November 28, 2013

Why We Garden - The Thanksgiving Edition

One of Betty’s most popular programs for garden clubs has the cumbersome title, “Planning, Preparing and Planting the Vegetable Garden”.  In it, she takes clubs through all the stages of getting involved in creating a home garden, imparting considerable wisdom along the way. 
Norman Rockwell focused on
the turkey.  We focus on
the vegetables.
The program ends with a slide titled ‘Why We Garden’ and the bullet points are ‘Remembering where food comes from’, ‘Eating truly fresh vegetables’ and ‘Eating well long after the garden is gone’.  Betty expounds on each benefit before raising the lights and asking for questions.
The illustration for that slide is an array of home-canned fruits and vegetables in a larder.  After today, I have an idea for a much better one: a photograph of our Thanksgiving dinner.  We have just completed a sumptuous dinner and the remarkable part is that nearly all of it came from our garden – that same garden that was plowed under four weeks ago.
We started with a superb vichyssoise – potato leek soup for the uninitiated.  Hours before the garden was eradicated for 2013, we pulled the last of our leeks – more than a dozen plump, succulent and fragrant specimens that shrugged off the sub-freezing nights.  We have been eating those leeks ever since.  Today’s repast used the last of them and they were delicious.
Our main course included creamed onions, green beans, corn, turnips, butternut squash, turkey and dressing.  Everything on the table grew in our garden except the turkey and dressing, and those two items were liberally seasoned with rosemary, thyme and sage from our kitchen garden.  The dressing contained onions and celery from our garden.  I draw the line, though, at growing wheat.
Three squares of corn meant
enough extra to freeze
The corn bears special mention.  During the prime corn harvesting season in August and September, we ate two or four ears of corn every day as each ‘square’ ripened.  Inevitably, though, there was an overlap when one square was not completely picked while the next was clearly ripe.  During that interregnum, we picked, shucked, blanched and quick-froze the excess corn.  A day later, we sheared the cobs of their kernels and froze them in plastic bags.  The resulting product is startling: it tastes nothing like the frozen corn you find in supermarkets.  Rather, it is just a shade off what was picked back in August and September: incredibly sweet and crunchy.
We had our salad course after the main meal.  I had sincere doubts whether the lettuce we transplanted to our cold frame in September would survive the pair of 15 degree nights and 40 mph winds we endured last week.  I covered the cold frame with a tarp and crossed my fingers.  To my surprise, several of the lettuce heads came through without freeze damage.  It tasted grand.
This is our post-Thanksgiving
squash and sweet potato supply
Dessert was a sweet potato chocolate nut cake; a recipe straight out of the Victory Garden cookbook.  I confess we did not grow sweet potatoes this year.  However, I did watch them grow in an adjoining plot on our community garden.  One enterprising gardener purchased several hundred ‘slips’ and parceled them out among more than a dozen plot holders.  In September, we bartered red peppers and okra for half a dozen plump specimens grown by a gardening neighbor.  They were terrific in late November and will be even sweeter in mid-winter.
The squash we ate will, at the rate we are consuming it, last until spring.  We harvested more than two dozen Waltham Butternut squashes, each weighing several pounds.  Like the sweet potatoes, winter squash ‘sweetens’ as it rests following harvest.  I see a lot of squash soup in our future.

What will be on the table next year?  During the main course, Betty casually noted that the only reason cranberries are grown in bogs is for ease of harvesting; cranberry bushes grow just fine on dry land.  Stay tuned for further developments.

November 18, 2013

All the Leaves Are Brown

We are coming down to the end of the garden clean-up.  The perennial beds have been cut back to stubs and even the grasses are looking weary.  What we are left with are… oak leaves.
We have perhaps two hundred trees on our two-acre property.  There is a healthy mix of specimen trees we planted over the past 14 years (oxydendron, forest pansy redbud, heptacodium, dogwood, cornelian cherry, etc.), but the preponderance of our little forest are trees that were on the property when we got here. 
This fifty-foot oak on our
property still has some leaves
to shed.
Among the latter group are twenty or more oaks.  The largest are over fifty years old and sixty feet high but we have them in all sizes.  What all of the oaks have in common is that they all wait to drop their leaves until after the other trees on the property have done so. Around our home, the maples, ash and birch all shed their leaves in October.  Even the pines completed their needle drop by the end of the month.  It is now mid-November and a good gust of wind can still bring down a cascade of oak leaves.
The lawn was mowed yesterday.  Last
night's storm left it looking like this.
Oak leaves are the savior of lawn services.  Maples, for example, drop their leaves quickly:  typically in two weeks or less.  Moreover, they are ‘thin’ leaves and their C:N ratio (carbon to nitrogen) is around 20.  This means they break down very rapidly when simply mowed into the lawn.  The mulched leaves return the same nutrients needed for next year’s growth.  Lawn services, or course, are not in the business of letting Mother Nature do for free what three guys with a truck can do for a fee.   When the maple leaves fall, there’s a single visit to rake/suck up the leaves and leave the lawn looking neat and tidy.  Lawn ‘nutrition’ will be added later in the form of a ‘fall (chemical) fertilization’.
If not cleared, oak leaves will form
a mat that smothers whatever is
underneath it, like our rock garden.
Oak leaves, on the other hand, can take a month or more to drop.  Their C:N ratio is 60:1 and the leaves are both thick and heavy with tannin.  What this means is that the leaves decompose very slowly (because of the preservative property of the tannin) and, once on the ground, they stay there.  A diligent lawn care company can milk oak leaf season for half a dozen clean-up trips.  Clients pay because there are few things as ugly as an oak-leaf-strewn lawn.
We, of course, don’t use a lawn service.  The earlier, non-oak leaf drops were all mowed into the lawn and have long since disappeared.  The oak leaves, on the other hand, have another fate: we turn them into mulch.  It’s a laborious process but well worth it.
Here’s what we do:  first, we rake all of the leaves out of the various beds and onto the lawn.  We do this because oak leaves tend to mat.  Because they’re not drying out after they fall, they’re still pancake-flat after several weeks.  If you get a layer of oak leaves six or eight thick, it turns into a smothering blanket over your lawn or perennial bed and little moisture gets through.  The result is snow mold and other diseases.
These chopped-up oak leaves are
spread on our beds as a protective
mulch for the perennials.
Next, we chop up the leaves with our lawn mower and bag them.  Then, the well-chopped leaves go right back onto the beds as a mulch.  They won’t mat because they’ve now been torn into tiny pieces.  Bacteria have a lot more edges to chew on, hastening their composting. The oak-leaf mulch provides insulation for the plants in the beds (preventing heaving), a moisture barrier to keep water in the soil from evaporating, and a slow-acting compost to enrich the soil.

By spring, the oak leaves will have mostly disappeared and we’ll put down a layer of brown wood mulch for the season.  In the meantime, we’ve taken a problem (those drab oak leaves) and turned them into an asset. 

November 10, 2013

The Garden Ogre Goes Back Into His Cave

Betty and I secured a plot in the Medfield Community Garden a year after we moved back to New England in 1999.  From our first year, though, we noticed that the garden seemed to be run for the benefit of a few families who staked out multiple plots for themselves, did little maintenance, and imposed a three-page-long list of rules that amounted to a screed against the use of anything contrary to their idea of ‘organic’ principles.
A Google maps view of the
garden, circa 2009.  It has
since been enlarged.
We complained – to no avail – to the ‘committee’ and then to a town selectman who looked into it and found that the garden was under the auspices of the town’s Conservation Commission.  We spoke to a member of the Commission who nodded in all the right places.  A few months later, we were called into the Town Clerk’s office and sworn in as members of the Community Garden Committee.
Which is when we found out that we were the only members of the Committee; the others having finally found suckers to take their place, and promptly resigned.  The one who had written the garden rule, as it turns out, wasn't even a committee member.
That was six years ago.  I dredge up this bit of ancient history because, this weekend, the garden was plowed under for the season by a farmer from a neighboring town.  The garden’s year is officially over.
The garden in April...
I like to think that Betty and I have made some improvements in the running of the Community Garden.  For one thing, it is now considerably larger: 30,000 square feet of gardens plus ancillary walkways, compost piles, and whatnot; call it an acre in all.  There are fifty, 600-square-foot plots; about ten of which are further subdivided into 300-square-foot plots so that those with smaller gardening aspirations can still get their hands dirty.  We can offer plots to up to sixty families each season while charging just $20 per full plot or $15 per half plot (which pays for two plowings, the delivery of compost and manure, and on-site water).  For another thing, the gardening ‘guidelines’ fit nicely on one page.
... and at the end of June
We work with the town to bring in wood chips to keep weeds out of the paths, and well-composted manure to provide fertilizer.  A soil test done on the garden last spring showed that the garden is 18% ‘organics’ – no other fertilizer is needed.  The garden is plowed under in the fall, overspread with manure over the winter, and then harrowed in the spring.  That fact that after twelve years at its current site, the garden is now a full foot higher than the surrounding field speaks volumes.
Betty’s job is garden advisor.  She gives a vegetable gardening lecture to a standing-room crowd each March at the Medfield Library, and then fields a continuing string of questions as the season progresses.  For her, the questions are a gold mine:  they tell her what is on the mind of both beginning and experienced gardeners which, in turn, allows her to fine-tune her presentations to garden clubs and civic groups. 
She fields many queries while she works our plot.  Most questions, though, arrive via email and Betty responds with page-long answers that include links to university and extension service websites.  As a result, Betty has been given the title of 'garden guru', and properly so.
Back in the bad old days, garden
plots would be abandoned
In addition to mowing and weed-whacking the garden perimeter, my job is garden ogre.  Garden communications are via email and the ones I send out over the course of the season are invariably of the nagging variety. In April and May I am telling people that they need to show ‘evidence of gardening’ or else their plot will be given away. This is because, in the bad old days, people would sign up for a plot, find it actually involved effort, and abandon their garden to the weeds.  Those weeds would become everyone’s problem.  Now, any garden that is not worked by the middle of May gets turned over to someone on a waiting list.
... and in August, when
everything ripens.
As the season progresses, I tell people, gently at first and then stridently if follow-up communications are needed, to clear weeds from the walking aisles, trim back vegetables that are causing their fences to bulge into the aisles, get the excess weeds out of their plots and, in August, to get their blankety-blank sweet potato and squash vines out of the aisles.
Then comes the end-of-season cleanup campaign.  I am aware that many community gardens allow permanent fences.  To me, this promotes insularity and a sense of a closed community.  In Medfield, all gardens must be taken down by the end of October. “Taken down” means fences, but also includes stalks and vines that must be bagged up and completely removed from the vicinity together with anything that might be diseased.  Weeds should be chucked to the perimeter of the garden.  All that should remain is stuff that the tractor can easily plow under.
It is during October that I begin signing emails with the title ‘Garden Ogre’.  The vast majority of our gardeners are responsible.  A minority have either an unwarranted sense of entitlement or some aversion to meeting deadlines.  I walk the garden every week noting who is putting off their cleanup work and I start sending out ‘reminders’.  If it gets to be the middle of the month and the garden still shows no sign of cleanup activity, the tone of my emails becomes downright unfriendly.
The response to these emails varies from a wake-up call that finally gets them out on a chilly Saturday morning to a petulant reply from one family that “they have small children and preparing for Halloween is more important.”  Guess which family will not be invited back for the 2014 season?
Ready for next year.
I walked the garden one final time on Saturday morning.  I pulled a dozen or so stakes and some landscape fabric that had been buried by mulch. The garden was otherwise clean of debris.  Later this month, I’ll send out notes to each plot holder asking if they want to return for 2014 and, if so, to what size garden.  That survey will tell me how much ‘marketing’ needs to be done to fill the spaces next year.

It is a satisfying bit of public service.  A fair number of the notes I receive from my fellow gardeners make a point of praising the work Betty and I do to keep the enterprise running.  Best of all, my fellow gardeners are a great group of people whom I would otherwise likely never get to know.  
What more can an ogre ask?  Well,, a donkey sidekick would be nice...