Tag Archives: Community gardening

A PLACE OF ORDER

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When my family returned from our spring break travels, the house became a place of catch-up and chaos. Hampers of dirty clothes lined up outside the laundry room like planes ready for take-off. The pots and pans we used to cook our Easter meal were stacked in the sink because someone needed to unload the clean dishes from the dishwasher to replace them with the dirty ones. Piles of mail needed to be opened, and every room I entered contained small bursts of clutter none of us wanted to tackle.

While the kids retreated to finish their last-minute homework, I planned to visit the one spot that always feels in order — the community garden.

After running errands the next day, I scooted over to see the empty patch of tilled dirt prepared for us garden-renters, who will be moving into our spaces soon. A local farmer recently plowed the field. He volunteers to do this for us each year, which is greatly appreciated. In addition, while my family was out of town and celebrating spring break, several fellow gardeners turned the precise rectangle of dirt into a grid of garden plots, each marked by corner stakes and numbers. The perfect lines, measured equally with walking paths in between, radiated a sense of order and a peaceful place to grow vegetables, fruits and flowers.

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I found one gardener already putting up his fence. He also gave me a tour of some of the improvements recently made near the compost bin behind the plots. The area along a tree line, which in previous years was overgrown, has been mowed and carpeted with a layer of mulch. I used to dread walking my buckets of debris to the compost bin. I worried that snakes might be hiding in the tall grass. My kids made fun of me because I chanted, “Go away snakes,” with every step.

“Mom, that’s not going to do anything,” my oldest son once said as he helped me carry the garden trash to the back of the gardens. He was right, but saying the words made me feel better.

Now that the area has been cleaned up, which is another act of kindness much appreciated, any snakes lurking nearby now must look out for me. A patch of mint has a presence along one edge of the space. In addition, herbs have been planted on each side of the pathway leading to the compost bin. Gardeners can pass by fragrant patches of rosemary, oregano and other familiar useful plants as they clean up their space. The improved site adds more order and beauty to the gardens.

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I returned down the path and back through the dirt gardens to my car knowing that slowly, the grid of earth will be outlined with more fences over the next few weeks. The Green Thumbs plan to join the mapped-out grid with our green and orange fencing on the third weekend in April. As gardeners begin to plant their crops in rows and perhaps patches, more straight lines will be added to the grid, enhancing the space with more beauty.

And hopefully, with acts of kindness from my children, I’ll get my house in relaxing order, too.

— cawk

 

RENT PAID

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Coming inside from the frigid outdoors and standing in the warm office of the town’s administrative building, my fingers felt so cold last week that they could barely grip an ink pen. The stiffness relaxed as I read the back and front of a community garden contract, paid the fee and signed my name on the dotted line to once again rent two plots with the Green Thumbs.

The agreement’s pledge was clear. We will take care of our spot and respect our fellow gardeners, their tools and crops.

The oath was simple to make on a blustery day when the snow-covered ground remained frozen and unplowed. The work of maintaining a garden was still months away as I returned home with plots 6 and 16 secured, and the bitter wind gave no indication that winter was loosening its grip. My daffodils by the front steps were short green stalks too cold to bloom and standing awkwardly stiff like my fingers.

But almost a week has passed since I paid the garden rent, and spring feels possible. The weather has done a 180-degree turn, warming the neighborhood with highs in the 70s forecasted over the next few days. Yesterday, I carried my lawn chair from its spot in the basement next to the rolled up garden fence and metal posts, and sat in it on my front porch, which overlooks the thawing daffodils. A robin hopped on my front lawn, and joggers waved to me as they passed. Feeling comfortable in my bright pink, long-sleeved turtleneck sweater, I started to read Thomas Jefferson’s Garden Book, edited by Edwin Morris Betts, for inspiration. A tiny gnat distracted me as it crawled on our third president’s words: “But though an old man, I am but a young gardener.”

And so are the Green Thumbs.

We rented our first plot in 2013, and immediately faced the problem of deer among our unprotected rows. The animals left behind brazen footprints and ate our broccoli, which probably wouldn’t have survived anyway because we planted it too late in the season. Nonetheless, the invasion was a setback until we added a flimsy fence around our square and forged ahead.

At the beginning of the next gardening season in 2014, we admired with pride our three rows of abundant strawberries planted securely inside our fence. Never had such a beautiful patch of fruit been grown. We dreamed of all the short cakes and pies we would eat. But a week before harvest an unexpected hail storm damaged and broke the healthy plants and their berries. We nurtured the crop as best we could, but the strawberries hardly recovered. I didn’t even freeze one pint for the winter. We were left to wait another year for a satisfying berry harvest.

Last year in 2015, the deer stayed away. The berries bore fruit. And the Green Thumbs planted popcorn, something my youngest son had wanted to do since we started gardening. I was thrilled watching the popcorn grow, until he reminded me that he had gotten braces on his teeth and was not supposed to eat popcorn. We harvested the cobs of corn early because the summer was so dry and decided to cut the cooked popcorn into small pieces so my son could have a taste. We placed the corn, cob and all, in a brown paper bag inside the microwave oven. We could hear the kernels popping and had salt nearby and a stick of butter ready to melt and pour on the white puffs of corn. But the microwave cooked the snack too long. The cob of corn became burnt, black and inedible. And the kitchen smelled terrible.

Despite our minor setbacks in the garden over the years, the Green Thumbs also have had annual successes. We have grown enough lettuce and radishes, tomatoes and peppers, eggplant and onions, beans and carrots, watermelons and cantaloupes, potatoes and squash, and pint after pint of cherry tomatoes to feed our families and share with others.

Each year our planting knowledge and experience grows. We have aged many years at the community garden, but if Jefferson is right, the mysteries of farming will keep us young forever.

–cawk

CHRISTMAS PUMPKIN ENDS THE PARADE

We took down our fence last month and cleaned up our garden, leaving the tidy square of dirt void of vegetables and abandoned until spring. But the unusually warm fall has evoked a feeling that we closed up too early.

I’m left with an orange pumpkin and a few unusual squash that have been taking up space on my kitchen counter since way before Thanksgiving because I can’t decide if I should and how to cook them.

The calendar says December, but I’ve barely worn my winter coat. My gloves and hat have gone untouched. And snow has yet to be forecast.

Cold or not, a parade of holiday red and green has swapped autumn’s orange and yellow. Evergreens and Santa figures have replaced picture for blogcornucopias and pilgrims. The seasons have changed from harvest moon to twinkling lights. Still that pumpkin and squash hang on like our garden turnips and radishes did after our lonely first frost.

The pumpkin doesn’t fit in with my holiday décor, and topping its round shape with a Santa hat won’t help.

My goal today is to bake gingerbread cookies. But after I roll out the dough and release the smell of warm spices from the oven, that pumpkin will still be sitting on my counter next to the mixer and reminding me that fall will continue until that annoying orange vegetable gets cooked.

So move over tiramisu and fruit cobbler. This year’s Christmas dessert is going to be pumpkin pie.

–cawk

GARDENS A BLANK CANVASS

11046938_10206891918402982_6704605850384257942_ncommunity gardenLast week, snow blanketed the fields so much that no one would have known our strawberry patch existed in SNOW AND GARDEN 048the community garden.

But this week, after a spurt of milder weather, the flakes have melted away to reveal the plants once again.

The plant leaves look mostly burned and brown, similar to the blades of grass on my lawn. But today, after a steady rainfall, dots of green are trying to emerge among the strawberries, and I can see tints of emerald emerging,mostly on my neighbors’ lawns.

Green is such a beautiful color. Blue is also nice. Our lone blueberry bush is producing buds.

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For now, these are just dots of color on a blank canvas of dirt. But in about a month, the soil will be tilled and gardeners will begin to add plants and seeds, flowers and gnomes, fences and compost bins, water tanks and watering cans. The dots and splashes of color will come together like an impressionist’s painting. And the curious will ride slowly by to see what we’ve created.

Hopefully, some of the onlookers will join us and rent their own spots. The goal is to produce healthy food, but the gardens traditionally paint a picture of beauty as well as bounty.

–cawk

MUCH GARDENING WORK OCCURS INDOORS

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Eggplant will not outsmart me this year.

Neither will tomatoes, beans, zucchini or herbs.

When I began gardening two years ago as a Green Thumb, I dedicated myself to the outdoor work of planting, fertilizing, watering and weeding. But what I didn’t realize was that success in the garden quickly turns to failure without follow-up in the kitchen.

Many times after picking, I carelessly left fruits and vegetables to shrivel unattended on the counter at home or warp forgotten in a refrigerator drawer because I was unprepared. Learning from my mistakes, I am creating a Garden Prep Journal.

I’m collecting recipes.

Eggplant got the best of me last year. I made so much Eggplant Parmesan that my family begged me not to make the recipe ever again. So I’m gathering recipes now and arranging them according to expected harvest. Strawberries and asparagus start in the front. Watermelon and pumpkins follow in the back. I want at least 10 possible recipes for everything we grow with simple ingredients that I can find in my kitchen. Starting with eggplant, I have added recipes for Eggplant Caviar, Moussaka and Eggplant Spread to my notebook. Hopefully this year, my family won’t notice how much eggplant we are eating at one time, and I can slip Eggplant Parmesan back into the rotation.

I’m also reading.

A fellow Green Thumb gave me an excellent book called “Preserving Summer’s Bounty: A Quick and Easy Guide to Freezing, Canning, Preserving and Drying What You Grow.” When eggplant ripens faster than my family can eat it, I’ll have the knowledge to freeze some this year or try to dry the vegetable, which I’ve never done in the past.

I’m making lists.

My kitchen will be well stocked with needed supplies and fresh spices for pickling. I refuse to delay the kitchen work because I am out of freezer bags or can’t find the Sharpie pen to record information. I will have enough ice and large enough pots for blanching and cooling.

I’m marking a calendar.

A separate calendar for gardening where I can schedule chores, kitchen duty and shopping is now posted next to the family calendar.

I’m keeping a journal.

I read that Thomas Jefferson kept a garden journal for 58 years. Mine won’t be as extensive as his. The science of growing vegetables doesn’t fascinate me as much as what’s happening while we grow vegetables. He notes seeing on Feb. 28, 1782, “a flock of wild geese flying to N.W.” That’s my kind of entry. It’s short. But somehow I’m comforted by the fact that wild geese were flying over Jefferson more than 200 years ago, and they continue to fly over my garden in 2015. The Green Thumbs have attempted to keep a casual journal each year. I love going back and reading what happened the year before in the garden. It’s also a great way to occupy reluctant gardeners under the age of 15. They can write in the journal while I tidy and water the rows.

I’m expecting surprises.

My gardening knowledge and skills will never catch up to Thomas Jefferson’s. Some nights I’ll fall asleep while taking notes about canning, which I’m actually afraid to try. Some of my recipes won’t turn out this summer. Some of the to-do lists on the calendar won’t get done. And days might pass before I remember to write in my journal.

But this year, eggplant will not defeat me! My family will not get tired of eating the vegetable. I will find different ways to serve the dish at dinner. I will freeze eggplant and dry eggplant and take eggplant to the local food bank. It will not rot on my counter or shrivel in the refrigerator. My sons will crave eggplant like they crave French fries.

That’s the January plan. Let’s see what happens in July.

–cawk

LEAVES REVEAL SECRETS

One day in the garden, I became obsessed with the different shapes of the leaves on our plants.

The sunflowers caught my attention first. The leaves extending from the stalks underneath the giant flowers were the size of dinner plates. Yet the leaves of the basil in the next row grew only to the size of a circle from a hole-puncher.

All summer, I had identified plants in the gardens by recognizing the fruit they produced. When curious about what other people planted, I looked for something familiar – a bean, tomato, eggplant or squash.

But during one tour of the gardens with my mother, we came across a plot planted in rows of vegetation we didn’t recognize. No fruit was visible among the heart-shaped leaves. Anything we guessed – carrots? beans? melons? – made no sense. Periodic checks revealed no answers or hints of what was planted.

Weeks later, I found two fellow gardeners working with shovels in the perplexing plot. I casually walked down to observe what they were doing. As far as I could tell, there was nothing to harvest. But mystery solved, they were digging up sweet potatoes.

All along, the answer was in the leaves.

If you asked me today to draw a tomato leaf, I’d be stumped. My memory could not identify an okra leaf or a jalapeno leaf or a cucumber leaf. Most likely, I could draw a spinach or lettuce leaf. But I eat those.

I look to leaves all the time to determine whether a plant needs watering or to find clues of invasive insects.
Leaves are key to revealing a plant’s secrets. They deserve more attention than they get.

–cawk

WINDS STRONG, PLANTS STRONGER

   Visiting the Green Thumb community garden last week, I was totally blown away.

   It wasn’t the growth of the plants that blew me over – none of the seeds have produced any sprouts. It wasn’t the beauty of our spot – the plot is pretty much a boring rectangle of brown dirt at the moment.

    It was the steady 30 mile-per-hour winds that nearly knocked me over as I stood gazing by the fence.

    The pipes of the wind chimes in the nearby tree were flipping noisily and clanging into each other. The swirling dust stung my throat and eyes. And the pie pans we had hung over the line of last year’s strawberries had broken loose. All but two of the silver dishes were scattered and tossed throughout the flat rows of the garden.

   I’ve always considered strawberry plants fragile. But the ones in our garden were already flowering. The dainty white petals that will turn into seeded red berries flopped and fluttered with the wind gusts but didn’t fall apart. The green spinach leaves that are easily snapped off for salad bounced and waved but didn’t cave to the elements. The stick branches of our lone blueberry bush remained sturdy and didn’t curl or break.

   As I stood getting slapped with the cold air, I realized how strong plants have to be to survive the weather and what an amazing job roots do anchoring the growth in the soil.

–cawk

A JOB TO DO

     Members of the four families that make up our Green Thumbs gathered at the community garden on Saturday to put up a fence and plant spinach, beans, snow peas and onions.

     Together, we are 7 adults and 14 kids. Not all of us are gardeners. But the ones who came out on Saturday were eager to give farming a try.

     “This isn’t what I expected,” said one of the kids in elementary school who was leaning on the handle of a child-sized shovel and watching a flurry of activity around her.

     “What do you mean?” I asked as her siblings unloaded rolls of fence from the trunk of a near-by mini-van and put the bundled green mesh next to green metal stakes and twine that lie on the nearby grass.

     Adults were mapping out a strategy to successfully secure a fence around the 20- by 30-foot Plot No. 6. They had rakes, shovels and a rubber mallet along with bamboo, sturdy sticks and thick wood.

     “It’s much bigger than I thought,” said the little girl looking at the garden.

     But she didn’t let the size of the job intimidate her, and neither did anyone else. No one was in charge. But everyone found a job to do.

When the adults needed help digging a trench around the patch to secure the bottom of the fence in dirt, the kids rallied with shovels and rakes in tow. They were careful with their tools and worked with focus on the task at hand. Once the fence was in place, they put on their garden gloves and got down in the dirt to push soil back into the trenches.

     They squatted with a ruler to measure where to plant the bean seeds, making thumb prints two inches apart along the fence. They took turns writing their impressions in a paper journal that the Green Thumbs keep in a plastic bag inside a Tupperware-like container at the garden site. They listened as the manager of the community gardens offered tips and fun facts about growing vegetables.

     Together, the group engineered an entrance to the space and solved problems such as unexpected holes in the fencing. They used string and wooden stakes to create straight lines for planting. They tied pie pans above a row of strawberries to scare off critters and birds.

     Adults and children alike paused in unison to watch a bluebird as it perched on a pole in the adjacent garden. People laughed, chatted and reminisced while they worked. They shared stories about relatives who had gardens, about the weather, and about themselves. Some of the Green Thumbs had never met before, but by the end of the chores they already were good friends.

     When most of the work was done, the families lingered. One of the kids had made Chex Mix and shared the treat in plastic cups with those who washed their hands. The kids sat on the back fenders of a tan mini-van and white Suburban parked at the edge of the garden to eat their snack.

     The Green Thumbs plan to plant more vegetables on Mother’s Day after the threat of frost passes. But as a group, they’ve broken the ice and gotten off to a great start. The garden project already has surpassed expectations.

–cawk

 

 

A LONG AND HARSH WINTER

The garden looks the way I feel – beaten, worn down and frozen – after the second snowiest winter on record.

The earth is almost a colorless brown. The dirt has formed wrinkles like it has aged.

Many months have passed since The Green Thumbs picked our last vegetable of 2013 and took down our fence at community garden plot No. 6.

At that time, fall was still dropping leaves, and lettuce was still growing. But we left the green salad leaves for the hungry deer and birds to scavenge. We had done all the gardening we could do. Jack Frost was ready to bite.

More than 18 snowstorms blew through our township over the winter months. Our families shoveled driveways and sidewalks. We put salt down and waited for the snow plows to come down our streets. The kids rejoiced and then went back to sleep each morning the superintendent called to announce that that school was closed due to inclement weather. Even on the too few sunny days, our children dodged icy spots on their way to the school bus because the arctic vortex and severe temperatures took hold. We bundled up with coats, gloves, hats and scarves when we ventured outside. We wore more boots than sneakers, more pants than skirts, more Chapstick than sunscreen. 

The winter was harsh and long. Our garden remained fallow and unattended.

In March, when the calendar finally turned to spring, I scooted over to the garden to take a look. The wind howled around my car. The battered American flag that we left in the center of our spot stood strong and whipping in the frigid gusts. Our row of strawberries remained marked off and almost unrecognizable in the barren field. Our lone blueberry bush reminded me of the stick arms of a snowman.

The conditions of Old Man Winter continue to linger even now. But in a few more weeks, The Green Thumbs plan to plant lettuce, onions, radishes and okra. We expect the fresh green sprouts to push the last remnants of winter away. Then we’ll add eggplant, herbs, squash, tomatoes, cucumbers and bell peppers to usher in the summer. 

The garden can sleep a little longer if it wants, but soon the sun will nudge it awake with longer days, and The Green Thumbs will be ready to go to work.

–cawk

GIVING UP

The people who rented the community garden next to our plot have completely given up.

In early spring, looking across the fence into their neat rows of plants, I was a Green (with envy) Thumb, but not anymore.

Back then, their sturdy and tall bell pepper bushes, which had already passed the flowering stage, made our hot pepper plants look like scrawny runts.

Their tomato plants were promising and already bearing green fruit, while the stalks and leaves of ours were turning a funny deep purple color, signaling a lack of nutrients.

Their rows included corn. How cool was that?

But the pride of their garden, to me, was the most colorful and bountiful blueberry bush I’ve ever seen up close, planted just on the other side of the fence that divides our two plots.

I’ve heard that growers should always plant more than one blueberry bush, but the one they planted was flourishing alone.

During each garden visit, I could see clusters of blueberries ripe and ready to pick just on the other side of our beans.

How those berries escaped the birds, I’ll never know. Maybe the shiny tin pie plates we tied along our fence did their job to scare away the animals.

One day while I was picking lettuce in our garden, a plump, deep-blue berry dropped from the bush and rolled into our rows. The perfectly ripe fruit landed beside my muddy tennis shoe where I had squatted to pick our red lettuce.

At first, I ignored the berry and continued selecting from our leafy greens. I wasn’t sure if I could add the berry to my harvest bag or if I should return it to the neighbor’s garden. But how would I do that? I couldn’t put it back on the bush.

I moved down the row, away from the berry, and picked a few of the green lettuce leaves that belonged to me. I moved further away, to the last row of our garden where we planted onions and pulled a few to add to my decent harvest.

As I headed to the car, I detoured down the lettuce row and put the berry in my bag. When I got home I ate the fruit, and it was so good I didn’t want to eat my lettuce anymore.

As the weeks went by, I forgot about the neighbor’s garden and concentrated on my own Green Thumb side. Soon, we had the prettiest garden being farmed with healthy greens stealing the show. Our spot became known as the “lettuce garden,” and I forgot all about blueberries and corn. I was proud of The Green Thumb vegetables and how well our spot was managed.

I was surprised this week, after returning home from vacation, that the weeds had overtaken the neighbor’s growing area so much that I couldn’t distinguish the blueberry bush from the tall corn. The garden was one big jungle.

“All you can see is green, except for those two red bell peppers,” my youngest son said as we looked across our fence at the mess.

The peppers looked tempting to pick, and neither vegetable was going to spontaneously jump off the branches and roll into our garden.

But under current conditions, the only way I would go near those peppers would be if I were a bird because of my fear of snakes that might have found a home underneath all that overgrown grass.

I wanted to jump the fence and start pulling the weeds because underneath all that tangle were vegetable plants that could thrive with some care.

As I calculated what could be done to save the food, I realized that I’m becoming a true gardener. I care about plants and their survival.

But I’m still scared of snakes.

–c