Soils 101 (Where Our Food Really Comes From)

Nell, our CTG intern, weighing some of our first harvest of the season

You may have already heard, but our Advanced Community Teaching Garden class logged over 350 pounds of harvest from the garden in August alone! As we marvel over our bountiful and beautiful harvest from this past month, we reflect on the growing season and what made it all possible. One thing we know for sure, that we’ve been exploring the past few weeks, is SOIL. Is it dead? Is it alive? Can I ever get it out from under my fingernails? This week’s blog will discuss our soils education and give some tips for understanding yours!

Lesson number one: soil is alive! And dead, and decomposing. There are many layers of soil called horizons, and they all have different functions and origins. Soil begins where hard earth, or parent, material ends and continues up to the earth’s surface where we recognize it and call it dirt. The top layers are home to organic matter which is created when organic things (like food scraps, leaves, dead insects etc.) decompose into the soil. Organic matter is what we should thank every time we gasp at a beautiful carrot or watch our kale plants produce for months and months (and months and months).

soil horizon
Source: Wikipedia

However, because soil is alive it can also be unhealthy and lack organic matter or other indicators of healthy soil. Soil health is similar to human health in that it is reflective of many factors and can mean many things. Typically, healthy soil is very alive. There may be an abundance of earthworms, it could be very dark in color, hold moisture well, resist erosion etc. Soil is healthy when nature is allowed to complete its natural processes and return nutrients back to it. For example, in a forest, soils give heaps of energy and nutrients to trees and other forest plants. At the end of the tree’s lives, they drop their leaves on the ground and return the favor. Unhealthy soil, or un-fertile soil, experiences more extraction than return.

In addition to soil health, there are some inherent features of soil that humans nor trees nor kale can control. There are many soil types that are reflective of the history of a given piece of land. Certain soils (alluvial) tell us that there used to be a river in that spot, for example. Furthermore, soils are most basically classified as clay, sand, silt, and anywhere in between. Based on the balance of clay, sand, and silt, the soil will act differently. You can look up what kind of soil you’re standing on right now here!

Nell and students
Nell testing soil with students

Every fall for the past couple years or so, we’ve tested the soil in both of our teaching gardens. As gardeners, we play a pretty significant role in soil health. Some things we’ve done so far to enhance soil health include: adding compost and soil amendments early in the season, excluding synthetic inputs, cover cropping spent plots, and composting after large harvests. All of these are in effort to return nutrients and organic matter to the soil.

The soil tests we did were through UVM’s Agricultural and Environmental Testing Laboratory and the Cornell Soil Health Testing Laboratory. Both will clue us into the soil’s pH, organic matter, and various micronutrient levels, in addition to some more technical information about the sample. The Cornell Lab will also include information about soil respiration (what’s breathing in there?) and we aggregate stability (soil structure). These soil tests will inform next year’s soil health actions in the gardens, such as what kinds of organic soil amendments to add and what kinds of plants we can expect to do well. If you’re curious about improving your garden’s soil fertility in the mean time, UVM Extension has put together some excellent information on Managing Vegetable Garden Soil Fertility in Vermont.

Nell soil

Just like we cherish our relationships with each other and with our incredible edible harvests, we cherish our relationship with the soil. Such a relationship requires care and reciprocity, and begins with knowing what’s going on down there.

If you’re interested in getting your garden soil tested, Cedar Circle Farm can guide you through the process with this easy how-to!

Stay tuned for the results of our soil tests and corresponding garden planning for 2019!

Nell has been an intern with the Vermont Community Garden Network for the last two seasons, first as Garden Education Intern and this year as Community Teaching Garden Intern. She is also an Undergraduate Research Fellow with UVM’s Agroecology and Livelihoods Collaborative (ALC) and has brought a wealth of knowledge to the Community Teaching Gardens this year! Thank you, Nell! 


Tomatillos: What They Are and How to Use ‘Em

It’s that part of the summer where we can’t harvest fast enough! We’re talking armfuls of tomatoes and hot peppers and sweet pepper and corn and carrots and onions and … you get the idea!

Most of those ingredients are perfect for the familiar corn & black bean or fresh tomato salsa, but what if you could add ANOTHER salsa to your end-of-summer Taco Tuesday party? Enter…..the TOMATILLO!

Tomatillos (aka husk tomatoes) originated in Mexico and are a not-so-distant cousin to a Vermonter’s more familiar ground cherry. We probably love them so much in salsa’s because they’re part of the nightshade family (Solanacae) with tomatoes and peppers and just happen to ripen around the same time in our 5a plant hardiness zone (mid to late July.)

This season, our Teaching Gardens grew three varieties of tomatillos : traditional green, purple, and pineapple. They all generally taste the same, but some suggest the pineapple variety (yellow) to be a little sweeter making them ideal for fresh salsa.


Tomatillos should be harvested when the outer husk has completely filled out with the fruit and have burst open at the bottom. Like ground cherries, they often fall to the ground when they’re fully ripe. When you’re ready to use your tomatillos for some culinary magic, peel the husk off and rinse the fruit to get the outer sticky sap off. Voilà!

This week, our beginner class experimented with two types of tomatillo salsa verde : roasted and fresh.

Luckily Carolina, our CTG instructor and Andrea, one of the beginner students are both from Mexico and shared their family recipes with us to enjoy!

Roasted Tomatillo Salsa by: Andrea C.

Screen Shot 2018-08-29 at 1.17.08 PM (1)Ingredients: tomatillos, onions, garlic, serano peppers, lime, cilantro, salt & pepper to taste, chicken stock (optional)

Instructions:  Broil tomatillos, garlic cloves (unpeeled), and serrano peppers (whole) on high for a few minutes on each side until slightly blackened. Take out of the oven and leave out to cool. Cut an onion in half and put it in a pot. Add just enough water (or chicken stock) to cover the onion and bring to a boil. Cook down most of the water content. Peel garlic and cut the tops off the serranos. If you’re sensitive to spice, remove the seeds from the peppers. If you like a good kick, leave em in 😉 Put everything in a blender with a bunch of cilantro, salt, and a little bit of lime. Enjoy! 

Pro Tip:  If you’re going to be using the whole thing quickly, you can add avocado to make it creamier and milder. 

Fresh Tomatillo Salsa Verde by: Carolina L.

Ingredients: Tomatillos, lime juice, hot peppers, avocado, salt & pepper to taste, garlic and onion (optional)

Roasted salsa verde (left) and fresh salsa (right)

Instructions: Fill a wide-mouthed mason jar with tomatillos, a bunch of cilantro (with or without stem), lime juice, hot peppers (whole for more spice, seeded for less), salt & pepper, avocado, and desired optional ingredients. Blend with an immersion blender right inside the jar! add more lime juice and salt & pepper as needed for flavor and to preserve freshness of avocado. Enjoy!

Pro Tip: For blending salsa, soups, and sauces (like pesto), using a wide mouth jar and immersion blender creates a mess-free sauce using only a few tools (who likes to do dishes, anyways?)

What do YOU like to make with your tomatillo harvest?




Materia Medica

Anyone who has been to our garden down at the Intervale recently would know that it is anything but calm. However, with almost all the planting for the season done, we have been feeling a bit (as much as any gardener can feel) relaxed about our garden. In addition to enjoying abundant harvests and finishing up fall plantings, we have also been dedicating time to learning about the homeopathic values of things in our garden.

Materia medica is a latin term used to refer to a collection of information about the therapeutic properties of a substance used for healing. Our garden class is in the process of creating a materia medica for many of the plants in our garden – annuals, biennuals, perennials, volunteers, self-seeders etc. – by use and guidance of this template. We share the responsibility and joy of research by rotating who presents a materia medica each class. Our garden is full of possibilities for therapeutic use, but here are some highlights from the three plants we’ve learned about so far.

St. John’s Wort-IMG_9103.jpg

Botanical name: Hypericum perforatum

Plant family: Hypericaceae

Growing cycle: Perennial

Parts used: Flowering tops

Usable form: Oil, tincture, salve, tea

Energetics: Sweet, bitter, cold, drying

Medicinal actions: Nervine, anti-depressant, anti-inflammatory, anti-viral, vulnerary

Uses: Nervous system (relieves pain and inflammation), skin (bruises, sprains, burns, varicose vains), internally (for stress, mild depression, anxiety, tension, seasonal affect disorder)

Fun fact: St. John’s wort blooms on summer solstice, the longest day of the year, and is used to treat seasonal affect disorder which is a result of a loss of daylight!




Botanical name: Verbascum thapus

Plant family: Figwort

Growing cycle: Biennial

Parts used: Aerial parts (leaves and flowers) and stalk

Usable forms: Tea, smoke blend, tincture, ear oil

Medicinal actions: expectorant, demulcent

Energetics: Bitter, warming

Uses: Binds mucous and other similar substances to soothe coughing, ear aches etc.

Fun fact: if you leave a flowering mullein in the ground when the growing season is over, bees can move into the plant through the little holes where the flowers were. Bee hotel!


Raspberry Leaf-rr3

Botanical name: Rubus idaeus

Plant family: Rosaceae

Growing cycle: Perennial

Parts used: Plant leaves before fruit ripens

Usable forms: Tincture, tea

Medicinal actions: Partus prepator, astringent, nutritive

Energetics: Bitter, aromatic, cooling, drying

Uses: Supports ligaments and cartilage, digestion support, helps with menstruation pain and discomfort, uterine toning

Fun fact: Raspberry leaf tea has many benefits for pregnant people and people trying to get pregnant but should NOT be used in the first trimester of pregnancy.


These are just some snippets of what we have learned, please feel free to share your favorite plants/therapeutic uses/sources of information! In the meantime we are picking, soaking, drying, solar-infusing, straining and prepping our materials for future use in tinctures, teas, lotions, salves, glycerites etc. Stay tuned to see what other projects our garden class is up to!

Screen Shot 2018-08-09 at 8.31.27 AM


The World of Trellising

This season, the beginner and advanced students have been learning about and improving upon their trellis building. In the garden world, saying the very word opens up a Pandora’s box of backyard trellis tips, tricks, and creative designs!

Why do we trellis anyways?

Trellising your vining plants such as tomatoes, pole beans, and cucumbers offer many benefits in the garden. First and foremost, you can grow more in less space! Growing up using vertical gardening techniques like trellising allows one to grow more veggies in a small area like backyards, urban spaces, and community gardens.

Casey in cucurbits
Casey organizing cuke vines on our cucumber trellises (right), winter squash chaos (left)

Have you ever been overwhelmed with the surprise of ripe cucumbers to realize you have to trample through the jungle of their own vines to reach your future tzatziki? Trellising vining plants helps protect them from human feet during harvest.

The combination of trellising and pruning keeps fruit off of the ground, thus protecting it from garden critters. Extra airflow around the your tomato plant also reduces risk of disease so as to not crush your garden dreams before you crush your vine ripened tomatoes into fresh pasta sauce!


Dan’s spiderweb a-frame trellis

In our beginning class, students are using a few kinds of trellises to extend the growing space in their garden. All you need for nearly all trellises are sturdy stakes around 6 feet talk and strong garden twine. For cucumbers, the fine tendrils (not the vine!) grab onto the twine as they climb upward towards the sun using pyramid and a-frame structures created by the poles! Check out the intricate spider web design on Dan’s A-frame cucumber house!

Don’t worry though — a simple horizontal wrapping of twine around the bamboo poles with a knot at each pole will do just fine too!


Unlike cucumbers, tomatoes vines don’t naturally grip onto trellises. Instead, we use twine or garden velcro to attached the tomato to it’s pole. If your tomato plant is a determinant or bush variety, gently placing a wire cage around the tomato when it’s small, while still attaching it to a bamboo pole will help support a both the plant and its fruiting arms bearing your future tomato sauce!

This year our advanced class is taking tomato trellising to the next level!

Tom trellis
Philo Ridge Farm showing off their high-tunnel tomato trellising to our students on a field trip

Many market gardeners and farmers who grow their tomatoes in Vermont’s short summer do so in a greenhouse or high-tunnel. Adjustable bailing twine is suspended from a study wire and attaches to the base of the tomato plants using clips. As the tomato vines upward, the tomato is carefully and loosely wrapped around the suspended twine and uses suspension to support plant.

While we don’t have a greenhouse to protect and heat the tomato plants quite to their liking, we designed our very own system using 3 8foot 2×4 and strung hefty wire across to create a clothesline effect that could support our plants. Remember, a tomato will keep vining as long as the weather is hot like ours has been this summer, so build your trellis high! Our system is nearly 6 feet and a few tomatoes are just now reaching beyond their support!

Trellising is a fun way to make more growing space out of less and get your creative juices flowing in the garden! This is by no means a complete list of the many ways to trellis in the garden. Nonetheless we hope our trellises will inspire your trellises in all of your gardening endeavors!

Happy trellising!

Kimchi and ‘Kraut

It’s mid-July and we’re harvesting the last of our brassicas that were planted way back in the spring. The teaching garden at Tommy Thompson planted over 30 HEADS of three different kinds of cabbage, green, purple, and Napa. Although cabbage slaws in their many forms can be great for summer potlucks, we chose to invest our cabbage into communal batches of kimchi and sauerkraut (12 gallons to be exact). Below is a little information about fermentation, why we love it so much, and the recipes that we used.


Fermented cabbage exists in many forms from many cultures and countries, though all rely on the same process. Cabbage turns into sauerkraut and kimchi through lacto-fermentation which releases healthy bacteria (probiotics) that breaks down harmful bacteria. All of this occurs in an anaerobic (oxygen free) environment, that is created by submerging the cabbage in a brine made of its own juices and lots of salt. Cabbage, which is typically hard to digest, is thus broken down into a digestible, highly nutritious form. More info about this process here. In Carolina’s words, “once you learn to ferment, you’ll want to ferment everything around you!”

Cabbage + salt + massage

Most fermented cabbage starts with the same task of harvesting, cleaning (of slugs and dirt, leave the bacteria on the leaves!), and cutting up cabbage. We then add salt and massage the cabbage so that it begins releasing liquid. Then we add various things for various flavors and types…


(this recipe comes from scanning many recipes and picking and choosing based on what sounded good or what we had available)

~1 Head of Napa Cabbage

De-slugging 11 heads of Napa cabbage

~1.5 TBSP Salt

~1 TSP Sugar

~4 TBSP Korean Chile Flakes/Powder

~1 Inch Ginger

~1 Head Garlic (we used garlic scapes as well)

~1 TBSP Miso Paste

~Carrots to taste

~Radishes to taste

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German/Traditional Style:

~1 Head of Cabbage

Traditional sauerkraut with caraway seeds

~1.5 TBSP Salt

~1 TBSP Caraway Seeds



~1 Head of Cabbage

~1.5 TBSP Salt

~4 Carrots, shredded

~1-2 Onions, sliced

~2 Cloves of Garlic

~1 Jalapeño, diced

~2 TBSP Dry Oregano


Lemon, Garlic, Dill:

Lemon, garlic, dill (and other garden flavor) sauerkraut

~1 Head of Cabbage

~1.5 TBSP Salt

~1 Head of Garlic

~2 TBSP Lemon Juice

~1 TBSP Dill



Feel free to scale these up or down depending on how much cabbage you have. We’ve been mixing ingredients in large storage bins and fermenting in 2 gallon buckets for more consistent flavor and success. The final, and VERY crucial step is to create the anaerobic environment for bacteria by submerging the cabbage in the salty brine. We have found success using a combination of a large cabbage leaf on top of the cabbage, a mason jar full of heavy things (for fermentation in wide mouth jars), or plastic bags ½ full of water that slouch over the cabbage. Once you’re submerged, you’re all set for fermentation to properly occur. Keep it in a cool place until you like the taste, then put it in the refrigerator and enjoy!

Finished product!


It’s a Scorcha’!


Most of the northeast is experiencing a downpour for a few days, followed by a heat wave of hot and humid days in the mid 90’s! This extreme weather can wreak havoc on our gardens if we’re not prepared. Lucky for us, we’ve seen this coming for a week and know what to do when the weather gets a little out of hand this time of year.




Screen Shot 2018-06-28 at 10.38.57 AMWhere the river is close, the soil is rich, but the water table is high and our gardens in the Intervale are susceptible to flooding time and time again. A year ago this week, a very rainy June was wrapping up with a similar downpour and flooded the lower half of our garden in Tommy Thompson for nearly a day and a half! This year we don’t foresee similar flooding, but with a combination of heavy rainfall and extreme heat, plant diseases lurk! Mildew on your squash and septoria leaf spot on your tomatoes are two common diseases that appear in a wet and warm garden.

So how can we prevent garden chaos in our garden in humid heat? Proper watering techniques.

Garden Ed. Intern, Emily, helping Mary water the raised bed greens at Ethan Allen Homestead Photo by: Megan J. Humphrey
  1. AM/PM only!– Mid-day watering can burn plant leaves and most of your hard work will evaporate before your garden can use it. Watering early in the morning and/or when the sun is going down will help plants to recover from a long hot day and prepare for the next.
Watering Helpers
The garden neighbors came to help!
  1. Water the base of the plants, not the leaves!– Plants take up moisture (and nutrients!) through the soil via their roots. Wet, soggy leaves hinder good airflow around and through the plant while also creating the perfect environment for moister-based diseases. Watering under or closely to the base of the plant while keep the leaves dry will keep everyone happy and healthy!
  1. Water entire bed, not just around the plants– Dry soil tends to pull moister from wet soil. If you’re entire bed is dry except for around the base of your plants, they will not take up as much water as you think!
Straw mulch doing it’s job!
  1.  Even moisture – Keeping evenly moist all day every day helps plants thrive and prevents cracking in tomatoes, kohlrabi, carrots, etc. A thick layer of straw mulch on beds is a great way to hold in soil moisture between waterings, but we’ll save our case for straw mulch for another day….


Welcoming Back our Familiar Foes

The beautiful thing about being some of the first to have plants in the ground first is, of course, early abundance and garden joy; the downfall is that the pests also love the early growth. These past few weeks a good bit of gardening in community has meant managing pests in community, with bouts of frustration, triumph, and good lessons. This year, following the spotting of our first potato beetles, Vic Izzo, entomologist, professor, gardener, researcher and more, paid us a visit to teach us about the pests in our garden.

Vic teaching us about pests in the garden

Before we began identifying pests, Vic introduced us to the idea of integrated pest management. Pest management methods fits, more or less, into four categories: cultural, mechanical/physical, biological, and chemical. These represent varying levels of intervention and are traditionally thought of as a hierarchy, with cultural as the least invasive and chemical as the most. Vic encouraged us to think less rigidly about the “hierarchy,” and address our unique circumstances as small scale, community gardeners by mixing and matching pest management methods.

Here are our most familiar and persistent pests, with Vic’s suggestions, as of the end of May:

Flea Beetles: Flea beetles overwinter in the soil and emerge as soon as there’s plant matter to munch on, aka our brassicas. The most common indicator that they’ve found your young brassicas is many tiny holes in the leaves of your plants. For us, this happened very quickly. Our first pest management effort was covering the plants with row cover. Larger brassicas like cabbage, broccoli, kale etc. can survive flea beetle bites once they get bigger, so we were able to use row cover while they were young. This would be considered a physical/mechanical pest control, because we created a physical barrier to keep the beetles out. Something else we’ve done to control flea beetle is spray Neem Oil, an organic, plant based oil, directly onto the plants. Sometimes row cover just isn’t enough, or it doesn’t fit over your beautifully large broccoli, or it’s causing other pests to breed around those plants (swede midge in our case), or it’s keeping beneficial insects (like pollinators and natural predators) out. We’ve taken row cover off for all of those reasons in the past few weeks. Monitoring the plants regularly, such as every time you water, is crucial at this stage to identifying the best pest management method for your unique garden.

Flea beetle
Flea beetles on a cabbage leaf

Leaf Miner: Leaf miner most commonly, and most drastically, affect our spinach, beets, and Swiss chard. They lay white eggs on the back of the leaves and then burrow into them, eating away at the cells, leaving only their paths and the shell of the leaf. Leaf miners leave the leaves when they are adults and then they fly away to continue wreaking havoc. We typically manage, or try to manage, leaf miners by pruning off any leaves with damage (and taking them far, far away from the garden) and mushing eggs off where we see them. However, these are often persistent and very hard to manage even with that. Vic had recently heard from an entomologist colleague that they had had luck using sprays made with Spinosad, a naturally occurring bacteria, in controlling leaf miner. The spray he brought us is called Captain Jack’s Deadbug, but it is also bought in larger quantities at a different concentration under the name Monterey. This could either be considered a biological or chemical control, depending on what you consider the bacteria. Vic told us we didn’t need to panic and use it yet, but to try it out in the case of a true infestation.

Leaf miner damage on Swiss chard

The list of pests for us goes on, including three striped potato beetle on our Solanaceaes, slugs on our cabbage, and more that we are anticipating with row cover and leaf checks. If you have any unknown pests in the garden or need advice on managing them, feel free to reach out to UVM Extension’s Plant Diagnostic Clinic here. In the meantime, we harvest and enjoy each other’s company in the garden!

Another garden guest hanging out in the hose