Yields, Trellises, and a Visit to YCOP
Sorry for the delay between posts. Extra-garden life took hold for the past week, plus I keep wanting to post things here but more things keep on happening. So I will attempt to vomit out as much as I can in this post without rambling — although rambling seems to be my thing lately. A little preview: we're having some nice returns on all our planting from work earlier in the season; I've discovered my inner structural engineer (had no idea I could do so much with bamboo and string); and I got to meet some good people and funny kids over at a kids' summer camp over in Mt. Vernon. You may want to grab some tea and put the ol' phone on mute, this is going to be a long one.
Since our first summer harvest, things have been popping up all over the place. Last week we harvested a little over 10 lbs of produce, which is pretty darn good week for our wee 40 x 40 garden. The red leaf lettuce (in the beds where it's cooperating) grew quite well and I'm hoping to have another harvest in August on that front. One thing I'm interested in seeing is the possibility of multiple harvests out of the lettuce. I haven't grown a lot of lettuce in my time, but when I have, I always picked it completely out of the ground not leaving anything to regrow. I always figured it was better to simply yank the whole plant out then start over with new seed. This season, I'm abandoning my olde and inferior ways and I've been clipping the lettuce a few inches above their bases so that they'll stay alive and grow some more. So far so good, but I'll get back to you in August to see if it worked or not. Even if it fails, I managed to harvest about 5.5 lbs of the stuff already with more on the way. That's a lot of salad!
The mint again gave us a nice yield as one would expect. I wish more plants would grow like mint. I mean seriously, I hacked that stuff down last time taking everything I could with it. No plant should ever be able to take that much abuse, but stalwart mint keeps coming back. I ended up harvesting our two kinds: mojito and the other which I'm not sure exactly what it is. I left a couple stalks of each to flower if for no other reason than it looks pretty.
The bush beans were ready to harvest as well. There were enough for at least three families, that is, if those families had kids who actually ate beans. I can understand most anti-bean people if only because they can have a weird texture depending on how you cook them. I was never a fan of boiling unless I absolutely had to, but a good strong steam is what gets my green bean juices flowing. To appease my kids, after a good steam, I'll throw them in a frying pan with some minced garlic and butter, maybe toss in a touch of lemon zest if I'm in the mood to use the microplane, and possibly some red pepper flakes for a little oomph. Then a bit of salt and pepper and then they're good to go. Some people skip the steaming part but instead cook the beans in a pan with the butter and garlic before adding water that will steam away, but I'm a control freak and I like the texture control one gets from a proper steam. Am I digressing? At any rate, we ended up with a couple pounds.
My big happy moment of this week's harvest was when I got a gander of our green peppers. These bad boys were magnificent and had lovely texture and body. I almost felt bad clipping them off because they were such a picture hanging there. But clip I did, and as we speak somebodies are munching away at them happily.
I rounded off the delivery last Thursday with some thyme, which needed a haircut anyway.
This week I was disappointed to find that the many dozens of green tomatoes on the vine were taking their sweet little time in ripening. I figured after the few ripe ones we had last week, there would be many more this week, but t'was not to be. On the plus side, we got another load of chard picked, some more red leaf lettuce, lemon thyme, sage, and rosemary, and two types of pepper. The peppers in fact continued to be the big performers, especially the the green ones. In fullness, color, and texture, they could have been used as part of an arrangement of vegetables in a French master's still life.
Trellises, Supports, and My Tendency to Over-Engineer
It became abundantly clear that the supports I set up for the tomatoes were not doing the job. This is partly my fault. That's a lie — it's entirely my fault. They were tilting a little too much under the weight of the surprisingly dense tomato branches, which put more stress on the ones still standing tall. What doesn't help is that when they built the garden, they did it with a layer of landscape fabric under the beds which precludes me from driving the support stakes into the ground deeper. These being bamboo stakes, which are thin and prone to splitting as you push them into the ground if you're not careful, they don't feel as sturdy as one would prefer especially in somewhat shallowish beds. But the beds and support material were only minor irritations in the overall view of the problem I created.
I can't remember if I mentioned this or not (and I'm too lazy to go reading back on things) but we ended up having a number of extra plant starters to begin the season and not enough space to put them in. Being the new farmer in the field I didn't really want to say "no" to accepting any starter plants we had coming to us, and at the same I didn't want to waste any of them, so I ended up planting most all of our starters in overl-crowded beds.
I knew as I put them in that I was crowding them. I absolutely knew that I was making more work, but I convinced myself in Panglossian fashion that we live in the best of all possible worlds and that the plants would grow evenly and nicely despite all my own personal experience and the experiences of, well, everyone else who's ever done any gardening whatsoever.
As of now the tomatoes are a tangled mess despite my draconian pruning. I've lopped off more limbs and a Medieval barber in my vain attempt to control the growth of the plants as they climb all over each other crowding out the peppers, the parsley, and each other. What I have now in the southeast corner of the garden is an impenetrable hedgerow of tomato plant. They've even started growing through the fence.
On the plus side, all the plants are producing! There seem to be a ridiculous amount of tomatoes, which I think is due in some part to our consistent pruning of suckers — the little branches that grow in the pit where the main branches come off the stem. Overall, I'm wondering if my close spacing of the plants compelled me to pay more attention and to prune more, which has thus resulted in what should be a greater yield. That's a nice thought, and one I'll hang on to the rest of the season.
With all this crowding and branch proliferation, I had to add more support for the plants and more string to hold up the branches. For one thing, I want to keep the branches from going too far into the garden walkways not only to make the place look somewhat orderly, but to also protect the branches from getting torn from the stems as I walk by and brush against them. Also, some of the branches were beginning to bear down on other plants and hurt their branches.
I began by tying the main stalks to the posts farther up the plant stem since they were getting quite high and swayed a lot in the breeze. Then I slung several branches lifting them from the ground in an attempt to drive them upwards. To give support to some of the bamboo stakes, I took some old metal u-bend stakes, and tied guy lines tied to the bamboo stakes to keep them straight.
Now if you were to look at my tomato and pepper plants with supports they look like the riggings on a 19th century sailing vessel. I can honestly say I've never used this much string in my life on anything, which is saying a lot because I've actually put together models of 19th century sailing vessels with complete rigging (never again). All things told, they're being productive despite their gnarly appearance. And as an added situational silver lining to the dark cloud of my own doing, farmer Dave isn't here to shake his head at the ridiculous sight, so I'm at least spared that bit of humiliation.
As I've done in the past with eggplants, I like to wait on those a bit to see how and where they're growing before putting up the supports if only because I like to let them guide themselves for a while before giving them help. By last week, they were at the point where little eggplantlets were appearing (quite pretty by the way), so it was time to build supports. Fresh off my time lashing the tomato plants to their masts, I decided to really shore up the support for those eggplants since they can get big. I built three bamboo teepees by laying out the bamboo stakes, driving them into the ground, and tying them at the top. Not content to let three strong structures stand alone, I connecting them with string, giving each teepee enough lateral support to withstand a moderate-sized, overhead, nuclear detonation.
On the cucumber front, the boxes they are planted in are next to our deer fence. For those they could have used the fence alone as their support. This would have been a good enough solution, but there was that annoying voice in the back of my head that always says "Good enough is never best!" and the compulsion to intervene overwhelmed me. So what I did was to drive the bamboo stakes into the ground at angles and have the very tops go into the fence wire using it as the top support for the stakes. This was to encourage the cucumber vines to catch onto the bamboo, and crawl up to the fence.
In one bed, it did just that (with a little encouragement from me as I physically moved the vines to be under the bamboo). In the other, the cucumbers were being difficult and absolutely refused to grow to any useable length. I was hoping my little bamboo buttresses would do more to encourage some upward growth, but for now the diminutive cucumber plants in that bed are content to remain as they are and promise nothing.
A Quick Word on the Garden Compost
I said in a previous missive that I was going to try to get a bit more balance with the BGG compost considering all the ground coffee I've thrown in there, and be content to let it rot down a bit before adding more. Weeeeellll, I went against my own advice and added to Pete's Composter a whole new slew of coffee grounds from my friends at Booskerdoo in Bronxville knowing full well it could turn out bad. And it almost did.
I went back the next day to find that the coffee smell was waning, and the beginnings of a rancid smell were teasing my olfactory. I opened the lid and saw didn't see anything disgusting or particularly buggy, but then using the garden fork to dig down, I took a temperature reading of the inside of the pile, and found that it only read about 90 degrees despite there having been some sun out. Before I added the new coffee the compost was rotting away nicely in the 120 to 130 range. Unless I did something, the pile would have turned disgusting by weeks end.
Yielding to best practices, convention, and the sense that any gardener with a pulse would have, I poured in several bucketloads of dirt, forked it around a bit to mix things up some more. I then added a few handfuls of broken dry twigs to the top, a few handfuls of horse poo compost, gave the whole thing a quick squirt with the hose, covered it, then left it alone. I went back two days later to find that we weren't out of the woods yet in terms of possible smell, but it didn't get worse and I got an internal temperature reading of about 110.
Fast-forward one hot weekend later and now all seems to be fine. Pests generally dislike coffee so there was never any worry with that becoming an issue, but what I didn't want there to even even be a hint of an odor outside the composter. The good people of Bronxville probably wouldn't have liked that.
A few weeks back, I was toiling away in the garden during yet another a hot morning when a woman named Donna approached with her lovely little shepherd mix named Snickers. After a minute or two of "hello"/"yes it's hot"/"what a cute doggie" small talk, we got onto gardening, activism, and Covid — all heavy stuff but we somehow managed to keep it light — and just a few more minutes later, we were joking around and belly laughing about all sorts of random things.
Turns out Donna's a director at Y-COP in Mt. Vernon, which stands for Youth Community Outreach Program, a local organization founded by a former Mt. Vernon detective that has an after school program for Mt. Vernon kids and a summer camp. Donna told me she had just planted a garden at the church where she holds her camp and wondered if I would be williing to come by to talk to the kids about it. I don't think she finished her sentence before I enthusiastically agreed, nearly jumping through the fence. A few emails later and we were set.
The Y-COP summer camp is held in the backyard and parking lot of the First Methodist Church in Mt. Vernon — a large majestic stone church on East Lincoln Street, where it is crossed by Summit Avenue. Arriving at the camp I felt like I was driving into a large stadium concert or sporting event. I was met by one of the counselors who checked to see who I was and he directed me farther into the parking lot where cones were set up marking out the specific places I was to drive. I put the car into a parking spot next to the church and was then asked to go over to their triage pavilion where they made sure I had a mask (I did) and they took my temperature (97 point something — all good). It was one of the more organized systems of Covid prevention that I've seen. I was quite struck by the lengths they went to make sure their kids were playing in a safe environment.
It was nice to see the kids riding their bikes in the parking lot, playing games, and generally having a good time. Normally they would have upwards of 150 kids at the camp, but as with everything lately, their numbers were down to about 40 or 50. Despite the lower numbers, the place felt like a well-turned-out family picnic. They do a nice job of letting the kids be kids while also insisting on a level of civility and behavior not usually found in your average gaggle of spirited children. There was a lot of friendly banter, a good adult-to-child ratio, and in just a few quick scans across the camp-scape I saw a lot of one-on-one time between counselors and kids.
I got to talking with Henry, the executive director of Y-COP while we waited for the kids to assemble. He was kind enough to share his thoughts on the camp, the community, and the kids, while I talked about gardening and wanting to show kids how they could have a positive effect on their local environment. Like others I talked to at the camp, he's very devoted to the kids and in his reserved manner, very direct and passionate about what he does. He was also kind enough to introduce me to some other visitors to camp who I will talk about in later posts.
Maybe it's because I have kids myself and in general I have a lot of interaction with kids through coaching, but I'm always impressed by people like Henry, Donna, and the camp counselors who connect with the kids they teach so well. Henry himself is a very positive authority figure. In his interactions with the camp goers he comes off as a combination of coach, uncle, and teacher. We shared a chuckle, when during conversation, he noticed one of the kids dangerously riding his bike in a place where he shouldn't. "Off that bike," Henry bellowed in a loud tone I immediately recognized as one I use myself.
"You coach sports don't you?" I kiddingly accused him, knowing the tone.
Henry flashed me a smile and replied with an equally authoritative, "Yes I have."
I knew then and there that I had made a new friend. Take a look at this interview with Henry on Bronxnet where he discusses Y-COP and its history. Well worth the watch.
When it came time for me to address the audience, the clouds mercifully gave us some shade, and the kids all sat on the blacktop in front of the camp's little vegetable garden. As well as a group of kids in the summer could do, they listened to me carry on about the importance of gardening, how even just a single plant can improve a local indoor environment, and how vegetable gardens can have a positive effect on the local ecosystem well beyond their plots. I also told them about the BGG and what we're trying to do there to help people in our community. I was then invited to harvest some of the vegetables from the YCOP garden and pass around bits of what I cut for the kids to try. We then had a brief talk about what it was they were eating.
I have to hand it to the kids, they asked really good questions. A lot of them centered on what one could grow and why certain plants do certain things. The first question, however, was my favorite. Before I said two words about gardening one of the older kids, obviously trying to test me a bit, asked me if I was a vegan. Given the number of animals I've consumed over my life, I thought his question was amusing. I told him that I was not although I respect those who are.
A little bit about the Y-COP garden — it's very small, maybe about half the size of one of our beds in the BGG, but it's impressive. Donna has a daughter who herself grows, farms, and raises chickens; she helped Y-COP plan our their garden. In that small space, they had mint, oregano, basil, cucumber, tomato, two kinds of lettuce. (I'm sure I'm missing something.) They way they were laid out took full advantage of the sun in the eastern and southern skies, and the plants themselves provided enough ground cover that neither straw nor any other cover was necessary to help retain water. They may not get multiple yields of some of their crops, but what they do end up with will be tasty. What really got me were the cucumbers. My nose is not growing even a millimeter as I type this, I've never seen a cucumber plant with so many "female" flowers.
In case you don't know, cucumber flowers like some other vegetables have separate "male" and "female" flowers. It's from the female ones where we get the actual cucumber. Now usually, at least for me, the ratio of male to female flowers is like 20 - 1. I saw one plant last season that seemed more like 10 - 1, which seemed amazing. Now unless I was completely off or the caffeine hadn't taken effect yet, I saw maybe two or three male flowers on the Y-COP cucumber vines, and a bunch of female ones. Granted, I didn't do a full survey, from what I saw, the ratio looked more like 5 to 1. I'm sure I'm wrong, I mean I have to be. At any rate, it was astonishing.
You have to understand, the way this garden was initially described to me, I was thinking I was going to find a few tomato plants in some exposed ground with a few other vegetables flanked by some sad-looking zucchinis. What I did not expect was the tiny horticultural triumph that was going on. I thought to myself, "Geez, I'm supposed to be the guy who knows what he's talking about here, but their garden is better looking than anything I've ever grown!"
This led me to two more thoughts. The first was: "I'm not nearly experimental enough. Next season, I'm going to take some plant beds and just go to town and see how much I can squeeze out of a space, for better or worse!" I'm usually way too careful because I see each season as precious and I hate to waste a bed on a bad experiment. Well the gloves are off now, next year I'll allow myself one.
The second thought was: "I have to find a way to replicate this same garden to show others what intensive vegetable gardening looks like." Don't get me wrong, I've seen people growing fine vegetables in small places plenty of times. I've seen kits you could buy — seed, dirt, boxes, and all — that allow people to have similar gardens. I've even seen ones like Donna's at Y-COP where the persons planting them carefully chose complimentary plants to both nurture and protect each other as they grew. But the Y-COP garden ticked pretty much every mental box I had for use of space and stewardship, and I want others to be able to see a similar setup.
That's one of the most intellectually fascinating aspects of gardening — be it from an expert (guys like Farmer Dave, although he bristles when I refer to him as that) or people who claim to be amateurs (Donna was clearly understating her abilities), there's always something new to learn from anyone who's willing to share.
I left the Y-COP summer camp with an invitation to return in August before camp ends, which I sincerely hope we're able to make happen. Next time I'll bring with me some items to present and maybe even an activity or two for us all to do together. Since we cannot have groups in the garden yet, we'll have to bring some of the garden to them.
Although it's an extraordinary initiative, it's not always enough to simply tend to the Giving Garden, deliver vegetables to food banks, and — when aerial diseases are not abound — to host school groups. Sometimes in order to bring people in, one has to go out and engage people more — to talk about how gardens have benefits beyond their plots, and remind people that action breeds more action.
I say this to the kids I coach all the time, and it's no less true for adults, when people see other people trying, it makes them want to themselves try. And that's the big ancillary benefit of gardens like the BGG. Sure they help to directly address the problems of food stress and local environment, but they also act as beacons of action for those who are looking for multi-faceted ways to improve their communities and establish new outlets for volunteerism.
Thinking back to those kids at Y-COP, I'm not going to kid myself, some of them could not have cared less about what I had to say. They're kids and to be honest, I would have probably dismissed me when I was their age — my own do so frequently. But I know by the way those kids were engaged that most began seeing vegetable gardens in a different light, even the ones who had gardens at home. That along with the food we produce makes it worth ten-fold all the hours and sweat put in by people like Farmer Dave and the volunteers who helped him build the garden, as well as all the organizational wrangling of people like Mary Liz. People need to know about these initiatives if anything so they will be able to replicate them in their own communities.
I intend keep on talking about Giving Gardens to as many people as I can while I'm at the BGG. Hopefully as things eventually open up I'll be able to visit more camps. Maybe in some cases I'll even be able to use my coach voice to do it. It's not as good as Henry's, but it ain't bad either.