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.