Monday, January 21, 2013

New Blog Address

Hi all.

In an effort to allow more voices to Blog about the wonderful Learning Garden, we have a new address. Please check in there to see what is going on in our revitalized group of gardeners.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Garden Losses

I’m in mourning. It’s OK. I didn’t lose a close friend, family member, or even a beloved pet. No, I’m mourning the total loss of my tomato crop to late blight.

I didn’t plant many tomatoes last year because I still had so many cans of sauce and whole tomatoes in juice left from the year before. But as the spring approached and my shelves grew bare, I looked forward to a summer of harvesting and processing my own tomatoes. I got seeds for 10 varieties of open pollinated paste tomatoes (I hoped to compare and see which produced best), planted them in late winter, and lovingly tended them under lights in my basement. I was late getting them in the ground because the area of the garden I wanted to put them in needed to be dug into beds, but once they were in, they took off like gang-busters. The plants were loaded with fruit, but since I knew they were nowhere near ripening, after I had weeded and mulched, I didn’t visit that area much lately. When I finally did...whoa (or should I say woe). Under the pretty green tops of the plants, which is what was most visible from the rest of the garden, the leaves and stems and most of the fruit had the tell-tale brownish-grey blots all over the. Yuck! And Yikes!

No canning of the rich, red sauce I use in so many recipes. No cans of whole tomatoes to dump into chili all winter. No salsa that I was growing onions, peppers, and cilantro for.

What’s worse, it wasn’t my only crop failure this year. Like so many neighbors, I got no tree fruit due to the early warmth followed by the late freeze. After barely getting enough cucumbers for 2 batches of pickles, the vines succumbed to wilt. I fought the squash borer for my costata romanesca...and lost. My procrastinating ways served me well in one area: my winter squash went in after, it seems, the wasp responsible for the borer grub had quit reproducing for the year. Assuming they have time to ripen, I should have a nice crop of squash to eat over the winter.

Now this brings me to a question I’ve been asking myself: how should I deal with these crop losses (I mean, aside from preparing to be way more proactive next year!)? I could buy produce from local vendors to can, and have already done so with cucumbers for the pickles that Pat likes on his sandwiches. I could stock up on the salsa I like even better than my own, from Pipers Peck. Or I could practice dealing with the situation as I would have to in a world where we can’t get everything from all over the world when we want it. I could change my menus to take advantage of what I was able to grow. Interestingly, my potatoes never showed a sign of the blight, but then I got them in nice and early, so I’ll have a good harvest there. My dried beans are doing well, which, when combined with the big winter squash, the potatoes, and the eggs from my chickens and ducks, are all I would really need to subsist (augmented with greens I can still grow).

It will probably be a combination. I will buy a few bushels of tomatoes from local folk to can and a few jars of salsa from Pipers Peck (well, more than a few probably), since that helps the local economy as well as my pantry. But it won’t be near enough to cover what I’m used to using in a year. And instead of buying Progresso or whatever in the grocery store, I will work to expand my repertoire of recipes. uh, know any good bean-potato-squash-egg casserole recipes?


Monday, August 13, 2012

August Garden Update

Check out the photos of our Market table from August 4! I thought it was so colorful, and Kristen Hoy, who was staffing the table for Buy Fresh, Buy Local, obligingly took some pictures of it for me before the Market got under way.

Over the last few weeks, we’ve been harvesting gorgeous carrots that vary from white to yellow to orange to red, as well as bunches of the three types of beets we planted (my personal favorite, the golden, plus Crosby Egyptian red and Chioggias, which are the ones with the red and pink rings. Unfortunately, I forgot that one patch of the root vegetable row was planted with golden globe turnips that needed to be harvest small, and next thing I saw, we had softball-size turnips that were too woody to eat.

Speaking of forgetting, I didn’t remember planting a costata romanesca zucchini among the winter squash, and had to harvest clubs instead of the nice, medium-size squashes we usually get. I probably wouldn’t have seen them even then except it looks like we have again lost our winter squash plantings. Last year, it was to squash bugs; this year the vine borer. When I think back to the amazing, enormous harvest of butternuts, acorns and sweet dumplings we got in 2010, I wondered what we had done differently, but then I read that borers don’t like the solid stems of butternut squash. That same article (in Gardens Alive!: had lots of tips on preventing the grubs, so next year should be better. I suppose that’s what a Learning Garden is all about: getting a little better each year as we acquire skills!

The beans (purple, green, and yellow wax) took a bit of a break, but are back to producing like gangbusters now that we’ve had some rain and temperatures have moderated. I also pull a few red and yellow onions each week.

We harvested out first Rosita eggplant this week (Aug. 11) and have many more to come. We again used the silver reflecting mulch to keep the flea beetles at bay long enough for the plants to get big enough to withstand their attentions. But we also planted wormwood in the herb garden so that in future years, when we’ve used up what was left of the mulch we bought for our flea beetle trials, we can use a more sustainable deterrent.

The tomatoes are ripening now. However, the weekly attention that the trellising required did not happen, so we have quite the sprawling mound of vines to hunt through. Next to them, the peppers continue to produce very well. The purples are gorgeous every week, and we got our first long sweet red pepper, but I’m still waiting for the orange bells to turn from green, and for some of the jalapenos to ripen to red. Those red peppers are an open-pollinated variety I chose trying to find a pepper as sweet and prolific as the hybrid Carmen. They certainly are sweet, so I may have succeeded.

It’s funny how colored vegetables either attract buyers or make them hesitate. We grew red, white and blue potatoes this year, with both the red and blue ones having colored flesh as well as the skin. I thought they were so cool, so I was surprised that they didn’t sell better the first week. The next week, I boiled a couple of each and had them sitting out for folks to try. Once they got a taste of the tender, waxy spuds, I had to go back out to the garden half a dozen times to dig more!

I’d better check the corn this week. We planted an open pollinated variety called Black Aztec that is said to be good sweet corn. Brian Burger was on a quest to find a good non-hybrid sweet corn, so I thought we’d try it. And if it isn’t good "green," Black Aztec ripens into a dry corn that makes a good blue cornmeal.

We’ll be planting again this week, for the fall harvest of lettuce and radishes. We have seeds for about 6 varieties of radish, so that should be fun. And, speaking of fall, I’m still hoping the Brussels sprouts finish up strong. The loose loam soil of the Learning Garden, desirable in almost all circumstances, is a bit too loose for the good formation of Brussels sprouts.

Next report will be of the burgeoning herb garden. Until then,

Buy It Locally Grown
    Or Raise Your Own!


Tuesday, July 3, 2012

July 2 Update

Just a quick update on what's going on at the Learning Garden. I turned on the drip irrigation system for about 2 hours last night. But if we don't get rain tonight, we'll have to get out there tomorrow to water the parts of the Garden that aren't hooked up to the system. These include the herb garden (for now; there are outlets to it but we haven't had a lot of plantings in there, so it hasn't been a top priority), the square foot gardens, and the forest garden. So cross your fingers!

Also, you may notice the Brussels sprouts are dusted white. Don't worry, I didn't break out the Sevin or anything. I'm trying something I read about for getting rid of cabbage worms: self-rising flour. They ingest it when eating the leaves and it expands in their guts. Kaplooey! Or at least I hope so. For future infestations, in such a small space, hand-picking and squishing at the first signs will be enough.

Speaking of insects, a tree or two in the forest garden is being eaten by Japanese beetles. A little soap in some water to knock them into will take care of it, but it should be done this week.

Saturday we got a delivery of 4 huge bales of switchgrass to use as mulch (thanks to Jim Pierce for getting us in on his delivery). The drip irrigation works even better when there's a nice covering to impede evaporation.


Saturday, June 30, 2012

Watering the Garden

This is my third year volunteering with the Learning Garden, and it's interesting to reflect on how the process of keeping our vegetables alive and flourishing through the inevitable hot and dry spells of summer in Central Pennsylvania has changed. That first year, and it was a very dry one, we filled up buckets at the outside faucet of our hosts, American Legion Post 444, and carried them to the Garden where we filled watering cans and individually watered each plant. Finding the actual plant amidst the 2-foot-high winter squash vines was quite a challenge!

About half way through that summer, I got the idea of using old cat litter buckets, which came with lids, so I could fill up a
 bunch of them at a time and carry them across the parking lot in the back of my Subaru. Then, near the end of the season, my sympathetic husband spotted a bunch of heavy duty hoses on sale and donated them to the cause.

Those hoses, also hooked up to the Legion's faucet, were a big improvement, but it still took a single person over 2 hours to thoroughly water what is an awfully big space. No one was too keen on using a sprinkler, since we all knew that it wasn't the most efficient use of the water we were already reluctantly taking from the municipal water source (at the Legion's cost), but we may have come to that had we not gotten wind of a grant the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection was offering for Environmental Education.

What a perfect opportunity for our little Learning Garden! We had a super set-up for collecting rain water, with multiple buildings around us, including the Millheim Market's pavilion right next door. But a better choice was the Legion's large storage shed sitting on the slope above the Garden. That made it possible to use nothing but gravity to get the harvested water to the thirsty plants using a drip irrigation system to place the right amount of water exactly where the plants like it.

Since our mission is to Share Skills as well as grow food and build community, we wrote up the grant application and were pleased to be awarded this opportunity to show how a reasonable up-front investment in time and money could conserve drinking water (and save the money that drinking water costs!) as well as save time.

It's been a busy year since we first got the grant. Last fall, when we had hoped to get the majority of the work done, was rainy. This spring we divided our efforts between the drip irrigation project and expanding the Garden monumentally with a Forest Garden above and an Herb Garden below the original plot.

The deadline to have all the work done is today, and I'm happy to report that we squeaked under the finish line. We've been using the system for a number of weeks now, and it is fantastic! We're getting enough rain to keep the 1,100 tank filled most of the way, and how nice it is to be able to just turn the valve and do other necessary chores while the watering happens.

Today we will celebrate the completion of the system, and I hope you'll all come out and see how easy it is to be water-smart. Warren, who designed the system and led the charge of installing it all, will be conducting a tour at 11:30. We'll also be including a number of related Garden Talks and other programs from now on, so if you can't make it today, there will be ample opportunities to learn in the coming months and years.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Thoughts on a Warm Spring

Good morning, Gardeners.

As Memorial Day puts the end to what we call the spring season, the temperature today is forecast to hit 91 degrees. Pretty warm for this time of year And it makes me think back to February and March, when winter was waning and the temperatures were way above normal.

I remember the utter joy of that early spring. We all felt it. Who but the most ardent skier could help practically skipping for joy when the flowers and trees started blossoming and the sun warmed our bare heads weeks before we could have reasonably expected?

I also remember reading at the time a comment from a writer who wished the world could be like the movies and have foreboding music piped in so people would know that this weather was not something they should be happy about and that we should be thinking of what it meant vis-à-vis climate change. I wrote about that and the worries farmers at the PASA Conference were expressing concerning the warm winter.

But then I went on enjoying not having to have a fire going 24 hours a day, putting in some early plants and harvesting asparagus. The normal freezes that followed the warmth I first tried to hold off by covering things and then just tolerated as I waited for Spring to come to stay.

It came. I got busy and, if I thought of that early warmth, it was to wish I had taken advantage of it better in my garden. But then I heard last weekend that friends and Millheim Market farmers, the Macneals of Macneal Orchards and Sugarbush, wouldn’t be at Market regularly because they lost 85% of their fruit crop. I lost 100% of mine, at least the tree fruits (I still have berries), but then, my trees are young and still produce sporadically and lightly anyway. I didn’t worry overmuch. I would do as I always have and get the cherries, pears, and apples I cellar, freeze, and dry for winter eating at the Farmers’ Markets.

Cue the music.

Some of you are perhaps thinking, oh, too bad for the Macneals! Nice people. I hope they have other sources of income. But you, Julie: get your apples from Washington, your peaches from Georgia, your cherries from Wisconsin, your pears from…wherever pears grow. Heck, you never have do go a day without anything you choose. That’s the good thing of having global trade.

And it is. Personally, I try not to take advantage of it, but I pass through the produce section when I go to the supermarket. I see what my coworkers are breaking out for lunch. I know I’m in the minority. But what I hadn’t really thought about is how the two things are connected. The fact that we have raspberries all winter, that recipes today call for ingredients that don’t come fresh in a given area anywhere near the same time, mean we are pumping greenhouse gases into the air so that we don’t have to think locally. That we don’t have to ever delay until summer the pleasure of eating a tomato or a melon.

It’s here that I’d like to point you to another blog, the only one I currently have a link to on the Learning Garden’s blog site (and where you can get to his site to read the whole of the post I quote below). John Michael Greer has had an absolutely fantastic series of posts since around February, documenting the history of empires and how that of the United States is following the same path. (Short aside: I put them all in order in a Word document to print out for my husband, who doesn’t like to read for long periods on a screen. If anyone wants it to print out or wants to borrow it when Pat is done with his printout, let me know.)

Anyway, his most recent 2 posts have been about how the only way to change the world is to change ourselves first:

Consider the book review I critiqued in last week’s post. One of the bits of rhetoric the reviewer used to dismiss my suggestion that social change has to be founded in personal change was the claim that "you can’t end rape [just] by not raping anyone." Perhaps so, but as one of my readers pointed out (tip of the archdruidical hat here to Ozark Chinquapin), someone who claimed to oppose rape would normally be expected to demonstrate that commitment by, at the very least, not raping anyone; an antirape movement that claimed that rapes committed by its members didn’t matter, because it was working to end rape everywhere, would rightly be dismissed as an exercise in extreme hypocrisy. Yet you’ll hear the identical logic from people in a good deal of the environmental movement, who insist that they can’t be bothered to lighten the burden their lifestyles place on the planet because they’re going to save the Earth all at once. 

Work out the practical implications of that argument, in other words, and it amounts to a justification for clinging to the comforts and privileges of the modern industrial lifestyle even at the expense of one’s supposed ideals.

Even at the expense of one’s friends’ livelihoods. Even at the expense of our children’s grandchildren’s futures. Even at the expense of the natural world I love and we all depend on.

I sit here typing away on my laptop, with the electric coffeemaker helping keep me awake, the refrigerator humming, the kitchen light on even though, as I’ve composed this tome, the daylight has increased enough to do without it. I have plans to drive into State College this evening to have supper with friends, all of whom live within reasonable walking distance of my house. I plan to do laundry today, and if I have the time, to hang it to dry instead of using the electric drier. If I don’t, well, I’m busy. I’m busy. 

I can’t think right now of a snappy, optimistic wrap-up to this post. It seems every day I read or hear something that makes me tell myself I really need to change my life. It may be that I use this blog to share those things, share my trials and inevitable errors. Please share yours. I could use the company.


Sunday, April 22, 2012

Earth Day Weekend at the Learning Garden

Happy Earth Day, Gardeners!

I’m betting you all had the same reaction I did to yesterday’s rain: finally! Not enough (a quarter inch in my rain gauge), and now they say it’s to be followed by snow for some folks, but I was happy to have gotten any amount since I had some new plantings at the Learning Garden I wanted watered in.

I planted the potatoes yesterday: reds, whites, and blues. Both the reds and blues have intensely colored flesh as well as skin, and I chose them to go with our informal “colored varieties” theme this year, along with golden celery, purple and orange peppers, red romaine, golden and pink beets, purple Brussels sprouts, and an amazing array of different colored carrots.

But the colored potatoes are for more than making a patriotic salad for the Fourth of July: I learned in the book The Resilient Gardener by Carol Deppe (which I have referenced in previous emails and blogs before) that once you get beyond the store bought varieties, potatoes have wonderfully different tastes, textures, and uses. She says:

White/yellow potatoes go well with: salt, pepper, butter, olive oil, toasted sesame oil, curry powder, canned tuna, canned salmon, spaghetti sauce, salsa, eggs, mayonnaise, pickle relish, light miso, Dijon mustard, lemon/lime juice, quality light vinegars (such as white balsamic vinegar and sherry vinegar), sauerkraut, white or mild-flavored beans, and small careful amounts of onions or garlic or roasted onions or garlic. They go best with the white meat of chicken or turkey, and with pork, ham, lamb, and fish (including tuna and salmon). They taste good with but are somewhat overwhelmed by the dark meat of chicken and turkey as well as beef, duck or goose. I always go with white or yellow potatoes to complement a whole roast chicken or turkey.

Blue potatoes have powerful flavors and a powerful aftertaste, and they go well with heavier amount of seasonings and other powerful flavors. They go well with salt, pepper, butter, tamari sauce, soy sauce (if you can eat wheat), dark miso, chili, black/pinto or other powerfully flavored beans, and serious amounts of garlic, onions, and roasted garlic or onions. They are wonderful with beef, duck, goose, smoked herring, and liver. They overwhelm the light meat of chicken or turkey, and their strong aftertaste completely overrides the flavor of the meat. Stick with whites or yellows to go with whole roasted chicken or turkey. Blue potatoes mashed with smoked herring make a wonderful pate. Notice that blue potatoes don’t go very well with the seasonings involved in potato salad. Nor do blue potatoes go well with white or yellow potatoes. The aftertaste of the blues so strong that when blues are mixed with yellows or whites, all the potatoes taste like blues. The classical red, white and blue potato salad might be visually delightful, but it tastes much better without the blue potatoes.

Some red-fleshed varieties should be handled as honorary white/yellows. Others taste best handled as honorary blues. I love red-fleshed potatoes mashed with spaghetti sauce, butter, and Italian seasonings, and with Romano cheese melted on top.

I pulled this from her website, on the page about potatoes. It’s a fascinating read, and I recommend it, as I do her book.

Now back to our spring Garden:

There is a lovely volunteer patch of cilantro. If anyone needs any, please stop by and harvest. It’s at the beginning of a row close to the newly tilled herb garden.

A tiny patch of Swiss chard survived this mild winter completely unprotected. I’m going to watch it and see how it does.

The asparagus is coming up nicely. It’s not a huge patch, but gives us enough for maybe 2 or 3 good-sized harvests a week. A benefit to volunteering for our work parties is those who don’t have their own patch get to go home with it! Another fun thing about the asparagus: it appears to be the purple variety, so it fits well in the colored varieties theme.

The rhubarb looks good this second year. I cut a stalk yesterday to enjoy the wonderful sour flavor and got the big dose of vitamin C it comes with.

We put in the Brussels sprouts and cauliflower seedlings (both purple varieties) earlier in the week, with some red and yellow shallot bulbs mixed in as a good companion. And I stuck in the red romaine seedlings as well, but plan to start some more in case the snow gets them.

Our small strawberry patch is spreading in every direction, so I transplanted a bunch of runners to a bed at the beginning of the forest garden we had left for that purpose. But there are so many more that need to be thinned out, we will surely have some for sale at the first market, along with German chamomile and columbine seedlings, which are volunteering just about everywhere!

Warren put the last of the fruit trees (2 apples and a pear) in the forest garden, and now I just need to get the gooseberries, and we’ll have completed what we hoped to, plantings-wise.

At home, I’m starting seeds weekly, herbs and tomatoes and various vegetables. And I’ve been growing sweet potato slips as fast as they’ll root. My husband set me up a great seed-starting area in the basement with a couple of the big shop lights, but the slips are just on the south-facing window sills, and are rapidly taking over since I’m potting them after they get a good set of roots. With luck, we’ll have these to sell at Market as well, since they came from the fabulous sweet potatoes we grew there last year.

Looking forward, as I’m sure you all are, to a great season to

Buy It Locally Grown
   Or Raise your Own!