Friday, July 18, 2014

Community Gardening for Food and for People

At last night's meeting of the not-yet-one-year-old Cobb Community Gardens group, Bobby Wilson was the guest speaker. Mr. Wilson is past-president of the American Community Gardening Association (ACGA),current CEO of Metro Atlanta Urban Farms, and all-around long-time expert on community gardens. It was an interesting meeting, but a few things from his presentation stand out as being particularly useful.

One is that community gardens should have a two-part goal: growing food and building stronger communities. Mr. Wilson actually addressed that more specifically when he said that 10% of the effort should be about growing food and 90% of the effort about building community.

In the community garden attached to his urban farm, the community-building is partly through monthly meetings at which there are lessons in both gardening and leadership. The meetings offer an opportunity for fellowship and networking, and the meetings also are used to reach out to homeless people each month. Basically, the gardeners need a reason to come together on a consistent basis, and the monthly meetings provide that for this particular community garden.

The Atlanta Regional Commission has put together a Community Gardening Manual that explains the basics of setting up and running a community garden, and it probably is not a coincidence that the first "organizational consideration" listed on page 4 in the manual is "What is your purpose?" The purpose, to an extent, defines the group and is one motivation for the gardeners to be actively involved.

Mr. Wilson spoke briefly about food deserts, and it sounded as though providing good, nutritious food to people in food desert areas is a major motivator for many community gardens in Atlanta.

Another idea that really stood out was of the usefulness of attaching community gardens to small farms. Of course, Mr. Wilson didn't phrase it quite that way, but urban farms, unlike community gardens, are eligible for Federal funding through NRCS and the USDA for some property improvements, like water wells and high tunnels. For small, urban farms, it also was suggested that certification as Naturally Grown, a process that costs a lot less than organic certification, could be helpful in selling produce and gaining funding.

A third idea that is a project of the community garden at Mr. Wilson's urban farm was the publication each year of  a garden calendar that celebrates the group's achievements. He passed a copy of one of these calendars around, and inside there were pictures of the garden, including the year's garden King and Queen, along with a listing of milestones and accomplishments, and in the back there was a member directory/phonebook.

This was a wonderful document for the group that probably also helped promote active participation. The discussion about the calendar was part of a larger point about marketing the garden. My notes from the meeting include, in large print: "Marketing Your Program is Important!" The giant exclamation mark on my notepaper reflects the tone of voice in which this bit of advice was delivered.

Mr. Wilson brought a banner on which a pledge to work toward sustainable food production was written. He asked us all to sign it before we left. The pledge was this:
I pledge allegiance
to our environment
through sustainable
agriculture and practicing
good stewardship.
One very big announcement that Mr. Wilson made at last night's meeting is that the ACGA is planning to move headquarters from Ohio to Atlanta. We are all hoping that the move will provide access to some great training and other resources to keep our communities strong and well-fed!

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Thinking Forward to Fall

Has everyone else already started seeds for fall crops? Here in Cobb County, it's time! The cool-weather crops we usually set out as transplants - broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts - mostly have a long enough time-to-maturity that they are planted out to the garden in the second half of August, which means the seedlings need to be started now.

Exceptions would be for faster-maturing varieties, like Early Snowball cauliflower that is such a speed-crop (just 50 days!) that gardeners have an extra 3 or 4 weeks to get that one started.

In my garden, the space for most of those Brassica-family crops (aka: cabbage family; cole crops, Cruciferae) is still taken up by the April-planted tomatoes, but the space where I'm planning to plant carrots this year has some cucumber vines that are looking pretty ragged. I may pull those up this weekend and strew some buckwheat seeds in that space for now, to help get the soil in shape for the next crop.

When the buckwheat starts to flower (it happens fast!), that would get turned back under to add organic matter to the soil. In the meantime, the plants would have helped hold onto nutrients and encouraged some good microbial activity underground.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Cupped, Twisty, Weird Tomato Leaves: Herbicide Damage

I have seen, in the past couple of weeks, several examples of tomato and pepper plants that show signs of damage from weed killers. The leaves are variously cupped, twisty, fanned, excessively pointy, and otherwise just plain weird. The gardeners whose plants these are have not been using weed killer in their gardens, nor have they applied any manures (another source of herbicides), but they have used weed killers (or employed a lawn care company that used them) on their lawns.

K-State has a great little "Problem" page about accidental herbicide damage, and this sentence is especially eye-opening: "Some broadleaf herbicides such as 2,4-D are volatile, especially during hot weather, and may drift across the yard or even adjacent yards in concentrations sufficient to cause injury."

Twisty, weird tomato leaves with unusual vein pattern.
This means that even carefully applied lawn herbicides can cause unintended damage in the vegetable garden.

Those of us who have "freedom lawns" (random-weed-and-turf-grass mixes) rather than monoculture lawns typically don't suffer from herbicide damage, because we never use any, but there are plenty of gardeners in urban/suburban areas who live in neighborhoods that demand botanical uniformity in lawns. Vegetable gardeners in these neighborhoods may be stuck "between a rock and a hard place."

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Beans, Berries, and Cukes

Sunday's harvest.
Daily harvests for the past several days haven't been wildly varied, but it's pretty hard to complain when what's in the basket is so very delicious.

Saturday it was beans, berries and cukes. Sunday it was beans, berries and cukes. Yesterday it was beans, berries, and cukes, and I am guessing that the pattern will hold for several more days.

On Sunday, I did pull the onions and lay them out on the porch to dry, along with most of the garlic. The potatoes are nearly ready, but not quite yet. Leaves are turning yellow and falling over, but I like to see a higher percentage of them looking absolutely done before digging up the spuds.
140 pots of basil seedlings.

Monday's harvest.
The cucumbers in the basket are Chicago Picklers and Beit Alpha. Most of the berries are Heritage, with some Wineberries and an unknown variety of strawberry mixed in. The green beans are Provider, and the Wax Beans are a new-to-me variety that I will have to look up again (the name has slipped my mind).

It's been several years since I've planted wax beans, and I had forgotten how great it is to actually be able to find the beans in all the foliage. The bright yellow beans almost glow against the background of green leaves.

The other photo is of a whole lot of basil seedlings. My workplace will be celebrating Horticulture week, July 7-11, and part of the celebration will include giving away basil seedlings to people who stop by the office that week. If anyone is worried about the crowded condition of the little plants - it may help to know that I plan to thin them to ~2 seedlings per pot sometime in the next few days.

Hope the harvests in other gardens are going well!

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

How the Garden Grows...

Multiplying onions approaching harvest time.
In spite of running a bit behind, the garden is doing well enough. The onion family bed will be ready to harvest soon. The necks of the multiplying onions are getting soft, making the leaves fall over. The leaves of the garlic and shallots are beginning to show a little more brown, too, which is a good sign at this point in the season.

We are bringing in a few strawberries most days, and I have been grazing on raspberries, which means I haven't been bringing them in to weigh. I don't think they would add much to the yearly total, but I just am not ever going to know; it's too hard to see them and NOT eat them right away!

The green beans have been making it to the kitchen, which makes me pretty happy. Many other local gardeners have been begun to harvest zucchini and yellow squash, cucumbers, and peppers. We've been getting those out at the farm where we volunteer on the weekends, but in my own yard those are not yet ready. I was late getting them planted. When it got right down to priorities, planting at the farm, which feeds lots of people, was a more valuable use of time.
Still getting strawberries!
Popcorn crop making progress.
Tomatoes looking good.

Another use of my time in the past week or so was writing a blog post about growing peanuts in the home garden for the National Peanut Board. I am happy to be able to say that the post is up! It is called (not too surprisingly) "How to grow peanuts in your own garden."

You can see my seedling peanuts in the nearly-bare ground in front of my popcorn. The two rows have come up, and the little plants look great!

I really should have thinned the Asiatic lilies...
Elsewhere in the garden, tomatoes, peppers, and tomatillos are making their fruits, the potato foliage is turning yellow and falling over (a signal that harvest time is approaching!), the sweet potatoes finally are planted (hooray!), little okra seedlings are popping up, squash plants of various kinds are making some big leaves, and flowers of several types are adding to the chaos of luxuriant growth.

Hope all the other gardens out there are growing well!

Monday, June 2, 2014

What I Didn't Know About Tomatillos

One of three tomatillo plants in this year's garden.    PHOTO/Amy W.
A local gardener mentioned a past problem with a tomatillo plant that had developed very little fruit in spite of an abundance of flowers. She had learned later that ... surprise!... in order to actually get tomatillos, it helps to be growing more than one plant in the garden.

Until I spoke with her, the possibility of needing more than one plant hadn't occurred to me, since tomatillos are tomato-family plants with perfect flowers, but it turns out that tomatillo flowers are self-infertile.

They need to be cross-pollinated, and best fruit-set will occur when that pollen comes from an entirely different individual plant.

Most of the University-produced information that I found did not mention this potential problem; they all just said to grow tomatillos like tomatoes. For all the small-garden people who grow just one tomato plant, and likewise decide to plant just one tomatillo, well, there will be some disappointed gardeners. The tomatoes will set fruit just fine, but there will be no source of fruit for the best salsa verde; green tomatoes will have to suffice (they work, but tomatillas work better).

Luckily, for those who are looking for more complete information about growing tomatillos, University of California's Sonoma County Master Gardeners Tomatillo page includes the essential bit about needing more than one plant for best fruit-set.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Not Finished with Planting, and Still Harvesting Lettuce

There has been a lot of Life in my life lately, which means that my planting isn't exactly following my plan. I think that happens pretty much every year, so I am not surprised. Really, the year that everything else is so calm that I get the gardening done on a good schedule is probably going to be a boring year (except for the really great garden!).

In the "going right" column, I can list the continued harvest of peas, lettuces, and strawberries, along with a few increasingly spicy radishes. Some day soon, the beets will be ready to harvest. The tomatoes are planted, as are some of the peppers. The corn is up and growing, and so are the bush and pole beans. Germination of cucumbers was slow, but the little plants now are beginning to run.

The garlic, shallots, and multiplying onions still look great. The two tomatilla plants each have a couple of flowers. Cosmos are up about 6 inches in a couple of places in the garden, and several borage plants have been blooming well for a while.

In the "running behind" column, I can list the planting of zucchini, melons, winter squashes, okra, sunflowers, other flowers, the rest of the peppers, and some herbs (basil! parsley!). Sweet potatoes and peanuts aren't planted yet, but they aren't late. It is just about time now for those to go into the ground.

In a "looks like trouble ahead" column, I can list the lagging eggplants that are covered up in flea beetles and a possible problem already on some of the cucumber leaves.

More Life is expected for this weekend, which means the planting might still be behind next Tuesday, even after having a three-day weekend in which to catch up!

Meanwhile, in one of those moments of craziness that seem to strike all gardeners, I ordered seeds for pink bananas, American licorice, Siberian pea shrub, goji berry, and a wild black cap raspberry. Those have all arrived arrived in the mail, and most of them have stratification requirements that will keep them from germinating anytime soon. I'm looking forward to figuring them all out.

Hope all the other gardeners out there are having fun!

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Compost Contemplations

Last week was "International Compost Awareness Week," so compost was uppermost in my mind for much of the time. One major aspect that's been on my mind is that, even though my six pet bunnies add a lot of old hay and bunny manure to my compost pile every week, there still isn't enough compost for my whole garden, and my garden is not large.

I read once that the average WWII Victory Garden encompassed ~600 square feet. My vegetable growing space is just a little over half that. Remember -- Victory Gardens during WWII provided about 40% of this nation's produce at a time when that production was sorely needed. That is a huge amount of productivity!

The U.S. could do that again, if needed, but it would take a lot of compost.  Maintaining a warren of rabbits in my garage is, apparently, not the answer to the question of where all the needed compost is going to come from. You may be asking -- "why is compost needed in such large amounts?"

Part of the answer would lie in the brick-like consistency of Georgia clay in summer, or the non-absorptive properties of soils that are mostly sand.  Even for conventional/chemical gardeners, compost can improve the physical properties of very poor soils.

Gardeners working in the kinds of subdivisions in which all the soil was rearranged by giant machines before construction even began, removing the topsoil and putting it who-knows-where, will totally understand what I mean by "very poor soils." Many of us begin without any real topsoil at all!  Compost improves moisture retention, nutrient availability, and biological activity in these soils.

For organic growers, abundant compost is basic to the whole process, with the "biological activity" part being of utmost importance, since without the underground microbes and their slightly larger associates, there would be no nutrients available for plant growth.

Even beyond the productivity gains that can come from nourishing the teeming billions of lifeforms underground, yet another reason to compost may lie in the ability of that compost to help move carbon underground. In my scanning of the morning news this past week, I read a surprising headline: "First time in 800,00 years: April's CO2 levels above 400 ppm". We all knew that was coming, but it does seem a little soon.

Couple that headline with an article that I had seen through, originally published at Yale Environment 360 -- "Soil as Carbon Storehouse: New Weapon in Climate Fight?" -- and compost is looking even more like the "black gold" that some gardeners call it, even though compost isn't specifically mentioned in the article. Instead, it mentions other practices that could help store carbon in the soil:

"...replanting degraded areas, increased mulching of biomass instead of burning, large-scale use of biochar, improved pasture management, effective erosion control, and restoration of mangroves, salt marshes, and sea grasses"

Much further along, the article mentions the important role of fungi in storing carbon in the soil:

"...scientists from the University of Texas at Austin, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, and Boston University assessed the carbon and nitrogen cycles under different mycorrhizal regimens and found that plants linked with fruiting, or mushroom-type, fungi stored 70 percent more carbon per unit of nitrogen in soil."

Using composts and degradable mulches can do a lot toward welcoming the right kinds of fungi to a garden.

The article was aimed more at larger scale agricultural activities, but that doesn't mean that gardeners can't do their part to help out.  If more of us are more intentional about what happens to the carbon that flows through our lives, it certainly can't hurt.

This is my birthday month, and one of my best buddies, as an early birthday gift, took me to a book signing for Farmer D's new book, Citizen Farmers (and she bought me a copy of the book, for Farmer D to sign!). One great aspect of the book is its focus on compost. Really, all gardening should start with compost, but most garden book don't make that point so emphatically.  Farmer D lists, right in the introduction, his citizen farmer basics, and number one on the list is "Make composting a way of life." That sounds like a very good idea.

Monday, May 5, 2014

The Future of Supper

Spring is finally warming up, and in a big way. I've brought in a lot of the lettuce to store in the fridge, because the upcoming several-days-in-a-row of above 85 degrees F weather is likely to make what's left in the garden turn bitter.
Peas beginning to form.

Some of the other crops, though, are approaching their most shining time in the garden. One of those crops is the peas, which are beginning to make actual peas in the several areas where they are planted.

Two of those patches will be left to make food for humans, the rest will be cut down -- some to feed to my pet bunnies (who love pea shoots), and some to turn into the soil to feed the microscopic critters underground.
Potato foliage in the foreground, Allium family crops in the back.

The foliage on the potatoes is looking good, too. The little flowers indicate that potatoes are beginning to form underground.

Over the weekend, I added more compost around the leafy stems, partly to keep the soil as cool as possible for as long as possible, and partly to add a little more depth around the stems.

In general, potatoes are more productive when soil is "hilled" around the stems of the plants. The close spacing in these beds doesn't leave much room for hilling up the nearby soil, but adding more to the top of the bed should have the same effect. At least, that's the dream!
Big basket of spinach, that cooked down to about three cups.

Strawberries under netting.
I brought in the spinach over the weekend, too. It looked like a lot of food when I packed it all into the basket to bring inside, but that whole load of leaves cooked down to only about three cups.

We divided the cooked leaves into three portions and put them in the freezer for future meals.

Joe and I had been talking last week about our version of Shepherd's Pie; when the potatoes are ready to harvest, we are going to want this spinach to make some.
Cilantro bolting to flower in the warmer days of May.

The strawberries are starting to add their bright color and flavor to meals (we had some last night). Straight from the garden, they taste like spring!

Other berries in the yard are in flower, but it will be a few more weeks before any of the brambleberries are ready for eating.
As the days have begun to warm, the cilantro has decided that it's time to finish its life cycle and put out flowers and seeds. No one is especially happy about this development (it seems early), but I will be planting seeds for more, soon.

Meanwhile, we will all just enjoy what we have. Joe and I will be using some of the larger leaves from closer to the base of each plant in some guacamole tonight, and our bunnies will be eating some of the taller flowering stems that have bolted up from the base.

There is a little trellis behind the cilantro patch that I've planted a few "Greasy Beans" underneath. When the cilantro is finally in sad enough shape that I pull it up, there will be beans twining up from behind to fill that space. In my mind, it is already beautiful.

And this last picture isn't of plants (or supper), it is of two Best Friends, Holstein and Darwin -- two of my pet bunnies. Holstein is less symmetrical than she used to be. Her face is a little lopsided, and she lists to the right when she walks. The vet said she'd had a "neurological event," which I'm interpreting to mean that she'd had a stroke. She and Darwin are usually pressed right up together, even when they are eating their bunny salad. They are happy to eat the good food that is growing in our garden!
Holstein and Darwin think everything grown in the garden is for them.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Urban Farming Produces a Huge Amount of Food

I was reading today a on blog that I occasionally visit, the Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog, that Food First had an article up that mentioned urban farming, so I clicked on over to the article "What place for urban farmers in the International Year of Family Farming?"  to read it.

Although the article focused on actual farms, rather than gardens like mine, and on the relative lack of focus on problems of urban farmers in the IYFF, it contained a quote that really shined a bright light on urban food production:

"...15 to 20 percent of the world’s food is produced through urban farming, involving an estimated 800 million people.  Producing food in cities significantly reduces energy and resources needed for packaging, storage and transportation, and can recycle sewage and organic waste."

It seems a not-unreasonable step to think that urban food gardening adds an additional non-trivial percentage of food and produces less waste and recycles more, even when taking into account the number of plastic bags involved in bringing most soil amendments home from the garden store. My experience is that home gardeners in general are great gleaners of their neighborhood yard waste that they then compost for use in the garden.

Today, I've made a small contribution to the future of the urban food total: I planted the tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants that I had started earlier this year. I have more plants than space in the garden, so some will be bumped up to the next size of pot, to have on hand in case anything damages the planted-out veggies in the next few weeks.

If it hadn't started thundering and pouring down rain, I would have planted more seeds, too, but those can wait. Meanwhile out in the garden beds, the peas have begun to flower, the shallots are sending up seed-heads, and the Kennebec potatoes that I planted early also have begun to flower. The earliest-planted lettuces and the spinach are pretty much at peak flavor, and seedlings of beans, cucumbers, popcorn, and more radishes are popping up.

Right about now, when the days are getting warmer, the rain is working its magic, and the crops are promising to give us their all, is a totally wondrous moment in the garden. It amazes me that this shining instant in the farming and gardening year is such a practical time, too, in terms of the future of good food for us all.