Wednesday, April 30, 2014


In the past week alone, we have gotten about 2.5 inches of rain, and I couldn't be happier. I do look forward to sunny late spring days on the horizon, but for now the ample rainfall is encouraging sprouting and growth in my plot, and that is good enough for me.

Thankfully, there is no need to water in the near future. We are looking at turning on the water at EHCG in the next two weeks, although you likely won't need to water your plot yourself any time soon.

Speaking of water, be conscientious when watering your plants. Seed germination and transplanting do require good amounts of water, and in my experience there is just no substitute for actual rain fall. (How long would you need to stand in water in your plot to simulate actual rainfall? Hours?) The proper growth of some crops (root vegetables, like carrots) also requires consistent rain/water to prevent splitting, stunted, woody produce. However, most garden plants are happy without constant watering, and going overboard can be very harmful. If you are growing tomatoes for the first time this year, for instance, be very cautious about watering at all unless there has been no rain for 2 weeks. A beginner's instinct is often that more water = more care = a happier plant, but following this logic will leave you with pounds and pounds of cracked, burst tomatoes in late summer. Water only in moderation, only if Mother Nature hasn't already done the job for you in the form of rain. 

I believe the last spring frost is safely behind us, and now begins the game of starting the summer crops. I suspect that selection of a tomato transplant or zucchini seeding date is one third superstition, one third paranoia, and one third half-way believing what the back of the seed packet or seller at the farmer's market tells you. Last year, I put my tomatoes out in April, and every last one of them survived. Some people wait until the first week of June. I don't know any genuinely fool-proof advice to give, as the consequences of planting too early (death by frost) or too late (stuck with 20 lbs of green tomatoes in September) are both serious, and the many opinions on the subject are too passionate for there to be a real debate. Any time from mid-May on is probably safe, but I feel compelled to wish you luck anyway.

While much of the initial work of the season is behind us (tilling, mulching, installing supports), there are still months of planning, working, and harvesting ahead. If you have any questions, please email this blog ( or the registrar (

Finally - there is yet another new poll on the right side of this page (under "Blog Archive") so please vote!

Happy gardening!

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Spring in full swing!

Hello all -

This past Sunday we had our cool-weather plant sale with transplants by Garden To Be. Brassica (Brussels sprouts, cabbages, broccoli) sold out very quickly. If you didn't find what you were looking for or didn't beat the early Sunday rush, you can find transplants by Garden To Be as well as many other growers at the Saturday morning Dane County farmer's market on the Capitol Square.

I would like to announce that EHCG will be doing a SECOND free seed hand-out this coming Saturday:

Free Seeds!
10 AM to 12 PM
Eagle Heights Community Garden Arbor and University Houses Shed

I will personally be handing out seed packets at the EH arbor, and Gretel, the registrar, will be handing out seed packets at U Houses. Please note that this is not a normally scheduled free seed distribution like the Seed Fair; we are handing out seed packets for a second time this Spring as a special courtesy to our gardeners. It is unlikely that we will do this every year.

Seeds on free offer will include summer squash, winter squash, beans, cow peas, certain root crops (beets, radishes, carrots), melons, and several others. We will allow one seed packet per category/type per plot. This is to ensure that we can offer seeds to as many gardeners as possible.

Please bear in mind that this seed hand-out will be first-come, first-served so if you have your heart set on getting one specific type of seeds, it may be best to come earlier.

We will try to have compost sometime in the next two or three weeks for sale, as well as turn on the water. Both of these activities are at the mercy of the weather - if the roads are wet we can't truck in compost (or sell it), and if we are expecting another freeze, water turn-on is out of the question. Please be patient with us as we plan around the weather.

On an unrelated note - I have noticed many plants and bulbs set aside on the Share Shelf. If you are thinning your strawberries or splitting your lilies, the Share Shelf is a wonderful place to leave these items to ensure that they can have a second life in someone else's plot. Keeping sharing and re-purposing in mind supports the community-centered spirit of EHCG.

Finally - I hope that everyone has met their plot neighbors! Fostering good neighborly relationships is very important at EHCG and will serve everyone very well. Every year we have misunderstandings and issues to resolve, and approaching your neighbors with a respectful attitude is a great way to kick off the season.

See you in the field, and happy gardening!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Cool weather transplant sale 2014

Hello all -

The cool weather transplant sale will take place this coming Sunday, April 20, at the EHCG shed. Scott Williams of Mt. Horeb's Garden to Be will be selling transplants (small starts) of broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collard greens, kale, and lettuces. Transplant prices will range from $2.50 - $2.75 in various pack sizes, ex 4 broccoli/pack and 6 lettuce/pack. The full inventory of plants provided by Scott is here. Please bring cash if you plan to buy plants. You may also consider bringing an umbrella as we expect some light rain. 

When picking out transplants, keep in mind the space they will actually require in your plot. My own cautionary tale materialized when I bought 6 broccoli transplants from Garden To Be as a first year gardener, several years ago. They start of small so I transplanted them into my plot, spaced about 6 inches apart. A few weeks later I realized that this was nowhere near enough space, moved them apart from each other, and essentially lost my broccoli harvest to bad planning. I have previously posted a very long set of guidelines about planting time and space that you are free to consult, as well as links to Robin Mittenthal's From the Ground Up manual (abbreviated planting guideline charts for vegetables, salad greens, herbs, and flowers here). 

EDIT: check out the new page, "Transplanting 101", at the top of this blog, for a brief overview of transplanting!

Next weekend, on Saturday April 26, Gretel (the registrar) and I will be out at U Houses and Eagle Heights gardens, respectively, handing out limited amounts of free seeds. Carrots, beets, beans, squash, melon seeds and more will be provided in small quantities. Look out for an update on the exact time in a future email from Gretel. It will be first-come, first-served!

Speaking of planting - some of you may have noticed that I started running polls in the right-most column of this blog, right under the "Blog Archive". This week's poll is about what you will buy at the cool weather plant sale. 

Finally - I am putting out a last call for new co-chair nominations. If you are interested in getting more involved in the gardens, please email me at so that we can discuss the position and you can figure out if it is a good fit for you. We are voting on a new co-chair at next month's committee meeting on May 14! Even if you aren't running yourself, you can always drop into a committee meeting to vote on the new co-chair or any of our many other agenda items. 

Happy gardening!

Monday, April 14, 2014

If April showers bring May flowers, what does April snow bring?

Right now, I'm seeing quite a bit of snow through my window at home. According to, the low for tonight is 20 F, far beyond a hard freeze.

Before you panic, bear three things in mind.

1) Some crops are frost-tolerant. Hopefully those are the ones you have planted so far. Think spinach, kale, lettuce, root crops, peas. Check the packets of the seeds you sowed or are planning to sow. Most of them give a sowing date of anywhere between 2 and 6 weeks before last frost for these cool-weather plants. If you have already planted tomatoes or other summery crops outside, I give you only my condolences and word of caution to be more careful of when to plant and transplant in the future. Many resources for determining planting dates abound online, including Smart Gardener, recommended by garden worker Will Waller, as well as this very simple planting date tool I like to use. Also check the backs of your seeds, ask your neighbors, the garden workers, etc; essentially everyone who gardens loves telling new gardeners what to do and when to do it.

2) Some snow cover is actually insulating, so a bit of chilly weather plus now is not as bad as chill alone.

3) We need our water. That snow is going to sit and melt in your plot. Better a bit of April snow to bring some water back to our gardens than no precipitation at all.

Please also bear tonight in mind the next time you start wondering when we will turn on the water at EHCG. To avoid doing damage to our plumbing, we have to wait until the threat of a hard freeze is past before opening up those valves. Last weekend I would not have expected a night like tonight, yet here it is. We hope to be passed the danger of last frost by the beginning of May and water turn-on will be TBA until then.

One final word: if you are concerned about your seedlings, consider laying some row cover or other landscaping fabric down, at least at night. I haven't had a problem in the past with a cold snap or two like this, and row cover alone works well enough for me.

Have a nice night, stay warm, think summery thoughts, and happy gardening.


04/15/14 nighttime update: the snow is gone! It looks like it may only freeze one or two more nights this spring; fingers crossed!

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Should I throw this away?

Hello all -

This will be a short post about waste management in the gardens.

When I started as a gardener at EHCG, I had no previous experience with community gardens. Instead, I had some experience with home gardening, more like landscaping, in which tools and supports and supplies were always bought new. For a novice like me, it seemed that if you wanted something to use in the garden, you ought to drive to a big box store to buy it.

Thankfully, EHCG is able to provide for most gardening necessities internally. This is accomplished in part by good management of old supplies, broken tools, leaves falling in Autumn and shared resources. We really throw very little away. The following graphic summarizes a few of the ways that our garden workers and gardeners re-use or recycle resources, and ultimately what we can produce from these investments.

From that I'd like to segue into a discussion of when, how, and where to dispose of unwanted materials.

Communal items: broken tools, carts, poles

If you are using a tool and it breaks, or find a broken tool, please don't throw it in the dumpster or claim it as your own! Just a few weeks ago I met a gardener who had found a broken communal tool, with a pink handle, which he decided was trash, fixed it, and wanted to keep it as his own. You can imagine that I was very sad to explain that we needed to take it back. We (almost) never throw tools away! If you see something broken, either find a garden worker to give it to, or leave it by the shed. We collect and repair broken tools every year, sometimes multiple times a year. We also repair carts. If you see a broken cart, please don't use it, and bring it to our attention so we can do something about it. The cart beds are really expensive so we want to do our best to take care of them instead of replacing them.

Items you may inherit or find: tomato cages, bricks, wood, structures

If you are a new gardener this year, you may have "inherited" a mess of cages and other structures. Many of these inherited items are perfectly good, and can be used in your plot this year. If you inherit something you don't want, please leave it at the Share Shelf (by the bulletin board at the front of the gardens) instead of putting it in the dumpster. There are many spendthrift, crafty gardeners who may see treasure where you see trash. I myself have never paid for a tomato cage as I have collected plenty left in the trash.

Other things you can donate

If you picked up three packets of lettuce seeds at the Seed Fair but only used 10 seeds and realized you don't need that much lettuce, you can always leave your extra seed packets on the Share Shelf (front of the gardens by the bulletin board). The same goes for plants. Whether you start your tomatoes at home under a light, or buy a flat of transplants at the plant sale or farmer's market, please keep in mind that if you have more transplants than you have plot space, there is another gardener at EHCG who would love to be provided a free plant. Leaving resources on the Share Shelf is a great way to make certain that someone, somewhere will benefit.

Dead plants, weeds

The correct destination for organic materials such as dead plants and weeds is the weed pile, NOT the dumpster and also NOT the path in front of your plot and certainly not your neighbor's plot. Some gardeners choose to let some amount of dead plants or weeds pseudo-"compost" in their own plot. I do this: while hand-weeding small weeds, I place the removed weeds in the paths within my own plot, on top of leaf cover, so that as I walk in my own paths the weed are destroyed but their organic matter is incorporated back into my soil. However, if you have more than a handful of weeds, especially large volumes of dead plants, please do everyone in the gardens a favor and cart them over to the weed pile. These will get turned into mulch the following year to close the loop (of nitrogen, of nutrients, of waste).

Surplus produce

There are some plants that just can't help but yield in excess. If you show me someone who has eaten every single cherry tomato they grew in a season, I will show you either a liar or someone who is not very good at growing cherry tomatoes. Spinach, lettuce, tomatillos, and raspberries behave the same way. The good news is that we have a process in place at EHCG to transport surplus produce to St. Vincent's food pantry to be distributed to those in need. I will write a separate blog post later in the spring to discuss details.

Actual garbage

Once you have turned broken communal items in to the garden workers, donated tomato cages to neighbors, hauled weeds to the weed pile, and dropped off a pound of cucumbers in the donation bins, you may still have real, genuine, honest-to-goodness trash left in your plot. This may include black landscaping plastic inherited from last year; packaging from seeds, plants, structures; the coffee cup you brought to the garden in the morning. If it isn't broken, compostable, or good to eat, take it to the dumpster!

One final word: the way we handle our resources and our trash significantly impacts our neighbors, and future gardeners as well. If you make the effort to incorporate nutrients into your soil in the form of leaf mulch or compost, you will enhance the soil health for yourself and those who come after you. If you litter and cast disposable items around the garden, you make gardening that much less enjoyable for everyone else. If you throw weeds in the dumpster instead of the weed pile, you deprive us of the opportunity to turn trash into treasure. Be mindful of how your choices affect those around you, and you will have happy neighbors and happy plants.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Crop rotation and companion planting

Hello all -

Following up on a suggestion by a reader of this blog, I have decided to write a few words about crop rotation, and the related concept of companion planting. I hope that guidance related to good crop "neighbors" has found its way into your gardening plans.

If you have grown vegetables and herbs before, you may have noticed that the various plants have their own spectrum of needs, ailments, and behaviors. Genetically-, or more specifically, phylogenetically-related plants take the same nutrients out of the soil and are vulnerable to the same pests and diseases. One example of this is the vulnerability of both turnips and arugula, Brassicaceae family members, to the flea beetle, a very small, black beetle that leaps from the soil onto greens such as these, leaving  scores of tiny, tragic holes in its wake.  Alternatively, some traits that significantly impact plant health may have no origin in closely-shared genetics. While not a Brassicaceae member, eggplant, in my experience, is highly prone to flea beetle attack.

The personalities of the crops we plant can inform us of how, when, and where to put them down. It is wise to separate crops with similar nutrient and pest profiles by time and space. One way to accomplish this is crop rotation, a practice whereby the same crop, or type of crop, is not planted year after year in the same spot but rotated to someplace else in the garden. For instance, one might choose to plant garlic, the scourge of many garden pests, in the ground to replace last year's arugula or turnip plantings, and rotate the planting of these Brassicaceae to a spot that most recently housed lettuce or carrots. Another method is companion planting, a practice by which crops that are "good neighbors" are planted in close proximity, and "bad neighbors", such as those that consume large amounts of nitrogen, or those that attract the same pests, are kept far apart. Companion planting also frequently involves the use of flowers, allia, and other plants you might otherwise not have cultivated, for the purpose of promoting or repelling various fauna, pests or otherwise. Both crop rotation and companion planting are good strategies to minimize loss and maximize output, without relying on pesticides or other chemical additives not permitted in organic gardening.

Two key consideration for both crop rotation and companion planting are 1) nutrients and 2) pests.


Some plants are givers, and some are greedy. The nightshades, including eggplants and tomatoes, are among the heavier feeders. A plot planted year after year with only eggplants and tomatoes will become nutrient-deficient, and eventually fail to deliver adequate minerals, or macronutrients and micronutrients, to ensure healthy, productive plants. While unrelated, corn and Cucurbitaceae (melons, squash, cucumbers) are also heavy feeders. "Greedy" crops such as these give you a good reason to invest in some soil amendments for your plot, including compost, leaf mulch, and even coffee grounds. However, even with soil amendment, it is in your best interest to move your Nightshade/Cucurbitaceae plantings around your plot from year to year, replacing them with plants that contribute positively to the condition of your soil. This year, for instance, I am replacing last year's sowing of eggplants, for instance, with green beans in the same spot. Green beans and other legumes are nitrogen-fixing, meaning that they host beneficial bacteria in their roots that convert gaseous nitrogen in the air to a useful, water-soluble form in the soil. I have also sown peas, another legume, into the spot where I grew my butternut squash last year, and fava beans to replace tomatoes.

People have been using legumes to supplement the soil nitrogen lost to the cultivation of heavy feeders for a very long time. Native Americans developed this technique long ago, and planted beans (for nitrogen), squash (for ground cover), and corn together under the name of the "Three Sisters". Whether you plant legumes and heavy feeders together in the same season, or rotate the former in to replace the latter from year to year, you will be using the inherent nitrogen-fixing capacity of the legumes to its full potential.

Even if you don't plan to take advantage of this property of legumes, it is a good idea to rotate tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, melons, squash, and corn around your plot from year to year. In addition to depleting the same nutrients out of the soil, these crops, when planted in the same place year after year, also promote the recruitment and establishment of serious garden pests.


Flea beetles, as I mentioned above, are a striking example of why you don't want to plant your broccoli, kale, and brussels sprouts in the same place from year to year. Flea beetles love the Brassicaceae family, and will hang out all winter in the soil, patiently awaiting your return to the gardens, and the paralleled return of their staple crops. (This is not quite as true of large, vernalized, overwintered kale plants, which generally have tougher leaves are are less vulnerable to the tiny bites of the flea beetle.) Flea beetles will also attack your eggplants, but in my experience have no idea what to do with tomatoes, lettuce, carrots, green beans, or most other crops. Move your Brassicaceae around and replace them with a crop that doesn't look like lunch to a flea beetle.

Another good example is the tomato hornworm, which is attracted to tomato as well as dill. Move those tomatoes around!

Some flowers and herbs are thought to be repellent to many garden pests, including the flea beetle. I find that insect pests completely avoid garlic, onions, chives, and shallots, just one more reason to plant Allia in the garden. Lemon grass, with its fragrant stalks, it also effective. Nasturtiums, beautiful sprawling flowers whose petals can be eaten in salads, recruit predatory insects to hunt down the offenders.

If you are interested in learning more about companion planting, there are extensive, dedicated resources available online. I find the wikipedia entry on companion planting particularly simple and helpful.

I will leave you with an excerpt from Robin Mittenthal's gardening manual, From the Ground Up:

"Rotate crops so related plants don’t stay in the same place. Broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, collard greens, kale, radishes, kohlrabi, rutabagas, turnips, and cauliflower are all very closely related (they’re in the same plant family, known as “Brassicaceae,” or the mustard family). As a result, they take the same nutrients out of the soil and are vulnerable to the same pests and diseases. As much as you can, move these crops around your garden so that no two related crops occupy the same space for two years in a row. There are other groupings of plants that should not follow each other: Potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant are in the family “Solanaceae” (sun-loving family); Carrot, parsley, celery, parsley, dill, and parsnip are in the family “Apiaceae” (carrot and parsley family); summer squash, winter squash, pumpkins, watermelon, cantaloupe, and cucumber are in the family “Cucurbitaceae” (gourd family); Chicory, endive, salsify, dandelion, lettuce, Jerusalem artichoke, sunflowers, and globe artichoke are in the family “Asteraceae” (aster family); Beets, chard and spinach are in the family “Chenopodiaceae” (goatsfoot family); and onion, garlic, leek, and chives are in the family “Liliaceae” (lily family)."

Happy gardening!