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.)