In Defense of Dirt

When I get ready to spend time in my small community garden – anything that will require more than a bit of light weeding, watering or picking – I change into old clothes (preferably dark colors) and worn sneakers.

“Well, of course,” even a semi-astute reader might say, “you don’t want to get your nice clothes dirty.” And it is true – we’re taught from an early age that dirt is bad, dirt needs to be kept out of the house and even that something dirty can make you sick. As in “Don’t eat that – it’s dirty!” And there is, of course, sound reasoning in those lessons: one doesn’t want to stain a lovely yellow blouse with ugly brown splatters and there is plenty of evidence that ingesting something that might have come into contact with a germ-harboring location such as, say, a handrail on the subway, might likely result in catching a bug (as in the flu or a cold – don’t get me started on the bad rap that insects get!). However it isn’t really dirt itself that might makes one sick. I beg to convince you, dear reader, rather that dirt is the very life blood of, well, life.

Exhibit A is my community garden. When it was constructed five years ago, fresh soil was brought in for the raised beds and any dirt that might come into contact with food-producing plants was tested. My dirt was declared safe, fertile, perfectly balanced. And I used that dirt to plant tomatoes and peppers and kale and onions and basil and beets and a dozen other edibles – to varying degrees of success – in the interim. This past season I was really getting my timing and mix of plants down. I knew when I might have my best success planting seeds versus seedlings; I watered when it was hot (which was often) and experimented with shading techniques for the more tender shoots. The weather provided plenty of sunshine and a few drenching rains – my hose (or that of my generous neighbor) provided the rest of the needed moisture. So why, then did my tomatoes look anemic? How come my carrots grew in spindly legs rather than one strong root? What caused some seeds to sprout and full patches to lay dormant? It was my dirt. I had not appreciably fed or fertilized it in the time that it had been under my control. My tomatoes lacked the nutrients they needed; my carrots decided to divide and conquer in order to ensure survival. Sure their tops were bushy and green, but at the expense of its barely edible root.

Enter Exhibit B – my backyard tomato pots. In a moment of divine inspiration – or maybe because I was running low on dirt and didn’t want to spend another twenty dollars at the local nursery to buy something people spend a lot of time and money trying to get rid of – I filled the bottom third of my tomato pots with half-finished compost from my home bin. It was a win-win situation: my bin was full and my tomato pots weren’t. These plants – some started from seed and others from the same greenhouse as those in my community garden – were monstrous. They climbed their trellis and produced dozens of firm, fragrant fruit. Even with significantly shorter hours in direct sunlight, these plants far out-performed their siblings at the garden. Considering the few differing factors – I blamed the dirt.

Which brings me to Exhibit C: my compost bin. I received my indoor composter for Christmas last year and had it filled about three quarters full within a month. But then the magic of compost kicked in (with help from my all-natural Bokashi compost starter) and it stayed about three quarters full until spring when I emptied most of its contents into my tomato pots. I was worried at first when I saw the white fuzz and smelled the fermenting, rotting smell. These things were bad, right? They were dirty! Well, yes, exactly that. It was the (controlled) rotting of the food and the microbes that broke it down into a dark brown substance that looked an awful lot like dirt that defines working compost. As the organic matter decomposes the liquid is released as compost tea (an elixir for plants, but rather fecund smelling, so beware indoor usage) and the remaining mass shrinks. So yeah, those who garden (should) know this: dirt is made from decomposed organic matter – or rather the end result of allowing fruits and vegetables (and other things) to rot and rot and rot until there is nothing left but dirt. Good, delicious, fertile dirt. And it is from this substance that seeds and seedlings and plants take their nutrients back so that they can create more fruits and vegetables for us to eat again. There you have it – the circle of life.

Of course what I have in my garden is a bunch of dirty dirt – dirt with its life force spent from too much life making. It’s old. It needs to be replenished, fed, rejuvenated. So I learned my lesson this season. My garden needs more food to help create my food. I’m going to feed my dirt with fresh, fully broken down compost and maybe some organic dirt food as well. I’m going to turn it good and deep to mix the top layer with the fresher dirt from six, maybe ten inches below the surface. I’m even going to test it, to see what it’s missing. And maybe look into crop rotation to use the food I am growing in my dirt to help feed the dirt as well as people.

It’s amazing, dirt is. So amazing that maybe next time I won’t think so much about what I have on when I work in the garden, but rather wear my dirt stains and mud splotches as a badge of pride.



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Garden’s Twilight

It rained off and on for two weeks. Rain like we hadn’t seen in months, since before I was concerned with the health of my tomatoes or whether my late season seedlings would sprout. This rain coincided with a particularly busy time at work and a long weekend away for a friend’s wedding. After ten days or so I realized I hadn’t visited my garden. Certainly there was maintenance I should do  – weeding, pulling up dead plants and harvesting the last of the onions – but I wasn’t ready to start saying goodbye.

Yesterday was a beautiful fall day – the weather hovered around sixty with a cool breeze, the first of the fallen leaves crunched underfoot, and when not in the shade, I almost forgot it was October. In truth, the garden as a whole was still rather lush. Tomatillos, kale and herbs still thrived. Beans and squash and fennel, mostly done producing fruit and gone to seed, populated the plots with tall stalks and wide leaves. It was only upon closer inspection that I could see the imminent signs of winter: my tomato plants were nearly dead, my mint was browning, the remaining onion tops were dying back. The garden was telling me, even though I had to remove my jacket because of the sun’s warmth, that winter was coming.

I have been preparing for the end of this season’s garden since the spring, yet I am still always sad to see it in its elderly stage. My cupboards are full of canned tomatoes and dried herbs. My freezer is stacked with frozen fruit and vegetables. I have been even looking forward to ways I can nourish my soil over the winter to improve upon my bounty next spring. But yet…

Maybe it is because yesterday was a day that I would wish to replay fifty times over – a perfect fall day that ranks up there with those cloudless days in early June when summer makes its first appearance, that surprise spring day in mid-March when winter’s torment is suddenly forgiven and even that first fluffy snowfall at twilight. It should not be surprising that it is the first perfect day of any season that the rest of the days cannot seem to live up to, and leaves me waiting for the next, perfect day.

I suppose it is the same with the garden: no tomato ever beats the first plucked from the vine; no salad seems as fresh as the first leaves snipped from the ground. Like how the garden continues to give – we will have leeks and beets and kale and chard until November – so do the seasons. I will try to nurture what I have left and plan for what is to come.

Whitefly, Don’t Bother Me!

Maybe it was wishful thinking that had me ignoring the numerous white flies that buzzed around my backyard tomato plants whenever I brushed past their leaves. Until my neighbor noted, matter-of-factly, “You have whitefly.” Aphids and blight I was schooled in, but whitefly? Never heard of it. Upon further inspection I found an entire stalk to be diseased-looking (with tumor-like bumps and dying leaves). I could ignore the white flies (and the whitefly) no longer.

Turns out whitefly can be dealt with in similar ways as aphids. Beneficial insects are the best route – ladybugs are a favorite and can be ordered online or bought at many gardening centers. However, because these are in pots in my backyard (my community garden tomato plants are, thankfully, unaffected) I decided to go with a topic solution. Safer Soap is a spray I picked up at the hardware store – and is certified for organic gardening! I gave a spray the other evening and found only a few remaining buzzing white flies the next morning. I feel confident that I will save all but that one diseased stalk (which I am cutting off at the base) with one more spray and some vigilance.

Harvesting Garlic

Finally, more than seven months later, I am reaping the benefits of my planted garlic cloves. I watched the green shoots grow – the first sprouts in the garden, four months ago now – and knew that this day would come. I read about when to harvest garlic: mid-summer was generally when they would be ready; I’d know when because the tops will “die back”. As with most of my garden experiments, I couldn’t exactly picture or pin-point how or when this would happen. But sure enough, as I was weeding the other day, I saw unequivocably that those garlic tops were dead. So dead, that if I hadn’t been careful, I might have cleared away the brown, straw-like former-sprout and not even know that there was a garlic bulb below the dirt. I poked around (my garlic is interspersed throughout my garden) and saw that most of the garlic tops were dying and I would need to be harvesting all those beautiful bulbs soon. But what did I do after I dug a dozen or so heads (smaller than I thought they’d be – and with a bit of a red tinge to them) from the ground?

In my internet research, I found a lot of ideas. Preserving in vinegar, freezing whole or chopping cloves and dehydrating are some ideas. Most of these methods also keep the all or most of garlic’s health properties as well. All fine and good, but I wanted them as close to their harvested state as possible. One source said that that freshly harvested would keep 4 – 12 months at room temperature. (I have the few I dug up the other day in my little garlic bowl – a pot with a top and a few air holes that is meant to keep the garlic aerated but dark.) But I will also throw a bunch of heads in a mesh bag in the “root cellar” nook of my basement, as a few other sources recommended. It sounds like aeration is important, as is darkness and temps that don’t much fluctuate. I’ll report back. In the meantime, garlic, zuke and spinach stir fry over lentils tonight for dinner!

Upside Down Tomatoes

I love tomatoes. Fresh off the vine, they might be my favorite food in the entire world. Unfortunately the ones purchased from the grocery store so rarely (if ever) have the same trancendental flavor. Thus I must get my yearly fix in the few short weeks that they are available locally during the harvest season – perhaps late July (at the earliest) through September. I have a good deal of plants at the community garden, a half-dozen varieties ready to be staked up to old trellises one they are big enough. And to maximize my harvest, I have a perhaps another dozen lined up in large pots in the sunniest sliver of my backyard.

This year, however, I devised a plan to use the last few square feet that might get enough sun to support life: I made four upside down (inspired by the “seen on tv” infomercial for the topsy turvy garden’s friend) tomato planters to hang along my small back porch.

The construction was simple and, at about $20 for all materials including the plants and dirt, cheap. First I bought 4 white buckets about a foot high and maybe ten inches in diameter. I cut a hole in the bottom (using a drywall saw was relatively easy) about 3 inches wide. Next I devised plant holders: one could hang them from screw hooks secured along the edge of a back patio, but I chose to have a 2 x 4 cut into four 18″ long segments and screwed them to the floor of my small porch so that they hung over the edge, about 5 feet from the ground. They key is that the location gets good sun, and the plants can grow about five feet from the planter.

Next I carefully threaded the seedlings through the hole, broke up the roots a bit, and watered them before adding dirt to fill the bucket. On top of the bucket I planted herbs. I hung them up and watered them again. Ta da!

Compost and Tomatoes

I’ve been tending to my rotting baby since the first of the year – I received a compost bin for Christmas and have been feeding it small bits of vegetable ends and the compost microbe sawdust that is supposed to speed the process along for those of us in a small, non-rural space. Miraculously, every time I think I am about to fill the three gallon or so sized bin, it shrinks in size, releasing its delicious and fecund compost tea from a spigot in the bottom.

But really, I have been stressing lately. Yes, it was composting rather quickly (the contents smelled suitably rancid and it was starting to look like a dirty version of the vegetable ends that I had been feeding the bin). But still, it wasn’t DIRT. And I really was going to fill the bin rather soon. I pondered this dilemma as a walked the eight blocks or so to  the local greenhouse for tomato seedlings, a half dozen of which would end up in the sunniest sliver of my back yard. A memory of my fifth grade history lesson drifted through my head: the native americans would plant a dead fish beneath their crops and allowed it to compost itself right into the ground. Why couldn’t I add my almost-compost to the bottom of my tomato pots?

Thus, an hour later, while swatting flies with a wave of my trowel, I added about six inches of my rotting baby to the bottom of my pots, filling them the rest of the way with garden soil. I loosened the roots at the bottom of the seedlings and planted them snugly in the pots, pressing the dirt around their thick stems. Them I watered them at the roots, letting them drink until the water pooled on the surface for a few minutes.

My compost bin is empty now – just in time to be filled with the stems of the local spinach we have draining in the sink and the root ends of the radishes I bought from Sherman’s the other day. With seedlings in the ground just starting to flower, I’m sure it won’t be long until I find ways to fill it once again.

Asparagus – Part 2… or Locavore on the Road: Portland, NY

Last year when I visited my hometown in Western New York  for my Papa’s 91st birthday my cousin and aunt handed out bags of fresh asparagus at the party.

“We picked them this morning!” They exclaimed. Really? Pick-your-own-asparagus? Maybe I had lived in the city too long, but I had no idea these kind of farms existed. In fact I hadn’t thought much about how asparagus grew at all, other than knowing that I saw it most frequently in the supermarket in late April through May. I vowed I would not miss asparagus season the following year.

Back in Boston in late April of this year I started my research…. and found only one small asparagus farm within an hour’s drive. A trip there yeilded barely a bunch of tender purple and green spears (although we did leave with a six-pack of rhubarb seedlings and a dozen stalks of mature rhubarb for our trouble). But with just one local seasonal side dish, my asparagus cravings were not quenched. Luckily Papa made it to 92.

Home again for our yearly family gathering, my cousin told me of the asparagus field that opens to the public for just one hour per week a few miles up the road in Portland, NY (really just a township between two slightly larger villages).

“We have to get there at least fifteen minutes early,” Jen said. “Otherwise the old folks start swarming as soon as they let them in.” Sure enough, we arrived about ten minutes after 9 (thanks in part to a train stopped on the tracks of a crossing, which required a five-plus mile detour – we don’t much get those kind of problems back in Boston) and there were folks spread out across the acre or so of asparagus rows. We jumped right in, mostly left to glean the shorter stalks that the quickest pickers left in the wake of their quick “snap, snap, snap” of the fresh tips as they walked briskly down the row. In the end I ended up with about three and a half pounds (I did have to get them home on the airplane the next day, after all) paying only $5.60 for the pleasure.

Jen and I rewarded ourselves afterwards with a cheesy-bottomed asparagus omelet.

Cheesy Bottom Asparagus Omelet

In small nonstick omelet pan sprinkle 1 – 2 tablespoon of shredded cheese on medium heat. Meanwhile clean and chop a dozen of the most tender asparagus stalks and saute them in a separate pan. Crack two eggs into a bowl and whisk them for a minute or so. Add salt and pepper. Once the cheesy bottom is set, pour the eggs on top. Let set for another minute, using a soft spatula to make sure the bottom of the omelet is not sticking or burning. Add a slice of local swiss cheese (or goat, or cheese of choice) and spread half of the saute-ed asparagus on top. Allow the eggs to finish cooked another minute or so more, fold in half and serve. Repeat, using the rest of the asparagus.

What’s In Season in Early May?

With all the flowers blooming and the buds sprouting it would seem like late April and early May might offer plenty of local veggies in the northeast. In reality, however, it is one of the toughest times to support a primarily local diet. The winter root vegetable stores are used up and the earliest greens (not grown in a greenhouse) are just starting to make their way into some local stores (like my favorite Sherman Market). I picked up a bag of arugula and a bag of mache the other day – each bag a large salad for 2 at $4 a bag. Not the cheapest meal… but to taste the bite of those peppery leaves I love so much, it was worth it.

Last week I also scouted out a pick-your-own asparagus farm about 40 miles south, and dragged my reluctant husband, Mayone, along. We were the first visitors to Meggie’s Farm and their asparagus flats were just starting to fill up. We walked away only with a large bunch of purple and green asparagus, but luckily was able to buy some of their rhubarb, which was already almost waist-high! The kind farmers threw in a few rhubarb seedlings as well… our bonus for being their first customers.

Dinner that night: roasted asparagus (needed nothing but a sprinkle of salt and the slightest drizzle of oil) and a frittata made with local cheddar and a few chopped roasted peppers that had been preserved in oil. For dessert I cooked up the rhubarb with honey and then baked it with a crumb topping made from local whole wheat flour, butter and honey. So simple and so fresh.

Fiddleheads

This is a strange time of the year for locavores in the city. The weather is getting nicer, reminding us of lush gardens… yet nothing is ready to be harvested except some hearty mint, overwintered chives, and… fiddleheads. Yes those strange alien greens – really baby ferns – are available locally here in the northeast. I picked up a half pound or so and boiled them in salt water for about 5 minutes. (I read that some people find raw fiddleheads very bitter and/or mildly toxic – not enough to harm you, don’t worry.) Next I saute-ed them in oil with minced garlic, very thinly sliced onion and a dash of red pepper flakes. A nice, tender side to my local skirt steak, cooked on the grill pan and sliced against the grain.

Horseradish

After foolishly looking through seed catalogs for horseradish seeds throughout the month of February, it took a New York Times article to set me straight: one grows horseradish from root stock. So I promptly ordered 5 from the nearest purveyor mentioned (only about 70 miles away – still local!). They arrived promptly, wrapped in damp newspaper and tucked for mailing inside a plastic bag. They look like fingers, really. Like $20 of cold, clammy zombie fingers. One end is cut flat and the other at an angle. The brief instructions say to plant them 1 to 2 inches beneath the surface of the dirt at a 45 degree angle. Jeesh. I didn’t think I needed a protractor for this. But, I headed to the garden on this unseasonably warm day, dug an 8 inch hole to accomodate the long root, and tilted the horseradish appropriately before covering it all with dirt. By fall, I was told, I might be able to harvest a bit, and by next spring after its first dormant winter in the cold northeast ground, I will certainly be able to cut some root away to shred, perhaps mix with vinegar and eat.

“Just be careful,” the woman from the farm had told me on the phone. “You have to process the horseradish outside. It burns – like mustard gas.” Hot and spicy – just the way I like it. I can’t wait.