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.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Music in the Garden

A brief thunderstorm last night couldn't deter some dedicated gardeners and neighbors from attending a performance by blues musician Lloyd Thayer. This concert is one of a series that the Boston Natural Areas Network is bringing to different community gardens around the city. A class on Wednesday nights kept me away, but I managed to procure a few photos of the event.

My husband Steve captured the recently-elected Steering Committee members who were on hand. From left to right, they are Allan, John, Nancy, Julianna, Todd, and Jennifer. Terry could not attend.

Without the Steering Committee, it would be difficult to organize gardeners and other neighbors around important tasks such as maintaining the common areas, making important decisions, ensuring that everyone fulfills their work requirement (only 4 hours a year!), and organizing barbecues and other events such as this one. These people have volunteered their time and energy, and I certainly appreciate their efforts.

Thanks also to Allan for sending me some photos including the one above featuring Lloyd performing and everyone enjoying the music as well as each others' company. I'm sorry I missed it.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Bindweed battles

The garden has always had its pests, animal or vegetable.  It's been years since I've heard about the Mexican bean beetle, yet I still haven't recovered enough to resume growing one of my favorite vegetables. And one need not go far to find some crown vetch choking some wildflowers in one of the common areas.  

This year, the garden's equivalent to the bird flu has been an innocent-looking perennial weed known as field bindweed, or by its scientific name, convolvulus arvensis.  We have been advised by the Steering Committee in a recent email to "keep an eye out and dispose of it properly." Bindweed has been discovered in a few plots and will proliferate rapidly if not dealt with in a timely manner.

About a week ago, before reading the email, the skies were finally cleared from our "mini-monsoon season."  I ventured over to my plot, bracing myself for what I might find around my tomatoes and peppers, which I still had not gotten around to mulching.  I encountered an explosion of one type of weed in particular, so hardy it even grew under the shade of my plot-neighbor's massive squash leaves. Though I discovered that one of the compost receptacles had been quarantined because a gardener accidentally threw some bindweed in with other plant matter, I went about my usual business, filling a wheelbarrow with extraneous plant matter from my plot and dumping it in the other compost pile.

I had always thought bindweed was the vine I had growing in my own yard, which had darker and shinier petal-shaped green leaves growing straight up on a single stem.  Then I read the email, and when I opened the link to the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources site showing photos of our resident scourge, I felt a rise in my body temperature and a wave of nausea.  Were the weeds I had composted the same as the bindweed seedlings shown, with its spade- or bell-shaped leaves?  Had I committed germ warfare?

To be continued...

Monday, July 7, 2008

The Seeds of John Carroll

There may not have been a community garden in the Stoneybrook neighborhood of Jamaica Plain if it had not been for the initiative of the late John Carroll, a dear friend to many of us.  Instead, this neighborhood of mostly triple-deckers could have become much denser with either more residential units, or even another stable housing seventy horses!  Of course, the gardens were the result of the efforts of many activists and the history is too expansive to outline in this post.  But John Carroll planted the first seeds, and I can not think of a better way to kick off this blog than to share some recent events celebrated in his memory.

John lost his battle with cancer on November 5, 2007, when most of his favorite flowers had wilted or died off, and the deadline for gardeners to put their plots to bed for the winter was looming.  Thus it was decided that a more fitting time to commemorate his life would be around the beginning of summer when the gardens were in full bloom.

Thanks to the oversight of John's sister Dee Miller and the help of friends and other family members, a lovely memorial service held on the morning of June 28 featured remembrances, prayers, poems, and the music of John's favorite artists, the Neville Brothers and Sweet Honey in the Rock.  Later that day, at the first official Minton Stable Garden barbecue of the season, a video loop gave people an opportunity to witness John's efforts and philosophy and glance at what the space looked like before the demolition of the old barn and the introduction of running water.

The highlight of the evening was the dedication of the soon-to-be-constructed sitting area under one of John's favorite trees, which culminated in the spreading of some of John's ashes around that area and along the main path.  Of course, this was also a group effort.  When the box was passed to me, I hesitated at first; I had never before handled cremains, let alone those of a close friend.  But as I tapped the box and the dust went flying in different directions, I realized that this is what John wanted.  It symbolized the seeds that John spread to establish gardens all over JP, making it a more beautiful place.