Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Garden poems for your pocket

I'm a sucker for Days. Record Store Day, ESL Awareness Day, and Teacher Appreciation Day are just a few that I have recently observed, though I admit that a few of those are self-serving. Last year, while I was teaching a unit on poetry (to prove my previous sentence), I became aware of the Poem in Your Pocket Day, on April 30. The idea behind this observance, a final bow to National Poetry Month, is that in order to appreciate this literary medium, one copies (or writes) a meaningful poem and carries it around in his or her pocket, to pull out and read to friends, family, co-workers, and anyone else with the courtesy to listen.

The hardest aspect of this day, at least for me, is to choose one poem to have the honor to share space with my keys, spare change, and lint. This year, with the blog in mind, my choice addresses a gardening theme. I have decided to go with "The Garden Gate" (see below), though a little web research has dug up a few contenders, including:

"Guests" by Celia Thaxter--she captures the sensory essence of gardening, not just through her poetry, but through other written reflections about her own experiences tending an amazing garden on an island off the coast of Maine. More from her in future posts...
"They'll spend the summer" by Joshua Beckman--a sweet little haiku leaving the reader wondering who "they" are. My guess is that they are people like you and me and the garden alleviates our stress.
"The Glory of the Garden" by Rudyard Kipling--a decent garden takes hard work. Though I object to the poet's suggestion that only men carry out these duties, I'll acknowledge just a little that he was a product of his time.
"My Garden" by Emily Dickinson--though vulnerable, the garden will always be a place for birth.

If anyone out there has another notable poem within this theme, please share it. "The Garden Gate," written in February by Joe Bergin and Terry McAweeney, is a thoughtful tribute to the Minton Stable Garden and the people who have made it a special place. Joe has read the poem twice, at the Sounds of the Garden benefit and the Gardeners Gathering, but to our knowledge, it has not had its Internet debut, until now:

The Garden Gate

You get up early in spring in the morning
The riotous birds are mating high handsome and wide
The early light has beamed through your bedroom window
You trip down the steps to the great outside

Crocuses at your foot, the promise of a daffodil
The breeze doesn't bite, and the garden gate defrosted
is in a stone's throw sight
and in your bones you feel the old thrill

You've studied the January seed catalogues
You've sent for the heirloom strains
You've consulted the Farmer's Almanac
You've prayed for a sunny May and a tapering off of April rains

It's a short march to the garden
A shovel and hoe in hand
to turn the soil, put your back into toil
and your time and energy to sweeten the land

On your walk down the radius gravel path
you pause by the 3 granite monuments to the man
and give a thought to old John Carroll
and think to yourself
just how this glorious garden began

It was back in 1993
after they tore down the ancient horse barn
John, who'd seen much death in Vietnam
looked across the overgrown vacant city lot
and in a vision saw a neighborhood flower and vegetable farm

And you know he knew that was the old horse trail
where pleasure riders into Franklin Park would prance
and his mind must've reeled at the sheer infinitude of biomass
of all the equine road apple gifts
that down through the years
became the rich land grant of nitrogen to our plants

Now, onward, you open the wooden and iron ball and chain gate
and proceed to your 10' by 10' plot
The sun is kissing the back of your neck
and you feel sweetly high as if you've just had a large chocolat

Turn the soil, add compost, look for earthworms
Level the land, sow the seeds, hum a song
Thank Mother Earth, say a prayer to your little garden
May miraculous germination
please not take very long

Say, there's your beloved neighbor!
You converse as you're down on all fours
You delight in airy conversation
as they till their soil on their plot down from yours

It's a model for communities everywhere
It makes a hamlet of our corner of Jamaica Plain
Where you work side by side with fellow gardeners
growing crops in the sun and the rain

So it is, come summer, down on Williams Street
Home from work, ask a neighbor how their day has gone
and you can tell it's been a hard one
...but they smile and say
"I'll see you in the garden, later on..."

Friday, April 24, 2009

Community gardener check-in: Daniela

This season I've been trying to make good on my original mission to highlight the efforts of my fellow gardeners.  Like some bloggers, I have been shy about revealing my body of work and even more hesitant to shine the Internet spotlight on others.  Yet as I was thinning my lettuce and spinach yesterday and realizing that dull and un-postworthy those activities were, some new material walked through the gate: Daniela and three of her four children, including her newest, born last November and snuggling comfortably in her mother's sling.

Although I run into Daniela from time to time and my daughter and one of her sons once participated in JP Children's Soccer together, this was the first time in about two years I had actually caught her tending her plot.  "So are you going to write about me?" she immediately asked after I told her about the blog.  She is no stranger to the medium, maintaining her own blog read by family members, including those in her native Switzerland, so she had no issue with being the subject of today's post.

Her main tasks yesterday included thinning out her garlic (shown above), which has been growing in her plot for the past three years, and her strawberries.  She also planted carrot seeds and prepared an area for salad greens.  The radishes she started two and a half weeks ago (below) are progressing nicely (by the way, if you are curious about what that generally looks like, check this out).  When I first glanced at the shape of the leaves, my immediate reaction was: bindweed?  Since the warnings about the spread of this unwanted invasive, I've become a little obsessed.  With the exception of the radishes and garlic, her plans resemble mine, with zinnias, tomatoes, and broccoli or brussel sprouts on the way.  
I have known Daniela since she started gardening at the old stable garden in 2002, and she has always been one of those women about which I wonder, "How does she do it?"  Not only has she been able to forge a multilingual existence in a new country, but raise and homeschool her kids.  And make it look so easy.  I had forgotten to ask if the garden had a role in her curriculum.  After seeing Elias, her oldest, pull wayward strawberry runners without being prompted, I wouldn't be surprised if some of her instruction took place here.

Although she misses having a much larger plot in the old garden, Daniela believes that the reconstructed Minton Stable Garden is an improvement, because more gardeners can participate.  The location of her plot--it's the one on the corner closest to the shed--is also ideal.  Her baby can lie in the grass across the path and her other kids have a safe common area nearby where they can run around.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The costs of gardening and other updates

Friday afternoon around 4:30, my daughter and I took advantage of the 70-degree heat and headed over to the Minton Stable Garden. The children outnumbered the adults; at one point I counted eight, and those were only the ones that were ex utero. The oldest, my eight-year-old, helped water the plants in our plot. The spinach is now about an inch high, but the lettuce has yet to take off, with a leaf span of not quite a centimeter across.

Also coming up are tulips and a few perennials, including echinacea and black-eyed susans. California poppies, an annual, have self-seeded from last year, their thin, light green tendrils peeking out of the soil. Asa, my plot neighbor, alerted me that her raspberry plants, located about a foot away from the border of my strawberry bed, were starting to send runners underground, and wanted to know if it was okay if she could pull any she found invading my plot. I told her not to worry about it; if she was able to take care of it that was fine, but I didn't mind pulling them out as I handled my regular weeding. The only real issue I had last year with her raspberries involved trying to keep my daughter from eating them.
I took a few photos, including this wide shot above. I try to avoid close-ups of children out of respect for families' privacy. My friend Terry suggested the shot below of this row of plots, starting with mine in the foreground. Next is Asa's and you can see that she has laid down some salt marsh hay to keep down the weeds.
Last year this much was scarce, but nearby Allandale Farm has managed to get a shipment already, so last week we bought a bale of it for the home and community garden plots. This leads me to the latest update of my ongoing calculation of my food growing costs for the season:

MSG annual plot dues: $28.00
Bale of salt hay w/tax: $15.75
New total: $164.67

It'll take a few months to reap anything to offset these expenses, but it should be worth it.

Monday, April 13, 2009

And they're off...

Yesterday morning in the Minton Stable Garden I experienced the annual Running of the Kids.  For the past four years, two MSG families with six children between them have organized the Easter Egg Hunt, stuffing plastic eggs with jellybeans, M & Ms, and other goodies, and stashing them in around garden plots and common areas behind the garden gate in preparation.

The hunting ground was off-limits until around 9:30 when Hannah, one of the organizers, called all families to the entrance near Dungarven Road to explain the rules, mainly 1) The plot areas are for children under five, while older kids should confine their search to the more challenging wildflower and native plantings area in the corner of the property by Williams Street, and 2) when the hunt is over, everyone should be willing to share their surplus so all end up with the same amount of eggs.

Then the gate was opened, and kids fanned out in all directions, scooping up eggs tucked away in garden plots, hidden next to rocks, and nestled in tree branches and other odd places.  The limited flora at this stage of the growing season worked in everyone's favor.  Some older kids learned the hard way that the stinging nettles were already claiming the edges of the property, an unintentional consequence.  A few who had already amassed a full basket re-hid a few eggs so the younger could gain more satisfaction.

Within about fifteen minutes, all of the 300+ eggs had been found, and Hannah reconvened the crowd to count and share, so each child could leave with a basket of a dozen eggs.  Then we adults lingered, drinking coffee, chatting, and meeting new neighbors while our kids went to work maintaining their sugar highs.  As we headed out, many of us made sure to track down Allison and Hannah to thank them for taking time from their busy schedules to maintain this community-building tradition.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Meanwhile, indoors...

Despite a springlike day here and there, a chilling frost or a torrential downpour could throw a wrench into some of the best-laid garden plans. The growth of some of the seeds I started outdoors a few weeks ago seems somewhat delayed. March Temperatures in New England were slightly below normal; this might explain why my snap peas haven't yet germinated. So when Dan from Urban Veggie Garden Blog suggested starting some seeds indoors, I took his advice and planted about a dozen. If they grow successfully I can transplant them in any empty spaces along my pea trellis.
With the help of a grow light, the seeds I have started indoors are coming along, with mixed results. Most notable is the broccoli, which was all planted on March 15. The variable here has been the growing medium; in the photo above the plants on the right were started in an organic potting mix, while I used a more conventional non-organic mix with the plants on the left. It appears that I have had more success with the non-organic medium, though I wonder if the seedlings are a little too leggy. Both mixes are Miracle-Gro (you can compare them--they're the second and third products here), but my not-so-expert theory is that more fertilizer in the regular product has resulted in more growth. The coarser nature of the organic, which is 50-55% composted bark, might inhibit it.
Here are my tomatoes, started on March 23 in the organic medium. I planted three varieties: Cosmonaut Volkov, Cherokee Purple, and Rose de Berne, all from Fedco seeds, but at this point the seedlings are indistinguishable.

In choosing a more limited variety of seeds this year, I'm moving more toward subsistence. I omitted snow peas because I could barely harvest enough at one time for a stir fry. Quantity is not as much of an issue for snap peas, which are often eaten raw and in any amount. In fact, they rarely make it into a bowl or steamer before they are consumed. Most importantly, as in the case of the broccoli, snap peas, lettuce, and spinach, these vegetables will be accepted by even the most finicky eaters in my house (I will not name names...).

Monday, April 6, 2009

One area of growth

There is nothing like a sunny Sunday in the 60s to treat the seasonal depression brought on by a near week of raw air, spitting rain, and stories of economic gloom and doom. After sleeping in, tackling my shrinking Sunday paper, and running a few errands, I made it over to the Minton Stable Garden to put in a little maintenance and appreciate something that is still growing.
I encountered nearly a dozen people gardening, walking dogs, or just relaxing on the stone benches. Asa, my plot neighbor, was there with her two sons, including her not-so-newborn, whom I met for the first time. When I arrived she was finishing up a task that was on top of my agenda: weeding and thinning the strawberries, and making sure that the patch was free of bindweed. In the presentation at last week's meeting, the Steering Committee warned that this highly invasive weed has a tendency to spread among strawberries; both plants have persistent root systems. Bindweed continues to threaten the MSG. An investigation by the Steering Committee revealed that about four plots are so seriously infested that the soil in them may need to be replaced. Although I saw one plot covered with plastic yesterday, it was not announced which areas were affected.
On a brighter note, my spinach and lettuce are starting to appear. As you can see in this photo, our soil is littered with small rocks, presumably washed or blown in from the footpaths, so the spinach sprouts may be hard to notice. I ran into another gardener who shared my complaint that the peas (which I planted nearly two weeks ago at home) have yet to be seen.

Then we turned the faucets--still no water. When I asked Allan from the Steering Committee about this, he joked that he should just make a pin that says "April 23" and wear it everywhere because of all the times he's been asked. The water won't be turned on for another few weeks. The copper pipes don't benefit from the same warmth as those in our homes so it's best to wait until they are no longer frozen and at risk of bursting. With more showers in the forecast today, we probably won't have to haul too much water to encourage more growth. It is April in Boston, after all.

Friday, April 3, 2009

The season begins

I'm not a big fan of meetings.  I can usually gauge the inefficiency of one by the intensity of my resulting headache.  Luckily, the Minton Stable Garden Steering Committee understands this, as there is usually only one meeting of all of the gardeners each year.  Aided by a shortage of intense controversies, about an hour was all that was needed to review rules and share other information on the upcoming season.
We gathered this past Monday at the nearby English High School library (thanks to Allan for the photo).  The important items of business included signing a contract pledging respectful gardening practices and paying the annual dues of $28.  For the past couple of years MSG members have followed through in completing their 4-hour work requirement and honoring deadlines for maintaining their gardens, with few people abandoning their plots or moving out of the city; as a result only four individuals/families have been granted plots, leaving 30 still on the waiting list.  Given the high demand to garden, a Steering Committee member explained that with nine work days scheduled and opportunities to mow and shovel, there will be no excuses for falling short this year.

Julianna from the Steering Committee provided a treasury report.  With a budget of around $1400 a year, money needs to be raised for any purchase beyond the basics (water, plantings, fuel for mowers, special events, etc.).  Two other issues that I would like to explore in future posts are an update on our bindweed situation as well as our inability to produce our own compost.

Nancie, also on the Steering Committee, brought up an idea to keep gardeners informed and give them a voice: a Yahoo group, now in the "beta" phase.  Also, members were urged to run for one of the three Steering Committee slots that will be open this year.

I had not seen many of the 30+ people in attendance since last season.  I look forward to running into them in the garden soon, if it ever stops raining.