Garlic Scapes: What Are They & How Do I Cook Them?

I remember the first time I received garlic scapes in my CSA – like a number of the offerings that initial season, I had never before encountered such an edible. They looked a little like scallions but were named after … Continue reading

The First Day of Summer at the Community Garden

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Last night, on the eve of summer, our community garden had its first happy hour of the season. As the sun set, we shared locally brewed beer, sliced apples and strawberries, pie from the bakery up the street and my first attempt at goat cheese. Besides congratulating a newly married couple, and toasting another gardener’s birthday, we talked ideas: a pizza oven modeled after a community dining experience my plot neighbors’ had in Martha’s Vineyard, a shared chicken coop (or Group Coop as I dubbed it), a bee hive. How many of these might come to fruition and how quickly was unknown, but we knew anything was possible: we had coaxed food from the barren ground together, year after year. As the light waned, I thought about how much I appreciated this community of neighbors who might never have met had it not been for our shared green space.

Our gathering also helped me reflect on the growing season thus far. I had been visiting the garden most days to water or weed, and more frequently to start harvesting, but hadn’t given much thought to how lush the garden had gotten in the past month or so. It took my community of gardeners, taking collective stock of our individual spaces on the last day of spring – asking questions and offering advice – to help me realize the miracle of growth that we had experienced in such a short time.

The above picture was taken in the past week, and shows the very lush horseradish in the foreground. The edible root is underground, but I have read that the leaves can be eaten as well and I intend to try them soon. The horseradish leaves became very huge very fast, and I decided to take advantage of the shade they would provide by planting my lettuce beneath and around them. Even since this picture was taken they have grown enough to start harvesting. Behind the lettuce is fennel, kale, chard and tomatoes, most grown from seed and all days or weeks from harvest.

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The picture above was from mid-May and shows the garden from the perspective of a different corner. The small (probably) squash seedlings are in the foreground next to the always prolific mint. I say “probably” because these sprung from composted dirt in pots in my backyard. They looked so healthy that I thought I would transplant them to see if they might make it – it is now a month later and they are doing very well. This also shows the healthy strawberry plant in the center-back of the plot, which has already produced a few quarts of berries and will likely keep going for another week or two. This plant was another “volunteer” from a few seasons ago that I couldn’t bear to pull up, so I’ve left it to mature and this is the first year that I have gotten a real strawberry harvest. Which was a nice reminder that it pays to be patient with plants. I’ve been exercising that same patience with rhubarb plants in the back left corner that have taken two seasons to flourish and should be producing enough for a spring harvest next season.

 

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And lastly, a picture taken around the first day of spring. The sprouts are garlic, planted last fall. This is taken from the same perspective as the top photo, as a nice comparison (and reminder) of how much can happen since the start of spring. I remember the day I took this photo – it was an unusually nice day for March, maybe fifty degrees. I recall being excited for my first glimpse of my plot for the year; that was the moment that I could finally imagine that the especially cold and snowy winter might be behind us.

It is now that I realize that even then I was thinking of the garden as a group. We all had survived the same winter and would start to look to each other for cues on what to expect next. Even if our paths did not physically cross until last night on the eve of summer, I felt my community’s presence: I could see my neighbor’s garlic sprouting alongside mine and shared extra seedlings in the designated spot alongside the shed. While from one perspective the season of bounty is just upon us, in other ways I realize that it had never ended.

Leaf Cover In Action

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I plucked this very carrot – this rather large Atomic Red carrot grown from seeds purchased from the http://www.rareseeds.com catalog – from beneath my six inches of leaf cover in my community garden this past weekend.

Saturday I stopped by the garden for the first time in a few weeks. We’re still getting our semi-weekly farm share, and I have been stocking up in my make-shift root cellar, so I had not needed to tap into the last hardy rows of kale, leeks and carrots left at the garden. But I was having a little holiday get-together and I thought that these red beauties would make a nice addition to my veggie plate.

Sure enough, the ground was frozen rock solid. The air temp was above freezing, however, so I plucked the last of the blue lacinato kale (also known as dinosaur kale) leaves, which were doing surprisingly well having weathered a few weeks of cold weather. If you plan to leave your kale in the garden past the frost date, I read that it is best to pick the leaves in weather that is above 32 degrees because the thawing allows the water to redistribute and ensures better storage and taste. After a few weeks of freezing and thawing while living in the garden, the leaves looked as healthy as they did in October. The ground was too frozen to dig up the stalks, however, so I guess those are staying in til spring cleaning.

I also pulled the leaves back that were covering the roots of the row of leeks that I left in the ground. I was pleased that I could get my shovel in where my leaves had been insulating the dirt and the leeks were healthy. Same with the carrots – the leafy green tops were just starting to die down beneath the mound of leaf cover, and it was easy to dig out a few Atomic Reds to show off that evening on my snack table.

Verdict: the leaf cover experiment worked!

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.