Author: Alexander Freedman

And then there were herbs!


What started a month ago as mere seedlings in the Barnum Hall Greenhouse, now exist in front of Tisch Library as herbs!


Thanks to the kind offer of Tufts Facilities and an agreement with Dining Services, Tom Thumb’s Student Garden has been charged with maintaining the two beds immediately outside of the library. In these beds, the plan is to grow herbs that can be used in the dining halls over the summer. Obviously the needs of a full-scale dining program are beyond our scope at the moment, but we hope to at least be supplemental!


In our first planting day, we planted Purple Opal and Sweet basil and thyme starts and a small tomato plant, as well as parsley and cilantro seeds. We have run into the unique problem in that we have more room than we have seedlings and seeds!!! Prof. George Ellmore helped us out a little by planting a couple curry plants, but we still have a ton of room to work with! It is exciting, and daunting at the same time. The search for attractive plants continues!

Informational signage to come shortly! (We want everyone passing to know who we are and what we intend to do!…and maybe ward off excessive nibblers…)

A Poem

In celebration of our upcoming planting on Sunday, some eloquent words by New England local, Robert Frost:


You come to fetch me from my work to-night
When supper’s on the table, and we’ll see
If I can leave off burying the white
Soft petals fallen from the apple tree
(Soft petals, yes, but not so barren quite,
Mingled with these, smooth bean and wrinkled pea);
And go along with you ere you lose sight
Of what you came for and become like me,
Slave to a Springtime passion for the earth.
How Love burns through the Putting in the Seed
On through the watching for that early birth
When, just as the soil tarnishes with weed,
The sturdy seedling with arched body comes
Shouldering its way and shedding the earth crumbs.

“Of compost shall the Muse descend to sing”

To a gardener, compost is the stuff of dreams, but to those unfamiliar this pile of dirt holds many mysteries. In this post, I will try to break down compost (heh, get it?) into the basics.


What is compost?  For the purposes of gardening, it is a mixture of decayed and broken down household and yard organic wastes. This process mimics natural cycles of decomposition found in ecosystems of all types, but most visibly on forest floors.  These natural cycles depend on the beautiful co-mingling of microorganisms, moisture, oxygen, and darkness.

When these four factors are working in harmony, they create a well-oiled compost-making machine. The biological process they facilitate is called aerobic decomposition – the decomposition of bacteria that thrive in the presence of oxygen. When the balance is off, it can lead to anaerobic decomposition, which is the slow decomposition of bacteria that thrive in conditions without oxygen. This usually leads to a slimy, smelly, disgusting pile for gross, rather than rich, dark, earthy-smelling soil.

While compost does have some nutrient benefit, especially with micronutrients, the primary benefits concern soil structure and nutrient retention. Without too much detail, the addition of compost to soil works magic in all sorts of soil, creating porosity in dense, clay soils and improving water retention in soils that are too sandy. Further, they offer to the soil COLLOIDS! These magical structures help retain nutrients in the soils. When applying nutrients in colloid-free soil, a few good soakings could leach the nutrients down below the soil horizon where veggies roots could reach. However, colloids help keep the nutrients stationary in the soil, ready to be used at will!


Farmers have used compost for thousands of years, with some of the earlier written records dating back to Ancient Rome. Back then, they would pile all agricultural waste in a large pile and let it decompose over the course of the season (which works, but is tediously slow.) Today, we have a better understanding of the components that make a good, fast and productive compost pile. There are four primary chemical ingredients for a healthy compost (not to be confused with the other four important factors mentioned above:

Carbon – for energy; the microbial oxidation of carbon produces heat (crucial to adequate breakdown and extermination of weed seeds), if included at suggested levels. High carbon materials tend to be brown and dry.

Nitrogen – to grow and reproduce more organisms to oxidize the carbon. High nitrogen materials tend to be green (or colorful, such as fruits and vegetables) and wet.

Oxygen – for oxidizing the carbon, and supporting the organisms in the decomposition process.

Water – in the right amount; the proper moisture of a good compost pile should be about that of a wrung out sponge.


Proper piles construction and maintenance for best decomposition includes a few considerations. The smaller the surface area (read size of the pieces), the faster they can be broken down.  Thanks high school chemistry for that lesson!

It’s also important to aerate the piles semi-regularly (a couple times a week) to assure that enough oxygen is getting into the pile.

While aerating, notice the moisture of the pile – if it is looking a little dry, give it some water, and if it is looking a little wet, add some brown material to soak it up a bit!

Finally, we know things are cooking away properly if the internal temperature of the pile is 135-160 degree Fahrenheit. The breakdown releases heat, so if it is too low, it’s a sign that things are not working at optimal capacity, and if it is too high, it will kill all the wonderful soil organisms.  This optimal temperature helps kills soil pathogens and weed seeds! Hurray! Of course, few people have a thermometer to stick in their pile, but if you stick your hand in it should be really warm, or, if it’s a cool morning, it should be steaming when you stir it!

But what do you put this all in? At Tom Thumb’s Student Garden we have two black plastic composting barrels that are chugging away, but you can also make a mesh pen, or heap it into a pile (recommended by biology Prof. George Ellmore.) It’s really a matter of what suits your space and preference.


Phew! That’s a lot of information! One last thing to top it all off. How much green stuff vs. how much brown stuff is ideal? Well, it seems the popular ratio is 30:1, Brown:Green. Now, each plant has different green/brown ratios, so it’s sort of complicated, but since most waste in a garden is green, the moral of the story is that you can almost always add more brown (dead leaves, newspaper, egg cartons, that test that you failed…)


Hope this was helpful! Happy Gardening!


P.S. I tried to include more soil puns, but Googling “soil puns” really doesn’t yield a lot, which surprised me with the number of garden geeks that exist in the world!

Collards to Keep the Cold Away

Last night was the first snow of the year, and as the residual flakes melt away in the cool autumn sun today, I needed something hearty and warm to comfort my soul in mourning of summer’s end.

Earlier this week, we harvested our collard green plants and pulled up the remaining stalks to make room in the hoop house for some kale. Because collards are sort of outside the typical college student cooking repertoire, I ended up with a trash bag full of it, and what better on a cold day than to make braised collards and qunioa!?

For those unfamiliar with collard greens, they are a member of the Brassica family (read: broccoli, cabbage, mustard greens, etc.) and provide large hearty green leaves commonly used in cuisines of West Africa, Portuguese-speaking countries and the US South. And quinoa is a protein and fiber-rich “ancient” grain from South America, which has seen a culinary renaissance in the last years, making it more available in mainstream markets.

Below are the recipes for both – hopefully they bring you warmth and nourishment on a cold day, too!

Kickin’ Collard Greens with Quinoa

Yields about 6 servings


– 1 tablespoon olive oil
– 3 slices bacon (alternatively, for vegetarians, wild mushrooms might be a great choice)
– 1 large onion, chopped
– 2 cloves garlic, minced
– 1 teaspoon salt
– 1 teaspoon pepper
– 3 cups chicken broth
– 1 pinch red pepper flakes
– 1 pound fresh collard greens, cut into 2-inch pieces

– 2 cups dried quinoa
– 3 cups liquid (water, chicken or vegetable stock, or both)

For Collards:

1.     Heat oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add bacon, and cook until crisp. Remove bacon from pan, crumble and return to the pan. Add onion, and cook until tender, about 5 minutes. Add garlic, and cook until just fragrant. Add collard greens, and fry until they start to wilt.

2.    Pour in chicken broth, and season with salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes. Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer for 45 minutes, or until greens are tender.

For Quinoa:

You’ll need a 4 quart pot with a tight fitting lid, and a fine mesh strainer

1) Optional: Soak the quinoa for 5 min in the cooking pot. Soaking helps quinoa to cook evenly, and loosens up any residue of saponin (usually removed in processing), which can give a bitter taste. Most quinoa sold in the US these days has been cleaned, and steamed to remove the saponin, so don’t worry about that overly much.

To Rinse: Stir the quinoa with your hand, and carefully pour off the rinsing water, using a fine mesh strainer at the last

2) Drain quinoa well in the strainer, transfer to the cooking pot, add 3 cups liquid

3) Bring to a boil, cover with a tight fitting lid, and turn the heat down to simmer

4) Cook for 15 minutes

5) Remove quinoa from heat and allow to sit five minutes with the lid on

6) Fluff quinoa gently with a fork and add to pot of collards when done

7) Mix and allow to sit for a few minutes, then serve!

Adapted from recipes at and

Garden Winterization (Part 1): Hoop House

Going into the garden’s first winter, we decided to investigate different methods of winterizing the garden, and, in this case, prolonging the growing season. One common technique is a structure called a hoop house. With an appearance similar to the Iroquois longhouses of the past, this PVC pipe and plastic sheeting structure acts like a greenhouse, insulating its contents from the dramatic temperature outside. While not able to extend the growing season through the entire winter, our research has found testimonies of being able to grow cold-hardy crops (leafy greens, root vegetables, etc.) into February!

Now, finally, after over a month of construction, the hoop house is complete! Inside we have radishes, cilantro, and Toscano kale (recently seeded) growing. The real test of its structural worth will be when we check on it in a few days (considering that it snowed last night and temperatures are expected to dip into freezing for the next few days.)

This structure, with its impeccable construction and incredible engineered stability, believe it or not was the first one we ever built, and it wasn’t even that hard!!! Below are instructions for how we did it!

Materials (all available at Home Depot!):
– 4  10 ft. x 1/2 in. pvc pipes (available in the plumbing department)
– 3.5mm plastic sheeting (available in painting supply section)
– 8 1/2 brass pipe brackets
– Wood screws (length dependent on surface they’re drilled into)
– Scissors
– Measuring tape
– Staple gun
– Additional able-bodied, coordinated individuals


*All of these instructions are based on the dimensions of our garden bed, which is approximately 4 ft x 8 ft (we never measured.) Accordingly, the lengths of your PVC should be adjusted – take the half-circumference and add a foot on each side.

1) Ideally the brackets would be evenly spaced and matched the the ones across the bed, but we didn’t really do that. We trust out eyeballs. We started by drilling each brackets (4 on each side) half way into place. This was important, because if screwed all the way in, the pipes would not fit in.

2) Fit the PVC pipes into the brackets created four parallel arcs. From there, screw the brackets the rest of the way in.

3) Once you have the skeleton (it reminded me of a whale skeleton….don’t ask me why) – now is the time to measure out your plastic. You want it wide enough to go all the way over the arc with 6 extra inches from the top of the bed to where the plastic hangs; and long enough that when folding in the excess (like you were wrapping a hoop house-shaped present,) it about touches the ground.

4) Once it is measured and draped over the structure in the way you wish, it’s time to attach the plastic! This is where we got held up for weeks, because we lacked access the a stable gun. If you can think of more creative and/or less permanent ways to attach the plastic, please be my guest. Everything I learned was from YouTube, so it’s pretty easy to find. On one long side (the side where the brackets attach) fold the plastic edge under itself by a few inches. Using your staple gun, put a row of staples along the bottom edge, about 6 inches apart, making sure to hold the plastic taught so there are no creases or flabby folds (this is like plastic surgery.) Once complete, add a second row of stable above the first near the top of the bed’s side board, again, assuring taughtness.

5) Go to the other side (and this is where extra hands help) and pull the plastic fairly taught, then repeat the first sides actions. For BOTH sides, I would recommend putting at least the first staple in the middle first, to assure you are not lopsidedly stapling the plastic. Taughtness is important so that rain and debris does not collect on the top of the hoop house, but note that without the ends being pulled taught, also, it may not appear to be as taught as it will be. Don’t pull it so taught that it threatens the integrity of the plastic. A tear would be counter to the idea of sealing in warmth.

6) Now’s the easy (or hard) part. We labored over how to close up the ends, because you want it to be a fairly tight seal to keep in warmth, but also have it be accessible to reach inside. We talked about trying to attached zippers or velcro, but eventually just ended up using two large cinder blocks on each side. As I said earlier, fold the ends of the plastic down as though you were wrapping a present, and then use the cinder blocks to keep them in place.

Then, TAH DAH! You have a hoop house!

We’ll see how successful ours is and keep you posted. There was even talk of dressing up our hoop house for the holidays – cute. Happy winter gardening!