Although it is almost the end of our 22-week long course, we are still keeping busy! We are primarily focused on collecting the last harvest, spreading cover crop, mulching around perennials, and gathering our garden tools for our end-of-season inventory. With so much to do and cold weather inviting us to be very efficient with the time we spend in the garden, we rely on garden checklists to keep us on track.
We are grateful for other gardener’s who have come before us and have written checklists to guide us with putting our gardens to rest. In that spirit, we share with you this checklist from Waterfowl Farm (we don’t actually know them, but we are thankful they share resources online!):
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
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.
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:
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!
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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).
Students received an easy to follow handout with guidelines and recipes for canning vegetables. We share that resource with you here – ctgcanninghandout-2016.
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.