Victory Garden update: Getting in a few good digs

Charlotte\'s raised beds

Memorial Day weekend, though mostly seen as the first taste of summer vacation, also gives us time to reflect on the meaning of patriotism. For those of us who garden, it offers a little of both, especially now that more and more people are viewing their Victory Gardens as a way to save our country and our world.

Among the Ethicurean team’s gardeners, everyone has been busy adding more seeds and plants, even as some have faced weather setbacks. (I know it’s hard to believe, but some parts of the continent just aren’t warm enough yet.) And we’re not alone: not only are more people turning to raising some of their own food this year, but we’re fully aware that in our individual gardens, others give us help, support, and inspiration.

So what’s been happening in our Victory Gardens?

Land-scape gardening

Marc reports that over the last few weekends he acquired and planted pole beans (purchased seedlings), bush beans (grown from saved seeds), and several kinds of tomatoes (purchased seedlings, for the most part). He spent time improving the soil by working worm castings and other forms of compost into the soil. Since spring is also time to replant and rearrange, he also moved some unhappy plants to new locations and set up a “battle of the mints.” The “champion” is a well-established, but not very tasty mint colony and the “contender” is a far more tasty variety that had been languishing in a too-small container for a long time. He’s optimistic that the contender will be strong enough by later summer to contribute handfuls of mint leaves to tomato, cucumber, feta, and herb salads.

Marc\'s onionsThe photo to the right is something that was not part of the initial garden plan. A few months ago, Marc purchased two red onions from the farmers market but was unable to use them before they started to sprout. Just for kicks, he planted them in the garden. They grew vigorously, eventually sending up several-foot tall scapes and later some flower buds. He notes, “My guess is that my order of ‘blooming onions’ will be ready in a few days.” To bring some liberal arts to the discussion, he adds that “my upstairs neighbor, who is a professor of English literature, recommends Pablo Neruda’s ‘Ode to an Onion.’ She strongly suggests that by reading it out loud you will obtain a better appreciation of the poem.”

Finally, Marc gives a Victory Garden shout-out to the residents of the 2200 block of Ward Street in Berkeley: “About 20% of the front yards on this block are growing vegetables, with several being recent conversions from ornamental to edible. I can’t think of another street in Berkeley that has so many edible front yards.”

Water you going to do?

Kathryn spent her Memorial Day “power gardening”: weeding more grass that was growing amongst some thick patches of flowers, adding compost containing 15% chicken manure to the soil, topping off two wine barrel gardens with compost, pulling and composting poppies that have peaked, planting a total of nine tomato plants (some heirloom, some she has grown before and loves), and constructing a bamboo teepee for pole beans. She reports that she also planted tomatillo, eggplant, cucumber, apple pepper, yellow chard, a butternut squash, sunburst (pattipan) squash, and two kinds of lettuce, doing all the digging with just a hand trowel “because my poor ankle is still not strong enough to shovel.” (I think Kathryn wins the Determined Gardener award this month — that’s dedication!)

Kathryn also gives credit where credit is due. “All of my starter plants came from my friends at Kassenhoff Growers, a local organic wholesale nursery, who grow their seedlings out of doors, rather than in climate-controlled greenhouses, and only varieties that do well in our relatively cool summers,” she says. “They’ve taught me some good tips about growing tomatoes; one being to bury a 1-gallon plastic nursery pot about a foot away from your tomato plants, leaving just the lip above ground. I fill each one to the rim at least once a day. This method allows the water to slowly seep through the holes in the bottom of the pot, and the depth of watering encourages the plants roots to grow deeper down into the soil. Also, the tomato’s leaves are not splashed, which can make them more susceptible to disease.”

She adds a weather-related note: “This summer East Bay residents are under a mandate to reduce our water usage by 19 percent. With this in mind, I am forgoing my usual sprinkler system and watering almost entirely by hand. Fortunately, my roses, trees, and large bushes are on a timed irrigation drip system.”

Bonnie says she finally faced up to reality and admitted she would not be getting her soil tested and putting in raised beds this season. So in one “insanely long day, I weedwhacked the horrible waist-high jungle of dandelions and nettles in my back yard, pruned back the groaning lemon tree and rosebushes, and went to Spiral Gardens, a Community Food Security Project in Berkeley near my house, and bought seedlings of a black heirloom tomato variety called Paul Robeson, two Early Girls, several cherry tomatoes, a jalapeño pepper, a sweet pepper, strawberries, and lots o’herbs (lemon verbena, sage, parsley, tarragon, mint, basil).”

She planted all of the above in last year’s wine barrels and pots, after mixing in some organic chicken manure and coffee grounds she’d been saving. (The grounds, not the poop.) And to reduce her water usage as the East Bay is requiring, she has taken to putting a bucket in the shower while she waits for the water from their woefully poky on-demand water heater to get warm. The bucket is just enough to water all the plants in the containers. 

Amanda has also struggled with the weather in her garden, with the temperatures dropping recently. Still, even a chilly spell won’t stop her dreams of a big harvest: she and her family recently bought 17 additional tomato cages to support the garden’s crop of heirlooms.

A morel dilemma?

Charlotte\'s cold frameCharlotte’s garden, also affected by a late cold snap, has the opposite problem from Kathryn’s: she’s had way too much rain lately, leaving her with “not much in the garden but tiny seedlings and onions. All my warm-weather crops are still in the cold frame.” She does, however, hope to put in more raised beds (seen at the top of this post), which do warm up the soil earlier in the season, along the back fence and to plant her tomatoes there. Now that the rain has stopped, though, she’s torn between working on those beds or going out to look for morels (“a very difficult choice — fill my tummy now, or later?”). In the meantime, she has recently contributed an excellent article at Culinate about what inspired her to take up gardening and why she continues to grow her own food, even with temperamental weather.

Growing at a snail’s pace

Janet, who regularly insists she’s not a gardener, got inspired to buy some new perennial herbs (sage, thyme, and oregano) and hopes that the spots she picked get enough sun. She also repotted her rosemary. Yes, she notes, she “probably will starve if forced to survive on the garden, but, if desperate, I could always trap rabbits and try garden snails as escargot.” You can find photos of her lovely new herbs on her own blog — and I think we can all assure you, Janet, that we do consider you a part of our Victory Garden crew!

Elanor\'s gardenElanor reports that everything is growing pretty well now: some plants (peppers) are still struggling with the shade, and some (basil) never came up, but the kale, lettuce, chard, snap peas, beans, rosemary, leeks, tomatoes, beets, cauliflower, strawberries and cilantro are all doing pretty well. She’s learned to fight the snails, which, she says, “have munched on pretty much everything in the garden at one point or another. I used to think they were cute; now I take no mercy. Bonnie suggested that I bring them home and cook them up, but I haven’t taken her up on the idea, needless to say.” (If you do, Elanor, perhaps you could share recipes with Janet?)

She adds that she has also appreciated the palliative properties of the garden recently:

…how peaceful and quiet it is, how great it feels to stick my hands in some dirt after a long day, and how everything you do yields some change in the way it looks and whether or not it thrives. I’ve had my share of yielding negative changes (my pathetic attempt to separate little cauliflower plants that had all come up in the same place left all but one completely dead), but it’s great when it goes the other way and I find myself actually responsible for keeping stuff alive.

Jennifer\'s garbanzosWhile I know that I’ll get to enjoy that peace in the garden later this summer, I’ve been enjoying teaching my “nephews” about growing food from little seeds. We finished putting in the garden mid-month with tomatoes, herbs, watermelon, cantaloupe, and more beans, carrots, and greens. The older of my boys (not quite 7) provided some excellent help in planting herb seedlings and the bigger seeds (beans and melons), and he’s taking to gardening with great enthusiasm. Everything has taken off with a spectacular start — the black Kabouli garbanzos I planted look especially gorgeous — and over the holiday weekend I already had to thin the pac choi and the first row of carrots.

Since I had ordered nearly three dozen potted herbs (with an emphasis on basil), I had plenty left over to plant some at other friends’ homes as well as to pot a few for my own kitchen. I’m sure you’ll hear more about those sometime soon.

Like Marc, I’d like to applaud someone whose garden has given me additional inspiration this year: my dad. Despite living in an apartment complex where almost all the landscaping is done for the residents, he has spent the past couple of months starting seeds for peppers, cucumbers, squash, and herbs, and he’s just recently planted those seedlings in the hopes of harvesting fresh produce for him and my mother this summer. Dad’s the one who started me gardening back when I was a little sprout, and I’m so thrilled to see him digging in with the rest of us.

All in all, it’s a good start to the growing season, and I think we’re all starting to dream about all the wonderful produce we’ll be harvesting in the very near future. What’s new in your Victory Garden, Ethicurean readers?

9 Responsesto “Victory Garden update: Getting in a few good digs”

  1. limesarah says:

    We have potatoes growing, and they are HUGE!  They really shot up over just the past week.  The purple ones aren’t as adorably purple anymore, though.

  2. pattie says:

    Thanks for this wonderful update, and reminder of how pwoerful and peaceful it is a feeling to have a literal “hand” in helping things grow.  I printed out the poem about the onion, by the way, and am delivering it today, along with onoins, to the children who came to Open Garden each week at my home this spring and helped plant those very onions.  I delivered potatoes to them last week, and I have set up a “demonstration garden” in front of my garden gate so that they can stop by whenever they want and see how things are going. (The back yard is too hot, now, for Open Garden at the time of day when I would need to do it).  At least five of the families that were involved have planted their own little gardens for the first time, by the way.  How quickly “seeds” grow.

  3. tasterspoon says:

    This is so inspiring! 

    About the snails, I have actually read that the masses of snails in California actually originated with careless restauranteurs.  I don’t know whether this is true…  I wanted to eat mine, also, but someone pointed out that you have to be pretty confident that they haven’t been eating any poison put out by your neighbors. 

    Supposedly (I’ve done a lot of snail internet research – last year was really bad) if you crush eggshells and sprinkle them in rings around your plants, the snails are reluctant to slide over their sharp edges and will leave your plants alone.  I simply eggshelled my entire vegetable area this year and haven’t had a problem.

  4. Charlotte says:

    You can eat the snails — but you need to clean their systems out first. As I recall, you put them in a big bucket with a mesh top and feed them clean greens for a couple of weeks — lettuce etc. I imagine you need to rinse them every few days to get rid of the snail poop. At the end, you starve them for a few days to make sure you’ve really cleaned out their digestive systems. I’m sure you can google for real directions, but that’s the gist as I recall … my head is full of random info like this. Sigh.

  5. Bonnie P. says:

    I am serious about eating the snails, Elanor — start collecting for me! Ready, set, escargot!!!

  6. Janet says:

    If Elanor’s snails are the size of mine (shells typically about an inch across), Bonnie, you’d need a bucketful to get hors d’oeuvre. On the other hand, my dog eats them raw, shells and all, so you could try that option. Or I could offer up some significant slugs (3-4 inches long). Yum?

  7. Andrew says:

    I’m curious if you have any advice as to how/where to get soil tested.  I live in San Diego and am slightly concerned about consuming vegetables from my garden without knowing what they might contain.

  8. Andrew, I know that around here (Ohio) the county extension service (which is part of the USDA) can handle soil testing.  It looks like in San Diego you might try your local <a href=””>extension office</a>, too.  If they can’t do it, I’m sure they could point you to someone who could.

    There are probably also kits you can buy, but I have no idea what the cost range would be on kits versus having someone local come out and test.  Anyone have other experience on this?

    Oh, and tasterspoon, I’ve been trying the eggshells myself to keep down the pests… as well as to fertilize the tomato plants.  Will see how that works!

  9. Eve Sibley says:

    Hi Jennifer, I thought you might be interested in this petition urging the next leadership of our country to encourage the return of the Victory Garden:
    Please consider passing it on to those who may agree!