Week 20: Tomatillos

Tomatillos need plentiful summer warmth to fill in the papery husk that surrounds each fruit.  So finally, after 3 months of growing and growing and growing, both CTG sites have been blessed with an abundance of green and purple-tinted tomatillos.  Our garden teacher, Carolina, shared her favorite recipe for preparing green salsa…

Roasted green tomatillo salsa
2 handfuls of tomatillos (husked and rinsed off to remove the stickiness)
1 medium white onion
3-5 garlic cloves
1-3 jalapeno or serrano peppers
1 handful cilantro
1 lime
salt and pepper to taste

At the CTG site, we used a griddle over a camp stove to “roast”  all the vegetables.  At home, try putting all vegetables under the oven broiler and every couple of minutes move them around to keep the cooking even.  You want the onion, garlic, and pepper skins to get all nice and toasty black.  As for the tomatillos, they will turn from bright green to a more muted green when they are done roasting, and you will notice that their juices start caramelizing.  This is when their natural sweetness comes out and pairs divinely with the strong flavors of the onion, garlic and spicy peppers.

Once all the vegetables are nicely charred, combine all ingredients in a blender.  Season with lime juice, salt and pepper as desired.


Week 19: Supporting the change you wish to see in your soil

Of course, evaluating the health of our soil is not only for the fun of observation, but also as a reference point for soil amendment. Each time we water, we are amending our soil. As we learned last week, water is crucial to the distribution of nutrients through the soil and the distribution of nutrients is crucial to soil health. That said, simply watering our soil is not always enough. Remember, with a too clay-y soil, the water can not penetrate the soil’s top layer and will simply run-off (along with your precious nutrients). In the case of sandy and silty soils, the grainy quality leaves nothing for the water to hold onto. Without a support structure, water disappears leaving a dry nutrient-deficient soil.

So the first thing is first – support a soil that allows water in and invites water to stay. For any soil, begin by adding organic material (compost). Curious to learn more about compost? Attend VCGN and compost expert, James McSweeney for a community composting forum this October 2016.

Though the forum is just around the corner, the time to add compost is early spring – as soon as the ground is workable. Until then, a few ideas for soil amendment:

Cover cropping

Buckwheat is an excellent late summer cover crop that keeps moisture in and weeds out.
The beautiful buckwheat flowers indicate that it’s time to turn the cover crop. This process, as simple as cutting the base of the plant stems and leaving the layer of organic plant material to rest, keeps the plants nutrients in your garden while also preventing the cover crop from going to seed and becoming ‘opportunistic’ (or invasive).

Buckwheat is not the only cover crop. In fact, there are several cover crop varieties that can over-winter, even here in Vermont. Winter rye is quite hearty and, with long, strong roots, can help to defend against winter weather – keeping soil in place through heavy rains, freezes, and thaws, and even ice sheets. Legumes provide another benefit — fixing nitrogen from the atmosphere and pulling it down into the soil.

Sheet mulching (‘Lasagna gardening’)

Sheet mulching is an excellent alternative to cover cropping – supporting weed suppression and helping to build the fertility of your soil. Act fast! Now is the time!

As the season winds down and plants come out of the ground, check out this ‘Ultimate, Bomb-Proof Sheet Mulching’ How-To.


Week 18: Evaluating soil health with our five simple senses

A few brave students tasted a small amount of soil, another held a handful of soil to her ear, “I can hear the ocean!’ she exclaimed. She was joking. In reality, in a sensory evaluation of soil health, we tend to rely most heavily on our visual and tactile observations. Before we get into what’s good and what’s bad, let’s establish what is.

Soil, dirt’s preferred noun, is that composite beneath our feet. It’s a combination of organic matter (humus), oxygen, water, and minerals. Humus, the organic component of the soil, is a composite itself, made up of decayed plant and animal matter. Oxygen and water facilitate life, allowing for the movement of nutrients. Minerals like sand, silt, and clay define the character of the soil.

How’s about this soil? Rich chocolate brownie with just the right amount of moist, fluffy, organic goodness. For growing veggies, the overall ratio that we are looking for is 5% humus, 25% oxygen, 25% water, and 45% mineral. The dark color of this soil speaks of its organic matter, the fluffiness of its water and oxygen.

As for texture, soils that are overly sandy will feel gritty, silty soils will feel like dry flour, and a too clay-y soil will feel smooth and slippery, especially once exposed to water.

Here’s Carolina offering an explanation of the soil texture triangle (expanded below). The triangle places Loam in the center. Loam is a made-up name for the just-right ratio of sand, silt, and clay.
If you are looking for a finer understanding of your soil’s mineral composition, the jar test is for you. Simply place a large handful of soil into a quart size jar and fill the jar with water (up until the neck begins to curve in). Then, wait for contents to settle. Sand will fall to the bottom of the jar within an hour. Silt will sit just above sand, settling out over night. Clay will sit above silt, taking a few days to separate itself from water that remains. Now, you have an easy illustration of the relative presence of our three main minerals.

Now, if you’ve smelt, felt, heard, seen, touched, jar tested your soil and you are still curious, UVM’s Soil Lab Test is a good next step. Tests are relatively inexpensive and can be tailored to your garden’s focus. Come back soon for more on soil amendments.

Week 17: Cut-and-come-again for fall harvest

As we enter the last week of August, we turn our attention to fall.  Although we still have a month until  the equinox and the official arrival of autumn, now is the time to plant the last few seeds of quick-growing, cold loving vegetables.  That list of cool season crops that we planted includes:

  • Radishes – Watermelon radishes are particularly well-suited for fall, and they are beautiful!
  • Mustard greens – We directed seeded many varieties ranging from mild Spinach ustard, to dark burgundy Red Giant, and frilly Ruby Streaks.
  • Asian greens – We will harvest baby greens in mid-September and hopefully a few full size Pac Choy and Tat Soi that seem to be highly prized by gardeners.
  • Spinach – Oh spinach, we have missed you in our garden!  We have held off on direct seeding spinach until late summer, but now it looks as if we will be harvesting plenty iron-rich leafy greens from almost every student plot.
  • Lettuce – We are choosing to plant varieties that can be harvested with the “cut-and-come-again” technique.  Read below to learn more.
  • Mache, swiss chard, arugula and cilantro also made it into our direct seeded fall crops.

We love the cut-and-come-again technique for continuously harvesting an abundance of leafy greens in fall.  Here are a few sketches that sweetly illustrate the technique:




One of our second-year CTG students, Ute, has perfected the art of cut-and-come-again harvesting.  Ute planted her first arugula seeds during the first week of class, and within less than a month she was snipping off tender arugula leaves.  Arugula and baby kale from Ute’s garden were the first garden harvest we enjoyed munching on.  And now we are coming full circle, as first-year students remember Ute’s arugula and are now inspired to try out the cut-and-come-again technique in their own plots.

                                   Ute with her late-spring harvest of cut-and-come-again greens 
On the left, freshly cut greens. On the right, greens to be cut next week.

Week 16: Pickle extravaganza

We dedicated this week to learning food preservation techniques to process the bounty of our gardens into nourishing treats come wintertime.

We had the honor of having Jess, the Vermont Community Garden Network’s Executive Director, lead a hands-on canning workshop for both of the Community Teaching Garden classes.  Jess has been sharing her preserved food with VCGN staff for many years – from pickled beets, to habanero and carrot salsa, homemade ketchup, and juniper berry cherry jam – Jess is skilled in the world of canning.

Students brought in harvest from their gardens – mostly zucchini, summer squash, and cucumbers, but also a few peppers, string beans, and culinary herbs.  After an introduction on the canning process and a Q & A to respond to students’ worries about canning, Jess divided us up into several teams to wash, peel, chop, measure, stir, boil and prep all the necessary ingredients for making refrigerator pickles (the quick version that doesn’t require a boiling bath) and canned pickles (with cukes and mixed vegetables).

Cucumber, summer squash, hot peppers, dill, carrots, and onions harvested from CTG gardens and ready to be preserved.

Students received an easy to follow handout with guidelines and recipes for canning vegetables.  We share that resource with you here – ctgcanninghandout-2016.

The yellowish-tint to the brine comes from a few pinches of turmeric powder added for flavor…and color!


Week 15: A Lesson on Agroforestry

08-17-2016 CTGTT Sunflower, tomato harvest
Amidst late summer tomato and sunflower harvests, we welcomed a visit from Meghan Giroux of Vermont Edible Landscapes.


08-17-2016 CTGTT Megan in the edible forest
Meghan, among many other things, designed and executed an edible forest corner of the Community Teaching Garden at Tommy Thompson. Here’s Meghan in the corner speaking of the need for this style of planting — perennial crops planted to mimic the structure of a forest — to spread through the entire garden. One giant, shared edible forest, she suggested, with annual veggies growing along the perimeter.


08-17-2016 CTGTT Tansy is nice to look at but sure spreads quickly
As for the tansy, Meghan promises that it wasn’t something that she planted. She suggests never planting tansy, which is an ‘opportunistic’ plant, willing and able to spread itself with great vigor! Even though Meghan was cutting the plant down, and speaking on its prolific nature, Meghan emphasized the importance of keeping all of a system’s nutrients within the system. That means taking the tansy plant and laying it down as mulch. Meghan assured the class that even out diseased tomato leaves were okay to leave in the garden – healthy soil should be able to handle that plant’s disease. ‘Leave the detritus on the forest floor,’ she said. ‘It’s a little love shack for all the critters who live in the soil.’

As for the lesson on agroforesty, here’s what I gleaned:

An edible forest is designed using two parameters. One is structure, the layers that make up the forest composition. The second is plant archetypes, the polyculture that works together to create a nutrient rich system.

The agroforest is made up of an overstory, an understory, a shrub layer, an herbaceous layer, a rhizomatic layer, and a vining component. We quickly discovered that each of these categories are loose and relative to the other crops housed within the system. While the red currant bush is most commonly used in the shrub layer, it could easily serve as an overstory in an edible forest of a smaller scale.

With regard to the plants, there are three important archetypes to include: nitrogen fixers, dynamic accumulators, and insectaries & nectaries. Nitrogen fixers have the capacity to pull nitrogen out of the air and send it down into the soil, providing nitrogen for itself and allowing that nitrogen to be captured by nearby plants so long as its needs are met. Dynamic accumulators have long tap roots that reach down into the earth and pull nutrients up into the top soil where it can be accessed by shorter root systems. Nectaries keep non-desirable insects away, insectaries attract the beneficials. Meghan suggested that gardens and edible forests alike should have flowering plants through the length of the season. These flowers should be diverse in terms of color and shape so as to attract the greatest number of beneficial insects.

Week 13:What a key, the bumblebee

It’s a fruitful moment, rounding the corner to late summer now. With each visit to the garden, I am amazed by the generous green jungle that has emerged from the beds that were bare just three months ago.

08-08-16 CTGTT Winter squash is coming for you.JPG
We planted beans in the squash bed just one month ago. We planted the beans because our squash was taking a beating from a combination of squash bugs and cucumber beetles and we didn’t know if the squash plants would make it. We placed an aluminum foil barrier around the two little plants & hoped for the best. Here they are – bearing fruit and unwilling to stay within the confines of their bed. Carnival squash on the loose!
08-08-16 CTGTT HuskCherry.JPG
On a smaller note, but of a similar shape, the husk cherries have begun to fall from our two husk cherry plants. Sweeter than candy, with wrappers that will biodegrade, this fruit inspires curious conversation among its consumers — what is that flavor?

It’s easy to forget about the little things when the garden gets so big. The little things – those little pollinators so crucial to the fruit bearing wonder of the moment. For the tomato, the potato, the eggplant, and the blueberry, it takes a particular pollinator to unlock the pollen that facilitates the plant’s reproduction. According to biologist Anne Leonard, with buzz pollination, ‘the flower is almost like playing hard to get.’

Check this out

08-08-16 CTGTT Rainbow in the beneficial inset garden.JPG
Yes, we are delighting in the harvest and yes, we are clearing space for fall planting but this morning, watering our beneficial insect garden, I found myself thinking of the bees — relentless, buzzing, organized, clever, key.