Sunday, September 27, 2015

Welcome to Fall

This was the first weekend of Fall.  We are busy preparing for the end of the growing season at the
Stoddart Avenue Community Garden, while we try to decide whether to continue.   We had almost a small crowd at the Garden on Saturday morning, with Sabrina, Tom, Zephyr, infant, Frank, Barb, Capital University student volunteer, Nick, and his father.  While the temperatures are very pleasant, it is seasonably very dry; we’ve received less than an inch of rain in the past four weeks.


I’ll be making our last basil harvest within the next 2-3 weeks.  In order to have fresh basil over the winter, I transplant basil into a small pot that I keep in my kitchen window.   While you can dig a plant out of the ground, I don’t like bringing bugs into my kitchen.  Instead, I break off an entire branch of basil from the main stem and put it in water.  They generally (i.e.  75% of the time) will form roots.   I also generally pull off a few of the larger leaves since the plant will get a little stressed by the move.  When the roots get long enough, I pot the plant and give it lots of water.  I tried growing this under my regular grow lights, but I discovered last year that it grew better in my kitchen window.  It seems to stay warm enough and get enough light there.   This is also the time to be planting garlic cloves to have garlic bulbs last year.  While you’re probably advised to purchase planting garlic at a garden center, I’ve found that using regular garlic bulbs from the grocery can work, too.  Just make sure that there is some green in the center.  You want the plant to form some foliage before winter arrives.

On Wednesday, darkness came at 7:30, which barely gave me enough time to water the neighbor
beds, the food pantry plots and my plot before harvesting a bit from my plot.  I wanted to pinch the basil, but wasn’t in the mood and didn’t really have time.  Giovanni came by to check on her bed and pick up a few tomatoes.  She’s enjoying school and math is her favorite subject.  Some new neighbors stopped by while I was filling watering cans and were exploring Amy’s plot.  It was a mother and tiny little boy (who I think was stepping on Amy’s lettuce and beet seedlings while his mother was checking out her chocolate mint).  I explained that that it was Amy’s plot and I was getting ready to leave.  She admired the Garden and they stopped by our Free Little Library as they departed.  

This morning I was greeted by Nick and his father as I arrived.  After giving them a brief tour of the Garden, I set Nick on watering while his father mowed our lawn and the Block Watch lot next door.   (He hadn’t planned on staying, but enjoyed the Garden and Nick didn’t have appropriate foot wear).  He also picked up litter around the Garden.  Frank had already stopped by on Friday and got the weeds growing along the street curb. Nick also watered our new trees and the strawberry patch.  I had him water the blueberry bushes, too.  However, based on how quickly he worked, I suspect that he wasn’t watering as deeply as I do.  I also had him harvest tomatoes and beans for our weekly food pantry donation, but the beans seemed to do a good job of hiding from him.  He also spent some time weeding the strawberry patch since Neal hasn’t found the time to do so and also weeding the west side of the food pantry plot.    After I harvested the last of our food pantry plot pole beans, I pulled the beans and the trellis out of the plot.  Nick then cleaned it off so that it could be used again next year. 

While Nick was busy with his tasks, I weeded the neighbor bed and transplanted additional collard
and lettuce seedlings into it.  Then, I thinned the romaine lettuce growing in the food pantry plot and transplanted them as well.  I also watered the new seedlings growing elsewhere in the Garden and my own plot.   I also harvested greens, broccoli, herbs, tomatillos and peppers for our weekly food pantry donation, pinched basil, watered my own plot and harvested from my own plot.

Sabrina, Tom, Zephyr and their new infant stopped by to clean up their plot and harvest.  While Tom was busy harvesting and pulling spent plants, Sabrina, Zephry and baby walked around.  While we were getting water for my plot, a very friendly tom cat came by to touch noses with  Zephry and the baby.  I’ve never seen such a friendly tom cat.  I’m sure that he must be hungry and will try to bring food with me in the future for him.  He played with Zephyr for quite a while.  Sabrina and Zephry then helped me to harvest seeds from our African marigold and cosmos flowers.  Frank asked them if they planned to return next year, but they hope to buy a house and have their own vegetable garden out their back door.   (They had also hoped to be living in a different part of the state by this time, too . . . ). We were all admiring the kale tree in Rayna’s plot.  She obviously hasn’t harvested her kale in a while.  But the most extraordinary aspect is that the grasshoppers aren’t eating it like they eat our other kale.  How does she do that?

Barb and Frank then stopped by to pull out their tomato plants.  However, because their tomatoes are so small, I convinced them to hold off since they will continue to ripen until it gets a bit colder.  I’ve actually had cherry tomatoes in mild winters until almost Christmas . .  . It is a El Nino year after all . . . . .   Barb has recently started a new job and is adjusting to a new work schedule.  They were very happy that the Block Watch lot had been mowed and then went across the street to tend flowers.  

I finally locked up the Garden at 1 p.m. (When was the last time that happened?)  After dropping Nick at the Capital campus, I weighed our produce and delivered it to the LSS Food pantry, where they had lots and lots of tomatoes.    As reflected by the charts, our annual pantry donations to date exceed 400 pounds.   This has us on pace to reach 500 pounds, or more, by the end of the year. 

On Monday, I’ve been invited and will attend a fundraiser benefitting area community gardens and the Active Living Fund at the Columbus Foundation.   The Garden to Kitchen dinner will be at The Kitchen restaurant at 231 East Livingston beginning at 6:00 p.m.  Tickets are limited to the first 50 people to respond and are $100 each.  You can make a reservation by emailing Barb Seckler.   There will also be a silent auction: a grill package, Calphalon cookware and privately catered dinner, etc.  Starting a new community garden is often beyond the resources of many low-income neighborhoods.  They often need to buy a rain cistern, materials to build raised gardening beds, tools, a shed, gloves, etc.  Because a lot of these residents rent their homes, they do not own any of these items on their own to utilize or donate.   With the limited funding available to support local community gardens, let alone support the creation of new ones, Barb Seckler is trying to find additional sources of income for them.
 
I’ve explained to her about my current state of mind in light of the City Land Bank announcement that we would have to weigh all of our produce next year.  She tells me that none of them will be at the dinner.  I’m still fuming about it.  I bet that they cannot identify a single other Land Bank or public community garden program anywhere in the world with a similarly oppressive requirement.  Grrr.   
 
In the meantime, I've been busy trying to keep my cats from killing all of the praying mantises in my yard.  They seem to be converging on my patio and I've actually found them boxing with my kitten.  It's not really a fair fight. . . .   As I was telling Sabrina about it, Tom found a small praying mantis behind their former bean trellis.  Turning this into a teaching moment, Sabrina sent Zephyr over to take a look.  Poor mantis must have been terrified with 3-1/2 humans leaning over at it.
 
Going forward, we'll be watering, watering, watering, and pulling out more spent plants and trellises as we wind up for the year.
 

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Too Much Time on Our Hands??

I’ve been told that I’m a little hot about events this week, and it’s not about the weather.   Apparently, I have way too much free time on my hands and so the City of Columbus is “likely” to require me and all other community gardeners on Land Bank lots next year “to report the amount of produce grown in terms of pounds of each produce grown.”    I can’t even get my gardeners to weed, to harvest or to do their chores.  Scores of potential gardeners walk away when I explain the work equity requirement to join the Garden. I already spend over ten hours/week tending the Garden and conducting Garden business even though I don’t get paid for any of it.  On the contrary, I and my other gardeners pay to be there.  However, the City seems determined to discourage additional community gardens on vacant lots in struggling neighborhoods and to make it oppressively burdensome for the rest of us plot gardens to continue.

The week didn’t start off so controversially.   We only received .2 inches of rain this week and there is no rain in the forecast until maybe October.   I went to the Garden on Wednesday and spent my time watering the neighbor bed, the food pantry plots, the newly seeded areas and my plot.  Stan the Man stopped by to tend his plot and explain his long absence this summer.  In addition to his regular full-time job, he also mows scores of lawns to earn extra money.  However, with the extraordinary amount of rain this summer, he was finding it difficult to find daylight time to mow lawns when it was dry.    He weeded his plot and harvested tomatoes, peppers, cabbage and beans. He offered to help me water, but I asked him to trash some items near the picnic table instead.   He also locked up for me.

On Saturday, I again watered the neighbor bed, the food pantry plots, the newly seeded areas, a
flower pot, and my plot. I fertilized the seedlings (which were sprouting from being planted last Saturday).    I also weeded all of the above (except the middle food pantry plot) and reorganized the shed.  I also groused about how few of the gardeners seem to be harvesting their produce or weeding.  Neal hasn’t weeded the strawberry patch yet, even though it’s been his weekly chore for August and September.  Sigh. Mari has let tomatoes and zucchini rot in her plot.  Double sigh.  Rayna’s plot is covered in bind weed.   However, Amy rode over on her bike, weeded her plot and a little of the center flower bed and blueberry bushes and then harvested tomatoes peppers and bush beans from the middle food pantry plots before riding away with her hubby.  I reloaded our free little library (after a little boy stopped by and found nothing to his liking).   I then turned to our weekly food pantry harvest in the remaining food pantry plots and harvested from my own plot.  I also pinched tomato flowers because we are nearing the end of their growing season and picked up litter which had been dumped or blown onto our lot in the past week.  Then, it’s back to my house to weigh our food pantry harvest, record it and head over to the food pantry before it closes.  Our pole beans seem to be on their last legs, but I found some more volunteer napa cabbage and bok choy in my plot (which was a delight).

On Friday, Seth from the City Land Bank, sent around an email congratulating the winners from this year’s Growing to Green awards celebration.  One of the big winners was our next door neighbor, Kimball Farms, in only their second growing season, with twelve small children in its summer day program.  (Yea Melinda and Norman).  I'm so jealous of Melinda that she was able to manage a community garden while spending most of the summer in Ireland and the Pacific west coast.   I can't remember the last time I took any summer vacations; not since I started the SACG.   We’ve been very fortunate to not have any produce thefts this year and I attribute this at least partially to the fact that our thieves are helping themselves to the Kimball Farms garden next door. I asked Norman and Melinda if I should be shooing away thieves or encouraging folks to help themselves.

Anyway, at the very bottom of this long email from Seth, he slips in the following:

Collection of garden data

a.      We asking for gardens to voluntarily report the amount of produce grown in terms of pounds of each produce grown and/or money generated. Community events at the garden sites may also be documented.

b.      Next year, we will likely be amending the garden license agreements to make this a requirement of all community gardens to report the benefits at the end of each growing season.

c.      Our goal is to begin recording this data in an effort to show City leaders the impact our community gardens are making on their communities. As some of you may know, the City and County are working on a food plan. As a result, we want to be in a position to most benefit from the results of the planning study. Politicians like numbers showing positive cause and effects.

I freaked out.  It already takes me about 45 minutes each week to keep track of this information for just the food pantry donations.  It’s so time consuming that this year I decided to only make such donations once each week (instead of twice).  I grow so many different things in my own plot that I couldn’t possibly do this in any efficient way.  There is no way any of my gardeners would or could do this.  Most people can’t even count the calories in their daily meals for more than a day or two at a time because it is so time consuming (even with online calorie counters like myfitnesspal.com), but the City expects us to stop whatever we are doing, sort our daily/weekly harvest, and record each week how much of each produce we get and then add it all up at the end of the season and report it to them.   We don’t even keep track of the food we give away to beggers or through our neighbor plot.  How can we keep track of the berries or cherries that the neighborhood kids eat when we are not there?   Should we eliminate our neighbor plots and put a fence around our fruit trees and berries?  Should we tell the kids:  stop eating those until we weigh them?  It’s ridiculous.

When I told Amy about this yesterday, she asked whether the City intended to give us a large scale to keep in our shed so that we could do this.   Will they replace it when it gets stolen (like all of our seeds, gloves and most of our tools were this year)?  I have a single, unemployed mother who travels to and from the Garden by bus or hitching.   I seriously doubt that she even owns a scale.  How is she supposed to do this?   Neal stops by almost daily in the summer and then heads over to Wings Restaurant so that Ken can cook him dinner (or make him a salad) with what he harvests.  Do you really think he wants to spend time telling Ken to weigh and record it first?   When I leave the Garden in the summer, I’m hot and grouchy.  I do not want ONE MORE SINGLE THING TO DO.
Casual and non-gardeners cannot imagine how oppressively time consuming this request is.  No one does this in their real life.  One gardener in Maine decided to do it in 2009 out of curiosity and blogged about it.  You simply don't see casual or hobby gardeners -- like us at the SACG -- doing this.  Don't get me wrong. It's fascinating and useful information.  However, the value of the information is far exceeded by the amount of work involved.   There are easier ways to estimate the information than in requiring overworked and overwhelmed community gardeners to do more work than they already are.   For instance, Bill could measure and weigh everything in his home garden in his own free time and we could use that as the basis to estimate what the rest of us are growing.  

All of our gardeners come at different times during the week, depending on their work schedules, etc.  I haven’t seen Lea since April and have only seen Sabrina once (at a pizza party) since she had a new baby in June.  I only met Kaci twice when she performed half of her work equity in May and I don’t think she ever harvested anything anyway.  Different gardeners grow different things and have different success rates.  There’s no realistic way for me to police or monitor any of the individual harvests by gardeners.  It's not even possible to guess based on my food pantry harvests since individual gardeners occasionally donate to it and I end up taking over at least one plot mid-season after it has been abandoned.

To give you just one example of how unbelievably unrealistic this request is, many of my gardeners won't even write down the new combinations for our shed.   Before all of our break-ins this year, I used to have one combination that opened our gates and our shed.  But with our new security system (which I am not going to describe), the gardeners now need to remember three combinations to get into the Garden and into the shed.  Even though most of them have college degrees, this has been too much work for them.  Instead, I have received complaints about how they can no longer weed or water their plots because it is too difficult to get into the shed.  (Time consuming, yes, I agree.  Significantly more difficult?  Not really if you would simply go to the trouble of writing down the information or putting it into your phone).  But they have objected to three combinations despite the obvious need for a stronger security system to protect our assets.  

Bill Dawson has been pushing this agenda for years of cataloging the weight and type of produce grown at community gardens.  Upper Arlington Lutheran Church does this with their Garden (where 100% of their produce is donated to their various ministries).  It’s one thing when you grow items in bulk and large quantities and conduct large harvests of just a few items each week.  However, most plot gardeners – particularly at the SACG – grow a wide variety of items in a small space.  Just enough for ourselves.   This week, for instance, I harvested four kinds of peppers, 10 kinds of tomatoes, tomatillos, four kinds of beans, broccoli, three kinds of kale, and basil.  Some weeks, there are also peas, cabbage and lettuces.   You can see from the pictures how my weekly harvest compares to our weekly food pantry harvest.

Then there’s me.  I’m already overwhelmed and burned out.  There is no joy in this anymore.  I have to deal with crazy people, unreasonable people, touchy people, emotionally needy children, thieves, vandalism, droughts, litter, monsoons, weeds, bugs, poison ivy, heat, and sun burn, etc. I have no time for anything else in my life.  I’ve become dull and everyone I know rolls their eyes when it comes to me and the Garden.  My parents desperately want me to quit.   I started the Garden in 2009 so that I could have a plot of my own near my house.  I don’t mind that it’s gotten a little out of hand, although I resent that I have a bunch of freeloading gardeners who are only too happy to let me do most of the work.  If everyone were like Amy, Sabrina, Susan and Frank this might actually be fun, but it stopped being fun for me quite a while ago.  The only reason I haven’t quit is because I feel a sense of responsibility for the Garden and recognize that it benefits a neglected neighborhood.   

I called Seth immediately to protest this ridiculous amount of work.  He said that it had been discussed at the Franklin Park Conservatory yesterday and that it had been Bill Dawson’s idea.  They are trying to think of ways to convince the City Council to allocate more funds to community gardens.   However, dearies, we need more help, not more work.  I won’t sign any lease or license that requires me or any of my gardeners to do this.  No way.  No how.   It’s not like the City is going to pay us to gather and record this information.   It’s as though the City fails to recognize how much work we already do to improve these awful Land Bank lots and to improve the neighborhoods where the community gardens are located (which, by and large, are not in middle class or upper income neighborhoods since all of their lots are filled with single-family houses, parks and businesses).   We apparently are not getting any credit for the extraordinary amount of work and sweat equity we already invest in the lots.  They think that they are doing us a favor by making additional work a condition of volunteering in these gardens. 

I’m not saying that they are bad people.  On the contrary, they have each made lovely contributions to the SACG over the years.   But they are seriously misguided on this issue.    If they just want a simple report of our activities, that would be fine.  As most of you know, I provide that to our donors and supporters anyway – including to the City.   If they just wanted to know how much money we raise by selling produce, that’s easy enough to report (i.e., $2.00).   I am not, however, going to increase my already ridiculous work load by gathering information about the weight of the produce grown by our plot gardeners or myself individually.  If that means the end of the SACG, then it’s on them.  I’m already looking forward to starting a new adventure in my life that has absolutely nothing to do with dirty fingernails, soiled clothing or wearing a beat up old gardening hat.  I’m looking forward to having more time to clean my house, landscape my own yard and not being so tired on Monday because I work even harder on weekends than I do on weekdays.

Now, I know that there are some nonprofit leaders out there thinking that they have to gather ridiculous information as part of their grants and I’m just a whiny crybaby.  Let me remind you that you get paid to do this.  You take your salary and you buy food, shelter, clothing and entertainment for yourself and your family.  We do not get paid.  On the contrary, not only do we pay to be there, we invest hours and hours and hours of our limited free time to improve the lots and the surrounding neighborhood.  We already do more than enough to justify whatever support we get from the City and keep the few pounds of produce we grow for ourselves without attaching more strings to it.  Seth acknowledges this and conceded that it had been part of their discussion.  However, apparently they don’t care that we don’t have enough time as it is to do everything that needs to be done (like mow lawns, weed, etc.) , they want us to do even more.

Seth asked if we couldn’t count the number of tomatoes we harvest.  You can tell that he has never grown his own food.  Neal grows thousands of tiny tomatoes.  I grow a variety of different tomatoes, romas, beefstake, Brandywines, san marzanos, Ohio Belgians,  Rutgers, Sioux, Cherokee purple, cherries, etc.  They all weigh something different.  There has been 100 pounds different in weights of our food pantry tomato donations over the years.   Peppers are also different sizes and weights and, at the end of the day, weigh far less than their appearance because they are essentially hollow.

So, if you care about the future of community gardens in the City of Columbus, you should immediately email Seth ( at SWHBrehm@columbus.gov) and Bill at (bdawson@fpconservatory.org) and Barb (at BJSeckler@Columbus.gov) and tell them that you oppose creating more work for community gardens and requiring us to weigh every bit of produce that we grow (whether in total or by category) as a condition of working hard in adverse conditions in our free time to improve neglected City neighborhoods.  After my discussion with Seth, he emailed all of the land bank community gardens again:

I would like to throw out there that if you have comments and concerns about the ability to measure the amount of produce grown, i.e. weighing, money generated, etc., please let me know. While I said it is likely we would add language to our license agreement, if I find this will unfairly burden and hinder the program, we will consider other alternatives. I want to be able to have a discussion with other City staff based off of feedback I have received.

I have provided Seth with a copy of my food pantry harvest records (with the names of individual donor gardeners redacted) so that he can see the minutia involved in gathering and recording this information.  It has to be done with every harvest because no one can realistically keep track of how much of each produce they grow over the season unless you keep detailed records each and every time you pick food.  I also explained that most of the gardeners will have no clue how ridiculously time consuming it is to do this until they’ve tried and very few of them have tried.   I’m even willing to concede that it may not be a big deal for small communal gardens, if they have access to a scale, because they grow items in bulk and disperse everything at the same time.   However, when you harvest tiny amounts several times each week -- like most of us do -- it will take more time to keep track of this information than it does to harvest it.

I also want to acknowledge that the City and Conservatory have been very helpful to us over the years and I'm not one of those community garden leaders that constantly bitches about how much more they should be doing. (While Columbus may not compare well to Cleveland, we're still miles ahead of Toledo, Cincinnati and Louisville, etc.).   I'm a glass half-full kinda girl most of the time.  The City gave us the funds to buy our large rain tank in 2010.  They are loaning us another.  They refilled part of tank for us last year and may do so again next month.  They bought our picnic table and have given us soil amendments.  Bill and the Conservatory (and Fiona, too) have given us seeds, replaced some of our stolen tools this summer, gave us our two benches and some compost, too.   We have greatly appreciated their support.  However, I won't be taking anything else from the City if it means I have to take on more work as they are now suggesting.   It's not a hard decision, really.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Crus-in to Help

Fall weather has arrived at the Stoddart Avenue Community Garden and so has Capital University’s Day of Service.  Six Capital Crusaders – a/k/a Crus –arrived to slay our outstanding projects and help with our weekly food pantry harvest.  Coincidentally, the Crusader’s Day of Service coincided with the National Day of Service (on 9-11) and the United Way’s week-long Volunteer Challenge.  Saturday was also the annual Pick-It-Up Litter Remediation Campaign supported by Keep Columbus Beautiful.

Because Friday started out so beautifully and it was supposed to rain, I drove over to the Garden late in the afternoon to clear places for Fall planting (of lettuce, kale, broccoli, spinach, etc).  I weeded some patches, cultivated the soil and transplanted some collard greens into the neighbor bed before it started to rain.  We received .7 inches overnight.

When Saturday started, it was nippy and rainy. I hadn’t heard from Cap since I begged them last week to send us some students for their annual Day of Service.   The six sorority girls who helped us last year accomplished a lot, which makes it possible for me to address higher-skill gardening issues. I figured that no one wanted to come on a chilly and rainy morning, but I wore my purple and green rugby shirt (just in case).  I almost delayed my arrival because there didn’t seem to be a point in rushing over on a dreary Saturday morning.  As it was, instead of my usual sausage pancake on a stick, I decided to have a gourmet breakfast of an egg over easy in a red bell  pepper hole with English muffins topped with my homemade strawberry-balsamic-thyme jam and hot hazelnut coffee.   I was very, very sad as I drove by Capital and up to the Garden.  I put on my wellies (because of the mud) and unlocked the gate when a SUV pulled up and six very energetic and engaged college students popped out.  Oh dear, I said.  If I had known you were coming, I would have baked you brownies last night.  I would have brought extra tools.  Yikes.

I say “engaged” because that is the theme of this year’s Day of Service at Capital University.  They even had shirts which said so.    I gave them a brief tour of the Garden and described the various projects from which they could choose.  Luckily, we had three strong guys to finish the curb project and then they turned to improving our new neighbor bed, weeding along the alley and weeding our strawberry patch.  The ladies helped with weeding the fences and paths, picking up litter, mowing, pruning, planting, transplanting and harvesting.

I explained that our raspberry bushes and paths were being choked to death by bind weed, -- the Midwestern version of southern kudzu.  Barb’s hairdresser last year asked her what weed was covering our fences because it is pretty obvious from East Main Street. The weeds are that bad.  They pull down sunflowers and tomato trellises.    I didn’t need our volunteers to delicately pull each bindweed leaf off of the fences or the bushes.  Just yank them in large swaths and pull out their roots (when they are choking flowers in the southern flower bed).  When the vine is separated from its root, it dies.   I told them to leave the weeds in massive piles which we’ll gather at the end of the day.  And to it they went. 

One of the ladies – Hannah – was extremely excited to be helping.  She chatted a lot and asked lots of questions.    After weeding around the southern flower bed and after the grass dried a bit, she expressed interest in mowing our lawn.  Her father never let her mow her own lawn, so this would be a new experience for her (as it was for our former WEP volunteer, Ezra).   She enjoyed it so much that she wanted to continue mowing the block watch lot next door, although Barb or Frank has clearly already recently mowed it.  Instead, I gave her my large pruners and set her to taming the weed trees and poison ivy in the block watch lot across the street.  When she finished that, she took great pleasure in our sun flowers and took lots of artsy photos of them (as I often do each week as well).   Hannah is an active member of Cru –(f/k/a Campus Crusade as it was known when I was in college back in the day).   Cru is apparently not an acronym.  It can be confusing in Central Ohio to introduce yourself as part of Cru because we have the Columbus Crew soccer team, there are crew (rowing) teams and the Capital Crusaders are also sometimes called Cru.

The gentlemen finished our curb project in no time. It had been started (and half-way completed) by a similar female volunteer group from OSU a couple of weeks earlier.  I explained that I wanted to extend the curb the Buckeyes constructed east to the edge of our strawberry patch (which involved pulling a LOT of mint and clearing earth to make a flat surface).  Because we still had stones (generously donated by GreenScapes Landscaping Service) remaining, I expressed a desire to also extend the curb westward along the compost bins.  This also involved digging out a flat surface (which was a challenge since some of the former sidewalk was still there).  Then, they raised the northern edge of our new neighbor bed (to keep dogs from relieving themselves on the vegetables).  When that met my approval, they weeded the area and the strawberry patch and bagged all of the weeds which had been piled up around the Garden.   Unlike our OSU “surveyors,” I had to spend virtually no time supervising or coaching them.  I just explained what we needed to have done and then they did it.   After they finished our new curb, several neighbors commented on the improvement.   I could not be more excited.
We were visited by Deanna (who is in charge of Capital’s office of student and community engagement) and her crew to take pictures.  She encouraged me to contact her for additional volunteers throughout the academic year because Capital’s students love volunteering at community gardens.   Another group of Crusaders was walking by on East Main Street picking up litter (as part of KCB’s Pick-It-Up campaign) and stopped by for a gander of what we were doing. 
 
One of our female volunteers then offered to pick up litter around the Garden and Block Watch lots.  She didn’t find much (probably because we had six Buckeyes picking up litter in the area two weeks earlier).   I then tasked two of the ladies with planting for our fall harvest.  They transplanted some lettuce seedlings (which I had taken from my plot while thinning), and then planted a half-row of broccoli and a few rows of other Fall crops (which I neglected to have them identify for me).  When they finished with that, I had them start our weekly food pantry harvest.  One of the guys then joined them in picking beans (although they did a good job of hiding from him).  I had cautioned him to beware of our praying mantis in the bean trellis and he almost fell over when it jumped out at him.  

Because it had just rained, we didn’t have to spend an hour or two watering everything (as we usually do each week).  The students then cleaned up the area, put their tools away, and posed with the over 25 pounds of produce which we picked (and I later took to the Lutheran Social Services Choice Food pantry, which was itself filled with a dozen college students from Ohio Wesleyan University helping out).  Best of all, the students offered to return to help me (which we know I can always use).    Aside from Hannah, they were eager to return to campus to get their Chipotle gift certificates and have lunch.

Our former "curb" in August 2014 AFTER being weeded
It’s not supposed to rain again for a while, so it would be extremely helpful to have some help watering the food pantry and neighbor beds on Saturday mornings. I also told them that we would be having a fall work day on the second Saturday morning in November (when we trim back the raspberry bushes, clear out the Garden and make our single largest food pantry donation of the year – as close to Thanksgiving as we dare).  I had just told the other gardeners a few days earlier that I was going to stop keeping a regular schedule for the rest of the season.  I wanted to be like them and have Saturday mornings free to visit garage sales, go biking, watch my niece run cross country, go on vacation, etc.   But, if I want help from college students, I will need to remain disciplined for the rest of the season and be there on Saturday mornings. . . . . It’s not like we don’t have a lot of work to do each week.


Our new curb
Because of all of the help from the Capital students this morning, I was able to find time to transplant some lettuce into the neighbor bed, weed the neighbor bed, prune some weed trees growing in our fence line, and harvest a row of beans.   After they left, I harvested some produce from my plot, cut some flowers for my house and harvested some basil and parsley for our food pantry donation.  


Last week, I talked about our cracked tomatoes and the looks I received from the food pantry staff when I arrived.  Not everyone objects to cracked tomatoes, however.  Two elderly women pulled up to the Garden as I was locking the gate and loading my car.  They wanted to buy tomatoes from me. They insisted that I sell them some and didn't want to limit themselves to what was available in our neighbor beds.   Usually, I decline  to sell our produce because I hate to take fresh food out of the mouths of food pantry customers.   But, this week, I agreed.  She only had $2 in cash, so I let her pick three giant beefstake tomatoes – which, of course, were slightly cracked.   They wanted to put them on hamburgers for that afternoon’s cookout.  I told Gene when I arrived at the food pantry that he lost out on some tasty tomatoes because of that look he gave me last week.  He laughed.   He always laughs.

While I was at the food pantry, a volunteer asked me – which sometimes happens – to identify the produce that I have delivered.   Most of my volunteers – including today’s – are not familiar with fresh kale, swiss chard, collard greens or tomatillos.   The tomatillos really threw them for a loop.  (I always try to make an extra large donation of peppers and tomatillos right before the Mexican Independence Day).  Tomatillos are the essential ingredient of salsa verde, (i.e., the green sauce) which is what is generally put on sea food tacos.   Oh, they said, we love sea food tacos and that green sauce.  They looked again at the tomatillos.  I then told them to roast a few tomatillos and mix them with chopped (and sometimes also roasted) green serrano peppers, (sometimes roasted) onions and lime juice to get a good salsa.  Puree it for the sauce.

Then, it was home to put away my own harvest, bake five trays of kale chips and make plans to cook and can some creole sauce, steam and freeze some beans, make a fresh green bean salad and some salsa verde.

Next week, we’ll have to water everything because we are not expecting much, if any rain.  As I told the Cap students, September is typically the driest month of the year.  Last year, we went six weeks without rain and had to request the City to refill our tank.   I also hope to finally weed my plot and the food pantry plots and save some cosmos and zinnia seeds.  We’ll also need to pinch the flowers off all of the tomato plants and varnish the neighbor bed sign.   But that’s next week  . . . . .

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Not In the Mood for Cracked Tomatoes?

After a wildly productive weekend at the end of August, the Stoddart Avenue Community Garden has stalled with unexpected amounts of rain and more than a week of high temperatures.   Like some other community gardens (and lawns), the Garden is looking a little shaggy right now.  (The neighborhood girls were a little less kind in their description last night when they came to water their beds).   Although area meteorologists had predicted little-to-no rain in early September, we received several inches.  This prevented some of the gardeners from harvesting or performing other work in their plots.   It also caused most of our tomatoes to burst.   Then, it was unbearably hot all Labor Day weekend (and in the week before and days after), which discouraged us from spending much time in the Garden weeding and planting for Fall crops.  Notwithstanding this, Rayna’s zinnias continue to dazzle.

I’ve attached charts showing the content, recipient and amount of our produce donations through
the end of the August.  However, last week’s donation already materially changed the chart since the heat caused half of our tomatoes to suddenly ripen.   Then, on Thursday, the Garden received over two inches of rain and caused many of our tomatoes to burst.    The food pantry was not terribly excited about this.  I almost offered to take them all back because the cracks are mostly cosmetic.  While they can’t be stored indefinitely when they are cracked or split, cracking doesn’t affect tomatoes' suitability for eating or cooking if you do so promptly.  Last weekend, I canned some, roasted some, made sauce with some, made salsas with others and put a few on a salad.   As I've previously explained, the only way to avoid cracking like this is to maintain even moisture of the tomatoes or plant non-cracking varieties (like romas and san marzanos, etc.).  Sadly, the tasty beefstake and brandywines are prone to cracking when they receive a downpour of rain after they start to ripen.  Some tomatoes will heal themselves if left on the vine, or they will be invaded by mold or bugs.  Happily, not all of our produce burst.  The butternut squashes were not affected at all (to my disappointment), but the beans and zucchinis swelled a few sizes.

I started my Fall crops a few weeks ago and am happy to see spinach, lettuce, napa cabbage, winter kale and peas sprouting in my plot.  (Some of these I will eventually transplant elsewhere when I find time and need to thin them).   Straders Garden Centers also made a late season donation of plants.  I scored some Spanish onion sets and lots of peppers, which I put in our new neighbor plot and a few in bare spots in our other food pantry plots.  I also was able to supplement our sorry-looking strawberry patch and to use the mysteriously donated strawberry jar by planting pineberry plants.

Ezra has abandoned us, so I was all alone at the Garden on Saturday.  Frank and Barb agreed to mow our shaggy lawn since he did not report for duty. I made a little progress on our curb improvement project, but not much because many of the stones are too heavy for me to lift, let alone move.    The front gate lock was not being cooperative and this made everything hard to do since I was restricted to the back gate.   I planted the Straders donation and then spent the rest of the morning harvesting before heading to Lutheran Social Services food pantry (on time for change).   I had filled three collapsible crates.  They kept two of them and gave me back one as a replacement.

This upcoming weekend we are hoping to host a group of Capital student volunteers.    It would be great to complete (or make substantial progress) on the curb project, pull some weeds, harvest some neglected plots and pick up some neighborhood litter.  I’m also hoping that it will not be too wet to plant or harvest flower seeds.   Unlike last weekend, it will not be unbearably hot.   Again, we will have lots of ripe tomatoes to harvest and donate.

Because heat spells are predicted to be in our past, we will also be pinching the flowers off our tomato plants so that they focus their energy on ripening the existing fruit instead of spending energy on creating new fruit that will not ripen in time for the first frost.   I’m also starting to harvest and dry my basil for use over the winter.  When the first frost is upon us, I will harvest the remainder to make pesto.

Because I’m sure that many gardeners are suffering the cracked tomato phenomenon, I will share my favorite recipes for roasted tomatoes:

·        1 head garlic

·        4 pounds vine-ripened red tomatoes (about 10 medium)

·        1 tablespoon fresh rosemary leaves

·        1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves

1.  Prepare the garlic.  Separate the garlic head into cloves.  Discard the loose papery outer skin but keep the skin intact on the cloves and wrap them in foil.  Put the garlic package in the corner of one of the baking pans/cookie sheets.  Pre-heat the oven to 450 degrees.
2.  Prepare the tomatoes. Wash and chop the tomatoes into 2 inch chunks (i.e., quarters or eighths depending on the size of the tomatoes) and arrange in one layer in baking pans or cookie sheets that have been greased with olive oil. Sprinkle 2 teaspoons each of rosemary and thyme evenly over tomatoes and season with salt and pepper.
3.  Roasting.  Roast the garlic and tomatoes in upper and lower thirds of oven, switching position of pans after 17 minutes.  Then roast another 17 minutes or so until they tomatoes start to blacken.  You only want the tomatoes to be slightly charred.
4.  Unwrap the garlic and let it cool slightly.
5.  Pour the hot tomatoes into a sauce pan.  Peel skins from each garlic clove and force the pulp into the tomatoes.  Using a masher or hand blender, mix the herbs, tomatoes and garlic together.   If it's not too hot, you could also use a regular blender.
6.   Add the remaining herbs to the sauce.  Season the sauce with salt and pepper and reheat if necessary.   

This sauce is great by itself over pasta or with some cottage cheese.  I made some this weekend and froze most of it to eat this winter. 

I also quick roasted and froze some tomatoes (i.e., six minutes under the broiler on each side) for use in some Rick Bayless Mexican recipes I’ll make later this winter.  (Most of his recipes seem to involve roasted tomatoes).   After they cook, I remove the skins before freezing them.