This is going to be a weird spring.
For 13 winters something has been growing in my basement.
Now don’t be frightened, especially if you are a potential buyer of my house.
The things that grew were my seedlings. All through the winter. Under grow lights set under timers.
Trays and trays of seedlings growing in plantable peat pots.
Annuals. Perennials. And Herbs.
All legal herbs, that is.
From the tiny seedlings grew the fully grown plants that populated my garden each year.
But this spring, the spring of transition, the only thing I’ve planted has been this:
The only gardening I’ve done is the kind where you weed while kneeling on a gardening pad and watch the bulbs you’ve planted from previous years emerge from the ground.
So, this gardener without a garden needs your help.
Won’t you write to me with your gardening plans – especially if you live in my current town of Rochester, or better yet, if you live in Detroit, tell me what the gardening scene is like in the motor city. Write to me where you find my contact information and I will feature you as a guest blogger right here.
So, get your green thumbs out of the dirt and onto that keyboard and write me!
Now that December is here, this post about wrapping things up in my little spot in the Brighton Community Garden is way overdue. But I must write this final post as a conclusion to the unforgettable experience it has been digging, weeding, watering and reaping alongside my fellow Brighton neighbors.
My neighbors and I have shared watering and weeding responsibilities through a hot dry summer. Our tomato patches bursting with more than one family could possibly consume, we’ve traded beefsteaks for exotic varieties such as the green-striped zebra or tiny yellow jelly bean.
Sue Gardiner-Smith, the manager of the garden, made sure that we kept up with our commitments to clear the common paths of weeds and not let our own plots get too overgrown (that meant taming my wild pumpkin vines!) In return, she gave me carte blanche to take as much Swiss Chard as I could cut from her never-ending crop of the green leafy stuff.
My garden experience ended on Veteran’s Day. The kids had the day off. First, we paid a visit to the brand new Veteran’s Memorial sculpture, just next door to the garden:
Then, we got to work. We pulled out the last of the vegetation, blackened and dead as a result of a hard killing frost that descended over Rochester a night or two before:
We pulled up the fencing and the poles ( the boys had to have a stick fight with them atop the compost heap, of course):
Harvested our last pumpkins and carrots, and finally, chopped down the remains of that sunflower that grew to be about 10 feet tall.
Putting this garden to bed would be the first of many lasts for me in Rochester.
Like clearing out this garden, I’m literally pulling up my roots again. Rochester may not be my hometown, but it is for my kids.
When I cleared the last weeds with my kids, I knew I would never garden here again.
I would not be putting down my $25 deposit to renew my lease on this 10’x10′ piece of land that gave me so much delight. Next spring, this plot will be cared by someone else.
Next spring, I’ll be well on my way to finding our next home, and hopefully our next garden somewhere in Michigan.
Sue Gardner Smith, manager of the Brighton and South Wedge farmers markets, stands with a old abandoned barn along Westfall Road in Brighton. The barn is part of a site proposed as the Brighton Farm and Farmers Market expansion and renovation project. / SHAWN DOWD//staff photographer
Perhaps it is no coincidence that a woman with a surname derived from an old French word meaning “gardener” would become a grass-roots champion of the sustainable and organic food movement in Brighton.
With humble determination, Sue Gardner Smith turned her activism into a career in managing farmers markets — first in the South Wedge neighborhood of the city and now in Brighton.
Gardner Smith was the oldest of seven children growing up on a 70-acre farm in Wayne County that had been in her family for a century. She remembers walking through its cherry orchards with her father and tending to the family garden with her mother and siblings.
Being the oldest in a large family, Gardner Smith developed the nurturing traits of a “mother hen” by cooking meals and caring for her younger siblings. In her early culinary experimentation, some dishes were tastier than others. Even into adulthood, she still gets teased by her siblings at her first attempts in the kitchen.
“When I was nine, I came up with a dish called chipped beef on toast. It was wretched. … I have to say that my cooking and tastes have improved vastly since then,” said Gardner Smith, who now prefers making dishes like ricotta cheese and onions stuffed into Swiss chard leaves she grows at her 10-foot by 10-foot plot in the Brighton community garden, a project also under her charge.
In her experiences of living in cities abroad and in the United States, nothing unites people more than food. She has shopped for fresh produce in the open-air markets and dined in the cafes in the plazas of Brussels. In London, there was the tavern and pub culture, “neutral” places where local neighbors could gather for a meal and a drink at the end of the day.
During her 15 years living in the San Francisco Bay area, she visited restaurants like Chez Panisse and markets such as the Berkeley Bowl, where the air buzzed with a sense of what she called “food energy.”
“It’s not just about eating. It’s how people gather at markets to socialize and catch up with neighbors as they shop. It’s the sounds of local musicians playing among the produce stands. I have long felt that Brighton should have this kind of gathering place, and I’m glad to watch its success,” she said.
Since 2008, the market held each Sunday in the Brighton High School parking lot from May through October is a testament of Brighton’s desire for high-quality and locally grown food. One thing Gardner Smith admits is that from a short-term perspective, eating organic and local is a bit costlier. Also, a recent Stanford University study recently concluded that organic food is no more nutritional than conventionally grown food.
However, she believes these factors will not curb the organic, locavore trend. This is because people are starting to put values on reducing their carbon footprint and the use of harmful pesticides, and developing a direct and trusting relationship between the grower and the producer at local markets.
“The study missed the point and had too narrow a focus. When you buy local and organic, you develop a sense of trust with the farmer, and you are also helping to support the local economy,” she said.
In addition to buying locally produced food, Brighton residents also expressed a desire to get their own hands dirty in avegetable garden of their own. In 2009, the creation of a community garden in Brighton seemed like the next step.
“It seemed like an obvious sister project to the market,” said Gardner Smith, who with a committee helped build a fence and a gate system around 100 10-foot by 10-foot plots on Westfall Road by the historic Groos house. Outside of a few stubborn groundhogs that managed to breach the fence, Brighton residents have enjoyed the bounty of their harvests.
Now that the shorter days and cooler nights of autumn are here, it is time for Gardner Smith and the other Brighton gardeners to put their plots to rest for the winter. But that doesn’t mean that plans for coming years will be put into hibernation.
Her ambitions for future years include using funds from a $250,000 state grant awarded to the town to preserve a farmhouse, a barn and some of the farmland on Westfall Road. The proposed project aims to create a permanent location for the farmers market and an expansion to the community garden with educational opportunities for schoolchildren to learn more about agriculture.
“Not only is my job rewarding, it’s also a lot of fun. I’ve met so many wonderful people in Brighton who are committed to this meaningful work that really has made a difference.”
Indeed, Sue Gardner Smith’s name suits her well.
Like any venture in farming or gardening, my garden this year had its successes and failures.
My eggplant plants never made it past seedlings, their leaves turned into lace work by pests.
My cucumbers suffered the same fate, not before offering a few vegetables to pick.
But, there are some vegetables that made it through.
Many people think of October as time for picking pumpkins, but don’t tell that to these two fine specimens:
As I picked them out of my garden, a fellow gardener in a neighboring plot said: Wow, look at that pumpkin! Isn’t it EARLY for pumpkins?
Maybe. Maybe these orange orbs are a bit early to the party, but don’t tell them that, you’ll hurt their feelings.
Then, there are the tomatoes:
Now, I have some mozzarella in my working refrigerator, and some basil in my garden. I’m off to get another loaf of bread so I can make another sandwich.
What are your favorite recipes this time of year? Send them my way and you can guest post on my blog.
While gardeners and farmers feel the drought first, it won’t be long until we all feel it. No one, not even your neighbors who keep watering their lawns despite the news that more than 50 percent of the country is facing a drought not seen since the 1950’s is immune.
This summer has been brutal on our water supply. Newspapers and media reports are full of the plight of the farmer as they watch crops wither because most are at the mercy of rainfall for water.
But perhaps this drought is waking us up to appreciate the most precious resource we all take for granted. And it may be time to rethink and apply some extreme agricultural practices as the earth heats up.
In times like these, we can take a lesson from Israel.
Israel is one of the driest countries on the planet. On average, it receives only 19.4 inches of rain annually. Yet, thanks to cutting edge technology, and even more, the stubborn willingness of a people who know that in order to practically live in Israel, you have to believe in miracles, Israel blooms.
This tiny country has learned to efficiently use every drop of water that falls from the sky in the summer or coats the mountains in the north in winter to grow some of the most beautiful produce in the world. Check out this photo of huge greenhouses growing vegetables like eggplants, tomatoes and peppers in the Negev Desert. Check out this photo courtesy of Daniel Lawrence’s blog:
Israel not only makes the desert bloom, but it has developed technology and methods that the rest of the world can use to reverse and prevent desertification, as noted in this post from israel21c.org. Israel21c.org is an online magazine that offers topical and timely reports on how Israelis from all walks of life and religion, innovate, improve and add value to the world.
So here are a few tips we can learn from Israel to conserve our water resources not only during times of drought, but for the long haul:
- Stop Watering Your Lawn. Right Now. – You! Yes, you, the suburbanite! Fuggetabout your lawn. (okay, fuggetabout it is technically a Brooklyn/New Jersey and not an Israeli term, but let’s get back on topic) Israelis don’t have silly things like lawns. Lawns are nothing but vanity. I’ll say it again: STOP WATERING YOUR LAWN NOW. Your brown lawn has gone into dormancy and watering your lawn artificially just puts more of a strain on its root system. It will come back soft and green when the rains return.
- Use drip irrigation – Did you know that agriculturalists in Israel invented drip irrigation technology? Instead of wastefully watering your garden through a sprinkler, where most water evaporates into the air, use drip irrigation to deliver the water right to where the plants need it – the roots.
- Save that H2O from your A/C – As shown in the photo above, Israel has developed technologies that draw humidity out of the air for irrigating crops. On a smaller scale, you can do the same by catching water runoff from your central air conditioner (my hose empties into the slop sink) to water plants and vegetables
- Less Wasting Water at Restaurants – When you sit down at a restaurant in Israel, don’t assume that the waitress will automatically fill your glass with endless glasses of water. No way are they just giving water away if it’s not asked for. You have to ask for the water, sometimes twice – in two different languages, until the waitress gives you a glass of water. So, next time you dine out, if you are not going to drink the water, tell your server not to pour, or refill your glass.
- Selective Flushing – Here is a picture of just one type of toilet flush in Israel: The flush mechanism is divided into a big section and a small section. If you are reading my blog, you are indeed a very intelligent person, so I’ll let you figure out what purpose each section serves.
- Shower Shorter, or Shower with a Friend – a drought is a great excuse to share your shower.
- Rejoice in the rain: Finally, instead of getting all bummed out when your ball game or picnic gets rained just be thankful. Think of the farmers who need the rain for their crops and livestock (a.k.a. your food, right down to that box of Cheerios and glass of milk at the breakfast table). Any event, even a wedding, can have a postponement, a change of venue or a rain date. But there is no substitute for the blessing of rain.
It’s been more than a few weeks since I’ve written about my garden. I’ve had to pack the kids for camp. I was away visiting family and friends in New York City. There are several writing deadlines I must complete before the end of next week. And the family is in a bit of transition. More on that in a later post.
But, at the beginning of the summer, I said I would post about my garden, and I’ve got to get back on track.
Since early May I have been tending a 10 x 10 foot plot in my town’s community garden. I have been watering diligently
through this very dry summer.
When I was away, I left my garden in the care of some friends who have a plot adjacent to mine. They have a garden that is not only well cared for but is sealed like a fortress against any critters that may want to feast on their crops.
After a week of being away, I was tempted to drive out to the garden the night we arrived home. But there were kids and suitcases to unpack and get into the house. The garden would have to wait.
No one can tell me that there isn’t a time difference between New York City and Rochester.
Maybe its just the pace of time that moves faster “downstate” because when we returned from our week away in good ‘ol NYC, I was exhausted and slept until after 8 that morning.
I tried to push some energy into my voice when the phone rang and woke me at 8:15.
It was my gardening friend.
“Have you been over to the garden? I didn’t wake you? Did I?”
No, of course you didn’t wake me, I said, faking a wide awake tone into my voice. But, considering I just got home at nine the night before, and my garden would not be visible in the darkness.
I thought, is she mad? I’m still in downstate jet lag…why don’t Rochesterians get that there exists jetlag when returning from New York City? And you don’t even need to fly to get it!
“Well, you should get over there soon. Your garden is becoming known as the Garden that Ate the Community Garden!”
Indeed. In just one week’s time, my garden had exploded.
Now, compare my community garden at its humble beginnings back in May:
I cleared it and planted tiny seeds:
Sunflowers have grown taller than my tallest child.
Both the sunflowers – and the children
Pumpkin vines are creeping everywhere. I’ve actually received gentle reminders from my garden neighbors to please retrain my vines back into my garden plot and out of the common garden paths.
And, unlike a sun deprived pumpkin vine, not only am I getting blossoms that have been host to a number of pollen-intoxicated bees, but I actually have 5-10 pumpkins taking shape. I’ll need to make a lot of pumpkin pie this fall.
Not to mention a lot of tomato sauce:
The full sun of the garden has produced such strong leaves on my tomato plants, it looks like they’ve been going to the gym.
There have been some failures, of course every garden has them. My eggplant plants were eaten first by beetles and then strangled and overgrown by the invasive pumpkin vines.
The basil seeds I sprinkled never made it in this dry summer without a good daily watering.
But so far, this experiment in community gardening is paying off. Harvested my first crop of purple beans for dinner last night:
It’s post-July 4th – time for corn.
No self-respecting Northeasterner eats corn before the July 4th holiday and even then, some Western New Yorkers won’t partake in those yellow ears until at least August when they can be assured that their corn comes from a farm no more than 60 miles away.
My sister-in-law Maureen worked on a Francavilla Farm in Fairfield, NJ starting when she was 13 until she became a mother at age 30. She was in charge of dumping corn on the farm stand and selecting corn for special orders.
This makes her the family authority on corn. We were shucking corn for our July 4th BBQ when she noticed that two ears my mother purchased had been partially peeled.
This is a cardinal no-no and the inspiration for this blog post.
So, here are Maureen’s tips for properly selecting and preparing corn:
- Only buy corn when it is local and fresh – that means the summer and the summer only. No January corn!
- Look at the corns husk and make sure it is green and the bottoms are not dry.
- The silks should be a hue of pale yellow (we just used the word Hue in a Bananagrams game. It’s a good word game word.)
- Inspect the husks for possible worm holes and other imperfections. This usually happens at the end of the season.
- Fondle your corn. Check it all around to make sure it is fully formed and not missing kernels.
- DO NOT open the corn at the farm stand or store. It will immediately lose its freshness. This means NO SHUCKING corn at the store, unless you will immediately cook it. I’ve been known to give many corn shuckers at Wegmans dirty looks. Do they not know that they are murdering their corn?
- If an ear of corn is particularly good, you can eat it raw and it will be full of sweet flavor.
- Steaming not boiling is the best way to eat corn.
- It only needs five minutes in the steamer to completely cook.
- Maureen loves butter and salt. You don’t have to butter and salt your corn if it’s good, but she still does.
All welcome the season of corn!
Long ago, in another state, the Garden State, my neighbor Joe, a retired chain-smoking fireman, chided me as I put a tall tomato cage around the tiniest tomato seeding in my garden.
“Yeah right, like that’s gonna grow,” he said with smile as he pulled the waistline of his polyester pants over a plaid short-sleeved shirt.
Two months later, I teased him right back.
We were up to our ears in cherry tomatoes. Picked ‘em by the basket. And beefsteak tomatoes too. I had so many cherry tomatoes I had to give them away, and my city-dwelling co-workers in Manhattan gladly took some of the perfectly ripened produce off my hands. And of course, I gave some to Joe and his wife Pat because I was a good sport.
This year, I could have purchased some tomato plants that already had flowers or, heaven forbid, green fruit, and stuck them into the ground in my spot in the community garden for instant gratification.
But it’s far more satisfying for me to know that from seed to ripened fruit, I grew a tomato all by myself. When you grow from seed, you can control the variety and are not at the mercy of whatever is sold at the local greenhouse or big box hardware store. It’s also a lot cheaper.
So, once again, I plant a tiny tomato seedling in the ground:
This will be the year.
This is the year when I, as a gardener, who has lived for over a decade trying to eek out a ripe tomato or a proper cucumber vine in the dappled sunlight of my backyard, will finally understand what full sun means.
This is the year that this gardener becomes a farmer.
For $25, I signed on to care for a 10’x10′ foot plot of earth in The Town of Brighton’s Community Garden. I’m hoping not only to reap some great crops of vegetables and flowers for bouquets all summer, I’m also looking forward to the people I’m going to meet and the stories I will learn from them.
But when I made my first visit to the community garden, located along Westfall Road in Brighton, I wondered what I’ve gotten myself into.
This is the third or fourth season at the garden and many of the plots have been cared for by some pretty seasoned green thumbs. There are plots adorned and accessorized with fencing systems to keep out critters,
neatly divided quadrants, and well-built support systems to grow climbing bean and pea vines. There are plots that have strawberry plants and leeks sprouting up that were planted from the year before:
Some caring gardeners have even designed a scarecrow:
Then, I located my plot. Plot D-4:
Weedy. Messy. Nothing much to look at. But, hey, I signed on to this, and this little plot of land was mine for the season so I got to work.
It took little effort to pull out the weeds from the soft, loamy soil. The most delicious feeling soil I have ever worked compared to the clay-laden soil in my backyard garden. Did I mention that my neighborhood was built on a former brick making quarry. ‘Nuf said about the quality of the soil.
But out here: The Brighton Community Garden sits on a former cow pasture that was home to a century’s worth of dairy cows. You guess it, this soil is blessed by 100 years of blessed cow poop.
I weeded and I tilled, the only sounds I heard were the swallows and red-winged blackbirds that swooped and sang overhead.
I did bring along my iPod for company and listened to music on its tiny speakers. And, even though I was alone in this sunny field, I still kept looking over my shoulder to make sure no one was going to run off with it. There are some habits from New York City that don’t die.
After a few hours, my plot looked like this:
Not bad for a first day’s work.
Next up: I’ll install a fence and start planting some seeds.
Last Sunday morning, though I could have slept in, I woke up early. I woke up my family too. I told them we were about to take a trip into the country. No, we weren’t going through a corn Maze.No, there would be no pumpkin catapult contests. But I promised them, they would enjoy it. They were going to have a good time. Because I SAID SO!
Life has been way too hectic lately. I feel like I have barely seen my three children since late June. It seems like no sooner did my older son and daughter return from sleep-away camp and I washed all their laundry, the summer ended and so began the school grind. Homework and tests. Track meets and band practice.
But last Sunday morning, we had this glorious sunny perfect day. And we had no school and no work. I just wanted one chore-free day of me not nagging anyone spent out in the country. One day of me not badgering anyone to stop texting friends while I am talking to them or stop playing games on the computer.
So off we went.
as we whizzed past withering cornfields.
To reach our destination: the East Hill Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Farm and Folk Art Guild in beautiful, Middlesex, NY. There, we got a chance to see where our vegetables were grown all summer.
East Hill Farm is a project of the Rochester Folk Art Guild, a nonprofit organization and community of craftspeople and farmers. Since 1967, they have grown food and produced handmade practical folk art on a 350 acre farm. East Hill Farm uses old fashioned, chemical-free, hands-on organic methods to grow fruit, vegetables, herbs, eggs, pigs, and chickens for the community and for sale through our CSA and markets.
For the past 20 weeks, our family took part in a great experiment of owning a CSA share. Each Friday since mid-May we were presented with a portion of vegetables, fruit, herbs and flowers organically and lovingly grown by a group of young entrepreneurial farmers. Whether it was spring’s excessive rains or July’s excessive heat, we shared in the farmers’ risky dance with Mother Nature.
The farm had limited cell phone service so we got a chance to sample the simpler, slower style of life. We actually got a chance to catch up, share and talk as a family. How many times are family members distracted from each other by screens: laptops, DS games, cell phones, iPods?
Well, on this day in October my teen-aged daughter actually sat and talked to me. She sat and reminisced with me about the first time she used a pottters wheel this summer at camp as we watched a master potter throw and mold a clay jar before our eyes:
How many toys, clothing, dishes do we buy that are made of cheaply made mass-produced?
Then, in the weaver’s studio, my son got to try his hand at a loom, using wool that was dyed by an apprentice, the same young woman who brings us our week’s worth of vegetables. Thank you, East Hill Farm farmers. It’s been a great summer.