Monday, June 19, 2017

Garden Success!

When time is spent in a garden week after week, the subtle progression of the different plants you interact with become readily apparent. As I have strolled through the Learning Garden over the last month and a half or so, I have slowly taken notice of the progression of the crops that were planted before I took over, and watched as the plants that I have planted have come in behind them. As some of these plants come to an end of their productive lifespans, and while still others slowly crescendo towards ripeness, I have to say that it has been a beautiful ride.

I'm sad to see the broccoli and cauliflower go to flower so quickly, but I'm excited for the blueberries and raspberries, which are right around the corner! I'm also kind of bummed about the tomato plants that don't seem to be growing fast enough, but their neighboring zucchini and cucumbers are growing almost well enough to compensate!

Gardening is as much about empowerment as it is about accepting your powerlessness. You can give birth to thousands of living plants and feel the power involved in working with nature symbiotically, but nature gives, and nature takes away. When a plant reaches the end of its life and gets composted to be turned back into compost, it is important to remember that those nutrients will get back in the soil eventually, and the space where that plant was before can now be home to a new plant. Nature gives and takes, but if you keep planting seeds as old crops stop producing, nature just keeps on giving.

For this weekly update I thought I would provide some pictures of the more successful crops that are planted in the Learning Garden and look at some of the lessons that can be taken from each crop's success.

The blueberries beckon

Almost all of the blueberry bushes in the garden are heavy with fruit! There is one bush that looks as though it has been nibbled on, but all the others have thick clusters of fruit that is getting fatter and fatter as the weeks go by. I keep hoping it will be next week, but it will more realistically be another two weeks before these berries are nice and sweet and a deep blue. The secret to their success? The potting must have been decent for them to do this well in pots, but I think that periodic mulching and frequently watering was a big part of the secret. Since these are hooked up to the drip irrigation system, they get enough water to fatten up those fruits. Many people have blueberry bushes that are not frequently watered, and while some are in moist enough soil to still produce berries, some just produce leaves and slowly wither away. Mulching the bushes also help to promote soil health and moisture retention, and with the fresh straw that I put on them today they should be happy through harvest.

The raspberries redden

These raspberries are also bulging with fruits, but the story of their success is not the same as the blueberries. These raspberries are so successful because they have established a deep root system and are very hearty plants. These bushes are not hooked up to the irrigation system, and as a result only get watered when it rains, or when I soak them with a hose once a week. They do show some signs of disease pressures, they also have been nibbled on by deer, as evidenced by some of the chomped off stems that are on the tips of plants. Luckily, there are plenty of berries on the way.
Zucchini blossoms are a sign of the times
The zucchini plants in the foreground, teeny tiny tomatoes in the middle, cucumbers in the back, and leeks on the right

Even though there are technically two more days until summer, I usually judge summer as having started when the zucchini blossoms start showing themselves. Normally, there would be tomato blossoms already to accompany them, but these tomatoes were planted late and got root bound in their pots and, evidently, a little stressed out. Hopefully they will catch up, but the zucchini and cucumbers are certainly doing their best to make up for their neighbor's under performance. The zucchinis are already forming behind the flowers, and I spotted a handful of one inch long cucumbers today that are starting to bulk up.

The grape vine slowly creeps upward
The grape vine growing here was procured by the previous garden manager, and I planted it without knowing too much about grapes. I did know that they like rocky soil, however, and sure enough, it seems to be growing well! I have started to coax it to climb up and around the post of the outdoor classroom structure. The dream is to one day have this grape vine grow up over a section of the roof, and have bunches of grapes hang down into the structure. Within a couple years it will likely be up to the roof, and in a couple more the roof should be covered in the vines, which hopefully then become laden with fruit! With the plant of such a small size this year, I'm not sure if it will produce any sizeable grapes, but I did see a small bunch starting to form, and will be keeping an eye on it in the coming weeks to see what happens.

Straight(ish) rows of scallions, also known as green onions
Though not the most aesthetically pleasing crop, these scallions are looking good to me. they were replanted about a month ago now and are getting to be a decent size. Almost all of them are healthy, and there is a decent amount of them! Since these scallions are smaller than most onions, they are more tender and mild, and are great raw on top of a salad, as a topping for cheese and crackers, or as something to blend into a cream cheese or salsa dip. With just a little bit of bite and a lot of flavor, I am looking forward to trying some of these scallions in a couple weeks.

Looking forward to the future, the Learning Garden is looking good. Plants are growing, vegetables are forming, and people are passing through occasionally to take notice. Today a Bon Appetit employee stopped by to tell me that the garden looked good, and he talked to me briefly about the garden he has at his house before wishing me a good day and going back to work. I hope to invite a few groups of students to participate in garden activities in the coming weeks as the lessons to be learned from a garden are often more potent and accessible when things are juicy and delicious.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Growings-on in the Learning Garden

As is true for so many things, an effort to raise vegetables can be aided greatly by reflection. To follow up on last weeks personal introduction, I would like to give readers an introduction to what is growing in the garden and take the opportunity to reflect on the state of things. 

The Saint Martin's University Learning Garden consists of roughly 10 beds, and a series of other plantable spaces like in-ground raspberry beds and some large pots for blueberry plants. I say roughly 10 beds because one of the smallest ones is occupied primarily by a behemoth rosemary plant, which takes up the majority of the space. Barring that bed, I will document here most of the plantings that are found in the garden and discuss how they are doing, and possible reasons for their success or failure. 

One of the deepest beds in the garden, at around 2 feet deep, with peas on the outside and beans sprouting in the middle rows
Peas, especially sugar snap peas, the most common ones you can munch on while still in the pod, like to be trellised. While they were planted in this bed that has trellis lines on the sides, they never actually got to the height that they needed to in order to start growing upwards. They did send out flowers, and produce peas, but they are already on their way out of production after only a week or two of fruiting. What happened? A lot can be learned from the way they were planted. They came with about 6-8 plants in a pot, and were planted as whole clumps instead of being broken up into 6-8 individual root systems before being planted. As a result, they show distinct signs of being rootbound - in other words, the roots did not have enough space to breath and grow individually. The plants could have benefited from more space, and more active trellising.

The beans that are sprouting up now were planted as the peas were first flowering, and show signs of pest damage, likely slugs. If they can survive this first onslaught, they will hopefully grow larger and produce some tasty beans. The seeds that were planted were beans that were grown in the Learning Garden last year. 

Cauliflower (already going to flower) and purple broccoli
This bed is doing reasonably well. The plants are healthy and growing well, but the cauliflower has already started to flower! This is not good, as it means that these plants will produce no cauliflower, other than the meager flowers they have put out prematurely. A likely factor is the heat that we have had in recent weeks, which acts as a sign to the plants that they need to put out seeds soon or risk dying without reproducing. The purple broccoli seems to have sustained the heat better, but we will see how they fare in coming weeks. 

The broccoli bed last week, with tiny, but tight, heads of florets
Green broccoli this week, unfortunately flowering and going to seed
Broccoli, like cauliflower, can easily go to seed when there is too much heat and they aren't harvested in time. Unlike the cauliflower plants posted up above, these broccoli plants at least had decent heads on them before they went to seed. They are still very much edible, quite delicious in fact, but not exactly marketable anymore in a commercial setting. People typically want tight heads of broccoli with dense florets, and these heads of broccoli are on the verge of having more flowers than florets, and are loosening up as the flowers get sent upward and outward. If they had been harvested last week, they would have been an all around successful crop, and in some ways they still are, but my desire to let them bulk up some more allowed for just enough time for them to bolt by the time I made it back to the Learning Garden today. 

Red scallions, growing well!
The bed pictured above is one of the most conventionally successful in the whole garden. When I arrived, the scallions were planted a little too densely, so I ripped them out, put them into small groups, and replanted them. Scallions are small onions, often called green onions, that are harvested young and used for topping salads and other foods. The way they are sold is in small bunches, and this type of planting facilitates the easy harvesting and bunching of scallions. The yellow shoots that can be seen are not a cause for concern, they are the outermost layer of skin, also the oldest, and do not tell the whole story of the planting. The inside growth is still fresh and green, and the yellow parts can easily be peeled off when harvested for a more aesthetically pleasing (and palatable) result. 

Two types of kale on the left, and red and yellow beets on the right. 
This bed is also doing very well, partly because kale pretty much takes care of itself. If you let kale go to seed in your garden, you are almost guaranteed it will come back on its own the next year. The darker, less serrated leafed kale is Lacinato kale, and the crazy looking lighter kale is Red Russian, or Dinosaur kale. They both are very abundant and fertile. 

On the right are a few rows of beets. These were also planted a little too densely when I inherited the garden, and I took the time to thin them out and give the beets space to bulk up. Especially with root crops like carrots and beets, thinning is crucial for a successful crop. If the plants are spaced too closely, they will grow into each other, fighting for space, and ultimately inhibiting each others' growth. The replanting definitely stressed out some of the beets, but others are loving the wiggle room and are expanding rapidly. We are maybe 3 or 4 weeks out from our first sizable beets. 

The greens bed, a mess of stressed out, flowering greens.
This bed of mixed greens is a mess. It is a product of the crazy spring that we have had here in the Pacific Northwest. First it was cold and rainy for too long, then intense heat hit us here and there, and that is a great way to have leafy greens freak out and send out flowers much too soon. While you can still dig out some usable leaves from the craziness, this planting is too far gone, and I will be tearing it out today and planting a bed of potatoes in its stead. 
Last week, with strawberry starts hanging out for watering purposes

This week, with tomatoes planted in the center, zucchini along closest and left walls, cucumbers along far wall, and leeks on the right

This bed, which is also reasonably deep, and enjoys a bit more full sun in the afternoon than the other beds, is doing quite well. The tomatoes that I planted were from donated seeds that I started at my house, and are taking a little time to really take off. Some appeared to be damaged by pests this week, but I'm willing to give it another week before I am really worried. The other vegetables planted here seem to suggest that all is well. The zucchinis and cucumbers are all bulking up nicely, and the leeks, though they are taking their time, are looking healthy and disease free. Most leeks and onions, in the allium family, don't have many pest problems. If you've ever eaten raw onions, you might have a clue as to why! ;)

On the subject of pests and diseases, I am not sure how the combination of zucchinis, cucumbers and tomatoes will do. Zucchinis and cucumbers are notorious for attracting powdery mildew, and tomatoes are notoriously susceptible to ailments such as mildew when they are around, though they don't seem to attract it on their own as much. The zucchinis and cucumbers are members of the curcubit family, while tomatoes are in the nightshade family, so I'm not sure if they will play nice or not. With the curcubits having a couple weeks of a head start, if it turns into a contest, they will likely win out over the tomatoes. Only time will tell!
The perennial herbs bed.
This bed, while planted this year, is filled with herbs that will, with any luck, continue to grow for many years to come. There is rosemary, thyme, sage, lavender, mint, chives, and horseradish. Yes, that's right, horseradish. I have never grown it before, but it, along with the other plants, were graciously donated by the previous Learning Garden manager Johanna, and are doing quite well! The chives were rescued from the compost pile, which had a wealth of different plants growing on it. Many of them I just sent back to compost land, but I figured the chives would make a nice addition to the herb bed, and there they are, clinging onto life in the midst of the other herbs. This bed, with some preventative weeding each week, pretty much takes care of itself as well. 
A new addition to the learning garden, an in-ground strawberry bed
This strawberry bed was the brainchild of the previous Learning Garden manager Johanna, and was in an ideal spot, a previously weedy patch of dirt next to the apple tree. It was waiting for something to be planted, and after loosening up the soil and putting down some straw for mulch, I gave it some strawberry plants, also generously donated by Johanna. Strawberries are a delicious berry, and that flavor comes at a cost - strawberries are not always easy to grow. There are many different types of berries, and the plants in this bed are from 3 or 4 different varieties. That means that they will fruit at different times, produce different sized berries, and fruit a different number of times each year. 

In some senses it is good to have this diversity to space out the strawberry harvest throughout the summer, but it can also complicate the care for them. Some of the everbearing varieties, types that will produce strawberries more than once throughout a summer, like to have the first flush of berries left on the vine, or else they won't produce again the rest of the year. Other types need to be harvested the first time because that is the only time they will flush the entire year. These plants likely won't produce fruit this year since they were just stuck in the ground last week, but it is always okay to hope! In the end, just one juicy berry and all the work is worth it!

Two in-ground raspberry plantings, struggling, but ultimately putting out fruit
 Raspberries are some of my favorite berries, and the beauty of them is that they often grow like weeds! These raspberries are not linked up to the irrigation system, meaning that I only water them once a week when I come to the garden to work. Still, with little attention, and no thinning this year, their canes are laden with young fruits, and raspberry munching seems to be only a few weeks out.

As has been mentioned in relation to many other crops in this post, thinning can be beneficial to raspberry plants, but unlike carrots and beets, not thinning raspberries is not catastrophic. You can notice on some of the raspberry leaves that they are growing yellow and crispy, and some disease presence is likely, but they are still sending up new shoots, and producing fruit on schedule. In terms of raspberries, thinning can benefit them in a few ways, mostly root space and air flow. When the airflow is restricted by a mass of leaves, diseases and pests can attack plants more easily, jumping from plant to plant with ease, and with little wind to carry away the intruders. Raspberries also routinely send up new shoots each year, and root space can get crowded. Had I started a couple months earlier at this job, I would have done a quick winter prune, but now that there is fruit on the canes, I will wait until after the harvest at the least to prune so as not to shock them and damage fruit production.
Blueberries! They're so plump and almost ready to devour!

The blueberries that are planted along the walkway into the garden are absolutely thriving! Most of them are planted into what look to be halves of wooden casks, which gives a cool look to the bushes coming out the top. There are nine bushes in all, eight of which are doing extremely well, and one of which is doing so-so. They are in a spot that is shaded by two large cedar trees, but they don't seem to be suffering because of it. The fruit is plump, and is going to be ready to harvest in just a couple weeks. These plants have benefited greatly from being hooked up to the automatic irrigation system, and without that daily watering, they would not be able to survive like the raspberries have. Blueberries are, like strawberries, a picky crop to grow, but I am fortunate to have healthy, happy bushes to take care of! A little weeding and some extra mulch, and they will likely continue to be healthy for many years more. 

In summary, this garden is like so many other gardens and farms in that some things are growing incredibly well with little effort, while other things are not cooperating, and ultimately, failing. Over time, with good stewardship and reflection, we can learn more about how each garden grows, different soil types, different sun exposure, different watering techniques, etcetera, and with each year, we can learn a little more.

Until next time, your gardener,
Lee Kaplan-Unsoeld

Monday, June 5, 2017

New Gardener on the Grounds

Hello to anyone and everyone reading this!

My name is Lee Kaplan-Unsoeld, and I have been selected as the new Learning Garden Manager here on the beautiful Saint Martin's University campus in Lacey, Washington. I am excited to have this position and opportunity for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that I will be getting my hands dirty on the campus where I studied for four years of my life. Well, most of four years anyway, I did sneak off to study abroad for three semesters at SMU, but I was here on campus for the other 5 semesters. Time well spent, without a doubt.

A grainy photo showing (most of) the Learning Garden at SMU
In a way, it was very natural for me to take on this position. SMU led me to my start in agricultural work back in 2013. I work full time now for Kirsop Farm, a local organic vegetable and meat farm located about 30 miles south of campus in Rochester, Washington, and I don't know if I would have ended up there if it hadn't been for my experiences at SMU.

My freshman year here at the institution, I had the privilege of taking a course entitled Farmworker Justice, taught by Professor John Hopkins, that had a week long "alternative spring break" service learning component of the class. We took our spring break trip to Yakima where we met people working for Catholic Community Services in farmworker housing projects, young adults spending a year with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps working in a range of capacities with farmworkers, as well as actual farmworkers, working in an orchard outside of Yakima.
A bed of kale and beets in the Learning Garden
While chatting with Ramiro, the field manager at the orchard, and Bryce, one of the office managers of the orchard, they politely answered questions we had about what it was like to work in agriculture. They did their best to appease our curiosity, but Bryce went a step further, offering us all jobs that summer if we wanted to learn firsthand what it was like. I jumped at the opportunity, and haven't looked back since.

That summer I picked cherries and pears until my back and shoulders were screaming at me like a death metal singer; I whacked and chopped at weeds for thousands upon thousands of feet; and I ate PB&J's and tacos with my Latina and Latino co-workers until they started to open up and began to tell me about their lives. Agricultural work is tough work, and while it can pay highly during harvest time, especially for tree fruits and berry crops, the rest of the year is mid to low-level hourly wages, which is not easy to live on. The people I worked with told me of their struggles, their lack of health insurance, their bad backs, the long, hot days, and the short, hot days when it got to be too hot to work and our hours were cut short. I learned more in that summer than I had learned the whole previous semester (no offense to my wonderful professors!), and it left me wanting to learn even more.
A bed of green onions at the Learning Garden

Growing food is hard work, and it requires millions, if not hundreds of millions of people around the world every year in order to sustain our growing population. Yes, many aspects of agriculture, especially here in the United States, are now mechanized, but the people operating the machines, and the people doing the fragile and awkward labor that machines can't yet do, are still in high demand in order to get food onto our tables.

My backyard garden, freshly plowed thanks to a friend's two-wheeled walking tractor. The beds are about 3'x30', much bigger than the beds at the Learning Garden, but still tiny compared to the beds at the farm I work for.
How much do you think about where your food comes from when you are perusing the grocery store? How much do you think about the women and men who grow that food? It's okay of you say to yourself, "Not at all." You are in the majority of Americans. It wasn't so long ago that many Americans had their own vegetable gardens, and grew a lot of their own food themselves, but it is surprising how quickly that information falls by the wayside. When I invite my friends over to my home garden, many of them struggle to recognize the plants that produce the vegetables that they can easily identify in a store.

In that way, gardens, like the Learning Garden here at SMU, are some of the best ways we have to get reconnected with our food. To see the baby plants grow big and send out their shoots and flowers and fruits is to watch food be created through the alchemistic forces of nature. To see that baby broccoli plant turn into a bountiful head is to know how long these processes take, all the weeding and watering that has to be done, the long term health of the soil that has to be tended to, and the long, hot days that are essential for the photosynthesis to take place. All of this, and much more, just to produce something that will cook down to half the size in a pan, then be devoured in minutes.

And then, when you are holding that broccoli, you may find yourself thinking, "What if I had 10,000 broccoli plants to tend to? How much weeding and watering would that take? How many people would I have to have helping me to harvest it all? How long would it all take?"
My co-workers Zenaida and Augustina planting onions earlier this spring. The beds at Kirsop Farm are around 1000' long, and at this scale, tractors are almost a requirement. Still, at 60 acres, Kirsop Farm is on the smaller end of commercial farms.

If you find yourself asking yourself those questions, you're on the right track. Sometimes all we have time for is a cup of coffee and a muffin before we run out the door, but other times, when we have time to daydream in a garden, it serves us well to consider where our food comes from, and, at the least, give thanks for all of that invisible work that is done in the fields for our benefit and nourishment. The fact of the matter is, food comes from the ground, and the people who grow it, harvest it, pack it, sell it, prepare it, and serve it are directly serving us. Without them, what would we eat?

I hope that my time in the Learning Garden at SMU will help provide hands on experiences for students that will help them think about where their food comes from, what goes into producing it, and connect them to that process. I don't expect anyone to drop out of college and become a farmer (at the very least wait until you graduate!), but if students can learn just what a struggle it is to get something to grow, they may take these lessons into the grocery store or farmers markets when they are buying their fruits and vegetables, and acknowledge how wonderful it is that that food is there for them to enjoy. And that gratitude is worth every bit of labor that I will pour into this garden.

Happy growing, folks!
Lee K-U