2012 Season

White House Kitchen Garden Visit

It was a lovely weekend in October and we happened to be in Washington when the White House held their Fall Garden Tours. The opportunity to see Michelle Obama’s famous Kitchen Garden was simply too wonderful to pass up. We braved the long lines and got such a treat!

The kitchen garden is in a clearing on the south lawn of the White House (circled in red on the brochure). The plan is L shaped, though it has changed somewhat over the years. The plan shown here (sporting the First Family dog, Bo) was from the first year: 2009.

The garden is fastidiously tended and initially, the planting beds were at grade. They’ve since transitioned to raised wooden beds. The pathways are mulched with bluestone stepping stones on the main paths.

Even in October, the garden was going strong! We saw tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, lettuce, mustard, pac choi, cauliflower, parsley, Brussels sprouts, squash, collards, tomatillos, broccoli, beans, basil, ginger and many herbs. There were also a few things we weren’t close enough to recognize.

A section of the garden is dedicated to Thomas Jefferson, with the plants grown from seed passed down through the generations at his home Monticello.

One really can’t overstress the importance of the White House Kitchen Garden. Without this highly influential effort, many community gardens – such as ours – may never have gotten off the ground.




Carrots: Lessons Learned This Year

carrotsThis year's early-season carrots struggled through an infestation of Asiatic Garden Beetles, a nocturnal garden pest that needed to be painstakingly removed from the soil during thinning and weeding. The early crop took a bit longer than expected to mature, but the beetle-busting efforts paid off with truly lovely carrots.

When our late-season carrots got off to a rocky start, we began to worry. We seeded an area vacated by fava beans on July 7th. Germination was good, the seedlings began growing, but then they all died. All except a few that had been in the shade of the mature carrots at the ends of the rows. We're not certain, but it may be that the seedlings became too dry at a critical period and quickly withered in the mid-July sun. They were replanted and the second carrot crop now appears to be on its way to greatness. But for my part, I'd like to document a few carrot lessons we've learned this year.

1. Favor varieties with short growing seasons. Two crops divides the season into mid-April to mid-July and mid-July to mid-October, giving a generous 91 days for maturity. Yet, carrots grown in the peripheries of the season take longer than the predicted 75 days.

2. Plant the rows close together. The carrots shared a bed with salad turnips this year, dividing one 6' x 9' planting bed into two beds 3' wide. We planted five rows 6 inches apart and the spacing was excellent.

3. Sow plenty of seed. Carrots take their time germinating (1-3 weeks), so they don't allow much opportunity to infill seed bare spots without paying a heavy price in lost time.

4. Keep the newly-seeded soil moist. We used shade cloth after re-seeding in July and left it in place until the seedlings had a good roothold (at about 2" tall). This may be less of a problem for the early crop.

5. Lightly thin the seedlings each week. Successive thinning doesn't take long, and it results in the best seedlings surviving to maturity at the ideal spacing of around 1 inch apart.

This Day in the Garden - September 8, 2012

Our first harvest of sweet potatoes, leeks and rhubarb, and the last of the watermelons. None of the watermelons this year have made it out of the park - it's just too much fun to share them on the spot. Those eight big sweet potatoes were from just one plant! We'll wait a few weeks to dig the rest, after the plants start dieing back.

Michael spotted a special visitor on the pole beans:  Our mantid friend is a Tenodera aridifolis sinensis, aka a Chinese Praying Mantis.

See http://speciesofjabin.blogspot.com/2010/08/savanna-chinese-praying-mantis.html

A praying mantis is a voracious predator, (i.e., a "beneficial" insect), and its favorite munchies are insect & bug pests that we don't want in our gardens!  Isn't it nice to know that Mother Nature is helping us out?  (And kudos to Alan for the excellent click!)

Praying Mantis


We've got a few "tassel-ears" growing in our cornfield. A tassel-ear is a small, fully-formed ear of corn growing out of the top of the plant, without any husk to cover it. Looks a little wierd, but apparently isn't that unusual. You can find out more about tassel-ears here: http://corn.osu.edu/newsletters/2012/2012-24/201ctassel-ears201d-in-corn. I'm guessing some bird's going to be real happy to find it.

Why We Grow Soybeans - 2012 edition

I picked 107 pods from this one soy plant - that's about 321 delicious little edamame beans. I noticed that the roots of this plant were particularly loaded with nodules of nitrogen-fixing bacteria. Examining other plants, it was consistent that the largest plants with the highest yield had more nodules on their roots. Do more nodules make the plant healthier, or do healthier plants support more nodules?

How does your garden squash grow?

Squash growth, 4 daysWe know that summer squash grow so fast that if you miss one during harvest you'll find a Moby Zuke in a few days. But I'm a left-brained geek who likes numbers, so I planted some reference sticks next to a young Zephyr on Saturday, August 4 and checked it four days later on August 8. It had just about doubled in length and more than tripled in girth, well on its way to blimpness. That's how fast a summer squash can grow. I picked it immediately before it could scare any dogs or small children.

Scheduling with a Garden Gantt Chart

Garden Gantt Chart
We're growing 44 crops in our 2,000 square foot garden this year, each with its own ideal growing schedule in our area. Fortunately, we've also been recording our experiences with these crops. (Our 2010, 2011 and 2012 Crops Lists record our planting and first harvest dates.) Now it's time to put all that information to work.
Our first ever Garden Gantt Chart is an attempt to give us a visual, week-by-week schedule for our crops. In the spring, the chart will help us determine which garden beds need to be prepared and planted each week. In summer, it will be helpful to make sure we start our late-season seedlings on time.
Multiple plantings of short-season crops (such as Lettuce and Radishes) and space-saving scheduling of different crops in a single bed (such as Peas and Pole Beans) are reflected in the chart. We've also included times for starting our own seedlings indoors (something we hope to do more of next year).
The chart is still officially in the draft stage. We'll be adjusting the information as we move through this year's gardening season. The removal (or last harvest) for the crops wasn't recorded, so information for later in the season is a bit speculative. Look for a finished version in late fall.
Please note: Though this is our third year of gardening this space, it's our first year of early spring gardening. Planting was delayed our first two years by the need to build the garden from the ground up in April. Permission to leave the fence and garden beds in place last winter allowed our first on-time start this year.

A Day in the Garden

It started cloudy, but as gardeners arrived, the sun came out in full force.  Despite being past 9AM, the far left corner still had a bit of shade from the tall trees at the edge of the Park.

A white board of to-do activities, prepared by the planners, organizes our work.  It's harvesting time!  Lush eggplant of both the long Asian and the fat Italian varieties are joyfully picked.  Bush beans of all three colors --green, yellow, purple-- are available, but the soybeans are not yet ready.  Some summer squash, several cucumbers.  A debate ensues over how much lettuce to pick, as what we may leave behind may bolt or turn bitter in the hot weather.  Our next generation of seedlings were only planted last week, so are not ready for transplant to take the place of the picked lettuce.  We also planted more lettuce today.  Collard greens are plentifully abundant, although many gardeners prefer the swiss chard.

There is much promise of more to come.  The tall corn displays purple and golden tassels.  Immature pumpkins and watermelons hide in the trellis of leaves.  We added more support (netting them with plastic mesh) to some of them.  The winter squash has plenty of flowers, and the Jerusalem artichokes are blooming.  The sunflowers seemed to have shaken off the early-season leaf eaters, and are climbing high.  And even the weeds are prospering, encroaching from the paths even as the vegetables encroach onto the paths.  We'll have to do something about that.

We applied a spray of a small amount of potassium bicarbonate mixed with water to the squash and watermelon plants.  Unlike the last two years, we've seen no mildew, so getting an early start at prevention seems to have worked.  We did a pH test of the soil near the tomatoes, and added some lime.  We're watching closely for signs of blossom end-rot.

Given yesterday's rain, the compost was deemed too wet to sift and extract, even though one pile is clearly ready.  Instead, we turned both piles, to feed them air.

Water, water, water, says one of the garden planners, who says the fruiting plants (e.g. tomatoes and eggplants) especially want it.  No one saw any pests, like the tomato horn worm of last week, and we have some bees buzzing around our flowers.

Not everything picked is 100% perfect.  One tomato did not pass the eat-me test.  Some parsnips decided to stop growing down after they encountered some rocks.

The biggest surprise of the day was the lack of visitors.  Normally we get about twenty, divided between adults and children.

As the white board gets all checked off, people gather for tea, and we start the divvy-up process, a mix today of some things in piles and other things (like greens) taken in turns.  Herbs like rosemary and chives are taken separately by those who want them.

As we finish near Noon, the sun decides to go behind the clouds again.

Our raised bed

When we expanded the garden between years one and two, we added a parcel with a drop in elevation that was evident the day we paced out what our request to the Rec department would be.

It turns out that the drop is about 16 inches, as measured early this season by Alan Jones and I (mostly Alan). We weren’t seeking data for its own purpose, but to assess how high to stack stones to make a level bed in our southeast corner.

We found the rocks, it should come as no surprise, while double-digging other beds (which may well be my next blog-post topic). Just for this one bed, whose walls fade away to nothing about two-thirds up the slope, we used not only most of the big rocks we excavated this year, but reclaimed some we’d relocated along the park perimeter.

The stacking is as rudimentary (skill-less) as you can imagine. Steven Lee and I put the biggest rocks in the corners, the next largest along the bottom row, and for the rest, tried to match shapes that “interlocked” as best we could. We can say that, so far, the rocks are still standing.

One reason we wanted to try the raised bed is that last year, downhill flow during a rainstorm actually washed away some garlic we’d planted. By making a level planting field, we thought could mitigate, or redirect, any such future torrents. And, it looks nice, in a rustic, New England sort of way.



 2 years ago, we planted cabbages and they were essentially a failure, attacked by insects and really poor performers.  Last year the yield was better- we were able to harvest several cabbages and we tried a successful experiment where we left the cabbage plant after we harvested a cabbage and benefited when it produced more cabbages.

This year- cabbage nirvana.  We have both green and red cabbages that are doing really well.  On Saturday, June 23 we harvested our first monster cabbage.

A Major Spring Planting Day

seed planting and lettuce seedlings


Patriot's Day weekend is a terrific time to plant the bulk of the spring seeds and seedlings (at least, here in Massachusetts). We were fortunate to have fantastic weather, and a 57.5° soil temperature.


We planted seeds of Arugula, Bok Choy, Carrots (a rainbow of varieties), Collards, Kale (green & dinosaur), Leeks, Mizuna, Mustard, Onions (red, white & yellow), Radishes, Scallions, Swiss Chard and Turnips (salad & cross types).


We also planted seedlings of Broccoli, Cabbage (green & red) and Spinach. Cauliflower seedlings would have been planted as well, but they weren't yet available from our local farm supplier.


The seeds and seedlings from previous weeks are growing fast. The Lettuce seedlings are particularly colorful!

Alas, our water supply remains unavailable, requiring the transport of dozens of gallons of water to the garden to give all the new seeds and seedlings a drink during the recent dry spell.

Opening Day 2012

Last week we puttered around a little, but today was Opening Day for Robbins Farm Garden 2012! A big "thank you" to Arlington's Parks & Recreation for letting us leave the garden in place over the winter so we didn't have to waste today putting the fence back up.

Lisa and Elisabeth started the day moving 3 yards of Bob & Guy Lalicata's excellent "black gold" (compost), distributing it among all the beds. Later we spread it out so that we wouldn't smother the winter rye, which can keep growing until we're ready to plant the crops. This could be the happiest winter rye in Arlington.

"Rock Star" Michael tackled a bed that had never been properly dug.

A few hardy spinach plants survived the snowless winter, so we're giving them a chance to enjoy the cool spring weather. The soil temperature was 50 degrees.

Melanie organized the cilantro volunteers that are sprouting all over the place and Sue got the fava beans (Windsor from Johnny's) into the ground nice and early this year.

The kale from last fall still looked good, but we had to get the peas in the ground right where last year's kale bed was. (We ate some for dinner tonight, and it was the sweetest, tenderest kale we've ever had.)

Three varieties of peas went in: Alderman heirloom shell peas (Thompson & Morgan), Mammoth Melting Sugar snow peas (Burpee), and Sugar Snaps (Johhny's). We planted them by the "Crockett" method: dug a wide trench about 4" deep, spread the peas an inch or two apart, and covered with 1" soil so we can slowly fill the trench in as the peas grow, keeping their roots down deep where it's cool. We'll be eating the first peas by the end of May.

It was a perfect day at Robbins Farm Garden thanks to this great early spring and having the privilege of getting back to work with our friends. As I've said many times before, gardeners are some of the best folks around. Come see us next Saturday at the EcoFest, then come on over to the garden.



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