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.

october 23, 2010 – end of a streak

It rained on Saturday, October 23, 2010—both in Chicago at the garden and in Wisconsin where I was on vacation. Dave was also out of town, and Annie was out sick; so no one was around to use a bike trailer to transport the day’s harvest to the Vital Bridges pantry. Susan delivered the garden’s produce in her car.

The following weekend, Susan broke the news to me that we broke the streak of delivering by bike that we had maintained since the beginning of the growing season.

“At least it was with a Prius”, Sue said.

In retrospect, I think that it was for the best that we made at least one delivery by car. A perfect streak of bike delivery would only have provided fodder for a sanctimony that we strive to avoid.

One thing that I enjoy about working at Ginkgo is that we try to follow our principles without being needlessly doctrinaire. We believe in organic agriculture, and we use organic methods as much as is practicable—but we don’t interrogate every orange peel and lettuce core that might make its way into one of our compost bins. We save our own seeds and purchase heirloom varieties whenever possible—but we will also pick up a few conventional eggplant starts if they go on sale at Gethsemane. We keep our carbon costs down by using bike trailers for deliveries—but we delivered by car for years, and will again when necessary. We try not to let the ideal get in the way of the good.

In 2010 Ginkgo Organic Gardens delivered over 1200 pounds of fruits and vegetables, of which all but around 50 pounds was delivered by human power. We’re all pretty happy about that.

october 16, 2010 – cover crop and new gloves

After a late start on October 16, 2010, I did not arrive at the garden until almost 11:00 AM. The other volunteers had just finished packing and weighing the harvest, so I turned around and headed back north, towards the pantry.
 When I returned to the garden, the others were busy preparing beds for winter. Unfortunately, we ran out of cover crop seed midway through one of the beds. We probably overseeded the dodecahedron bed in our concern over its rehabilitation. We agreed to wait until early spring to plant more cover crop, as it would probably be too cold for any seed that we ordered now to germinate by winter.

Evelyn surprised us with a dozen new pairs of latex-dipped canvas gardening gloves. Our current inventory of gloves had become threadbare and mildewed, so the new gloves were welcome.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

october 9, 2010 - spa day

Some of the tomato plants have not yet received the memo about fall.
October 9 was unseasonably warm. The combination of the clear, angled light of autumn and the warmth of early summer was exhilarating. People spilled outside, wearing the light clothing that they had yet to pack away: pleasantly betwixt, taking nothing for granted.

A large number of volunteers visited the garden on this morning. A group from Chicago Cares joined our regular group of DePaul volunteers. With so many willing workers around, the garden enjoyed the horticultural equivalent of a spa day: a full mani/pedi, facial, seaweed wrap—and even a little Rolfing.

The harvest took little time to collect, weigh, and package. I delivered our produce to the pantry, dazzled by stark combinations of gold and azure along the bike path.

The other volunteers threw themselves into a variety of gardening tasks. Some worked on the beds in which we grew this year’s crop of carrots, squash, and eggplant, composting spent plants and turning the soil with our large garden fork. Some saved seeds from daikon radishes, while others thinned seedlings from our final crop of French Breakfast radishes.

The soil in the northeast corner of the carrot bed did not yield easily to the fork.

Saving daikon seed can be tedious-even with cookies.

Plastic kitty-litter boxes make for surprisingly good weeding buckets.

We were surprised this year by the growth of one of our young fig trees, especially when the sapling bore fruit. The fruit appeared too late in the season, so we were unable to harvest them. Dave explained that a fig fruit is actually a modified flower cluster called an inflorescence. We cut open one of the fruit/stems and examined the tiny flowers that lined the inner chamber. 
Cross section of pre-Newtonian fig, showing peduncular tissue surrounding stamens. It's not every day that one gets to make a physics joke in a botanical note--probably a good thing. It's probably also good not to have many occasions to use the word "peduncular".