Category Archives: Meadow Hill Community Garden

Community Garden Wrap-Up


Welp, this is the last official week of the 2015 community garden season – Closing Day is Saturday, October 24. Despite an early start to the growing season this year, it still seemed to fly by (although I’m still playing a game of chicken with our first hard frost. I think I can still get one more week out of my tomatoes…).

2015 was a great season that really put the “community” in community gardening:

We built a brand new garden, with lots of help from Nature’s Best landscaping company, in the Rose Park/Slant Street neighborhood that was so popular it still has a waiting list! Read more about it here.


Gardeners digging into their Ivy St plots for the first time!
Gardeners digging into their Ivy St plots for the first time!

The Providence Garden now has a whole year under its belt. More and more St. Pat’s patients and staff were able to use the garden as a therapeutic space, and we donated over 1,200 pounds of produce harvested from the garden to the Food Bank. We even had a garden party to celebrate!

Patrick and Brenna harvesting carrots for the food bank

Leadership committee members mingled and learned about other gardens during two community garden tours.

Photo by Brian Herbel
Photo by Brian Herbel

Fellow community gardeners and two of our neighborhood farmers shared their knowledge about garden planning, tomatoes (here and here), herbs, pest management, and cooking delicious meals.

Briam Roasted Veggies topped with beet caviar
One of the dishes created in the Orchard Gardens Cooking Class this summer – a Russian dish called Briam Roasted Veggies topped with beet caviar.

Lots of corn, potatoes, squash, raspberries and strawberries were communally maintained and harvested from community plots. (There are also rumors of gardeners growing 500 pounds of produce between two garden plots.)

Photo by Brian Herbel
Photo by Brian Herbel

Perhaps most importantly, over 350 Missoulians were able to grow their own food in community garden plots around Missoula, and hopefully they learned something new, had fun, and made friends while doing it!

Northside gardeners, post potato-digging. Photo by Brian Herbel
Northside gardeners, post potato-digging. Photo by Brian Herbel

Amidst these great happenings, we still had the usual unpleasant smattering of vegetable theft, vandalism, and unrelenting weeds. It’s always hard to see the fruits of your labor smashed, disappear, or be smothered by the infamous bindweed and purslane. Sometimes fences, timely harvests, gardener presence and garden signs just aren’t enough. If you have any tips on ways to further prevent these unpleasant occurrences, please do share! After all, overcoming these struggles together is part of what makes communities of gardeners stronger.

This was my first season working as the community gardens volunteer coordinator, and it will also be my last. I’m quite sad to be leaving such a great organization and program, but at the same time I’m excited to start a new position as the Food Access Program Coordinator with the Community Food and Agriculture Coalition. I’ll be working on ways to improve the accessibility and affordability of local foods for community members with low incomes. I had a great summer getting to know and work with leadership committee members and gardeners, and look forward to seeing you all around town!

Before we officially close down the season, all of our leadership committee members, garden mentors, and community gardeners deserve a huge THANK YOU for all your hard work in making this another successful year.  (That doesn’t quite  do it, but hopefully you feel the love and appreciation!)

Here’s to a great season in 2015 and even more bountiful gardens in 2016!

Brenna, me, and flowers!


Head over heels for garlic

There’s not too much going on in the garden at this point in the season… unless you’re a garlic lover! Now is the time to plant your garlic for next year. Here are a few tips:


Gather the largest, best-formed cloves of garlic.  Garlic cloves are essentially clones of their garlic plant, so you want to pick the cloves that look the best.  That way, they’ll produce big n’ healthy cloves just like their forefathers and mothers. So grab a nice looking head of garlic and pull its cloves apart, making sure to leave the papery husk on each individual clove (sometimes this is easier said than done, but it helps protect the cloves from disease and pests once in the soil). Then put aside the ones with the nicest shape – you know, the ones you really want to chop up and eat. Those are the ones you’ll want to plant.

It’s best to plant garlic cloves that are from garlic you or a friend grew or to buy seed garlic. Although technically you can plant cloves from grocery store garlic, it may not be a variety that is well-suited to grow in Montana, or it may have been treated which will make it harder to grow. If you don’t have trusted garlic to plant this season, purchasing some seed garlic online or at a local nursery could be well worth the investment because next year you can save that garlic to plant for the following year (no additional expense necessary). It’ll be a garlic revolution! (Or maybe just a new garlic-y tradition for you and your family….)

Plant in well-drained soil and rotate your garlic beds. Garlic doesn’t like to be over-saturated and will benefit from being rotated to different garden beds from year to year to help it fend off disease (although garlic is relatively disease and pest-resistant). Once you’ve chosen your garlic bed, plant the cloves you set aside into the bed. The cloves should be placed about 1-2 inches down into the soil, with the pointy end facing up, and they should be planted about 4-6 inches apart from each other. You can lightly water your garlic in at this point.

Mulch after planting. Mulching your garlic bed with 4-6 inches of straw will protect the cloves from extreme temperatures over the winter. If your garlic is exposed to many freeze-thaw cycles it can either rot or be pushed to the surface, where it won’t germinate.


Voila! You’re work is done for the time being. In early spring you’ll see small shoots of green emerging from the bed of straw and this will let you know your garlic is doing just fine. At this point, you’ll want to keep the garlic bed well-weeded and moist (but not waterlogged).

If you planted a hard-neck variety  of garlic, scapes will form in spring that can be harvested for an early garlic treat.

When the leaves and stalks start to dry out, it is starting to get ready for harvest. It’s a good idea to stop watering your garlic once it gets to this point. Once 3 or 4 of its leaves are yellow, usually around August or so, the garlic is ready to be harvested.

And to carry on your garlic tradition, save some of your garlic for re-planting for the following year’s harvest!

Garden Therapy

Molly and Clark (the dog)
Molly and Clark (the dog)

Meet our guest community garden blogger for this week…Molly Kimmel! Molly is an occupational therapist at St. Patrick Hospital and a community gardener at the ASUM garden. She earned her  masters in occupational therapy from University of Washington in Seattle. Right after school, she moved to Missoula and quickly fell in love with a smaller town lifestyle. When not working, Molly likes to travel, spend time on any of Montana’s many rivers, and of course, tend her garden plot at the ASUM garden.  

In addition to the ASUM garden, Molly also actively participates in the Providence Garden – a different kind of community garden — where plots are rented out. This particular garden provides a communal space for St. Patrick’s patients, staff, and the surrounding neighborhood to enjoy and to provide a place of respite from hectic work and life schedules. The Providence Garden is located behind the Providence Center, which is a part of the St. Patrick hospital system and is a partnership between St. Pat’s and Garden City Harvest. Garden City Harvest garden coordinators (with lots of help from interns) manage the space and most of the produce grown at the garden gets donated to the Missoula Food Bank (over 1,000 pounds have been donated so far this year!).

Meet our wonderful 2015 garden intern, Brenna!
Meet our wonderful 2015 garden intern, Brenna!

We (Patrick and myself) sure enjoy working with staff and patients in the Providence garden and learning about garden therapy from a therapist’s perspective. In Molly’s blog post below, she writes about how she uses the garden as a therapeutic space for some of her patients.

(And for more information about another initiative taking place at the Providence Garden, check out this Missoulian article about prescriptions for veggies!)

Raised beds at the Providence Center Garden
Raised beds at the Providence Center Garden

When Michael started sautéing fresh onions, garlic, zucchini, tomatoes, and carrots for his pasta sauce, I knew it was going to be a good day. Not many people get a homemade meal cooked for them at work, but I have one of the best jobs on the planet. As an occupational therapist at St. Patrick Hospital, I work with people after illness or injury to help them regain their prior level of function with everyday activities. We try to make therapy patient-centered, functional, and meaningful, so when I heard that Michael used to work as a chef in a restaurant and enjoyed gardening, I knew I wanted to take advantage of Garden City Harvest’s Providence Garden as part of his plan for therapy.

When the Providence Garden was getting underway this spring, staff reached out to the different units in the  Providence Center (PC) to see how the space could possibly be used for staff, visitors, and patients. Since the garden is fully accessible with crushed granite paths for wheelchair users and beds of various heights for standing/sitting/kneeling, I knew immediately that it would make an excellent space for patients during therapy.

Up on the 4th floor of the PC at the St. Patrick Inpatient Rehabilitation Facility is where Michael was sautéing his veggies, as well as receiving intensive occupational, physical, and speech therapy, along with 24-hour rehabilitation nursing services, to help him recover from a stroke. Prior to this summer, when I wanted to put together a cooking task with a patient, it meant a trip to the grocery store. Now, thanks to the Providence Garden behind the PC, I had a built-in produce department right in our backyard.

The day before Michael made me lunch, we walked down to the garden to procure our harvest. In doing so, we were able to work on maneuvering over uneven terrain, kneeling down to gather items, interacting socially with the staff at the garden, and getting back to one of Michael’s favorite leisure pursuits: gardening. For other patients, the garden can serve as a place to work on fine and gross motor skills, sensory integration, item identification, or simply as a place to get some fresh air or socialize with family members.


Every Thursday morning of this summer, I have taken 1-4 patients to the garden for a therapeutic group. Everyone enjoys their break from the therapy gym and their time outside, whether they are hunting for the ripest tomato or sampling herbs to decide what will best accompany their upcoming lunch. Then on Friday, we often use what we harvest to make a simple appetizer or light lunch while practicing meal prep skills and kitchen safety. When we begin cooking, not 5 minutes go by before other staff, patients, and family members come walking into the kitchen saying,   what smells so good?

The garden itself has become an invaluable extension of our unit and our therapy offerings – allowing patients (and staff!) the chance to spend time outside, gather healthy, fresh produce, and get back to “normal” life. I am incredibly grateful to the staff at Garden City Harvest for their hard work making this garden accessible and I look forward to our continued partnership in the seasons ahead. For more information about St. Pat’s Inpatient Rehabilitation, visit our website or call 406-327-3260.

Many thanks to the kiddos in the adolescent  outpatient program who made these beautiful signs for the garden!
Many thanks to the kiddos in the adolescent outpatient program who made these beautiful signs for the garden!

{If you’re interested in checking out the Providence Garden for yourself, join us for a Garden Party this Thursday, October 8, from 4-6pm. The Clove Cart will be selling pizza slices, there will be liquid refreshments and live music. Come celebrate the season with us!}

Celebrating the seasons in your recipe rolodex

Try as I might, I have not yet mastered the art of food preserving to the point that I can eat much of my garden-fresh or local produce all winter long. But I’m ok with that, because it gives me all the more reason to celebrate when certain types of produce come into season.

For example, asparagus-season comes in late spring/early summer and it’s the only time I’ll make some asparagus soup – one of my favorites (I haven’t landed on my favorite version of asparagus soup yet, but I usually make some sort of variation of these Epicurious and Food Network recipes).

Proof of my moussaka leftovers!
Proof of my moussaka leftovers!

When eggplants start rolling in I love baking batches of moussaka, which is a sort of Greek casserole starring eggplant, ground meat, and a bechamel sauce. I don’t know what a traditional moussaka recipe looks like, but I found I enjoy this one from All Recipes. (In fact, I’m actually eating leftover moussaka for lunch as I write this blog post).


And now is the time of year that a barrage of plums are ready for eating – which signals it’s time for plum cake (in addition to many batches of plum butter, plum jam, and an experiment for this year – Asian plum sauce). If you don’t have plum trees in your yard, look for gleaning opportunities around Missoula so you can get your hands on some. Local plums are also available at the farmers’ market and in some grocery stores.

Apparently the recipe I use is a famous plum cake recipe, but I only found it last year on the Smitten Kitchen blog when I was for new ideas for my backyard plums. Maybe you already know this recipe, but I’m sure glad I found it because the cake is quite delicious. Lots of butter, sugar, egg, and, of course, plums. I also like to swirl the batter with plum butter that I always have left over from last year’s canning escapades.

mmmmm plum cake
mmmmm plum cake

Season-celebrating recipes are a newer thing for me, so asparagus soup, moussaka, plum cake, and pumpkin pie are the only recipes in my repertoire so far. Please share some of your favorite seasonal recipes in the comments below!

And for more advice than I can give on preserving your garden’s bounty, be sure to check out these recent blog posts:

What You Can Do Now to Build Your Soil

Leaves can be a great source of organic matter to build the soil in your plot. Photo by Dan Cripe
Leaves can be a great source of organic matter to build the soil in your plot. Photo by Dan Cripe

As the growing season winds down, most of our garden plans are also coming to a close. But as we pull plants out of the soil, it’s also a good time to give back to the soil and plan for how to build it up again for next year.

Building the soil in your garden plot involves  a variety of practices, including rotating your crops from year to year and regularly adding compost to your soil. Adding more organic matter into your plot is an easy and low-cost way to help build your soil, and now’s a perfect time to do it!

Organic matter

Organic matter is just what it sounds like…. materials that are organic. If you want to seriously get to know organic matter, it actually consists of three distinctive parts – the living (microorganisms, insects, plant roots), the dead (fresh residues of recently deceased microorganisms and insects, plant residues, manures), and the very dead (well-decomposed organic material, or humus (not the kind you want to dip chips and veggies into)).

Soil organic matter is the foundation for long-term soil health because it:

  • releases nutrients to for healthy plants;
  • sustains essential microorganism populations in the soil which help prevent serious pest outbreaks and soil fertility problems;
  • promotes good soil tilth (the physical condition of the soil). Healthy soil should be resistant to compaction, porous, and well-aerated.
Makign Compost. Photo by Jim Streeter.
Making compost at the PEAS Farm. Photo by Jim Streeter.

Organic matter in the garden

But first, a short detour…..

“Used to be anybody could farm. All you needed was a strong back . . . but nowadays you need a good education to understand all the advice you get so you can pick out what’ll do you the least harm.” —Vermont saying from the mid-1900’s

I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts about how easy gardening really can be, and how difficult it can seem all at the same time. I won’t go any further into the ‘education’ of soil organic matter and why it’s important and the best way to do it, in an effort to not overly complicate things (and because I’m sort of flying by the seat of my pants here). But, if you’re interested in learning more about it, you can check out this exhaustive but informative text, Building Soils for Better Crops.

…Back to Organic matter in the garden

The good news is that you’ll already be adding organic matter and thereby contributing to the building of your soil through the process of closing down your plot for the winter. If you haven’t already, familiarize yourself with this checklist so you are prepared for closing day (October 24).

Click on this image of our Closing Day Checklist to enlarge it
Click on this image of our Closing Day Checklist to enlarge 

In the beginning of October, Garden City Harvest will deliver manure compost to each community garden. There will be enough for each gardener to take one wheelbarrow full of the compost to dig into her plot, then Voila! Organic matter will have been added.

But if you want to go above and beyond here are a few more things you can do to add more organic matter to your plot (remember, diversity is the spice of life, and the life of your garden soil):

  • Apply fallen leaves from your yard and rake them into your plot (if the leaves look diseased or have been sprayed, though, it’s best to play it safe and dispose of them some other way)
  • Grass clippings are another great organic matter booster that can be raked or dug into your plot (again, make sure they haven’t been sprayed with any chemicals). Grass clippings can also make great mulch – consider using some on your plot next year.
  • Rather than throwing your plant debris into the compost, chop it with a shovel and dig it back into your plot
  • Next year, consider using a cover crop that can be sown in a patch of your plot after some early season crops are finished

All of this fresh, but dead, organic matter will provide a feast for the microorganisms, fungi, and insect populations in your plot and bring in even more nutrients.

 A few indicators of soil health

Ever wonder how healthy your soil is? Store-bought tests can tell you the nutrient levels of your soil, but here are some more basic indicators of your soil’s health:

  • Soil color – the darker the soil, the more organic matter it contains. Healthy soil should be dark and loose
  • Minimal runoff and crusting – healthy soil should absorb water well, and not easily crust or cause water to run off
  • Sustained crop yields – healthy soil will maintain healthy yields of crops. If you notice that your plot hasn’t been yielding as much, your soil could need some TLC
  • No nutrient deficiencies – healthy soils don’t have nutrient deficiencies. Symptoms of nutrient deficiencies in plants include: small, light green leaves; yellowing or drying leaves; mottled leaves; weak stalks)
  • An earthy smell – soil should smell earthy. If your soil has no aroma, or smells mineral-y, it indicates there is not enough life in your soil
  • Lots of soil life –  If your soil has earthworms, mites, millipedes, centipedes, and sowbugs, that’s a good sign!
Wormy soil, photo by Dan Cripe
Worms and other insects are great indicators of healthy soil. Here’s one at Garden of Eaton. Photo by Dan Cripe.

Grow Your Own Tea

The cooling weather has renewed my daily tea habit. I love the feel of a hot mug of tea between my hands – even when working it makes me feel like I’m relaxing. The cool weather also has me thinking about ways to preserve my fresh garden produce, from freezing fruits to canning jellies and tomatoes to drying fresh herbs.


cup o' tea

Thoughts of tea drinking + drying herbs =  a blog post about making your own tea. Believe it or not, your garden can be a great source of tea. Teas can be made from both fresh-cut or dried leaves, flowers, or roots of herbs and some flowers and plants.

Common plants for tea

Some common plants and their parts that can be used for tea include:

Fresh or dried leaves of

  • Parsley
  • Mint (all kinds)
  • Lemon balm or lemon verbena
  • Sage
  • Catnip
  • Celery
  • Strawberry
  • Raspberry
  • Thyme
  • Lavender
  • Rosemary
  • Yarrow

Fresh or dried blossoms of

  • Chamomile
  • Chrysanthemum
  • Elderberry

Dried root of

  • Echinacea


You can make tea from fresh or dried ingredients. If using fresh ingredients, use 1 tablespoon of fresh herbs for every cup of water. If using dried ingredients, use 1 teaspoon for every cup of water. Then simply put the herbs in a tea ball or empty tea bag, pour hot water over them, cover the mug or cup, and allow to steep. (You’ll probably have to experiment with steeping times, but usually  three – ten minutes is sufficient.)


Drying and storing tea

You can dry tea by bunching your herbs, tying their stems, and hanging them upside down in a well-ventilated space; placing a layer of herbs between two paper towels (in a well-ventilated area); placing the leaves and flowers on a screen (and placed in a well-ventilated area); or using a microwave or oven for quicker drying.

If you washed your herbs, make sure they are dry before putting them up to dry so they don’t get moldy (hence the need for good ventilation).

Once dried, usually after one to two weeks, remove the dried leaves, flowers, roots, or seeds and place them in an air-tight container. They will usually store for up to a year, but once they lose flavor throw them in the compost or trash.

If you are experimenting with different dried tea blends (such as lemon balm and mint, perhaps) or are adding extra ingredients (for example, dried lemon or orange peel), it is best to store the mixture in an air-tight container for at least 10 days or so to allow the flavors to mix.

[Of course, be careful when making and drinking herbal teas. Teas should only be made from parts of edible plants and some people might have adverse reactions to certain herbs.]

For some tea recipe ideas, check out these articles:

Dried tea can make a great holiday gift for friends and family and keep you warm all through winter! Let us know what sorts of tea you have made in the comments below.


More tomatoes, please! Extending your tomato harvest

IMG_0392Some weeks ago I wrote  Takeaways from a Tomato Tutorial, based off Northside garden mentor Sarah Johnson’s advice she gave fellow gardeners in her tomato tutorial workshop. That post was all about supporting, pruning, fertilizing, and watering your tomatoes throughout the season. But now, our days are getting shorter and the mornings and evenings are getting cooler.  These bittersweet seasonal changes are well and good for a bit o’ fall gardening, but what do they mean for our garden tomatoes?

In season harvesting and storage

Tomatoes are best picked at their peak of ripeness when the color has reached its fullest hue. But tomatoes that have a tendency to crack – such as cherry tomatoes – can be picked when just slightly underripe.

Once picked, tomatoes should be stored on a counter or shelf out of direct sunlight. If you wash them after picking them, make sure to dry them before you leave them on the counter. Tomatoes typically last 3-5 days on the counter. They can also be stored in the refrigerator so they keep a little longer. (Storing them in the fridge doesn’t do them any favors in the flavor department, so ideally you store them on the counter and use them or process them before they need to go in the fridge.)

Extending the growing season

Did you know that the other week we actually had a frost advisory in place for Missoula valley? Yes, it’s true. It seems the frost missed us that time, but it goes to show that it’s time to start paying attention to night time temps. My favorite place to check the weather is the National Weather Service. They usually give pretty detailed frost warnings(and fire, wind, rain and heat, too! They have a whole discussion each week on the weather patters, if you want to get nerdy with it).

When frost is expected you better get those tomato plants covered up because their foliage is especially sensitive to frost damage. When the foliage is damaged or dead it can’t photosynthesize as well or at all, and your tomatoes won’t ripen. And we certainly don’t want that to happen!

You can use an old blanket or sheets to cover your tomato plants, but be sure to remove them in the morning so the plants can see the light of day. A more expensive option is to use row cover which is air permeable and allows light and moisture to pass through, so the cover can stay on your plants all day. If you store the row cover properly over winter and keep it dry, it should last you for several years.

Tip: It’s best if your cover doesn’t touch any tomato foliage, as that foliage will still be in danger of getting frost damage. Try building a non-permanent frame, such as from PVC pipe, around your tomato plants that your cover can be draped over. But don’t worry – any cover is better than no cover!

Extending your tomato harvest

When the end of the season is in sight, days are still hot but nights are cooling…

Once the end of the tomato season is in sight, water your plant a little less. Alternatively (or in addition), you can use a shovel to sever the roots about a foot out from the plant on three sides. The added stress will trigger the plant into more fruit production.

Additionally, pick off any tomato blossoms. They have very little chance of turning into tomatoes and without them the plant can give more energy to ripening the tomatoes that are more fully developed.

When day time temps start cooling…

Tomatoes stop ripening when day time temps consistently fall below 60 degrees. Once temperatures are consistently 60 degrees and threatening to fall below, start pulling off any tomatoes that have about 50% redness or more. The green tomatoes still on the plant will then have a better chance of ripening.

When the season is all but ended…

IMG_0363Once it is so cool that there is no chance of further ripening, you can do one of two things:

  • Pick all your green tomatoes. Then store them in a basement or garage where it is dark and cool (but no danger of freezing exists). Now is the perfect time to make fried green tomatoes! Or, if you want to ripen your green tomatoes, put then on a sunny windowsill when you are ready to ripen them. Rotate the tomato over time so one side doesn’t ripen so quickly. Alternatively, ripen the tomato in a brown paper bag on the counter. If you want the tomato to ripen more quickly, throw a banana in there too. The banana emits an ethylene gas that will cause the fruit to ripen faster.
  • Pull the plant up by its roots. Shake it – go ahead, shake it like a Polaroid picture – to get all that dirt off so you can store it in a cool place in your house and allow the remaining tomatoes to ripen on the vine.

Follow these steps, and you just may be able to serve up fresh tomatoes from your garden at Thanksgiving dinner! Or, if you have an excessive amount of tomatoes, you can freeze them whole or cook them into a delicious sauce or salsa before freezing them. Frozen tomatoes keep well for up to a year. You can also try your hand at canning tomatoes so they’ll keep even longer. After all, who gets sick of garden tomatoes?

Photo by Chad Harder


Community “Fall” Gardening

It’s that time of year when many spring crops have finished producing and a bare spot in the garden is left in their wake.  But the fun doesn’t have to end yet! There is still time to turn that beautiful blank soil canvas into a fall garden masterpiece. Even though we have a shorter growing season here in Montana, fall gardening is still possible.

At Garden City Harvest, we don’t close down the gardens until October 24th. And even then, if you have some kale left standing or carrots under your mulch, you’re welcome to continue to use your plot as long as it’s cleaned up and looking good.

To start planning your fall garden you must first look closely at your seed packets and find the average days to maturity for the particular crop you want to plant. Many crops, such as cabbage, broccoli, and tomatoes, take too long to mature and there will not be enough heat and/or sunlight in our shorter days to boost them along. For the most part, you only want to plant crops that will mature before our first killing frost or that are cold-hardy and grow well in our hardiness zone.  Missoula’s estimated first fall frost date is September 27 and we are in USDA Hardiness Zone 5b.

These radishes can be sown all the way until the first frost comes, but too be safe, you'd probably want to sow them sooner
These radishes can be sown all the way until the first frost comes, but to be safe, you’d probably want to sow them sooner
These pea seeds are only recommended for fall gardening in zones 8 or warmer. These guys will have to wait until next year to be planted
These pea seeds are only recommended for fall gardening in zones 8 or warmer. These guys will have to wait until next year to be planted












Fall crops that need some protection

The types of crops that will mature from seed in time to enjoy in the fall include:

  • radishes
  • lettuce (most lettuces don’t germinate well when it’s very hot out, so consider planting these in a cooler area of your plot, where there is still some shade from other plants)
  • arugula
  • chard
  • beets
  • turnips

If planted soon these crops should begin maturing in time for fall, but you’ll want to keep your eye on night-time temps. The leafy greens on these crops need some protection from the cold. Try covering them up with reemay (a white gauzey cloth used for row cover) or even an old sheet or blanket. Covering these crops up at night will help keep their surrounding temperature just a few degrees warmer so they will survive through the night.

Reemay covering crops at Orchard Gardens. Photo by Amy Harvey
Reemay covering crops at Orchard Gardens. Photo by Amy Harvey

Cold-hardy and frost tolerant crops

These crops are a bit hardier and don’t need quite as much fussing. Some of them even taste a little sweeter after a frost hits them, such as kale.

  • kale
  • carrots
  • Asian greens, such as bok choi  and tatsoi
  • spinach
  • kohlrabi
Kale. Photo by Erick Greene.

Other fall gardening tips

If you are buying new seeds, keep a lookout for winter varieties. There are varieties of some crops that grow a bit faster and/or are more tolerant of colder temperatures. These varieties are perfect for your fall garden!

Use extra mulch around your fall crops, especially over top of carrots. The mulch  helps keep the soil temperatures a couple degrees warmer.

Add some compost when planting new seeds to make sure there are still nutrients in the soil, especially if the space you are planting in was previously occupied by a heavy-feeder such as cabbage or broccoli.

For more information about fall gardening or winter seed varieties, check out some of these resources:

Please leave us your fall community gardening tips in the comments below!


Compost – Why it’s important and how to do it


Once you start to learn about organic gardening you can easily fall into the rabbit hole of organic principles and practices. Everything is interconnected to everything else in some way, which in reality makes things pretty simple, but the effect can often be confusing (at least for my brain, which I’ve found prefers to work in straight(ish) lines).

Today we’ll dive a little deeper into one of the main building blocks of organic gardening – compost- and hopefully stay out of its web-like rabbit hole. Compost is an integral part of organics  because it naturally builds and fertilizes soil, and in turn improves pest management.

[You might be wondering what the heck do compost and pests have to do with each other. At the pest management workshop led by Farmers Dave and Greg at River Road, we learned that a good offense is the best defense against pests; in other words, prevention is key. The fundamentals of pest prevention are: building soil (which includes adding compost), growing healthy plants, rotating crops, and promoting crop diversity. ….. But we are dangerously close to entering the rabbit hole, so more on those later!]

What is Compost?

This compost isn’t finished yet, but you get the point

Back to the basics. What is compost? It is the end product of the composting process, which breaks down large organic materials (as in materials derived from living things, such as plants and animal manures) into a uniform, soil-like substance that is a great source of nutrients for plants and soil organisms.

Compost improves soil structure by helping to bind soil particles together and by adding more organic matter into the soil. Better soil structure results in better water absorption, drainage, and retention. Compost also slowly releases nutrients and increases the availability of minerals in the soil, which helps plants grow stronger and healthier (another fundamental of pest prevention, remember?!)


A bit on compost biology

In order to better understand how to manage the composting process, it helps to understand a bit of the biology of what is happening in there.

A compost pile only works because of the microbes it contains. Basically, all organic matter contains some population of microbes, so when you throw all of your organic waste (i.e. veggie scraps, garden waste, etc) into a pile, the microbes have a little party, in three phases.

Phase 1: The microbes (mainly bacteria and fungi) multiply rapidly and feed on the plant material in the pile by secreting enzymes and acids that break down plant materials. They then absorb the nutritious sugars and simple proteins that are the byproduct of the decomposing plant material.

Phase 2: As the first phase gets rolling, things start to heat up, which attracts heat-loving organisms (still some bacteria, but more fungi). Fungi then chemically decompose the more complex carbon compounds in the compost pile.

Phase 3: Once the fun-guys finish their job, the pile cools and begins its curing process. A new type of bacteria joins the party to degrade tough, resistant-to-rot woody stems and bark.

After the pile has cooled and cured macro-organisms such as centipedes, millipedes, sowbugs, ants, and earthworms move in to physically degrade the pile even further by using their “mouths” to chew and shred resistant materials, as well as feed on the dead bacteria and fungi who partied themselves out.

Building a compost pile

Throwing a great microbial party (a.k.a. building a compost pile) involves these major components:

  • Scale. A small compost pile won’t ever get hot enough to move to phase two of the kitchen compostparty. In order to really get things rolling, a pile should be at least a few feet in width and length. So be sure to really unload your vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, and eggshells in your garden’s compost pile. [But be sure not to unload any oils, dairy, meats, or pet waste. These materials attract pests and rodents.]
  • Smaller particle sizes. A smaller particle size has greater surface area, and therefore more microbes. The more microbes the merrier, and faster decomposition ensues. This is why we have a separate pile for stalks at our community gardens – they are the party poopers of the compost pile.
  • Oxygen. Oxygen fuels the decomposition process, so a pile needs regular injections of oxygen. This is typically called aerating the pile. The pile can be aerated by layering coarse materials (such as straw or shredded newspaper) over finer materials (such as veggie scraps). This layering action naturally leaves plenty of pore/air space within the pile. The pile should also be aerated, ideally a little while after the decomposition process has been underway, when the temperature of the pile drops and materials start to settle. This is a critical time to add some oxygen to keep the party going (sounds like a Las Vegas casino…..). Turning the pile too often will cool it down and make it harder to move on to phase 2 of the process.
  • Water. Microbes need water in addition to oxygen in order to keep chugging along as they work to decompose the matter in the compost pile. A compost pile should be wet enough that it feels similar to a wrung-out sponge. Too little water and the microbes will get sluggish, too much water and they’ll suffocate – so it’s a balancing act. In short: a compost pile needs to be watered periodically.
  • Carbon and Nitrogen. The materials you throw in the compost pile are a mix of carbon and nitrogen – so these are the stars of the pile. Ideally, a compost pile is made up of 30-40 times more carbon-rich material* than nitrogen-rich* materials. The ideal carbon:nitrogen ratio (30-40:1) represents the ideal “diet” of the microbes that are decomposing the pile.  Note this is the ideal ratio. The fact is that decomposition will still happen in the compost pile even if the carbon:nitrogen ratio is off. The closer the ratio is to the ideal, the faster the decomposition. In aiming to reach this ideal ratio, it is best to combine comparative volumes of carbon-rich and nitrogen-rich ingredients* in layers.

* The decomp on nitrogen-rich vs carbon-rich materials: Nitrogen-rich materials are “green” materials, such as plant material and vegetable scraps. Carbon-rich material are “brown” materials, such as straw and leaves.

Compost pile – illustrated

Former community garden manager Linda Sliter created this wonderful compost illustration. Thanks Linda!
Former community garden manager Linda Sliter created this wonderful compost illustration. Thanks Linda!

How to apply compost

Finished compost can be used both to fertilize plants and to improve soil structure.

  • Improving soil structure. At our community gardens, we bring truckloads of compost to each garden in the fall. This compost is used for soil building and fertility maintenance. It should be spread onto the surface of your plot, then dug down into the soil. If you have an established plot and your soil is pretty healthy, the compost should be dug down about 4-8 inches. If you are in a newer garden and are still working on developing your soil, dig the compost down 12-24 inches into the soil. Typical garden application rates are ½–2 pounds of compost/square foot (depending on your present soil development and fertility).
  • Fertilizing plants. To fertilize your plants mid-season, “side dress” them with some of your garden’s house compost. Work a bit of compost about 1-4 inches into the soil around established plantings. [Don’t have much house compost? Encourage your fellow gardeners to bring in their kitchen scraps and lend a hand in maintaining the compost by periodically turning and watering it when needed]

IMG_0340Don’t fret

The above information is all about creating the ideal atmosphere for fastest decomposition in a compost pile. But microbes like to party – so even if the pile isn’t turned quite enough, or it’s not wet enough, or it doesn’t contain the ideal ratio of carbon: nitrogen, it will still decompose…………………eventually. At the very least, composting is a useful way to get rid of garden waste and vegetable scraps and it may even relieve any guilt you might have about not getting to all the veggies sitting in your refrigerator. If they can’t nourish your body, they’ll at least nourish the soil!

Learn more about compost and other useful gardening topics at the University of California Santa Cruz Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems


Enjoy the fruits of your labor – Harvesting basics

In order to enjoy the fruits of all that labor you put into your garden you’ll have to  harvest, but sometimes it’s hard to tell when something is ready to go. As gardeners we know our food is good even when it doesn’t look perfect, so the good news is that it’s not absolutely necessary that we have our harvesting techniques down to a science (like many of our fellow farmer friends do).  So go ahead and give yourself a break, but read on for some harvesting tips.


I would argue that as gardeners we are mainly concerned with harvesting crops before it is too late…… Too late generally means the plant has started to flower, which means it is putting more energy into growing seed rather than its various parts that we like to eat. And this generally results in a bitter-tasting veggie that is starting to lose its nutritional punch. But even when it’s “too late,” it’s often not really too late. You’ll see.

On the other hand, many things actually taste a little sweeter when harvested on the early side, for example, carrots, beets, and pretty much any kind of green. We miss out on some growth potential if we harvest our crops early, but they’ll still pack plenty of nutrients! (and look cute too…?) This also comes in handy when you are thinning your rows — big or small, they are still edible.

Carrots and Beets and Greens – oh my!

Crops like the aforementioned carrots, beets, and greens are fairly straightforward. You can tell just by looking at their size if they are ready. In general, if your veggies look like something you could get at the grocery store, they are ready to go! Carrots are typically at their peak around 1″ – 2″ in thickness, while beets are typically at their peak around 2″ – 3″ in thickness. You can poke your finger in the ground to feel how big your carrots and beets or other root veggies are, and of course you can just admire those beautiful leafy greens from afar to figure out if they’re ready for pickin’.

Note that regular, timely harvest of greens (including kale, lettuces, swiss chard, etc.) usually increases the length of harvest. And if you’re not going to eat them right away, it’s best to pick greens in the early morning or evening when the sun isn’t so hot – it helps to keep the greens from wilting.

A few other common crops are harder to determine – like squash, cucumbers, potatoes, onions, cabbage, and broccoli and cauliflower. Here’s a little more info on those:

Squash – summer and winter varieties

Summer squashes are best harvested when young and tender, when their skin is easily penetrated by a fingernail.  Zucchinis grow a ton in a day, so these guys require a careful eye. If you run late harvesting one it will probably taste better shredded in zucchini bread than used fresh. Or, hollow out the seeds, stuff it with a yummy filling, and bake!

Unlike with your zukes, you don’t want to watch winter squash so closely every day – at least not for awhile (unless you enjoy watching water boil). The hard skin of winter squash develops over time and is what helps it store so well, so you don’t want to rush on harvesting these gems. Mature winter squash will be hard and impervious to scratching. Once that thick skin has developed and you perform the fingernail test (press a thumbnail against the skin; your nail shouldn’t leave a visible dent) harvest your squash,  leaving at least 1” of stem attached. It’s also best to harvest before a frost comes, which could decrease their storage time.

Young, tender zukes about ready to harvest
Young, tender zukes about ready to harvest
This big guy should have been harvested a few days ago for best flavor
This big guy should have been harvested a few days ago for best flavor








These also can grow a lot in a short amount of time and so require a watchful eye. Cucumbers are best when slightly immature. Most varieties will be 1.5”- 2.5” in diameter and 5”- 8” long, except for pickling cucumbers, which will be blocky and not as long. Immature cukes are spiky, but will become less spiky as they mature. You can easily wash off the rest of the cucumber spikes after harvesting by running your hand over the cucumber under water. If you get to a cuke too late, it will still taste pretty good pickled!

These cukes will be ready in no time!
These cukes will be ready in no time!


You can harvest potatoes early or late, depending on your preference or what you plan to use the potato for. New potatoes, or earlies, can be harvested soon after the plants start blooming their beautiful flowers. Early potatoes are generally smaller and don’t store well so you want to eat them right away.

Or you can wait to harvest a crop of potatoes later – after the tops have died down and when the ground is dry. These potatoes will store much better, as long as they are cured for 10-14 days in a dark, well-ventilated location at 45 F to 60 F.


Onions can be harvested at different times according to what you’ll be using them for. If using them fresh, harvest at ¼”- 1” in diameter (basically, when they look big enough to be useful for whatever you need them for). If harvesting onions for storage, wait until they are bigger, their tops have fallen over, and their necks are shriveled. A mature bulb will not be dented if you push your finger into it.  To cure onions, place them in a single layer or mesh bag in a dry, well-ventilated area out of direct sunlight for 3-4 weeks. Remove their tops when fully dry.

An onion ready for some pickin'
An onion ready for some pickin’


A beautiful cabbage head ready to harvest
A beautiful cabbage head ready to harvest

Cabbage is ready to harvest when the leaves surrounding the head start to open up a bit, and when the heads are solid. If cabbage heads become over mature they may split. If your head splits, it’s still edible. It just won’t last as long and you’ll likely have to cut out the parts around the split.



Broccoli and Cauliflower

Broccoli and Cauliflower may be the trickiest plants in regards to timing their harvest. Broccoli is best harvested while heads are a deep green, still compact, and before buds start to open into flowers. If the buds start to separate and the yellow petals inside start to show, harvest immediately. I often get to my broccoli a little too late (oops), but I still eat it, flowers and all!

This broccoli head should be harvested immediately. Many of its buds are about to pop!
This broccoli head should be harvested immediately. Many of its buds are about to pop!

When harvesting, cut the stem at a slant about 4 to 6 inches (10-15 cm) below the head. Removing the head on some varieties will produce side-shoots in the axils of leaves and you can get 4 to 6 additional cuttings of shoots per plant over several weeks.

A beautiful broccoli head ready to be harvested
A beautiful broccoli head ready to be harvested

Follow the same rule of thumb for cauliflower, but when the curds are about 1”-2” in diameter fold some of the outer leaves over the cauliflower heads. This helps prevent the head from becoming yellow and/or blemished. Once you cover the heads they should be ready for harvest in 1-2 weeks.

Broccoli buds starting to open and flower
Broccoli buds starting to open and flower