Saturday, May 29, 2010

Photo album, May 29, 2010

The tomatoes were transplanted from the greenhouse on May 21 because we wanted to be certain that the danger of frost had passed; the last frost date in Chicago is May 15. The transplants look happy.

And the spinach, which was sown directly into the soil earlier in the season (no need to worry about frost), is doing well in this bed, but not in the other two beds. We're not sure why this happened.

The potatoes are coming along a little more slowly than expected, but they look happy.

And the lettuce looks amazing!

The herbs and flower beds are getting to be fairly self-sustaining. Many herbs came back quickly owing to our unexpectedly mild winter.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Solanum lycopersicum

Flowers in bloom: Allium; Yellow Iris; Creeping Buttercup; Silver Dollar Plant

Late last summer, we saved seeds from our harvest of heirloom tomato plants. Many of our tomato plants were ringers of a sort: most of our own seedlings died in the year's inclement spring, and we had to resort to purchasing replacement heirloom starts from the weekly farmer’s markets at Uncommon Ground and in Evanston.

After this inauspicious start, the season improved, and we enjoyed a successful tomato harvest. The variety and quality of our tomatoes inspired us to save seeds for the next year. After cleaning, curing, and drying the seeds, we filed them away in tiny manila envelopes, keeping them cool and dry (and in at least one crisper section of a volunteer's refrigerator) until a couple of months ago, when we started them at Kilbourn.

Today, our volunteers (including groups from the DePaul chapters of Oxfam and Americorps M3C) transplanted the bulk of our tomato seedlings into three beds.

After weeding the beds, we loosened soil with our garden fork and graded the beds with rakes and hoes to establish a level planting surface. We then laid out our seedling pots in each bed, arranging them in a chevron pattern: two plants in one row, then one plant in the next, then two plants, etc. After sorting the seedlings, we dug holes deep enough so that the plants would extend no more than four or so inches above the ground level. We filled each hole with water from our rain barrel.

We then removed each seedling from its small plastic pot. We first loosened the soil in a pot by gently squeezing the pot’s base. We then turned the pot on its side and teased out the seedling in its soil plug by squeezing the pot and pulling slightly on the plant. When we were lucky, the seedling and soil plug emerged intact from the pot; when we weren’t lucky, we wound up with a handful of loose soil that threatened to fall away from its fragile cargo. We placed each seedling and its soil surround into the hole that, by now, had absorbed the water that we had poured in earlier. We pinched off any leaves that were below the soil line, filled in the holes with dirt, and "watered in" the seedlings.

We staked our seedlings after planting them. As the tomato varieties that we grow are all indeterminate , we must provide them with support as they grow. Right after transplanting, most of the seedlings were too small to require much support; it is, nevertheless, good to start early. We drove tomato stakes into the ground a few inches away from each seedling. If a seedling looked as if it needed support, we loosely secured it to its stake with garden twine, using a figure-eight loop that supports the stem without binding it.

Finally, we replaced the wire fencing that surrounded each bed to protect our seedlings from rabbits. Although rabbits don’t generally eat plants in the nightshade family (to which both tomatoes and potatoes belong), they have been known to take out the occasional tender seedling. Squirrels are also a problem, prone to the annoying habit of taking a single bite from a tomato fruit and then discarding it, as though they kept forgetting that they didn't like tomatoes, after all.

In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt. - Margaret Atwood

Thursday, May 20, 2010

A Fortnight’s Worth of Farming

May 8 was a day of exuberant tuber planting. We planted sprouting pieces of potato in trenches that we dug in one of our raised beds. We also planted potatoes in our old claw foot bathtub. In other beds, we planted turnips, radishes (both the red variety familiar to many of us as well as white daikon), and two kinds of beets. We planted carrot seeds in a specially-prepared bed: carrots grow better in soil that is loose and sandy, so we keep a bed fluffed up just for them.

We also planted leafy greens. In one of the two beds that benefit from the shade of our plum trees, we planted mesclun and a variety of zombie mustard whose seed was the sole survivor of an mesclun planting of a few years back. This mustard is so tough, it’s almost an invasive plant--but it works well in salad, so there's little chance of it taking over the garden. We also transplanted collard and kale plants that we had started from seed at the Kilbourn Organic Greenhouse.

While some of us worked with vegetables, others of us worked with fruit. We planted two saplings of Chicago Hardy Fig (Ficus carica), a variety of the fruit tree that can survive colder climes like ours. We learned from Doug and Dave, our two volunteers who double as members of CROP, how to plant these saplings in a trench instead of a hole. When winter arrives, we’ll bed the saplings in their trenches and cover them so that they won't be exposed to the wind.

In addition to tending our food crops, we maintained the front garden of perennials and native plants. We weeded, collected trash, and removed a dead trunk from our smoke bush.

ferny goodness

May 15 started warm and sunny, but ended chilly and cloudy. Our garden planning this year has been somewhat slapdash: aside from certainty about where the tomatoes and peppers will go, we’ve spent a lot of our mornings standing in a group, trying to remember what was supposed to go in each bed (Cucumbers? Sweet potatoes?). Our planning is not totally improvisational, of course—we’re not planting cucumbers right now, for instance—but it has more than the usual amount of whimsy.

We were a little anxious to see that our spinach plants were not thriving. Perhaps it was the spell of recent cool weather; perhaps our seeds were simply too old. If our spinach plants don’t improve, we’ll probably plant a replacement crop, because it will soon be too hot for spinach to grow without bolting.

We planted Yellow Wax bush beans in the dodecahedron* bed, alongside the beets and pole beans that were already there. We also planted the bush beans in the bed where we started peas, because an entire row of pea seeds did not germinate. (This lack of germination has become worrisome.)

We direct-sowed kale seeds in our kale bed to fill in places where our transplants were faring poorly. We also planted more potatoes. We learned that two five-pound bags of potatoes go a long way: we could have gotten away with extravagantly planted whole potatoes instead of just potato pieces.

seedlings in the cold frameThis Wednesday, Doug transferred our tomato and pepper starts from the greenhouse to our temporary cold frame. For the last few years, we have cobbled together cold frames with hay bales and salvaged windows. Usually, we keep the seedlings in the cold frame for a week or so to harden them off, or acclimatize them to an environment harsher than that of the greenhouse. We’re not waiting that long this year: the seedlings are leggy, with long stems and shallow roots, which poses the risk that they'll be too weak. We’ll need to plant them deep, stake them well, and hope for a couple of mild weeks.

*The bed is not actually in the shape of a dodecahedron (a solid), but a dodecagon (a polygon). It might not even be a dodecagon: none of us has actually taken the time to count the number of sides. It’s irrelevant, in any case: dodecahedron sounds marginally cooler than dodecagon, and this isn’t geometry—it’s gardening.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Photo album, May 8, 2010

The fig trees that were planted the previous week seem to be very happy in their new locations. This one was planted at the foot of the herb bed. Before the tree was planted, a trench was dug out in front of it and then covered over.

Our fig trees came from Italy by way of a friendly gardener. In the winter, the trees will be put to bed in their trenches and covered over with dirt and plywood to keep them warm. Being Mediterranean plants, they can't tolerate Chicago-style winters. We've been assured that this method will work.

Check back with us next spring to see how the trees do.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

I was thinkin' I could use me another helpin' of these potaters

May 1 saw the first working appearance of the garden’s newest tool: a bike trailer that we will use this season to deliver our donations of produce, flowers, and herbs. The trailer is sturdy, steel, and rated to carry up to 175 pounds. Weight won’t be as much a challenge for us in the harvest months as will volume: 80 pounds of tomatoes and greens, stacked in the plastic tulip bulb crates that we rescued from a grocery store, makes for a high center of gravity.

(These crates are, by the way, of such utility in their new role as containers of fresh produce that we still marvel that anyone would discard them.)

We are pleased to have a bike trailer to deliver produce, for a number of reasons. We will no longer depend on the willingness of volunteers to load the back seats of their cars with crates of freshly harvested (read: wet and muddy) vegetables. Fewer delivery vehicles in the garden will reduce the wear on the land near the back gate that suffers from erosion caused by water from nearby downspouts. We won’t have to worry about parking when making deliveries. Some of us will be able to combine our garden-geekery with our bike-geekery. Plus, of course, there’s that whole reduced carbon footprint thing.

The first delivery with the bike cart was of something to the garden: two sacks of potato seeds that we ordered from Seed Savers Exchange. If potato seeds look like potatoes, that’s because potato seeds are potatoes—expensive and pedigreed potatoes, in this case. We have two heirloom varieties—Yellow Finns and Cranberry Reds.

After letting the potatoes air out for a week and sprout eyes, we’ll cut them into smaller pieces (each piece with an eye) and plant them in various raised beds, as well as in the old claw foot bathtub that we reserve for spuds. You can grow potatoes in anything from potting soil bags to garbage cans to entire fields, as long as you remember to mound soil regularly around the growing plants to encourage them to produce more of the root nodules that we’re seeking.


Saturday, May 1, 2010

Photo album, May 1 2010

We had a great (and large) group of volunteers on May 1. This meant we had time to work in the front garden (for a change). Thanks for all the weeding, folks!

And some volunteers tried to keep the raspberries under control by tying them in.

The chives have been going strong since early in the season.

And there was time to enjoy seeing all the growing going on -- take a look at these snow peas!

And there was time for a nice chat at the end of the day.