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!

2013 Flowers, Grains, etc. (end of season notes)

Okra: attractive plants, good okra – research germination anomalies, warm soil before planting?
Sunflowers: did well this year – grow same variety next year?
Three Sisters bed:  better than last year, but the squash plants needed more sun, and the beans pulled the corn over – move the corn & beans to the center of the bed with the squash around the outside, plant squash same time as other squashes, plant beans 1 week later next year.

2013 Squashes (end of season notes)

Powdery mildew – grow resistant varieties where possible
Squash vine borers – grow resistant varieties where possible, experiment with non-surgical methods
Cucumbers: did well, excellent yield (many dozens) – give a bit less real estate, grow pickling type on arbor next year
Pumpkins: disappointing yield (@ 12), lots of powdery mildew
Watermelons: good yield (@ 20), some vine withering, a few rotted and a few were harvested too late
Winter Squash (Delicata): disappointing yield (@ 12), lots of vine borers – give more space?
Zucchini & Zephyr (Summer Squash): good yield, compact plants worked well in space

2013 Nightshades (end of season notes)

Eggplant: Italian, Asian & White, plants less robust – result of weather or fertilizing or location in garden?
Peppers: the best year ever, all varieties (bells, poblanos & chilis) did well – repeat varieties, staging
Tomatoes: many suffered from diseases, good long yield from remaining plants – grow more resistant varieties next year, cover soil with landscape fabric to warm it before planting, experiment with clover groundcover, repeat sucker experiment, plant some in lettuce bed, try a grafted plant, more normal-size varieties & fewer zebras next year?
     SMALL: Sun Gold*, Super Sweet 100*, Green Grape*  
     MEDIUM: Mountain Magic, Stupice^, Ramapo*, Paul Robeson^, Green Zebra^, Red Zebra^
     SAUCE: Granadero, Mariana*
     * varieties we should definitely consider next year
     ^ varieties that failed
Tomatillos: grew well, caging worked great – try one purple plant, start seeds a week or two later than tomatoes next year

2013 Legumes (end of season notes)

Bush Beans: all did well, wonderful varieties, didn’t last quite as long as last year
Dried Beans (3 sisters): planted closer to correct time to climb corn, good yield, tasty
Fava Beans: badly attacked by aphids, fairly low yield of very tasty beans
Peas: only early snap-type germinated, good yield. Broadcast late bush variety Super Snappy did well – try bush type shell pea in spring next year?
Pole Beans: Romanos planted early (where shell & snow peas crapped out) did well on trellis. Kentucky Blues planted after peas (which were slow this year) were last beans in garden.
Soybeans: good yield, plants seemed to mature over a shorter period than last year

2013 Greens (end of season notes)

Arugula: did well in shady spot, needed 3 plantings this year
Basil: started indoors and from seed in garden, all did well
Bok Choi: first planting did well, subsequent plantings did less well – one planting next year?
Cilantro: did well, needed 3 plantings (only got 2), not very popular – less next year?
Kales, Collards & Swiss Chard: seeded in garden, excellent spacing and productivity
Lettuce: need to plant every 2 weeks for continuous harvest – try new butterhead & romaine varieties?
Mesclun: did well, but not terribly popular – plant less or use space for lettuce next year?
Spinach: success! great germination and beautiful early & late season plants (left to winter over) – repeat next year?

2013 Brassicas (end of season notes)

Cold spring weather a problem for all early crop. Late crop started in garden and transplanted.
Broccoli: sprouting type was a bust, possibly weather stress. Late crop did better in potato bed
 – try heat tolerant variety next spring?
Brussels Sprouts: starting seedlings indoors produced more viable plants – plant further apart?
Cabbage: early green & red did well. Late green did well, red did not, savoy took a little too long.
Cauliflower: most early season produced tiny heads, a few heads produced normally & a few others took twice the time, late crop all produced well.
Romanesco Cauliflower: started indoors, plants produced tiny heads (like early broccoli & cauliflower) –give up or grow only late season

2013 Alliums (end of season notes)

Garlic: planted fresh stock this fall, sprang up fast!
Leeks: our best yet – transplant into 6-packs with other seedlings & plant later next year
Onion sets: our best yet. Planted farther apart than usual in single row around tomato beds
Onion seeds: great progress – transplant into 6-packs with other seedlings, plant rows closer together
Scallions: first planting did well, lasted – try broadcast planting early and harvest through season?

Field Day Report

We had LOTS of visitors, more than I think we had last year. Our table samples of cherry tomatoes, radishes, salad turnips, carrots, and even Jerusalem artichokes ran out -- the carrots ran out first.

We had people of all ages, from hand-held toddlers to seniors. We gave out lots of advice and got some in return! The scavenger hunt [coordinated by Oakes] required kids to get a leaf or weed from the Community Garden. Weed? Hard to find those! We had the kids try different leaves to find one whose smell or taste they liked:  spearmint or peppermint, lemon balm, sage, and when I got desperate, stevia and chives. One kid I couldn't satisfy!  

We also had some young adults visit us from Tufts, where they did their own gardening. They may steal some of our ideas for themselves (mediocre artists borrow, great artists steal), and may stop by next year to visit or get their hands dirty with us. Several other people were interested and may try us out next year. One even volunteered her son who she says loves to dig! Thanks to Alan and Sue and especially Elisabeth who heroically stayed until about 4:30pm.

Next year, I'd like more things for the kids to pick please -- especially root vegetables. Somehow, the carrot you pick yourself just tastes better -- just ask them! We could leave them salad turnips and radishes perhaps, as we won't have enough carrots? Also, I think there's some extra delight they take when they pull something out of the ground, because they don't know exactly what they're getting -- surprise! -- until it's out.


P.S. You have to be impressed with the young girl who could tell the difference between dill and fennel!

Food Awareness Field Day at Spy Pond Field

Though not about our garden, I submit the following as being entirely consistent with our outlook about food and community. It appears I'll be giving one of the talks the story refers to, but for the record, I was already pursuing the story when Kareem, the organizer, suggested I speak.


Two years ago, Kareem Bouhafs, 23, of Arlington would have been wary of someone who wanted to warn him about genetically modified organisms, the use of pesticides on foods, or the many additives present in today’s food.


Saturday, he’ll not only be one of those people, he’ll be doing it on a grand scale by not only presenting but underwriting the first Food Awareness Field Day, scheduled for 1-7 p.m. at Spy Pond Field in Arlington. The event will combine children’s games, a young-adult-focused slate of concerts interspersed with brief talks about food issues, and, surprisingly, not much food.

The event is the first production of Project U-Knight, which Bouhafs conceives as a recreational events company that promotes causes. “I’m trying to make it a nonprofit, so we're still filing IRS paperwork. It’s not just about food. want to have festivals, field days, concerts... It can be a very profitable business, but take the profit out of it and add the awareness aspect and you can have very cheap events that serve a mission.”

Entry will cost $5 ages 13 and older; for those younger, entry is free until 4 p.m., when the fee changes to $2. For younger visitors, games will include Red Light, Green Light, Capture the Flag, and a scavenger hunt for toy bees that will have been salted around the site.

“We’re trying to inject information amid all these fun things. In terms of the hunt, we’re trying to present the information that a lot of bees are dying as the result of pesticides being used on food plants,” Bouhafs said.

Bouhafs, a former deejay at the Middle East nightclub in Cambridge, has also assembled a roster of musical acts that he hopes will draw his contemporaries. Performers will include DJ Doubletake, rappers, Philly G and G-Riot, and the band Score the Record.

To spread the word to families, about the event, Project U-Knights has been leafletting, putting up signs, and going door-to-door. Bouhafs said he is relying on social media, including a roster of e-dresses he built during his time at the Middle East. “I have a network of people who like to go to concerts. I have probably over a hundred people trying to promote it on social networks.

Typically, such events use food — very often heavily weighted toward high-calorie indulgences — not only to help draw crowds but to encourage spending, but not the Food Awareness Field Day. Only two options will be available: Dean’s Beans organic coffee will be sold from a truck outside the grounds, and Skinny Pop Popcorn, which has been donated by the manufacturer and will be parceled out for free. The corn is free of genetic modification, its owner says.

Bouhafs partly attributed the lack of food purveyors to relatively late approval for the event by town fathers. “We had to jump through a lot of hoops with the town, and food was a big issue. It had to be approved by the board of health. We just decided we would go to the vendors directly and let them deal with the Board of Health themselves.“

“We got the thumbs up from the town less than 2 weeks ago — we weren't even sure of the date two weeks ago.”

Bouhafs said he decided to start with a food event because beginning a couple of years ago, “I kept seeing more and more news articles, more and more studies, more and more on Facebook, and I started clicking on it. I wasn't the first, and I'm not the last.

“It's alarming, that's what it is. Once people know about it, they don't forget about it. That's why I’m doing this, to add to that pool of people who know about what’s happening with food.”

Michael Prager, a member of the garden, writes most often at, where this story first appeared.



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