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.