Friday, November 27, 2009

Where did the season go?

October and November have rolled by in quite a flash at Ginkgo, with a bunch of fall harvests, some seasonal fun and the end-of-season tasks to put the garden to bed.

Strangely, Nature gave us an abnormally cool and wet October, and a mild November. Put together, that made one of the most autumnal falls seen around these parts for a while, and we enjoyed the chance to wind down the gardening year a little more slowly.

Here's our catch-all, two-months-in-pictures, end-of-season posting.

Saturday October 10 saw us harvesting sweet potatoes (who said you couldn't grow them in Chicago?)...

...picking baby zucchini, baby pattypan and squash flowers (try them lightly sauteed)...

...and getting one final use out of our year-old straw bales (into the compost bins).

This was also the point at which we pulled up most of our tomato beds, resulting in three large buckets full of green tomatoes. More on ripening those in a later post, we hope.

On October 17, we were joined by high-school students from a program at the Notebaert Nature Museum, who helped us clear beds, sow cover crop and make Halloween scarecrows.

A week later, Saturday, October 24, we hosted a large group of enthusiastic volunteers who were finishing up a leadership training program with the Chicago Conservation Corps. Despite the chilly, damp weather, they stayed around and asked lots of questions about the garden and how it is organized.

We did manage a good range of produce in our last harvests, from raspberries... mushrooms... daikon radish and greens.

Even so, the harvest had gotten small enough that we no longer needed to transport it to Vital Bridges by car. Instead, it could all be handled by one man, a bike and a backpack.

Beyond the garden gate the abundance of summer was fading just as clearly. So we found Ginkgo besieged by flocks of sparrows and pigeons attracted by the cover crop seeds and the bales of straw.

Halloween fell on a Saturday this year, so we visited in the morning to work the beds, and then again in the afternoon to set up our scarecrows and treats for the Buena Park Neighbors trick or treat event.

Thanks to everyone who baked or helped organize, especially Stephanie (whose mini-cupcakes were a big hit) and the folks from DePaul (yummy cookies) who kept a stream of pre-schoolers enchanted all evening.

In November, most of our time was spent tidying up the garden to put it in good shape for the spring.

Those jack-o-lanterns we had set out for Halloween looked scarier, if anything, by the following week.

Saturday, November 14 took us over to Garfield Park Conservatory for the Mayor's Landscape Awards (more on that in a separate posting).

And Saturday November 21 was a gloriously crisp and sunny fall day, with time to clean, empty and tidy everything away for the year, and some left over to appreciate the verdant cover crop...

...bursting milkweed pods...

...and a late cosmos bloom.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Ginkgo wins Chicago gardening award!

On November 14, 2009, which turned out to be a sunny and beautiful autumn day, five volunteers from Ginkgo Organic Gardens attended the awards ceremony for Mayor Daley’s 2009 Landscape Awards. Ginkgo won first place in the vegetable garden category.

Each of the main awards was presented as a sturdy plaque, with details of the award and a photo of the garden in question. Someone at the city's Department of the Environment folks made a good choice in selecting this image for our award. It sums up what Ginkgo is about.

It was great to see so many gardeners from so many different parts of the city and organizations. All sorts of gardens were recognized: from container gardens to school gardens to green roofs and walls to high-rise residential buildings and parking structures and to gardens using only native plants.

Mayor's Award winners

We had a good time talking with William Greer and his wife (whose garden won second place in the vegetable garden category) about their garden and comparing notes about how good the season had been for collards, and strategies for keeping rabbits and squirrels away from our veggies. Check out Mr. Greer's fabulous garden on YouTube.

We also got to eat some rather nice cupcakes.

The ceremony was held at Garfield Park Conservatory, which we happily spent some time exploring after the ceremony. In particular, we were looking for a flower on the vanilla plant, a type of orchid. After much searching we eventually found it dangling from one of the pillars supporting the roof.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Stretching out the harvest, bedding in the prairie

As fall dangles its chilly tentacles across the city, we're struggling to balance our optimism against our pragmatism.

Our optimism encourages us to eke out the most from the crops we have coddled all summer. Surely there's enough sun left for some of those green tomatoes to turn red/orange/yellow/purple.

Our pragmatism senses the first frosts approaching, and tells us that if we want to get our cover crop solidly established, we'll need to get beds cleared and re-sown pronto.

Saturday October 3rd gave us a chance to engage this dramatic tension. Though the forecast was for clouds and drizzle, we were lucky to get mostly calm and sun. Encouraged by this, we decided to give our prolific bean plantings a while longer to show their true strength. However, most of the cucurbits are looking pretty sad, and we pulled up the pumpkins and cucumbers, and re-seeded those beds with our cover crop mix.

This week was almost the last for pumpkins, and acorn and butternut squash:

One pumpkin eluded the hunt by hiding at waist height in a tomato plant:

We're also running into the legacy of various hurried planting decisions throughout the year. Several beds now have a weird mix of crops, and we're faced with pulling both the exhausted plants and the still-thriving ones, or leaving our cover crop with less time to get established.

Harvests are definitely winding down, and although peppers are still producing well, the tomatoes are starting to seem a little spent. We still have some potatoes and a whole bed of sweet potatoes in reserve, so there may yet be another bumper week.

Our radishes couldn't care less that it's fall:

With food production sorted for the week, around mid-morning we turned to some long-planned work to liven up the public garden that faces onto Kenmore Ave. Lots of work has been put into this area over the years, and while the paths, benches, trees and bulbs have stood up quite well, shrubs and flowering plants haven't survived as easily. The area is quite a challenge: it gets a lot of foot and dog traffic, being right next to the pavement, and when there's work to be done on the vegetable crops it's easy for us to overlook maintaining this little plot.

One thing we are going to try is to plant more prairie native plants in this area. Once they're established, they should be self-maintaining -- after all they're what grew here before the city lots were drawn up. Also, having more prairie plants around will help us educate ourselves and visitors about native NE Illinois ecosystems. We started a few prairie plants earlier in the year, and on Saturday we supplemented these with some 3" starter pots from Prairie Nursery in Westfield, WI.

Our new native plantings were:

  • Baptisia lactea (white false indigo)
  • Liatris aspera (rough blazingstar)
  • Erygium yuccifolium (rattlesnake master)
  • Sorghastrum nutans (indiangrass)
  • 2 Hystrix patula (bottlebrush grass)
  • Andropogon gerardi (big bluestem grass)
  • Aster laevis (smooth aster)
  • Asclepias incarnata (red milkweed)
  • 2 Geum triflorum (prairie smoke)
Along with these new arrivals from central Wisconsin, we were glad to recieve black-eyed susans (Rudbeckia) and Sedums from a generous neighbor just across the street, and a wide assortment of mostly unnamed specimens from the city's Great Perennial Divide.

Thanks to the great crew of enthusiastic volunteers who helped give all these plants new homes and, most importantly, built an obstacle course of poultry fencing to keep out local dogs and kids while the plants settle in.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The times they are a'changin'

It's that time of year again. We've made it all the way into October and one gardener feels distinctly like this:

But even if it's been a busy and exhausting summer, I must say, it's been a great one. Last Saturday (the 26th) saw another 100+ pound harvest, making it our seventh this season. And even if the onset of autumn makes him a bit droopy around the edges, this gardener is awfully proud of our season. It's been a first for mushrooms and our first significant harvests of pears. We haven't grown this much garlic in years. Our apple trees were produced respectably and, even though we thought she'd be exhausted from such a big year last year, our plum tree produced like crazy!

The seasons fly by so quickly you might miss them. I was looking back through some sweet pics from this season and noticed some subtle changes in the foliage around our shed. For you, gentle reader, an illustrated comparison:

But fret not! We still have some good harvests on the docket yet this year. Stop by soon, 'cause we'll be pulling the rest of our squash and harvesting the sweet potatoes in the coming weeks along side red radishes, daikon, greens, and turnips.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A beautiful day, a good harvest and some seed saving

Apologies for the lateness of this posting! One blogwriter was ill and others were out of town, so a quick update for Saturday, September 19th....

Harvests continue, though the total was down from last week’s bumper high. If memory serves, the total for the 19th was about 125 pounds. And thanks to the DePaul Oxfam group and the Loyola vegetarians for their help!

A number of volunteers worked hard harvesting the Italian beans, which have continued to produce well:

Check out the eggplant, daikon, radishes and carrots ready for transport:

And we were happy to see a good crop of red peppers:

It seems like the neem oil treatment is helping the cucumbers and zucchini. The cucumber plants don’t look beautiful but they have continued to produce both the more familiar dark green variety and the paler, striated Armenian variety. There was some debate about whether to pull up the plants this week so that a cover crop could be sown, but we decided to give them another week since there were a number of smaller yet-to-be cucumbers still on the vine.

The zucchini look fab, and this blogwriter can vouch for their lovely sweet taste, delicious grilled with a little olive oil and rosemary. (Last week, a rather large specimen was overlooked during harvest and serendipitously ended up in my kitchen.)

Super-volunteer Al was the only one brave enough to continue the seed-saving process. Having fermented in the shed for a week, the cups of saved seeds did not look appealing:

But Al set about washing and then drying them on plates so we’ll have them for next year.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Our bumper harvest

After the cool summer of 2009, which slowed the growth of some of the warmth-loving veggies, we're finally hitting peak production.

On Saturday, September 12 we welcomed volunteers from Chicago Cares and with their help, picked a total of 212 pounds of fruit and veg to donate to Vital Bridges' Groceryland food pantry.

We also saved seeds from about 15 tomato varieties for planting next year, and rounded out the day with a pot-luck to send off our star volunteer, John Cahill, who is moving to Massachusetts.

Our haul this week included two crates of pears, 60 pounds of plums (two crates like the one below)

48 pounds of tomatoes, our first really red bell peppers

pumpkins, cucumbers, patty-pan squash, collards, kale, and a host of other goodies.

With the harvest picked and heading off to Vital Bridges, we turned to a few seasonal tasks. One group picked herbs for drying, another scraped paint off benches in the front garden (we'll seal these with soy sealer before the weather gets too wet), and others weeded the more recently sown beds.

After a while, we brought everyone together to help with saving tomato seeds from some of the varieties we grew this year. We started by assembling a collection of some of the weirdest, most prolific and best tasting fruits known to homo chicagoensis.

Then we assembled a fine collection of willing volunteers and instructed them in the simple art of saving tomato seeds. You start by selecting a fully ripe tomato from a variety you enjoyed. Then you slice it vertically into chunks and separate the seeds from the flesh in a bowl of clean water.

Unbelievably, one of our longer-serving volunteers then instructed people to take the tomato flesh and throw it in the compost pile. It took a particularly smart Chicago Cares volunteer to come up with the bright idea of just eating the leftover tomatoes, instead.

Then, the next task is to strain the water off the seeds. Our makeshift solution for this was a mesh floored seed tray that has been sitting behind the shed for as long as we can remember.

After that we scraped each variety of seeds into it's own small pot to begin the only slightly counter-intuitive part of the process: fermenting the seeds for 3-7 days in order to rot away the gel coating on each one. The gel contains a chemical that suppresses germination, so it has to be removed before the seed can be dried and stored. The seed pots have to be fermented until they have a thick coat of mold on the surface. But at the start of the process, they look pretty appealing:

We finished up the day with a pot-luck send-off for John Cahill, volunteer, writer and former carpenter. We wish him well in Massachusetts. (Check out those garden-grown tomatoes, basil and sorrel upon which we feasted!)

Monday, September 7, 2009

Fun with fungi

I don’t think anyone at Ginkgo really believed it at first, but we picked our first crop of wine cap mushrooms (Stropharia rugosoannulata) on Saturday September 5. There was no sign of these on Tuesday September 1, but two days later our Thursday watering team had noticed a sizeable crop mushrooming from the bed under the plum tree where we had spread inoculated straw on June 19. Not being any kind of mushroom experts, we took care to create a spore print to confirm that we really had what we expected and weren’t going to be flooding local emergency rooms. As expected, the caps released a fine film of dark purple/brown spores.

By Saturday, we had wine caps everywhere in the straw bed, but none in the woodchip bed next to it. We had read that wine caps’ favorite food was hardwood chips, but it may be that the bed with the chips hasn’t been as damp as the straw bed, or not quite the right temperature. We decided that as this was our very first mushroom crop, we should volunteer for the role of official food tasters. OK, maybe the decision to barbecue the first week’s crop wasn’t entirely selfless. A quarter hour of rummaging through the straw produced a crop of maybe 3 pounds of mushrooms (we were so eager to clean and grill them that we never weighed them properly.) We barbecued most of the crop (sprinkled with olive oil and herbs), along with a couple of peppers and our last onion.

I think all the tasters were pretty satisfied with the flavor, and so far there have been no reports of illness.

Most of the crops we grow at Ginkgo are productive over the span of several weeks. We always have to decide what’s ripe enough to pick now, and what will last another week. With mushrooms this timescale is really compressed. It only take a couple of days for a wine cap to go from a tiny button, through the most tasty domed stage, to a mature, slightly upturned cap. Equally, it’s hard to predict how long a particular “flush” of mushrooms will last. It’s going to be a challenge to time our harvests to get fresh mushrooms to the Groceryland food pantry.

Before the mushroom harvest, we did pick our regular selection of veg and fruit, including two nicely golden pumpkins, a small flotilla of patty-pan spaceships and one of the few cabbages that made it this far.

And the tomato harvest is still strong, with 38 pounds picked this week.

Several of our fruit trees are drooping under the weight of ripening fruit. We picked a crateful of pears this week, to finish ripening off the tree. And our plums look like they'll be ready next week.

We're also enjoying the largely random selection of wildflowers that have fought their way to maturity in the new bed at the end of our patio area.