The gardens are still asleep, but we’re dreaming of greener days full of warmth and sunshine in the Community Teaching Gardens!
The Community Teaching Garden (CTG) course is a unique garden education program offered by the Vermont Community Garden Network to teach adults how to grow their own food in a fun, supportive, and cooperative learning environment. The 22-week long course follows the rhythm of the growing season through through hands on garden work, weekly lessons, field trips, food preservation, herbalism, legendary potlucks and much much more!
In a nutshell:
22 weeks (88 hrs!) of class instruction
Students individually maintain their own 80 square foot garden bed
Shared garden space is available for select vegetables, fruits, herbs, and flowers
Monthly make-and-take lessons in food preservation and herbalism
When: May 6 – October 3
Morning class: Monday and Wednesday from 9:00 to 11:00 am
Evening class: Monday and Thursday from 6:00 to 8:00 pm
Where: The Ethan Allen Homestead, in the New North End.
Here, each participant learns how to plant, cultivate, harvest, and preserve produce from their own 80 square foot garden plot.
Additionally, at least twice a month we will take a field trip to our satellite garden site at the Tommy Thompson Community Garden in the Intervale where we collectively tend to perennials and larger annual crops.
Last week, our beginner CTG students said goodbye to their gardens and our advanced class ends formal class time this week. This is perfect timing because you’ve probably put away the shorts by now and unpacked a few pairs of gloves and your trusty hat. Just a few nights ago, even the tippy top of Mt. Mansfield experienced its first snow of the season!
Mid-October is full of transition in the gardens. If you’re like us, you’ve been waiting until the very last minute to put your garden to bed. So how do we know it’s time to call it quits? We follow our estimated first and last frost dates. In Burlington, our average first frost date (50% chance of frost) happened to be yesterday, October 16th! Sure, we might scathe by for a few more days without a serious chill, but we try to bring our harvest into our cozy homes before frost damages the last of the peppers we were hoping would ripen and anything else that may not be frost tolerant.
Our preparation for winter didn’t just start last week. We’ve been anticipating the end of the growing season since early August when we started timing our successions around waning sunlight and lower temperature. We also began to close up the beds we won’t replant and seeded a cover crop to give our soil back the nutrients we took. In the Community Teaching Gardens, we prefer buckwheat for cover cropping because it grows quickly and dies back with the frost. When new students arrive next spring, we won’t have to hand-till in our overcrop and beds are relatively ready-to-plant. If our thick overcrop of buckwheat goes to flower, we pull it up, shake off the roots in the bed, and drop the buckwheat over the bed so it can break down and return important nutrients back to the soil.
A Perfectly Prepared Bed
An Asleep Garden Bed
For beds that are not cover cropped, we clear the bed of this year’s plants, weed, re-measure, and cover the bed with a thick layer of straw to keep soil from eroding. We weed the pathways and add a thick layer of wood chips around the bed borders.
Last but not least, we say goodbye to the garden with a ceremonial planting of garlic. This year, we even had the opportunity to use our own compost on the beds! Because Vermont is relatively cold and we love harvesting mid-summer garlic scares, we choose hard-neck varieties. We plant our garlic 3 inches deep 6 inches apart in rows 12 inches apart. After covering our garlic bed with a thick layer of straw, we say goodbye to the garden and dream of next months seed catalog arrivals and the last average frost of 2019.
This season (and every season), the magical plant world brings us an abundance. An abundance of veggies for our soups, salads, and sandwiches, fruit for our jams, and flowers for our table. But, of course we know there’s more.
In addition to exploring the world of medicinal plants, advanced students also had the opportunity to dye with fabric, yarns, and scarves with plant material we grew in our own garden!
At the beginning of the season, we chose a few plants we’ve previously experimented with and dedicated a whole bed to their upbringing. In particular, we chose dyer’s coreopsis (Coreopsis tinctoria) , dyer’s chamomile (Coda tinctora), madder root (Rubia tinctorum), and Japanese indigo (Persicaria tinctoria). If you look at the scientific names, you’ll notice each one ends in tinctoria. More likely than not, if you see tinctora/tinctoria/tincotorum at the end of a plant’s name, it’s often a plant that’s been used for dying fibers throughout history.
Dye pigment is extracted from the leaves, flowers, bark, roots, fruit, seeds, or the entire plants depending on the end color you’re hoping to achieve. Indigo is extracted from the Japanese indigo plant’s leaves while a deep red is extracted from the roots of the common madder plant. Wild Color and Harvesting Color both offer great information for the beginning natural dyer.
People have been using plants as natural dyes and pigment for thousands of years on walls, fabric, paper, clay, etc. Today, we generally divide our clothing and fabric in three categories : plant-based (cotton, hemp, flax, rayon, etc.), animal/protein-based (wool, silk, etc.), and synthetics such as polyester or nylon.
For our purposes, we chose to use two animal-based fibers, wool and silk, for our dying because they easily absorb pigment without incorporating too many, or often no, chemical processes.
The process of dying with fresh plant material, like coreopsis flowers, asks for equal weight in plant material or weight of fiber (WOF). That means potentially a lot of plant material will be used! For that reason, we collect coreopsis flowers across the season and dry them. Then, when harvest is over and it’s time to dye, we use half the WOF of dried flowers since they will be much lighter in weight but equally strong strong in pigment.
Just before dying our fiber (we chose wool/silk blend scarves) we soaked the fiber in water and then pre-mordanted it. A mordant is a product that prepares the fiber to best absorb pigment from the plant material. Usually, soluble metals act as mordants, like aluminum (alum). For this purpose, it’s important to always wear gloves when preparing your fabric and during the entire dye process! We mordanted our scarves in an alum/water solution using the WOF to measure how much alum to use.
Plant material simmering
Dipping our scarves in vinegar to change their pH and color!
Next, we begin to dye! Much like tea, we simmered our plant material in water for nearly 45 minute stop extract as much pigment as possible.
We then strained out the plant material and kept the pigment solution on a low temperature. Next, we dipped our scarves in and watched nature work it’s magic! By dipping our scarves in one color and then another and adjusting the pH of the material with vinegar or baking soda, we were able to create so many colors!
With only the color-wheel essentials (red, blue, and yellow), nature’s rainbow is recreated to keep us warm and remind us of those beautiful summer days in the cold and snowy Vermont winter.
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).
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!
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.
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!
Spring in Vermont so far has kept our gardens nice and deeply watered for us, to say the very least. Seeds all around are happily bursting from the earth, stretching up their leaves towards the sky to finally rise and photosynthesize.
The rainy June showers have been kind to plants outside our patches too, who have been drinking up and growing just as vigorously, springing us right into weeding season.
But wait! Before you hack away at those dense lush thickets, please take a pause and take another look – you’ll very likely be pleasantly surprised by some wild edibles. Get to know them and they just might make for a lovely dinner!
STINGING NETTLES (Urtica dioica)
If you’ve ever been stung by stinging nettles, I don’t blame you for perhaps wanting to clear them away and let them rest in compost. They can be intimidating, gazing from their stands of tall prickly stems that bristle with venomous hairs (known as trichomes.) But really, they just want to be invited into your kitchen! Just make sure to harvest/approach them with thick gloves on, and you may be shocked by how tender and mild they become with a quick blanching that turns the leaves into a deep emerald green.
This plant has been used for food, medicine, dyes and fibers by gardeners for ages. Seasonal spring cocktails, garden quiche, pizza, pesto, green eggs and ham… You name it and nettles will lend their lovely green color. The true danger nettles pose is that once you befriend them, you’ll want to incorporate them into everything!
GARLIC MUSTARD (Alliaria petiolata)
This wild green has gone wild in Vermont and throughout much of the United States. It tends to take over ravines and disturbed areas, and is so successful that it crowds out many of our native speciesin the undergrowth and it can even choke out seedlings of young trees.
It is in the Brassica family and has a garlicky, arugula-like flavor similar to cime di rapa(aka broccoli rabe) along with a ton of vitamin C. After the plants have gone to seed, they bloom with small white, four-petaled flowers. Garlic mustard’s heart-shaped leaves are quite yummy and wilt down easily in any dish that you might put spinach. What’s even better is that by eating it you help the health of the environment. Once you recognize garlic mustard, you’ll likely start seeing it pretty much everywhere. Please eat this delicious invader!
Hey everyone, the Community Teaching Garden is up and rolling again in preparation for a fruitful season! We have been busy bees this rainy spring so far with big leafy plans a-brewing!
Earlier this month we tucked our first transplants of plants in the delicious and diverse Brassica family into the garden beds, such as brussels sprouts, cabbage, broccoli, kohlrabi and purple cauliflower. Some other members of this family now growing up together at CTG are peppery mustard greens, arugula, radishes and kale. The Solanum family just started moving in, too– plenty of slips of German butterball and All Blue potatoes are snugly burrowed in the neighboring raised beds (hopefully nice and safe from any Colorado potato beetles.)
All these May showers have been kind to our brassicas, giving them the cool, moist soil they need to thrive… Already some heart-shaped cotyledons of the seeds have already been poking up out of the soil!
Another gift of the spring thus far is a stunning perennial vegetable who was already waiting from last season to welcome us warmly, actually, perhaps a bit tartly: rhubarb! Rhubarb is in the buckwheat family and originated in Asia thousands of years ago. Underground, rhubarb has a hardy rhizome that you can cut and transplant in early spring to spread it wherever you would like. Our rhubarb evidently weathered the long winter well as their healthy broad green leaves and bright ruby red stalks practically called out to us from their patch on our first day.
We learned about how the succulent stalks (petioles) are tangy and often prepared for desserts like a fruit, and its leaves are high in a toxic compound called oxalic acid–so make sure to cut them off and compost them. Students had plenty of ideas about how to enjoy this first harvest of the garden and gladly traded recipes, here are a few!
Rhiannon recommends putting sugar on it and eating it raw like a snack she remembers from her childhood.
Marleen makes rhubarb chutney for a tangy, semi-sweet spread to put on meat dishes, cheese and crusty bread
And Huy made a rhubarb cake to share with everyone!
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!
Credit: High Mowing Organic Seeds
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.
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)
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?