Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The year in gardening

The year is almost over, and the reflection virus has been unleashed.  Top ten lists are dominating print and online media--the top ten movies, the top ten news stories, etc.  Regarding the gardening season, I have collected my own data on what has and hasn't worked, and made resolutions for 2009 as I put my community garden plot to bed.  Here are my lists, not in any particular order, with a few links to past posts.

The top 5 successful plants in my plot:
1.  basil
3.  Sungold tomatoes*
4.  eggplant*
5.  California poppies

The top 5 failures:
1.  watermelon* (my daughter really wanted to grow it, but I had my doubts)
3.  fall lettuces* (Bibb and Romaine, planted too late)
4.  the other heirloom tomatoes* I planted (some had ripened but not without rot, catfacing or other problems)
5.  Scarlet Nantes carrots (they had been covered for a while by squash leaves from a neighbor's plot, and I harvested only about a half dozen)

*started in pots by others, and transplanted

Resolutions for 2009:
1.  Provide more supports for tomatoes, especially large varieties like Brandywine.
2.  Contain the strawberries so they don't spread like crazy.
3.  Grow the following:  green beans (haven't head of any Mexican bean beetle infestations lately, and Curtis's crop left me envious), spinach, brussel sprouts, and broccoli (mildly successful in my backyard, would like more).
4.  Skip the following:  peppers (not reliable), carrots (not reliable plus cheap to buy anyway), and some squash varieties that take up too much space.
5.  Start more plants indoors and sow more varieties into the plot, when possible.
6.  Mulch earlier to combat the spread of pigweed and other weeds.  Try to find salt hay before it becomes scarce.
7.  Plug some important gardening reminders into my calendar (such as starting my fall lettuce earlier, from seed).
8.  And finally, keep up the blog.  The exercise in blogging has helped me expand my knowledge of gardening and connect with other gardeners.  Now that I have a better camera (a Christmas present) and some experience, I hope to reach out to more gardeners and deliver more informative and relevant posts.

Happy New Year!  If you have any thoughts or resolutions, please share them.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Keeping it real

If you're like most people celebrating Christmas, you have probably already decorated your Christmas tree.  And perhaps you've also wondered if cutting down a large living plant for the sheer purpose of holiday decoration and tradition, only to dispose of it a few weeks later, makes environmental sense.  Well, you are not alone.

A few years back, artificial trees emerged as a popular renewable choice for millions of consumers.  My parents have been among the many who like the ease of no needle cleanup and a onetime purchase.  Their six-foot high "pine" tree that they bought seven years ago looks natural, is easy to assemble and can be stored in the attic in three garbage bags.  No more watering, shopping each year in the cold, or getting scratches from needles while decorating.

However, the tree growers, threatened by the economic effects of a drop in live tree sales, have struck back.  The National Christmas Tree Association has been educating the public about the evils of fake trees.  They may contain PVC, a source of hazardous lead, as well as toxins that are released when burned.  Also, about 85% of artificial trees are produced in China, sometimes under poor working conditions.  Is using a live tree each year wasteful?  No, because tree farmers plant new trees to replenish their stock.  Many people recycle their trees and in some communities, like Boston, trees left out on trash day during the first two weeks of January will be composted as well (a list of recycling options in many US locations can be found here).

In my house we had pondered the idea of getting a live tree.  After the holidays were over and the decorations off, we would plant the tree either in our backyard, or perhaps the Minton Stable Garden (with permission, of course).  But a live tree should only be brought inside for no longer than 7-10 days, and requires a bit of preparation during a time of year when people are busy enough getting ready for the holidays.

In the end, we continued our tradition of buying a Douglas fir from the lot in Allston where my husband once worked.  In early January, we'll hurl it off our back porch into the yard, where it will sit until the weather is warm enough for the tree to be cut up for firewood or compost or chipped into mulch.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The mail-order assault

It's that time of the year, when the catalogs arrive faster than I can bag them up and put them out for recycling.  L.L. Bean,  J. Crew,  MacMall, Heifer, etc.  Some once a month but many once a week.  These companies seem to have tapped into our throwaway culture and what they perceive as brief attention spans.  The insinuation is that a consumer is not capable of keeping a catalog in a file (like I do) and refer to it when the need arises.

If you're like me, you are wincing in an environmental pain at the arrival of multiple catalogs.  Perhaps you have also registered with Catalog Choice or a similar web site with its one-stop service to opt out of receiving some of the most common and most persistent mail-order assaults.

I finally got around to registering with Catalog Choice about two weeks ago.  However, its noble mission is not without its obstacles.  My first disappointment:  it takes about twelve weeks for a cancellation to take effect.  By then, the holiday shopping season will be long over.  The other:  many of the companies in the Catalog Choice directory have not responded to the service's requests to process their users' cancellation orders.  In most cases, users are instructed to contact the company directly.

I hope that these issues can be resolved, and that opting out of receiving catalogs can be as simple as putting oneself on a "do not call" list.  I believe that consumers will have a favorable opinion of retailers who participate in such a program.

Not all companies' practices are the same.  I am not in the habit of ordering seeds from catalogs, so (to stick to the gardening theme of this blog) I wondered how often they were delivered to regular customers.  My friend Kim, who receives Pinetree as well as others, reported that seed catalogs arrive "once a year, with some exceptions," and that bulb catalogs are delivered twice, before both spring and fall plantings.  I usually buy seeds from stores and nurseries, but I recollect receiving a White Flower Farm (which deals mostly with perennials) catalog only once a year, in time to prepared for spring planting.  And then there's Fedco's, with its long tradition of thoughtful descriptions and carefully cultivated products.

Let's face it; many of us lead busy lives and rely on catalog and online purchases to fulfill holiday expectations. However, most of us need not go far to shop locally and support businesses that add life to our communities.  And I bet those retailers won't barrage us with catalogs, either.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Rolling Stones at the MSG

A month ago, I reported the arrival of the stones for the memorial to John Carroll, who planted the first seeds in our community garden.  The massive granite slabs remained where the forklift had unloaded them, just a few feet from their permanent spaces, because of the lack of appropriate tools and muscle needed for the task.  Until yesterday.  After a group of gardeners finished the work day assignment of loading the last of the garden waste onto a truck to be composted off-site, they directed their mental and physical energies toward finally finishing this installation.

I was not on hand, but with the help of Allan's photos and Stephen's account, I will do my best to enlighten any of you with 1200-pound boulders to move in your future.

Stephen recalls that the team of workers came up with about five different strategies.  All three stones were initially raised using a car jack.  Stephen provided a camera dolly on two pieces of PVC pipe, which was used with sheet metal to roll the first stone into its place.  
To move the second and third stones, the workers channeled the builders of the pyramids of Giza and used materials that Allan had been saving under a tarp all of these years for a day like this. Rails were divised out of two-by-fours, and the stones were winched onto copper pipes and rolled into their spots. A few workers using crowbars helped leverage the stones onto the copper.After about an hour of scheming and sweating, the stones were in their designated locations, and Allan continued to have a justification for keeping all of that stuff in his yard.  And those of us with such a spiritual inclination had reason to believe that John was looking down at this operation with pride, grinning over the collective efforts made by the half-dozen gardeners gathered on this chilly December morning.

Monday, December 1, 2008


Yesterday was the deadline to put our Minton Stable Garden plots to bed.  In the freezing rain, a few drooping perennials appeared to be the only plant life extant.  The patchwork of mostly barren plots served as evidence that gardeners heeded the warnings from the half dozen emails sent out by the Steering Committee this fall--if you don't clear your plots by the 30th, there's a waiting list of wannabe gardeners eager to take over for you.

Gone were the deadbeats of previous years.  I confess to have been among the guilty, leaving the skeletons of sunflowers and hollyhocks drooping into other plots and tomatoes rotting in their rings.  I was putting my plot and others at risk of attracting diseases and pests.  The procedures and rationale for putting a garden to bed can be found here.  

Most people appeared to have pulled out their plants and dug up the soil.  A few people covered their plots with salt hay.  I wondered where they were able to procure this useful material that I had searched for earlier this season.  In any case, it blows my mind to think that just two months before, you couldn't walk through these plots without becoming tangled in greenery.  

Thursday, November 20, 2008

A Trust-worthy cause?

Have you ever seen those special license plates that tout a particular cause?  Quite a few have been spotted around our state; drivers who have bought them have paid an extra fee to support breast cancer, funding the United Way, or even building a miniature Fenway Park for kids.  There are several plates for which the fees go to the Massachusetts Environmental Trust, a funding source for organizations across the state that are interested in protecting water resources.

Today I as well as many other Massachusetts Audubon Society members received an email from Kylee Wilson from the Boston Nature Center introducing the "Land and Water" plate, which features, in addition to the name of the cause, an illustration of a tree that sort of looks like a cedar.  The plate costs $40, plus the $20 Registry of Motor Vehicles plate swap fee.  $28 is a tax-deductible contribution to the Massachusetts Environmental Trust.  But Wilson explained in the email that the Registry will only produce a special plate if 3,000 individuals send a check first.  "If we don't get the 3,000 orders, checks will eventually be returned, the opportunity will be lost, and more land will be paved."

Whoa!  I take it there's a sense of urgency here.  Funding must be tight for many of the grassroots organizations involved with monitoring and restoring natural areas including bodies of water and marshes, educating people about environmental preservation, and (near and dear to my heart) organizing community gardens, among other activities, especially as we enter a recession.  Not to mention that finances are tight for some of us individuals who (like myself) work less than full-time, and may have also gotten a $40 ticket this morning for parking on the wrong side of the street during street cleaning.

If someone from the Boston Nature Center is promoting this plate, I may just consider it, even if it means giving up my endangered discontinued plate with green letters (for example, see the second one here) that I've had for 15 years.  Like community gardens, the BNC is one of the best ways that neglected land in this area has been reclaimed in recent years.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Update on my plot

Just two months earlier, I couldn't see from one side of the MSG to the other; today, it looks almost as bare as it did last March.  Many folks have cleaned up their plots in anticipation of the deadline of November 30, as set in the garden rules.

Earlier last week, as I was turning over the soil in my plot and wedging another 2-by-4 as a temporary measure to rein in the strawberries, Jonathan, another gardener, showed up to dig up his rosemary and bring it inside for the winter.  He was curious about the red clover seeds I was spreading around where my vegetables and zinnias had grown.  I'm experimenting with a ground cover this winter, partly to enhance the soil, but mainly to see if it can combat the seeding and growth of weeds that would impact next year's growing season.

I came back today to snap these photos.  I had left half of my transplanted lettuce plants in an open spot in my perennials area.  Apparently the freezing temperatures we had at least one night the week before did not kill them off.  And though you can't see the thousands of tiny curly hairlike seedlings in this photo, the red clover is starting to germinate.  However, I may clear some of it to make way for some of the 20 bulbs I have just received.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Stony Brook Reservation: A secret for too long

Yesterday I could have continued putting my garden to bed; I've removed all of the dead annuals and started turning over the soil in preparation for planting a red clover ground cover. But I was drawn to another opportunity that the Boston Natural Areas Network (owner and promoter of our community garden) had to offer: a guided tour of the Stony Brook Reservation, the largest open space in the city of Boston. Located in the neighborhoods of West Roxbury and Hyde Park, it is also one of the city's least known and underutilized treasures.

The tour was led by Doug Mink, a member of the BNAN board who is also involved with the recently established Friends of Stony Brook, with help from Dave Furey, a ranger with the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), a Massachusetts state agency. As we entered through a trailhead off of Enneking Parkway, they pointed out a rare sight: the Stony Brook, flowing in full view. This is the same body of water that once coursed above ground through Jamaica Plain, but had to be diverted into underground sewers in the 1930s because of unhealthy living conditions caused by flooding and pollution. The Stony Brook Conduit runs under the Minton Stable Garden property and is the reason our part of Jamaica Plain is called "Stoneybrook."

One of the reasons that the Stony Brook Reservation was developed as a green space is that it sits on granite and puddingstone, so the land could not be farmed. The plants that do thrive include red and black oaks and white pine; the approximately 20 tour participants had to use caution on the walking trails and paved bike paths to avoid slipping on fallen wet leaves and needles. Unfortunately, previous fires have wiped out the blueberries. We did not cover all 12 miles of available trails, but we were exposed to the highlights, including Turtle Pond and Bold Knob, the latter offering a view of the Blue Hills.

Though I've driven through the Reservation on the Turtle Pond and Enneking Parkways for at least ten years, I've only walked or biked the trails a handful of times because of safety concerns. But to our guides' knowledge, there have been no assaults in recent history. Most incidents have involved illegal or accidental fires and drowning in the Turtle Pond, which is surprisingly deep for its size and has a craggy shoreline. And the park's reputation for being a popular spot for activities that are, shall we say, not of a family nature has resulted in the closing of most of the parking lots. But some of us on the tour seemed to agree that locking the gates has been a counter-productive measure, leaving the park more deserted and less inviting.

I hope to bring friends to the Reservation soon; to explore the other sections either on foot, or when the time comes, on cross-country skis.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Word play for the able

Every morning at around 5:00 am, sometimes earlier, John Carroll used to rise and put in several hours tending his gardens here at the site of the former Minton horse stable, then a city-owned vacant lot.  By the time the rest of the neighborhood passed by on their way to the subway, John had often already departed for one of his landscaping or other jobs, but not without leaving a few lines of verse on one of the blackboards nailed up at the two entrances.  In addition to his musings about nature and life, John was known for his love of words.  

The inspiration for a more permanent memorial to the first Minton Stable gardener came from some videotape shot on the day the old barn was razed, in which John contemplated the word "stable."  "Here was a stable," he started.  "Here is the table," he continued, then concluded his lexical dissection with "We are the able."  Each line has been etched into granite slabs that will form a sitting area between the gardens and the children's play area.

I interpret these words as an invitation for people to come together to "the table."  It is up to us to use our strength and unity to bring about positive changes, whether it be to to build a community garden for our neighborhood's enrichment or to elect new leaders who share our values and offer the best plans to address our country's many challenges.

About two months after they were ordered, the stones for the John Carroll memorial were finally delivered on Monday morning.  A group of us, including Jonathan Peet, a former Steering Committee member who worked with John's close friend Stephen McCarthy on the design, watched as a forklift operator lowered the three granite blocks to the ground near their designated spots.  Unfortunately, the operator did not have the appropriate straps that could be used to lower them into their permanent locations.  As he drove off, the people in our group scratched their heads over how best to maneuver the stones, the heaviest estimated to weigh nearly a ton, into the gravel-filled indentations.  One of the most popular ideas involved creating a system of rollers; to my knowledge no attempts have been made yet.

It was one year ago today that we lost a dear friend whose love of peace and gardening changed the landscape of this neighborhood and others in Jamaica Plain for the better.  It is a shame that he was not with us to witness the historic election that has just taken place in our country.  But I am comforted that his words have found a permanent home in the Minton Stable Garden, and will remain there to remind us what we can achieve when we all come to the table.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

No work shortage here

As the coordinator of yesterday's work day at the MSG, Jennifer from the Steering Committee had a variety of tasks to delegate to the participants, including some who were there to have another chance to finish their annual 4-hour work requirement.  An Excel spreadsheet documenting work hours that was sent to gardeners earlier last week revealed that over 20 plot holders have fallen short in their duties.  But there was no shortage of items on Jennifer's checklist.  Overflowing compost containers needed to be dealt with; some of them bore signs declaring that they were "closed," while volunteers were piling excess garden waste onto a tarp, I assume to be picked up with other yard waste on trash day or brought to some other location.  Last year around this time, the containers were so full, often a result of everyone pulling out their annual plants and weeds as they put their gardens to bed, that they were removed, and everyone had to carry out their garden waste.    

Some other workers were digging around trees that had been planted after the garden was rebuilt in 2004, because the roots were not at a healthy depth.  I agreed to mow the grass in the dog area; as pleasant as it was to work in the shade, I found out the hard way that not everyone had been cleaning up after their pets.

And, like at a previous work day, more native plants were put in.  In some cases, making room for them can be irritating.  Curtis was wearing thick rubber gloves to remove stinging nettles, which have making inroads from their usual location along the fences, where they are usually kept at bay through mowing.  That would not have been my first choice of work day task, but Curtis didn't mind, as he appreciates the plant's medicinal qualities.  I've spoken to a few gardeners over the years who swear by nettles, not for the medieval practice of whipping patients with paralysis, but for making a tea from the dried leaves to treat infections, pain, hay fever, and other conditions.

Over by the children's play area, on the way to the Williams Street entrance, holes were being dug and leveled with gravel to make way for a memorial to John Carroll, the first person to garden on the lot.  He passed away nearly one year ago, but not without having a chance to witness much of the work that had been put in to preserve the beauty and function of this area, for both gardeners and non-gardeners.

Friday, October 31, 2008

A swift demise

I have been meaning to get back to my plot with my camera after stopping by Tuesday afternoon.  What a difference a killing frost makes.  Most of the annual plants in my plot are showing the effects of rigor mortis.  I thought the wind had blown a dead tree branch into the plot; upon closer inspection I discovered it was my eggplant, which had been bearing enough to feed a family the week before, now brown and lying horizontally across my still-proliferating strawberry plants.  There was a stark contrast between the dead and the living.  My lettuce, though stunted, remained crispy and supermarket green while my green peppers, zinnias, and others appeared to have been sprayed with the same can of greenish-brown paint.  All of the color had been leached out of my zinnias.  A graveyard of skeletons,  just in time for Halloween.

I suppose that leaving the camera at home forces me to write more descriptively.  In any case, I just wanted to acknowledge these passings before they are really old news.  There will be more to write about over the next few days: a work day has been added tomorrow and the stones for the John Carroll memorial will be arriving soon.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Smart, but not smart enough

"It's called smartweed," John Carroll told me one day while I was helping him maintain one of the flower beds he had planted in the old Minton Stable Garden.  It earned that name, he explained, because it is smart enough to take on the appearance of a flower that one might grow on purpose.  With its greenish-pink brush-like flowers and long tapered leaves, it does seem too attractive to pull, especially when it adds some color to a fading fall garden.

But don't be fooled.  It may not strangle plant stems like bindweed does, but smartweed can still be invasive.  Known by its scientific name of polygonum hydropiper, there are two main types of smartweed: aquatic and terrestrial.  I've been encountering the terrestrial smartweed not only in my MSG plot, but also in my gardens at home, as you can see in a neglected flower bed next to my house (perhaps posting this photo will shame me into leaving my perch at the Ula Cafe to go home and weed, now that the rain has cleared).  

I could place a plastic bag over the smartweed before pulling it; that would greatly reduce the possible spreading of some of the 3000 seeds or more that the plant produces.  But I could also harvest it for medicinal purposes, to treat a variety of illnesses from common colds to cholera. 

I doubt that I will take either of these measures.  As I do every year, I'll just pull the smartweed out by the roots and admire its pretty pink flowers as I chuck them in with the other yard waste. 

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Annuals or Perennials?

Some time ago, some gardeners gave a friend of mine a bumper sticker that read something like, "Friends don't let friends plant annuals."  The obvious message is that growing perennials is morally superior.  I wondered if there was much of a polarization among gardeners over this issue, some analogy such as "annuals are to native perennials as genetically modified food is to locally-grown organic food."  In fact, on a large scale, there is some research indicating that annual cropping systems have a negative effect on soil quality and water use.  But when it comes to which flowers to plant in individual and community gardens, those who defend their preferences have different points to make.

Though annuals complete their life cycle in one growing season, some gardeners prefer their longer and sometimes more abundant blooming period.  They can be grown easily in containers and baskets, an advantage to those short on land.  Another point made in a forum I found is that a gardener can plant different flowers in different places from year to year, with ease.

I recently received a comment by a gardener who called herself "lazy" because of her leaning toward perennials, which live for more than a year and therefore do not require replanting.  If you don't plant your flowers from seed, perennials can be cheaper in the long run for that reason, though they are more expensive than annuals when first purchased.  Perennials can also be divided to give to friends and plant in other places.  As one commenter in the forum stated, "It's like having a garden centre in your own yard."

Many gardeners like the challenge of growing the right combination of perennials so there is always something in bloom throughout the season.  These folks may not only regard annuals as "too easy," but find some of their gaudy colors unnatural in fitting with the native landscape. 

Which do you prefer?  I think that many people prefer a combination of the two types.  If they are like me, they have a few favorite annuals, like zinnias and nasturtiums, and might throw a few others in a garden if nothing else is in bloom.  But in times of laziness there is still something that will come up.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Water woes

During this past week anyone in the Minton Stable Garden hoping to give their plants a good soaking were left high and dry.  No water was coming out of the spigots.  I tried moving the recently-installed diverters each way after turning on the water; still no luck.  I came to the obvious conclusion that the water had been shut off, and contacted a steering committee member to find out why.  He said he wasn't sure if Boston Water and Sewer had also shut off the water, but he had turned off the spigot valve closest to Gartland Street because that particular one was difficult to use.  

Whatever the case may be, hopefully the water is back flowing again, and as I write this in another state, the last garden work day of the season (scheduled for today) went off without a hitch.  The main task involved planting the communal raspberry patch that I'm sure would have needed a decent watering once finished.

Okay, now to annoy the newcomers again with another "I remember when..." story.  Before the garden was redesigned and became "official," there was no water source, so we had to haul in our own water.  My husband and I used to have a cat, so I'd fill about four plastic kitty-litter jugs (about 3-5 gallons each) and shuttle them down Williams Street in a wheelbarrow.  Someone had acquired a few rain barrels, so once in a while Allan or some other abutter would run a few connected hoses from his house.  We'd have to cover the barrels to avoid breeding mosquitoes.  

You can imagine how luxurious it first felt to be able to turn on a tap on the premises.  Now, just like the way people get used to having a washing machine, the inconvenience of having that feature taken away feels doubly oppressive.  

But even with running water, on some days I would remove the sprayer from the hose and fill the watering can a few times, usually because it's a pain to drag the hose to my plot then recoil it, but also in the interest of water conservation.  With the watering can I can direct the water toward the roots, and less water is wasted by evaporating off the leaves.  However, I am never sure that I am giving my plants enough water, and I'm too lazy to find out how much is needed.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

In praise of zinnias

"Like an/Autumn flower/In the frozen rain," Langston Hughes described an old woman in the poem "Troubled Woman."  I think the flower he referring to was a late-season zinnia, one of the fall's last signs of color.  Sure, they are not alone at this point--some nasturtiums, marigolds, and phlox are also floral holdouts, but I visualize the zinnia because of the way it ages so gracefully, the color of the blooms still faded but beautiful.  Their stems stand with dignity until it's time to give in the the fall chill.

I've been planting zinnias since I was a child, probably for the same reasons all along: they're easy to grow and almost always a success (except for the one year I planted old seeds).  A few seeds in May, a little water and full sun and by late July you have a colorful reward.  Although I've leaned more toward perennials in recent years, I still can't give up that 3 by 4 foot patch.  During the peak of their blooming season, a bouquet can last for a week.  Zinnias are still there for me after I've deadheaded and cut down every other flower around them; they stand guard and distract the eye from the tangle of vegetable plants that I know I need to clear out, soon.

First believed to have been cultivated in Austria in 1613, zinnias have been selectively bred since the 19th century.  The annual plant as we know it has its origins in the southwestern US, Mexico, and Central America, so their love of sun should come as no surprise.  I find them growing in about at least a dozen of the 40+ plots at the Minton Stable Garden.  They might look a little garish next to native perennials, but in a plot of mostly vegetables they add a colorful contrast.  

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Genetic freakshow

It's October, and I guess this is the point in time when I should be posting pumpkin photos. However, the one pumpkin I found growing in the MSG has already been harvested.  Also, while my daughter and I spent a few hours at the Topsfield Fair last night, we were too busy riding elephants and ferris wheels and watching Canadian mounties parade their horses in formation that we never made it to the pumpkins.  If we did, we still would not have caught a glimpse of history in the making; as you may have already seen or read in the news, a farmer from Sharon (located about an hour south of Boston) has been growing the world's largest pumpkin.  Latest reports have it weighing in at 1,878 pounds and gaining 11 pounds a day.  Tomorrow in Warren, Massachusetts, there will be a competition during which the broken record will become official.

What's the secret to an enormous pumpkin?  Well, obviously you need to start with a genetic seed.  In this case Steve Connolly used Atlantic Giant seeds originally patented by a Nova Scotia farmer, and kept it thriving on a diet that included North American kelp, cow manure, maple leaf compost, and fish fertilizer.  Growing these megapumpkins has become quite the sport these days; I wouldn't be surprised if a new record of over a ton will be established next year.

I feel a little sorry for these plants, even if they have no brains.  They sort of remind me of child models and athletes that have been cultivated and paraded around, unable to live a normal life.  What happens to a pumpkin that size when it dies?  Does this variety taste good enough for pie?  Could you start your own roasted seed business?  You couldn't just put in in the compost, you would need to cut it up so it could fit into several bins, or just dump it in the trash.  Maybe Connolly will preserve his just like someone would stuff an animal.

If genetic engineering could produce something of such an unnatural size, I wonder what's next.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Last chance

So this is it, according to my husband who was listening to the weather forecast this morning.  He called me from his car and told me to get the rest of the basil out, as tonight's temperature will plunge into the 30s and a frost has been predicted for Northeastern areas as far south as Connecticut.  Since he's in New York I guess that will be my job.  There's not much left in our plot but we have some in planters out back.  A friend of mine suggested drying it in the oven, but some believe that freezing it with a little oil will better preserve its flavor.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Don't just sit there!

Fall--a time for birthday parties, open studios, apple picking, the Roslindale Parade, etc. and after shivering for a few hours in the fall chill, lounging on the couch under a blanket, coffee and Sunday paper within reach, checking the foliage status of the maple across the street...gardening is over, right?  Of course not.  

But like the cleanup at the end of a party, it must be done.  I guess that would really happen in November, so October is like that period where you start shutting off the music and yawning in front of your guests, telling how great it was to see them, and making sure everyone has a ride home.

October is one of the busiest months of the year, especially when it comes to the planting of trees, shrubs, and bulbs, as well as dividing and transplanting perennials, composting, and protecting some plants from the winter elements.  With the exception of a raspberry plant I brought home from the Perennial Divide, most of my transplanting involves moving around a few perennials at home.  

In my Minton Stable plot, I'll keep my lettuce and carrots watered, cut back spent perennials, and pull out and compost the tomato plants.  I'll try to get around to harvesting the basil before it's too late; most of it's out already.  I'll keep the zinnias blooming and, as much as I know there won't be a harvest, I can't bring myself to pull out the peppers and eggplant until next month.  According to the community garden rules, the plots must be cleaned out by November 30, so I have time.  If I lived a little farther north, in Zone 7, covering the strawberries would be a good idea.  I did nothing to protect them last year and they still proliferated.

I'll think about a winter cover plant that would enhance the soil, such as winter rye, which my husband swears by but is hard to find.  I'd be curious to know what other gardeners are planting.

Okay, it's Monday, the sun is out, so it's time to stop procrastinating.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

But do they garden?

Tonight some of my friends are coming over to watch the first and only VP debate.  During this time of anxious uncertainty over who could be a heartbeat from the presidency, I can understand why they are spending more time at political blogs such as the Daily Kos than here.  But having witnessed enough lunacy, we have pretty much decided who will get our votes anyway.  So why not explore another angle--where do these candidates stand on their gardening philosophies and practices?

An internet search for answers revealed little.  One search using the words "Sarah Palin organic gardening" uncovered a page from the Huffington Post that addresses organic gardening but not Palin--the reason it came up in my results was that on the same page there was a link to a poll that asks "Is Sarah Palin's lipliner a tattoo?"  I could not find any evidence that Joe Biden gardened either, though a gardener dedicated her blog post to her positive interactions with the lawmaker.

Perhaps a career in politics leaves little time for gardening.  So instead consider some of their positions on the environment.  We've all heard that Palin supports drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; Biden opposes it.  Another noteworthy observation is that the Humane Society has agreed with 80% of Biden's positions, and that he had advocated for more compliance with mercury regulations as well as an increase in cleanup of this dangerous substance.  

Whoever we elect for #1 and #2 should appreciate the importance of gardening for many of us, and the advantages shifting the emphasis more toward locally grown food.   They wouldn't be the first executives to consider it, as this video shows.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

First carrot

As I mentioned in a previous post, I try to wait until I see the top of the carrot peeking out of the soil before harvesting it.  This year, my attempts to grow some of the "Scarlet Nantes" variety by seed were hampered earlier in the summer when squash plants from a neighboring plot shaded them out.  After the responsible gardener contained the leaves of those plants, the surviving carrots flourished.  There are only about a half dozen, but that's a significant improvement over the "Long Imperator" variety that failed to come up last year.  As you can see from this photo, (borrowing Hanna's practice of using a quarter for perspective), I think I should leave the remaining carrots in the soil for a little while longer.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Living up to its potential

The drenching rains are back, though more welcome this time; things were getting pretty dry around here.  At least it's not raw, and I can postpone harvesting the rest of the basil for a few more days.  So I will pull something out from my rainy day topics.  Earlier this month, on the day of the barbecue, Allan was playing with one of his new toys he discovered during a housecleaning: a pH meter.  He stuck the needle in various plots in the MSG to measure pH levels in the soil.  

Until that day, I had never given pH levels much attention.  Science not being one of my favorite subjects, I did not know that pH meant "potential for hydrogen," and that it was the measure of a soil's acidity or alkalinity.   Nor did I know that it was measured on a scale of 0-14, and that a pH reading above 7.0 was considered alkaline and below 7.0 was acidic.  Not to mention that the pH scale is logarithmic, meaning that a pH of 6 is 10 times more acidic than a pH of 7.  

Now, if you are still awake, let me get to my point.  The pH level of the soil in most parts of my plot was around 6.8.  This is within the optimal range for growing vegetables, at least what I've been growing.  Interestingly, the reading in the compost pile was 5.5, which is more acidic, yet still within the range.  Being the lazy gardener that I am, it's nice to know that I don't need to make adjustments!  Why should pH matter?  Because when a level is not in the optimal range, it adversely affects the way plants can use the nutrients in the soil.  A more thorough explanation of pH and how it impacts the soil can be found here.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Update on my plot

It appears that the major frost around here has not occurred.  Nevertheless, I harvested about half of my basil last Friday and made two batches of pesto.  I may have a little bit of time left, maybe a week, before I need to pull out the rest of the basil.  No such urgency is necessary for the few carrots growing nearby; I'd like to wait until I can see the orange peeking out of the dirt at the base of the plant.  We'll see what contorted shapes have developed, though the soil this year hasn't been that rocky.  In years past some of the carrots appeared to have developed legs and even an arm or two before being pulled.

I've plunked down $3.19 a flat at Allandale Farm in an effort to achieve what I've failed to accomplish by seed--a fall lettuce harvest.   The seedlings have been tucked away in unclaimed sunny corners, wherever the strawberry plants and the black-eyed susans haven't taken over.

One sunflower snapped over after a rainstorm in early September and I felled the other last week because it had stopped blooming.  Now my zinnias have better access to sunlight.  As long as the multicolored blooms keep popping open, I can handle the slow death and decline of my garden as the cold breezes and other sensations of fall become harder to ignore.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Get them out

Here are some perennials from my backyard that I'm planning to bring this Saturday to the Perennial Divide, a Boston Natural Areas Network event that takes place each spring and fall at the City Natives nursery and community garden in Mattapan (another Boston neighborhood).  My understanding is that you can take away as many plants as you put into this swap.  I've brought home columbine and spider plants in past years, but this year I hope to be more strategic.  So far I've divided and dug up a couple of Japanese ferns (one I plan to give to a friend), a more native variety of fern, a hosta, a pulmonaria, and a lily of the valley.  And maybe I'll put a little more thought into what I should take away.  My long-term plans for the MSG plot involve increasing space to grow more vegetables and maybe a few raspberries, so I'll probably focus on a greater variety of shade-dwelling plants for my backyard.

If you are trying to build gardens on a budget, getting donated plants divided by friends and family is the way to go.  Prices vary, but a japanese fern can cost around 12 bucks, and hostas can range from a few to 20 dollars a plant.  I don't think I've ever bought a hosta or a white nancy, and, ironically, the bee balm and echinacea plants that my friends and mom have divided for me have survived much longer than the plants I've bought from a nursery (although transplanting the latter during a July heat wave probably didn't help).

While on the subject of getting plants out of the ground, I'm wondering if I should pull up the basil sooner rather than later.  Forecasts indicate that we might be getting a frost this weekend, though it seems more likely for northern New England.  Some friends of mine on the Cape made their pesto last month; they attest that if you wait longer, basil that has been exposed to colder temperatures at night taste "like silage."  I wonder how they'd like the pesto I made in October 2007 that's still in the freezer.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Return of the Raspberries

Today's community garden work day was productive.  Having glanced at the sign-in sheet, it appeared that at least 20 gardeners and wannabe gardeners showed up.  Having gotten to know several people in the latter group over the summer, I hope that they'll get off the waiting list soon.  Then next spring they can get their hands dirty on a more regular basis and channel some of that community involvement they have displayed into a rewarding gardening experience.  And we'll see them more often.

Usually we spend our work days pulling plants out of the ground.  There was still a bit of that to be done today.  I was assigned the task of pulling out whatever burdock I could find in the common areas.  I did my best to dislodge the noxious weed's stubborn roots, but I cannot claim victory.  I wouldn't be surprised if we had to repeat this task at the October work day.

However, most of the participants were busy putting plants in the ground, including asters and goldenrod, native plants that are coming into their peak of beauty at this time of year.  But the initiative that is exciting me the most involves something sweeter.

One of my favorite features of the old Minton Stable Garden was the cluster of raspberry plants located near the back fence.  They were believed to have been planted by John Carroll, and anyone was welcome to feast on them.  When the site was razed to make way for the new garden design, those plants disappeared.  

Not far from the original patch, a new area (see photo) was dug up today and fortified with compost.  Gardeners will be urged to dig up and plant their excess raspberry bushes in the new plot so everyone can enjoy them for years to come.  I wish I had some plants to divide!  But I'm looking forward to the return of this MSG feature.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Successful September gathering

As anticipated, tropical storm Hanna soaked the Boston area, postponing our late-summer Minton Stable Garden/Stoneybrook Neighborhood Association potluck barbecue until Sunday, September 7.  This turn of events worked in my favor as all of my family could attend.  Moreover, the stable weather (clearing and in the 70s) ensured a successful turnout.

I arrived at the MSG about an hour before, to put in a little plot maintenance.  In the shady grassy area near the corner of Williams Street and Dungarven Road a 4-year-old's birthday party was in full swing.  Then a rented trolley pulled up, and Valerie Burns, President of the Boston Natural Areas Network, gave a group of supporters a tour of the garden (see bottom photo).  

About a dozen or more volunteers showed up around 4:00 to help set up for the barbecue.  A new twist to the event was the idea that people should wear name tags, and many of the early participants, including myself, complied.  It seemed to some of us that the name tags made it easier to strike up conversations with people we may not have spoken to otherwise.

Within an hour the elements of a successful event were in place: lots of people, side dishes like pasta salads, tomato salads, rice, tabouleh, and corn bread, plenty to drink and chicken, sausages, and hot dogs coming off the three grills (thanks to Annette, Curtis, John L. and others).  

The only detour from the party was a scheduled portrait of the gardeners taken by Jennifer from the Steering Committee.  The photo of us in front of the garden shed will be presented to the New England Grassroots Environmental Foundation as a thanks for their help with its construction.  The photo at the top of this post shows us assembling (I am still mystified over why I can't place photos in the right location!).

It was great to catch up with some folks I haven't seen all summer and to watch Mitchell (by far the oldest kid in the neighborhood) entertain us with his remote-control helicopter.  I hope to see them again around the garden a few more times as we try to squeeze out what's left of the summer.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

One Hanna that's welcome

With tropical storm Hanna heading up the Northeast coast, many of us at the Minton Stable Garden are wondering if we will still have the potluck barbecue that is scheduled for this afternoon starting at 4:30.  Today I'd like to acknowledge a different Hanna.  For the past two years Hanna Rhoades has maintained an excellent blog, This Garden is Illegal.  If you'd like to check out other gardening blogs, you can click here for an extensive list (which now includes "My Dirt") and search the blogs for content by key word.  

For the last two weeks Hanna has been reporting on her tomato tastings.  She has taken a thorough multisensory approach to her harvest, judging not only taste, but texture, appearance, and her thoughts on how best to cook and eat each variety.  This is one gardener's perspective, of course, but considering her passion and experience, it's a perspective one might want to consider when choosing which tomatoes to grow next year. 

Friday, September 5, 2008

What to do with tomatoes, part 1

The wait is over.  Now you have more tomatoes than you can handle.  They are rotting on your windowsills and in your refrigerator.  Friends and acquaintances run away when they see you approach with a bulging bag.  You've resorted to the anonymous act of leaving them on a table in the staff lunchroom or beside the road with a sign that reads, "Take me, please!"  What a shame to reach that point, after all of the labor that went towards fruition.  How can we ensure that no tomatoes go to waste?

Actually, that's not my predicament this year.  I've only grown a few plants with mixed results, with a staggered harvest bearing enough for sandwiches and salads, but not enough for my favorite salsa recipe from the Horn of the Moon cookbook.  

More fortunate gardeners can make tomato sauce.  Below is an easy recipe that my mom uses.  She said, "I found this recipe in the [New York] Times years ago and it was great to be liberated from the tedious task of dousing the tomatoes in boiling water to peel them."

Thick Tomato Sauce

1 large onion
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 lbs. fresh tomatoes
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1/4 cup minced fresh basil
1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
fresh ground black pepper to taste

1.  Peel the onion and cut in half, then slice very thinly.
2.  Heat olive oil in cast iron skillet.  Add the onion and cook until soft but not brown, about 10 minutes.  
3.  Do not peel the tomatoes; simply cut them into small pieces, removing stem, sockets, and blemishes.
4.  Add tomatoes, garlic, basil, parsley, sugar, salt, and pepper to the onions.  Cook over low to medium heat for 30 minutes or until the mixture is thick.
5.  Puree in a food mill or food processor.

She freezes the sauce in plastic cups, removes the molds and keeps the sauce in freezer bags, and thaws out the cups as she needs them.  

If I can't escape those tomato donors, I now have one more idea in my repertoire. 

Monday, September 1, 2008

Mixed signals

Earlier this evening on my way to the hose, I came across this odd sign.

Excuse me for coming off as an Anglocentric knucklehead, but is this the international symbol for "no children allowed?"  Traditionally that message has been depicted by a bar across two children running. What's up with the circle around the kid's head?  If this child is an angel who lets a parent hold his/her hand, then what is the problem?

Perhaps these gardeners have had issues with toddlers not respecting plot boundaries while their parents have their backs turned.  I have seen that happen but not too often.  I'm just curious to know if any youngsters who are too young to read have encountered this sign and successfully interpreted it.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Brief moment of community

For the first time in a few weeks, I ran into a fellow gardener at the MSG.  Why did it take so long?  Perhaps because of vacations and a schedule that keeps me away from the garden after 5:30-6:00, when most people are out.  I'm not alone in this predicament, I suppose.  This gardener missed the last work night as well, and at this moment she is probably preoccupied as she begins her final six weeks of pregnancy.

I complimented her on her corn (which I had photographed a few entries back); she complained about the size of the ears.  I lamented my lack of fruit on my pepper plants; she said that growing peppers was so frustrating that she had given it up.  We both agreed that the harvest this year has not been up to regular standards.

Then we went about our regular business.  When I brought over a wheelbarrow to collect weeds, she asked if she could add hers to the pile.  When she finished watering her plot, I took the hose from her to water mine.  She emptied all the weeds into the compost and I coiled the hose.

I like to think of these shared efforts as small gestures toward community.  It's something I have experienced in past seasons, though this year has fallen short.  I hope that the upcoming barbecue (a week from today). the next two work days, and a lighter evening schedule this fall  bring more opportunities for face time with fellow gardeners.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The sandwich days

With the tomato harvest, this is the time of year to really enjoy sandwiches--BLT, mozzarella and basil, etc.  The new twist to this tradition for me is the variety of an important ingredient.

This past June, I was about to head over to one of the nurseries on American Legion Highway to pick up a flat of something safe, perhaps Big Boy or Early Girl.  Then some friends supplied me with some heirloom seedlings they had started.  As I hastily stuck them in the ground so I could return to the stressful demands of my day job, a few of the labels fell off, so I'm not completely sure if I can identify them all correctly now.

Just what is an heirloom tomato anyway?  Definitions vary, but an heirloom is basically an open-pollinated cultivated plant, not a hybrid, grown from seeds that are at least 50 years old.  The plants, known as cultivars, have not been genetically modified, but saved and handed down over generations.

One of my plants is a Brandywine, one of the most popular heirlooms.  I picked a couple yesterday but after a little research, I am curious to get back to my plot and inspect the leaves.  It turns out that this variety has a distinctive potato leaf, and in his book A Celebration of Heirloom Vegetables, Roger Yepsen warns that if your Brandywine plants display ordinary foliage, they risk cross-pollination, so pull them in order to preserve the genetic background.

I must admit that I don't practice that level of dedication.  After all, I didn't even start these tomatoes from seed.  But as I bite into my sandwiches, I appreciate the efforts of gardeners to preserve the over 400 varieties of heirloom tomatoes.  They're a little more high-maintenance and fragile compared to those hybrids I've grown in the past, not to mention too heavy to stay staked up using traditional metal rings.  But the rich taste, non-rubbery texture, and beauty of the fruits make it all worth it.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Doing our part

I returned today to the garden after a week-long absence to pick a few tomatoes and a bouquet.  Also to survey the results of last Thursday's work evening.  It's been my unfortunate luck that I have missed the last three work days, due to vacation plans, a course that meets Wednesday nights, and a crunch time at work.  Luckily, my husband Steve and I had the foresight to sign up for mowing, a monumental task that we never quite completed, even after fulfilling the annual 4 work hours required and then some.  The much-touted riding mower was awaiting parts, so we had to switch off using the one operational gas-powered push mower and our electric mower.  It was a struggle to tame the overgrown grass, constantly wet from the intermittent July rains.  Still, I would still recommend signing up to mow to any gardener who has had difficulty making it to the work events.  It's not unusual for plot holders to find that September has arrived and they are an hour or two shy of meeting their work requirement.

The July work evening was nearly rained out, but without having heard a report, I could tell that last week's was much more productive.  Most of the various trees and other native plantings in the area at the corner of Williams Street and Dungarven Road are no longer choked by weeds, and the length of the grass no longer inhibits anyone from walking right up to them.  Also, many gardeners heeded the call to weed the section of path adjacent to their plots, so in general the place is now "under control," though thankfully (in my opinion) not too manicured and sterile.

In a neighborhood as diverse at Stoneybrook, there are always bound to be different standards for how neat and tidy a community garden should be.  What some might regard as the natural beauty of native plants might be seen by others as a bunch of tick-harboring weeds.  In meetings there has been much debate over how much should be allowed to remain wild. Another related issue concerns what should be allowed to exist on the property.  I remember the controversy over some wood preserved after the demolition of the old Minton Stable barn back in the mid-1990s.  Some gardeners had grand plans for the 10-inch southern yellow pine planks to be used to build a shed, while others saw the wood pile as an eyesore.  The boards became punky and eventually had to be removed.

My general feeling is that a border of native plantings provides a needed buffer between the property and the street and abutters, and is also important for attracting butterflies, birds, and other wildlife.  However, during my mowing last month as I encountered asters, black-eyed susans and other plants running rampant, I was unsure of where that line should be drawn.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Lazy days of summer

Just left a vacation destination with no Internet access--good for me because I needed a break, but not necessarily for the blog.  Can't wait to get back into the garden tomorrow; rumor has it that the tomatoes have been coming fast.  We'll see.  In the meantime, I'll leave you with a few photos from the MSG taken before my trip, back around August 11, if I remember correctly.  

Saturday, August 16, 2008

11 years ago today...

I had promised a little bit of history in this blog, so here it is.  Not a milestone in the development of the Minton Stable Garden, but a bit of personal history, a brief summary of an important life event.  Brief because I'm about to head out on another vacation, but worth mentioning.

Stephen and I met nearly 16 years ago in what is now one of the play areas of the garden, during a yard sale in which the proceeds helped a neighbor who was recovering from an accident.  I was selling, he was shopping, also toting around a video camera as he was documenting the evolution of the then-vacant lot.  We had a mutual friend, John Carroll, who was plowing ahead with the first gardens.

So about four years later when we got engaged, I retrieved an odd idea floating around in my head--that we would tie the knot in the community gardens.  Stephen agreed enthusiastically, and in the same manner in which one would procure a fire permit for a neighborhood barbecue, he contacted then-city councillor Maura Hennigan for approval for our wedding.  What better and more appropriate place could there be, especially in August when the garden was teeming with life?  Not to mention the ease of the setup--all we had to do was rent chairs from Interstate, and we were good to go.

Up until August 16, 1997, the weather had been quite pleasant, with many days in the 70s.  But that weekend, the temperatures spiked into the mid-90s.  "At least it didn't rain," my mom said, but half of our chairs sat empty as a good number of our 100+ guests watched former city councillor Rosaria Salerno (serving as justice of the peace) pronounce us husband and wife from whatever patch of shade they could find.  While we sweated it out some more for pictures between the wedding and the reception, many guests sought the air-conditioned refuge of Doyle's.  The heat continued through our reception, which was held at Eliot Hall, home of the Footlight Club community theater.  As our attempts to bring air conditioning to that historic building failed, we could see why no shows were run in the summer.

All in all, it was a beautiful ceremony that featured readings by my brother Will, our friend Linda Enerson, and John Carroll, who recited ee cummings's poem "i thank you god for most this amazing."  Stephen's uncle Monseigneur O'Sullivan delivered the benediction.  If you asked most of our guests what they remember about that day, they would probably say, "It was hot."  But we couldn't imagine getting married any other way.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Lead in the garden?

"Lead may lurk in backyard gardens" read a headline in Monday's Boston Globe.  As more and more city residents turn to gardening to help defray rising food costs, soil quality has become a major concern.  Since high levels of lead in children and adults can interfere with brain development and other functions, gardeners are urged to test their soil for contamination and take preventative measures to grow vegetables safely if lead is detected.

There are many angles to explore on this issue, but for the moment I'll focus on what is most relevant to this blog: How has the Minton Stable Garden officially ensured that the soil is within acceptable levels?

When the garden was redesigned and landscaped in 2004, about 100 cubic yards of the original soil was taken away.  This concerned some who were involved in the planning process because of all of the efforts made over the previous years to mix soils from problem spots with safer soils to bring down the lead levels in all areas to safe limits.  However, the new soil that was trucked in was also tested and found to have levels within the acceptable limits (300 parts per million).

Soil for the non-plot areas (including the play areas) as well as the extra compost that gardeners can help themselves to has come from Apple D'Or Tree, a landscape company based in Southboro that has a green waste recycling facility on American Legion Highway in Mattapan.  The play area soil tested within the safe limits for play area use, and in the past the garden has rejected soil from another source that did not test low enough.

That's the official story as I know it about lead levels in the garden; I'd be curious to know if individuals have tested their plots.  One purpose of this blog is to hold myself accountable for learning more about my garden, so I have put "soil test for stable and backyard" on my to-do list, and I'll report on my findings at a later time.

Monday, August 11, 2008


That first examination of a garden after a week away can be exciting, particularly during harvest time.  Only this season, there have been no guarantees of buffalo mozzarella-tomato-basil sandwiches for the rest of the month--just mozzarella-basil sandwiches for the moment.  I did manage to take home two tomatoes, though only one was ripe.  The other was a green heirloom that I accidentally severed from its stem while turning it over to inspect it for blossom-end rot.  Fortunately, there was none, though I did see some evidence that a slug or related pest may have burrowed in.

Allan from the Steering Committee checked in on my plot while I was away; the rainy weather last week as well as the pathetic harvest alleviated him from much responsibility.  In an email to me today, he indicated that "a lot of tomato plants in the garden are looking rough."  Then he upheld his reputation as a thorough web sleuth by forwarding some useful links.  One, a brochure about tomato diseases and disorders, provides clear descriptions and photos. 

The photos on pages 9-10 of tomatoes afflicted with physiological disorders could have been taken from my previous harvests.  However, I should stop beating myself up over fruits that have succumbed to blossom-end rot, cracking, and catfacing (those funny bulges that develop on beefsteak varieties), since they are usually the result of environmental stresses such as fluctuations in temperature and are therefore beyond my control.  Also, these conditions usually damage part of the tomato and can be cut away.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Is there something in the water?

I'm often in the garden during off-peak times, when most people are at work.  But when I do find others watering, weeding, or just hanging out on one of the stone benches along the main path, not everyone is bipedal or can speak for themselves.

"Can you believe how many babies there are?" my long-time neighborhood friends and I often muse to each other.  "Is there something in the water?" Compared to, say, 5-10 years ago, we're seeing many more of them, in strollers, slings, and backpacks, rolling on blankets spread out on the grass, and splashing in one of the wading pools near the shed.  Surveying the crowd at a barbecue, I always seem to find a swollen belly or two in my field of vision.

It appears to me that compared to other neighborhoods, Jamaica Plain is experiencing its own baby boom (Not that I've performed any census).  More and more triple-deckers have gone condo; there seems to be an increase in couples who are making a financial commitment to the neighborhood, and chances are, they are making other commitments as well.  

To all of those busy parents of newborns and toddlers who manage to squeeze a little gardening time into their busy schedules: keep it up!  As little ones develop, tending a plot is a wonderful way to help them develop an awareness of nature.  There are many plants that they can grow, or help water or harvest.  They can learn to identify the different species of butterflies or other garden creatures.  It can be a little nerve-wracking when they help themselves to a neighbor's strawberries, get stung by nettles, or confuse a basil seedling with a weed, but gardening can help children in making many connections that can enhance their education and development, and lead to a healthier diet.

I remember how productive I was when my daughter could sleep in her stroller, shaded by a blanket.  Then the napping ceased and mobility increased, and there was the season that my plot was so neglected that, had this occurred after the community garden became official, it would have been reassigned.  Luckily that era was short lived, as my daughter developed a love for carrots and snapdragons, among the first plants we tended in our new plot when the community garden was redesigned, around 2004 if I remember correctly.

Now she's 7, and a little more ambivalent when it comes to helping out.  She's more likely to help harvest or turn on the hose only if I ask her, and if she's reached a point in the book she's reading where she can put it down (I guess I shouldn't really complain if one healthy activity replaces another).  

I wonder if having more kids her age around in the garden would revitalize her interest.  But that's an issue to ponder for another time.  (It's time to relinquish the non-wireless cable connection in our vacation house to another user.)

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Update on my plot

First, the good news:  the sungold tomatoes have been ready for harvest, one handful at a time.  Enough to contribute to a salad or veggie kabob.  I also have two eggplant growing on one plant--one is about ready to pick.  At about 8 feet high, my two volunteer sunflowers are the tallest in the garden.  This comes at the expense of my zinnias trying to grow underneath them.  They are starting to produce blooms the size of campaign buttons, not quite as large as last year.

And now the bad news:  As you can see from this out-of-focus photo, something that looks like blossom end rot is appearing on another variety of tomato (don't know which--another gift from a friend).  No new cases on my heirlooms, though.  

I poked around the garden a bit to see how other tomatoes were doing.  Still seeing more green than red; it's still July, after all.  Out of respect for my fellow gardeners, I craned my neck to look under some of the fruit rather than lifting them.  Inspecting all of the hundreds of tomatoes in progress in this manner would have been like trying to grow oranges in Greenland.  In any case, after a good, say, 10 minutes of strolling down the curved pathways and scanning a variety of Big Boys, heirloom varieties and everything in between, I realize that I might be alone in my predicament.  But it's too early to tell.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Is it my imagination?

It was 7:00 am on the Cape as I started drafting today's post, and a steady rain was falling.  Again.  Usually a welcome sight to most gardeners.  But we've been deluged quite a bit this summer, and mushrooms are becoming a regular occurrence in my backyard.  Plus there's the speculation that too much water on my peppers and tomatoes is causing blossom end rot and root rot (see previous post).  Despite the convenience of being spared a trip over to the plot when other demands dictate, the question is, how much is too much?

That question piqued my interest in the effects of global warming on gardens.  In her Sustainable Gardening Blog last year, Susan Harris provided a formidable list that included increased rainfall and pollen production, as well as an increase in weedy and noxious plants (such as poison ivy), heat stress to tomatoes and other warm-season crops, and difficulties of growing lilacs, rhododendrons, and some trees.

The National Arbor Day Foundation's web site features an animation showing the boundaries of the hardiness zones moving northward between 1990 and 2006, due to the increase in temperatures.  These little changes we've been noticing over the years, whether it's more rain or diminished success growing a once-reliable staple, may be linked to something larger and more disturbing.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

My pepper paradox

And now, on to a plant in my plot that is not faring so well, my bell peppers.  As you can see in the photo of one of them, they have not grown much in the month since they were purchased as 4-5 inch tall seedlings and transplanted.

I seem to have all of the necessities for successful growth covered: rich soil--check.  When the compost shipment arrived in late May, I added a 1-2 inch layer to my bed.  Full sun--check.  Some of the taller nearby plants, such as the tomatoes, may produce a little shade, but the peppers are exposed to sunlight for long periods, especially at midday.  Warm temperatures--check.  The temperatures in Boston have reached highs in 80s and 90s on most days.  Water--check.  Between intermittent showers and thunderstorms and my efforts, they rarely go more than two days without being watered.

Other peppers in the community garden seem to be flourishing.  I hadn't run into any of their tenders in recent visits, so I searched the web for answers.  A participant on the iVillage Garden Web forum had a similar problem.  In many responses the gardener was encouraged to wait longer, that peppers take time.  Some brought up the issue of the range of temperatures between day and night, and one gardener suggested that if the plants were overwatered, that could lead to root rot, causing the plant to put more energy into regrowing its roots than in its growth above ground.

The University of Illinois Extension web site warns that while fertilization can help, nitrogen may inhibit the growth of the fruit.  Interestingly, extreme heat is also a possible culprit, as idea that runs counter to what participants in the forum were suggesting.

Everyone could be right, or wrong, depending on the situation.  Maybe it's been too hot, or too cold at times, or maybe I need to add fertilizer.  But perhaps my other plants could provide a clue.  Yesterday I noticed some blossom end rot on one of my heirloom tomatoes, an indication that I should take a closer look at my watering practices.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Uninvited Guests

One perk that often comes with community gardening is the free plants that you can get out of the deal. No, I'm not referring to perennial divides or seed giveaways, but the unintended gift of volunteers that grow in your plot, either from scattered seeds or runners. One gift that we have received has been the strawberries originally planted by Asa, who gardens in an adjacent plot. She has apologized several times for this invasion.

Why apologize for a volunteer when we are busy anyway, pulling out weeds and thinning out seedlings? In the case of strawberries, perhaps because of their viral nature. They're the guests that won't leave, and by letting them in, you are leaving the door open for more. Ours hopped the fence two years ago, and this year the party has been in full swing.

I believe that what we have growing in our plot is one of the June Bearing varieties, because they bear large fruit in June and send out many runners. Another variety bearing small but intensely sweet berries is intermingled and yields fruit around the same period.

The strawberries have claimed a significant portion of our plot, stretching out from our neighbor's border in the shape of a camel's hump. I've taken to yanking out the runners that have ventured beyond this area, in order to make room for my tomatoes, basil, green peppers and zinnias, but I'm sure some are still lurking under my coreopsis and blanket flowers. I'm not sure what else to do; I'm not concerned about killing them off. They are hardy plants that can withstand being stepped on and they will return despite the pulling.

The area of our little patch is about 12 square feet, and I estimate our total yield to be at least eight pints. My daughter and I snacked on so many of them as we harvested that I wouldn't trust that figure. We were sorry to have picked the last fruit about two weeks ago, but we'll continue to make room for these guests (to a certain amount) for years to come.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

A Bird to Watch For: Wood Thrush

I have to admit that I'm on a steep learning curve when it comes to bird identification.  My repertoire is limited to a few species, including crows, cardinals, and blue jays (which, despite their brilliant hue, are considered by some to be the ornithological equivalent to pigweed).  But the garden can provide opportunities to expand my knowledge.  I became intrigued when I learned that Steve and Joe, another gardener, reported to have heard a wood thrush.

A wood thrush is about 7-8 inches long and has a brown back and white chest with dark brown spots.  They tend to feed on the ground but sing when up in trees.  It's ethereal sound is difficult to describe, with melodic rising and falling notes often followed by a rapid trill.  This call had a profound effect on Henry David Thoreau, who once wrote, "The thrush alone declares the immortal wealth and vigor that is in the forest.  Whenever a man hears it, he is young, and Nature is in her spring."

I've had them pointed out to me while visiting conservation land near the White Mountains in New Hampshire; they generally need large areas of forest for their habitat.  But since the garden borders land designated as an urban wild and is located about two blocks away from Franklin Park (where a wood thrush was recently sighted) hearing one around dusk should not come as a complete surprise.  Next time I'm in the garden, I'll keep my ears open and eyes on the trees.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Update on my plot

I've let all of this reporting on weeds shade out my observations about a few plants that I intend to keep.  (But one last note: the Boston Natural Areas Network is holding a workshop on identifying garden pests at 6:00 tomorrow, in the garden.)

With the volunteer strawberries pretty much picked over, the wait is on now for our first tomatoes.  The four different seedlings given to us by friends are about full-grown and flowering.  The yellow sungolds appear to be in the lead, already bearing a few yellow-green tomatoes.

Many perennials are in full bloom, including echinacea, bee balm, and coreopsis.  In our plot, the black-eyed susans are up to my waist.  I seem to forget each year how long it takes for the flowers to appear.  They can be such a tease, with their finger-like petals clasped over their faces as if they were playing a long game of hide-and-seek.

Finally, the tallest sunflower is the garden appears to be one of the two volunteers growing in our plot, at about 6 feet.  After a little watering and a few showers these past few days, much of the garden is bushy and green.  With the exception of a little weeding and deadheading, I'm trying to take the time to relax, examine, and enjoy all of our hard work for the next few weeks before the serious harvesting begins.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Bindweed battles, continued

Let me pick up where I left off earlier this week, about my wondering whether or not I contaminated the other compost bin with bindweed.

In a panic, I shot an email to a friend of mine who is not only a fellow gardener, but somewhat of an expert on weeds.  Could he look at my plot?  What should I do if the weed I had been pulling was the dreaded bindweed?  Should I take responsibility in some way?

A few days passed--no answer.  Perhaps he had forwarded my email to the Steering Committee and a tribunal for my extradition from the garden was being scheduled.  But on the 4th, I came in contact with three committee members who made no mention of my blunder.

The next day, in one of my raised beds in my backyard, I spotted a few morning glory upstarts near my snap peas.  "That's bindweed," my husband said plainly.

Later, over at the community garden, I noticed to my relief that whatever I had invaded my plot was not the same, though it had run rampant throughout many garden beds and common areas.  I pulled one and showed it to my friend Kim, who identified it as pigweed.  I snapped the photos above of the two weeds later in their development.  The first one is bindweed growing in a compost bin, and the second is pigweed (I am struggling with adding photos; I tried to place them below, but I can't seem to put them where I want!).  You can see what bindweed can do in such a short span of time!

Three factors contributed to my ignorance:  1) a poor ability to identify plants, 2) a poor visual memory, and 3) one photo of bindweed in the early stages bearing some resemblance to the pigweed I pulled from my plot.

So, now I'm fairly sure that I composted pigweed, which is still invasive, competing for water and nutrients with whatever I've been growing on purpose.  It may not have the choking potential of bindweed, but it's made me wonder if I should dispose of all my invasive weeds with the trash.