Saturday, August 3, 2013

A summer harvest

Despite below-average summer temperatures and perhaps a little too much rain, the Eagle Heights Community Gardens has been showing off abundant produce for the last few weeks.

The average first-time gardener has many worries: "what do I plant? When and where do I plant it? Do I water it?  Fertilizer?  What am I doing at all?"  Although simply keeping your plants alive through a single season may seem a daunting challenge if you are a beginner, by this time in the year you have probably discovered any entirely new and foreign worry.

"How do I eat all of this?"

Never thought you'd outpace your own appetite in the garden?  You're not alone.  One inescapable law of growing food is this: you either grow way too much or way too little.  Chief offenders in the "too much" category include zucchini and other summer squash, cherry tomatoes, beans, spinach, raspberries...the list goes on.  If you weren't prepared to be inundated with pounds of produce by late July or early August, you may at a loss for what to do with all that food.

There are many ways to face the challenge of using up one's garden bounty.
  1. Eat as much of your fresh harvest as possible.  In the summer months, make self-sustainability a priority, and think ahead to plan your meals around what is available to harvest.  Craving salsa and chips?  Skip the jarred stuff at the store and take a quick trip to your plot to harvest just-ripened tomatoes.  Italian sounds great?  Turn your ripe eggplants, zucchini, tomatoes, and basil into a garden-fresh lasagne.  Focusing your meals on what you have ready to pick will prevent fruits and vegetables going to waste in your plot, and will be easier on your wallet.
  2. Save some for the winter.  Most vegetables can be frozen after being blanched, or briefly boiled (obvious exceptions include lettuce and cilantro).  Canning has also become quite popular.  I'm no expert with either of these, and am trying both for the first time this year.  Thankfully lots of information is available online with a quick google search (ex.
  3. Share with friends!  You can generally find some friend, family member, or even acquaintance interested in unloading fresh produce off of you for free.  
  4. Share the Bounty.  At EHCG, we have a program with St. Vincent de Paul that allows our gardeners to donate produce to those in need via distribution through the food pantry.  Fruits and vegetables are collected on Saturday and Wednesday mornings.
  5. Let your crops rot in your plot.  Just kidding!  Don't do this.
I've chosen to write about this tonight because I, too, still run in to this pervasive gardening dilemma.  Walking home from the gardens today, I was carrying four zucchini, two pounds of cherry tomatoes, four eggplant...well, instead of listing it I'll just show you what kind of harvest I walked away with today.
Cherry tomatoes (Mexico Midget and Sungold), raspberries, zucchini (Ronde de Nice), pattypan squash (Patisson Panache jaune et verte, although all I see is jaune), eggplant (Udumalapet), green beans (french climbing) , fava beans, bell pepper, one single tomato (Federle), tomatillos (Green Husk), and finally a bag of ground cherries (Loewen).  That's a lot of veg!
 Once I had sized up my haul, it was time to get down to business.

I am often tempted to scout out entirely new recipes as the seasons change, which is good fun, but I do have a few go-to options for days like today when I have a large haul of in-season goodness.  If you find yourself loaded down with your summer harvest as well, feel free to try the following to make fast, sensible, enjoyable use of your bounty.

Confronted with a large quantity of diverse vegetables, I roast first and ask questions later.  (Seriously, there will always be more cherry tomatoes,eggplant, and zucchini left for snacking and other meals: may as well get this high-volume meal out of the way first.)

Tossed with a bit of oil and topped off with sea salt, my garden veggies have roasted at 350 F for about 20 minutes.  

I simply eat the roasted vegetables over fresh pasta with some Parmesan and fava beans.  The fava beans weren't roasted, but blanched and shelled.  I know that you can only see a glimpse of pasta in this photo, but that is the point: in the summer, maximize your veggie consumption even if it means less of everything else.  There will be plenty of carbs to eat this winter, won't there?

Not so tough, right!

Of course, after this massive veggie feast, I've really barely put a dent in this week's harvest.  I need to do some more brainstorming and planning to make sure all of this gets used up in the coming week!  

I'm sure it seems a little nuts to some people to really put time and energy in to planning meals around the seasons and the harvest.  Why stress out about gathering and cooking what's in my plot when there is a fast food joint right here?  Well, it's my opinion that taking a little time out of the day to harvest and prepare my own crops is worth extremely fresh, extremely local food, even if it's outside of the on-demand, high-stress mainstream perception of food, eating, and life in general.  I'm also certain that my great-great-grandmother didn't eat the kinds of things you can buy quickly and cheaply today: red meat on snow-white bread, beef in the spring, tomatoes in the winter, everything year-round and shelf-stable.  Although I know that my ancestors ate in-season because they had no alternative, I like the idea that what I am giving my body is not so divorced from what they gave theirs.

Plus it's fun!  When you think of tomatoes as unique to mid-to-late summer, they become a real treat.  Fall leeks lend something really special to soups.  And kale harvested in the dead of winter, from beneath a cold frame!  The link between the seasons and our foods is really quite magical, and tells a beautiful narrative of death and rebirth, sowing and reaping, all year round.

On a final note: ground cherries!
The empty husks do indeed indicate that I ate a few on the walk home.

My friends Uyen and Phia, fellow gardeners, helped me to harvest these ground cherries earlier today.  These fruits are extremely prolific and make a great snack for a short break from weeding.  It's too late to start these little guys this year, but I would encourage anyone to try growing these sooner or later.  Aside from being sweet, these fruits are actually fun!  They are called ground cherries because you only harvest them when they have fallen on the harvest includes a lot of bending over, searching through branches, false leads, and sudden successes.  We agreed that it was a sort of late summer Easter egg hunt for adults.

One (other) final note: fall crops!  I have noticed that few people tend to agree on exactly what to plant when; however, here is a link to the Seed Savers Exchange guidelines for putting in cool weather plants in the fall.  I must admit that I have already planted all of these myself, as I prefer to err on the side of too early.  With the recent cool weather, I really do feel that Autumn is just around the corner.  With a little planning, you can (almost) guarantee a satisfying fall harvest of root vegetables for stews if nothing else!

That's it for tonight.  Happy gardening.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Weekend update: photos of progress in the garden at midsummer

Hello all--

Below is a photographic update of what I am doing in the garden at this point in the summer.  By now most of the planting is done, save that of the fall crops.  Many of us are already harvesting early or even midsummer produce, the stuff of an organic gardener's dreams throughout a snowy February.

I did a bit of "work" in the garden this Saturday, mostly poking around my plants.  I like to check up on each plant at least once a week, doing a relatively thorough assessment.  It's important to watch one's crops for disease, water distress, breakage, pests, theft, and, worst of all, unpicked produce.  By mid-July, many plants are on the cusp of producing edible fruit, so I pay extra attention to those on the verge.  If I'm not careful, I'll be absolutely drowned in overripe tomatillos around the first week of August.

Checking on the tomatillos.  As you can see above, tomatillos have a tomato-like growth habit, and have quickly outgrown their cages.  Unlike tomatoes, tomatillos grow in a papery husk, and don't deepen from red to green.  They are ripe when the fruit begins to outgrow the husk, and can be used for many permutations of salsa verde.  On a side note, these plants are far more prolific than I had anticipated.  Let me know in the comments if you are interested in learning more about tomatillos.

Every day I come to work in the garden, I am greeted by a mass of cheery blue Bachelor's Button.  I decided to start growing these when I found out they were a classic garden flower, and am happy with taking the chance.  They have grown rather tall, and the wood trellis behind them has been helpful for support.

 I would like to encourage new gardeners to grow an annual ornamental, such as a flower, in some unplanted space in the plot.  Flowers are attractive, not only to people but to pollinating insects as well.  Tall flowers like Bachelor's Button can also act as a border; mine mark the entrance to my plot.  I would also rather use extra space in the garden for an attractive annual than risk letting it go to weeds.

At home, I am also growing Johnny Jump-Ups (not shown here), a variety of viola that is another classic garden flower.

Onto the harvest!

As I mentioned, I am bracing myself for a deluge of tomatillos in the coming weeks; however, many fruits and vegetables are already ripe for the picking.  I have so far harvested zucchini, cherry tomatoes, basil, eggplant, and fava beans for roasted summer vegetables with pasta.
Ripe Mexico Midget cherry tomatoes contrast nicely with the plant's foliage.  If you happen to pick a bunch of cherry tomatoes only to find that a few are still green-to-yellow, you will find that these underripe casualties are still fine for roasting along with their redder vinemates.
Bell peppers.

I am already getting full-sized bell peppers, the
earliest I have ever had them come in.  I am doing
something special for them this year (see below).

Udumalapet eggplant.
This variety is vertically striped yellow and purple.
This is my first year growing them and I am
excited to see if they taste as nice as they look.
One reason for my early success with tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers this year is my use of black landscape plastic.  When I decided to grow eggplant and peppers, two notoriously tricky crops in Zone 4 and above, I did some research online and in the gardening manual available at the official EHCG website.  I found that many gardeners in zones with short summers use black plastic to warm the soil before planting these fussy plants.  After putting the starts in the ground, I left the black plastic over the soil to keep the roots warm.  Although I will admit that this strategy sounds a little strange, I was able to successfully move my transplants into the garden earlier with this technique, and the produce I have already harvested is proof enough for me.  As an added bonus, the black plastic allows absolutely no weed growth around my precious tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers.  The only issue I've found is that I have to be very careful with watering.  It is a little tricky to water only the base of the plant while avoiding splashing it all over the plastic, which would be a waste.    

Other gems of the summer bounty are getting ready to make their debuts.  My green beans are several feet tall.  I am growing these just a foot away from my broomcorn and winter squash, hoping for some approximation of a "three sisters" effect.

French climbing bean, almost ready to flower.
Waltham butternut squash and spaghetti squash.  
I planted these two close enough that the long vines 
are now too interwoven to easily tell them apart.  
The fruits, however, have very distinct shapes.  
The small butternut (left) is beginning to take on 
a pear shape, while the spaghetti (right) is straighter.

You may be wondering, where is the corn?  "Three sisters" describes a strategy whereby beans, squash, and corn are planted together to take advantage of specific strengths of each crop, and in turn providing defense or support to the other "sisters" in the planting.  My climbing beans are natural nitrogen-fixers; nitrogen is required for plant growth, one of the hallowed N-P-K macronutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium in order).  Squashes are heavy feeders, thriving on the nitrogen-enriched soil.  As you can see in the photo of my squash, these crops cover exposed ground (and anything else) really well, and can be used to prevent weed growth around sensitive crops.

Broomcorn.  I planted the "Mixed Broomcorn" available from Seed Saver's Exchange, which will (hopefully) encompass several colors of sorghum for a smashing fall display.  Note the winter squash vines around the base of the corn, as this is my weed management strategy for this part of my plot.  
Typically, the beans would grow up the corn instead of the netting in the above picture.  However, I have split my sisters up a bit, and am growing broomcorn separately.  If you are not familiar with broomcorn, it is actually a member of the grass family (sorghum).  Broomcorn is so-named because the fully-matured sorghum can be tied together, dried out, and used as a broom.  Brooms in the United States were made this way from the 19th century onward, replaced in our lifetimes by more modern, synthetic materials.  I'm not sure how well I could fashion a broom myself from broomcorn, and am planning to use this as a fall display.

While I'm on the subject of corn, please take a moment to enjoy this row of corn exhibited (with permission) by a fellow EHCG gardener.  In addition to the photo, this gardener shared with me a RAW ear of bicolor sweet corn, picked right from the plant, that was one of the most amazing things I've ever tasted.  I am growing sweet corn at home myself, and hope to repeat the experience soon.

Sweet corn.
I will also share this snapshot of yet another gardener in her plot at EHCG, watering the cucumbers on a hot day.  Looking after everything in the garden from week to week, from the lows of April to the highs of July, can be taxing, and it's nice to see fellow gardeners putting time and energy into their plots rain or shine.

 I have one more curiosity to share with you: ground cherries.  These plants are akin to low-growing tomatillos, but the fruit that emerges from the husk is sweet and yellow, not green.  Given the culture conditions for ground cherries, they are easier to grown and higher-yielding than many other dessert fruits produced by small gardens.  If you haven't tried ground cherries, consider picking up a bag at the farmer's market some time this summer.  If you fall in love, you can easily grow them next year.

Ground cherries.  I am growing the Loewen family heirloom ground cherry available from Seed Savers Exchange.  I am not sure how this compares to other ground cherries, and will keep an eye out for them at the farmer's market to do a side-by-side taste test.  Note: these fruits are ripe when the husk falls from the plant.
In three months, this will become palak paneer.
One final note: it's time to get serious about fall crops!  While the recent heat wave may suggest otherwise, fall is coming whether we like it or not. Every year I wait until it "feels like fall" and get burned.  This year, I am starting my fall crops earlier than all of my neighbors, and will see just how early these can be put in the ground successfully.  To the right is a row of spinach sprouts, emerging from the dry ground despite the recent hot weather.  Carrot and beet sprouts have emerged as well, along with broccoli.  Whether you start your fall crops on the early side or the late, it's a good idea to at least have a plan this late in the year, or your 2013 gardening season will abruptly end by the time you are pulling out dead annuals after the first frost.

That's about all I have to say about gardening at EHCG today.  Wear sunscreen and keep your skin protected!  Harvest your produce frequently!

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

After a long wait, an update...

My apologies to anyone who has been waiting for an update for this blog.  It has been a few weeks since my last post, and with summer in full swing I realized that I just couldn't put it off any longer.

I was particularly inspired by a photo that was passed on to me by the registrar (Gretel) of one of our gardeners showing off his fresh batch of strawberry jam.
Paul Nason's strawberry jam.  Paul is a gardener at University Houses.

The strawberry harvest is long over, and now the raspberries are making their appearance across the gardens.  I harvested raspberries from my own plot for the first time this year last Sunday; they made an excellent sauce for dessert crepes later that night.

I hope that your gardens are all doing very well.  As Gretel reminds us in her emails, the hot weather is doing wonders for our summer crops.  I have harvested around ten zucchini so far, with a commitment to not let any summer squash grow into monsters.  A more apt description may be baseball bats.  As the season progresses, please keep in mind that many vegetables are better harvested when they are still small--summer squash, eggplant--and that flavor and texture can be lost when the fruit is allowed to mature.  Green tomatoes are popping up everywhere, and some plots are already featuring ripe red cherry tomatoes.  The few gardeners growing corn already are hand-pollinating, and my own broomcorn is taller than I am.  If you would like to have your summer vegetable wealth featured in the blog, please email with your photos!

Now is the time to plant a late crop of snap beans if you have any room left; the adventurous among us have even begun sowing fall crops from seed.  I harvested my garlic this past weekend, and in its place have planted broccoli, spinach, arugula, carrots, and beets.  I tend to plant my crops a little earlier than everyone else, but for me the gamble is just insurance for the harvest.  If my carrots turn out wimpy in the hot weather, I'll simply replant in two weeks and hope for the best.

Remember to keep your gardens well-harvested.  Fruits and vegetables left overripe in the garden tend to attract pests, including rodents, birds, insects, and decomposers.  It is also a little sad to walk through the gardens and see beautiful tomatoes going to waste.  If you have trouble keeping up with the summer's bounty, please share the wealth by depositing extra produce in the donation bins by the tool shed.  These are collected on Wednesday and Saturday mornings to be distributed by the St. Vincent de Paul food pantry.

I will write another post this weekend after taking a few photos of the summer bounty around the garden.  Enjoy your week, and remember to wear sunscreen and keep hydrated while you work in the gardens.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Hoping for more fair weather

Hello all--

We had some lovely spring (and somewhat summery) weather this past weekend, and there was a lot of activity in the gardens!  From casual conversations with a few of our gardeners, I know that quite a bit of spinach, lettuces, brassica (broccoli, cauliflower, kale, cabbage), and other spring crops were sown.  Bulb flowers are popping up everywhere as well.
Crocuses blooming.

Miniature irises.

Before we know it, it will be time to plant our summertime vegetables and fruits: tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, basil, beans, and many others.

Speaking of summer crops, our second transplant sale from Garden-to-Be will take place next-next Sunday, May 12.  A list of the Garden-to-Be transplants was shown in an earlier blog posting; in case you missed it, there will be:

  • Tomatoes
    • Cherry tomatoes
      • Sungold
      • Red
      • Black
    • Roma/paste tomatoes
      • San Marzano
      • Juliet mini-roma
    • Slicing tomatoes
      • Big Beef
      • Valley Girl
      • Lemon Boy
    • Heirlooms
      • Golden Sunray
      • Brandywine
      • Striped German
      • Pruden's Purple
      • Aunt Ruby's German Green
      • Green Zebra
      • Cherokee Purple
  • Peppers
    • Sweet
      • Snapper (sweet bell)
      • Italia (Italian frying)
    • Hot
      • El Jefe (jalapeno)
      • Highlander (anaheim)
      • Habanero
  • Eggplant
    • Galine (globe)
    • Orient Express
  • Basil
    • Genovese
    • Lemon basil
    • Thai basil
    • Purple basil
    • Pistou tiny leaf
  • Herbs
    • Parsley
    • Lavender
    • Sage
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Napa cabbage
  • Cucumbers
  • Summer squash
    • Plato (zucchini)
    • Sunburst (pattypan)
  • Winter squash
    • Red Kuri
    • Butternut
  • Swiss chard
Please keep in mind that the transplants available may vary slightly from the list above due to variables out of our power (the weather, availability, etc), but all major categories will be represented.  If you would like to know more about the varieties listed, there is a wealth of information online and a google search will tell you more than you need to know.

We hope to have compost available at this sale as well, as long as the weather cooperates.  If we have another long spell of heavy rain, the extremely heavy load of compost will sink our delivery truck hopelessly into the mud.  I'll post more information when we are certain of the compost sale date and time.

Now that the season is really starting, our registrar will be sending out notices regarding work days.  As an EHCG gardener, please remember that you are obligated to either work one official EHCG workday or pay a no-workday fee ($32 for a large plot, $16 for a small plot).  Whether you decide to do the workday or pay the fee, it is better to do it earlier in the gardening season as every year many gardeners wait until it is too late.  There is a fee if you neither work nor pay the workday fee by the end-of-the-season deadline in late September or early October, so be sure to take care of this on time.

I hope to write another blog post this week regarding organic gardening practices.  One new gardener at the cool weather transplant sale had several questions regarding which soil amendments were and weren't appropriate for EHCG.  This is an important topic so I would like to devote some time to this over the next few days.

Good luck with your gardening!  Remember to wear sunscreen!

Friday, April 12, 2013

A change of plans

The weather continues to disappoint; unexpected low temperatures and practically nonstop rain have forced the EHCG Garden Committee to postpone the cold-weather transplant sale as well as the compost sale by one week.  If you are a gardener at EHCG, you should have already received an email from the registrar explaining this change in programming.  It's not ideal but I suppose that we all have to meet Mother Nature halfway; we are on her turf after all.

I'm going to a strategy/planning meeting with several first time EHCG gardeners later this week, some with previous gardening experience and some without.  Altogether we will be drawing up the plans for three plots: two half-plots, and one large plot (mine).  After this meeting I will record the final decisions, and post the plans here to serve as general guides or springboards for those who may find it useful.

Try to stay warm and dry this week; if we get lucky next weekend (April 20-21) will be better suited for starting our spring crops.

Edit: one of our gardeners and fellow Garden Committee member Karen ran into the folks at Garden-to-be and confirmed that the following plants will be for sale this Sunday:

Broccoli, Green cabbage, Red cabbage, cauliflower, lettuces, kohlrabi, kales, collards, violas, sorrel, and some herbs.

I look forward to a nice turnout this weekend!

Monday, April 8, 2013

Seed fair and the effective beginning of the gardening season

Hello all--

We hosted the annual EHCG Seed Fair this past Saturday morning, opening our doors at 9:30 AM for residents and students, and 10:30 AM for faculty/staff/community members.  About 300 plots were accounted for, each plot allocated 15 tickets (or equivalent 15 seed packets), and an estimated 700 people were in attendance throughout the day.  We hosted a gardening workshop as well as several orientations around the garden; the weather is very fair now and I actually had to remove my coat while showing new gardeners around.  Spring is here!

I don't know about you, but I have been noticing tulips and daffodils emerge from the cold dark earth for several weeks around my neighborhood.  I am pleased to report that the bulb flowers are coming up in the gardens as well; the next time you pass the arbor, you might sneak a peak of the dormant life awakening.  Strawberries and garlic are showing their springtime spirit as well.  I promise to add some photos after my stint in the garden this coming Saturday morning.

We are expecting a good deal of rainy days this week, although it appears that the rainfall may be a bit on-and-off throughout the day.  The cold weather plant sale is scheduled for Sunday morning (April 4) at 11 AM to 1 PM.  You can expect early/mid spring staples such as broccoli, kale, and cold-tolerant herbs.

Before planting these transplants, make sure to prepare your beds--there's no sense in transplanting these little guys into hard, cracked clay.  It's nice to give your crops a leg up in life by supplementing your soil with soil amendments.  There is a nice pile of what is loosely referred to as "mulch" between the weed pile and leaf pile at EHCG.  This is mostly decayed/decomposed plant matter which can be added to the topsoil to loosen it as well as to add some nutrients (NPK as well as micronutrients).  This soil amendment is not as nutrient-dense as true compost, and even less so than fertilizer.  You will find, however, that your cool weather crops need less pampering than summer crops such as eggplant and squash; the material in the mulch pile is more than sufficient for now.

One final note about these transplants: depending on the condition of your soil this Sunday (it may be very wet and dense), you may consider waiting a week to relocate the plants into the soil.  The current temperature is generally OK for cool weather crops, although we may dip down around freezing several more times.  I may play it on the safe side and keep my own transplants indoors by a well-lit window for now so that I am not risking my plants or the garden tools (or my back!) to force crops into the mud.

I will start concluding each blog entry with a short list of what I'm personally doing in my plot at the moment to give you a general idea of when and how one gardener progresses through the seasons.  Please consider this a very open-ended guideline, as all gardeners are different and many very experienced gardeners use tricks I won't describe here.

What am I growing now?
  • I sowed peas on Friday; I think they will be okay even in the compacted soil.  I will wait until this coming weekend to put in my supports (pictures to come) because the ground will be better thawed by then.
  • I also sowed very small trial patches of spinach, lettuce, beets, and carrots.  This was pretty risky of me, but I have many many seeds so I can resow in two weeks or so if need be.
  • My tulips, daffodils, crocuses, strawberries, and garlic are waking up after winter's slumber.
  • I want to start Johnny Jump-Ups outside ASAP but will wait for the ground to dry a bit.

What else am I doing in the garden?
  • Like many gardeners, I put down heavy leaf cover (mulch) at the end of last season to prevent weed growth and protect my perennials.  I am slowly removing the leaf cover as the days warm up, but it is difficult while it is still wet.  I will do this gradually.
  • Early weeding.  I saw tiny weeds last weekend, which in a few weeks time could get out of control.  It is always a better use of time to pull out little weeds and cover problem areas with leaf mulch, than to allow the weeds to reach critical mass to deal with them.  
  • General clean-up.  I kind of threw my tomato cages etc into ugly piles in the middle of my plot last October.  I want to straighten up so that my plot doesn't look abandoned.
If you have questions or comments, please leave them below and I will be happy to start a conversation here with you.  Happy gardening!

Sunday, March 17, 2013

EHCG still covered in snow; pre-opening preparations.

The EHCG Garden Committee took a tour of the garden yesterday in order to get everything ship-shape for Opening Day next weekend.  We have had a few gardeners message us who are anxious to get out to their plots and start working; below is some photographic evidence that the growing season is still at least a week away.

A photo taken from my walk to EHCG.  It's hard to believe that Spring is just a few days away.
Welcome back to the Gardens!  If only the real sun were shining down on us, melting the ice and snow covering our grounds.

The shed at the entrance to the Gardens.

The share shelf is empty and waiting for donated transplants, seeds, and other extra supplies.  

Meet the Committee!  Will, our senior garden worker, is on the left with his bike.  Our other garden worker Adam is too busy with his adorable baby to look at the camera.Our fearless registrar Gretel is on the far right.  The guy to the left of Adam is Josh, the other co-chair of the committee. Notice the snow shoes.  There is still a lot of snow and ice on the ground at EHCG!

The beautiful arbor looking very bare without its warmer weather cover of grape vines.

Winter seems to be dragging on interminably in Madison, so try to be patient!  We are all itching to start our early spring crops of carrots, peas, lettuce, and so on, but there is a lot of snow and ice on the ground.  I believe the saying is that March comes "in like a lion and out like a lamb," so hopefully beautiful Spring days are not far off.  Some houses in my neighborhood have early daffodils pushing out of the soil; perhaps my own bulb flowers will follow their lead in the coming weeks.

For now, I am consoling myself by planning as thoroughly as possible for the coming season.  If you are new to gardening, this website may be helpful as a planting guide.  Once you plug in the estimated last spring frost date for your area, it will give general guidelines for when to start seeds, both indoors and out.  When the snow and ice melt in the Gardens it is appropriate to plant crops like early peas and even carrots.  If you prefer to wait for the Seed Fair (April 6) to collect your free seed packets, your pea crop will still certainly come in by late spring.

I will post once more before Opening Day (March 23) with a list of crops to start in early Spring.  Aside from peas, many root vegetables, lettuces, kale, broccoli, garlic, potatoes, and many other crops can be started soon.  If you have any questions or comments, please leave a comment below.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

A note on companion planting.

Hello all--

It's still a bit too chilly outside to start Spring plantings, but the gardening season is drawing nearer and nearer each day.  I thought I would share the following poster (source: Afristar Foundation, see bottom of poster) as a quick reference for companion planting.

If you are not familiar with companion planting, this is the practice of grouping certain crops together in order to cultivate a mutually beneficial interaction.  Garlic, for instance, is a beneficial neighbor for many plants due to its scent.  Many insects avoid the scent of garlic, so this can be used as a low maintenance form of pest control.  One famous example of companion planting is the Three Sisters: corn, beans, and squash grown together.  The corn provides a trellis for the beans, while the beans add nitrogen to the soil to nurture the corn and squash; the squash provides ground cover to prevent the growth of weeds as well as evaporation of moisture from the soil (essentially, a mulch).

If you choose to incorporate the principle of companion planting into your gardening strategy, there are many additional resources online.  Wikipedia has a useful entry on companion planting which discusses the rationale for certain pairings.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Planning your garden for the 2013 growing season.

Although fair summer days seem very far away, and even the tulips have not yet begun to push up out of the soil, late February is a great time to plan your gardening strategy for the coming 2013 season.  Early spring activities can include the drafting of plans, ordering seeds, and getting together useful garden hardware and other materials.

Before looking at seed catalogs or buying any gardening supplies, it is a good idea to take some time to make a list of crops, in order of priorities.  Even a large garden plot at Eagle Heights or University Houses gardens has a limited amount of space, and you may be surprised at how quickly you will fill your plot with a small number of crops.  Key considerations when making this crops list include the following.
  1. What vegetables (as well as fruits and herbs) do you buy most often?  
  2. Out of the vegetables you listed for (1), which can be grown in zone 4 (South-Central Wisconsin)?
  3. Out of the vegetables you listed for (2), which are least affordable to buy at the store?
  4. Out of the vegetables you listed for (3), which are good keepers OR do you think you will eat frequently enough to avoid letting the produce go to waste?
Peas: a popular cool season crop.
After finishing question 4, you will probably have a relatively short list of crops.  Question 1, of course, will eliminate produce you probably shouldn't consider growing to begin with, unless you really think that growing a new type of vegetable will force you to eat it.  
Question 2 will make sure that you are being realistic about what you actually can grow at EHCG.  Artichokes, grapes, and watermelons are example crops that require long, hot growing seasons (although there are a few types of each that have been bred to be more climate-flexible).  On the other hand, cool weather crops like broccoli and peas are very safe to grow in Madison.
Question 3 may eliminate some crops which are fun to grow, but not cost-effective.  Onions and potatoes are example of crops that are easy to grow, but will not really save you money (if that is important to you) while taking up garden space.  Meanwhile, one tomato plant can supply pounds of tomatoes every week throughout the mid- and late summer of a much  more expensive produce staple.
Corn: a fun warm-season crop that
may be challenging to grow in  a
small community garden plot.
Question 4 is designed to advise you to grow crops you can keep up with.  It is very easy to plant a large patch of mesclun mix at the beginning of your first gardening season, but unless you are prepared to eat sizable quantities of salad for several weeks some of this produce may go to waste.  Spinach, on the other hand, can be eaten both fresh or cooked, and can easily be frozen and stored for later use.  
A typical list of high-priority crops might therefore include broccoli, spinach, carrots, beets, and lettuces (cool season crops) to be later replaced by tomatoes, green beans, and summer squash.  This list will of course depend on what you actually eat, but these are safe to grow in Zone 4 while being easy enough for a beginning gardener.

It's important to plan where--and when--you will plant these crops in your plot.  You should set aside ample room for larger crops like tomatoes and squash, and make sure to reserve room to plant these summertime crops once the weather has warmed.  If you are a first-time gardener and are unsure about how to best plan your garden, the garden manual is a great resource.  

Seed fair 2010
Once you have a general idea of what you want to plant, it is time to scout out some seeds and/or transplants.  There are numerous online and bricks-and-mortar resources for seeds.  My personal favorite is Seed Saver's Exchange, and others include Fedco and Johnny's Select Seeds.  The farmer's market is a great resource for locally grown transplants as well.  Additionally, EHCG is very proud to host its own seed fair as well as two transplant sales, right at Eagle Heights.  The EHCG seed fair in April provides donated seeds free-of-charge to our gardeners, and will be able to provide seeds for many popular crops.  Details about the seed fair as well as the transplant sales will be available on this blog at a later date.

Depending on what crops you have decided to grow, you may need to invest in some structures or supports.   Tomatoes need to be grown in cages; similar supports are useful for peppers, ground cherries, and other crops. Peas need to be grown on a trellis, as well as cucumbers and beans.  You can either choose to invest in pricey commercial products, re-use supports donated by old gardeners, or even build your own.  It is really just important to know how what you are committing to when you decide to grow a crop which requires support.

In summary, it is important to plan and prepare for the coming season in advance of breaking ground.  Future garden posts will discuss the earliest cool weather crops, including peas, carrots, and other root vegetables.  Please post any questions or comments you may have below.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Welcome to the Eagle Heights Community Garden Blog

Hello all gardeners and visitors--

Welcome to the Eagle Heights Community Garden blog.  The purpose of this blog is to keep the members of our gardens and our community updated regarding EHCG goings-on as well as supplying general gardening advice and other miscellanea.

I will use this post to introduce EHCG to new members and to discuss the following general points.

What is Eagle Heights Community Garden?
 The University of Wisconsin’s Eagle Heights Community Gardens (EHCG) was established in 1962 to offer Eagle Heights residents and the UW and Madison communities the opportunity to have an organic garden and participate in garden activities. EHCG is one of the oldest and largest community gardens in the United States.

Where is Eagle Heights Community Garden?
The EHCG are located in a peaceful natural setting adjacent to the University of Wisconsin’s Eagle Heights Housing and within the Lakeshore Nature Preserve. At last count - the pool of gardners speak approximately 60 languages. The gardens feature gardening practices from around the world. The setting provides also a wonderful place for meeting fellow gardeners, family picnics and walks, and bird watching. 

Who can be a member of Eagle Heights Community Garden?
EHCG is open to UW-Madison students, staff/faculty, and community members.  While an appreciable number of our gardeners are in fact residents of Eagle Heights Housing, we also host a diverse community of domestic and international undergraduates, graduate students, post-doctoral researchers, professors, alumni, and general Madison residents.   

What does it mean to garden at EHCG?
Our community garden provides plots to our members for the term of one "season," or effectively one year.  Plot sizes range from approximately 20 x 25 feet (6 x 8 m) for large plots to 10 x 25 ft (3 x 8 m) for small plots; however, plot sizes can be irregular and deviate from these neat estimates.
Throughout the gardening season, our members have the opportunity to plant both annual and perennial varieties of a diversity of vegetables, fruits, herbs, and flowers.  We do prohibit a small number of plants, typically those of invasive/weed-like persuasion (ex: mint) and trees/shrubs, which are very difficult to remove at the end of one's tenure at EHCG.
We offer our gardeners free seeds at the annual EHCG seed fair, which have been kindly donated by various businesses.  We are proud to offer this resource to our community members, with seeds ranging from basil to zucchini to daisies and everything in between.
The garden also provides a space for families to introduce their children to gardening, healthy eating, and plenty of sunshine.  EHCG features a sandbox for young children as well as an arbor for very hot days; a roof of sprawling grapevines offers shade for young and old alike.
EHCG also maintains a few public plantings, offering raspberries, apples, and various stone fruits free to the gardeners.

What is the cost of gardening at EHCG?
The annual fees are listing in the plot application; fees range from $32-$42 for a large plot and $16-$21 for a small plot.  There is additional optional fee for rototilling, which is not necessary for gardening but can nevertheless be helpful with proper consideration.
Every primary gardener is required to perform one workday, a 2-3 hour period of service/labor for the benefit of the garden, once throughout the season.  Gardeners may choose to opt out of this workday for a fee (see the plot application link).
The use of tools and water is available free of charge to our gardeners, with the exception of hoses and gardening gloves.  An appreciable amount of gardening revenue is funneled into providing and maintaining these community tools, and we take pride in being able to offer these freely.
It has been estimated that the average gardener at EHCG, with proper plot management and thoughtful planning, takes home about $800 worth of produce over one season.  Many of our gardeners go the entire gardening season (approximately April through October) without spending any money on fresh produce.  Growing one's own produce can be very cost-effective if the right strategies are implemented.

Who do I contact if I need more information?
The EHCG website is a good starting place.  Plot applications and assignments as well as general contact information and even a comprehensive guide to gardening at EHCG are hosted here.  The primary contact is our wonderful registrar, Gretel, at

Are you Gretel?  Who is writing this anyway?
No, I am not Gretel.  This is Jennifer Mirrielees speaking.  I am one of the co-chairs at EHCG.  I am actually a breast cancer researcher* at UW-Madison.  Additionally, I am a fourth*-year gardener at EHCG and a Texas native.  I am still a little afraid of snow and very much looking forward to the beginning of the 2013 gardening season.

Alright...what's next?
Opening day for 2013 at EHCG will be March 16.  Expect the next post to explain what happens on Opening Day as well as starting transplants indoors and the approaching window for direct sowing of peas, carrots, root vegetables, and many other healthy cold-weather plantings.

*Updated 04/15/14