Robbins Farm Garden - A Cooperative Learning Project

Robbins Farm Garden is a cooperative community garden project at Robbins Farm Park in Arlington, MA. Since 2010, we've grown vegetables organically as a group, created an educational resource in the community and continued the agricultural tradition of the farm at the park.
 
We garden Saturday mornings April - November and Wednesday evenings June - September. The project is run through Arlington's Recreation Department. Membership is limited to 20 gardeners and applications close on May 1st. Our annual $75 in fees covers all of our seeds and supplies.

The Great Skeptical Penny-Pincher's Seed Bargain Evaluation (with astonishing result!)

We've all seen name-brand seeds at bargain outlets, and I've always wondered if they were really a bargain. I sort of always assumed that the discount was mitigated by a lower seed count. So this year, I decided to find out, at least with a small sample.

We purchased packets of organic Black-Seeded Simpson lettuce and conventional Cherry Belle radishes from both Burpee on-line and the same varieties off-the-rack at Ocean State Job Lots in Medford. Burpee makes it difficult to compare prices directly, because the packs purchased on-line are sold by seed count, while the retail packs are sold by weight. Until today, I had no idea how many radish or lettuce seeds are in a gram.

If you want to skip the details that follow, the astonishing result is (drum roll)...the Ocean State seeds really are a bargain - by a lot!

The Burpee BSS bought on-line (left, above) sells in packs of nominally 1000 seeds. We weighed the seeds at about 1.15g. At a price of $4.95 (with free shipping), the price based on the nominal seed count is 50 cents/100 seeds.

The Burpee packet bought at Ocean State retails for $3.19, or $1.91 after the discount, with an advertised weight of 1.5g, which we measured at closer to 1.6g. Extrapolating from the relative weights, we're estimating 1400 seeds, which is consistent with the relative sizes of the little piles. The result is about 14 cents/100 seeds, less than 1/3 of the cost of seeds online. Even without the discount, the retail cost is less than 1/2 of online.

The Burpee Cherry Belle radishes (conventional) bought on-line is packaged as nominally 500 seeds, which we weighed to be 4.55g, priced at $4.95, or 99 cents/100 seeds.

The nominally 4g packet bought from Ocean State actually weighed 4.5g, so nominally the same 500 seeds, for a discounted price of 27 cents/100 seeds, almost 1/4 the price from Burpee on-line. Even without the 40% discount, the retail seed would be less than 1/2 the price of on-line.

So the conclusion from these two data points is that Burpee seeds purchased from local discount retailers are significantly less expensive than those purchased on-line directly from Burpee. Ocean State has a pretty good selection of popular varieties of Burpee vegetable and flower seeds, including many organics, but only a fraction of the selection available on-line. I don't think they carry any other brands.

This is pretty much a straightforward apples-to-apples comparison with very conclusive results, but of only two seeds from one supplier. We also don't know at this point how well each will germinate, how well they were handled, or other quality factors. They were both packaged for 2015, but it's possible that the cheaper seeds were actually 2014 seeds which passed germination tests and were repackaged for 2015 - or not - we have no way of knowing (that's me being skeptical again). Three of the seeds were grown in the USA, but the retail radishes were grown in Italy. The BSS seeds purchased on-line came in a foil packet, the other three in paper only.

Even at full retail price (like at Mahoney's or Russell's), the Burpee seeds packaged for retail would be significantly less expensive. In the future, I'll be looking for comparisons of other brands when I find them. For example, I think Verrill Farm sells some High Mowing Seeds that I should be able to compare. If you see anyone selling Johnny's, High Mowing or Baker Creek off the shelf, let me know.

 

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Annual Seed Selection Meeting - January 31, 2015

We will hold our annual Seed Selection Meeting on Saturday, January 31 in the second floor meeting room of the Community Safety Building (112 mystic Street) from 9:30 AM to noon. Everyone interested in the crops & varieties we will grow in the garden this season is welcome. Prospective new members of the garden group are especially encouraged to attend and join the discussion. Bring your seed catalogs and great expectations for the coming growing season!

2014 Alliums (end of season notes)

Garlic: harvest & varieties good, planted slightly less & closer together in fall
Leeks: excellent variety, spacing and hilling good – start all seed @ March 7
Onions: sets were excellent, seeds better than plants, red better than yellow – start seed @ March 7, try new yellow variety?
Scallions: broadcast early in onion bed (not with tomatoes)
Shallots: did fine with sets around tomatoes

2014 Brassicas (end of season notes)

Broccoli: early crop good (though oddly colored), late crop did well (especially in Potato bed) though seedlings weakened in hot weather – spray seedlings daily in heat, transplant @ July 19th for best yield
Brussels Sprouts: start extra seedlings, spray @ first signs of aphids, plant farther apart (3 rows: 3,4,3 plants per row)
Cabbage: generally excellent – replace Red Express with Mammoth Red Rock in spring, repeat fall varieties, transplant @ July 19th for best yield
Cauliflower: best yet, grew fall crop only, orange variety smaller & prone to aphids – transplant @ July 19th for best yield

2014 Flowers, Grains, etc. (end of season notes)

Borage: self-seeded plants did well between tomatoes – grow with tomatoes
Herb Beds: generally a good season, uprooted plants survived replanting – tweak plan & crops
Nasturtium: early aphids did a lot of damage – give less space & treat aphids asap
Okra: great variety: good yield, flavor & length of season, black plastic good – top plants for branching?
Sunflowers: good crop, hit by rust or fungus (but less than last year) – remove affected leaves asap
Three Sisters bed: better plan than last year, more room for squash – add structure, plant corn in grid (9”)
Rhubarb: transplanted to sunnier location in spring, more productive than last year

2014 Greens (end of season notes)

Arugula: sad 1st planting, later plantings (including zucchini bed) better – more sun next year, grow as mesclun?
Basil: awesome on all counts, seedlings & placement perfect
Celery: overall success, worked well with Beets, blanching was helpful – focus on improving flavor & texture
Chard & Bok Choi: harvested from same plants all season – broadcast on ends of bed
Cilantro: 3 sections well-timed – give less space & replant first section for 4th planting
Kales & Collards: great again, but hit with aphids late in season – spray @ first sign of aphids
Lettuce: mostly perfect (Little Gem, Black Seeded Simpson, Red Salad Bowl, Pirat & New Red Fire good) – try a green salad bowl variety, leave space for planting board, transplant into Bush Bean bed again, seed more evenly & thin better
Mesclun: not working for us again – just say no or replace with arugula, mizuna & mustard
Mustard: great variety & amount – grow as part of a mesclun mix?
Spinach: Emu not available, varieties grown were less reliable, fewer productive plants – try to get Emu

2014 Nightshades (end of season notes)

Slow, shaky start for seedlings due to cold conditions – start seedlings in warmer place

Eggplant: slow with low yield – find early prolific varieties (Mangan, Galine), fertilize more, black plastic?
Peppers: most did well, despite vandal damage – grow greater variety of types
Tomatoes: best yield to date, good mix of types, resistant varieties did best, red plastic and CDs worked well – consider taller, better support structure next year, don’t plant sickly seedlings
Cherry types: grow Sun Gold & Super Sweet 100 again, possibly grow Green Grape again
Sauce types: probably grow Amish Paste & Verona again, grew well, but some had a hard interior
Standard types: grow Ramapo, Red October & Bolseno again (2 plants each), maybe grow Pink Beauty (sweet & productive, but crapped out early) & Druzba (productive, but one plant hit by disease)
Specialty types: Green Zebra & Red Zebra did badly, again – find a resistant variety
Tomatillos: purple and green varieties did well, slightly smaller fruit – grow just green?

2014 Root Crops (end of season notes)

Beets: did better this year, but still not big enough, some leaf minor problems, second harvest a bust
Carrots: excellent early crop (rows were farther apart), late crop didn’t have time to mature – consider replacing second planting with a faster-growing crop?
Jerusalem Artichokes: very attractive and productive – reduce space allotment
Parsnips: most did well, some uneven germination, transplanted seedlings grew but split, overwintered small plants – overseed and thin successively
Potatoes: green sprouting worked great, Purple Viking was worth the wait, Yukon Gold underperformed, lost a few red & gold plants to rot
Sweet Potatoes: received ½ order (supplier shortage), slow start due to cold, disappointing yield (both varieties) – try new vendor and/or varieties?
Salad Turnips: did well, wormier than last year – try not growing near fence in late season
Turnips: did well after garlic, less grub damage – thin more aggressively

2014 Squashes (end of season notes)

Squash Vine Borers and Mildew still problematic – frequent surgical intervention and overplanting (to compensate for plant loss from borers) and focus on productive, mildew-resistant varieties

Cucumbers: pickling type did better – try different standard type
Delicata Squash: Sugar Dumpling more productive, standard variety squashes small
Kabocha Squash: serious mildew issues, disappointing yield – try resistant variety
Melons: uneven germination, transplanted, major mildew, difficult to tell when ripe – failed experiment?
Pumpkins: unimpressive germination and yield, produced wide range of sizes
Yellow Squash: shorter season & more mildew than zucchini – try Success PM (mildew resistant)
Watermelons: uneven germination, transplanted, low yield
Zucchini: excellent variety: mildew resistant, early, productive and very hardy
Zucchino Squash: poor germination, 7 seeds = 1 plant w/1 huge squash, mildew killed plant before ripe

2014 Legumes (end of season notes)

Bush Beans: Dragon Tongue & Rocdor great – try new green variety
Fava Beans: poor yield, hit hard by aphids (spray at first sign) & rust or fungus – try different variety?
Peas: all 3 early varieties triumphed, poor germination for late variety – position snap peas in middle next spring, try Sugar Sprint in fall
Pole Beans: perfect planting time, excellent harvest – plant purples & make structure all reachable
Purple Pole Beans: excellent on archway – plant some between other types of pole beans
Soybeans: short harvest window this year – try another variety?

We're ahead of the curve with our growing of popcorn

This from the September 30, 2014 NY Times about the new wave of artisanal popcorn:

"The reward, however, is popcorn with a better nutritional profile, and hulls — the bits that stick in your teeth — that seem to all but disappear. The flavor can be subtle but complex, mixing toast and sweet corn, delivering in taste what the aroma of popping corn has always promised."

And this from our own blog post of September 15, 2012:

Today our bounty included corn from our Three Sisters plot (beans and squash make up the trio). The corn is a popping variety--popping ability still to be tested, but fall beauty not in question.

Jewels from the Three Sisters

And yeah, it does pop great and taste great! (This is Johnny's Miniature Colored Popcorn.)

The NY Times article also has instructions for cooking heirloom popcorn in a pan, which in summary is:

  1. Put a few tablespoons of oil (coconut, corn, canola or olive) in a pan over high heat with a few kernel.s
  2. When the kernels pop, add the rest of the kernels and optionally some butter.
  3. Cook over medium-high heat, covered but letting steam escape, shaking the pan every 10 seconds, and cook until there's only one pop every couple of seconds.
  4. Dump it out of the pan into a bowl, salt to taste, enjoy.

Visit the website of the Popcorn Board for more info than you ever wanted to know about popcorn.

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Mason's Line

We've liked using cotton mason's line to outline the borders of the beds in the garden, because it's nice white and visible, and it doesn't stretch. Unfortunately, after a few months in the weather, it just comes apart, and we've been spending a lot of time replacing it. I think next year we'll be using sisal binder twine or something else that will last the whole season. We can still use the mason's line for row markers, which don't have to last more than a few weeks. Garden and learn!

 

Technology to the Rescue!

You may have noticed a curious addition to our tomato beds this week: compact discs. They are an experiment to try to deter the birds from eating our tomatoes.

The trouble started when our first full-size tomatoes ripened. We showed up at the garden expecting to pick ripe tomatoes, only to find all the ripe ones already partially eaten.

We suspected squirrels, raccoons or bunnies. Then we began to wonder if the ever-present birds might be the culprits.

The presence of birds is generally a delight in the garden. Yet, we definitely draw the line at deeding them our tomato crop.

We're not the first to keep birds from their garden with CDs dangling from strings. It's generally acknowledged that their movement in the breeze and reflectivity can make birds uncomfortable enough to stay away from adjacent food crops.

At the very least, they should make for interesting conversation.

Update 8/28: The CDs have made a noticeable difference. A few additional tomatoes have been damaged, but the remainder of the crop has been beautiful!

To life!

[Oakes Plimpton is a founder and now member emeritus of the group. He still comes by on some afternoons to open the garden to visitors, as he did Tuesday.]

Amazingly, it turns out Coyotes are feasting on watermelons out there in farm country, and on occasion even corn. One knew about raccoons, but coyotes?

I agree on birds being the culprit respecting our tomatoes, looked that way especially on one tomato.

With 3 kids, I held a raffle (number between one and ten) for a cherry tomato. Gave them another one to split. Showed two young cucumber fans our tiny cukes. Lots of honey bees on the herbs, some kids afraid.

People from everywhere: Korea, Ukraine, Greece (kid showed me the Greek X), Mexico, grandparents from Larchmont, L.I. Everyone interested in the garden and how it works.

Mexican woman lived near the Sea of Cortez, so I told her about my journals, and she knew about Maria Sabina, the Currendera! To market my book now, I'm renting it for a dollar 1957 Expeditions Journal iUniverse 2013, so let me know if you're interested.

Picking up cigarette butts walking back by the viewing oval, thought to ask a Vietnamese man counting beads what he was up to. "Meditating." he said, "Do you?" "Well, I take Yoga classes." I replied. Then he showed me a number of a.m. Yoga exercises!

To life -- Oakes

Today's Harvest - July 26, 2014

First cukes, all of the spring broccoli, an amazing harvest of gorgeous carrots, and the last of the 2014 garlic. Lots of onions, more potatoes, okra and cabbages and the usual abundance of greens. The bush beans and summer squash have slowed down from their early surge but will probably bounce back after a short break.

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