Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Peak Vegetable and hippy tipping points

We arrived early at the garden on Saturday, August 21, worried that there would be neither time nor volunteers enough to handle another eruption from our vegetal Eyjafjallajokull. Our concerns proved to be disappointingly unfounded: the day’s take was 100 pounds less than that of a week ago, and our group made short work of harvesting and packing it. As with Peak Oil or Peak Fish, we might not know for a while whether last week represented Peak Vegetable for this season.
Week 34 yield comparison

There may not have been as many tomatoes as expected (50 instead of 75 pounds), but what was there was cherce. A number of plants were optimally ripe: small, firm fruit fell into the palm at the slightest touch of the vine; in fact, many tomatoes appeared to have fallen in response to the light rain of the night before.

The cucumbers and squash, on the other hand, were sparse. Some of the cucumbers were yellow and watery-looking. We speculated that the plants are still recovering from the combined insult of both powdery mildew and the measures we had to take to remove the fungus. There were still flowers present, so we hope that the reduced harvest is only temporary.

We had a diverse, though reduced, collection from our carrot, radish, and beet beds. We were able to harvest a cabbage; however, the collards and kale yielded less than expected.

Our biggest disappointment came from the potatoes. After the 22+ pound bonanza of Cranberry potatoes last week, we anticipated another large harvest. We dug tentatively around in other beds in which we had planted Yellow Finns and LaRattes, but found little. Our claw foot tub yielded only a few pebbly spuds. We may have been early—after all, some of the plants still had flowers. We decided to wait a couple of weeks more.
Slim pickings in the tub

We had room to spare in the bike trailer for our produce. There was even a space in a rear corner, into which Dave tucked the paper bag of cut flowers that we had arranged.

“Great. I’ll look like a hippie,” I said.

Dave looked at me for a second before replying. “So delivering produce from an organic garden to a food pantry with a bike trailer wasn’t already enough?”

Groovy, man. Groovier, actually.
He had a point.

While Dave and I discussed whether we had reached a hippie tipping point, Candace won a battle with a Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima) that had sprouted in the front garden. Alianthus trees are invasives that often colonize recently cleared areas. We usually have to remove at least one alianthus from along a fenceline each summer.

It’s not that we dislike alianthus trees in themselves. Although it is true that alianthus leaves smell like rancid peanut butter, it is also true that by late fall, the fruit from our namesake ginkgo tree reeks like a baloney sandwich forgotten in a glove box. The problem with alianthus is that it suppresses the growth of nearby plants by releasing allelopathic chemicals into the soil. Redwoods do this too; then again, redwoods don’t smell like rancid peanut butter. Perhaps it is the smell, after all.

I left Candace to dismember the alianthus and headed to the pantry. It is certainly much easier to move ripe and glowing tomatoes, cucumbers, and carrots than it is to convince people to take the unsexy but vitamin-rich greens of early summer. If we could serve cooked greens, we’d have no problem.

I returned to the garden to examine the fruit trees. The pears are almost comically large for their trees; we’ll soon need to harvest the fruit and set it up to cure. The laden branches of our Stanley Plum trees describe arcs of tightly grouped purple fruit, still weeks away from being fully ripe. We have few apples, unfortunately: most of our apple trees are trained in espalier along the back fence, and passersby in the alley have a liberal interpretation of usufruct. The fruit on trees that are out of reach, including those on our grafted crabapple rootstock, are almost ready.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Ginkgo book swap August 21

Help new ideas blossom at Ginkgo Organic Gardens' 2nd annual book swap!

Clean out those bookshelves and bring your beloved-but-no-longer-needed books to the gardens this Saturday, August 21st. From 2-4pm, we'll paw through each other's donated books, listen to readings by local authors, eat some snacks, and enjoy the garden greenery. (And psst - if it rains on Saturday, bring books and bug spray on Sunday, August 22nd, instead.)

All leftover books will be donated to Open Books, a community-based nonprofit that promotes literacy in Chicago.

The treasures...left written in books, I turn over and peruse in company with my friends, and if we find anything good in them, we pick it out, and think it a great gain if we thus become useful to one another.
—Socrates, quoted by Xenophon, quoted by Matthew Crawford in Shop Class As Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work

Sunday, August 15, 2010

many hands make light work—and heavy trailers

The harvest on August 14 was huge—in fact, one of our largest in three years. We were fortunate in that a large number of volunteers, including a group from Chicago Cares, arrived early to help.

The bulk of the volunteers started on tomatoes. Harvesting tomatoes is time-consuming work, especially when the tomato plants are in full, unruly growth. As new volunteers arrived, we sent them straight to the tomato beds. Our efforts were rewarded with 75 pounds of tomatoes—the most in three years, just surpassing the prior record of 72.5 pounds harvested on August 22, 2008.

A smaller group worked on potatoes. We had noticed earlier that some of our potato plants were turning yellow and dying back—a sign that the potatoes underneath were ready to harvest. We decided to harvest one half of a bed in which we had planted Cranberry and La Ratte varieties. Using long shovels, we dug carefully into the mounded rows, taking pains not to slice through the potatoes that were buried underneath. We sifted dirt through various grates and retrieved mostly rose-colored Cranberry potatoes. The yield from just the half-bed was over 22 pounds—already the highest yield of potatoes in three years, and we still have plants to harvest in another bed, a bathtub, and various containers.

We then moved to the cucumber beds, from which we obtained 45 pounds of vegetables. We clipped leaves from our still prodigious collard, kale, and chard plants, and harvested the second of our three cabbage plants.

After weeks of waiting, we were finally able to take a number of more or less fully ripened sweet peppers. We pulled up another bunch of large carrots, as well as a number of beets. We also pulled the first of a new crop of small, white radishes.

After washing and weighing the produce, we surveyed our collection of white plastic bins, wondering whether we would be able to transfer everything into a single bike trailer. We rearranged and sorted. We made difficult choices to conserve space, removing the greens from the beets and the tops from the carrots. We were congratulating ourselves on squeezing everything into eight stacked containers (a new record) when we remembered the two bins of potatoes. At this point, Julie offered to carry half of the potatoes. So with the trailer at near capacity and the potatoes in Julie’s pannier and my backpack, we set off for the pantry.

While Julie and I made the delivery, the other volunteers turned to garden maintenance. Some treated squash and cucumber leaves for powdery mildew. Others cleaned up in front, righting downed fencing and picking up trash along the street. Still others cleared the dodecahedron bed and prepared it for amending. (I will describe the amending of the dodecahedron bed in a future post.)

This trip to the pantry was my first in which two carts were required to hold all of our delivery. Lori Cannon told us that the Armenian cucumber has become a favorite of pantry visitors. A regular visitor to the pantry told Julie that he had eaten tomatoes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for four days in a row.

The total harvest for August 14, 2010 was 182 pounds, second in size only to the 212 pounds harvested on September 12 last year. It would have been impossible to gather this amount of produce in the few hours that were available to us without a large number of volunteers.

The garden is at its peak, and we haven’t even started taking plums and pears yet. Come out and help with the harvest. Let’s break the bike trailer.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

From inns of molten blue

In searching for food, the colours of fruits are helpful clues, and, unlike the carnivores, primates have evolved good colour vision. Their eyes are also better at picking out static details. Their food is static, and detecting minute movements is less vital than recognizing subtle differences in shape and texture….The sense of taste is more refined. The diet is more varied and highly flavoured—there is more to taste. In particular there is a strong response to sweet tasting objects.

I remember the preceding passage from The Naked Ape, by Desmond Morris, at least once every August in the garden. Morris’s words usually come to me when I am deep inside an overgrown tomato bush, mosquito-bitten and vine-smeared, stained fingers straining for a ripe fruit. Sometimes I think of them while eyeing the confusion of leaves under which cucumbers or zucchini take refuge; mostly, though, I associate them with tomatoes.

We harvested 46 pounds of tomatoes on Saturday, August 7. We also picked beets, cucumbers (including one that had escaped notice until it was the size of an arm), collards, and kale; a sheaf of chives; and Platonic ideals of carrots that were as wide as a wrist. The stars of the day, though, were the tomatoes: Purple Calabashes that gripped their vines like fragile fists; meaty Purple Cherokees that threatened to split or fall to messy deaths; golden and heart-shaped Dad’s Sunsets; delicate, egg-like Thai Pinks.

There were many varieties of cherry tomatoes, too. A dawn-warmed cherry tomato, pulled from its vine and popped straight into the mouth, contains a liquor never brewed: an elixir of summer, the distillate of picnics and fireflies and feigned deafness to your mother’s calls to come in for the evening.

We packed everything into the bike cart. As the bike cart and its owner creaked and groaned under the load on the way to the pantry, the other volunteers turned to needed garden maintenance.

Karen watered; Michael and Jamie removed cucumber and squash leaves that had succumbed to powdery mildew, and Dave sprayed the remaining healthy leaves with a mild solution of baking soda and liquid soap. Annie and the Schearing sisters weeded out front. We cleared the flower beds of Queen Anne’s Lace and built a section of decking from wood salvaged from a condo porch project. Afterwards, a few of us sat around scratching our welts and discussing geodesy and Thomas Pynchon.

Except for the mosquitoes, it was a perfect gardening day.

Saturday, August 7, 2010


The garden is home to many winged and fluttering creatures, as well as to the occasional furred marauder. The following gallery shows a few of the garden's non-tomato residents.


We know that the Garden is host to a wide variety of pollinators. The milkweed, Queen Anne's Lace, and Coneflower blooms crawl with flies, bees, wasps, moths, and butterflies. Lady bird beetles wander in the tomato vines.

There are unwanted insects, as well. Grasshoppers gnaw on the kale leaves. Every mosquito in Uptown seems to be waiting for us on Saturday mornings and Thursday evenings.


There is at least one rabbit warren somewhere on the Garden property. We're always surprising a bunny in fragrante delicto—though not usually actually on the inside of our fencing. Bunnies have not done much damage this year.

We also have squirrels, of course. Squirrels seem to stick to fallen fruit, though they will nip at the occasional tomato.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

yield comparisons, week 31

Based on the data from harvest logs of the last three years, this year's yield to date compares favorably with yields from the prior two years. The total yield to date for 2010 of vegetables, fruits, flowers, and herbs is 323 pounds—slightly more than the 299 pounds of 2009, slightly less than the 336 pounds of 2008.

Total garden yield is but a crude metric. The chart of collards yield, for example, shows that we are producing a lot more collards this year than before; what it does not show is the fact that we planted 1.5 beds of the stuff this year—probably three times as much as we did last year. We can't normalize the yield to bed area, in other words. We may need to resign ourselves to qualitative comparisons until we exercise more rigor in our data collection.

My intent was not to be wonky about collard yield, but to reassure that the fertility of our garden is not decreasing. We seem to be doing fine.

Graphics reveal data. Indeed graphics can be more precise and revealing than conventional statistical computations.—Edward R. Tufte, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information


The harvest for the weekend of July 31, 2010 was the most varied of the season so far: a half dozen beets from the planting that finally germinated; the last of the turnips and wax beans; a slightly reduced yield from our trio of greens (collard, kale, and chard); a vibrant collection of tomatoes; a head of cabbage; and a bouquet garni’s worth of herbs.

We also pulled over 39 pounds of cucumbers. One benefit of donating our produce is that we avoid the usual gardener’s challenge of finding people willing to accept cucumbers. (I imagine that right now, shopping bags stuffed with cucumbers are sitting in the break rooms in offices all over the Midwest, perhaps labeled with sticky notes that unnecessarily state that the cucumbers are “Free!”) We grew two varieties of cucumbers this year: the variety with dark green skin that many of us know; and Armenian cucumbers, which are larger and milder, and resemble squash. Like most cucurbits, Armenian cucumbers tend to hide in their beds and to grow to unwieldy proportions.

We still managed to get everything into a single bike trailer, although the cucumbers were a challenge.

The day's volunteers. Gingko's Rule of Volunteer Photographs dictates that someone has to hold a pitchfork. This week was Michael's turn.