The Call and Times, Column 28 – Prepping for Fall – The Garden in Transition

29 09 2015

(August 30, 2015)

The Urban Farmer

Prepping for Fall – The Garden in Transition

Two weeks ago, we talked about the importance of making a Harvest Plan – a well-though-out strategy for using and preserving the glut of produce that we are blessed with at this time of year. I brought up some tips from my own garden and kitchen, and hopefully inspired you to find ways to can, freeze, root cellar, and dry your garden’s bounty, so you can enjoy it well into the winter months.

Now, as the steady march towards the fall becomes ever more obvious, with the cooler nights and the first changing leaves, it’s time to discuss a task that is arguably just as important as food preservation – smoothly transitioning the urban farm into the fall and winter months.

When I visited Cluck Urban Farm Supply last month, the store’s owner Drake Patten left me with an important bit of advice: “end your season as you began it, with intention”. Given the busy six months that many of us have already invested in the garden at this point, it’s often easy to neglect some vital fall garden tasks, those that would otherwise make our lives easier and increase production in the months and years to come.

These jobs include three big categories: seed saving, extending the season, and putting the garden to rest. I encourage each one of you (and, most of all, myself!) to try out some of the ideas below in your own gardens. Make the transition from summer to fall to winter as smooth and productive as possible.

Seed Saving

This is arguably the easiest of these tasks but, in my opinion, that which holds the most significance. Last year, I wrote about my Uncle Harry, great Aunt Petrula, and late great Uncle Demetre, and the nearly four-decade story of their selectively-bred “Russian Tomato”.

As I learned from them, by saving the seeds of your best, most productive, tastiest crops, you create a variety completely unique to your microclimate and garden. You are improving upon the hundreds and thousands of years’ worth of work that farmers, gardeners, and breeders have already put into a variety, and are making it easier to grow a superior product in your own urban farm.

Seed saving can be as simple as choosing the best fruit on the best plant, allowing it to completely ripen on the vine, and either letting it rot away on the vine, tying a plastic or mesh bag around it to catch the remains, or picking it ripe and letting it rot in a shady location, protected from animals. Once the fruit has rotted away, the seeds which remain are ready for planting, and can be stored in envelopes until the following year. Vegetables like lettuce, carrots, and onions can be left in the ground and allowed to flower and then go to seed (in the first or second year, depending on the crop). By tying a fine mesh bag around the ripening flower-head, the seed can be collected and stored the same way.

The fun in this comes from your personal definition of “best fruit” and “best plant”. Merely by saving the seeds of healthy, productive plants, you are adapting the species to your own microclimate – the rainfall, temperature, airflow, and pest populations of your own yard. But by selecting for specific characteristics – like the pointy-bottomed, meaty tomato that my Uncle Harry has made his current goal – you are forming the crop to your own, personal specifications, making a fruit or vegetable that you want to eat!

And on a more global scale, seed-saving ensures the preservation of the rich biodiversity that farmers and gardeners have thus far been able to coax out of the natural world. It is our heritage, and by improving upon open-pollinated, heirloom varieties, we all do our part to ensure the sustainability and self-sufficiency of our food system for generations to come.

Extending the Season

This year, I am making a concerted effort to have a productive fall garden. This can mean different things to different urban farmers, but in New England, there is a (relatively short) list of crops that will grow productively into the fall and winter.

This includes short-season root crops, like carrots, turnips, beets, and radishes, which can be grown during the fall and even left in the ground over winter, until they are needed; leafy green crops like lettuces and other salad greens, kale, cabbage, and certain other brassicas, and Swiss chard, some of which (brassicas and chard) actually benefit from frost and will continue producing into the late fall and beyond; and winter onion-family crops, like short-day onions, which are planted in the fall and grown (under some sort of plastic/greenhouse cover) over the winter, and garlic, which is planted in October and grows slowly until the following July.

Other than the relatively simple additional requirements of short-day onions, these crops can grow, with little protection, during some of the coldest months of our year. They should be planted right now (following the instructions on the seed packet) to give them time to gain some footing before the cooler weather comes.

To get even more out of the cold season, however, it is possible to buy or build a small-scale greenhouse of some sort. This could be as simple as a cloche (a small plastic or glass dome above an individual plant), a cold frame (raised bed with an old window laid on top), or a low tunnel (a half-soda-can shaped tunnel over a garden bed, constructed from PVC pipes and covered with thick plastic). It could also be much more complex a full greenhouse, passively solar heated or even electrically heated, with the option of setting it a few feet into the ground to utilize a little geothermal energy.

Whatever you choose, the temperature within a greenhouse is much warmer than the surrounding air, and can even remain above freezing throughout the winter.

Putting the Garden to Rest
Once the crops have borne their last fruit and the frost has arrived, if you decide not to grow fall and winter crops, it is time to end the growing season with as much attention to soil fertility and overall health as you began it.

First and foremost, this includes cleaning up dead, spent, and diseased plants, adding them to your compost pile or (better yet) feeding them to your chickens. This helps to minimize the overwintering of pests and diseases in the plants, and ensures that the garden is clean come springtime.

You also want to focus now, more than any other time of year, on directly improving soil fertility and taking measures to prevent its loss. Cover cropping is the growing of cool-season varieties of grasses, legumes, and other plants that naturally mulch and protect the soil over winter, and provide some fresh biomass to till into your garden come spring. Absent this, or maybe in addition, a few inches of good mulch (shredded fall leaves, cut grass, straw or hay, and even compost) will protect the soil from erosion and decay slowly over winter, adding to the soil’s fertility. Finally, fall is the time to add soil amendments: manure or compost for fertility and lime for soil pH.

Many of these activities tie well into the chicken coop, rabbit hutch, or other small urban livestock. They can be a source of manure (and, in the case of chickens, calcium amendments from their eggshells), and cover crops can serve as a green food supply for them during the cold months.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times. The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.


The Call and Times, Column 27 – Prepping for Fall – The Harvest Plan

29 09 2015

(August 16, 2015)

The Urban Farmer

Prepping for Fall – The Harvest Plan

A harvest of medicinal and culinary herbs, ready to be dried

A harvest of medicinal and culinary herbs, ready to be dried

The sun is shining, the chickens are laying, and the garden is bearing its bounty. We are in the height of the New England growing season, where the summer harvest is coming in strong, but fall is knocking at the door. Indeed, there’s no better time of year to plan for the coming months, and make sure the fall garden is productive and healthy.

Two years ago, I wrote a column entitled “Put ‘Em Up”, where I discussed the different methods that urban farmers can use to preserve the summer and fall harvest for winter. After my interview with Drake at Cluck Urban Farm Supply, where she stressed the importance of the fall garden, I was inspired to revisit and expand on those ideas.

In this and my next column, we will talk about the two major goals that every urban farmer should keep in mind at this time of year – preserving the garden’s bounty efficiently and completely; and preparing the garden for the fall and winter seasons (whatever that garden might look like).

Food Preservation – Making a Harvest Plan

First, let’s have a quick recap. The four major methods of food preservation are freezing, drying, root cellaring, and canning.

Freezing, just as the name implies, utilizes sub-32° temperatures to keep food from going bad. It is the least labor intensive of the four (most produce requires minimal if any processing before freezing), but can be limited by freezer space and reliable electricity.

Drying removes nearly all the moisture from produce, creating conditions that prevent spoilage. This can be done using a few different methods: air-drying on a drying rack indoors (limited to herbs); outdoor passive-solar dehydrating; and powered dehydrating in an electric dehydrator or stove set to a low temperature (energy intensive).

Root cellaring uses a cool, dry, dark location (a dedicated, in-ground root cellar, an alcove in the basement or garage, or even a kitchen cabinet) to leverage the inherent storability of certain crops: fruits like winter squash and apples, and root crops like potatoes, carrots, and onions.

Canning uses high temperatures to kill bacteria, and seal food in airtight glass jars, via two different methods: water-bath canning does this in boiling water, and relies on a high-acid and/or high-sugar (think jams, jellies, preserves, and pickles) environment to prevent spoilage; pressure canning uses a high pressure chamber to increase temperature above boiling, completely sterilizing the contents of the jar and preventing spoilage in low-sugar, low-acid things like vegetables. Consult the USDA’s website and the “Ball Blue Book” for specific, safety-tested recipes.

Keeping these food preservation methods in mind, it’s important to develop a harvest plan to ensure that all of your garden’s produce goes to good use.

The first step, of course, is to eat all that you want fresh. The best time to enjoy a berry or a tomato is right off the plant, still warm from the summer sun. Nothing beats fresh tomato salads, garden stuffed peppers, and berries mixed into yogurt at the height of the season.

Chances are that you’ll still find yourself with too much fresh produce to eat before it spoils. The next steps are to figure out, for each type of produce, which type of preserved product you’d like to eat down the road, and decide how frequently you are willing and able to preserve.

How exactly you do this depends very heavily on your individual preferences, tools, and skills, but here are some highlights from my own system. The most productive crops that I have in my garden are tomatoes, peppers, berries (straw, rasp, and black), potatoes (regular and, hopefully this year, sweet), herbs of all sorts, onions (this year), green beans, and lettuce, so I will address my methods for each of these.

Off the bat, I’ll say that there isn’t much in the way of storage for lettuce. We use what we can, but the rest tends to bolt – and that goes right to the chickens. I call that up-cycling – the (now) slightly-bitter carbohydrates are turned into high-quality fats and proteins in eggs. Let’s call that the fifth method of food preservation – storing spent and inedible produce in the bodies of livestock!

Green beans can easily be harvested in large amounts once or twice a week. I like to wait until I have a few quarts, usually after just one harvest, and I blanch and freeze them whole. Blanching is when you boil them for a few minutes, and then immediately submerge them in ice water, to destroy enzymes that would negatively affect the taste. This is a necessary step before freezing certain fruits and vegetables.

Potatoes and onions are great candidates for root cellaring – at least my family’s take on it. We have a dedicated cabinet space which, for reasons not quite understood (it is on an outside wall and very close to the stove), is cool, dark, and dry – this is our “short term” root cellar. After the potato harvest early in the fall (and this year, the onion harvest), we take the most damaged roots and put them into our “root cellar” for immediate use. The rest are stored in a cool, dark, well-ventilated room until we need them.

I grow a wide variety of culinary and medicinal herbs – you can just call me The Apothecary – and my absolute preferred method for preserving these is drying. Depending on the specific herb, I either string it up outdoors, in the shade, to air dry for a week or two, or lay it out on simple drying trays in a cool, dark, well-ventilated room. Once they are dry, they can be stored whole (best to keep the medicinal and flavorful oils from evaporating) or powdered to be used immediately.

One of my favorite methods for preservation is making tomato sauce. We’ve tried canning tomatoes in the past, and while they turned out alright, our preference dictates that nearly every extra tomato from our garden goes into homemade sauce. Whenever we accumulate 10 to 20 pounds of tomatoes (that should be very soon, if the temperature would just stay above 80 for more than a few days), we make a batch of tomato sauce. This also tends to use up a lot of other excess produce (onions, peppers, sometimes celery, and herbs of all sorts), which is a welcome bonus during the summer glut. In past years we have frozen the sauce rather than canning it (I refuse to use table sugar in our sauce, so I’m not certain that it would be safe to water bath can), but I am considering investigating a no-sugar recipe this year so as to not take up even more precious freezer space.

Berries are probably the easiest thing to preserve. The method I’ve taken this year is simple, and applicable to any berry: hull the berries if necessary; wash them and allow them to air dry; spread them out in a single layer on a baking tray and freeze them until solid, 2-3 hours; once frozen, put them into a freezer bag or container, clearly marked with the date, and store them in the freezer. The downside to this is that the fruit is very soft after thawed. Even so, it is great on top of yogurt or in cooking. This same freezing method is what I use for peppers, though I much prefer to eat them fresh if possible.

In my next column (August 30th), we will discuss the second primary goal of this season – planning for the fall garden. For some, this is putting the garden to rest; for others, it is skillfully extending the growing season to November and beyond. I’ll see you then!



My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times. The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.