Friday, August 31, 2007

other forays into urban food production

This whole idea of producing or at least increasing notable parts of my food supply has started to go a little bit past the stage of "hobby" for me. I think it's really fascinating. I have environmental and conservtionist leanings to begin with and upon learning more of the details of the tremendous wastefulness and pollution of the convetional food industry, I've tried to detach myself from it as much as I reasonably can. That amount increases as I get more creative. The running joke in college was that I chose to major in dirt and water, and since those are the two things which the status quo of agriculture most degrades (besides the livelihood of small farmers) it's a natural cause for me to latch on to.

But I'll leave the preaching for now - there may be a little during winter, when all my garden is doing is composting itself - to tell you about some of my other efforts and ideas. First, I am sewing up an old hemp skirt to make a "sprouting bag," which is essentially the same as a normal bag but for the fact that you use it to sprout bean, radishes, greens, whatever else. I am doing this because with a little water and a little time, you can about quadruple the amound of food afforded by beans and many other seeds. I already have a fair few seeds left over which I will not be using in the spring because I'm switchig to heirloom plants. As an added bonus, a 60 cent bag of dried beans can be turned into a great deal of bean sprouts for use in salads, stir fries, etc. That is cool, because even while my cheap instincts tell me to buy dried beans, they are pretty nasty.

Also, I purchased a small, inexpensive "mushroom kit" of a variety of (purportedly delicious) mushrooms which will grow from spores in a sterile substrate in my kitchen. Or my office, if Alli makes me move them. It will only yield for three or four months, but after that I can dump the well established spores into the composting material in my garden and they will occur randomly beneath my plants for the next several years. Actually, since I probably won't live here that long, they will occur under someone else's plants. And really freak them out.

I forgot to mention

In the space cleared by removing the bean and cucumber plants I have planted some heirloom beets and that multi-colored chard, as well as some perrenial buching onions. So these little guys will survive the winter if I take care of them, and, theoretically, keep producing as long as I keep thinning out their bunches. That's pretty cool.

Time elapsed, and notes on mulch

So, since my last post about the first tomato, we've had a few more tomatoes ripen and find themselves in salads, the carrots have been thinned sufficiently that those which I pull these days are edible sized, instead of comically tiny. The lettuces are doing quite well, especially the arugula and I've had a good time thinning those rows, because the thinnings taste awesome. Even at the tiny stages when most of the sprouts look the same, radishes look like lettuces, look like turnips look like mustard greens, they taste entirely different. It's really interesting. Between beet greens, lettuce and mustard thinnings, pea shoots, carrots, tomatoes and basil, we've had a couple of really decent meals out of this garden. Poorly drained, infertile, rocky soil and all.

Every time I get to bring stuff in, wash it off and eat it, it makes me happy. Stupid happy. Still, my dirt sucks; It's horrible, and I can tell that its affecting the growth rate, yield and overall happiness of my pants. I fret over them a whole lot for average to below average results. I don't want to fall into the expensive trap of ammending my garden with pre-made compost which my plants will rob of its nutrients, forcing me to buy it all over again. I definitely don't intend to use any sort of synthetic fertilizer, that's a bit scary for me.

So step 1: mulch. I used the grass that I chopped off at the edge of my plot to mulch between the pea plants, and i can already see some benefits. The soil around them stays wet longer than the exposed soil and weeds don't go quite as crazy, due to the lack of light. Now that my lettuce, radish, turnip, spinach and mustard green sprouts are a little sturdier I think I'll mulch around them, too. Probably with hay, because I've heard good things about it and huge amounts of it were scattered around my neighborhood during a sidewalk construction project. I think that I will borrow some of this, as it has served its civic purpose and it also has the added benefit of already being a little decomposed.

my hope is that, after frosts have knocked out sections of my garden i will fold the plant matter of these sections down, and cover the whole mess with a few inch thick layer of hay. Most of the hay and plant matter will all slowly decompose over the winter (I'll purchase worms and throw them in there if I have to), providing much needed organic matter. To improve drainage and make the soil a bit lighter so that if I plant root vegetables next year they won't struggle so much, I'm going to spend a few dollars on a bag or two of some kind of crushed volcanic rock. I'm also looking into soil-building forms of "biointensive gardening" (more on that later) which have their own methods which often don't call for mulch, but whatever I choose to do, better soil can't hurt.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007


Oh man. The very first tomato got ripe. And we ate it. It was awesome.

Monday, August 20, 2007

BFH's garden, in her own font.

Here is the square foot garden that BFH and I constructed on her balcony. Looks good, eh? I think that is at least in part due to the fact that she has way better font skills.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

In other news

While I was pulling out the bean plants (actually I had help from just-moving-in roommate, Baumer, who has confessed to accessing this blog from her blackberry. What?), I also hacked the shit out of the grass and mint that was free-loading near the Western edge of the garden.

I did this on the assumption that since the mint ran rampant all of its own accord, shitty soil and all, if i cut it back to a couple of tiny sprigs, it would make a comeback on its own. The grass all came out, out of spite. I used the cuttings (those free of root matter or seeds) to mulch around the pea plants. Take that.

The freed up space has been used as the new home for a couple of basil transplants and an herb that smells a lot like pineapple which I came to own in a totally legitimate manner. Welcome to the family, herbs, please don't die. It would be an especially hard blow, since I've taken more care and improved the soil for every successive round of plants. The survivors of my earliest attempts are a hardy bunch. I salute them.

BFH's new home

When this whole garden adventure started, Best Friend Hannah lived with us and so was often around to help me. She has since moved to a few miles away and the garden misses her. She misses the garden, too, and sometimes makes it over to visit. There is not a community garden plot at her new home, but she does have a balcony. So we got to talking how we could make use of this balcony (you know, besides for a hibachi).

There was some talk about the two of us setting up a simplified hydroponics setup. We'd be the only people our age delving into hydroponics for lettuce growing rather than weed. The problem there was that no matter how bootleg we made the system, it would be a little time consuming and labor intensive for a 2 foot by 4 foot growing area. Also, hydroponics relies on a nutrient heavy water solution to sustain the plants in a soil-free growing medium, and the chemical intensive nature of this gave us both pause.

Before we cut our losses, I found this guy, Mel Bartholemew, who originated "square foot gardening." You can read about it on his site, it's actually pretty interesting. It was also just the degree of simplicity for what BFH and I had in mind. I only had to shell out a few dollars for a plastic tub that had been used for underbed storage (yay craigslist) a few more for some compost-rich dirt and vermiculite (a volcanic rock used to keep the dirt porous) and we were set to go, since I already have many extra seeds.

The method allows intensive planting, re-use of the soil, (just add a little compost, which BFH is now making herself)and requires very little water compared to a conventional garden. There is only enough time left in the season for lettuce, greens, radishes, some herbs. But that's fine, it's a good experiment of the method. If it works out really well I might use some 2x4s to make a frame for part of my garden, next spring.

Beans: out.

I did it. I pulled up my lackluster bean plants. This was not easy for me, because I am new to gardening and get unduly attached to my the little green leafy things that are in my care. But their season was done and the beans and cucumbers were hanging out together and being all contagious (of that god-forsaken powdery mildew. As a matter of fact, if the cucumbers don't buck up really soon, they're coming out too. I picked 6 cucumbers to see if they'd shift their energy back to plant maintenance once the fruit was gone. My hopes are not very high, though.

My plans for the space that was filled with beans and cucumbers entail more of the same from the fall garden, some Swiss Chard (regretfully, I cannot find seeds for this crazy Chard in my neighborhood and time is of the essence, so i shall not order them. Maybe next season) if I can find it, and some herb transplants, hopefully something a little cold tolerant. We still have just over 60 days to the first frost, so there's a number of things I could do. I plan to get BFH to accompany me in making these decisions and getting the necessary items. Even with all my vacillating on decisions and the costs of my ineptitude, this has been a pretty cheap hobby. I appreciate that.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Fall Garden. August 5th

Get ready for another hand-drawn garden map. One of the lessons I learned by trial and error (but is there really another way?) was that I wil forget what I planted and where I put it, and when the seeds went in if I don't write these things down. You may have noticed that my other planting entrie said dates like "mid-June." Because I forgot when I planted things. This makes it hard to use the guides on the back of the seed packets that say things like "55-60 days until maturity." Oh, really, because I planted them... approximately... a while ago.

Well, I intend not to repeat that particular lack of common sense. So I wrote it down. i planted things on August 5th. I checked the average first frost for my neighborhood and calculated back to make sure I was planting things that would survive to adulthood. Or when i want to eat them, whichever comes first. I also asked Garden Center Man, and he approved of my seed choices, so i feel pretty good about them. One of the things I got to plant were these crazy purple heirloom radishes. They're from Germany, but I called and asked and they should be well suited to my climate. These seeds went in a little later, though (August 14). I also plan to follow the seed directions about successive plantings every two weeks for some varieties, which I did not adhere to before.

Here's my fall harvest plans. if I had gotten a normal time start most of these would have been planted in early spring first, and the re-planted for fall harvest. The two rows of peas are planted together like that, instead of one long row across so that the bushes can intertwine and support each other. Or so the story goes. Plants are adorable.

You may also notice the penciled-in lettuce and beets (take 2) in the summer section. Various thinnings, picking of beets and plant-dying mishaps left some usable space over there, so I plopped them in among the mature plants. I've heard it's good to have an adult influence. The purple radishes are also outside of my more conventional row system. There was some good dirt there, so i tossed them in, partly as an experiement about planting conditions and partly because I was excited about them.

But tomatoes!

The last post was full of a lot of bad news, but that's not the entire truth of my garden.

The tomatoes, while behind because of when we planted them, are doing quite well. There are many of them, and some are even turning yellow and orange. Our cherry tomatoes, which we grew from seed have really shot up. They're growing up so fast. Getting reproductively mature, body odor, stuff like that.

I just feel bad for the ones who need braces; they get teased.

Slow Going

So after the early good news of beans, things went downhill a little bit with my success rate. My cucumbers got some Powdery Mildew which I did not recognize in time, so they're suffering. There were a bunch of gherkin-sized little cucumbers hanging out, but you know what they say about not counting your 'cukes until they're in the fridge. Do they say that? Well they should because a bunch of mine died. I enacted a brutal anti-mildew campaign, and the cucumbers are doing better but any serious cucumber harvest maybe a lost cause at this point. Oh well.

Also, I suck at growing carrots. The package said "tolerant of mismanagement." I should have gone for the one that said "tolerant of some idiots" (in fact that is radishes: they suggest fast growing, fool proof radishes for elementary school kids, who we all know are some idiots). My particular brand of carrot mismanagement consisted of not thinning them, and not keeping the dirt loose enough. So basically they are stunted little runts, all crowded together and battling to push through the rock hard soil that my garden is full of. They grow to their environment like snakes and iguanas, I guess. I finally had the heart to pull about two thirds of them out, to give the bigger ones room to grow, but it was tough for me. Seemed a little East German. I also got some good advice from an elderly garden-neighbor, about using my tiny shovel (a spade!) to dig around the root vegetables (carrots and beets for me) to loosen the dirt up and let the water get down to them. i had been timid around them for fear of damaging them, but they really do look better since I've implemented this strategy.

Here's a tiny stunted carrot:

Here's some early progress of my beets:

My beans, who were such stars earlier are probably going to be pulled up this weekend. They're about done. Since we got such a late start, the season was pretty short for them. In their place I will probably put some candy striped beets or something else relatively fast growing. I will also do a better job keeping the soil less rocky and less packed in. I promise. I may even invest in some compost or something to augment my soil, keep working it over the winter and just battle to get this same plot for next spring. Between my own lack of knowledge, the poor soil and the drought we've been having it is not surprising that my plants haven't been running rampant with growth and health. So I'm trying to put the pieces in place for next season. For one thing I think I am going to plant mostly heirlooms suited to my area's conditions. There are lots of good reasons to do that. Powdery mildew resistance is definitely one. That made me real angry.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Fast forward again: Holy shit, beans!

Weeding and watering and basic care of the little baby plants continued, and many of them got pretty big. I learned the hard way that you do indeed need to thin carrots and beets, as directed, or they remain tiny and carrots will wrap their roots (their carrots, if you will) around each other and get all curly and tangled. It's alarming.

With the notable exception of the mystery row, which is growing almost exclusively weeds, the plants all grew quite well. Little tiny pale green tomatoes, hard as rocks, appeared on the tomato plants which we transplanted, so they had a little head start.

Of the seed-started plants, though, the bush beans were the early performers. They were fast growing and leafy and made tiny little flowers that attracted a fair number of bees. They were only about a foot and a half high, so i wasn't expecting much in the way of beans from them, so I was surprised when one day I was weeding around their bases and saw a three inch long bean pod. Somehow the natal stages of this pod had escaped my notice and here it was, fully formed. Upon closer inspection there were a couple dozen large pods and many smaller ones scattered between the ten or so bean bushes crowded into their little row. I went and did a quick google search to figure out how to tell when beans are ready and how to pick them. A couple of generations ago this information would be as basic as tying your shoes.

So apparently all bean varieties have an immature but edible phase before the beans within the pod fully differentiate, and this is what string beans are. While I left many of the pods to fully mature, I picked some of the others, and we ate these early string beans with dinner.

Kick ass. My first legitimate vegetable yield.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Fast Forward: Seedlings!

After several days of diligent, tired, pre-commute watering, the rows of dirt in our plot turned into rows of dirt with minuscule plants poking out at irregular intervals. After a couple of weeks, these were recognizable as considerable different from one another. The carrots had fluffy, though tiny, sprigs of green all along the length of a few central stems, the beans were wiry stalks with a single flat leaf at the top and the beets were oval shaped leaves, green and purply. Even our mostly buried tomato plants were beginning to look healthy.

As I had been advised, I put the organic fertilizer along the rows, a little distance from the plants (apparently this is called side-dressing). All of this was fascinating and great, but i definitely had the thought, "Man, plants grow SLOWLY."

This, however is not entirely true. The only plants that grow slowly are the ones that you WANT to grow, and that you carefully tend and fret over, and side-dress with organic matter. The other ones, the weeds, grow alarmingly fast. I once watched one grow a million feet tall in half an hour and climbed it and met a giant. But the giant tried to eat me, so I cut it down. True story; Wally Shawn is in a movie about it.

So once the plants matured a little, I could tell what they were from the pictures on the seed packets and I have drawn up a plan that shows the rough layout of my garden. Here it is.

Notice the row with a question mark. I may have planted the peppers there and it just didn't work out for them. Maybe I didn't plant the peppers at all. Who knows? In any case, we have no peppers and a mystery blank row. Well done, Liz, you suck.

Half the plot here is marked as weeds and dirt. That was true until recently. Now it is just dirt, because BFH and i weeded it. It was just as hellish as the first half. I have plans in the works for planting it with cool season vegetables but that's a story for another post.


That afternoon after Alli got off from work, we rode our bicycles over to the garden center that smoking neighbor had given me directions to. The lone guy in the store was very helpful and they had a mind boggling selection of seeds, ugly decorative terracotta pots and about 8,000 varieties of dirt in bags.

We ended up leaving with two varieties of carrot seeds, (they said "tolerant of mismanagement" on the packet, so I doubled up) beet seeds, pepper seeds, cucumber seeds, beans (should I call them bean seeds? They just looked like beans), cherry tomato seeds and three little straggling tomato plants. We also picked up a small bag of an organic mix to mix into the soil in small amounts and place a couple of inches away from the seedlings in about two weeks. We had a pretty amusing time trying to get out of there without the man helping us to our "car." He gave off the impression that he would not like it if we stuffed his babies into a backpack and rode home on our bikes. But that's exactly what we did, albeit sneakily.

We got home and I went back out to the garden and planted the tomato plants as I had been directed, in mounds, burying the bottom six inches, of stalk and a couple of leaves which Garden Man swore up and down would sprout roots. They each had a piddling three inches sticking above the dirt. I then planted the seeds in haphazard rows mostly ignoring the seed spacing directions on the package. One of the other pieces of advice that I ignored was writing down where I planted everything, thinking "this is not exactly a massive expanse of plants, and I'm definitely not an idiot," but I was wrong on the second point. There were some areas of great confusion until the plants were well and sprouted and recognizable.

In the weeding process, we discovered mint running rampant among the less interesting weeds, and we decided to leave a patch of it near one border, and just keep an eye on it so it didn't strangle the little seedling babies. After I was done planting I took some of the mint, and we went to a friend's house and made some mojitos and I felt rather smug.

That mint is from our garden. I had nothing to do with it. But enjoy anyway.

More Weeding.

The Following morning, a Sunday, I woke up with a really shitty headache, which had a lot to do with Saturday night and made me want to wear my sunglasses indoors. But my sense of urgency to get the garden planted was still strong, so i headed back out there and even got BFH to accompany me for a while. Between the two of us we got the entire plot considerably thinned and about half of it ready to plant.

We also met another, much friendlier garden neighbor. A young woman who was dressed for some serious gardening got out of her car by the garden, lit up a cigarette and said something to the effect of

"So, you guys are going to plant some stuff?"
"Yeah, we plan to. Have any suggestions about what to grow since we got such a late start?"
"Hmm, welllllll... There's a little garden center just down Georgia Avenue, you should ask them. Their plants all look a little scrawny, but I bought some squash there last year and as soon as I got them off of Georgia, they were pretty happy."
"Well, thank you that's good to know."

After a little more conversation and getting directions to the garden center, she excused herself and walked over to her own plot where she hooked the hose into a rotating sprinkler which she had brought with her, lit another cigarette, sat down and started making phone calls. After about twenty minutes of this she said goodbye to us and got back into her car. And drove about 200 feet to her building.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007


Best-Friend-Hannah (hereafter "BFH") and I set out to weed and plant our plot on the Saturday morning after it was given to us. I owned, more out of cheapness than ignorance, two spades and a tiny, functionally useless rake-like thing which I bought the day before at CVS. This day was when we had our first encounters with our garden plot neighbors. Only one of the plots next to us was planted, but it had enough lush, well tended vegetation for an acre. Most of it was even recognizable by its species, as opposed to the anonymous little green wisps of adjacent plots.

This person could be a very good resource, I hoped. Unfortunately, the gift of gardening seemed to come at the price, for her, of an inability to communicate with other humans. As BFH and I sweated in the ever increasing heat bent double and pulling rangy weeds she refused to respond to greetings or even make eye contact except to stare pointedly at me when my foot came too near one of the bricks she had installed as a walkway (read: barrier) between our two plots. In fact, the weedy overgrown mess on the other side of us was much more useful, as it served as a good place to unceremoniously hurl the weeds we pulled out. Just as plentiful as the weeds were rocks ranging from thumb to fist-sized. We considered hurling those into the vacant plot as well, but ours was so rocky that we thought maybe it had been the target of everyone who weeded before us. As BFH put it, "last one to start weeding's a rotten egg."

So instead we used them to build a rock-line at the edge of our plot so we didn't weed a single inch more than necessary. The plot is about six feet across and twenty feet long. It was much larger than I had expected. There were still considerable leftover rocks, so we built some divisions within the garden, too. It actually turned out quite attractive, but the fact remained that after a full 4 hours of work two thirds were not cleared and the other third was growing rocks.


In the back of my mind as I planned the planting of the garden plot, I was remembering some good evidence that my roommates and I do not have the greenest of thumbs. After it was discovered that a garden plot was not available, my inexplicable urge to tend growing plant-things got to me and I bought a very small container herb garden. Well, soon before our outdoor garden adventure began, all those little guys were extremely dead. And also covered in aphids. At one point, as they were being thrown away by my roommate, Alli (Best-Friend-Hannah theorizes that this is when her scorn for the whole gardening endeavor began) I used the top of the stem of the Thai pepper plant to fling the aphids at her face. She was 0% amused.

Was it too little sun? Too much water? Did someone pour rum in there? I still don't know. R.I.P. little herb garden buddies.

The Plan

I got the phonecall alerting me of my brand new stewardship of a community garden plot while at work. I started google searching immediately. I found all sorts of isolated tidbits of advice and all sorts of "beginner how-to" type guides most of whiched assumed I had a roto-tiller. Or is that only a verb? "Roto-till the dirt before planting." OK, sure, while I'm at it I'll just buy 9,000 earth worms and let them loose. This was also a suggestion, and while I liked it much better because I know what that means, I did not have 9,000 earth worms lying around.

So I contented myself with looking up which plants could still succesfully be planted in late June, since the plot came open well after most people plant their gardens. I picked them from an ideal list, and drew out a plan arranging them so that the taller ones were in rows along the North edge (I read this somewhere). Well, of course the shape and orientation of the plot, once I saw it, and the seeds that were actually available changed my plan considerably.

Basically I ended up throwing out all of the suggestions that I carefully googled and tagged in my favorites folder. In the end I just roughly copied the plots of my community garden neighbors. But that comes later.

Mid June. False Alarm! Garden Not Cancelled.

After the weeds were given over a month to establish extremely intricate root systems, attract a bunch of bees and develop very bad tempers, the Community Garden Powers That Be had my building manager call me and tell me there was a plot available.

"Hi, is this Liz.?"
"Oh. Ok, well tell her that she should call me, because she has gotten off the waiting list for a garden plot."
"Oh, I have, that's awesome!"
"You asked which plot. It's plot ten."
"Ummm... thank you."
"Make sure to tell her. Have a nice day."
"I'm Liz!"

My building manager is a little hard of hearing. In her defense, she also called me on my cell phone which at that time was 250 million years old, give or take. I borrowed it from a trilobite, right before they went extinct.

Early May 2007. False alarm! No Garden.

The bare patch of dirt overlooked by my bathroom window went pretty fast. Although I applied as quickly as I possibly could, all the plots were spoken for. In a matter of days, most of the dirt was in neat cultivated rows. A few days after that there were teeny tiny little patches of green on those rows and mounds. The dirt that was not cultivated appeared to be doing even better. Apparently some gardeners were neglecting their parcels, and these were each an uninterrupted blanket of green at an ever increasing height. But no plot for me.

An Adventure Begins ...

I spent the entirety of my four years in college in apartments or dorms, above the mostly paved expanse of downtown Washington, DC. Before that I grew up in Phoenix, AZ where you can fry an egg on the pavement in the summer and most plants either have to be heavily irrigated or have evolved tough skin and painful spines.

So naturally, I thought I was totally qualified to start a vegetable garden, with the help of my slightly more experienced best friend (her mom gardens) and my extremely citified roommates.

I still live in an apartment, but this one has some grounds, instead of just jutting abruptly out of the ground within a few hundred meters of sidewalk. We're just blocks outside of the DC city limits, but the change form downtown is dizzying. Within the grounds of the complex there are a couple of community garden plots. The place is commendably family oriented and you can often see parents, kids, twenty-somethings, all sorts of people out in the community gardens watering and weeding their little slice of cultivable ground. Some of them are on cell phones the entire time, but it's still a nice sight.

When my roommates and I arrived in late April, there were already notices in the community bulletin about applying for garden plots, and in a fit of ... something ... I applied. So, I guess this is a garden journal. But it is not a good place to look if you're after tips, smug stories of success, pictures of smiling middle aged people and their children eating heaping plates of fresh grown vegetables.

I'm 22; I work, I ride my bike a lot, I drink, I really want a Nintendo Wii and I pretty much act like a college student. I'm bumbling through this, and I don't know anything. This could be funny.