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The Albemarle County Almanac

At last a good rain! And by good, I mean we didn’t have to water this weekend, but also nothing got flooded. Just in the sweet spot.

Consequently, everything in the garden is hitting its growth spurt.  The winter squash got huge over night, and the mystery squash is blooming – *spooky ghost voice* oooooo, myysssterrry squaaashhh.  Here’s the story with the mystery squash. Elise and I are at the garden generally five days a week and keep good track of how its doing. That being said, we don’t have the place wired with video cameras (*cough* DAD *cough*) and sometimes things surprise us. Like when we show up to the garden, and suddenly there are four new and unaccounted for squash plants scattered about the garden. We figure we might as well let them grow because obviously someone wanted them there. We’ll take ’em.

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The Winter Squash
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MYSTERY SQUASH!

Also, the baby muskmelons are starting the peek their heads up since we planted them last week.  Is it weird that I have the same affection for baby seedlings and puppies?  They’re just so cute and small and full of hope and promise and good things and look at them!

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Look at those baby muskmelons

We’re reaching peak fruit season here in Virginia as well. As I’m writing this, I’ve got a blueberry pie in the oven, made with some fresh blueberries I bought at the Meade Park Farmer’s Market a few days ago.  In the garden, the figs are starting to take shape, and the juneberries – which I know very little about and for which I am very excited – are coming in.  Right now, they look a lot like blackberries, and the thorns are treacherous. Hopefully they’re worth it.

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Figs!
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Juneberries coming in

My new book this past week is A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold, which is a dramatic turn from the last book I read.  Written in the 1940s in the tradition of Thoreau and Emerson, it’s essentially one man’s love story to the natural world of America’s midwestern states.  What’s immediately apparent is that Leopold has a completely different world view than most people. He sees things, values things, and understands things that most people don’t even realize exist.  But I don’t think that ignorance is a conscious choice.

Part of loving nature and her processes is really understanding patience.  Flowers bloom once a year, asparagus, strawberries, and fruit trees take a good three years to even produce, and trees evolve over decades.  You can’t have access to all the wonderful pieces of the natural world at any time you want.  It’s not the internet. You have to yield to time, accepting birth, and death, and the space in-between, and learn to revel in all three.  It’s a whole other world than the one most people are born into nowadays.

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The herbs are huge

Now, I’m still getting used to Virginia, and Albemarle County. I didn’t grow up here.  I grew up 13 hours southwest of here, where everything about the timing of nature and local flora and fauna is just different enough to completely throw me off.  But I’m becoming more appreciative of this part of the US as the summer goes on.  For one thing, we don’t have bald eagles back home.

At the farm last Thursday, we were driving out to go pull more carrots when we were stopped by a bald eagle hanging out in the middle of the road. I didn’t recognize it at first, because although it was MASSIVE, well, it wasn’t bald. Michelle said it must have been a juvenile bird, which has a mottled brown and white coloring all over, and won’t go bald for a couple of more years. I had no idea. Apparently a nesting pair of bald eagles lives around the farm, and this guy was their chick, setting up camp near his parents’ territory. I wonder how many people have seen a thing like that. He flew off with a killer wingspan, off into the woods.  Now all I wonder is: What else am I missing?

I’ll never figure out every answer to that question, but I’m sure as hell keeping my eyes open from now on.

Greetings from the garden and the illustrious Lulu!

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Lulu, garden dog extraordinaire

-Grace

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Summer Seeds & Garden Communion

It’s the blooming season now.

Summer flowers have started arriving in the Community Garden, and they are glorious.  A few strawberry blooms are peaking through, including a fuchsia one that can only be the illusive pine berry. The lavender alone is waist high and swarming with bee friends.  I trimmed some today to keep in a vase along with a few other herbs.

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Bees in the lavender
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Pine Berry?

As more spring crops die back – like the delicate snow peas and speckled lettuce – beds have opened up for planting, so the volunteers and I put in some muskmelon today. Despite having a name that makes it sound… unfriendly, muskmelons are actually similar to cantaloupes and love the summer heat. The name “muskmelon” – as I’ve just researched, because I was curious – is actually a reference to a variety of ancestral plants that was traditionally used in perfume making, apparently having a good musky scent, if you’re into that sort of thing. Of course nowadays, people mostly eat muskmelons instead of bottling their aromas.

We also planted what should be a good bolt resistant variety of lettuce to replace the speckled bib (though honestly I’m a bit skeptical about how bolt resistant it’s going to be once it starts getting up to the 90’s next week). Bolting, for those who don’t know, is when lettuce plants go to seed, usually when it gets hot, by shooting up little yellow flowers from the center of the plant, making the edible lettuce decidedly less tasty. We will be having none of that. Fingers crossed, I guess.

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Planting lettuce

We pulled a few of the cosmic purple carrots as well, just enough for a bunch for each volunteer.  Hopefully we can keep pulling them for a few weeks. The first tomatoes are starting to come too on the plants that Bellair Farm so graciously donated to the garden.  We got several varieties, so tomatoes should be great this year!

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Baby tomatoes (please ignore my finger; I’m a gardener, not a photographer)

 

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Purple carrots are more fun than orange ones, plain and simple

I’ve just finished Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, and enjoyed it just as much as the first time.  Although this time around, it’s had a much greater impact in my food choices.  I’ve been thinking for the last few days about a passage where she described farming as “part meditation, part biology,” which is so very true.  Now, anyone will tell you I’m a hard nosed pragmatist, but I turn to gardening for more than just its practical output.  It’s a form of communion, which is a big part of what Kingsolver learned in her year of local food.

Don’t get me wrong, growing food is really hard work. It’s planting, watering, weeding, tilling, shoveling, weeding, bunching, washing, weeding, did I mention weeding? My back is constantly sore, skin burned, hands calloused, and my nail beds will probably never recover at this point. Michelle from Bellair told me on my first day of work that farming is really a masochist’s profession. It’ll hurt you, but you have to love it, which thankfully, I do.

That’s all from the garden this week.  Until next time,

-Grace

Greens & Growth

Once again, these recent rain storms have really made the garden explode with life! Our Boston Pickling cucumbers, on Friday the height of my pointer finger, are now a good foot tall. It’s really amazing to see these plants go from seed to leafy adult.

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The snap beans we interplanted with the snap peas have also sprouted up, and our newly transplanted tomato plants are starting to look robust again after escaping their tiny planter containers.

Grace and I made a trip to Fifth Season Gardening yesterday before the work day and also picked up bell pepper and hot pepper transplants as well as romaine, sugar baby watermelon, muskmelon, and pumpkin and squash seeds. The harvest will be bountiful over the coming months.

The rain brought with it a plethora of new weeds, so Tori and Taylor (our wonderful volunteers) and I tackled the jungle in the carrot and chard beds.

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It’s really a beautiful time of year to be in the garden with everything teeming with life. The recent rains have had an adverse effect at Bellair Farm, where a few choice fields were flooded from a nearby creek and the zinnias and strawberry plants were pulled up. I know we felt lucky that the rain has had a positive effect on our little piece of land.

We were also joined by a fluffy volunteer yesterday, although she wasn’t much use sunbathing on the picnic table.

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Until next time, summer gardeners!

-Elise

Tomatoes galore

Yesterday, we had a workday filled with tomato planting! Bellair Farm, a large organic vegetable operation close to Charlottesville, gave us some great tomato transplants they’d been nurturing in their green house. These guys were looking a little wilted and starting to get too big for their plastic pods. Since they’d never make it to field at Bellair, we gladly took the plants off their hands and made a home for them in the community garden. We’ve got some sungolds, some heirlooms, and some mystery tomatoes because we forgot to label the last container. We’ve got to add some thrill to the garden life some how, ya know??

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In other news, we’ve got some snap peas coming in and a juneberry bush that is this close to giving us some ripe ones.

This week I’d like to share a snap shot from Bellair. Grace and I’s internship with the community garden includes two days a week at this gorgeous thousand acre estate. Included on that property is an organic vegetable farm that services a CSA. There are 425 shareholders that get fed from the farm each week May through October, and a 200 person waiting list! It’s an exciting example of a successful sustainable agriculture operation.

Farming is pretty hard and includes a lot of repetitive tasks–i.e. you plant, you weed, or you harvest. There ends up being a lot of conversation in the fields, and Bellair has a great permanent work crew that we’ve been getting to know. I’ve been pretty amazed at the quality of conversation I’ve had under the sun, with garlic juice staining my raw fingers as we all pick scapes. One of the crew members new to the squad this year even mentioned experiencing “brain fry.” In addition to an adjustment period during which his body had to acclimate to the difficult labor, there was an adjustment period for his brain too! I’m not sure whether it’s a farming environment, where we’re all together working on a task humans have practiced for thousands of years, or maybe it’s just the people that are attracted to such an activity. Either way, our chatter reflects broad interests in food culture, politics, and living an exciting and meaningful life.

While the UVA Community Garden is certainly a smaller operation, I think it has a similar potential to encourage real camaraderie. Besides wanting a successful harvest, Grace and I hope we can see a summer community created. Come on out to one of our volunteer workdays and leave with a clear and happy head and a bag of kale and peas. It’s win-win.

-Elise

Carrots, Kale, and Local Food

The summer garden is getting into full swing here at the end of May.  During our workday this Friday, we planned for new crops in the empty beds as Spring plants begin to die back.  Tomatoes are chief on the agenda, but variation selection is always tricky, only because we want everything!  The squash we planted on Tuesday will still take a week or so the sprout, but we put in some good bush beans around the peas, which should be great.  The kale and collards are still absolutely beautiful, and hopefully we’ll keep harvesting those for a while longer.

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Weeding is also becoming a chief concern now that we have so much sun after weeks of rain.  They’re popping up everywhere!  We also thinned back the cosmic purple carrots, which based on the ones we pulled out, should be stunning!  Thinning them out will give the other carrots space to grow even bigger and more delicious.

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It’s exciting to see the new strawberries in bloom, and the lima beans and fava beans starting to come in.  There are even a few green berries starting to pop up! Can’t wait to see how those turn out. We had fewer volunteers at the garden on Friday than on Tuesday, but still got some good work done, because we are very serious garden professionals, as exemplified below.

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This week, I’m reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, which, in the interest of full disclosure, is a book I’ve read before, but I figured would be a good way to step back into the world of sustainable agriculture.  I’m only about half way through it, but already I’m on a local food kick. Kingsolver is absolutely right about food quality when it comes to seasonality.  We may have access to any food in any season here in America, but none of it is truly great unless it’s been recently picked and minimally handled.

That’s why it’s hard to put a finger on truly American cuisine, outside of McDonalds and processed sugar. An abundance of choices comes at the price of specificity, which is a shame because limited variety in food supplies throughout the year usually leads to great recipes, along the lines of “necessity is the mother of invention.” I’ve already discovered several groceries and butchers around Charlottesville with great local food, and plan to patronize them as often as possible this summer and try to stay in season.

Our first day working on the farm was Thursday.  The main thing I’ve learned is that organic vegetable gardening is by far the most labor intensive form of farming.  Elise and I were exhausted by the end of the day, but in the best way possible.  Picking fresh fruit from their strawberry field for lunch has only reaffirmed my love for fresh, local, in season produce, which is Bellair Farm’s specialty.  I have to say, you have not lived until you’ve eaten fresh summer strawberries still warm from the sun.

Until next week, greetings from the Garden Crew!

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-Grace

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First Summer Workday

Today we had our first workday of the summer on a beautiful, warm day that finally decided to live up to the season. We have high hopes that the recent Charlottesville monsoons are winding down for good, although I don’t think Grace or I minded a few days off from watering the beds. The rain has been so plentiful its had an impressive effect on the growth of our radishes.

It’s hard to tell, but that radish pictured on the right is the size of a tennis ball–a fresh, organic tennis ball that goes great on a salad.

First, an introduction is in order. The garden interns this summer are yours truly, Grace and Elise. We’re excited to be rocking our garden hats and getting our hands in the dirt alongside the awesome community that has flourished around this green space. We’re all smiles.

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Today we cleaned up the turnip beds, which had quite a few fallen stalks trampled by torrential downpour. Of the ones that did survive, you can chalk their persistence up to their unusual height and leafiness. Our turnips are very robust above ground but lacking below. We unfortunately have tiny turnips to eat, but we do have great leafy stalks that would go great as a center piece at the dinner table! Their strange growth is a garden mystery, and I’m sure it won’t be the first we’ll experience this summer.

Luckily, we had lots of bib lettuce, radish, and kale to harvest!

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We had some great volunteers to tackle some weedy grass that infiltrated the herb and asparagus beds. And perhaps most exciting of all, we planted the winter squash. We’re crossing our fingers that our squash will wind up as orange and enticing as the seed package promises.

A brief reflection:

“Neither nature nor people alone can produce human sustenance, but only the two together, culturally wedded.” -Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America

This quote from Berry’s work is embedded in a larger passage about the danger of being an “exploiter,” one whose principle is to divide and conquer, whose goal is profit, and whose competence is organization. To be a “nurturer,” on the other hand, is to work as well as possible, to shoot for personal, communal, and national health, and to be guided by an understanding and respect for the human order, which includes the accommodation of compassion and mystery.

The particular line above stuck out to me because of the word choice: “human sustenance.” I’d like to think that Wendell wasn’t just talking about eating food.  Growing and harvesting food gives the mind a sense of place, and working for that growth and sharing the harvest with others feeds (ha ha puns) our human desire for connection.

When you work in a garden, you realize that food is more than the end product picked from the fruit stand at Kroger. Participating in the process of growing food allows us to experience all that food has to offer–not just a nourishment of our physical bodies, but of our deeper selves, too.

Big Spring Thing 2016

The 2016 incarnation of Big Spring Thing, the garden’s annual seasonal festival where volunteers and community members alike gather for local food, music, and container gardening, was a big wonderful success! This year we had four acts of live music and delicious snacks sourced from Charlottesville-area farmers as well as snap beans and sunflower seeds for attendees to plant and take home – enabling them to check “Plant in the U.Va. Community Garden” off their list of things to do before graduation. We loved kicking off Earth Week at U.Va. with the community on a perfectly sunny spring day! Check out photos below as well as a feature on the event by NBC 29.

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A shot of our buffet featuring country white and multigrain sourdough from Little Hat Creek Farm, damson plum and apricot jam from Jam According to Daniel, local raw honey, lemon mint and raspberry hibiscus sage tea made by Katie with herbs from the garden, Caromont Farm Red Row cheese, vegan chili made by Molly, radishes from Whisper Hill Farm, dates, apples, dark chocolate, iced coffee from Mudhouse, homemade apple cider made by Jared, and banana chocolate chip bread made by Molly!
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Nathan prettying the garden up by spreading woodchips with one arm like a boss. Photo credit: Jared Gingrich
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Our first musical act, Maria DeHart and Samyukta Venkat

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Paige enjoying some fresh-made cider. Photo credit: Jared Gingrich
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Planting Provider bush snap beans and sunflower seeds in peat pots to take home
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Our second act, Molly Murphy
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Photo credit: Jared Gingrich
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Photo credit: Jared Gingrich

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Photo credit: Jared Gingrich

 

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Checking out the garden’s new cold frame funded by the GIFT Grant program
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Our third act, Taylor Ruckle
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Kate and Molly enjoying a laugh. Photo credit: Jared Gingrich

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Photo credit: Jared Gingrich
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Giving a tour of the garden and marveling at the wonder that is asparagus. Photo credit: Jared Gingrich
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Our final act, Noah Zeidman
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Giving an interview for NBC 29 about the Big Spring Thing. Photo credit: Jared Gingrich
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Photo credit: Jared Gingrich
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Kevin enjoying his freshly potted seed. Photo credit: Jared Gingrich
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Photo credit: Jared Gingrich
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All that remained of the spread! Photo credit: Katie Lang

Thanks to everyone who came out and everyone who helped organize to make the event a hit!

Love + The U.Va. Community Garden Leadership Team