Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Power of Flowers

By Jay Leshinsky, East Coast and Canadian Sales Manager

This is the time of year I summarize my summer working with the students at the Middlebury College Organic Garden where we trial varieties for Renee's Garden and grow produce for the College's dining system. Each summer's group of student interns has a different personality. This year, the group loved to make up and sing songs while they worked. Our garden has a close connection to work songs; six years ago Bennett Konesni, one of the student founders of the garden, won a Watson fellowship to study work songs all over the world (you can learn work songs at his farm, Sylvester Manor.

Many of the songs Bennett discovered were tied to agriculture and were created to make work more enjoyable, cohesive and collaborative. Following Bennett's lead, the garden often had interns who played music during work breaks, but this was the first time I worked with such consistent “on the job” singers. One song they created while thinning over-grown yarrow plants (sung with a pace similar to that used by old time railroad workers pounding stakes into the rails) was so memorable that the elementary school children visiting the garden that day all left singing the "yarrow" song as they walked back to town, even though no one had taught it to them.

Yarrow is one of the many plants we use to attract pollinators and beneficial insects to the garden. One of the most striking observations a student doing research made was that the yellow crookneck summer squash she grew inter-planted with catnip out produced a control group of the same variety by two to one! When I mentioned this to Renee, she told me she knew farmers who were planting very specific plants throughout their garden beds for beneficial insects (since that time we put together a Guide to Attracting Beneficial Insects.

The students decided to plant some perennials like catmint, catnip, Korean mint, yarrow, bee balm, echinops and centurea and began to experiment with planting of annual flowers. We also plant lots of zinnias (because they are great cutting flowers as well), alyssum, tithonia, nicotiana, nigella, cleome, asclepias, cosmos, calendula, Marble Arch salvia, poppies and sunflowers. We also let herbs like cilantro, dill, arugula, basil, borage, thyme and sage go to flower where they attract many beneficial insects (plus we wind up with a crop of coriander, the seed stage of cilantro).

For the past two years we also grown yellow sweet clover, the favorite food of our honey bees- we have 5 bee hives at the garden- as a “ green manure” crop, grown to enrich the soil. After the bees pollinated it we got a great crop of seed, mowed the clover and allowed it to reseed for the next year (when it bloomed again). We turned it in this spring for it nitrogen value (it is deep rooted and can be hard to turn in by hand) and got sensational crops of broccoli and cabbages in that part of the garden late this summer.

In my blog post last March, I mentioned the pollinator research done last fall at the garden by Professor Helen's Young's biology students. Three new students will come to the garden next week to do more research on the insects that visit our flowering plants in the fall. Visitors to the garden love strolling through to enjoy the flowers. The interns and I established a ritual of cutting our zinnias and bringing bouquets of these long lasting flowers (unannounced) to the offices on campus as gifts from the garden. It is so satisfying to see the smiling faces of the recipients of our flower surprises.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Mini Pumpkin Teepees

by Lindsay Del Carlo, Renee's Garden Trial Garden Manager

Everyone loves miniature “baby” pumpkins because they are extremely productive, easy to grow, fast to mature and lots of fun to have around for all the fall and winter holidays. This summer, we used a space saving method and made bamboo teepees for these vigorous vines to twine up. We found that growing miniature pumpkins up vertically in this fashion created a handsome and decorative focal point in the garden beds. In no time at all, the bamboo tripods were covered with an abundance of 4 to 5 inch little ribbed orange pumpkins that we will use for decorations with plenty to bake as tasty edible bowls for pumpkin pudding or savory soups or other fillings. Here’s how to make your pumpkin tepees with our “Mini Jack” baby pumpkin variety.
First sow groups of two-three seeds of Mini Jack Pumpkins in a triangle with 2 feet between each group. After the seeds have emerged and have several sets of leaves, thin to one strong seedling in each group so you have a triangle, as you see in the picture.

Second, put 2 bamboo poles per plant, one on each side of the seedling. Here we are using bamboo that is 8 ft. long and about an inch in diameter.

Place the poles so that they are standing perfectly upright. This makes it much easier to gather the poles at the top to tie.
Once the poles are all in place, gather them at the top and tie together with some garden twine.

Mini Jack plants will grow and twine up vigorously. Once they start to vine, tie each branch to the bamboo pole to train them upwards. Make sure to check them a few times a week, and continue to tie the branches to the poles. The plants do have tendrils that will cling to the poles and other branches, but by anchoring them with ties you will ensure sustainability on the pole as they will become heavy with many miniature pumpkins.
The little pumpkins will be creamy colored at first like those in this picture, but as they mature, they will turn bright orange. Harvest them by cutting them by the stem handle. Once cut, cure them for a week or 10 days in a sunny, dry spot and then store in a cool dry place. They’ll last for months.

Mini Jacks mature earlier than regular sized pumpkins, rewarding you with armfuls of deeply ribbed fruit that make welcome gifts, colorful edible decorations.
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