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.

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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.

Week 10: For the cabbage that longed to be a sea flower.

Of all the shared beds at the Tommy Thompson teaching garden, I have a soft spot for the cabbage patch. It was one of the first beds we planted – a row of green conehead cabbage on one side, a red cabbage row on the other. As the season went on, we planted a row of beans down the center – offering a wonderful combination of color on the thin growth of the bean stalk to contrast the sturdy round of a head of cabbage. What I love about the bed though, is within the red cabbage row itself – eight heads of cabbage, all of which were planted on the same day, from the same tray of starts, into the same bed, tended by the same gardener with the same regularity and yet, demonstrating the entire spectrum of growth.

07-21-16 CTGTT The famous cabbage bed
                   For me, this is the ultimate lesson of the teaching garden.                                                       What explains the variation in growth when all variables are kept the same?
07-16-16 CTGTT Cabbage patch.jpg
There’s nature, there’s nurture, and then there is the unique personality of each plant.    This cabbage on the top left is testament to the fact that there are some cabbages who simply long to be sea flowers.

I’ve loved this cabbage bed as a reminder of the unpredictability of the garden. It is a comfort on days when my own bed shows distress and it is humbling when I begin to take credit for the growth of what I’ve planted.

As it goes in the garden, even our favorite beds have their time. And this was the time of the cabbage bed:

07-21-16 CTGTT Cabbage holding wedding party.JPG

07-21-16 CTGTT How many heads?

Alas, with communal cabbage harvest, there comes communal sauerkraut:

07-21-16 CTGTT Shredded cabbage.JPG

07-21-16 CTGTT Kraut

Week 7: the rise of the Colorado Potato Beetle and the resilience of the garden.

It sure seems as if the growth of our potato and tomato plants has been matched by the arrival of the Colorado Potato Beetle. These pests, distinguished by their zebra-striped backs and hearty size (relative to the three-striped beetle that is) have made camp on our potato plants, unafraid to visit the nearby tomatoes.

07-02-16 CTGTT Potato beetles in hand
Two adult Colorado Potato Beetles with a fairly large larvae between. The larvae, hatching from a bright yellow-orange egg, begins its life as a dark red (nearly black) speck. It eats and eats and grows and grows, becoming plumper and lighter in color, eventually developing the markings shown here. Because the larvae must begin feeding as soon as it is born, simply wiping the eggs off of the leaves of the potato (or tomato) prevents the arrival of the next generation. It’s certainly more efficient to target the non-moving eggs!

Contrary to their name, the Colorado Potato Beetle is an invasive species that arrived here from Mexico. In Mexico however, the beetles are not pests because they are controlled by natural predators and distinct environmental conditions. In Vermont, we the gardeners are tasked with the predator role.

Our primary method of control has been careful, daily picking. I quite enjoy the act. It provides the opportunity to tune into each plant, touching its leaves and giving it a good once-over from above and below. I tend to carry a jar of soapy water and gently drop the adults, larvae, and eggs into the jar as they appear on the plants. Picking beetles is time consuming and, despite our best efforts, has not noticeably reduced the population. In fact, it appears to be growing – which makes sense as each cluster of eggs represents the beginnings of 10-30 beetles.

We’ve decided to introduce a foliar spray, hoping to get ahead of the problem and protect the potatoes growing below. We’ve begun an experiment of sorts – spraying a homemade garlic-chili repellent on one-half of the crops (recipe below), and using a store-bought Neem Oil on the other half. Results to follow…

07-02-16 CTGTT Cpb larvae on leaf.JPG
Neem Oil is an insecticide that can control the Colorado Potato Beetle in its egg and larvae stages, while also providing healthy enzymes to the plant. Said to be most effective on young plant growth, neem is used to manage over 200 species of chewing + sucking insects.

As I said, pests are matched by growth and growth allows for bountiful, colorful harvest:

06-30-16 CTGEA Gems of the earth - radish up close
The vital red of the radish
06-30-16 CTGEA Chrissy holds the bundle of greens
Spectrum of ‘greens’ from purple to red to blue
06-29-16 CTGTT Amy in a rainbow of cut flowers
Not to mention the oranges, yellows, bright whites, and pinks!

And the recipe for the garlic-chili spray:

·         5 garlic cloves

·         2 Tbsp hot pepper flakes

·         3 cups water

·         ½  small onion

·         1 tsp liquid soap

Put all the ingredients (except for the liquid soap) in a blender. Blend well until the solids are broken down. Transfer to a container and mix in 1 tsp of dish soap. Let it sit in the refrigerator overnight. Strain through a sieve and discard the solid bits. Use a spray bottle to evenly distribute the liquid over the foliage in order to deter the beetles from laying eggs.

Week 5: Cucurbits – melons and winter squash

As the Lead Teacher for the Community Teaching Garden, I have the joy-filled responsibility of selecting plant varieties to grow in shared garden spaces within each CTG site.  Week 5 is dedicated to direct seeding plants in the cucurbitaceae family, including cucumbers, squash, and melons.  Students are allowed to plant cucumbers and summer squash in their garden plots, while I select winter squash and melon varieties to plant in shared garden spaces.

My mouth waters at the thought of cutting into a sweet, ripe, and juicy melon.  So way back in February, I looked around for melon varieties best suited to grow in Vermont’s short summer.  Thus, I ended up ordering seeds from the Solstice Seed catalog, an extraordinary seed saving project maintained by Silvia Davatz.  Last year I attended one of her seed saving workshops and made a mental note to buy seeds from her this year.  As Silvia writes in the introduction to her catalog: “Thus began my quest to seek out, rescue, and maintain rare, valuable, interesting, and irreplaceable varieties for our tables, pantries, and root cellars. My current seed collection encompasses about 290 distinct open-pollinated varieties, selected for flavor, beauty, suitability to growing here in the Upper Valley, disease resistance, cold tolerance, ability to be part of our year-round food supply, historical interest, geographic specificity, or quirkiness of name, to list a few of my criteria.”  (To receive a PDF version of the Solstice Seed Catalogue, send an email to Silvia Davatz at sdav@valley.net)

solstice seeds

I chose Eden’s Gem, described as a petite, green-fleshed, netted melon weighing in at about one pound each, developed in 1905 at Rocky Ford, Colorado.  Sweet and spicy flavor.  Very productive and well-suited to the small garden.  In early May I started the melon seeds in a greenhouse, and then by week 5 of the CTG course, it was time to transplant the melons into the Ethan Allen CTG site.  We currently have four lovely Eden’s Gems growing on top of a compost pile, with plenty room to ramble and the warmth of the compost mound to encourage their growth.

For winter squash varieties, I decided to plant both bush and vining varieties for students to appreciate different growth patterns in similar plants.  I chose Bush Delicata Squash, described by High Mowing Seeds as “Compact, tidy plants with sweet, oblong fruits. Delicious smooth, nutty flesh with hints of butter and brown sugar. Skin starts creamy white with green stripes and flecks, curing to striped light yellow. Compact plants spread only 4-6 feet”.  Delicata happens to be one of my favorite winter squashes because its thin skin is edible, and sometimes I choose what to grow at the CTG sites simply because I enjoy eating those varieties!

delicata

At both CTG sites we planted Honey Nut Mini-Butternut Squash as our vining variety of winter squash that will share a trellis with peas and nasturtiums. These seeds also came from High Mowing and are described as “Adorable serving-sized mini butternut with dark tan skin and great sweet flavor. Simply cut in half and bake! Delectable squash is smaller than Ponca with more uniform butternut shape. Green unripe fruits; early planting is recommended for tan color. Field resistance to powdery mildew”.  I also decided on planting butternuts because they are resistant to common squash pests such as the squash vine borer and squash bugs. Other resistant varieties to take note of include ‘Early Summer Crookneck,’ ‘Improved Green Hubbard,’ and ‘Royal Acorn’.

May your gardens, and especially your cucurbits, grow abundantly this season!

In community,
Carolina Lukac
Garden Education Manager and Lead Teacher for the Community Teaching Garden course

 

Week Four: Acquainting ourselves with the solanaceae family, and with the three-striped potato beetle

Cool weather and a good heavy rain offered sweet relief to our brassicas and good conditions for transplanting starts from the solanaceae family. Solanaceae, also called nightshades, are characterized by their flowering plants and include the many varieties of potatoes, tomatoes, tomatillos, eggplants, and peppers.

6-1-16 CTGTT Solanaceae plants await student arrival

The transplant was quite similar to the transplanting of the brassica family. Tomatoes require slightly more attention as they tends to grow into heavily fruit-bearing and therefore top-heavy plants. Our tomato transplants ranged from about six to twelve inches and had a soft, white fuzz quality to the bottom half of the stalk. This fuzz is the beginning of what will become a strong root system, and therefore wants to be submerged fully underground. Tomatoes want to be planted in a hole that is one-half as deep as their overall height (at the time of transplant). This requires the careful removal of low-growing branches. Finally, removing all flowers and suckers will encourage the plant to allocated its energy to the establishment of a strong and developed root system. This is crucial to the health of the plant.

Here is Carolina offering guidance on tomato planting:

6-1-16 CTGTT Carolina offers guidance on planting tomatoes

Visit the Hudson Seed Library for more on transplanting and tending tomato plants.

 

Eggplant and peppers need not be buried as deep as the tomato. Just slightly above the existing soil line is fine. Pinching off any premature flowering will improve the health of the plant. Below is Alex choosing what to plant from a variety of peppers!

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As for the tomatillo, the transplant is just like that of the eggplant and the pepper. The plant itself though will grow to be quite large and so we’ve dedicated one of our communal beds to the tomatillo crop. To no surprise, the three-striped potato beetle arrived within two weeks of planting.

 

Also called the three-lined potato beetle, this pest can live off of the leaves of any member of the solanaceae family but has a preference for the tomatillo. We had the opportunity to observe about twenty beetles spread across our five tomatillo plants. It was mid-morning, they were mating, and the backsides of the plant’s leaves were marked with the yellow-orange eggs of the next generation. These pests cannot merely be pulled off of the plant. They must be removed from the garden – either in a tightly sealed container or in a cup of soapy water. The eggs need only to be wiped off of the leaves for the newborns require immediate sustenance and will not survive if born away from their food source.
Read on for a more thorough look at the three-striped potato beetle.

Week Three: Brassica transplanting and companion planting

Students chose from a variety of starter plants after sitting to a lesson. Below are two students, Jenna and Ute, deciding who will get the red russian kale.

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Brassica is a genus of plants in the mustard family. Before planting these brassicas, students sat down to a lesson on Brassica oleracea (the species that the vegetables belong too). Carolina drew pictures of cabbage, brussels sprout, kohlrabi, kale, broccoli and cauliflower, while explaining that what we eat of these plants all differs! For example, kale we grow for its leaves while cauliflower we grow for its flower clusters.

A fun identifier of brassicas is given away by their other name: cruciferous. They are called this because their flowers form of a cross: four petals and four sepals.

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Above is Kane planting collards in the communal brassica bed

We also planted potatoes! Here is brian cutting large seed potato into smaller pieces, leaving each part with about two buds.

5-24-16 CTGEA Student cutting large potato, each peice with a sprout

Two varieties of potatoes ready to be covered and grow in this raised bed below

5-24-16 CTGEA Potato planting set up

Companion planting is growing various crops near one another so that they can help each other out. After the brassicas, students planted two rows of potatoes, with marigolds on either end.

A marigold is a lovely companion for potatoes as it produces natural pesticides and protects potatoes from viral and bacterial infections. It’s smell repels insects that may be harmful while also attracting pollinators like butterflies.

To top it off, marigolds are edible (their peppery flowers), beautiful and easy to grow

Learn more about marigolds here: http://www.almanac.com/plant/marigolds

Also: What to dhu-barb (with all that rhubarb)

Nothing like a hot and sticky mid-May heatwave to whet our palates for Vermont summer rains. In the meantime, we have giant rhubarb plants that have gone to flower but won’t go to waste.

5-28-16 CTGTT Flowering rhubarb

We’ve gone ahead and cut the flowers off of each of the rhubarb plants. The cut was made at the base of the stalk that had flowered and the intention was to encourage the plant to continue to send energy to its leaves (rather than allocating it towards the growth of the flower). And from the vital, vibrant stalks that have grown, there have been spreads and cakes and gummies and more:

rhubarb.JPG

Rhubarb & Berries Sauce

3 stalks rhubarb

2 cups mixed, raspberries, blueberries, strawberries (frozen)

3 Tbsp raw honey (or a bit more if you want more sweetness)

1 star anise

2 cardamom pods

1 small cinnamon stick

1 Tbsp orange zest

½ cup orange juice

½ tsp aged balsamic vinegar (optional)

Slice the rhubarb in small pieces. Place it in a pot with the berries, orange juice, orange zest, spices and balsamic vinegar. Keep it on low heat until it starts to boil. Simmer the sauce uncovered, stirring frequently to avoid sticking. Once it has acquired the consistency of marmalade, turn off the heat and add the honey to taste. Remove spices before serving.

Rhubarb Pudding Cake from Common Sense Homesteading: http://commonsensehome.com/rhubarb-pudding-cake/

And many more for the curious and the adventurous: http://www.saveur.com/rhubarb-recipes-desserts?image=9

5-28-16 CTGTT Rhubarb harvest bundled in its leaf

 

Above is rhubard harvest bundled in its leaf and below shows the first potluck… where there was plenty of rhubard (and other creative treats) cooked up!

 

5-26-16 CTGEA Potluck dinner