Saturday, December 11, 2010

final results for 2010 and yield comparisons

The garden is an unhappy place for a perfectionist. Too much stands beyond our control here, and the only thing that we can absolutely count on is eventual catastrophe….It’s easy to get discouraged, unless…you are happier to garden in time rather than in space; unless, that is, your heart is in the verb.

—Michael Pollan, Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education

While scratching the start of my winter beard, I read Pollan and remember the 2010 season of the Ginkgo Organic Gardens. My memory is aided by the analysis that I recently completed of the garden’s yield, and which I now share.

2010 featured bumper crops of tomatoes, collards, and cucumbers, surprising harvests of potatoes, but poor yields of tree fruits, beets, and spinach. It was the first year of human-powered delivery and fig trees. It was a year relatively free of impediments such as powdery mildew and aphids, but pestered with crop failures. The year’s yield was higher than that of 2008, but lower than that of 2009.


Ginkgo volunteers respect data. We might occasionally hang an unscraped hoe in the shed; we may leave stray tomatoes to rot on the weighing table; but we never fail to record the results of each weekend’s harvest in our garden log.

This year, I decided to analyze the harvest data with three objectives:

  1. to compare the season’s yield with that of the years for which I had readily available data
  2. to describe the changing composition of our harvests
  3. to estimate the dollar value of what we donated

Yield Graphs

The following graphs compare the yields of various classes of produce throughout the growing seasons of 2008, 2009, and 2010. Each growing season is described with two charts: a bar chart that shows the yield for each week of the year, and a line chart that tracks the cumulative yield to date. Yields are in pounds.

Total Yield

The total yield for 2010 was 1291 pounds—enough to where we can continue to describe ourselves as a “half ton garden”, and more than 2008’s yield of 1141 pounds, but much less than 2009’s yield of 1607 pounds, which we now recognize as possibly being a record.


Although tomatoes are botanically a fruit, I included them as vegetables in the analysis. Regardless of how I class tomatoes, we grew a lot of them in 2010: 377 pounds, 75 pounds of which we harvested in one weekend. We also grew 172 pounds of cucumbers and 150 pounds of collards, more than we had grown in the prior two years. On the other hand, our yield of 33 pounds of green beans was a third of that of 2009—when, because of the One Seed Chicago campaign, we were awash in free packets of Blue Lake Pole Bean seeds, which proved to be prolific that year, but not in 2010. Our relatively low yield of 44 pounds of sweet peppers resulted from a decision to plant fewer beds of peppers than tomatoes. Our 2010 yield was also lower than that of 2009 both because of failures of spinach and beet crops and because we decided, after two years of battling powdery mildew and cutworms, not to grow winter squash.

The following stacked bar graphs compare the composition of vegetable crops for the last three years. The graphs are dense because of the number of crops that we grew, but certain trends are evident, such as the relative contributions of tomatoes, collards, and cucumbers to our yields.


2010’s yield of fruit was 68 pounds—a little more than the 59 pounds from 2008, but only 40% of 2009’s yield of 153 pounds. Most of the difference between the yields of 2010 and 2009 can be attributed to 2009’s bumper crop of plums—64 pounds, of which 60 pounds we shook out of the trees in one weekend. In contrast, we only obtained 6 pounds of plums in 2010. Although the plum trees appeared to promise another great harvest for 2010, we lost most of the fruit to high winds in late spring and early summer. The apple trees yielded almost no fruit this year (in fact, almost every apple that survived theft and windfall is featured somewhere in the blog), nor we did get much from our grape vines.


Our 2010 yield of 25 pounds is only 3 pounds less than that of 2009. We had slightly less success with basil this year, but slightly more success with sage.

Estimated monetary value

How much would our produce have fetched if we had sold it instead of donated it? Or as I prefer to ask: how much would clients of the Vital Bridges pantry have had to pay to obtain produce of quality comparable to what Ginkgo offered?

To arrive at an estimate, I used prices for produce that I recorded at the Whole Foods at 3640 N. Halsted during a visit on December 4, 2010. I used prices for what I deemed to be representative organic equivalents to our produce when possible. Although Ginkgo is not a USDA certified organic garden, I think that our produce would compare favorably in both purity and quality to vegetables from certified growers, so I feel justified in using prices for certified organic produce in my estimate. For produce for which I could not find an equivalent at Whole Foods, I used what appeared to be the default unit price of $2.49/lb.

Because the bulk of our produce was in tomatoes, the price that I used for equivalent Whole Foods tomatoes affects the estimate greatly. On the day of my visit, the Whole Foods did not have organic heirloom tomatoes; however, it did offer both heirloom tomatoes and organic grape tomatoes, so I used a price that was the average of the two.

Based on the Whole Foods prices for equivalent produce, the monetary value of the vegetables, fruits, and herbs that the Ginkgo Organic Gardens grew in 2010 was $4188.00.

Crop 2010 yield (lb) Whole Foods Equivalent  $/lb (Dec 4 2010) Total (2010)
Arugula 0 n/a  $-  
Beans - Green & Yellow 32.75 green beans  $2.49  $81.55
Beans - Fava, Flat Italian 0 n/a  $-  
Beets 19.75 organic gold  $2.49  $49.18
Cabbage 10 organic  $1.49  $14.90
Carrots 26 organic bulk  $0.99  $25.74
Collards 149.5 not in store; using equivalent  $2.49  $372.26
Cucumbers 171.65 organic  $1.99  $341.58
Eggplant 0 n/a  $-  
Kale 58.2 organic green leaf  $2.49  $144.92
Lettuce - Leaf/Head 3.5 packaged mixed baby greens  $7.96  $27.86
Lovage 0.75 not in store; using equivalent  $2.49  $1.87
Mushrooms 0 n/a  $-  
Mustard greens 0.25 not in store; using equivalent  $2.49  $0.62
Onions 0 n/a  $-  
Peas - Snap/Snowpeas 11 conventional  $3.99  $43.89
Peppers - Hot 11.25 jalapeno - conventional?  $2.99  $33.64
Peppers - Sweet 44.25 organic - average of green and red  $3.84  $169.92
Potatoes - White 62.25 organic white  $1.99  $123.88
Potatoes - Sweet 15 yams - conventional?  $1.69  $25.35
Pumpkin 0 n/a  $-  
Radish - Daikon 5 organic  $1.99  $9.95
Radish - Red 19.5 organic  $4.00  $78.00
Scallions 0.85 not in store; using chives  $3.99  $3.39
Sorrel 1.75 not in store; using equivalent  $2.49  $4.36
Spinach 0.5 organic baby  $5.99  $3.00
Squash - Acorn / Fall 0 n/a  $-  
Squash - Summer 50.25 organic  $1.99  $100.00
Squash - Zucchini 19 organic  $2.49  $47.31
Swiss Chard 60.5 organic red  $2.49  $150.65
Tomatoes 376.5 average of conventional heirloom and organic grape  $4.99  $1,878.74
Tomatillo 15.75  $1.99  $31.34
Turnips w/ greens 28 organic  $2.49  $69.72
Apples 0 n/a
Grapes 0 n/a
Gooseberries 1.5 not in store
Pears 45 organic Bartlett  $2.49  $112.05
Plums 6.25 not in store; use pears  $2.49  $15.56
Raspberries 15.5  $9.33  $144.67
Basil 4.1 packaged organic  $3.32  $13.61
Chives 7.65 packaged organic  $3.32  $25.40
Dill 0.1 packaged organic  $3.32  $0.33
Garlic / Garlic scapes 1.35 packaged organic  $3.32  $4.48
Marjoram 0 packaged organic  $3.32  $-  
Mint 3.3 packaged organic  $3.32  $10.96
Oregano 3.05 packaged organic  $3.32  $10.13
Parsley 0.1 packaged organic  $3.32  $0.33
Rosemary 0.4 packaged organic  $3.32  $1.33
Sage 3.45 packaged organic  $3.32  $11.45
Tarragon 1.05 packaged organic  $3.32  $3.49
Thyme 0.1 packaged organic  $3.32  $0.33
TOTAL  $4,187.70

Sunday, November 28, 2010

november 20, 2010 – sharpening day

On November 20, a small group of us arrived to a garden mostly empty of plants. We had not come to tend to the remaining collards and kales that struggled to survive in the cold, but to tools that were rusty, stiff, dinged, and dull.

We brought our tools out from the shed. A couple of us scoured rust and dirt from clippers and loppers with steel wool. We sharpened the cutting edges of the tools with a sharpening stone and honing oil. Others filed nicks from the blades of shovels and hoes. We sharpened machetes and knives. Finally, we coated blades and hinges with WD-40 and stored tools away for the winter.

While we worked on tools, Susan cleaned up in the front. She raked ginkgo leaves into a pile, only to encounter a father and child jumping into the pile when she returned with a wheelbarrow. She reraked the leaves and brought them into the garden, depositing them next to a pile of older leaves in an impromptu Goldsworthy sculpture.

Before leaving for the day, I collected the seeds that we had saved over the season, paying special attention to the heirloom tomato seeds. A couple of months ago, Evelyn finished cleaning and drying tomato seeds, storing them in small plastic containers that takeout restaurants use to store sauces.

The image illustrates one of the problems of this season—our difficulties in identifying tomatoes late in the season. We labeled our tomato starts when we transplanted them to the raised bed in spring; however, the growing plants obscured the labels, and rainwater eventually washed away the writing. When it was time to identify tomato varieties for seed, we wound up guessing. Next year, we plan to map where we plant our tomatoes so that we do not have to rely on written labels.

november 13, 2010 – putting the figs to bed

Autumn is leaving its mellowness behind for its spiky, rotted stage. Don’t remember summer even saying good-bye. —David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

Back in May, I mistakenly identified the species of fig that we planted. Although I don’t know which species we did plant, I now know that it definitely was not Ficus carica. Because our figs are decidedly un-hardy, we need to protect them from harsh Chicago winters.

This weekend, we prepared our fig saplings for winter. Dave and Michael dug shallow trenches that were a little longer than the trees were tall. Michael had a harder time of it because we did not pre-dig a trench for the larger fig when we initially planted it. While Michael dug his trench, Dave and I cut a 4-foot square of plyboard into two rectangular pieces.

Dave and Michael next wrapped the bottoms of the saplings with burlap. They bent the wrapped trees down so that they lay in the shallow trenches. We then covered the trees in their trenches with plyboard and then dirt. Finally, we marked the trench edges with wooden stakes.

The trench keeps the saplings oxygenated and surrounded by insulating soil so that the trees will survive the winter protected from wind. The plyboard protects the trees from being crushed by snow or the careless walker.

Dave explained that we’ll be able to use this method with our figs for at least 5 years. When the trunks become too rigid to bend, we can cut them back and start over with one of the tree’s suckers.

november 6, 2010 – the unseemly sweet potato

frost-damaged pole bean plants
Since mid-October, we have arrived each Saturday morning wondering whether it would be the last one of the season. The unseasonable warmth of the last few weeks led us to hope that we might be able to extend the growing year farther into November than usual. We started talking about measures such as hoop houses for our collards.

Nature and the City put a stop to all of that thinking. Nature’s kibosh came in the form of a freeze on Friday night. Even though Saturday was relatively warm, the damage from the freeze was obvious, and obviously permanent—wilted stalks, soupy leaves.

the party's over

The City weighed in by disconnecting our water: as public land, the property that houses Ginkgo Organic Gardens is subject to the annual water schedule of the City’s parks. With our frost-damaged plants and the loss of reliable water, we decided that it was time to pull up all plants but the collards and kale (which actually benefit from frost).

We were fortunate in that it was also a Chicago Cares day, so there were plenty of people to clear the beds. We stripped the tomato and pepper plants of all fruit (even the green ones) and composted the rest. We pulled up all of the radishes and harvested the small heads that had been growing from the central stalks of our cabbage plants.

We felt like scavengers, shaking down dying plants for meager remains, until we started digging in the sweet potato bed. Our harvest of 15 pounds was much better than we had hoped. It was especially gratifying to obtain such a yield when we remembered that all of our sweet potato plants came from slips that Dave Short had started in jars of water in his kitchen.

the USP

At least 3 pounds of sweet potato was contained in one unnatural-looking root that was large to feed a family all by itself. It was a bulbous and veiny and—frankly—testicular-looking tuber. It was an unseemly sweet potato.

I bundled the USP with the rest of the produce and biked everything to the Vital Bridges pantry. As I have for almost every weekend since the end of spring, I arranged the produce in baskets on a metal cart that I wheeled out to the waiting area of the pantry. I chatted with the volunteers and pantry clients and urged someone to take the scary-looking growth that was the centerpiece of the day’s offering.

 It was only when I started collecting the plastic tubs for the return to the garden that I understood that this would be our last delivery to the pantry for at least six months. I was saddened to realize that although Ginkgo’s work with the pantry was over for this year, people would continue to need fresh vegetables and fruit. The limitations of our efforts became humblingly apparent.

I returned to the garden to find the beds stripped and the compost bins overflowing. Today had been the last harvest. The growing season of 2010 was over. It was time to focus efforts on preparing the garden for the winter ahead, and to start planning for 2011.

october 30 and 31, 2010 – Halloween weekend

The Saturday before Halloween was dry, and warm enough that you could get away with wearing a sweatshirt and no hat, if you still wanted to deny the end of summer. The fronds of the fern bed had died away to reveal the logs that we had seeded with shiitake spores in the spring and then forgotten.

We were able to eke a few more pounds of produce out of the garden. The last crop of radishes popped up from the raised bed, ready to be picked; our stalwart collards and kale continued to yield; and we managed almost 10 pounds of tomatoes—though some were on the edge of being too mealy to eat. We could just see the tops of our sweet potatoes pushing up through the ground: we decided to wait another week or so before harvesting them.

While I delivered the harvest to the pantry, the other volunteers prepared the garden for Halloween. For the last few years, we have participated in the Halloween festivities of the Buena Park neighborhood where the garden is located. We usually decorate the front garden with a scarecrow or two and hand out treats to passing children.

This year, we fashioned our scarecrow out of a suit of old clothing stuffed with leaves and draped over one of our garden signs. We used the seed head of one of our giant sunflowers for the scarecrow’s head and its stalk for arms. The seedy face of our scarecrow reminded me of a Green Man or John Barleycorn.

To accompany our scarecrow, we hung from the trees ghosts made from ragged sheets of row cover bound with gardening twine around piles of autumn leaves. The garden started to look disconcerting, if not actually spooky.

The following day, we set up our table in the front garden, stocking it with candy and hot cider. Many of the volunteers arrived in costume. Dave (disguised as The World’s Largest Garden Gnome) roasted chestnuts on the garden Weber. The DePaul Oxfam team handed out candy to a parade of costumed trick-or-treaters and dispensed hot cider to parents who took a breather from chasing after garbed children and asking, “Now what do you say?”

It was one of those evenings that reminded us of the value of being a community garden.