Monday, December 26, 2011

CAC article about... AmFam's garden and me!

I got to know a few members of Community Action Coalition (CAC) by reading their articles on the Madison Area Master Gardener listserv, meeting people at the autumn gardener pot luck and at the 2011 Madison "bioneers" conference. My blog caught their attention, and I was interviewed in November for an article in the latest CAC newsletter. Here's a link to the newsletter and the article on page 2 and continuing to page 4. I hope you enjoy reading the article as much as I enjoyed getting to know the fine folks at CAC this year.

American Family Gothic - autumn 2011
(CAC) works to develop economic and social capacities of individuals, families and communities to reduce poverty in Dane, Jefferson and Waukesha Counties. One way they do this is by encouraging urban gardening of all shapes and sizes.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Top 10 worst gardening gifts

Today, a blog post I didn't write, but is garden-related and timely with the gift-giving season in full force. Please enjoy the following truly awful gardening gifts (and explanations of why not to buy them!)

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Winterizing an urban garden

Autumn work on the farm and autumn in the city are so very different, yet vaguely similar. Here's a few things I found in common -- sort of. I also wrote a poem about how I'm feeling about this autumn.


Empty herb bed and missing rain barrel.

On the farm, getting water to garden and animals was literally a matter of life or death for flora and fauna. We had hoses stretched out to barns and gardens from spring through autumn. But as temperatures threatened a sustained freezing or below, we drained hoses and stored them in the barn to prevent bursting over winter.

In the city, we cleaned out the rain barrels, reinstalled the downspouts and drained 25 feet of hose.

Newly installed rain barrel (and lots of bed-making material)

Garden beds
My dad spent autumn days harvesting corn and prepping fields for the crop the following spring. My brothers and I helped clean out the garden, heap dead plant material on the compost pile and cover the beds with mulch. With the exception of scale, this is largely what Jay and I did on one of the last nice weekends of the autumn. We cleaned out our community garden bed, and at home, harvested all our herbs, ripped out the annual flowers, chopped down the perennial vegetation such as lilly, iris and hosta leaves. The leaves and stems of the very prolific wave petunias would have overwhelmed even my ambitious home composting system, so we had to take them to the county compost site. The farm equivalent would have been to drive the tractor to a field and left them to compost on their own.
Wave petunias mid-season.
They grew much wavier and wildly colorful by late summer.
All that remains is the dusty miller and leaf mulch to protect the soil
During my 13 years on the farm, five years of college and 10 years of renting, "raking leaves" meant nothing to me. They blew around the yard, off into the fields and effectively disappeared. Then I bought a house, and then I moved to Jay's house, both of which had enough tree action that the leaves couldn't be ignored.

Composting leaves seems like a good idea, but they are voluminous. Last year my neighbor Randy told me that he was done raking and he was just going to mow over the leaves where they lay. "Good for the soil and good for my back," he told me. We took it a step further. We gathered all the leaves on our front sidewalk and mowed over them, back and forth, until they were leaflets. This year we got smarter and simply gathered leaves in the back yard and ground them up on the dirt. We filled two plastic garbage cans and spread the rest on the flower beds to protect the soil over the winter. The leaves in the bins will be our compost "brown" to match whatever "green" we add to our compost bins from the kitchen.

Our autumn compost bin prep includes two plastic garbage cans with tight lids full of  shredded leaves.  As "green" garden waste is dumped into the wire bin on the left, we'll add an equal amount of leaf material to keep the green/brown mixture roughly even. The wire bin at right is the summer's yard and kitchen waste newly chopped up under our mower and mixed with new leaves and dirt. It will be nicely composted by next spring.
Trees don't just drop leaves, they drop sticks. Lots of them. I don't remember picking up sticks on the farm, but I seem to have to bend over like a duck pecking at the grass every time we mow. We store them next to the house and a couple times a year put them out on the curb. We do this in the autumn at great peril of it snowing before the city lawn and garden department comes through our neighborhood.

Sticks waiting to be picked up - before the first snow PLEASE!

On the farm, we worked hard to winterize the house and buildings with animals. This meant staging plenty of hay for feeding and straw for bedding. In the early days, it meant putting hay bales around the exterior of the house to stop wind from blowing through the foundation. We also put away tools and machinery and moved animals to winter quarters.

In the city, we put our lawn furniture under a tarp. Not terribly romantic :) How do YOU prepare, both physically and mentally, for winter?

Autumn in the city

I'm no poet, but the idea that follows came to me today as I moped around the lawn.

The rain barrels are dry,
The annuals are pulled,
The garlic is in,
The hostas are gone,
The leaves are raked,
The hose is rolled,
The gutters are clear,
The lawn is clipped,
The sticks are picked,
The mower is stored,

And I, I, I am bored.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Video of community garden clean up

I created a video of the garden clean up day. The content is self-explanatory. Except for Uncle Max

I decided to amend our beds this autumn and let the soil mature over winter. My co-worker not only offered aged horse manure, but also to bag and deliver it to work! My neighbor burns wood and gave me a bag of ash. And we planned to top the beds off with compost from a huge pile at work.

After cleaning out plant material and removing this summer's hay mulch, I started to spread a light layer of ash across the beds.
As I sprinkled the ash Jay said, "There goes Uncle Max." One of the weeding parties was within earshot and my friend LeeAnn looked up and remarked, "Uncle Max? Should't we say a prayer or something?" Oh my did we have a giggle at that, and after playing it up a bit, we fessed up that the ash came from a tree.

Not to let another opportunity go, as we started to spread out the horse manure, Jay said, "There goes Bessie." By now we were verging on sacrilege, and LeeAnn played along and asked, "Bessie?"
Thanks Jay and LeeAnn for the laughs, you can see the smiles on our faces, they didn't go away for quite some time.

The following is a small version of the video, but due to text in the video, it's best watched on YouTube.

Clean-up day builds community and compost

Everything we do in the American Family Community Garden seems to be a first. First planting, first weeds, first compost pile, first rabbit damage, first Japanese beetles. Autumn isn't without its firsts either: first frost, first person to decide not to garden next year, and first time to clean the garden beds and community areas. (lots of photos below)

While gardeners were welcome to clean out their personal plots at any time, we planned three community clean-up days when we could work at the same time, get to know one another, and do some community work together. Several people from our small garden committee volunteered to organize work parties during the second community cleanup day, Saturday, Oct. 29. We had three main things to do: weed the common paths, move a compost pile, and winterize the rain barrels. In my opinion, there was an even bigger task to do, start building community among a rather disparate group of gardeners.

Jay and I arrived around 8:45 a.m., and there were already people digging weeds out of the paths. Our thin layer of mulch was no match for the surrounding weed pressure, and at first, the weeding task was ominous. I had previously joked with my fellow committee members that I was going to sneak out to the garden at night and spray the weeds with Roundup.

However, as the morning sun rose, more people arrived and before I knew it there were people in different parts of the garden weeding and carting compost. Jay and I had more than three things to do to get our plot ready for winter and next spring: restake the bed boards; clean out the old plant materials, amend the bed with ash and horse manure, fill any remaining space with compost, and plant the garlic.

Jay pulling marigolds and me pulling tomato cages.

While Jay and I worked on the bed, I looked up once in awhile to see the weeding crews moving down the paths, the compost pile getting smaller and the picnic table get loaded up with snacks. Eventually I started to get self-conscious that we hadn’t yet put effort into the community work, so Jay and I left our project, grabbed spades and joined a weeding party in the fruit tree area.

We chatted with people and dug out the thistles and other weeds that had crept in from the field around our garden. We talked about our successes and challenges of the summer, remarked on the absolutely splendid day we had for working outdoors, proposed various ways to ensure the weeds aren’t as much of a problem next year and got to know one another better.

My cousin Tracy arrived with her small sons. She works at a General Electric plant in Madison, and is helping expand a community garden there, so she wanted to see what our garden was all about. Fortunately, the two women who spearheaded our community garden efforts were both working in the garden and I introduced them to Tracy so they could talk shop. I knew it was a successful introduction when I saw them exchange business cards.

I am pleased and delighted with the number of people who came to help in the garden. At one point, I counted 14 people, though I think the total number was higher because people came and went all morning and into the afternoon. I attempted to say hello to every person and to thank them for helping as they departed.

When one of my coworkers departed, I said something like “It was nice to have you here,” to which he replied (in jest, I need to add), “Why? Because I was doing something moderately social?” Fair enough, you wouldn’t call this particular fellow “Mr. Social,” but no, the reason I was glad to have him, and all the other gardeners there on a Saturday morning, was because they contributed to one half of the formula that makes up a community garden. The gardening for the year was done, but we were all there for the community. Very very cool.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Lessons learned from this summer’s community garden plot

  1. Brussel sprouts are pigs. Well, they aren’t actually pigs or Jay would achieve his dream of harvesting bacon from the garden. But for what they provide (those little cabbage nuggets of goodness), they take a long, long time to grow and take up a lot of space.  I could get more out of the small plot with other vegetables. I’m thinking garlic and onions. 
    Eight brussel sprout plants took up A LOT of room in my 10x10 garden plot.
  2. Garlic planted in the spring yields, but not much. I was warned that garlic planted in the spring would not yield much, but I’m happy with what I got for an early June planting. I can’t wait to see what October planted garlic produces!
    Garlic planted in late spring yeild small but tasty crowns. For 2012, I'm planting in late October 2011.
  3. It’s ok to trim back an indeterminate cherry tomato plant. We planted one sungold cherry tomato plant which took up half a garden bed alongside our garage. It produced like crazy, and in October, it was still blossoming flowers. Had I trimmed it back, we would have gotten more fruit off less plant.
    Yes Virginia, that's ONE sun-gold cherry tomato plant.
  4. Indeterminite tomato plants are not good for canning. Well, they are and we did. But we didn’t get a lot of ripe fruit at any one time. Next year, one indeterminate slicing tomato, and several determinate beefy and paste plants.
    We made marinara sauce with whatever was on the vine at the time.
  5. Careful when co-planting. I read that nasturtium plants ward off a disease (or insect, can’t recall) from eggplant. So I planted several among my eggplant. The nasturtium grew faster and I think competed with and did little to help the eggplant. In August I tore them out and if I’m not mistaken, it seemed that that’s when the eggplant really started to thrive. It was too late for those blossoms to turn into anything but compost.
    Nasturtium flowers - tasty but aggressive
  6. Give the Malabar more trellis. My friend Diane shared two of these viny spinach plants. I tastes great, nothing seemed to kill it, lasted all summer and into autumn and gave the nasturtium next to it a run for its money. We are definitely planting this one next year. But it needs a bigger trellis and we need to more aggressively nibble at its succulent leaves.
  7. Buy vs. start. I’m still 50/50 on this one; because I haven’t done the math, I don’t know if it’s more cost-effective to buy and start seeds under grow lights or purchase plants from the farmer’s market, etc. I spent $10 on seed packets for basil, eggplant and some flowers. But that doesn’t include electricity spent on lights and heat mats. I spent $50 at the farmer’s market for the rest of what I put in the garden. The thing about starting from seed is I have all these leftover seeds, and I have to buy many packets to get the variety I want. I think the key is to plant what I need lots of (basil, eggplant) and buy what I want a few of. OR, I’d like to get into a seed starting cooperative, i.e. I start the basil for everyone, someone else starts tomatoes, etc., or I just get people to pay me for plants I start? Oh boy, that sounds like trouble.
    Nothing says "spring" like loose soil and seeds under grow lights.
  8. I love to be in the garden at 6 in the morning. It’s quiet and peaceful. Sometimes it’s foggy and a little mysterious. I have the whole place to myself, yet I’m sharing it with lots of other people. The day is just starting, and I have time to prune, pick or care for the plants. The hawk watches me, the chipmunk, me, the rabbit, me, the ground squirrel, me, the mouse, me, the mole and then me as I drive off to start my day.
    An early morning sunrise casts long shadows on the sleepy community garden.
  9. If the world goes to hell, we could provide for ourselves. If an economic, social or military apocalypse happened, I’d scrape together some seeds and move to my parents' farm in western Wisconsin where Jay and I, along with my family, could grow and preserve our own food. Variety would be slim and we’d have to be thoughtful about getting a balanced diet (what is high in vitamin C that grows at our latitude?). But I learned that I could do it.
  10. Top 10 lists need 10 entries. Letterman’s 10th item is usually the ringer, the gotcha, the really good one. Mine? Mine is the obvious – I learned that I have much to learn. Why did every single Japanese truffle tomato split on top and get this black stuff in the splits? I don’t know, but I’m not going to plant them again.  Why weren’t my eggplant prolific? I don’t know, but I’m going to try again. Why oh why did I not stick to my “plant cilantro every other week all summer” plan, again? I don’t know, but I’ll make an effort again next year. And so on. Perhaps this is why people garden up until they are dead, because there is much to learn, but despite not knowing much, at least I got a few tomatoes.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

A garden and a CSA box

“You have a garden and a CSA box?” I get that question a lot.

I have subscribed to a community-supported agriculture (CSA) box of vegetables for more than five years. While I’ve been dabbling in herbs for years, only recently did I start a vegetable garden. Because my garden is small and I have limited free time, I only plant what I want lots of: tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, basil and brussel sprouts.

On the other hand, we get a wide variety of vegetables with our CSA box from Tipi Produce. For those who don’t know what a CSA is, here’s a brief CSA primer. A CSA entails buying, or subscribing to, a local farmer for a box of vegetables every or every other week. CSA farms have various lengths of growing seasons (ours has one of the longest at 26 weeks). Some provide vegetables only, some have fruit add-ons, and others add honey, mushrooms and even meat to their boxes.

Jay and I share a box with another couple and we split a new box of vegetables every Thursday from early May through mid-November. The box in spring has lots of leafy vegetables and, as the season and plants mature, we get your typical radishes, beans and peas. Later in the season we’ll find heartier corn, potatoes and squash in our box.

But among these typical vegetables, we also get garlic scapes, arugula, Italian frying peppers, Jerusalem artichokes and celerac. Don’t know what some of these are? Neither did we. Which is precisely why despite growing a productive garden, we intend to continue subscribing to our CSA. I grow the few things I want lots of, and we never quite know what vegetable surprise we’ll find in our next box. Thanks Tipi Produce for another great year of veggies.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

What if gardening lengthened summer and shortened winter?

In February of this year, I got out my seed starting equipment; flats with clear plastic lids, heat mats, and built a temporary table in the basement and then hung grow lights over it. In March, I started several flats of seeds; basil, eggplant and some flowers.

A few weeks later, I came home from a greenhouse with flower seeds to direct sow in the ground. I spent much of April planning both how to build beds in our 10x10 foot community garden plot, and got through May planning where to put plants in dirt.

On June 3 our community garden plot was open for planting, and Jay and I loaded our car with pots, plants and planks to start our community garden. With the late start, June and July were all about water and growth. I started harvesting peppers, eggplant and tomatoes in August. 

Production slowed with a cool September, but I been steadily harvested tomatoes and peppers and a few more eggplant. We gained two more weeks of ripening by covering the plants, twice, to protect from frost. But with October’s shortened days and unpredictably frosty nights, it’s time to strip the peppers and green tomatoes and wait for a hard frost to sweeten the brussel sprouts.

There’s still garden work to do. Later in October Jay and I will clean out the garden, loosen the soil with a pitch fork and add horse manure and compost to fill in the settled beds. Then we’ll stake out two rows with string and plant nearly a pound of garlic (three varieties) which equates to somewhere around 30+ cloves. Finally, we’ll spread out a light layer of hay to protect the soil.

As I was grieving the end of the gardening season, I realized that this year, the gardening season was a full nine months long, significantly lengthening what I usually think of as a three-month summer of June to August.

Our garden provided planning, anticipation, birth, growth, harvest, preserving and completion. It provided great joy, a learning experience and an abundance of food for us and a local food pantry. I got to know more of my co-workers by gardening with them. And looking ahead, Jay and I will eat the fruits of our labor (salsa, baba ganoush, pesto and marinara sauce).

As the garden goes to sleeps, we’ll enjoy autumn leaves, carve pumpkins for Halloween, gather with family for Thanksgiving. Before you know it, we’ll move right into Christmas. The New Year will be upon us and I’ll have to trudge my way through the long, dark month of January. And in February, I’ll get out those seed flats and lights. Maybe winter isn’t as long as I used to dread it to be.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Shout out to Territorial Seed Company

In late May, I planted garlic from a few crowns from my local green house (I favor Johannsen's Greenhouses & Gifts on the Beltline, good selection, incredibly knowledgeable staff).  I knew it was late but I had this patch of dirt with nothing in it and I wanted to see how it would go.

I harvested my garlic plantation in late July and I'm now hooked on growing garlic. Planting and care were easy, garlic stores well and there's nothing like garlic in the winter to fend off the snowy blues. And mine is organic to boot!

I decided to buy a variety of garlic to plant this autumn and went online to see what's out there. Don't do it if you have no will power and a credit card at hand - there's a lot of garlic to be grown. I found Territorial Seed Company in Cottage Grove, Oregon (now that's going to be confusing for my Madison friends) and found a two-variety pack, one pound each. Two pounds of seed garlic cost $42.50 with shipping. But, I'm sharing it with friend Jason and my mom, so after we split it, not bad.

Last night as I was splitting up the order, I noticed one of the cloves was a bit mushy. And at $42 for 16 cloves, each one is about $2.60. Ok, no  big deal, but I thought for this price (the ones at Johannsen's were about 1.50 each) it would be worth a try to ask for a new clove.

I took a photo of the mushy clove next to a healthy specimen and sent an email to customer service last night. When I got home today I had two emails from Territorial Seed Company. First was an apology and word that they would send a replacement. The second was a notification that the replacement had already been shipped.

Ok. That's cool. And great service.

Thanks Territorial Seed Company, you are awesome!
Ok, so oops they sent a lousy clove. They're sending a replacement. How cool is that?!

Gardening = learning + food

I love learning, and I love food, so it should come as no surprise that this spring and summer's gardening adventure has me learning and cooking, a lot.

Some of the best learning is the informal kind, a passing comment that makes not just a light bulb, but an entire Christmas tree go off in my head. That happened today.

This morning, my co-worker and fellow American Family Community Gardener Nate walked by my desk on his way to his. We talked about the produce that our gardeners have donated to local food pantries, and then the chat turned to our own plots. Nate has his mostly cleaned out, while I have lots left. I bemoaned my tiny brussel sprouts (both stalks and sprouts) compared to my mom's stalks that are twice as high as mine. I explained my dim hope that the sprouts get a little bigger before a hard frost kills the plants.

"Well you know," Nate said, "If you take the tops off the stalks, the plant will put more energy into  growing the sprouts." Why hadn't I thought of that? Just last week I spent an hour trimming flowers off my tomatoes to force them to move those green fruit along. But Nate had one more thing to say on the subject.

"You can eat the tops."

My mind raced to memories of a cabbage soup that I just adore, and I imagined that these brussel sprout leaves would be very similar to cabbage leaves. After work today, I chopped those tops off and took them home and made one of the simplest yet tastiest soups I know of. And yes, I'm going to share the recipe with you. Thanks Nate, for a delicious dinner!

One of the few times I'll eat meat - bacon makes this recipe.

I can't leave a recipe alone (due either to ingredient substitution or an excessive appetite for food experimentation). I used waaay more brussel sprout leaves than the equivalent of 6 leaves of cabbage, double or triple. Cooked 4 slices of bacon (more leaves needs more bacon) and I don't use olive oil (there's plenty of bacon fat). And 1 clove of garlic? How about 5? I also use Better than Bouillon Not Chicken broth.

From Modern Cooking, Creative American Cooking with an International Flavor, Landoll's, Inc., 1996.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

My mother's son

After an exhausting yet exhilarating day of canning salsa, I sat at the dinner table and announced to Jay, "I think I'm becoming my mother's son."

Plumb, roma and pink beauty tomatoes: shelf life - 1 week on the counter, 2 in the fridge.
"Watch your grammar" he replied, "You're using a gerund."

He's right, I should have said "I AM my mother's son."

Jalapeno, chile and some sweet peppers for the salsa: shelf life - several weeks fresh, several years dehydrated.
I was practically giddy after cooking and canning 18 8-ounce jars of home made salsa. My elation was fueled in part by seeing the culmination of all our gardening work preserved beyond the brief shelf life of a fresh tomato. It's also fueled by the joy (and challenges) Jay and I had working together (there was a tense moment among pots of boiling water, bubbling salsa and sterile jars and lids when both of us didn't know what to do next; thank goodness for YouTube videos.) Finally, it's fueled by a strong memory from 30 years ago of my mom stepping back from her pantry after a marathon week of canning and saying to one in particular and all of us at the same time "Well, if we have nothing else, at least we'll have tomatoes."

It was an indelible memory that if the economy or our food supply ends as we know it, it's still possible to preserve food for later consumption.
Ground cherries, plump sweet little things: shelf life - several weeks in husk, a week once shucked. 
For our family living on, and for awhile exclusively supported by, a small pig farm, food security was a reality that my mom managed by preserving food from the garden and what we wild-picked in the fields and forests. And while food security is not a current issue for Jay and me, there was still something very satisfying about taking food we had grown, cooking it and knowing that it'll be there in those jars when we want to eat it.

So knowing all that, you may begin to appreciate why it was a such a big deal to me that this weekend Jay and I worked together to preserve what could be the last batch of fresh tomatoes from our community garden. (I say "could be" because who knows when frost will kill the plants). We decided to make home made salsa using our own tomatoes following a recipe my mom uses and got from a family friend. I followed the recipe with few alterations (used honey instead of sugar, and my own seasoning instead of a "taco seasoning" packet.) I know that canning is serious stuff because of the very real possibility of food poisoning, though it's more likely a jar gone bad will explode in the basement before we eat something that could kill us.

Jay was very careful to keep the jars and lids clean as we filled and capped them. I hope I did a good enough job on the second batch I made by myself.

Fruits, err, salsa of our labor. 18 8-ounce jars of home made salsa.
On Sunday, Jay departed for a work trip and I was faced with more tomatoes in the fridge (I know, I know, but they were threatening to go bad, and it was the only way to fend off the fruit flies). So, I took what we learned together and did what I suspect my mom did every summer, prepped, chopped, cooked, canned and processed salsa on my own. Four hands certainly did make the job go faster, but I managed not to burn myself or anything else.
Bought pint jars for the second batch.
I didn't want to make an identical batch of salsa, so I added seven tomatillos and kernels from three ears of corn (had to buy those). I also roasted some of my own peppers on the grill- I love the smokey flavor of chipotle. Blackened the skins of some sweet red bell peppers, two yellow peppers and a few "sweet carmen" peppers, let them cool and peeled the flesh off the burnt skin. About the sweet carmen, there was nothing much left of the flesh after cooking them, they didn't burn away, but the flesh seemed to simply disappear.

The second batch made 11 pints of salsa (recipe said it woud be seven but I added all that stuff). Not knowing much about canning, I just hope the lids don't start to buldge because my proportions were off - I'll check them every few days to see if anything looks like it's going bad.

I'm very interested to hear your canning successes (and failures if you'd care to share).

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Waste not, want not

Radio entertainer and host of A Prairie Home Companion, Garrison Keillor, was a staple of my childhood Saturday evening entertainment on the farm. One story still resonates in my head. In one of his "Lake Wobegon" monologues, Keillor commented on how safe his town was, that people never locked their car doors and would often leave the keys when parking in town -- except in August. No, in August, doors were locked and car windows rolled up despite the summer heat, because to leave a car unlocked meant risking the inevitable -- someone would leave a bag of zuchini in the car.

One of the challenges of gardening, urban or not, is to grow just enough vegetables that the gardener can eat immediately, put up or give away and not have so much that produce goes to waste. This is a great challenge because there are so many variables at play; soil type and fertility, rainfall or ability to water, seed or plant health, plant variety, insect damage, temperatures, etc. It's likely that many gardeners put a lot into the ground hoping that sheer numbers will overcome any of these adversities.

And this is all well and good, until an urban gardener with a country perspective walks through a community garden and sees tomatoes fallen to the ground, yellowing cucumbers or oversized zucchini. I not only grew up on a farm, I grew up with a "waste not, want not" mentality due to a pretty tight food budget and a very large garden. My mother canned, pickled and froze much of what we grew and didn't eat immediately. I'll never forget one summer afternoon, after canning 80 quarts of tomatoes, my mother said with great satisfaction, "If we run out of food, at least we'll have tomatoes."

So I took a mid-August walk through the new American Family community garden to see how our own gardeners were harvesting (or not) their produce. This is what I found.
The garden is home to many insects - I grew up knowing this as a garden spider. It was feeding on another insect - go spider!

These cherry tomatoes are ready to harvest. What you don't see is this gardener planted several cherry tomato plants and there is a lot of over ripe fruit on the plants and on the ground.

This is from my garden, an asian eggplant that had some sort of rot. Had I harvested it earlier, it may not have rotted where it touched the mulch.

The infamous zucchini, this one ready to harvest. I was glad not to find boatloads of boatsized fruit - yet. Late August is upon us.

Lettuce gone bad. I wouldn't want to meet this in a dark alley.

Basil going to flower. It's beautiful, and the bees love it, but when basil is allowed to flower, the plant thinks it's done its job and wraps up for the summer. Unlike cilantro, a well-trimmed basil plant will keep producing - think an endless supply of pesto or caprese salad.

Can't blame the gardener for this, cilantro bolts no matter what you do. Suggestion: pull it out and plant more; you'll have fresh cilantro in a couple of weeks. Request: don't let it go to seed or your neighbors will have cilantro - everywhere.

This makes me sad; an ignored and unharvested variety of sugar or snow pea.

This makes me happy, a bee in a squash blossom.

Swollen cucumbers. None of these are food-grade produce anymore and need to be removed to the compost pile before they turn to mush and insect party dens.

I'm not sure if these are "decorative" peas/beans; the blossoms are lovely. But the vegetables are desiccating on the vine and could have been somebody's food.

The bean on the left is good to eat, the one on the right is getting a bit big but certainly edible. Within a few days, however, no one will want to eat this lovely food.

Thanks for reading and looking at photos. I'll post some ideas about what to do with excess produce in a future blog post.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Blossom-end rot in 2 minutes

Brian Hudelson, a UW-Extension plant disease expert, recently visited the American Family community garden. Here is his 2-minute talk about blossom-end rot, which mostly affects tomatoes but also affects other vegetables.

Watch the full-size video on YouTube

Thursday, August 11, 2011

A pro weighs in on the beetle bag debate

Brian Hudelson from the UW Extension plant disease diagnostic clinic spent his lunch hour with about 20 gardeners at the American Family community garden to see what's bugging our plants. I plan to pull out short segments of the talk, but the first has to be what he says about Japanese beetle traps.

In 90 seconds, he tells us what he thinks of them, where to place them and a bit about the Japanese beetle lifecycle.

Watch the full-size video on YouTube

Thanks for watching!

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Beetle bags, good, bad or don't matter?

Another video blog (this time easy to hear!) about Japanese Beetle Bags. Watch, and then comment. Link to YouTube video blog to see it in full screen.

Well, what do you think? Please comment below on if these help, hurt or don't matter.

Thanks for watching!

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Video blog - gardening missions

In my first video blog, I describe the many different gardening "missions" to consider when planning a garden. Perhaps a bit late for this year, but good to mull over for next.

This video is much more than my silly talking head (need more movement next time) - about a minute into the video I start showing some photos to demonstrate what I'm talking about. 

You can play the embedded video below or use this link to see the video on YouTube. (I was able to but a much larger format video on YouTube, where the photos look a lot better.)

p.s. sorry it's so quiet, I have to adjust levels but don't know how with this video. So turn your speakers up!

Monday, July 18, 2011

A SLUG worth knowing

I spent four days at a conference at the Lawrence University campus in Appleton, Wisconsin. We spent a lot of time in the student commons, and every time I walked to lunch, I had a great view of what was clearly a community garden across the road and down the hill. On the last day of the conference, I had an hour of free time and spotted people working in the garden, so I walked down and introduced myself.

Young squash plants, much later than most Wisconsin gardener


Rachel Graber, a  LU student and student teacher for the next academic year, told me about the project. The garden is called SLUGs, Sustainable Lawrence University Gardens, and it was established in 2005.  The students have expanded beyond the quarter acre garden since, and now have a nearby fifth acre orchard with 15 trees and an herb garden

The Sustainable Lawrence University Gardens, as seen from the student commons.
There are a number of things that make SLUGs a unique student group at LU. Many of the students who work on the garden live in a house where they cook together, often food from the garden.  The gardens provide an educational program for LU student who want to learn about urban gardening and local food production. The gardens are also part of an experiment in students teaching themselves. And a recent grant now allows LU students to involve local high school via a summer work program. Finally, the university doesn’t have a formal academic agricultural program, and the garden fills that niche nicely.
Rachel Graber, LU grad student (left), another LU student (foreground) and two local high school students in the back.

Another thing that makes the SLUGs student group unique is that it is the only LU student organization that physically changes the campus landscape. Since starting with the quarter-acre plot, the students designed and built a hoop greenhouse, improved the soil, build raised beds and started massive compost bins. “We get deliveries of food waste from the university food service several times a week,” says Rachel.

There is also a large and handsome garden shed in one corner of the plot. “Our first shed wasn’t this nice,” says Rachel. “The university built a large fire ring next to the garden that required demolishing the original SLUGs shed. They replaced it with this; we have great support from the university administration. Our president is an avid gardener and we have great relations with the university, the grounds crew and the cafeteria.”

The cafeteria?

Yes, the cafeteria. If you’ve read previous blog posts, I’m very interested in the idea of people working their gardens with a specific mission in mind. In addition to being a facility to teach and involve students in growing local food that the gardeners consume themselves, the SLUGs also sells produce to the university food service and the Appleton farmers market. Since the university food service is shut down during the summer months, SLUGs has a unique growing season to contend with. They don’t want to produce much of anything until school starts in early September.

This means that the garden currently has a huge bed of basil that was just transplanted into the soil, each plant a mere three inches tall. The winter squash plants have just two or three “true leaves,” and the tomatoes are way behind what most Wisconsin gardeners expect in mid-July.

With the plants at this stage, Rachel expects they’ll have plenty to consume themselves, sell to the university food service once it opens for the school year and sell at the local market. The food will just come in a lot later than for most Wisconsin gardeners.

One more thing makes this a very cool project. The group wanted to raise bees, but discovered that hives are considered livestock in Appleton. So, the group got political and one of the SLUGs members worked with the city to change a local ordinance to allow beekeeping in the city limits. “We found there is a huge interest beyond SLUGs to keep bees,” says Rachel. We successfully changed the ordinance to allow beekeeping in Appleton.” This spring, SLUGs established five beehives that are going to be used for educational and independent study. And, Rachel concludes, “Who doesn’t like honey?”

This is a sweet garden indeed.

If you’d like to contact SLUGs yourself, send an email to