Thursday, June 24, 2010

SACG Whimsical Windmills

While we waited for Sammy Scarecrow to arrive, Betty saved us from being completely devoured by birds by bringing some colorful and whimsical pinwheels to the Stoddart Avenue Community Garden. There are a few in most of the plots. Not only do the pinwheels turn in the breeze (and, thus, scare birds with their movement), but urban legend has it that they also deter moles because the vibrations caused by the turning wheel also scare the moles. The kids like them, too. Two youngsters came by last night – despite all of that heat and humidity -- and blew into each pinwheel to get them to move. The gentle breeze helped, too.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

SACG Loves Our Raspberries

By this time last year, the Stoddart Avenue Community Garden had the scrawny beginning of a raspberry patch. We had been blessed that Gardener Rayna had visited her mother for Mother's Day and spent some quality time together in the woods on their farm digging up black raspberry bush seedlings. (Apparently, they had quite the patch the year before, but had mowed it down before realizing that we needed and wanted them). She planted around 12 seedlings along our south fence and we even had about five black raspberries to harvest last year. We realized that the bushes would grow and spread and hoped that they would take over the fence line (thus creating an effective and edible barrier against vandals, etc.). Rayna and I did our best to keep them alive last year during our dry spell and they grew and grew. When we broke ground again for the 2010 season, Rayna even found some new volunteer bushes in our lot and transplanted them into our south fence line.

This year, we had lots and lots of black raspberries (as you can see from the pictures). We'll probably have even more next year. I have extremely fond memories from when I was growing up of scavenging for black raspberries behind the Highland District Library with my best friend Susan when we would go swimming during hot summer days (and by myself from my own backyard). I don't know if we ever harvested enough to bake a pie, but we often picked enough to fill a tin. I have been encouraging the neighborhood kids and our volunteers to help themselves to the berries (and, trust me, I've helped myself every time I visit the SACG). The kids have been a little dubious about our home-grown delicacy, but our older volunteers have needed little encouragement because they have similar memories from their youth.

Our black raspberries have only whetted my appetite for all things raspberry this month. Kroger is having its annual red raspberry sale and I used this opportunity last year and last night to make raspberry jam (which is soooo much easier to make than strawberry jam). Not counting the cost of the jars (which I recycle every year) and the pectin (which I get on sale at the end of the season), I made 7-½ - 8 half-pints (or cups) for only $1/jar. You can't buy commercial jam for that price. Even if you figure the cost of buying new basic jars (because you're new at it or because your friends and families failed to return the empty jam jars from the yummy home-made goodies you gave them last year) and had to buy new pectin at retail, the cost is still only $2.25/jar – a bargain by any measure. (It will cost more if you buy uber-fancy jam jars, like the ones made in Germany or sold at Target). Best of all, it only takes about 90 minutes to make from start to finish (because you don't have to trim all of those strawberries).

Step 1: Get your super-tall stock pot, put in 8 jam-sized jars and fill it with enough water to cover the jars by at least 2 inches. Put the lid on the pot (to control the steam) and put it on the stove. Turn the heat on high. Continue on with the next steps while the water comes to a boil.

Step 2: Get 1-¾ pints of berries. Rinse your berries & shake them in a colander. Pour them back into your giant measuring cup. (Mine hold 2 quarts). Mash them a bit until you have 1 quart of smashed berries.

Step 3: Get a large stock pot (preferably one with a heavy bottom). Pour in the berries. Then pour in 6 cups of sugar. (Yes boys and girls, there is almost twice as much sugar as berries in jam. Be afraid). Throw in a tablespoon of lemon juice for good luck. Mix the berries and sugar and bring to a boil over high heat. Stir the mixture until the sugar is melted. This will not take long. (By this time, the water in the tall stock-pot should be boiling. Turn the heat to low and when it stops boiling throw in the lids to the jars).

Step 4: Cut, rip or stab open a package of liquid pectin (while simultaneously stirring the jam with your third hand). Squeeze the contents into the hot jam mixture and stir well. Bring to a rolling boil and stir crazily (without burning yourself or getting burned by splattering jam) for 1 minute. Do not let it boil too long (i.e., more than 2 minutes) or the pectin will turn the mixture from a pretty red to a less attractive brown. (It will taste the same, but who will want to eat it?). Turn off the heat (and consider removing the pan from the burner if your kitchen is big enough). (As a test of the jam, you can put a tablespoon of jam on a small plate and put it in the freezer. If it jells quickly, you're good to go to the next step. You can also just act on faith and see where that gets you). If you have a lot of foam at the top, you should probably skim as much of that as possible off with your mixing spoon. (I save the foam to eat later when I'm cleaning up).

Step 5: Pull the jam jars out of the tall stock pot with tongs or a jar lifter. (Leave the hot water in the stock pot). Get a ladle and funnel. Put the funnel in one of the jars (which you will only be able to handle with a towel wrapped around it because it is HOT) and then ladle some hot jam mixture into the jar until it is filled to ¼ inch from the top. Remove the funnel and put it in the next jar before it starts dripping all over your stove. Inspect the top of the filled jar (and clean off the rim if necessary with a clean white cloth). Using a magnetized lid lifter, pull a lid out of the tall stock pot and place it ever so gingerly (because it is HOT) on top of the filled jar. Screw on the band (the rest of the two-piece lid) and set aside (using a towel to handle the jar because it is HOT). Repeat this step until you run out of jam. If you have some jam left, but not enough to fill most of a jar, then put it in a small storage container and put it in the freezer or refrigerator to eat tomorrow and the next day, etc.

Step 6: Carefully using your tongs or jar lifter, place the filled jam jars back into the tall stock pot (filled with hot water) and turn the heat back on high. Put the lid back on (to control the steam which will otherwise fill your already hot kitchen). When the water reaches a rolling boil, set your timer for 10 minutes (and consider turning down the heat a bit). Start cleaning up the mess you've just made of your kitchen (or, like I did last night, go watch the news and lick clean the spoons, ladle, funnel and stock pot used in making the jam and filling the jars).

Step 7: When the timer goes off (telling you that the jam jars have been boiling for 10 minutes), turn off the heat and remove the pot from the burner. Ever so carefully lift the jam jars out of the hot and steamy water using your nifty tongs or jar lifter. Place the jars someplace where they can sit for 24 hours without being disturbed. The wax on the lids needs to harden and the jam will jell, etc. Put the lid back on the tall stock pot (to control that pesky steam) or, if you have really long arms and long oven mitts, empty the water. If, like I once did, you drop a jar on the floor, you will need to replace the lids and reprocess in the boiling water bath for another ten minutes (or put it in the refrigerator to eat this month).

Step 8: After 24 hours has passed, remove the bands and make sure that the lids are on securely. If so, put the jar somewhere safe (and darkish) until you need them. I have an unheated room in my basement where I store all of my canned goods. If the lids are not secure, put it in the refrigerator and eat this month.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Heroes of the Day: Blessings Abound With Urban Connections Volunteers in Town

Peace flowed like a River at the Stoddart Avenue Community Garden yesterday as we benefitted from the hard work of volunteers from Upper Arlington, Hilliard and The Ohio State University during high temperatures and even higher humidity. In particular, we were blessed that one of our neighbors – Urban Connections – whose Ministry House is located one block away on Cherry Street (at the corner of Fairwood) shared with us for an afternoon about ten of their hardworking volunteers who were spending their summer vacation by lending a hand in the greater Stoddart Avenue neighborhood.

This is Vacation Bible School week at UC and they have a houseful of suburban volunteers staying with them to lend a hand. Last week, UC's Cathy asked me if I needed a hand at the Garden. Sure! I replied. I had offered them a pile of wood chips that we had leftover from April and Cathy indicated that they could use them to mulch around their Ministry House and to create paths in their garden area in the backyard. I also gave them a few extra seedlings for their own garden. On Friday afternoon, she emailed me about their availability to get the wood chips on Monday afternoon. Of course, I suggested that I had other tasks which would benefit the SACG and promptly hijacked all of the volunteers who crossed the street to the Garden. . . ..

About four of them concentrated on shoveling wood chips into the back of a pickup truck and unloading and spreading them at the UC Ministry House. My hero from Hilliard then left shoveling duty and replaced 11 of our cedar fence stakes with sturdier metal fence stakes which had been donated to us in May by Trudeau Fencing (also from the Hilliard area). He even located a sledge hammer for the occasion (when my smallish hammer did not sufficiently sink the posts into the brick-laden ground).

Three nice ladies weeded Martha's plot as well as the Holloway family plot before turning to greater weeding duties around the garden. One nice lady planted gladiola bulbs. Two "youngsters" from OSU planted Jupiter's Beard flowers (donated by a Bexley gardener), cleaned up the area around the compost bins and spread extra wood chips in that area to keep down the weeds. Another helped Keyante thin her carrots and pull weeds. Eric helped Dionte plant two tomato plants (and play basketballJ).

Did I mention how hot it was? If there was ever a day to kill any interest in community gardening that new volunteers may have once had, yesterday may have been it. Working in 85 degree temperatures with 95% humidity while they weeded, shoveled, pounded fence posts and planted would destroy the fledgling interest of any normal person. However, the Urban Connections volunteer crew was admirably upbeat and got a lot done for us. A horde of children joined us around 2:30 and some of the "youngsters" began teaching them Peace Like a River. Some of the kids also used the water from our new tank to fill their water guns (which I quickly and strongly tried to discourage). I myself was almost delirious from the heat by the time I left and had stopped speaking in coherent sentences about an hour before that. Nonetheless, I was inspired that several people stopped by afterwards to tell me how much better the Garden looked.

Urban Connections is an urban ministry on the Near East side of Columbus, Ohio. It began in 1999 with a Vacation Bible School in a vacant lot run by volunteers. They have grown from that small VBS to an organization committed to seeing growth in our neighborhood. Its mission is to connect people with Christ and each other and to develop our community together. Currently their ministry programs are based at a house on Fairwood Avenue – just one block from the SACG. I learned about UC last year when Betty and I first visited the neighborhood to invite them to join the Garden. Several mothers mentioned UC ran a great program for their children. UC helps the neighborhood children with their homework, has computers (with internet connections), has a weekly Bible Study and dinner for each age group and otherwise organizes fun activities for the kids (such as the basketball court they built on an adjoining lot). Like most busy non-profit organizations, they are always looking for more volunteers, etc. to work with the neighborhood kids.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

SACG’s New Tank Has Arrived With a Bang

Oh joy! What bliss! Our new 550 gallon water tank was delivered on Monday, hooked up on Tuesday evening and was full by noon on Wednesday with just one rain shower. The speed in which it was filled caught me off guard and I had not yet made arrangements to handle the overflow, but we will figure out something soon. It was also a lot wider than I had envisioned. (For some reason, I thought it would be about the same size as the water tank the Bexley Community Garden used last year).

As faithful readers may recall, in April, the Stoddart Avenue Community Garden and Build the Bridge of Ohio. Org applied for a grant from the City of Columbus (through the Health Department's Institute for Active Living Fund at The Columbus Foundation) to purchase a 500 gallon water tank in order to capture more rain water from the BTBO office roof, get the SACG through seasonal dry spells, support BTBO's new gardening program and assist us with a possible expansion of the SACG in the future. We ordered the tank from Rain Brothers
– who had donated four rain barrels to the SACG last year when we first broke ground. Rain Brothers purchases their tanks from a manufacturer in Lancaster – just down Highway 33 – which makes them from recycled plastic. Jonathan – one of the Rain Brothers – told me that the 550 gallon tank was actually less expensive than the 500 gallon tank. He had already sold out of tanks by the time I contacted him, so we had to wait for new ones to be manufactured.

Jonathan delivered the tank mid-Monday afternoon for free. Orlando and David were trimming the walnut tree next to BTBO, but helped me move the barrels from the east to the west side of the BTBO offices and build a platform for the tank. Jeff (our newest gardener) helped us siphon water from the full barrels to the empty barrels (because he already had the perfect tool for the job) and then Orlando wanted to show off his ability to bench-press 300 pounds by carrying full barrels and empty partially-full barrels into our new tank. (We'll overlook that he dropped my car keys into a full rain barrel so that we had to empty it, too).

Yesterday, I brought one of my inline manual diverters over and picked up a new downspout to divert rain water into the new tank. Jonathan then came over early in the evening and cut a small hole into the tank so that we could divert the rain water into that small hole. I wanted the tank to be hooked up as soon as possible because the forecast called for a 40% chance of rain. I was not disappointed. (Although May was pretty much a monsoon here in Columbus, the rainy season could stop without notice).

This morning, I snuck over during the monsoon rain to ensure that the tank and barrels were collecting rain water. To my amazement, the tank was almost full. The barrels, however, had not been positioned (by me) correctly (and two of them still had their faucets turned on from when we were siphoning water). I immediately corrected that problem. I then created a make-shift overflow system for the other side of the diverter for when the tank became full. Then, I called Orlando just before lunch to alert him to the fact that the tank was about to overflow and that he could flip the diverter switch to divert the water into the other downspout. However, when he hit the switch, the downspout fell to the ground because I had not properly secured it. Sigh.

This evening, and with Jeannie's help, I connected another downspout to the alternative side of the diverter (and to the flexible piping which Orlando left for me). This will empty the rain water into the grass well away from the BTBO office foundation. I also connected another downspout to the west side of the BTBO office and connected that to the lead rain barrel on that side of the building. (We will have four rain barrels on the west side of the building in the event that we have an extended drought or someone inadvertently or mischievously empties the tank). We will no longer have to depend on water dripping from the gutter into just the perfect spot on the rain barrel.

With all of the rain we've received in the last 24 hours, we should not need to water much this week. However, we should now have collected enough rain water to get us through the next few weeks even if it does not rain again. It is amazing to think that we could have hooked up a similar tank to BTBO's other 3 downspouts and collected over 3000 gallons of rain water from just one rain shower.

A friend of mine had previously questioned me about how we would fill such a large tank. She kept asking me if we intended to ask the Columbus Fire Department to fill it for us. It never occurred to her that we could quickly fill the tank with rain coming off one building roof. As the Friends of the Lower Olentangy Watershed (FLOW) explained to me a few years ago (and is explained on Rain Brother's website), an average sized Columbus, Ohio roof can collect over 20,000 gallons of rain water in a year. That's water just going down the downspouts, flooding alleys and streets, flowing into nearby storm sewers and flowing into Alum Creek. If more people used rain barrels to collect rain (even for just their home gardens and houseplants), we could decrease the amount of storm water runoff and erosion and pollution in Alum Creek. We could also save money by not using city water (which is expected to triple in price over the next five years). Besides, our plants prefer warm, non-chlorinated water to cold, chlorinated water. The federal government sees the wisdom of this and provided subsidies to organizations (like FLOW) to provide rain barrels at a reduced cost to city residents.

I had already bought three rain barrels for my own home from Rain Brothers back in 2007 (when they still delivered rain barrels for free in their biodiesel truck and painted them a deep forest green for a slightly extra fee). My neighbors are such fans that several of them have added barrels to their homes as well. (I can fit a single barrel into the back seat of my VW Jetta). Rain Brothers has excellent customer service and adds products and even redesigns their home-made products after receiving customer feedback. (They even named one of their barrels after me when I shared with them an observation I had about my own barrels).

Another reason I buy from Rain Brothers is because Jonathan is a long, long time community gardener. He won Outstanding Community Gardener of the Year just a few years ago. He came up with the idea for making a business out of harvesting rain water from his volunteer work with what is now called Four Seasons Farm – just a few blocks west of the SACG on the near East Side of Columbus. They didn't have any more money than we do to pay for water to support their community gardening/urban farming program, so he began building rain barrels for them. Harvesting rain water from neighboring roofs is a big factor in why the SACG is sustainable in the long-term. We do not have much overhead and have benefitted greatly from the generosity of our friends, neighbors and strangers in the greater Columbus and Bexley communities.

For those thinking about how they could reduce their own water bills by using rain water, Rain Brothers offers a variety of products (many of which I have seen demonstrated only on PBS's This Old House), and in a variety of colors, like expandable rain bladders that will fill under your deck, underground cisterns, and solar-powered or electric water pumps to irrigate your lawn just like you do with city water. The possibilities are endless. While the tanks come in dirty white and black, the barrels come in a wide variety of colors and styles.

We SACG gardeners love our rain barrels. Two of our most active volunteer-gardeners -- Barb & Frank -- make their own rain barrrels for their own home. Betty and I bonded with them when we were soliciting the neighbors to join the SACG last year and they showed us their home-made barrels.

However, as much as I love our barrels, the tank will help me sleep easier because I don't have to worry as much now about droughts or it getting stolen. Now I can worry about other things . . . . . . At my Bible Study last month, my group began encouraging me to start thinking about running an underground hose from the tank and installing a pump so that my gardeners would not have to carry their water to and from the tank and garden in a watering can. However, that is where I get most of my exercise these days and so that it unlikely to change in the short-term:)

Saturday, June 5, 2010

SACG’s Second Annual Strawberry Picking Outing

Despite the scary weather this morning in northern Franklin County, some hardy souls from the SACG would not be deterred from picking fresh berries in southern Franklin County. First, we were able to pick a few black raspberries at the SACG when we met there this morning. Then, Mari, her husband John, Beth and I threw caution to the wind and drove back to Schaact's Farm in Canal Winchester to pick strawberries. (I also picked strawberries last week at Hann's Farm in Obetz, but they did not open until 10 a.m. this morning and we wanted to get an earlier start). The benefit of this morning's thick cloud cover was that it was a cool morning to pick strawberries (albeit a touch humid). Beth and I had finished picking and were heading back to the car when it finally started to rain in at Schaacht's Farm. (We stopped by Big Lots on our way home so that I could pick up a dozen half-pint jars for $7 -- almost the perfect size for canning my own preserves).

This year, we picked berries a week earlier than we did last year and it made a giant difference in the number of strawberries which were available. There were also only about ten other people in the field with us (because many people were probably deterred by the weather forecast) and we had no trouble finding lots of ripe strawberries.

I made 10 half-pint jars of strawberry jam last Friday and it had finally set by the time I checked again this morning. I also froze 3 quarts of strawberries last week (and made lots of strawberry short cake and spinach-blue cheese-strawberry salads). I'll be freezing most of the berries I picked this morning.

Freezing strawberries is very easy. You just cut off the top of the strawberry (after washing them) and place them flat side down on a cookie sheet before putting the cookie sheet in a freezer for about an hour or so. After they freeze, I store them in quart freezer bags until I need them to make smoothies or margaritas. You do not need to core fresh-picked strawberries because – if you only pick ripe ones – there are no white tips or white cores. They are red all the way through (a major difference between picking your own berries and buying them at grocery stores).

Strawberry jam is more complicated. You take 2 quarts of strawberries. Wash and cut off the tops. Smash them up and put them in a very large stock pot. Mix in a package of pectin and ¼ cup lemon juice and bring to a boil. Take off the heat and mix in 7 cups of sugar. Put back on the heat and bring back to a rolling boil for 1-2 minutes while constantly stirring. (This is seriously hot work). Skim foam off the jam as necessary. Then you ladle the hot jam mixture into hot jars (which you've already prepared along with the lids and caps). Process in a boiling water canner for 10 minutes. You should have 8 half-pint jars when finished. Don't panic if the jam takes a few days to set. You could always re-cook it or just use it as strawberry syrup (over ice cream or pancakes). You also have the option of foregoing the pectin (and using less sugar), using lemon rinds instead of pectin, and/or not processing in a canner by putting the jam in freezer containers and freezing it until you need it. I've never made freezer jam, but I suspect that Beth is going to try it this year.

Preserves are more complicated still because you keep the strawberries whole and it involves letting the mixture sit for 8-12 hours at room temperature. It's still very hot work.

I've tried to make jam without pectin, but I am not that patient and had trouble getting my mixture hot enough to jell without spilling over (and making a big mess under the burners). I have lots of respect for those cooks who can.