Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Garden lesson of the week: Sweet Potato Knotting

Root vegetables always feel like lottery tickets to me*. It's hard to know how much you have until the end. Well last week I decided to cheat a little and check to see how our sweet potatoes are doing. After a minute or two of moving vines and digging carefully, I found the first sweet potato of the season.
Although it was encouraging to know something was growing underneath our sweet potato vines, I had hoped they would be slightly larger than this.

At the Saturday workday, I mentioned my worries to the garden members and Raul had a good suggestion. He said that you can tie the sweet potato vines into a knot to encourage the plants to send energy down to the potatoes. I was not familiar with this practice but it seemed like a great idea. Below is a picture of the bed about a week before we tied up the vines:As you can see from the picture above, all the vines had grown together into a nice evenly spaced canopy of leaves. This meant we rarely had to worry about weeds in the sweet potato patch. The patch was also healthy looking and looked great all through the summer. Unfortunately, it was time to change all that. As you could guess, knotting the vines into bundles wasn't going to be easy or particularly pretty.

I should have taken step by step pictures of our methods, but I was far too covered in dirt. So you'll have to use your imagination and don't worry, this is not an exact science. The first step was to untangle all the vines from one of the plants and straighten them into one line. Try to get all the sweet potato vines from one base to be similar to a string with one end attached to the ground. Then, you make as many loops as you can with the base of your "string." At the end, your vine should look something like this, but the face is the end of your vine. Now grab the cobra by the face and push it into the middle of your bundle. In the end, our patch looked like this.
And here is a close-up of one of the knots:

Now the plant is probably thinking: "Ouch! Why did you do that?!" Oh, sorry that's what a person would be thinking. A plant would probably be "thinking" that there is less sunlight and less room for growth. Therefore, either winter is coming or there is too much competition from other plants. So for the plant, it's time to resort to it's backup survival strategy: "Flee and hide". And for a sweet potato, that means putting it's energy below ground and wait for better times. Hopefully those better times will be when we harvest the garden bed and have many large sweet potatoes for roasting, boiling, baking, steaming, frying, mashing and maybe even grilling.

Thanks to Raul for the lesson and thanks to you all for reading it.

Happy gardening!

*For reference, the chances are almost always better with root vegetables compared to gambling.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Working with Dave Tally

It's good to know the local news stations haven't forgotten about our Garden Coordinator Dave:

USA Today
Local Fox Station
Arizona Local News
Huffington Post
Note: Dear Huffington Post. It's spelled Tally, not Talley.

In light of the recent surge in interest in my co-worker Dave, I thought I would toss in my two cents. Dave and I have been sharing an office for nearly 3 months now and for multiple reasons, he has been a fantastic co-worker. First, I consider myself a morning person, but Dave still regularly beats me to work by about 2 hours. Also, Dave consistently helps me put everything into perspective. As one could imagine, his range of experiences in life are well beyond anything I have gone through. Therefore, when a little crisis happens at the garden, he can calmly find a way to fix it while I'm running in circles like a chicken with my head cut off. Finally, Dave has been a great resource for local knowledge about Tempe and Arizona as a whole. He has been traveling with a group of other motorcyclists all around the state and been bringing back some great stories. His quiet calm demeanor doesn't match what you would expect in a serious motorcyclist, but that is what I want to emphasize with this article. Dave, like anyone in this world, is a complex guy who is more than can be summarized in short human interest story.

It's been great working with him and I hope I'm not annoying him too much by posting yet another article about him.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Chicken Diary: Day 7

After a week of chickens at the community garden, Dave and I have learned a few important lessons.

First, these chickens are surprisingly sneaky (above is the most stealthy looking picture I could find). Closing the coop door seems to have no effect on them. Hopefully as they grow bigger, they won't be able to squeeze through the open spots in the coop.

Second lesson: Our hens show a surprising level of teamwork. Don't assume the word teamwork means they are well coordinated or make what would be considered "good" decisions. Far from it. They show the same kind of teamwork you would see in the Keystone Cops. If one runs into a wall, all of them run into the wall.

The last lesson for the week is that they have very particular tastes. As you can see above, they get a mix of whatever is going to go bad at the food bank so they get a full salad bar of options. The remains of what they don't like goes on the compost pile. As you can see, they will ignore everything if there is sweet corn anywhere in the pen. I should point out that there is one exception to their love of sweet corn: insects. Paleontologists have been telling us that birds are closely related to dinosaurs and at no point is that more obvious than when these gals see a beetle. It looks like the velociraptor scenes in Jurrasic Park.

In other news from the garden, the cool season crops are really growing quickly now.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Escalante Community Garden welcomes five new employees

As you might have guessed from my previous post, the Escalante Community Garden now has chickens. We have been chicken-proofing the compost area of the garden for the last few days. This included sealing the areas under our fences and putting the final touches on their chicken coop (a old playhouse donated by Gretchen and Raul).

With that finished this morning, we picked up our five new residents. Our first chickens are Silver Laced Wyandottes. We picked up five of them to start, but if all goes well, we hope to expand the flock in the future. Silver Laced Wyandottes are known for being good egg layers, calm and hardy. Our new ladies (roosters are not allowed in city limits) are 2 months old, which is good for us because we decided we did not want to raise a whole batch from chick-stage only to find that it wasn't worth it. Unfortunately, the downside to this strategy is that we missed this chicken stage.

As one could imagine, our new Wyandottes were a little confused finding themselves in a new place and spent the first few minutes backed into a corner. They showed a surprising level of teamwork in defending against whatever imagined threat was lurking in this new area. Eventually, however, we lured them out of the corner with a mix of food scraps from the food bank. These scraps aren't a special occasion either. We hope to be able to raise these birds on mostly food scraps from the TCAA food bank. These scraps are because the food bank gets donations from many grocery stores and a lot of the produce in these donations is a little past the state of human consumption. Chickens, on the other hand, have a more liberal definition of what is edible. They prefer scraps more than others, however. When I tossed them a pile of food, they all squabbled over the same grape-sized radish for the first ten minutes before pecking at anything else.

Now the next logical question is obviously: what are you planning on naming them? Since they all look quite similar at this stage, Dave and I have decided to keep it simple and name them all Jesse.

UPDATE: While I was in the office writing this article, Jesse, Jesse, Jesse, Jesse, and Jesse all snuck out of the chicken coop. This was a surprise and means we aren't done chicken-proofing the coop yet. However, it's not too much of a setback because it only means they discovered their outdoor area earlier than we intended.

I've been humming this song all day:

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Another shameless plea for votes

Greetings from the garden,

As some of you might know from Facebook or Twitter, the Tempe Community Action Agency has gotten the opportunity to earn a $40,000 donation for our non-profit's website. If you can, please vote for us here:


You can vote once per day per e-mail. And please don't be stingy with the votes, I know most of you have a work e-mail. Or that AOL account you make when you were 16? Yeah, you can vote with that one too.

Thanks again, Pyxl, for this opportunity, and welcome Tempe.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Potential for growth in Escalante Neighborhood

I had a realization today as I was walking to Escalante Park from the light rail:

Wow, this neighborhood has a lot of open space.

To check exactly how much, I looked up the most recent aerial photographs of the neighborhood. I limited my view to the areas north of Apache Blvd, south of University Dr, west of Price Freeway, and east of Smith Rd. I found about 10 large empty lots scattered around the area. In total, these lots take up an area of 390,000 sq. feet. Now, assuming you haven't gotten bored and gone back to checking your Facebook status, you should be asking me: "Neal, why are doing this?" The answer my friends is extrapolation.

The community garden is approximately 1500 square feet and is on pace to produce around 300 pounds of produce in our first year. In our defense, basil doesn't weigh that much. Next year I'll try and grow more watermelon to bring that statistic up. However, I will continue my calculations assuming the fairly low yield of 300 pounds. This equates to 1 pound of vegetables per 5 square feet per year.

This means if one were to convert all the bare dirt from these large empty lots, the community could produce 78,000 pounds of produce on the first year (39 tons!). Since the USDA estimates that the average American consumes 428 pounds of vegetables per year. This means the neighborhood could provide 182 people with vegetables for a year (and one person for just a quarter of the year).

Just a little food for thought the next time you walk to the light rail.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

New Project at the Garden

Thanks to a donation from Gretchen and Raul, we are starting a new project at the garden. I'll let you all guess what the plan is. Here are a few hints:

-It's an old children's playhouse, but we are definitely not opening a daycare.
-It's going near our compost bin where we toss the food scraps.
-If you are alektorophobic, you might want to stay away from the garden for a while.

Anyone have a guess?

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Book Review: The Arizona Cook Book

"Tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are."

When studying what to grow in the garden, I decided to look back at what food was eaten in Arizona in the past. In doing this, I found one gem in the Central Library. "The Arizona Cook Book" was published in 1911 by the residents of Williams Arizona to help raise money to build a public library for their town. The recipes in this book tell interesting stories about early life in Arizona.

The book balances basic pioneer cooking and more complex dishes. On one hand, you can make a rattlesnake bite remedy, chicken medicine, or pack a cowboy lunch (includes packing his own frying pan). On the other, there are recipes for oyster cocktails and strawberry ice cream.

Another theme in this cookbook is the preference for two good things: parties and pies. A number of the drink and dinner recipes are so large that the cook will have to invite their whole block. The most entertaining is the Mershon Woods Stew, which is not only massive but also involves a multi-page recipe involving seven different animals (but NEVER rabbit) and an equal number of suggested vegetables. Pies, too, receive a good amount of attention, and not just by the authors. The pie section of this cookbook is 12 pages long (twice as long as the bread section) and has sustained more damage from spills splatters and tears than the rest of the book combined (the book has been scanned from a used copy). This may speak to the quality of the recipes, or simply remind us of the natural human enthusiasm for pie.

As far as ingredients, the recipes use a diverse range of fruits, vegetables and meats. This is probably because once the issue of water shortage was solved for a homesteader in Arizona, it became possible to grow nearly any fruit or vegetable for the table. From the gardening perspective, this is pretty good news. I'm sure many locals could have already told me this, but it seems as though a dedicated gardener could grow almost anything around here.

Speaking of which, here are some updates from the garden:

The pepper plants are blooming and producing again.
We are looking forward to a good harvest before the frost.

Our cool season crops are up and growing. We had some germination issues but now everything is up and going. These are our beets and carrots but we also have arugula, lettuce, redishes, cabbage, peas, garlic broccoli, chard mustard greens, cilantro, onions, collard greens, and a few other surprises you'll have to come and check out.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Tohono O’odham Food Sovereignty

At the community garden, we work to create a local food system. This involves not only growing food geographically closer to the community that uses it, but also growing food that more closely matches the environment and culture of the neighborhood and region.

While researching how to do this, I stumbled upon an impressive organization in our area. The Tohono O'odham Community Action group has been focusing on rebuilding a method of agriculture that is build precisely for the environment we are in. The Tohono O'odham are a tribe who built up a complex society and agriculture specifically designed for growing in the Sonoran Desert. This included a certain amount of gathering wild foods, but also included some amazing crop varieties.

The Tohono O'odham have a variety of corn that matures in 60 days. To put this in perspective, in Iowa (the leading grower of corn in the US) farmers rush to fit their corn varieties into a over 120 day long growing season. This quick growing corn is meant to take advantage of the short monsoon seasons in this area.

Another crop particularly well built for the Sonoran Desert is the Tepary* Bean. Not only is this bean exceptionally drought tolerant, but it also has been found to slowly release it's glucose. This is important for diabetics who need to moderate their glucose levels. For the Tohono O'odham, this is exceptionally important. Currently, 50% of the local population suffers from diabetes despite having no recorded cases until the 1960s.

You can find more information about this organization at their website (http://www.tocaonline.org/Home.html) and you can find a local source of seeds through Native Seeds/SEARCH (http://www.nativeseeds.org/).

*It is worth noting that the word Tepary translates to "It's a bean." Nice job European translators.

Standing on History

While researching the Escalante Neighborhood, I found myself looking at Google's map of our community garden. Unfortunately, the satellite view still hasn't been updated and still shows the garden as just another patch of lawn. However, the street map really captures the essence of the community garden. It even shows the delightful water feature running through.....Wait, what?

View Larger Map

After a brief discussion with Dave, he convinced me that our garden is sitting on top of a canal. Which was a delightful surprise because I was assuming we were in a dried up river bed and the next good rainfall would carry our newly sprouted radishes all the way out of Arizona.

Crisis averted, I found out that we are continuing a long tradition in living and creating green space around the Valley's canals. The Hohokam started this tradition and created a complex system of water distribution for agriculture that stretched over 100 miles. Although their civilization faded away (most likely because of drought), European explorers decided that the Hohokam had the right idea. Jack Swilling was the first one to decide that the canals were signs that this region could be agriculturally important. In response, he founded the town of "Pumpkinville."* Thankfully, members of the community later changed the name to Swilling's Mill, Helling Mill, and finally Phoenix.

In Phoenix's younger years, canals were integral to making life in the desert tolerable. Since they were originally uncovered and not lined with concrete as modern canals are, each canal supported large tree canopies and looked much more like natural rivers. These places became social spaces as people escaped the desert heat. Until air conditioning, the cool canal banks were also popular sleeping places in the summer. So don't be upset if you catch Dave or I napping in the garden, we are just continuing a long standing, but sadly neglected, tradition.

We aren't alone in our (until now accidental) attempt to restore the canals as social areas. I found that a group of urban planners have proposed making Phoenix's canals into social areas (http://canalscape.org/). With the exception of some excellent bike trails, the Valley's canals are walled off and are quite easy for the everyday person to miss if they aren't actively looking for them. Canalscape argues that instead of covering them up, the canals can be used as an asset to improve the image and culture of Phoenix.

While the rest of the city gets it's act together, we will continue working here at the garden to beautify our small stretch of canal-front property.

*Speaking of Pumpkinville, check it out!

Not quite worth naming towns after, but these young pumpkins have popped up in the garden over the weekend.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Silent Auction Preview

Thanks to another donation by Alexi Devillers, we now have another entry for the First Crush Silent Auction. Her name is Jenny.

For those of you who don't know, First Crush is Tempe Community Action Agency's annual benefit. The night includes music, the silent auction, and a locally inspired menu. The event takes place Friday October 21st at the Tempe Center for the Arts. Please contact TCAA for more information and to RSVP if you are interested.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

New Hours!

The community garden is expanding it's hours!

Monday: 7am-6pm
Tuesday: 7am-6pm
Wednesday: 7am-6pm
Thursday: 7am-6pm
Friday: 7am-2pm
Saturday: 7am-11am
Sunday: Closed...sorry

We are opening up the garden later in the day during weekdays so that those of you who have jobs or school can still come and see the garden and help out. Additionally, we will now be open EVERY Saturday, however, potlucks will still be every other Saturday (including this upcoming Saturday).

One more quick caveat: if you show up and the garden is locked during the week, we are probably in the senior center getting office work done. Sad, but it's a necessity. Someone needs to update this thing.

Red beans and ricely yours,


Monday, October 3, 2011

A new garden member spotlight

Those of you at the next workday will meet our new member at the garden. His name is Fred and he is currently guarding the pumpkin patch. Fred's maker is a local artist named Alexi Devilliers, many of you may have seen his work near the corner of Lemon and Smith. Although Alexi has built a robot army that could rival most evil geniuses, he is quite friendly and gladly gave us a tour of this workshop. His backyard contains a variety of works including some that plug in and move. All of these creations are constructed from reused materials, most notably old cans. One impressive part of Alexi's work is how he obtains these cans. Alexi has been giving out free food at the local parks. "...every Saturday my wife and I get up at 5:30am to cook 100-125 hot and fresh meals." He takes his work seriously too. When asked what he hands out, Alexi added "Sandwiches?...Pfft, we make them four course meals."

If you are interested in purchasing some of Mr. Devillers work, you can see him at First Fridays, or stop by the garden. As much as it would pain us to give him up, Fred is up for sale. Additionally, thanks to Frank and Alexi, the Escalante Community Garden is now also the Escalante Community Art Gallery.

It's alive!!

Thanks to some good work from our volunteers on the 24th, many of our beds are now planted with cool season crops. Now if the weather cooperates, these new seedlings will be able to survive into the cool season and we will be getting a nice harvest of:

-Mustard and collard greens
-Green and Red Cabbage

Until then, I invite anyone to stop by the garden and see our raised beds seasonal transformation into covered wagons.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Community Cooking Classes are back!

These classes are open to any experience level. All that is needed is the willingness to learn and share your experiences with others. Although there will be one formal "teacher" these classes are intended to be a community experience where community members can share their knowledge and discuss their challenges.

The first course will focus on basic cooking skills and maintaining a food budget. The course will meet every Monday for a month and will repeat monthly. The first class will be on October 17th and will continue every Monday until November 7th. The courses will be at the Escalante Senior Center Kitchen. You need to RSVP with Neal Wepking at (480)350-5830 or nealw@tempeaction.org.

Monday, September 26, 2011

"We've got Okra, enough to choke ya"

My sincere apologies to the songwriter Chris Smither for borrowing his lyrics for the title (see comments).

As the summer holds on for a few extra weeks and thermometers around the city continue to top 100 degrees, it seems appropriate to take a moment and pay our respects to one of the few members of the community garden that is enjoying it's moment in the sun. Although most of our veggies have sucumbed to the long hot summer, the humble okra seems to be enjoying all this heat. In fact, our okra patch has been producing heavily and doesn't look like it will slow anytime soon.

Okra, a relative of cotton and cocoa, does seem particularly well suited for Arizona summers. It is known for being exceptionally heat and drought tolerant, as well as tolerating poor soils. Plus, the plants can range anywhere from 3-6 feet tall, which means they can shade out any weeds pretty quickly.

At this point, I'm sure many of you are wondering what to with all this okra. Afterall, this vegetable does not have the greatest reputation. This reputation can be summed up with one particularly unappetizing word: mucilagenous. This gooey, thick texture is what happens to okra when it is cooked for a long period of time. While many (myself included) find nothing wrong with this texture, there are a few ways to prevent your okra from getting sticky. The first is deep frying it (like you needed an excuse...). Since this involves cooking the okra very quickly in very high heat, it will not get as sticky. There are many great recipies online for this, so I will leave it up to you to find one. The other method for mucus-prevention is to cook the okra in something acidic (lemon juice,tomatoes, citrus?).

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Thew Elementary School Plants Peach Trees!

On Friday, May 13th, a group of students from Thew Elementary School walked over to the Escalante Community Garden, and planted 4 Peach trees in the garden.  Under the leadership of Gretchen Reinhardt, the students frollicked around the garden, ate some radishes from the garden, and rolled up their sleeves to plant the trees.  Here are some pictures from that wonderful morning:

For those of you that are salivating at the thought of fresh peaches, check out this yummy recipe for peach cobbler:

Peach Cobbler
  • 4 cups fresh peaches, peeled and sliced
  • 2 cups sugar, divided
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 6 tablespoons butter
  • 1 1/2 cups self rising flour
  • 1 1/2 cups milk
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1.)  Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
2.)  Combine the peaches, 1 cup sugar, and water in a saucepan and mix well.  Bring to a boil and simmer for 10 minutes.  Remove from heat.
3.)  Put the butter in a 3 quart baking dish and place in the oven to melt.
4.)  Mix remaining 1 cup sugar, flour, and milk slowly to prevent clumping.  Pour mixture over melted butter.  Do not stir.  Spoon fruit on top, gently pouring in syrup.  Sprinkle with cinnamon.  The batter will rise to the top during baking.  Bake for 30-45 minutes.
5.)  Serve with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream, if desired.