Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The benefits of gardening and other updates

Some of you may recall that I started my 2009 gardening season with an experiment recording my gardening expenses and comparing them to the estimated costs of the vegetables and fruits that my gardens would yield. My not-so-scientific process began with a general question: Does gardening save money on food costs, and if so, by how much? However, I plowed right into my research with no hypothesis, and three months into the procedure, I am still on the fence, partly due to the amount I have spent so far on a new grow light, salt hay, plot dues, and other expenses.

Since then, a few weeks have passed without a cent going directly into my gardening costs. But now, I can begin estimating my yield. In recent posts I've reported that my family and I have already started enjoying some of the lettuce and spinach. What we began eating every few days has now become what rice is to many other cultures. Now salads must be consumed every day, and no sandwich is permitted to be made without a layer of green. Anyone who walks in the door of our home will not be allowed out without a recycled takeout container of the most recent harvest.

But before I continue on this subject, I'd like to ask: What has happened to some of my spinach? I returned to the Minton Stable Garden yesterday after a few days away to find an ugly blight. Some of the leaves appeared bleached out, while others displayed what looked like bird droppings. I doubt that a flock of birds would hover over a row of spinach and leave the rest of the garden untouched. My husband's theory based on his past experience (although he's away for work and unable to see the problem, let alone meet his salad quota) is that it may be a fungus. From a search through my books and the Internet I learned that too much moisture lingering on spinach leaves can lead to diseases such as Anthracnose (which comes closest to resembling what mine have) and the more threatening-looking blue mold. The rainy, chilly weather of the past few days may be to blame. I bagged up the affected leaves and discarded them. End of story, I hope.

Now, back to the healthy greens harvested--how much are they worth? Since I've been picking leaves and not whole heads or bunches, I'll base my estimation on my experience buying a similar organic product. At this point my daughter and I have picked the equivalent of one container of Olivia's Organics salad mix, perhaps a combination of their Romaine and Spinach products, or another mix. I believe that the last time I saw it at the Harvest Coop in JP it was priced at $3.59 a container, so I'll make the not-so-scientific assumption that I have saved that much in my food budget. So my total monetary benefit of my vegetable and fruit gardening is so far:

1 container* of salad greens $3.59**

*According to the web site, the size is 6/5 ounces.
**In Massachusetts, food from the grocery is not taxed.

I have never been good at making quick decisions, but I had promised myself that by the end of the post I would be able to jump off the fence in one direction or the other. Will the value of my harvest exceed my expenses? My guess is now...maybe next year.

As I finish this up it has begun to rain again in Boston. You might find me in the MSG tomorrow wiping off my spinach. In the meantime, I'll leave you with an image of what's coming into bloom: lupines and poppies from another gardener's plot.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Torn over tomatoes

Sometimes it's hard to give all of your children equal time. As I was tending to my broccoli seedlings, lettuce, and spinach, as well as my weeding, my tomatoes were still hanging out under my grow lights, though not complaining too much about it. Earlier this week, though, I started to fret over the quality of my care, and also wondered if they were getting a little too long in the stem and not leafy enough (see photo at right). A little poking around on the Internet and observing other plants in the MSG have put my worries to rest, for now.

One useful resource I have found is the web site. As you can see, I've been bringing the seedlings outside for a few hours each day to harden them off, and according to the site, I should have reduced the amount of water a few days before beginning the process. That's what I had been doing--it's called "neglect." They seem to be in a growth holding pattern at this point, which I had heard or read somewhere is okay, though I am planning to repot a few, particularly the ones that are still sharing a pot. Ultimately, I'll have a few plants growing in my MSG plot and a few more in containers on my upstairs front porch, the only place on my property that may allow them enough light.

I'm not the only one torn over how to transition my tomatoes into the garden. In her blog, Black Eyed Susan expressed her concerns about whether her pre-ordered seedlings would be fine on the porch for a few weeks, and in a comment to my previous post she thought her grow lights would be too hot for them. According to, heat could have an adverse effect on their growth: "If your seedlings are getting tall and spindly, the room temperature may be too high, the light too weak, or you're using too much fertilizer (or a combination of all three)." I think that in retrospect, the grow lights have been essential in getting mine established from seed; they had been much leggier in the past without them. And these lights are not too hot either, though at this point I'm almost finished using them.
A stroll around the MSG this morning revealed that many gardeners have let already let their children outdoors for the summer. Among the seedlings that Allan has planted out, there are some Rose de Berne (above) that are at about the same stage as mine (in forefront of photo at top). I also met Amy, who purchased flats and planted them out a few days ago (see below).
All of the tomatoes I have spotted seem to be doing fine, and I was tempted to bring mine over today, but they still need a few more days of hardening off. As long as I keep an eye on them I shouldn't be too concerned. I remember in her post last month Hanna of This Garden is Illegal explained that while tomato seedlings might run the risk of being scalded, they are basically hardy, though I think I might draw the line at petting them.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

April showers bring...

...Yeah, right. Some flowers, yes, but more work than anything else. May is one of the busiest months for gardening. So much to put in, so much to take out. And a few flowers, too, but in addition to nursing a cold, I've been tackling my to-do list, which has included:
1. Pulling thousands of maple seedlings out of many square feet of garden space in my mostly shady yard--they will grow anywhere.
2. Mowing at the Minton Stable Garden for a few hours. I had signed up to do this last weekend to not only take care of some of my work requirement, but because a friend had also volunteered and there is too much grass for one person to tackle.
3. Taking my broccoli seedlings inside and outside each day for the past week to harden them off.
4. Digging up some of my black-eyed susans, beebalm, and Solomon's seal and bringing them to the Perennial Divide. As you can see in the picture above, BNAN volunteers laid out the donated plants by variety and people who were interested could take one of whatever variety they wanted. I did not find anything that I needed or had the space for, but I purchased a few native perennials from the City Natives nursery.5. Weeding my MSG plot and thinning/harvesting more lettuce and spinach. I like putting bleu cheese and candied walnuts in a salad and making a meal of that.6. Spreading some salt marsh hay on the plot to keep the weeds down. Also, weeding the strawberries and noticing how they are coming along.
7. Planting out some of my broccoli seedlings (my babies!) at the MSG.
8. Keeping my tomato seedlings (still indoors) watered.

And I'm not finished! More weeding, and figuring out when, where, and how to plant the tomatoes. Then it will be time to sow some more seeds: basil, green beans, zinnias, etc. This is the way it is this time of year. When I was working 9+ hours a day in my old job, I couldn't break free until July, and by then it was too late and hot to plant perennials, or to start much of anything from seed. So I am rather fortunate to be able to put in 1-2 hours a day now so I can escape the July heat and reap more benefits later on.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Ignorance about gardening

A few weeks ago, I transplanted some snap pea seedlings into my Minton Stable Garden plot. I had started them indoors out of panic because the seeds I had sown in my backyard seemed to be taking too long to come up. I had no structure in place for them to climb, so I grabbed a tomato ring and some string and fashioned one. But not only did I fail to consider that it would not be tall enough for the plants to climb, but that the plants would need more supports to get them climbing. They have been flopping over in the wind and attaching themselves to each other.

There was a time back in my earlier community gardening days when I would have been mortally embarrassed by this sort of development. Despite the advantage of the opportunity to garden in such close contact with others who could provide me with tips and insights, there existed the disadvantage of those others witnessing my acts of gardening ignorance. What were some of the examples of my amateurism? I don't recall all of them that well, but they usually involved a) not staking up the tomatoes very well, b) transplanting at the wrong time, or c) planting seeds or seedlings too close together.

I'll occasionally hear newer gardeners doubt their own proficiency. "I don't know what I'm doing," they'll say, or "How did you get your basil to grow like that?" Perhaps, like me, they thought that while growing up they were too cool for their parents' hobby but found themselves in adulthood hoping that something genetic would take hold.

But if my experience is any indication, a few years later they'll feel much less self-conscious. Maybe they too will realize that they don't give a damn what others think about their tomato plants that keep falling over, and that no one is really noticing anyway. In fact, they will likely be experiencing lots more success--some of it from observation or from trial and error--without much thought about it.

And maybe, like one former Minton Stable gardener who shall remain nameless, they can share a funny story about gardening ignorance without burning up in shame over it. Like the time they thought they were being so pro-active by deadheading the flowers off their tomato plants.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Green vegetable update

After a few days of intermittent rain and gray skies, a clear afternoon presented a window of opportunity for me to get over to the Minton Stable Garden for the primary purpose of thinning out my lettuce and spinach some more. I only had a half hour--it's been a very busy week in other areas of my life--which was really more than enough time for that simple task but whenever I visit the MSG I have to factor in the social time. And when I arrived I encountered Terry, Joe, Jonathan, Ralph, Allan...but since I work from home in isolation, I welcomed it.
As far as thinning goes, I find it difficult to pull up plants that I had just recently nurtured. Apparently I'm not the only one who feels this way. I take the "playoffs" approach, returning to the garden several times throughout the growing period for elimination rounds when I feel that they are too crowded in. At this point, I thinned the lettuce (Forellenschluss Romaine) and spinach (Space), both started from Fedco seeds in late March, to the point where the plants are about two inches apart. I collected the small seedlings that I pulled and incorporated them into a salad I had with dinner last night. I should thin the plants growing in my backyard, which include the same varieties as well as Buttercrunch Lettuce, but I've been too busy to even look at the raised bed behind my garage.

Today I focused on the Fiesta broccoli seedlings that have been growing under lights since mid-March. The time to start hardening them off is now, really, but out of the fifteen plants I have, only about half of them are ready for it.
The rest of them, as you can see below, have issues. The seedlings on the left have become little Bonsai broccoli, not more than about three inches tall. I had started them in the organic growing medium, but these were not among the plants I had transplanted to larger pots with the non-organic growing medium containing fertilizer. I am in the process of making those changes now; we'll see what happens. As for the plants on the right, they started out just fine, but like pretty much all of the seedlings, the new stem growth became thinner and more spindly, and as a result the plants are not staying upright. I tried to find out why. Perhaps the fertilizer was too nitrogen-rich, which could lead to hollow stems. Or maybe it was the fact that from moving plants back and forth to the sink to soak them I had accidently disrupted the circuit of my grow lights, so only one out of the two lights was functioning. I noticed the problem and fixed it yesterday. The soil in some of the pots was low so I added some more to protect some of the roots that were starting to peek through.
I hope to plant out the stronger broccoli plants in my MSG plot in another week. Until then I'll put them outdoors on the porch for a few hours each day, increasing their exposure to natural light and elements.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Bonding over bindweed

Yesterday was the first Minton Stable Garden work day for the 2009 season. After I signed in, Terry, the Steering Committee member in charge, gave me two options. I could help with the weeding of the grassy near the fence along Dungarven Road, where lots of burdock and even a few rhubarb plants (which we have decided to keep) had sprouted up. Or, I could grab a shovel or hoe and help dig bindweed out of one the the heavily infested plots. The first option was pretty well covered, so I decided to join a few others for what one gardener had referred to as "bonding over bindweed," and put in my first work hour battling our horticultural equivalent of the swine flu.
Native to Europe and western Asia, bindweed is thought to have made its way to the US as early as the 1700s as a seed contaminant. Highly adaptable and proficient in finding light, bindweed will aggressively rob other plants of soil nutrients and space to grow. According a link I found about how to control it, bindweed is often referred to as wild morning glory or creeping jenny, and it is so widespread that there are words for bindweed in 29 different languages. Although I was short on time yesterday, I managed to take a few photos, including the one above of a few plants in the plot that was next to the one that four of us (including the plot-holder) dug up.What we tried our best to do was dig around the bindweed and pull it up, roots and all. Yet sometimes, despite our best efforts, we'd feel the snap of the plant breaking apart, and we'd have to dig further. We were doing that anyway, since the goal was to extract every possible piece of root, from the thick white arteries that you can see in the bag, to the smaller thread-like offshoots. We also pulled some of the bindweed from neighboring plots, though the infestation had not yet risen to the same point of severity. In any case, the gardener in the above plot, who will have to start over, and his neighbors will have to remain extra vigilant, checking for new growth weekly for the rest of the season.
What was the origin of the MSG infestation of bindweed? Could it have arrived with a load of free compost, or with some strawberries that were transplanted from an outside garden? Regarding the latter, if you look around the MSG you will find many strawberry patches, often the result of plants spreading in from neighboring plots. Some gardeners like myself had kept them as an experiment, and after a successful harvest considered them a mainstay.

This plot holder also had a strawberry patch, yet despite the possible risks of more bindweed, he has decided that in addition to tomatoes, he will keep growing strawberries. They seem to do well here, as opposed to in my backyard, where they had been eaten so often by some critters that I had to give up on growing them there, so I really can't blame him.

So, in the end, enough about the plants we don't want. With tulips in bloom everywhere, let me end this post on a brighter note.