Thursday, October 28, 2010

october 2, 2010 - sexing the squash flower

 After the warmth and sunshine of the previous weekend, the overcast and windy morning of October 2 threatened to be dispiriting. The garden initially appeared drab, but eventually yielded color to the determined eye.
Almost all of our plants were still producing. The volunteers and clients at the pantry are surprised that we can still bring them tomatoes and peppers. We gardeners are surprised at the number of green beans that we continue to harvest, from plants that were established almost as an afterthought in a bed from which we had removed earlier plants mid-season.

While I delivered the delivery, other volunteers prepared the garden for high winds that were predicted later in the day. Later, while Michael turned our compost beds, Susan led the other volunteers in stringing up herbs to dry in the garden shed. In a few weeks, we’ll stem and crush the dried sage and oregano leaves. If we are ambitious enough, we might even make little bouquets garni to donate to the pantry.

It is usually easier to turn the compost if you're standing in the bin.

When I returned, the others were ready to call it a day. Dee asked whether she could take home some of the flowers from our squash bed. When I mentioned that I thought that we might still get a few more squash before we had to pull up the bed for winter, Dee replied that she only planned to take the male flowers. This was how I learned that squash flowers are gendered: the female flowers are the ones with the bulbs that become the squash fruit.

Male squash blossom
Female squash blossom. The smaller bulb at the base 
of the flower will become the squash.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

sept 25 2010 - baby Ben makes a visit

September 25, 2010 started bright, clear, and unseasonably warm—a giddy resumption of summer. If it wasn’t for unavoidable reminders of the actual season, like the bed of dead cucumber plants, you could almost imagine that summer was not yet over.

The vegetable plants even seemed fooled: carrots pushed up out of their bed, chard glimmered in the sunlight, and a line of radish seedlings wandered across the soil. 

Doug and Debbie surprised us by bringing their newborn son to the garden. Many of us downed tools and gathered round to greet little Ben.

While some of us dandled, others speculated as to what Doug read to Ben while he was still in utero: A Sand County Almanac? Doug’s PhD thesis?

Eventually, we returned to harvesting and packing: Ben was too young to notice Dave’s beard, so there was not going to be any the hair-grabbing entertainment. (There will be plenty of time for that later.)

Doug then brought out his other garden delivery: a large bag of mixed seed for our green manure cover crop. A couple of weeks previously, Doug had measured the area of the raised beds to determine the amount of seed to purchase.

At a point towards the end of each growing season, we usually have to decide when to stop harvesting crops and pull plants from the beds so that we can start the winter cover crop. It is a question of timing for us: the longer we wait, the greater our harvest yield; however, if we wait too late, until after the City turns off our water connection, we may not have enough time to establish our cover crop before winter comes. Although the crops resume growth as soon as the snows clear in the early spring, we still need to give them sufficient time to amend the soil.

Our timing quandary applies this year to all beds but the dodecahedron—the bed in the back of the garden where we tried to grow beets and green beans this year. As mentioned previously, because of numerous crop failures in that bed this season, we decided to start resting and amending it early. A few weeks previously, we cultivated the bed with our garden fork and applied various amendments, including kelp meal. Although we can’t vouch for whether the kelp meal actually had the “mystical powers” that its container purported, we do hope that it will add minerals and other nutrient to the depleted soil of the dodecahedron bed.

While I made the delivery, other volunteers pulled up the cucumber bed and sowed much of the cover crop seed. We will continue to sow the cover crop as we pull up the plants in the other beds, protecting the seeds from pigeons using row cover.

sept 18 2010 - volontiers

We employ a variety of definitions of volunteer in the garden—often simultaneously.

One definition is horticultural: a volunteer plant is one that establishes itself in an area independent of human agency. Urban foresters, for example, may characterize trees such as alder, sumac, or ailanthus as volunteers that colonize vacant lots in advance of larger trees like oaks and maples. On a smaller scale, volunteer fruits and flowers pop up in unattended parts of yards or gardens. Seeded by wind and birds and sprouting in beneficial neglect, they grow until they attract the attention of a gardener, who will then decide their fate: to pull them up, to leave them alone, or to encourage them.

Whether a volunteer plant is an invasive (like many mustards), a weed like bindweed or pigweed, or a fortuitous crop is often a matter of opinion. For example, purslane is a weed to many, but a prized wild food to others. The pleasure that some take in morning glory is countered by the anxiety of other gardeners, who see it as a pest.

Our garden hosts a variety of volunteer plants. Some are harmful, such as the bindweed that can choke our bean plants in the early summer. Some volunteers, like purslane, are innocuous, but still unwelcome, plants that compete with vegetables for nutrients in our raised beds. Plants such as ornamental amaranth can be unlucky volunteers, migrating to the raised beds via seeds from our compost bin: in the right place, they would be allowed to thrive; in a tomato bed, however, they are destined for a return to the bin.

Other volunteers are encouraged, especially in certain parts of the garden.

Ground cherry and Walking Onion

The flowerbeds immediately inside the entrance to the garden, as well as around the base of our flowering cherry tree at the garden’s center, can be horticultural grab bags. From year to year, we are not certain what will appear, in addition to (or in spite of) what we plant with intent. Among our carefully nurtured seedlings of Nigella and Cosmos and sprigs of sedum, we will discover new arrivals of Wandering Buttercup or strange stalks of Walking Onion. This year, the flower beds produced growths of what we think is ground cherry, a relative of tomatillo, as well as a profusion of white, aster-like flowers.

Our most welcome volunteer plants, though, are the cherry tomato plants that spring up along the edges of the garden. These plants are hardy, starting in piles of soil from fallen fruit; working their way through holes in the weed barrier. Sometimes, these rogue plants bear fruit before their bedded companions; in at least one season, tomatoes from volunteers were the last that we harvested. These plants can cheer us when we encounter setbacks like crop failure: at least we grew something, even if all we did was stay out the way.

Another use of volunteer—for me, at least—is personal and tangential, because it is from another language, and not quite cognate: more of a bilingual pun. The French word volontiers, which shares Latin origins with the English volunteer, means “willingly or gladly”. It is used in French much in the way that people currently use “absolutely” in English (at least in Chicago): as an enthusiastically positive response to a request.

An appreciation of such enthusiasm leads to our third, and most common, definition of volunteer: a person who willingly contributes labor to an enterprise without expectation of material compensation. Like surprising blooms, people arrive at the garden each Saturday to help: willing to work for hours in all kinds of weather, tending a garden that is on public property instead of part of their private homes; planting and harvesting produce that they themselves will not consume. Some volunteers only work for a few weekends before moving on; others become perennial. For over sixteen years, there have always been a few people in the garden on Saturdays and Thursdays between Easter and Thanksgiving.

Saturday, September 18, 2010 was no exception. On this day, two groups of volunteers came to help: a group from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago joined our regular helpers from DePaul. The rain was steady that morning, and our paltry collection of ponchos did not provide sufficient protection; however, it was a warm day, and the volunteers did not seem to mind getting wet.

The peppers and tomatoes seemed to glow under the gray skies, and the rain meant that we did not need to worry about washing the collard leaves.

After we finished the harvest, I asked the volunteers to gather and pose for our regular parody of American Gothic—to which they complied volontiers.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Sept 11 2010 - of tree personality and produce labels

The rain that fell at the start of the garden workday on Saturday, September 11, 2010, did not deter a committed group of volunteers from Chicago Cares from the harvest. Volunteers plunged into dripping tomato bushes to harvest fruit—including the jungle of younger plants in one of the replanted beds that serve as unruly examples of why it is important to stake indeterminate varieties.

The garden still yields a surprising diversity of vegetables and herbs—though the diminishing harvest, collected under cloudy skies, can engender a certain melancholy as we think of the gardenless and gray winter Saturdays to come.
The previous weekend, I lost the fitted cover for the bike trailer during my return to the garden from the pantry. I now use an old shower curtain to secure the produce. With its towering cargo of tulip bins shrouded in vinyl sheeting, the trailer resembles a mini Puppet Bike.

I took the trailer to the Lake Shore Bike Path. Near the intersection of the path with Wilson Avenue, I noticed that a maple tree was already starting to show its fall colors—the earliest that I had seen in the area. I have long been intrigued at what causes a particular tree to move to its fall phase. It is not just that different species of tree, or even different cultivars of species, change at different times; the start of autumnal change seems to depend on individual trees. I once watched one locust tree across the street from my office change from green to gold three weeks before its virtually identical neighbor, only a few feet away, started its transformation.

What causes one tree to change its colors weeks before a nearby tree of the same species does? Is it the extremely local combination of soil condition, wind pattern, or angle of sun that determines when a tree initiates the withdrawal of chlorophyll from its leaves? Is a tree’s time of change the interaction of the tree’s chromosomes and its local environment? Or does a tree have something akin to a personality that decides when to change? And if a tree has something like a personality, what about other plants, like tomatoes or squash? On the other hand, how much of what we consider personality is really a product of the mind? How many of my own nominally volitional acts are really just expressions of genotype moderated by environment?

It is a fairly long ride from the garden to the pantry, especially when pulling a loaded trailer. I pass the time pondering questions like whether maples and tomatoes have personalities.

At the pantry, we remembered to label the baskets. A few months ago, Aurelia, a member of another group of Chicago Cares volunteers who works at the pantry*, prepared a set of laminated cards that we could use to label our produce. The labels are a nice touch: they help our cart of produce in baskets look even more like a stall in a farmer’s market, lending dignity to what can sometimes be a distressing interaction.

*When events on the  Chicago Cares volunteer calendar coincide, I will sometimes leave one group of Chicago Cares volunteers helping in the garden to find another group helping at the pantry.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

September 4

The feel of a workday in the garden depends on who arrives to help. The garden depends on volunteer labor, and benefits greatly when large groups join the harvest. We enjoy introducing new volunteers to the tasks and pleasures of gardening: how to harvest collards, being sure to leave a few photosynthesizing leaves so that the plant will continue to thrive; how to remove green bean pods so as not to damage plants; how to stake tomatoes. As I am aware that almost everything that I know about gardening I learned from another volunteer, I am always happy to instruct someone else.

Although an important part of our work, such instruction can be stressful, especially when we’re pressed for time. We like to complete the harvesting, weighing, and packing before 11:00 or so, so that we can still deliver to the Vital Bridges pantry before noon: if we arrive much later than that, many clients will already have left, pulled away by the need to catch a bus before their transfers expire. So it is sometimes a relief when everyone at the garden has been there a few times and knows what needs to be done.

On September 4, most of the volunteers were veterans of the workday. The garden hummed with self-directed activity and common purpose. While some pulled carrots and radishes, others dug up the last of the potatoes. We harvested tomatoes and ripe peppers. Some of us gathered summer squash; others clipped collard and kale; others washed or weighed produce. Doug measured our beds so that he could order sufficient cover crop for winter. We evaluated our fruit trees and planned for the next pruning.

Because I have been delivering this season, I have missed the times after the harvest, when the volunteers turn from the tasks of gathering produce and focus on work that sustains both garden and gardener: dropping seeds into holes poked into freshly worked beds; lifting a fork’s worth of loamy soil from the bottom of a compost bin; arranging cleaned tools on hooks in the shed.

On the other hand, the other volunteers rarely get to watch people gather to fill their bags with our produce, so perhaps it all evens out.