A unique and viable approach to establishing local food self-reliance and building stronger communities.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Gardening During Covid-19

New friends in the Sharing Gardens
We continue to have inquiries about how Covid-19 is impacting the Sharing Gardens so here is an update with some pictures to show how things are going for us so far this season. Overall, with only a few minor setbacks, the gardens are thriving and we're feeling very supported.

Mostly the weather in Oregon has been ideal for gardening this year. We have had warmer weather than usual and the Spring rains were spaced so we got just enough to keep the plants from drying out and needing supplemental watering until very recently. We're entering a drier/hotter phase now but our crops are all in the ground and well-mulched so things look good for the rest of the season.

As things shut down due to Covid-19 and people had fewer and fewer options for places they could go and practice "social distancing", we've had steady requests from folks offering to help with garden-tasks. In the beginning we were strict about keeping groups of people separate who came from different families, but have had very little incidence of the virus in our county so now, on volunteer days, we're not as strict about this. Being outside, in the fresh air, it's easy for those who come from different families to stay safe and socially-distanced. 
Our only group of service-learning students from Oregon State University before COV-19 closed schools to in-person classes. (Feb 22, 2020)

OSU students - shoveling compost into buckets.
A bucket brigade of compost!

Each stake got a quart of coffee, a tablespoon of wood-ash and a whole bucket of compost (Feb. 22). In May we planted a winter-squash plant in each mound. Now, in mid-July, the plants are already forming fruit!
Here's the same bed of winter squash in Mid-July (pole beans in the foreground).

We've been harvesting the cool-weather crops for many months now and in the last two weeks our tomatoes, summer squash and cucumbers have begun to ripen in earnest. Nearly all of our meals have at least one ingredient that was grown in the garden (including foods we canned or dehydrated in previous years) and lately we've had several meals that, except for the condiments, are 100% from the gardens. The fact that we are vegetarians helps us to be more self-sufficient in the food we grow. For example, we can grow all the dried beans we use in a year but would need much more land if we were raising animals for meat. (Grow Your Own Protein - Scarlet Runner Beans).

Lunch - July 2020 - All, fresh from the garden: lettuce, grated beets and carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, arugula, basil, nasturtium flowers and scarlet runner beans.
We only had one significant set-back this Spring when a shelf holding many of our 'starts' collapsed. Fortunately, the collapse was a s-l-o-w slide and very few plants actually fell out of their pots. We had to re-start all our squash plants as they didn't have big enough root systems and all their soil dumped out. Also, a few of the labels on tomatoes got mixed up but, as Chris likes to say, "They know what varieties they are!". We've planted 110 tomato plants this year!

We replaced the system of chains that were holding up the slatted shelves with saw-horses (seen here). It's a much more secure solution and also, we can remove the shelves and saw-horses if we ever want to plant directly in the beds below. Here we are laying out onions to cure. Our best year for onions yet! (These onions were grown from our own seed!)
Delicious "Tall Top" beets - the 'greens' are as yummy as the roots.
Our core-group of volunteers continue to come on a weekly basis and, as some of them have been with us for many years, they know the routines and can be trusted to take on the tasks at hand with confidence, joy and capability. We've also had a few new people join our share-giver family. Here is a gallery of pictures showing many of the volunteers who have been helping this season so far:

Early in the season, Chris and Donn - planting broccoli. The black collars are made by cutting the bottoms out of pots. We use them to keep the mulch from covering the plants, and to protect from cold winds. Snails and slugs can be a problem so we use an organic product called 'Sluggo' (iron phosphate pellets) to keep them under control.
Adri removes chive-flowers before we bundle them to share. Adri's been coming to the gardens since she was born!
Early May - Cindy thins the beets while Chris bunches chives. Carrots grow along the right-hand side.
Here, in late April, Chris and Rook plant a variety of sorghum known for its sweet, nutty flour - (we have our own grain-grinding mill and have been baking with store-bought, gluten-free sorghum flour for the past year.) Yummy!
Here are the same sorghum plants in mid-July! Variety shown: Ba Ye Qi (LINK: Varieties of Sorghum)
Cindy and Jim put collars and grass-mulch around cabbage plants - early Spring.
New faces: We've had some new faces in the gardens this year. The Covid-19 situation has been a catalyst for more people to want to participate as volunteers than in previous years. Though the majority of garden tasks still fall to Chris and myself, and our core group of 'share-givers' who have been coming for many years, it's been nice to integrate some new folks on an intermittent basis.

Andrea, Peter and Chris weed the winter squash patch.
Christine is a graduate student at OSU and found us through an on-line search for volunteer opportunities in our area.
Christine (at center, in back) then invited her sister, Amy and Amy's girls - Sadie and Marley to join in the fun. Here, they're distributing grass-clippings where summer squash will be planted.
Amy and her girls picking edible nasturtium flowers - delicious in salads!
Along with helping weekly with gardening tasks, Donn has been a big help with equipment maintenance (center - in green shirt)...
...and his wife Marilyn has a passion for mowing! A great combo :-).
Elephant garlic! Lots to share.
During the Spring months, we don't have a large amount of surplus produce to share with the two food pantries that we serve, but once summer is here, our Gardens produce large amounts of veggies. Just in the last two weeks alone we've donated over 100 pounds of cabbage, cucumbers and summer squash!

Grant, with red cabbage 'starts'.
The S. Benton Food Pantry and Gleaners have recently increased their commitment to providing healthier food choices for their customers. They are now gleaning surplus, organically grown produce from the Corvallis Farmer's Market. It is usually more than they can use so the Sharing Gardens bags-up the surplus to share with another Food Pantry - Local Aid. That's Grant (left) who's the new head of the Gleaners. He's also canceled three out of four "gleans" per month from Costco because they were sending so much junky pastries and very little actual bread. Yay, Grant!

Ba Ye Qi Sorghum heads.
We are so grateful for the reduced air-traffic this year as our land is under the flight-path for the Eugene airport. The skies have been just crystal-clear blue (except for when our governor decided the logging industry's burning of slash-piles -all the wood that's left after they harvest the trees- was an "essential service". Go figure!) The skies are so clear that Chris and I thought we saw a UFO the other night. Turns out it was just the star Sirius which twinkles green, yellow and red but it was so uncannily bright! Neither of us can remember seeing such beautiful, clear skies since we were kids!

Unfortunately, as farmers harvest grass-hay to feed cattle, the skies are getting a bit dustier than they were but hopefully, with reductions in so many polluting human-habits (due to the Covid-19 shut-downs) we can resist the urge to return to "business as usual" and be more mindful of which polluting habits we re-adopt as society opens again.
Jim and Chris, pouring compost tea. Love that blue sky!
Chris and Cindy, weeding. May 23, 2020
Wildlife has been thriving in the gardens this Spring! Swallowtail butterfly on lavender - Sharing Gardens - Spring 2020
Though it's been a very busy season at the Gardens, Chris and I have managed to dash over to the ocean for a few trips to relax and take a break. Here we are at Baker Beach in April. With half of the season yet to go we intend to stay healthy and keep the gardens thriving!
We send love to all of you in our garden-community. May this post find you healthy and happy and finding ways to make the world just a little bit better place to live - every day.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Saving Tomato Seeds

Striped German - Heirloom tomato
One of the missions of the Sharing Gardens is to educate people about the importance of seed-saving and to offer techniques to demystify this process. Today's blog covers the practical steps necessary for saving one of the home-gardener's favorite fruits: the tomato! If you're new to seed-saving tomatoes are good to start with because of their relative simplicity.

In order to save seeds that will "grow true" and produce fruit similar to the one you saved seeds from, you must start with an "heirloom" or "open-pollinated" (OP) variety (not hybrid). Hybrid seeds are artificially created by seed companies to produce plants with unique qualities (early ripening, bug resistance etc). The problem is that they don't "breed true". If you save seed from hybrids, next year's plants may or may not be what you want. If you wish to save seeds, choose seeds or starts that say "open pollinated", OP, heirloom or non-hybrid.
"Heirloom" tomatoes come in all types: here are large paste-tomatoes called "Long Toms"
OK, so lets say you have grown some beautiful heirloom tomatoes and you're ready to save seeds. If you have more than one plant to pick from, choose the plant that is healthiest, most robust, earliest to ripen and with the largest and/or best-tasting fruit. Then, pick one or two fruits that are the best examples of these same qualities.. If there are other people who harvest from your garden, put a twist-tie, or in some other way mark the fruit so no one picks it prematurely. We often use onion or citrus bags (plastic, stretchy netting) so we can actually cover the fruit, making it clear that it's not to be picked. Let the fruit come to fullest maturity possible. It's OK even if it starts to rot a little.

Black Krim (below) and Striped German
Here are two heirloom tomato varieties we saved for seed this year (right). We saved them as beautiful examples of color, juiciness and size. That's a Black Krim on the bottom and a Striped German on the top.

In saving seed, you wish to mimic nature's process. Have you ever noticed what happens to the tomatoes left in the garden after the first frost? They turn to a slimy mush, with the fruit eventually dissolving away from the seed. In the following year, robust little volunteers emerge from where the tomato rotted. The way we mimic this process: Remove the stem from your chosen tomato and put it in the blender with enough water to fill a quart jar. Whiz it in the blender, at a low speed, just long enough to separate seeds from fruit. Don't worry about the seeds. They have a protective gel that keeps the blades from harming them. Pour them into a wide-mouth glass jar. Be sure to swirl the blender as you pour the last liquid out so no seeds are left in the bottom. If you're processing more than one tomato variety in a row, rinse the blender well so you don't mix seed varieties. Label the jar so you remember the variety of seeds you're saving.

The next step is to leave them to "rot". To minimize fruit-flies secure a piece of cheese cloth over the opening with a rubber-band or canning-jar ring. Leave them in the open jar for 4-7 days. When it's warm outside, the process will go faster. Stir them once or twice a day with a chopstick to help separate the seed from the pulp. The pulp and non-viable seeds will form a layer at the top. The healthy seeds will sink to the bottom. Look for a nice scum to form on the top. Mold is OK. The picture on the left is of two varieties of tomato seeds in process. The ones on the right were just blended so no layers have formed. The ones on the left have been sitting a few days. The other picture shows the quality of the scum that has formed on the tomatoes once they are ready for the next step. Notice the bubbles which indicate a mild fermentation process.

The last step is to dry the seeds. Spoon out the scum and pour off most of the water. The viable seeds will have sunk to the bottom but be careful not to pour them out with the pulp/water. Add more water, allow to settle and continue to pour off excess flesh. Repeat this process till you've removed the majority of the flesh. Then pour the seeds through a fine-mesh strainer and rinse them in the strainer. Let them drip-dry and then tap them onto a piece of tin-foil, a jar-lid or other non-porous surface. We find that the lid to a plastic tub (like a yogurt container) works best as it's flexible and we can "pop" off the seeds after they've dried. Seeds will stick to paper towel or napkins. Transfer your label to the drying seeds and leave them to dry for a week or so. Be sure they are thoroughly dry before storage so they don't mold in the bag, envelope or jar.

Each seed-saver has his or her preference for containers to store seeds in. We use clean, small plastic bags or recycled plastic pill-bottles or other small jars. The most important thing is to keep your whole seed collection in a dry, dark environment with moderate temperatures, in air-tight containers. Avoid freezing or excessive heat. Stored well, tomato seeds can remain viable for many years.

Tomato seeds drying.

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Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Paste-Tomato Varieties and Peppers We Grow

Here are pictures of the four varieties of 'paste-type' tomatoes we grew this year. Paste-tomatoes tend to have a drier flesh so they are the preferred types for any process that involves cooking them down for paste, sauce or ketchup; dehydrating or making salsa. All varieties we grow are "heirloom" meaning they are non-hybrid so we can save our own seeds.

Ropreco tomatoes: small and flavorful - good in salsa, or sliced for sun-dried/dehydrated tomatoes. We also like to can this variety (and the San Marzano's whole).

San Marzano tomatoes: a classic paste-tomato; very productive - grow in clusters almost like grapes.

Long Tom tomato: these take a long time for plants to mature and ripen but if you are making lots of salsa or paste they are wonderful for their size and a minimum of seeds.

Moonglow tomatoes - sweet and creamy flesh; great in salsa, salads, or on pizza for that flash of golden color!

Here are pictures of some of the peppers we grew this year: It's a bit more challenging to save seeds from peppers than some other vegetables because they have a strong tendency to 'cross' with peppers of a different variety - (if grown near-by) - leading to unpredictable results. But with care and isolating the plants, the process is really quite easy.

'Poblano peppers' (L) - very mild heat; great for stuffing or roasting. 'Cubanelle' Pimento peppers (R) - a yummy, 'sweet', red pepper (no heat) - we love them because they are so productive and turn red faster than some other varieties.
Cayenne peppers (front, left corner) on a home-made drying rack.
Here is the classic green bell pepper; the variety we grow is called "California Wonder".
We love the bounty of autumn harvests! Elephant garlic, mixed peppers and basil - yum!