soil decays into rich loam. As you pile on more organic waste, it also decays. After several seasons, the loam becomes thick and will support many varieties of vegetable plants.
I wasn’t going to wait several seasons! I hadn’t yet planted peas, and spring was moving ahead. I’d have to till.
The Pea Patch
After another hour or more of digging, stirring, mixing, and raking, I’d combined the compost with the loosened soil and smoothed over the bed. It stood in stark contrast to the wild meadow with emerging perennials and last year’s dead grasses.
On April 13th, I cut a planting bed into my meadow. I used a garden fork to lift soil along with plants growing in it, and I removed every plant (now officially “weed”). When I had a two-foot wide row down the middle of my plot, I brought several wheelbarrows of compost from the community compost heap and I mixed it into the soil. Finally, I raked it smooth and planted peas.
This wouldn’t do! Meadow plants surrounded my pea patch, and it was inevitable they’d try to grow into the newly-worked soil. I still planned to smother the weeds with mulch, but the tilled patch would provide an escape hatch especially for weeds that reproduce via rhizomes. I needed a strategy to protect this tilled pea patch from the untilled surrounds. That’ll be the topic of an upcoming post.
In early April, snow had just melted from the community garden; no one had even tried to plant peas on St Patrick’s Day.
In March I researched local community gardens for a newspaper article and found only four such gardens within the newspaper’s coverage area.
One evening I was describing my exploration to my wife and I mused, “Maybe I should rent a plot.” Without hesitation, my wife somewhat threateningly replied, “You better not.” That sealed the deal.
I chose the largest of the area community gardens in part because it’s a stone’s throw from where I teach a class on most Wednesdays. It’d be an easy trip once a week.
This is the package they offered as it looked on paper:
- $10 per year for a 30’ by 30’ plot—that’s more than double the size of the main planting bed where the Small Kitchen Garden blog started.
- A shed full of tools including wheelbarrows, shovels, rakes, hoes, mowers—any tool I’d ever use in a garden
- Heaps of newspapers and cardboard for use as “sheet mulch”
- Running, potable water with hoses that reach every plot
- Heaps of compost and mulch with no apparent restrictions on their use
- A community of gardeners with varied experience and interest working as many as 100 plots
My community garden expectations
One great lure of this particular community garden was its embarrassment of riches: a grand heap of compost sat next to another grand heap – of mulch. These are available to all members for use within their plots, and for maintenance of paths among the plots.
Having visited dozens of community gardens, I imagined a plot like so many I’d seen: rich, loamy soil, loose and ready for planting. I was excited to get started. I’d bring my “no-till” enthusiasm to bear and grow some decent vegetables with minimal effort.
Thing was, my wife had clearly expressed disapproval. I’d have to visit the community garden during business hours while she was at work (she’s a school teacher). What’s more, I’d have to keep up with the gardening at home so she wouldn’t get suspicious about how I spent my time (I had several very large home gardening projects in mind for 2015).
My community garden reality
Winter hung on a long time in 2015 and scheduled events at the community garden didn’t always happen. However, I managed to attend the garden’s first work day on April 11th before I’d been assigned a plot. I spent my time there helping an older new member prepare a half-sized plot for planting.
My first look at my new garden plot left me crestfallen. I had paid to garden in what looked like a mature, though dormant, meadow. A far cry from the manicured, rich-soiled plots I’d seen at so many community gardens, my plot clearly would need at least some tilling to produce the vegetables I wanted it to grow.
Partway through the work day, I got my plot assignment and walked over to have a look. It was kind of depressing: My plot was a meadow. It was a meadow of deep-rooted perennial meadow plants (weeds) in dormancy.
My plot had a three-foot tall rodent fence in place. The former renter had erected the fence to protect tender salad crops from rabbits and woodchucks. I didn’t know at the time I’d get to keep the fence… but I hoped so.
I’d return to my plot a few days later to begin work. I desperately wanted to plant peas which I should have planted, according to a rule of thumb, on March 17th. Lettuce, spinach, carrots, and onions were also on my list for early spring planting, and early spring was almost over. My biggest concern at the time: with all the well-established weeds and the need to plant immediately, it would be hard to manage the plot this season with only no-till methods.
Just inside the gate of Ithaca’s community garden is a planting bed along the base of the fence. Many types of plants were sprouting there; my favorites were potatoes.
Sunshine and 76 degrees! What gardener wouldn’t take advantage of such a day? Except my garden was 130 miles away. I did what I could: visited Ithaca’s community garden.
I’ve visited the community garden several times this spring and had been underwhelmed at how slowly it has gotten started. Few plots had cool weather crops planted back when weather was reliably cool. Now, as temperatures occasionally spike to summer highs, cool weather crops are in and they have a race to win! If June brings hot days, Ithacans may come up short on spinach, lettuce, and peas.
Well… we do what we can. The photos provide an idea of what’s up in Ithaca.
There are patches of lettuce throughout the community garden. The colors in this patch set it apart from the others.
This allotment uses shiny CDs as scarecrows. The CDs hang above a small lettuce patch which I suspect won’t interest birds at all. However, perhaps rabbits and other large rodents have access to the community garden and have some fear of shiny baubles.
Once you’re gotten an allotment at Ithaca’s community garden, you get first dibs on it year-after-year. Some growers plant perennials and this combination is a classic: strawberries and rhubarb. While I encourage gardeners not to let rhubarb flower (flowering stresses the plant), the plants can put on a dramatic show if you let them.
Many years ago I grew a few sage plants from seed. I eventually moved the mature plants from a wooden half barrel container into an herb garden I established at the corner of my house. Those plants died over the 2013-2014 winter… they’d look about like the sage plant in this photo—clearly the product of many years’ growth. The spiky leaves in front are garlic plants started last autumn.
These are two of the prettiest rhubarb plants I’ve seen. They’re growing at the back of an allotment and garlic grows behind them in the adjacent plot.
I watched a small Burmese community work on this allotment about two weeks ago and was surprised now to see all the sprouts so far look like radishes! I learned several Burmese families rent space in the community garden and they often converge on one allotment much as an Amish community assembles to build a barn.
Here’s a pea patch managed by someone who understand peas! Often, people plant just a short row of peas with fairly loose spacing. Here, the gardener planted peas close together—from plant-to-plant within a row, and from row-to-row. As the vines climb the trellises, they’ll create a pea jungle that produces enough peas or pea pods for several meals.
Were I managing a community garden, I would enforce the following rule without mercy: PLANT NO MINT IN THE GROUND. If you grow mint on your allotment, do your neighbors a favor and plant the mint in a container tall enough that the plants never touch the ground. This one would pass inspection. I wrote about mint’s aggressive “conquer all” nature here: Protect Your Garden from Mint.
One allotment at Ithaca’s community garden had a striking row of tulips alongside a stand of mint. I loved to tulips. I wanted to fine the allotment’s owner for planting mint.
This allotment’s owner has a terrific idea: grow more in limited space by going vertical. The containers on this tower contain squash plants—way too many for the space unless they’re compact varieties. I can see a problem if this catches on. Plant skyscrapers may prevent sunlight from reaching plants on the ground… I’d hate to have an allotment neighboring a wall of these structures.
One allotment at Ithaca’s community garden is clearly as much about design as it is about growing food. The owner has fenced the space and created raised beds that spiral in from the gate. All is tidy and well-kept…
This is not a meadow. It’s an allotment at Ithaca’s community garden. Can’t say whether it’s rented and the owner is getting a slow start, or the chives are up for grabs. If you live in Ithaca and you want to grow vegetables, perhaps you’ll find an opening at the community garden.