It’s All About the Process

Hello garden lovers! Some significant time has passed since the last blog post, which means it has practically been eons in garden years. I might be exaggerating a little, but it’s true that things have been living, dying, producing, rotting, wilting, pushing up through the ground, and flourishing all over the place. A quick recap of the major garden events since our last blog encounter:

The compost worms at work in our bench!


The cucumber harvest has continued to be prolific…perhaps too prolific for Grace and I and our volunteer pickle-makers. The mason jars have run out and Grace at one point resorted to packing whole pickles for lunch at Bellair and eating them corn on the cob style (dedication!) One of the workdays came and went with too many pickles and not enough volunteers to eat them, so I delivered a large cardboard box full of them to the Haven. It was rewarding to know some of these just-harvested veggies are going to people who don’t have the everyday pleasure of eating fresh food.

With the wheelchair access bed pretty bare from a failed attempt at seeding Romaine in July heat, it was time to put in some fresh flowers to attract the eye of some of the new first years when they arrive.

Taylor and I sowed a new bed of carrots in freshly turned soil complemented by the garden’s own compost from the 8-bin rotation system! There were a few old pumpkin seeds in the compost still intact, and currently there’s a robust little pumpkin sprout in the middle of the bed flying solo until the carrots catch up.

Carrot rows

Robert cleared out the bed housing the unspecified plant that’s been producing mini decorative pumpkins for our coffee tables and window sills. The plant was on it’s way out and the cleared bed will be used for broccoli. The broccoli was seeded in trays and will germinate and grow strong in a nice air conditioned environment for 5-6 weeks before being transplanted.

In the arena of flourishing and producing, we’ve got some beautiful peppers coming in and abundant cherry tomatoes.

I am thrilled to report that our larger tomatoes have finally turned ripe. They’ve been the perfect size and shape for weeks now, but have obstinately remained green–until now! I picked up some mozzarella from the store and fixed some tomato slices with cheese, balsamic vinaigrette, and olive oil. I am not exaggerating when I say it’s like candy. If fresh tomatoes were sold with cheese on a stand right by the cash register like candy bars are, I would definitely buy. The photo on the below right features sunflowers from the garden!

Unfortunately, we do have some blossom rot on one of our tomato varieties. Fortunately, only the first few tomatoes to ripen should be affected (according to Bellair Farm manager and farmer extraordinaire, Jamie.)

Blossom rot, a common bacterial disease

Food author Michael Pollan talks about processed food in his chapter on making complex foods. Because crops like corn and soy are overproduced and flood the market, big companies have to find creative new ways to squeeze a profit. This is why corn is crushed, ground, pressed, filtered, dried, and refined in endless ways into cornstarch, corn syrup, and corn oil for cooking and food purposes, and adhesives, coatings, sizings, and plastics for industry. The kernel of corn that made the maltodextrin, xanthum gum, and glycerides–just a few of the many hidden names for corn tucked away into ingredient lists–could just have easily been made into the sticky tape that’s keeping the Bob Marley posters on the walls of freshman dorm rooms across the nation, if only it had been destined for another pipe in the labyrinth of a processing center (also known as a wet mill).

How companies like General Mills and Little Debbie keep their products exciting, profitable, and tasty depends on their crafting a unique concoction of these processed derivatives to create the Cocoa Puffs and Zebra Cakes that keep customers buying. It’s all about the process..(ed) foods.

This process, industry Process, with a capital ‘P’, is disheartening… but I find process, humble process with a little ‘p’, to be at the heart of what I’ve enjoyed most gardening this summer. The process of picking a variety, purchasing the seeds, preparing the bed, planting the seed, watering, weeding, and harvesting adds value to the final product of a ripened veggie in a way that processing a whole food into parts makes the quality cheaper in the world of food labs and snack food corporations.

Food for thought.

Come to the garden for some tomatoes if you want some literal food to power that brain of yours.

Until Sunday,


Report on a Sunday Potluck

This past Tuesday I got into some excited conversation with two volunteers over the successful creations made in the kitchen with ingredients from the garden. Grace has consistently been impressive in the kitchen this summer and dutifully gives reports of, among others, her fried chicken she deboned herself (a smash success), her swiss chard soup (a liquid-chard failure), and her pies (if they taste as good as they look when she packs them for lunch at Bellair, I’d guess they’re pretty scrumptious). I myself have only recently been branching out in my cooking. I’ve always consistently baked or tossed veggies in a skillet with dressings and seasoning for dinner, but my recipes are imaginary and made up of whatever spices my roommate has in her shoebox of herbs. I was finally able to add to the conversation between Grace and Taylor on Tuesday about what we made over the weekend, however; my contribution was breaded eggplant chips using produce from the farm. Most exciting of all, in my opinion, were the pickles that some volunteers made from our very own Boston cucumbers in the Community Garden. Soon the potluck idea was borne, and we all agreed to bring a dish to share on Sunday (today). The turnout today was great and the food even more impressive.


I think our grandparents’ generation would be proud to see us youngsters exchanging recipes and eating real food made from scratch.


The menu consisted of:

  • homemade bread
  • Pita chips and homemade tzatziki sauce
  • sautéed collards with oil and garlic
  • chickpea salad with feta
  • beet salad with goat cheese and pistachios
  • pickles
  • freshly picked tomatoes
  • lemon cucumber from the garden with pesto and parmesan cheese
  • black eyed peas and rice

The consensus was that Sunday potlucks should be a thing. Grace and I agree!

Besides eating and enjoying the sun, we also had time to stake the tomatoes and peppers-they’ve long outgrown their wire towers and needed some taller stakes to climb.

We also picked the seeds from the cilantro for replanting.


Our squash is starting to fruit, and Grace and I have been patiently waiting for an ever-enlarging squash to turn the promised red of it’s seed package. We might lose this waiting game, as this guy is now the length of my forearm.IMG_0178

Being a novice gardener, I’ve encountered a few plants that have serious personality and gumption. For example, there is the tomato plant whose stem broke almost clean through, the root half and the branching second half attached by only by a few hardy green tendrils. Yet this plant is green and flourishing, all the water and nutrients dutifully carried over the narrow tendril bridge to the fat tomatoes.

Another garden “miracle” is the squash plant that has climbed one of our sunflowers. I imagine this particular squash plant to be the one that insists to be on top of the pyramid when you decide to do gymnastics at a slumber party and steps on everyones hands and faces as they’re scrambling to the top. I’m curious to see whether we’ll see a fat squash someday soon hanging in midair.

I’ve been reading Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, and the first section of his book is on corn. He talks about corn’s fossil fuel footprint in a different context than the one I experienced in Kingsolver’s book. Kingsolver focuses on the gas footprint of food transport, while Pollan focuses more on how the fertilizer used on corn crop is a chemical artificially made in a process that uses electricity as a catalyst to combine nitrogen and hydrogen (which is supplied by coal, oil, or natural gas) under immense heat and pressure. Where before fertility was determined by the natural production– and limitation– of nitrogen fixation by bacteria feeding on plant sugars made via sunlight, fertility now operates outside of the bounds of a natural and inherently self-checking process. And considering that corn is more an economic commodity nowadays than the maize once treasured by ancient Aztec people, we really see fertility controlled by capitalism, which opts for miles of monoculture with an extra large side of chemical fertilizer.

Now that I understand industrial agriculture’s two-fold fossil fuel footprint (third-fold, fourth-fold?? Who knows, I’m only halfway done with this reading list), I am even more thankful for little organic garden plots like the community garden. The garden looks even healthier to me now as I realize it’s not weighed down by the invisible baggage of a huge and negative carbon impact.

Eat local and organic, folks. If you aren’t, you should know that when you drink your next veggie or fruit smoothie, you’re really sipping on fossil fuels.


Ever Bigger

The garden fruit is coming in now, which I have to say is my favorite time of the year. A few figs have begun purpling (is that a real verb?) and promise to be delicious.  Surprisingly, what we were told were june berries turned out to be something called wineberries, which are native to this part of the country and completely scrumptious.  There are however, a different kind of berry growing in the same bed, that look a bit more like blackberries, but could turn out to be the june berry.  I’m learning things all the time in the garden as more new things grow.

My hands are always this dirty nowadays
Beautiful wineberries with a smattering of cucumbers
Blackberry, or june berry? Only time will tell.

Speaking of learning new things: WE HAVE AN UPDATE ON THE MYSTERY SQUASH.  Drumroll pleeeeassse!  *rapid snare drum comes out of nowhere*

They’re PUMPKINS! Baby pumpkins!  Seeing as they’re only about the size of a fist, they probably aren’t good for pie making (DRAT) but will make excellent coffee table decoration.  Where they came from, though, is still a mystery.

Not quite orange yet

Another one of my favorite, and completely unexpected, things to have happened in the garden this year is, what I’m calling, the bonsai sunflower. Our sunflowers are over six feet tall at this point, with beautiful burt orange blossoms just larger than tea cup saucers.  However, one flower made it’s way into another bed, a bed with a much more shallow soil depth.  As a result, this sunflower, which I can only assume to have been on the same seed as the giants ones, is only about 18 inches tall, but still with a full blossom!  Nature’s quirks never cease to amaze.

I’ve decided to name him Tyrion.

We had plenty of volunteers at our new Sunday workday, which was a relief because Elise and I have been trying to eat all of these cucumbers by ourselves. We’ve got Boston pickling cucumbers coming out of our ears.  The lemon cucumbers are also beginning to come in, and I still don’t know where they taste like lemon, or just kind of look like lemons. I’ll find out I guess.  We’ve harvested just about the rest of the kale, and a lot of swiss chard – a wonderful ruby red – and practically had enough produce to distribute our own little CSA boxes for the volunteers on Sunday.

Lulu keeping guard over the harvest
Volunteers harvesting some chard
The chard money shot. Yum!
UVa Community Garden CSA? And yes, those are green beans!

I just finished Joel Salatin’s book, Folks, This Ain’t Normal which was completely engaging, funny, horrifying, and uplifting all at once.  I highly recommend it for anyone who cares about food or human culture in general. I could be biased though, because really the book appeals to my inner grumpy old man, who, unfortunately, is becoming stronger every day. Joel takes a look at standard practices in food culture, derived from a systemically produced American idea that we don’t ever screw up, and points out that not only are they not healthy, nor sustainable, nor responsible, but they just AREN’T NORMAL.  It only took me a few chapters to understand that the tone of the book’s title is not one of a scolding father, but one of an exasperated neighbor who does not understand what is going on.

It would seem that in our quest to do and make and have things faster, cheaper, more efficient, larger, we never back track.  We’ve shot a hole in the roof of our house, and instead of figuring out ways to fix the roof (or improve our aim) we’re trying to figure out which would be the best bucket to put underneath the hole when it rains. And when that bucket leaks, we find another, and another. You know Albert Eisten said the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over again and expected a different result.

But what I think the most valuable thing I got out of this book was what he said when it comes to farmers.  When you move somewhere new, you have to find a new dentist, a new GP, a new job, a new school, a new park to take your dog to.  You should also have to find a new farmer.  Find the person who’s going to be providing you with food.  Know who they are, what they do, and how they do it.  Have a relationship with your farmer and with your food.  Would you really want your teeth cleaned by a dentist you never got to meet, and whose credentials were, at best, dubious?

That wouldn’t be normal.


Garden Swoon

The garden showed off to me today with some beautiful sunflowers. I may be hooked on growing plants, and these in particular, from seed. It’s a small marvel to watch them go from green bud hugging the earth, to delicate stem, to strong, leafy stalks with little suns at their center.

We’ve had a few work days since the last blog post, including our first ever Sunday work day. Grace and I decided to move our Friday 11am to 1pm workdays to Sunday afternoons 3-5pm to try and capture the 9-5 weekday workers that haven’t had a chance to get their hands in the dirt. Our first weekend work day went smashingly, with a surprisingly all male volunteer turnout (our volunteer demographic has skewed female this summer, so I feel safe saying boy power!! on this one). Robert even brought some juicy watermelon to enjoy, which was perfect on a hot day with the weeds staring us down.


This is a time of year in the garden where everything seems to be spilling over the edges of their beds, especially the squash and cucumber plants. I like to reflect on how exotic so many vegetable plants would seem to us if they weren’t run-of-the-mill plant varieties the average joe is familiar with (although I should be careful what I say, Barbara Kingsolver mentions in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle that her friend was surprised to hear potatoes had a “plant part.”) I imagine tourists snapping pictures of Venus fly traps and redwoods, and it doesn’t seem so far off from drooling over massive winter squash leaves, cabbages nestled in their leaf nests, and asparagus with their delicate tinsel and green balls. And to see fruit developing from these flowers! It seems like a miracle.

The winter squash are escaping their frames.


Grace and I tasted our first baby tomatoes this week…I’m not a tomato person but I swear it was like garden candy and tasted like sunshine.
The mystery “squash” finally revealed itself! Mystery pumpkin??

I’ve always thought that the main disconnection in our eating culture is between us, people, and the things we put in our mouths, food. However, there exists a disconnect between farming land and the actual plant varieties that draw life from it’s soil nutrients. I’d heard of “heirloom vegetables” before, but never knew what that meant. Heirloom veggies are the fruit of seeds that have been saved for many generations, passed from one gardener to another. They are open-pollinated, as opposed to hybrids, which are the one-time product of a forced cross-pollination between dissimilar plant varieties. Often heirloom varieties are adapted to their local climates and are bred for sweetness, tanginess, fragrance–that is, taste. In contrast, our grocery store fruits’ selected traits are for uniform appearance, mechanized harvest, and efficient packaging. Just the names of heirlooms make your mouth water. Kingsolver mentions Bronze Arrowhead lettuces, Speckled Trout romaine, Cajun Jewel Okra, Sweet Chocolate Pepper, and more.

Eating from a garden isn’t just better for the environment–no fuel footprint from transport when the garden is local, no chemical pesticides and fertilizers,etc– but it tastes better too!


Doesn’t it look inviting? Join us next week.


Rain, Rain, Come Our Way

Yesterday our work day was kept cool by some dark rain clouds in the distance and a few sprinklings here and there. The day ended a little early when the skies opened up, but we did have enough time to collect a bountiful harvest. Grace and I have been waiting for the fava beans to dry out a bit before collecting them from their stalks, and we plucked the plump pods at last.

Our herb plots have been thriving and our lavender bush in particular is absolutely swarming with bumble bees. The purple, black, and yellow color scheme is beautiful.

We had two determined MVP volunteers who made it out to the garden despite the ominous skies. Our long term project right now is to weed the grass from all the walkways. While Grace and I have been on top of the beds, keeping them relatively weed-free, the pathways have a nice green carpet in some spots that could use a weed wacker. Without that handy tool we’ve resorted to hand pulling and spade use, which is more time consuming but also more thorough and not as noisy, allowing for some great conversation between the garden workers.


Grace lended me her copy of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and I’ve already found some parallels right off the bat with Wendell Berry’s Unsettling of America, the book I read previously. The beginning of Kingsolver’s novel documents her family’s move to a farm in Virginia’s southern Appalachia from the drought-ridden city of Tucson. Kingsolver discusses the absence of a real food culture in the dried Arizona town because any and all produce is trucked in to the city in refrigerated boxes from elsewhere. The hot, Southwestern state isn’t conducive to agriculture except for the orange trees and alfalfa that are artificially made successful via complex irrigation systems. Kingsolver is drawn to the farm life by a desire to become reconnected to food.

Early on in the book she shares a story of two different experiences with young women that she encounters during her trek across country. In Tucson, she encounters a gas station attendant who complains about potential rain because she wants to spend her day off the next morning washing her car. In Virginia, she is served by a waitress at a diner who looks hopefully at some gathering rain clouds and wishes out loud that it rains long enough to soak the crops but not long enough to wash them out. Kingsolver reflects on these experiences and concludes that having basic agricultural sense is key to understanding what makes land healthy and key to fostering behaviors that lend itself to ecological sustainability. The Tucson attendant only experiences food at the grocery store and therefore doesn’t grasp the connection between weather events and crop health, while the diner waitress lives on a farm where her father’s livelihood depends on frequent rainstorms. Who is more likely to care? Like Wendell says, it’s important that we break down the walls between where we live and where we work — it’s crucial that we understand the character of the work that literally feeds our living.


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.

The Winter 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!

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.

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.

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!

Lulu, garden dog extraordinaire


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.

Bees in the lavender
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.

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!

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


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,