Sunday, November 28, 2010

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.