Club and class… UNITE!

This Saturday, in the beautiful fall weather, the garden club joined forces with the Tufts Ex-College class: Introduction to Sustainable Food Systems. The class is taught by Mari Pierce-Quinonez and Jeff Hake, both of whom have received master’s degrees from Tufts’ Friedman School. The course description reads as follows:

Modern agriculture is the course of a great majority of our food and is a foundation of the American economy. However, it is an economic system that relies on cheap fuel, low labor costs, and ever-increasing consolidation. In recent years these industrialized inputs and processes have been indicted as a root cause of many of modern society’s woes: hunger, obesity, disease, environmental degradation, climate change, economic injustice, and physical and mental estrangement from the land. And yet, alternative systems of agriculture have emerged. Some are the simple revival of “antiquated” practices while others apply agricultural principle to technological innovation. Cities and communities are becoming active players in these new systems, and food is being “slowed down”. This course attempts to outline some of these emerging food systems, providing theoretical background and discussion as well as practical, hands-on tools for becoming a part of these new systems.

Notice the part about hands-on tools; that’s where the garden comes in!

Class and club united to build beds!

If you’ve read the history of how the garden got started, you might recognize this class as the originator of the garden itself (made possible by the efforts of the darling Signe Porteshawver). They turned the beds they made over to the Student Garden at the end of the semester and now that another round of class has started up, the students got to get down and dirty again- starting from scratch and learning through doing. Plus, hammering gets a little of that stress out.

Micaela and Melissa assembling a raised bed with wood salvaged from an old Ikea bed frame.

Because resources were limited (no saw, few nails) we had to get creative with wood salvaged from my neighbor’s trash, leftover scraps from shed construction, and splintered pieces wrangled from an old box spring left in Micaela’s apartment. I kinda felt like that was half the fun- it was like a puzzle! Fortunately, we have a lot of creative minds in the club and the class so things didn’t take too long to start up.

What follows may be boring but might prove useful to future bed-builders!

Building a bed by the compost bins

The plan was to build 3 raised beds, but we had a collection of 2×4′s (which are about 8ft long), some scraps that varied between 1 foot to 2 feet long, and a bunch of pieces from an Ikea bed frame that all measured about 2 feet long… and no saw. We finally decided to use all the 2x4s to make two 8ft-long, narrow raised beds with 3 2x4s stacked on top of each other on each side (to make each bed about 12″ tall). The width is formed with pieces about 1.5 feet long, also stacked on top of each other. (A picture would probably explain this best… I’ll post one later.)

Two of the four beds (made with the Ikea bed frame pieces), you can see a third being worked on in the background

We also used the Ikea bed frame to create 2 square raised beds since all the pieces were of identical lengths. For these, we nailed 4 pieces together in a square, did this 3 times for each bed, and stacked the 3 squares on top of each other, securing them in place with stakes in each of the four corners, nailed to the squares. (This I DO have a picture of.)

Unfortunately I had to leave early (anyone else got this nasty cold?) so I have yet to see the finished product, but when I left it all looked great. I’ll be sure to go down tomorrow morning to check it out. I’ll post some pictures when I’ve got them!

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Weekly Meetings!

Weekly meetings to be held on Wednesdays at 9pm in Eaton 203 starting September 21!

Workday this Saturday, Sept 17 at 10 am-12pm. Help the Sustainable Food Systems class build raised beds!

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Respect your Ellmores!

For those of you who have perused our blog, you can see that we have come across several obstacles in the development of our glorious garden. In our last blog post, Mae documented our battle (and subsequent triumph over) the powdery mildew on our squash. HOWEVER, we didn’t mention that our squash also had these little swarms of white flies that emerged when you disturbed the plant. They also seemed to be spreading to our tomato plants. They didn’t bite, they just landed (disturbingly) on your clothes and hung out for a while before returning to the jungle-like squash.

Anyway, I was confused as to whether the white flies were related to or separate from the powdery mildew on our squash. Yet again, Googling was not very helpful, and so I contacted Professor George Ellmore in the biology department at Tufts. Professor Ellmore has been extremely supportive since the inception of the student garden, from providing many a word of wisdom to letting us start the plants in the greenhouse. I hope he will forgive the sad attempt at a pun in this post’s title.

This is what he wrote:

I can share some of how I’ve seen gardens behave in this area. Overall, vegetable plants tend to look good in June and July, but after they produce lots of tomatoes, zukes, or other produce, they weaken and become more susceptible to insects and fungi. So an August garden tends to look a bit bruised, no matter how well you treat it. August also brings humid warm weather that favors fungal growth just when the vegetable plants are slowing down. In other words, the fungi and insects you notice are completely normal for this time of year in a productive vegetable garden.

Squash has certain mildews that attack it (after it has produced some squash), and tomato plants will resist fungi from May-July, but finally show it in August. While the tomato leaves may curl up and go yellow and brown, the *tomatoes* will continue to ripen, so do not remove the plants until you harvest all the tomatoes you want.

The insects you describe sound like whiteflies. They are small clouds of white gnat-like flies that are annoying in the garden, but tend NOT to cause significant harm. Whiteflies are attracted to tomato and eggplant (both members of the tobacco family:  Solanaceae).

When these things happen in my vegetable garden, I let it go. The plants are in decline, but still yield good tomatoes. Whiteflies will disappear when nights get cool.

Don’t you just love when knowledgeable people tell you exactly what you needed to know? Thank you, Professor Ellmore!

So to the people working on the garden: keep enjoying the delicious tomatoes while you can! We have already begun the transition into fall; the last time I was at the garden, Mae and co. had planted brussel sprouts! Yum.

If you would allow me to rhapsodize for a minute, I am so gratified to have worked on the garden this summer. Despite the temperamental fences, gargantuan tomato plants, powdery mildew on squash, misplaced garden maps, the shed that took forever, or “BUNNY RABBITS AAARRRGHHHH!!!!!”, this summer has been full of discovery and challenges for all of us. Many of my favorite garden moments this summer were simple; on the way back from Davis Square, I would often stop at the garden, perch on the bench, eat a tomato (or two), and simply savor the rare quiet and solitude that our garden offered amidst the rest of bustling Somerville. So THANK YOU to all my fellow gardeners and the gardening goddess Mae Humiston for their hard work and dedication! Here’s to many productive seasons to come!

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A most productive day

We did so much today! Sometimes you just need to commit yourself for hours on end… the results are stunning!

Suzanne with a patch of squash under siege from powdery mildew

Sadly, our squash fell victim to powdery mildew. (Powdery mildew is a fungus of the order Erysiphales that lives on the surface of (and gets its nutrients from) the leaf.)

It’s pretty gross/sad/fearsome. Suzanne did some research on it which she’ll post later. What I learned from her:

  • when watering squash, don’t just spray over the leaves, aim under the leaves and get the dirt. This limits the amount of water sitting on the leaf that allows gives the mildew an environment in which to grow and spread their spores.

    Powdery mildew.

  • it spreads easily, but can be combatted with a milk spray (which also sounds gross. Milk sitting out in the sun on plants… can’t smell too awesome. But what do I know.)
  • don’t compost the infected individuals. The spores can stay alive in there.
  • it REALLY takes over. And it’s not just squash, it’ll go for your cucumbers and melons too. It likes those vining fruiting plants!

So we ended up pulling out a few of the really affected plants to 1. open up space for some cold-hardy crops and 2. hopefully curb the spread. We’ll see how it works.

Suzanne pulling out a really mildew-y squash. Don't put them in the compost.

So that was part of today. It took a lot of work because the squash were so intertwined with each other it was hard to figure out which plants deserved to die. (Just kidding, but seriously, they had to go.) It would also probably be best if we had gotten rid of them all, but it’s hard to let go, so we’re going to try to salvage the remaining plants.

You may think it looks pretty (the bees do) but it's evil.

But removing those couple of squash plants opened up the garden considerably. It feels much more organized now. And we can move around in the garden! So we were able to cut out some of the bindweed (evil) that took over the fence-line, open up the view, let some little plants see the beautiful sun, clear some paths and reach some formerly unreachable corners…

AND BUILD AN INSANELY CUTE PATH!!!

Lydia building a path from salvaged tiles

Earlier this summer I was looking on Craigslist for free/cheap gardening supplies. I didn’t find any but I found out that there was a woman living near Tufts giving away old kitchen floor tiles. I offered to take a few off her hands, knowing we’d find SOMETHING to do with them. So today, when I had to take a break from priming the shed and inhaling fumes in the heat, I took a few of the tiles into the garden and laid them down in a spot where the grass was wearing away and getting muddy. AND IT WAS SO CUTE! Suzanne came over and we deemed it a good idea. So Mariah, Lydia and myself took turns digging up the dirt where the path goes and then we pressed the tiles into the dirt and packed them in.

A tile we unintentionally broke by stepping on it.

Some of the tiles were broken, some were whole, so we used our creative whims and used broken pieces to create “whole” stepping stones. We’ve also (accidentally) broken a few whole ones by stepping on them when they are not fully supported underneath but the effect is cool, so no worries! Ultimately, we want the “sidewalk” to reach what will someday be the official entrance (the gate closest to the shed). I also think it would be neat to keep salvaging tiles over the years and filling in the empty spaces with them. Every generation could add their touch!

ISN'T IT DARLING??

And less exciting progress: The shed has been completely primed and is ready to be beautified (perhaps an event during Freshmen Orientation? I won’t be here but I know Mariah will!) We’re also hoping to finally get the roof on and the door straight this week. Once that happens, we can put shelves and hooks inside and start storing our tools there!

Also, since the fence is kind of ghetto-fabulous (it falls every which way on most days) we’ve lined part of it with some concrete blocks. We’ll remove those when we get the fence to stand up on its own (is that possible?) I’m thinking maybe making a raised bed out of the concrete blocks when we’re done using them as props? It could be cool.

But not as cool as this kid.

ohhh yeah.

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The garden had come to this

The garden had come to this, had reached this pitch of green uproar in the few short weeks since May, when I’d set out seedlings in a considered pattern I no longer could discern. The neat, freshly hoed rows had once implied that I was in charge here, the gardener in chief, but clearly this was no longer the case. My order had been overturned as the plants when blithely about their plant destinies. This they were doing with the avidity of all annuals, reaching for the sun, seizing ground from neighbors, fending off or exploiting one another whenever the opportunity arose, ripening the seeds that would bear their genes into the future, and generally making the most of the dwindling days till frost.

-Michael Pollan in Botany of Desire

The squash has made the most of the dwindling days. And now space to move is what dwindles.

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Summer and Winter Squash

Anyone who has seen our garden recently has also seen a whole mess of squash. Our plants are running wild! and I’ve been feasting on the outcome. We seem to have many varieties of squash (one which was identified as Costata Romanesca squash by Suzanne in a previous post) and I’ve been pretty mystified by lots of them. Though I can’t identify all of them, I do have a pretty surefire system for dividing them into two groups- summer and winter squash- which should dictate the way to cook them!

I visited my grandfather, a seasoned gardener, last weekend in Connecticut and picked his brain for information on the difference between summer and winter squash. I’d been kind of baffled by the names, because 1) it’s summer and 2) we clearly have both summer and winter squash in the garden. Turns out, the name has nothing to do with when the squash is grown- it has to do with whether it can be stored.

The main distinction is that summer squash have soft, edible rinds and should be eaten when the squash is still immature (this group includes the Costata Romanesca squash and other familiar faces like zucchini and yellow squash). The winter squash, on the other hand, takes its time to mature (usually 70-120 days after planting) and has a hard, inedible rind and hard seeds (so, you’ve got your pumpkin, butternut squash, acorn squash, kabocha, delicata, etc). It can be stored for a while after harvesting, while summer squash should really be eaten soon after it’s picked.

So, if you can pierce the squash’s rind with your thumbnail, it’s a summer squash and you can eat the whole thing (and soon)! I recommend slicing them into stir-fry, grilling, and even grating into baked goods. If you’ve got a winter squash on your hands, you’ve got some time to try and figure out what recipe you want to try. You can peel the rind and cut up the flesh and roast the pieces or roast the whole thing (I recommend pricking it several times for ventilation and putting it in the oven at 350 for about an hour, depending on its size). You can then scoop the flesh out (it’ll be nice and soft) and use it in almost anything- mixed with potatoes in a puree, added to soups, on it’s own with some brown sugar and cinnamon (that’s especially good on butternut squash), the options are pretty endless!

So, go forth and harvest our ridiculous amounts of squash! I might not know their names, but they’re all going to taste delicious.

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Sheds and bugs and books, oh my!

GUYS! GUYS!!! THE SHED IS SO CLOSE TO BEING DONE!

Now why in the world is it taking this long? Because:

Mariana adding right angle pieces to the back wall, since we decided retro-actively that a post was probably a good idea to keep the wall from warping.

  • we’re not pros
  • Mariana was in Spain
  • we have to find miles of extension cords to power the drill with electricity from South (where there are a lot of Russians living at the moment)
  • things go wrong… all. the. time.
  • we forget bits… and improvise (see Figure 3. )
  • we only sometimes have a car
  • there is no such thing as a right angle
  • lunch breaks
  • Mariana and I are both pretty small.

BUT we’re getting it done. How?

  • we work long hours in rain and heat (all of today in 92 degrees, for example) (future potential employees read: dedicated)
  • lots of grunting
  • lots of “YEAH! YEAH! TAKE THAT YOU SCREW!”
  • patience

    Figure 3. So I said we're good at improvising. This hand-held screw bit served us until lunch, when we got a legit bit. Someone might chide us for that, but it worked.

  • we’ve learned to “think critically and problem solve.” If we come away from our college years feeling as though we learned nothing, we are forgetting these most valuable skills… manifesting themselves in the most creative (and perhaps illegitimate) of ways (again, figure 3.)
  • burritos as fuel
  • nice neighbors and friends lending us things (thanks Simon and the Frisbee boys!)

We’re hoping to add the last wall and the roof Monday evening (we’d love some help!)

After that, all that’s left to do is re-align the door (things go wrong, ok?), nail some scraps in to keep things from warping and/or moving, throw on some gutters, add some shelves and hooks, put the tools in, and paint it beautifully! (“As long as it’s done tastefully.” -John Vik, facilities man.)

The shed! We left it with the final wall clamped on and the door more or less attached. We'll be adding the roof soon!

In other news…

The squash has taken over. I’ll devote a separate post to this. But here’s a picture:

Part of the garden, taken over by squash.

And the final news of the day:

Through the magic of Freecycle and Craigslist, I scored the garden 2 gardening books: The Edible Container Garden and A Gardener’s Guide to Cacti: Succulents and Foliage.

I also got a box of cream colored tile (that stuff is so incredibly heavy) that I’m hoping we can use as a walkway to the garden, or at least as a little bit of decoration. If you have an idea about what to do with it, email me: mae.humiston@tufts.edu and we’ll see if it’s feasible!

And the actual final news of the day: there was a cute bug on the shed. Someone let me know if this thing has intentions to ruin the garden.

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Mid-July Harvest Bounty

Check out photos from our recent harvest day!

Collards, a green bell pepper, squash, chili peppers, leek greens

Banana peppers, tomatillos, green beans, squash blossoms, more squash and a baby zucchini

The lovely Mariah, Suzanne and Mae on our harvesting afternoon.

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Season’s Eatings

It’s interesting to think back to my childhood, and recognize my complete ignorance of seasons. As weird as that sounds. Having grown up in California, the weather isn’t always much of an indicator for the calendar. And fruits and vegetables weren’t in season, they were just there- under the bright fluorescent lights at the grocery store.
Now that I have spent two years in New England and eating fruits and veggies is no longer an obligatory task, seasonality has a whole new meaning.

I now understand why peaches are so expensive in April, why fava beans are only fresh in May, why strawberries seem to be overflowing all the way through the summer, and why root vegetables are so popular in November.

Especially this summer, as I keep up with the bounty of the Tufts Garden and watch the magic unfold at the Full Circle Farm (see older post), I understand that we have to stop depending on southern-hemisphere Chile to provide us with produce during its off season. It’s important to learn that we can’t always have it all. That’s what makes each fruit or vegetable that much more enjoyable.

In May, I could have bought a pound of plums at Safeway for $3.50 a pound. Instead, I waited for the obscenely juicy, ripe, local, $1.50 a pound ones that didn’t crop up at the farmer’s market until early July. I can’t even explain how excited I am for the flavorful and bright tomatoes that are taking over each stand right now.

The sublime FRESHNESS that comes with eating seasonally even reduces cooking time, I swear. I can’t bear to bake those gorgeous apricots into a tart, I’d rather bite into the plump meat, letting the juices run unchecked beneath the band of my watch. Pureeing tomatoes to make a soup? Criminal. I’ll eat those just like that apricot.

This may seem exaggeratedly crunchy, but I guess that’s why my friends tease me for lusting for green beans while they crave cheese fries.

But try it. “Eating locally” just comes along when you eat seasonally. It’s not about shopping at Whole Foods or making a point. It’s just that much yummier.

Pick something at the garden. Eat it right then and there.

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Conundrums posed by a Costata

If you saw this in your fridge, what would YOU call it?

That was exactly the question I was faced with when I brought home this unidentifiable Godzilla back from the most recent Harvest Day. My housemates asked me, “Suzanne, is that a zucchini in our fridge? Why is it so huge?” I was also under the impression that it was a zucchini, albeit a monstrous one, until I gave into the doubts in my mind and did some research.

What did I find? At first, not much. There are only so many ways that one can type “huge green zucchini-like vegetable name cooking help!” into Google without getting the same results. But soon, I found a likely candidate on a specialty produce website: “Star-Spangled Squash.” Cute, right? Like ours, it is so called because when you slice the squash vertically, it produces star-shaped rounds.

But that name wasn’t very helpful. There were very few recipe suggestions, and all I got was a lot of Fourth-of-July related websites. Finally, I think I figured out what our vegetable was: Costata Romanesca squash. Beautiful, right? This vegetable is an Italian heirloom variety, and it seems to straddle the line between summer squash and zucchini (maybe someone reading this could clarify things?). Also, according to www.harvestwizard.com, it is considered the “best textured and the best tasting” of the summer squash! Even when mature, its rind is never bitter, and the flesh has a velvety, nutty flavor. As I was already two steps into my Curried Zucchini Soup preparation, I decided to push valiantly on with my newly discovered vegetable. And so, I present to you:

Curried Costata Romanesca Squash Soup

(adapted from chef Susan Beach and TheKitchn)

Serves 6-8

3 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup all purpose flour
1 pound Costata Romanesca squash, washed and diced into 1-inch cubes
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and sliced
3 cups chicken or vegetable broth, homemade or good quality canned
2 cloves garlic, trimmed and sliced thinly
1 1/2 teaspoons curry powder
1 bay leaf
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/8 teaspoon white pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt or to taste
1 cup whole milk or half and half

  1. Make a roux by melting butter in a small saucepan. Mix in flour and stir over medium-low heat until golden brown and smells like roasted nuts. (For a gluten-free version, skip the roux and cook 2 medium peeled and quartered potatoes along with the zucchini.
  2. Place the following ingredients in a soup pot: zucchini, onion, broth, garlic, curry, bay leaf, cayenne, white pepper and salt. Bring to a boil over high heat, turn down the heat and simmer for 45 minutes.
  3. Remove the bay leaf. Add the roux to the soup.
  4. Remove the vegetable mixture from the heat and CAREFULLY puree with a hand immersion blender or a standard blender in batches.
  5. Return the puree to the remaining broth. Stir in milk or half and half.

To serve, reheat the soup over low heat, and drizzle each portion with a few drops of chili oil, if desired.

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I imagine that this recipe could be used as a template for getting rid of any excess vegetables (yeah, I see you CSA-ers out there!). It is healthy, relatively hands-off, and it just gets better overnight when all the flavors meld together. Mmmmm. Plus, the curry will make you sweat and cool you down!

But it is important to note that just one vegetable presents countless questions. Even after I figured out what it was, I am still wondering: “Are the Star-Spangled squash and the Costata Romanesca squash the same thing? If so, is the former just an Americanized name of the latter? Why haven’t I encountered this before? And what does heirloom really mean?” Our mystery squash also brings up the importance of cultural preservation of produce and trending in food. Just as the açai berry was pulled from the depths of the Amazon into a worldwide marketing phenomenon, what will be next?

And now for the next exotic vegetable that our lovely garden has thrown at us: Chinese yellow cucumber. Anyone have any experience with these? We only have one (so far), but I am already intrigued by the descriptions and possibilities. Until then, cheers!

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