Strawberries forever: wisdom of the grandparents

While picking strawberries at my p-patch (community garden) this evening my grandpa called.  Since before I can remember, my grandparents have made strawberry freezer jam which is heavenly.  Given the number of projects Kelly and I have going right now and the fact that I have to work (not to mention the low likelihood that the kitchen was going to be in jam-making shape), I had dismissed the idea of partaking in the time honored tradition.  Lucky for us, maybe not so lucky for our neighbors, with grandma supervising in the speaker phone background grandpa informed me that I could freeze the strawbs! 

Here’s today’s harvest from my front yard and p-patch—not bad!  It took me a little over an hour to go from giving 75% of the strawbs away and gorging myself on the other 25% to being able to enjoy the fruits of my labors at a later date. 

The raw goods (above).  Part of the hour (or so) was spent cleaning the counters and getting the dishes cleared out of the sink. 

After rinsing the strawbs, I methodically went through the lot, de-topping, removing blemishes, picking out some of the best for fresh eating.

I filled six, 1-quart Zip-Loc freezer bags.  Each contains about 4 cups of strawberries.  Doing some quick math after looking at the pectin box (pectin is what gives jam its viscosity, read resistance to pouring), this should yield about 16 8oz. containers of jam using two packets of pectin.  I’m thankful that I can save that for another day.  And not only for jam in my future, but maybe a strawberry margarita or two ;-)

—Matt

PS.  Here’s a link to my post from the other day about strawberry picking and how critters like them too.

Strawberries and garden lessons

It’s strawberry time—the most wonderful time of the year (in the garden)!  In my book, in terms of my favorite gardening times, it’s followed closely by potato, bean, and tomato time.  But it’s strawberry time now so today it’s my favorite of the four.

The other day I rode my bike to work and then to my p-patch (community garden).  When you’re supposed to meet with your boss and the bus won’t get you there in time, the ol’ bike is super refreshing and exhilarating.  Not to mention great exercise and a chance to see the neighborhood.

I picked this gallon zip lock bag during the bike trip.  My strawberry patch is about 6’x6’.  It’s going strong right now.  Two falls ago I started it with plants that I dug out of my squatter’s plot before I abandoned it.  Last year I had nice looking plants, but a lack of sun and probably a lack of nutrients led to a pretty weak crop.  Since then, not wanting to go another season without mucho strawberries, I spread compost among the plants and gave them a kick with some organic fertilizer a couple of months ago.  It’s not been a particularly warm spring, but despite this, I’m getting good yields (in fact, it’s been one of the coldest springs on record, whereas last June was one of the wettest June’s on record).  While picking the strawbs, and eating them as I did the picking, I wondered, “is the sweetness of strawberries a function of sunlight or nutrients?”  I’m thinking it’s more sunlight dependent but I’ll have to investigate further to know for sure.  My strawbs were tasty, but not the sweetest so this led to my conclusion that sunlight plays a big roll in producing sweet ones.  

Partly because I’m not at my p-patch everyday, and partly because I want them to get as dark red and sweet as possible, I did have a few handfuls of berries that went to the birds (not literally to the birds — actually to the slugs, snails, and ants).  I found this to be a pretty interesting phenomenon so I thought I’d show off how our desire for sweet is also the desire of all the little critters in the garden.

Click on the photo for the full-size image.  Crazy how the critters can hollow out the berries.  I suspect one of them specializes in breaking through the skin, whereas the others ride the first’s coat tails.  I found a big slug or two who I’m guessing really capitalize on the berries getting opened up.  Then again, maybe they do the opening and the majority of the hollowing out.

There was a little snail, which I only see several of (usually bigger ones though) per year.  Considering he was a snail, I thought his pace was pretty quick.

—Matt

Cool apartment and compost bins/composting

I really like this apartment and the excellent format that the Re-nest.com webpage uses to show it (nice photo browsing and they include the plan view drawings).

  

I spent Saturday morning at my community garden’s spring work party turning over plant debris and compost from compost bins like these shown on Re-Nest.com (click on photo for more pics and the story).

The bins at my community garden have the same dimensions but have cedar on all sides and no top.  The hardware cloth (galvanized steel mesh) sides look like a good way to keep the compost pile oxygenated and to extend the life of the bins.  I do wonder if you might get your pitch fork tines occasionally caught in the cloth though.

After the party our bins were overflowing with green and dead weeds and veg remnants.  I think my fellow gardeners were skeptical about whether or not we could get everything to fit reasonably within the confines of the setup.  To get ‘er done, I basically worked from the right bin to the left (almost finished compost to totally unfinished plant debris).  Using a pitchfork, in front of the bins I made piles of varying debris sizes comprised of the newly added debris and the bin contents.  I tried to “knock off” the almost composted layers from the debris in the left and middle bin into the right one and removed or chopped up any bits that were woody or large.  In the left and middle bins I paid special attention to layering the green materials with brown ones and adding thin layers of the nearly completed compost throughout the layers.  In the process I diligently chopped and broke the materials with my machete. 

If you’re a “lazy” gardener like me and have some piles of garden refuse, if you just layer it in this manner, maintain a size/age gradient of material across the bins (new/large on the left, old/smaller on the right), and then give it some time, turning, and water (the latter two very occasionally if not optionally), a decent compost gets produced.  I think this lazy composting approach is very effective whether in ones own backyard or in a community garden where quality control (and continual attention) is hard to maintain (b/c lots of people are contributing to the pile and not too many actually maintain the pile).

—Matt

P.S.  Heck, you don’t even need the bins to successfully apply this method.  And I don’t mean to say this method is something I dreamt up on my own— just my synthesis of thoughts arising from reading about composting and my attempt to make it simple.  Chop/break, layer, have a range of debris sizes in each layer, keep it moist, turn occasionally, wait— that’s the recipe.

Garden: breaking ground, inoculating peas, first planting

Today I arrived in the big leagues of community gardening.  For the last six years I’ve been gardening in a p-patch of 20 or so people.  Today I started gardening among about 200.

Here’s the 20’x10’ plot after I spent a couple hours removing old raised beds, clearing weeds, and turning over the soil.  My first order of business was to remove the raised beds because they were made with pressure treated wood (a no no).  I rolled out of bed 2 hours late to the orientation so neither camera nor coffee were on my person or in my blood (to help remember the camera) therefore no “before” pic.  The large pile of dirt and weeds (front right and back right) stem from the fact that, in my “patch,” I like to compost in place— it saves me having to get and load a wheel barrow and it gives me the peace of mind that I know what’s in my pile.  My worms like it too.  I’ll cover the piles with burlap sacks when I get a chance to keep the weeds from germinating before decomp.

The soil in the garden is amazing… supposedly the result of being on a peat bog.  I made a central path that leads into the plot that has side spurs on the right side and leads to a U-shaped path in the back of the plot.  I dig out my paths so that my veggies will have more soil (depth-wise) to grow in.  IMHO, It’s important that the furthest part of any bed from a given path isn’t out of arms reach so that weeds can be weeded and the harvest brought in.  It’s also good to envision the ergonomics of moving hoses through the space.

Tools of the trade: garden tool bag, water bottle, hand trowel & claw, old knife, pruning tools, seed boxes containing seed, twist ties, permanent marker & blank garden signs, zip lock bags, and small plastic container with lid are some essentials.  I brought the big pruners today so that I could scavenge some bamboo and cut it (at the joints) into small sticks to act as grid nodes for laying out my plantings.  Before using this tact, I’ve tried pen and paper with much thought and ultimately struggled to keep the paper clean and dry and available (not lost).  I laid out the corners of the imaginary boxes where a particular veggie would be planted with the sticks and wrote the seed type on a blank sign.  This turned out to be super efficient and will ensure that I know what was planted where.

Usually I dote over purchasing seed each February.  This year I’ve been too busy to afford doting and have plenty of old seed inventory to clear from my coffers.  Seeds can last from one to several (or more) years.  If a particular seed is a year old or isn’t supposed to store for as long as I’ve had it, I sow it more densely and hope to make up for lower germination rates (i.e. “the number of seeds” times “the density of seeds sown” = “the number of successfully germinated seeds”).  I planted peas, lettuce, carrots, cilantro, chard, radishes, dill, broccoli, and some crimson clover (cover crop for the back 1/3 of my patch).

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