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