Monday, March 30, 2009

34 years later, still growing

For the past few years Northeastern University has donated space in its student center to the Boston Natural Areas Network to hold its annual Gardeners Gathering, which features workshops, plenary sessions, and other activities for community and urban gardeners.  It seemed rather agonizing to spend a warm spring day indoors, but the few hours I spend every year at this event leave me energized about the start of the season, and this year was no exception.

A lunch date with relatives kept me from attending the entire day, but my timing seemed right when I entered the plenary room a little after noon and saw my friend and fellow Minton Stable Gardener Joe Bergin sharing new lyrics to the David Mallett's "Garden Song." He then read "The Garden Gate," which he had introduced at the Sounds of the Garden benefit last month.  This poem, which he and Terry McAweeney had written in memory of John Carroll, is a celebration of the pleasures of community gardening.  BNAN plans to publish it soon on its website.
In her welcome address, BNAN President Valerie Burns (above) reminded those of us with community plots how lucky we are.  She recently looked at five of the gardens in the BNAN network, containing a total of 370 plots, and discovered that the combined total on their waiting lists had reached 130 (a member of the MSG Steering Committee revealed to me that there were 30 people on ours).  Also, BNAN has had trouble ordering the 12,000 seeds they provide annually to their gardens because the companies have been running out.  Apparently the recession we're in has increased people's interest in growing their own food.  She highlighted the findings from their study of the economic advantages of gardening.  She encouraged those of us who have maintained more than one community plot or enjoy access to plentiful space on our own property in addition our plots to consider sharing our space.  She also invited wait-listed people to contact BNAN if they were interested in an available plot in one of seven other community gardens that still had them.

Like every year, I regretted not being able to attend all of the workshops available, which this year included "Weed or Wildflower--Kill It or Eat It?" and "Safer Urban Soil."  But I did catch a few short movies and the final plenary session, during which the news was released that Boston Urban Gardeners, an organization that was behind the first Gardeners Gathering 34 years ago and had to close its doors recently due to economic difficulties, would be transferring its ownership to BNAN; therefore, its gardens, including the one next to its home base at 57 Lamartine Street in Jamaica Plain would benefit from the same support and resources that we at the MSG receive.  

Before the Community Gardening Awards and final raffle, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino made his annual speech to the standing-room-only crowd.  He emphasized his two main points more than once: 1) Come harvest time in August, don't forget to invite him to our gardens and 2) The city will continue to provide free compost to the community gardens.  Given all of the other cutbacks, that can be regarded as good news.  The award recipients were the two Charles River gardens, which were inducted into the Hall of Fame, a lifetime achievement award for Arthur Kane, and for the Rookie Garden, the Harrison Urban Garden (HUG), started on the roof of a parking garage at 700 Harrison Avenue in Boston.

If you are a Minton Stable Gardener, I'll see you tonight at the meeting.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Too early to garden?

Finally, the first day has come that has felt like spring, since the arrival of...spring.  A good day to get things started.  After turning over the vegetable bed in my backyard I headed over to the Minton Stable Garden.  As you can see from these photos, there is not much color, yet.  No one has planted crocuses or snowdrops, but a few gardens had tulips in progress, including mine.  With the absence of rain this past week, cracks have appeared in the soil of several plots.  And with it being so early in the season, only a few of the gardens bore the darker hue of turned-over soil.
I started three varieties of tomatoes under the grow lights at home on Monday, but I was itching to start a few outdoors.  So I planted a row of Forellenschluss lettuce (an organic Romaine) and Space Spinach seeds.  I have not planted these vegetables in the Minton Stable Garden for several years, but due to the encroaching shade of a maturing lilac in my backyard, that location was not as successful as I would have hoped last season, though I still plan to sow seeds there.  The lilac had been planted by the previous owners and in recent years has taken off.  We have been too hesitant to undo the previous owners' efforts, but perhaps in the fall we might have to make an exception.

After I sowed my seeds in the MSG I realized the disadvantage of starting so early.  Where was the water?  The hoses were not out yet, and the water had not yet been turned on.  Since I no longer live a convenient distance from the MSG, I had to borrow watering cans and raid the tap of one of my abutting friends.  The first official meeting will be this Monday night; perhaps after that it won't be considered too early and the water will be back on.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Michelle, get dirtier

I know that this is old news, but I am thrilled that a vegetable garden is being planted at the White House, and that along with Michelle Obama and her daughters Sasha and Malia, a fifth grade class from a Washington, DC school will be involved in the project.  So in my mind, that qualifies as a community garden.  Moreover, Mrs. Obama is using the garden to set an example of healthy eating, by growing and consuming a variety of lettuces, spinach, kale, and other vegetables, as well as berries.  

Over the weekend there have been stories about the groundbreaking for the garden. Most have featured photos of Michelle Obama in her chosen outfit.  As much I hate to jump on the bandwagon of bloggers who provide commentary on the First Lady's fashion choices, I do question the logic behind the attire for this event.  The last time I wore boots, leggings, and a long sweater, I was headed to a party, not my plot.  But then again, if I knew I'd be greeted by photographers whenever I pushed open the MSG gate, I'd probably feel a little uncomfortable in my ripped jeans and T-shirts.

But now that I've said that, let me get to my point.  Apparently most of the maintenance of the White House garden will fall to the grounds crew and kitchen staff.  Perhaps it's unrealistic to expect Michelle Obama to take time out of her busy schedule to pitch in on a regular basis.  But she does manage to devote time to exercise--three 90-minute workouts a week that include weight lifting, calisthenics, and some cardiovascular activities.

Being the same age as the first lady, I can relate to her desire to stay in shape, and I too go to a gym and participate in some of the same aforementioned activities.  But has she considered that gardening is exercise?  Digging the garden plot can burn 340 calories an hour, and weeding can burn 306 calories an hour.  Digging dirt is similar to weight lifting, yet burns more calories and has the added benefits of fresh air and sunshine.

So hopefully Michelle will spend more time in the dirt.  As a role model watched by many, she can get her exercise, reduce stress, and use her influence to make gardening more fashionable.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The costs of gardening and other updates

Back in January, I wrote a post about a group of activists in Ashland who were organizing to try to establish a community garden.  On Saturday, March 14, they held a forum at the public library.  I couldn't make the trip out there, but my friend Julie reported that 55 people attended, enough to fill the room and increase support for their efforts.  Hopefully town officials will take more notice.
It was a glorious weekend here in Boston, with Sunday's temperature in the 60s.  As my daughter turned soil in our backyard vegetable plot, I cleared out the leaves from a few perennial beds.  Later I started some broccoli (Fiesta organic) indoors.  After having decided to use an organic potting mix, I did happen to find some, though it was only available in a 32-quart bag, more than I think I'll need.  If any Minton Stable or other local gardeners need a little extra, they'll know whom to ask.  It turns out that the organic soil has an "organic wetting agent;" given what I had read up on before, I thought that expression was an oxymoron.  I hadn't gotten around to investigating what that means.  Out of curiosity I decided to fill one cell pack with some leftover non-organic potting mix and compare its progress with the other two.

So, to continue my ongoing calculation of the costs of gardening:
Potting soil (w/tax): $9.94
Previous total: $110.98
New total expenses: $120.92

Finally, if you're a local gardener, you might want to check out BNAN's annual Gardeners Gathering next Saturday.  It's a great opportunity to meet other gardeners, learn some tips, and pick up a few freebies.

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Flower Show lives on--at the mall

Last year's news that the Massachusetts Horticultural Society's annual New England Spring Flower Show would not be held at its usual location came as a disappointment to many.  Under the massive roof of the Bayside Expo Center thousands of gardening enthusiasts have viewed hundreds of exhibits, visited venders to stock up on plants and supplies, taken a lunch or dinner break, picked up some planting tips, and enjoyed other activities.  For many New Englanders, the Flower Show signifies the beginning of spring, but recent financial and management problems threatened to break that 137-year tradition.

Luckily Mass Hort has found a way to continue the tradition on a smaller scale.  The result is BLOOMS!, which is taking place in three malls from March 12 to March 22 and three buildings downtown over the weekend.  Despite my mission to avoid malls as much as possible, I made an exception yesterday and checked out the exhibits at the Chestnut Hill Mall in Newton (a suburb west of Boston).

I found a dozen exhibits, including this one by CMC Designs.  With its hydrangeas, hyacinths, and daffodils, this display earns my unofficial award for the Most Fragrant.
I can't say that I had a favorite exhibit, but they were all appealing in their arrangements, with many containing shade-compatible plants such as ferns, hostas, and astilbe, rhododendrons and other flowering shrubs, bamboo, and small trees.  Moss was the most popular groundcover.  Every display featured some non-living element such as a bench or statuary, though the cage in the background of this creation by Peter Sadeck housed three not-so-happy-looking birds.The exhibit was free--obviously you can't charge anyone to enter a mall--but I gladly made a donation to help Mass Hort achieve their goal of bringing it all together under a large roof again in 2010. I suspect that anyone heading into the area to check out the exhibits will find more happening downtown; I hope to make it there on Sunday.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

As pretty as possible

Before I became distracted by recent events and the anticipation of spring, I began to post about the history of the Minton Stable Garden.  I'll continue where I left off, when the plans for rebuilding a horse stable on the vacated city-owned lot were put on an indefinite hold.

As Allan, one of the early activists, recalled, one of the strategies to gain neighborhood support for using the vacant stable site as a community garden was to "make the place as pretty as we can."  To back up, when the old riding rink was removed by the city in 1990, space opened up, with soil already enriched by years of sawdust and manure.  Space was now exposed to sunlight, illuminating possibilities unforeseen.  Where some neighbors saw free fertilizer, John Carroll had a vision for something different.
Much of what he started on the property in the early 1990s involved large plantings of wildflowers and perennials.  As you can see in this photo, taken around late June 1994, they included hollyhocks, which self-seeded and spread to various locations in the garden over the next ten years, as well as daisies, day lilies, pinks, and poppies.  Those of us who helped John in these common areas spent much of our time weeding out the mint that competed with these plants for nutrients and rescuing plants from the stranglehold of crown vetch.

The photo was taken from the location of the shed that you see in the background of the more current photo appearing under the blog title.  I don't need to provide another photo from the same perspective for you to see how the garden has changed.  In 1994, there were probably no more than ten neighbors gardening at the site, in plots located behind and to the right of these flower plantings.  Now there are around 45 plots and a waiting list of gardeners hoping to get in on the action.  Unfortunately, these flower beds no longer exist, though many of these varieties still live on in some of the gardeners' plots.  Now there are more native perennial varieties taking root in an area behind from where this photo was taken.  More on those and a continuation of the history of the MSG are forthcoming.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Mixed media

The definition of the term growing medium, as outlined by the Growing Media Association (I'm not kidding, it exists) is "material used in a container to grow a plant."  In other words, potting soil.  In the past, I just bought the cheapest bag of whatever at the hardware store.  But this year, as I wait impatiently for my seed order to make its way though my mail slot, I thought I'd do a little research to ensure that my organic seeds had a comparable home.

As The National Gardening Company plainly states, "A good seed starting mix holds moisture, drains well, and is fine textured.  Fair enough.  But what makes a growing medium organic?  Some companies sell organic potting mixes, or else you can make your own.  The organization ATTRA has published a detailed guide of what is allowed in organic potting soil.  These agents include soil, sand, compost, spaghum peat moss or other forms of peat, coir or coir dust (a byproduct of the coconut fiber industry), newspaper, alfalfa, sawdust, clay, kenaf, perlite, vermiculite, limestone, and alternative fertilizers.

What is not considered organic is any mix containing wetting agents.  An explanation in the Global Garden online magazine reveals that "soil wetters are essentially the same as detergents."  Part of a class of chemicals known as surfectants, these wetting agents cannot be biodegradable to do their job effectively.  Nevertheless, some soils are manufactured with them because organic mixes can be hydrophobic.  Perhaps you've had this experience before; you pour water on your seedlings but it doesn't get absorbed.  Wetting agents can reduce the surface tension of the water to so it is easier for it to enter the pores of the organic matter instead of sliding off of it.

A few commenters to a previous post have suggested soaking the soil before planting the seeds.  It was not clear what kind of mix they were using, but if I find a good organic product I'll heed their advice.  Even though my MSG plot and my gardens at home are not located near a stream or pond I would prefer to not to use any agent that poses a risk to aquatic organisms or potentially my plants as well.   I checked two reliable local gardening centers; one has not opened for the season yet while the other only carried a couple of mixes that contained wetting agents.  I was instructed to check back in a few weeks, if I can wait that long.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Prelude to spring

Winter has returned to Boston.  A few inches of snow will coat the ground today and a storm coming through starting around midnight will dump even more.  So much for the sign of spring that I spotted in my backyard as I was taking out the compost on Friday.

Despite a strong indecisive wind, the temperature reached a high of 58 degrees Fahrenheit, so finding snowdrops in bloom did not come as a complete surprise.  Besides, this perennial, which is native to Europe, can bloom as early as January.  The bulbs were given to us about ten years ago by Mitchell, a friend of ours who lives down the street from the MSG, and they have multiplied slowly, benefitting from a sunny south-facing slope.  Their drop-shaped blooms are hardy enough to poke out from underneath snow, perhaps even the several more inches that will cover them by tomorrow.
Snow cover as of this posting