Pea-picking confusion

Picking peas last night, I found it difficult to distinguish the mature flat-podded snow peas from immature shell peas, because they are right next to each other and are roughly the same height - the line between them is fuzzy. The sugar snaps are reliably taller than the other two, so next year I suggest that we plant the snap peas in the middle, and simply note on the garden plan if the snow peas are on the left or right of the snaps.

What's with the red plastic?

Q: Why did we plant the tomatoes through red plastic mulch this year?

A: It's an experiment. According to a UMass Extension report on the use of plastic mulches "Researchers at the USDA and Clemson University noted that certain crops performed better when grown in red mulch as opposed to black mulch: tomatoes, which yielded 20% more fruit; basil, the leaves of which had greater area, succulence, and fresh weight; and strawberries, which smelled better, tasted sweeter, and yielded a larger harvest. Penn State researchers found yield increases for tomatoes and eggplants on red mulch compared to black. Anecdotally, gardeners in Berkshire County saw marked increase in overall plant size, fruit size, and yield of tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers when plants were grown in red mulch as opposed to straw mulch."

We have noted that weeds are growing under the mulch, which might be a problem later in the season.

The particular perforated product we are trying is "Better Reds", by Dalen Gardener, about $8-10 for 8 3'x3' sheets.

The Great Three Sisters Experiment


This is our "Three Sisters" plot, which demonstrates the traditional method of planting corn, squash and beans together. This year as an experiment, in the left half we turned the bed over as usual before planting, but on the right we only aerated the soil (stuck a garden fork in the ground to its full depth and just wiggled it a little, every six inches or so) and left most of the clover cover crop that wintered over. The seeds were all planted on the same days and as far as we know nothing else is different between the two sides. The right side is so far doing noticeably better for one reason or another, or maybe both, or maybe luck. To be continued...

Today's Harvest - June 21, 2014

Today's firsts were peas, peppers, basil, cilantro, baby potatoes and garlic scapes, and we harvested the winter rye a little early so we could get the nursery bed going. The lettuce rotation continues to provide a good harvest, but the radishes are just about through for this spring. Plenty of greens keep coming.

We got our first okra flower, which is early, and may be the result of warming the soil with black plastic.

And Lisa found one of these on the fennel (a juvenile American Black Swallowtail caterpillar).


Perpetual Lettuce

For years, we’ve put up with uneven lettuce harvests -- too much some weeks and none at all on others. We knew that the key to a continuous harvest was to plant more regularly throughout the season, so we decided to schedule our lettuce space.

We divided the space in 4 beds (based on an 8 week seed-to-harvest schedule). The first plantings were sown indoors in March. In April, we began transplanting the indoor seedlings and planting seed in the garden. The plan is to harvest from each bed for 2 weeks, then immediately replant the bed and begin harvesting from the next bed.

Our first lettuce harvest was on May 24th and it’s looking like we’re on track to keep the plan going for the rest of the season. Voila, perpetual lettuce!

Special thanks to Dick for providing the post title.

The Babies are Almost Ready to Leave the House

Some of the seedlings that I'm fostering under lights are almost ready to go outside into the garden. Seen here are several different kinds of lettuce, leeks, spinach, red and green cabbage, and Brussels sprouts.  The cabbage and Brussels sprouts are a bit slower and will probably need another week under the lights.

Angst at the Garden

Waiting in winter, with snowdrifts high and sunlight low, we dream of Spring and Gardening.  We remember weeding in the sun, harvesting delicious vegetables, joy and laughter.  At our January Seed "Party", when we choose what we want to grow, visions emanate from seed catalogs -- we sooo want to start planting!

Then comes the Angst.

I starts with Opening Day.  Or rather, with Which Opening Day.  The forecast:  Friday night 100% chance of rain, a surprisingly no quibble forecast for New England.  Saturday morning continues with a small chance, while Sunday lives up to it's name with nary a cloud forecasted.  Do we get together Saturday, the time we've set aside for Gardening, or do we postpone until Sunday, when fewer of us can participate?  What do we tell the dozen prospective Gardeners who signed up at the EcoFest -- and when can we let them know?  Yes, cooperative gardening has a downside:  we've less flexibility in changing our schedule, since more people are affected.

A decision is made, because it has to be made, and we start with Saturday.  A dreary Saturday, with muddy soil and a foggy atmosphere, and foggy minds as some people are getting up earlier than they have been.  And yet the soil is not soaked, and the precipitation is holding off.  So we dig.  Or dig in some places -- in others, we hit ice.

We are saddened that the kale failed to winter over.  The barren stalks mock us.  But peeking under straw, we find young spinach.  And even that brings angst:  do we uncover it, giving it more sun and air, and possibly overexposing it to freezing temperatures?

To plant or not to plant?  More angst!  There is fear that peas planted in such cold, wet soil will rot (based on previous experience), so we hold off.

Leaves clutter against the snow fence.  Can we use them in the compost piles?  But leaves decompose slowly, need to be mixed with "green" matter to balance, and we won't have much of that for a while.  In July an abundance would be a blessing, but in April it's a space problem.  We move some into a corner that won't be used for a while, and remove quite a bit.  Sigh.  More angst.

Last year, peas shadowed and inhibited the rhubarb in the corner, and we discussed moving it.  But some online reading suggests it may be too young to move, as it's only entering it's third year.  So do we move it to what *may* be a better location now, or do we wait until it's more mature, and hope that it does better unshadowed this year by peas?  More angst.

Forgotten in our winter dreams was the reality of the uncertainty of choices.  Gardening is as much guesswork as it is science, as much luck as it is meticulous planning.  We can but muddle through.  But as a cooperative garden, we muddle through together!  It's an adventure, with paths taken and not taken, complete with surprises, like the harvest of delicious parsnips.

I'm ready for next week!


The Garden is Open - 2014

Not much to look at, we thought...until we looked a little more closely, and found the spinach under salt marsh hay had wintered over pretty well, and the rhubarb was just starting to show.


But the kale didn't do so well.

The garlic is ready to take off, so we lifted the heavy salt marsh hay, puffed it up, and spread it back down more lightly to keep the soil temperature even. We did the same for the emerging spinach.

We covered the bed where the lettuce will go in to help warm the soil. When we arrived this morning at 9AM, the soil was barely above freezing.




And the best surprise was that lots of parsnip kept well in the ground, and should be sweet as sugar. Our first harvest of 2014!




I'll Pickle It!

Previously, I wrote about my growing interest in making fermented foods, inspired by Sandor Katz and his book “The Art of Fermentation”.  Since last summer, I have been experimenting even more, making pickles from a variety of vegetables, especially those from our garden or our local farm, Busa (now replaced by Lexington Community Farm, or LexFarm).   As we divided the crops each working day at the Garden, "I'll pickle it!" became my slogan, especially whenever some extra vegetable was up for grabs.

Of all the trials, I have had only two disappointments – my first set of brined cucumbers, made with some of the smaller cucumbers picked from the Garden, had tough, rubbery skins.  After some discussion among Garden colleagues, we decided that pickling cucumbers were probably especially bred for pickling, and perhaps have more tender skins.  So, in subsequent batches, I used pickling cucumbers from Busa Farm.   Both types of cucumber pickle I made with the pickling cukes, a partially sweet Bread and Butter style and a brined sour "no dill" pickle, were superb!  The other disappointment was an apple and onion pickle, prepared with freshly picked local apples from a farmer’s market.  They were just too sour, plus too spicy with crushed dried red pepper.  Unlike some of the other pickle recipes I’ve used (e.g. a beet recipe), there was no added sugar.  I will be looking for a slightly sweeter apple pickle recipe in the future.

Otherwise, though, the pickling has been very rewarding! Friends and family have given me very positive feedback on the tastes and textures coming out of these colorful jars stacked in our basement “pantry”.  This winter, I was so glad to be able to hang on longer to the abundance of our gardening season.   

Besides the guidelines from Katz’s book, I’ve followed some more specific recipes, in particular those from Linda Ziedrich’s classic, “The Joy of Pickling”.  As I usually do, I’ve modified these recipes here and there.  In this post, I will describe just a few examples of the pickles I’ve been making.

In most cases, I have sterilized the packed jars by immersion in a boiling water bath, enabling me to store them safely in the pantry for weeks to months.  For acidic preparations, which all of these are, boiling water temperature is sufficient.  For canning fruits and vegetables that are not acidic, a pressure cooker must be used to attain higher temperatures.  I did my canning in a 23-gallon pressure cooker/canner for convenience, but with the valve open so that it was not under pressure.  In a few cases, such as a tomatillo recipe, the recipe called for the pickles to not be heat-packed but, instead, to be stored in the refrigerator where they will keep for only a few weeks.

In my pickling, I’ve employed two general techniques.  One is to immerse the vegetables, plus some spices, in a solution that is already acidic, usually vinegar (at 5% acidity) or a vinegar-water mixture.  The second, more classic fermentation technique, is to immerse the vegetables and spices in brine (a salt/water mixture) and let it sit at a warm room temperature, such as in a sunny window, for 2 or 3 weeks, giving micro-organisms in the preparation time to ferment, generating their own lactic acid that imparts a tangy taste and helps preserve the pickles.  While I have found that many wonderful flavors have resulted from the vinegar-based recipes, I definitely have a preference for the brine fermentations.  I love the ancient tradition of this method, its connection to biochemistry, and the complexity of flavors that develop in the final brine after several days of fermentation.  According to Katz and others, after the pickles have been eaten, people have been known to make soup with the leftover brine or even to drink it.  I have not yet tried drinking it, but I did make a soup and it turned out to be one of the best soups I’ve ever had.  (More on that later.)

As noted above, my first attempt at classic fermented pickles was disappointing. But, after that unsuccessful run with the tough-skinned regular cukes, I made two much better batches of sour pickles using whole pickling cukes and a classic brine fermentation technique. Since I am not crazy about dill, I decided to make something similar to the “no dill crock pickles” recipe from Joy of Pickling.  Sandor Katz recommends a 5% brine (5 g salt to 100 ml water) for a sour pickle, 3.5% for “half-sour”.  So, I went with that 5% brine strength, also adding a very small amount of white vinegar because Ziedrich’s recipe recommended it.  (Too much vinegar, however, is a bad idea according to Katz because it inhibits natural fermentation.)  I also used the same spice combination suggested in Ziedrich’s “no dill” recipe, whole allspice, peppercorns, lemon zest and fennel seed.  Ziedrich and others suggest adding sour cherry or grape leaves which reportedly helps keep the pickles crispy. I was unable to find sour cherry or grape leaves, except for the marinated canned Greek style grape leaves that I’m sure were not what she had in mind.  Having read in Katz’s book that these leaves, or tea leaves, work by adding tannins, I decided to just throw an Earl Grey tea bag in each jar.  In addition, I added a few bay leaves, though honestly, I have no idea if they supply the requisite tannins.  In the end, the pickles were crispy and delicious so whatever I did seemed to have worked fine.  I therefore repeated it exactly for the second batch.  Someday, though, I’d like to find these sour cherry leaves and see if they make a difference.

Traditionally, the fermentation is done with the cukes in a crock, and then later they are packed into jars for canning and longer term storage.  (When I described this pickling project to my Dad, he told me that he remembers his father, my Zayde, fermenting dill pickles in a big crock in their kitchen.)  Ziedrich says she prefers using large glass jars, so that you can see what is going on.  I liked that idea, and used several half-gallon jars.  The fermentation works best if the mixture is not exposed to much oxygen, by sealing the top in some manner, though not completely airtight.  (Remember the biochemistry:  when oxygen is scarce, instead of using the usual mitochondrial respiration, the organism makes ATP through anaerobic glycolysis, ultimately resulting in lactic acid production.  This is what happens in excessively exercised muscle…ouch. )  In a traditional crock, a weighted plate is laid on top of the vegetable/liquid surface.  Ziedrich’s book suggests placing a clean zip lock bag, also filled with brine, in the mouth of the jars (see photo). I did that and it worked great!  The photo shows one batch, at the beginning of the fermentation period.  As the pickles ferment, the mixture bubbles and gets cloudy, and the cucumbers turn from bright green to olive green.  (Whereas “half-sours” remain brighter green.)





The recipe called for allowing fermentation to proceed for 2 to 3 weeks.  After 2 wks, I liked the way the pickles looked and tasted, so I proceeded with the next step.  The pickles were drained through a colander collecting and saving all the brine.   The pickles were rinsed (photo below) and repacked into quart size jars.  I added fresh spices, allspice, peppercorn, fennel seed and  lemon zest.  In addition, a modification to the cookbook recipe, I added a few cloves of garlic.  Meanwhile, the brine is strained and the whole spices, tea bag, leaves, etc discarded.  The brine is then heated to a boil and simmered for a few minutes and then poured back over the pickles in the smaller jars.  After two weeks of fermentation, this brine had become a gorgeous, rich golden color, loaded with flavor. 

At this point, the jars can just be stored in the refrigerator or, to enable them to be stored longer in the pantry, canned in a boiling water bath.  I chose the latter, and processed all the sealed jars for 12 minutes in the boiling bath. 

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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 fee covers all of our seeds and supplies.


2014 Annual Seed Party Meeting

The Robbins Farm Garden Cooperative will hold its annual Seed Party Meeting on Saturday, January 25th at the Robbins Library Community Room (downstairs) from 9:30 AM to noon. Anyone interested in the crops & varieties we will grow in the garden next season is welcome to join the discussion. Those interested in becoming a new member of the garden group are especially encouraged to attend. Bring your seed catalogs and great expectations for the coming growing season!


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