Summer reading

I always loved books, but I had much less time to appreciate them in college and while working in Somerville.  By taking the summer off, I freed up a lot of time for reading.  Some has been purely for entertainment, but I’ve also learned a lot from books, articles, and magazines this summer.

It’s hard to tell if novels just seem better because I have long uninterrupted sessions to spend with them, or if I’ve hit the jackpot and picked a great string of books to enjoy.  The following titles come highly recommended (if the story sounds interesting to you, that is): Shadow of the WindMe, Earl, and the Dying Girl, City of Thieves, 1Q84, and The Wind Up Bird Chronicle.

I thought Michelle Obama’s American Grown did a great job of justifying the need for a continued surge in school gardens to unite communities, reconnect Americans with where food comes from, and increase physical activity.  The recipes, growing tips, and photos sprinkled throughout the book turned it into a beautiful and practical resource for school and community gardeners.

In a recent New York Times Opinionator, Tim Kreider articulates many of the reasons I’ve chosen to move to Vermont and take the summer off.  His The ‘Busy’ Trap article explores the culture of busyness that I felt overwhelmed by in the city.  As I planned my move, I felt like I was aware of a secret that others didn’t realize yet – one doesn’t always have to be busy to be a good staff member, a good friend, and a good citizen.

As Kreider writes, “The present hysteria is not a necessary or inevitable condition of life; it’s something we’ve chosen, if only by our acquiescence to it….Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.”  This sentiment has proven to be true for me as I find clarity and energy while recharging this summer.  I know not many people are lucky enough to be able to retreat to such a beautiful place.  However, many friends who respond “Busy!” when asked “How are you?” do choose (and are overwhelmed by) their pace of life.

I’m currently making my way through the most recent Orion Magazine.  In it’s 30th year, the magazine is still producing incredibly well written pieces indended to create a philosophy of nature.  As the editorial explains, “When our philosophy of how to live helps us imagine a future worth having, we find the personal and cultural resolve to do what we know is morally correct.”  I love how the magazine tells individuals’ stories that always seem to build on each other to offer concrete and informed opinions about how to move forward in our world in a more resilient way.   Given my recent work in urban agriculture, it is no surprise that one of my favorite articles was Revolutionary Plots.   The line following the title sums up the article: “Urban agriculture is producing a lot more than food.”  Covering rural/urban divides, youth development, hunger, education, and community connections – this article tells a great story and definitely worth reading!

I’ve happily consumed many of the books on the top of my “to read” list, so new suggestions are welcome!  I’d love to hear what books, articles, or magazines you’ve loved this summer.

My love of books (and mud boots) goes way back, 1989
Also 1989, the first garden plot I was in charge of.
Home Gardens Personal Sustainability: How-To

Starting a Container Garden

Do you rent?  Do you have limited if any space to grow vegetables this summer?  Are you thinking about moving apartments in June or September?  Do you hesitate to garden because you might have to buy a lot of new supplies?

Good news: if you’re willing to be creative and resourceful, YOU can have an easy container garden this season!  There are a few key items that you will need, and a few key facts that will help your plants thrive.

Key Materials:
-SOIL: The most important and sometimes most expensive item for city gardeners.  I recommend mixing a bagged organic potting mix with compost to prevent compaction and promote more even water release.  Your mix can last up to two years, but after that should be dumped on a tarp or in a bigger container, mixed up with new additions of compost, and used to refill containers.  The best way to get compost is to have a compost bin or worm bin the year before you start to compost.  If you’re a Cambridge resident (or drag a friend who is along), you can get small amounts of FREE compost from the recycling center! I called to confirm that this program still exists – it does.  Just make sure to go during their open hours and bring your own container.  If neither of these options works for you, check out the organic bagged soil options at your local garden or hardware store – then at least your dollars support local businesses.

-CONTAINERS: We get free four and five gallon buckets from Tufts Dining Services for sap collection during the Somerville Maple Syrup Project.  Usually large food-grade containers (you wouldn’t want to garden in old chemical containers!) can be found in the recycling dumpsters by large food service operations.  Keeping an eye on the streets on trash day during the spring can be rewarding – neighbors buy large potted plants and plant them, leaving the plastic containers for the garbage truck.  Make sure to get a large enough pot for your desired plant with drainage holes (can be poked or stabbed).

-SEEDS or SEEDLINGS: Both Cambridge Whole Foods (River and Prospect St.) sell High Mowing Seeds, one of the only organic options in stores.  If you’re on top of your game, you can order from seed catalogues.  This year, we’re almost past that point.  If these options don’t work for you, get what you can find in the grocery or hardware store and plan ahead next year.  Local Farmer’s markets and seedling sales support local farms and community groups.  Locally owned garden stores are also good bets for finding vegetable seedlings.  If you get seedlings, find out what local community sales or sites are planned for the spring.  Buying from chain stores is as problematic as buying food from chain stores – seedlings come from far away and are all raised together, enabling the easy spread of disease across the nation.

Key Tips:
-Plants need sun.  Plants are extremely resourceful when living in questionable situations, but you should place containers in the sunniest place possible.  I’ve grown heat-loving plants like tomatoes under a porch roof with great success, but they are on the south-west edge of that porch and get great afternoon light.
-Keep containers evenly moist.  In the middle of the summer, on hot days, this might mean watering in the morning and at night.  It also means that you should make sure that excess water can drain out holes in the bottom of your containers, especially if containers are not under a roof.  I used an awl to poke holes in the bottom of my containers before filling them, and have them sitting in large, edged plastic plates.  This keeps water from leaking out everywhere – I water until I see it start to drip out the bottom.
-If planting seeds, make sure to follow guidelines on the back of the packet.  Depth in the soil, and planting at the right time of year is key for successful seedlings.
-Make sure your pots are big enough!  I’ve seen too many small containers on porches and front stoops holding struggling tomatoes and other veggies.  The root system of a healthy plant is as big as the above-ground growth.  Use 2-5 gallon containers for most veggies.  Some herbs can grow in smaller containers.
-Keep an eye out for diseases and pests.  Most can be treated easily if caught early.  IF you notice something unusual, google it and include “organic” in your search terms.  The internet can be a wonderful and free resource!  You’ll learn as you go, don’t feel like you need to read a lot of books and become an expert before you even start.

Check out other blogs!  There are a lot of innovative people experimenting with container gardening.  A few I’ve enjoyed recently include:

My first urban porch tomatoes, on Boston Ave. in Medford
Herbs, leafy veggies, and tomatoes in containers in back. Front: using the warm summer weather and direct sun to revive my indoor plants


Porter Square porch garden harvest



My most recent weekend visit to Vermont provided me with some time for introspective reflection.  I thought about my strengths and weaknesses, both personally as a friend and professionally as an employee.  I thought about what I value in my urban community, and what I miss about my rural roots.  I thought about my career path, and those of my parents and friends with whom I spent the weekend.

Upon returning to the city, I also returned to an overflowing inbox demanding my attention.  A handful of the new emails were forwarded job opportunities, requests for informational interviews, and reminders of gatherings of various professional networks.   I also received the weekly digest of articles sent out by Linked In to members in the “Non-Profit Management” field. One article resonated deeply with me, and pulled together many of the seemingly random streams of thought I’d had recently.

The article, entitled “Forget Networking, How to be a Connector,” describes a type of person who thrives on bringing people together and linking others to opportunities and people who might help them achieve their goals.  “Networking I see as a means to an end,” says Jill Leiderman, executive producer of the late-night show Jimmy Kimmel Live. But connecting, she explains, is about using a genuine love of meeting people and making friends to engage and assist one another.  Exactly!  Though there were certainly traits described in the article that don’t match mine, I did finish reading with an excited feeling.

I love listening to friends explain their current challenges, but only if they are willing to listen to the practical and action-oriented advice I craft as they talk.  Whenever I see a job opportunity, I take a few minutes to forward it to past interns, volunteers, and recent graduates who might be interested.  Somehow I always find time to accept requests for informational interviews.  It’s an exciting time in farm-based and outdoor education, and I’m energized by the crowd of people who are trying to enter the field.  Hopefully these daily actions will pay off for me as I consider what’s next on my career path and plan a move to Vermont, away from many of my professional networks.  Then I will need to depend on other connectors to help me establish myself in a new community.  Read the article here, and check out some photos from the weekend in Vermont:

by Katie Rizzolo
By Dina Schulman
by Terry Dinnan
by Katie Rizzolo
Get Involved! Home Gardens Personal Sustainability: How-To

Composting Webinar Online!

Ok, ok, I know my friends are probably sick of me talking about compost.  I have just a few more things to say about the topic, then I’ll leave it be for at least a few months…really!

First, last week’s webinar went really well.  Thanks to all who attended, especially those who asked such interesting and probing questions!  I could tell that everyone in the “room” was really thinking about getting started and thought deeply about addressing any concerns or roadblocks in their way.  Could’t attend?  Don’t worry!  You can view the webinar recording (click on the image below) to learn the basics of urban home composting and listen to the question and answer period that followed.  Thanks to the Environmental Leadership Program for making this available.

Click this image to check out the webinar!

Are you a more visual learner?  All examples of composting methods pictured in the webinar can be found at the Somerville Community Growing Center.  I’ll be leading the last of their compost trainings THIS Saturday June 25th!  If you live in Somerville or in the Boston area, I’d love to see you there.  I would also be very appreciative if you could pass along this free opportunity to folks you think might be interested.  Read below for more the details in a letter sent recently by the “Compost Caretaker Team:”

We’re happy that the Growing Center can facilitate Somerville residents in reducing their waste stream and creating healthy soil.  However, simply bringing your food waste to the center is not the only step!  If you wish to compost at the Growing Center, you must attend an FCGC volunteer orientation AND a Growing Center composting workshop. 

Our last COMPOSTING WORKSHOP of the season is on Saturday June 25 from 12-1 pm: Join Groundwork Somerville’s Gardens Coordinator for this practical workshop.  Have you wanted to learn about urban composting or had trouble managing a healthy compost bin? Come learn the basics of turning yard and food waste into a valuable soil amendment in one of the most rewarding ecological activities that fits well in the city. Learn a few simple guidelines and see a range of options. This is a great opportunity to trouble shoot, ask questions, and create a viable plan to reduce household or office waste! 

Our compost bins are managed by Friends of the Community Growing Center (FCGC) volunteers and the labor of those who wish to use the bins for their food scraps.   Thank you for your help!

Tai & Aileen
FCGC Compost Caretaker Team

Healey School Gardener hunts for "compost critters"

Home Gardens Personal Sustainability: How-To School Gardens

Cool Crops vs. Heat Lovers: Seasonality Tips!

We’re used to having access to whatever fruits and vegetables we want when we want them.  Sometimes this affects the growing decisions made by first-time gardeners.  If I LOVE spinach, why shouldn’t I start a new batch every 30 days all summer long? If watermelon is absolutely my #1 favorite fruit, I should be determined to grow at least one, right?!

Not necessarily.  A bit more strategy, research, and adaptation to the ebb and flow of each season is needed in order to take advantage of small backyard gardens and containers.  If you wait all year for your first pea harvest in June, they will taste better than if you ate them all year long.  And then, as soon as the thrill of eating peas starts to wane, strawberries, head lettuce, and cilantro will be ready.  If you eat seasonally, meals are appreciated and stay exciting all year round.

The Crop Availability Guide, produced by the MA Department of Agriculture gives the viewer some sense about when produce is available in Massachusetts, but this still isn’t telling the whole story.  Some plants can be grown in the middle of the summer, but farmers must use special techniques and extra effort to keep them cool and evenly watered so that they can thrive.  Similarly, some plants can be encouraged to grow despite cool temperatures with added equipment and cost, even though they really like growing later in the summer.  These efforts are worth it for seasoned gardeners and farmers who enjoy the challenge of extending their seasons.  For first time gardeners, however, my main advice is to make your job simple!  After a few years, your adjustments and adaptations will allow you to grow more of what you like when you want it.  Below, find tips on plants that grow well in small spaces and the best months to start them in.

SEASONS: Consider only planting spinach in spring and fall, using Chard as a heat tolerant substitute to get you through the middle of the summer.  Lettuce and cilantro can get through the summer in shadier corners of the garden while tomatoes, peppers, and basil love the heat and hate the cold soil and cool nights of May and April!

  • April: Peas (harvest in June), Lettuce (harvest in May/June), Spinach (harvest in May/June), Arugula (harvest May/June)
  • May: Lettuce, Spinach, Kale (harvest June-Nov), Chard (harvest June-Nov), Kohlrabi (harvest July), Cilantro (harvest June-July), Dill (harvest June-July), Onions (harvest July-Aug), Carrots (harvest July), Parsley (harvest July-Oct)
  • June: Beans (harvest July-Aug), Cucumbers (harvest July-Aug), Tomatoes (harvest July-Oct), Basil (harvest July-Sept), Marigolds, Peppers (harvest July-Sept)
  • Late August: In shadier or cool gardens, try starting a fall batch of peas, spinach, cilantro or lettuce!

SPACE: consider planting the first option rather than the second to save space in your small garden!

  • Cucumbers, trellised vertically vs. Zucchini
  • Pole beans, trellised vertically vs. Bush Beans
  • Grow greens, herbs, and tomatoes at home vs. corn, melon, and pumpkins …you can supplement your harvest by buying these space hogs from the farmer’s market

Do you have tips for those of us trying to make home gardening as easy as possible?  Did you have any early learning experiences in your garden that you can share with novice gardeners?  What unusual crops grow well in your backyard or container gardens?

Get Involved! Home Gardens Personal Sustainability: How-To

Urban Composting

Moving to Boston provoked several urban lifestyle wake-up-calls, many of them relating to city residents’ relationship to food and waste.  Many of my comments drew quizzical looks.

In line at dining hall brunch:
Classmate: “Why don’t you want a bunch of these HUGE strawberries?!”
Me: “They’re not in season, it’s January.  I don’t know, I’d rather eat citrus because this is the time of year it’s really good.”
Classmate: “?!? Ok, more for me!”

At a department event with free food:
Me: “Where do we put the vegetables we’re not going to eat?”
Professor: “Uh, in the trash?”

After living here for almost six years, I now see why it is so hard to be aware of seasonality or waste reduction options when living in an urban community.  It takes much more effort and desire, and many people choose to focus their efforts elsewhere.  In the past several years I’ve happily noticed increased interest in compost, farmer’s markets, in-season local food, and back yard/porch gardening.  Things are really changing.
There certainly are legitimate reasons that composting, eating in-season local food, and urban gardening are challenging and even harmful to one’s heath.  Toxic soils, rats, and high initial costs can give such pursuits a bad name if done without some research and strategy.  This is why I am so excited to be able to offer “Urban Composting Workshops” – both in-person, as a representative of Groundwork Somerville at the Somerville Community Growing Center, and in webinar format as a Senior Fellow of the Environmental Leaders Program.

Join me in person or online to learn about how to deter pests and rodents, eliminate odors, and turn waste to compost as fast as possible.  These issues are common in urban settings and often give composting a bad name – don’t let this happen to you and your neighbors!!  Maintaining a healthy compost bin reduces waste (and smelly trash cans) and improves soil quality. Done right, you can inspire others to compost in their backyards. Even with limited space or no backyard, there are options for you too.  Join me!

Home Gardens Personal Sustainability: How-To

Backyard Gardening: Construction Day

Subject: [BBQ] Get Dirty in My Backyard April 16th @ 11am

Message: Hey Guys, Come join me for some fun-in-the-early-spring-sun … If you just want to come get your hands dirty, you can do that – I’ll be setting up some raised gardening beds which means: sawing, nailing, measuring, moving dirt – and some other stuff we’ll find out about that day. If you just want to come for a burger, hot dog or veggie burger, that’s great, because there’ll be lots of those on hand…

The day was cooler than the weekend before, but it was April so we felt lucky it wasn’t raining.  Having a BBQ at the same time kept friends and family from constantly requesting jobs to help the garden construction process.  Tools were our limiting factor – with only one drill, assembling the frames took a little while and only used the energy of two folks.

Minor shoveling helped flatten the grade of the yard and grassy areas were turned under to keep weeds from growing up through our raised beds.  Stakes were set inside the corners of each frame so we could drill into them from the end of each board.

The yard’s soil was soft from rain earlier in the week, so standing on the completed corners caused the stakes to sink into the ground, anchoring each frame in place. We then solicited the energy of the crowd to move soil from the driveway into the raised beds.

After the fluffy soil was tamped down with a rake, we planted cool season crops including lettuce, spinach, chard, kale, peas, arugula and carrots.  In just a few hours, we built 64 square feet of beautiful growing space!

After gathering up our tools we went in to warm up with tea harvested and dried from a friend’s herb garden last year.  Later that night rain fell as we made our way to a birthday party – instead of getting upset, we thanked Mother Nature for taking one task off of our “to do” list.

Home Gardens

Backyard Gardening: The Shopping List

Here’s what we bought to construct a 5’x8′ bed and a 3’x8′ bed, both raised 6 inches:

  • six 1″x6″x8′ cedar boards (cut into 3′, 5′, and 8′ lengths)
  • one 2″x2″x8′ stake, cut into eight 1′ stakes
  • 48 2″ galvanized screws
  • 1 cubic yard compost/loam mix
  • seeds (according to varieties desired and square foot gardening spacing, for small gardens, attending a seed swap is highly recommended!)
Here’s what we made sure we had at the house to help make the bed construction process a success:
  • electric drill (wasn’t cordless, so extension cord too)
  • shovels, rake
  • wheel barrow/buckets (for soil transport)
  • tarp (for dumping soil onto)
  • something to mark planted areas with (popsicle sticks)
  • cleared yard area free of brambles
  • way to play music outside
  • sent invitation to a backyard bbq and garden raising!
Home Gardens Personal Sustainability: How-To

Backyard Gardening: Planning

Last fall, my friend did a few first steps so we’d be ahead of the game in the spring.  These included taking a soil sample and sending it off to the labs at UMass Amherst for testing, and purchasing a subsidized compost bin from the city.  He also collected nearly 20 yard waste bags of leaves that neighbors had left out for collection.  We wanted to make sure there were no dangerous heavy metals in the soil and would use the leaves later for compost and mulch.

In the depths of winter, everyone benefits from dreaming of the summer!  The arrival of several seed catalogs in my mailbox get me thinking about planning the garden.  I gather up my catalogs and we spend a cozy afternoon making the initial plans for the garden space.

The first step is to check out the yard. As flurries decorate my hat, I trudge through the deep snow and take some measurements with a big tape measure.  I try to remember that the bare branches of the tree will leaf out and shade the back corner of the yard, and that snow is covering thorny shrubs in some areas but grassy lawn in others.  The best garden beds are placed in locations that get sun for most of the day and don’t interfere with other uses of the space.

After selecting the best locations, my friend browses through the seed catalog and marks off the plants he likes.  We make a list of these selections, and add columns for seeds per square foot, yield per square foot, and desired yield.  That will allow us to decide how to divide up the beds.

Garden Planning Check List:

As you can see, we didn’t worry about making our brainstorm pretty or understandable for others!  On the sheet below, you can see a rough map of the back yard along with a table listing low and high range of square feet wanted for each veggie based on sun needs, plants per square foot, and estimated yield per plant.

Home Gardens Personal Sustainability: How-To

Backyard Gardening: The Idea

Last fall, as the days grew short, CSA shares made their final distributions, and temperatures dropped, my friend came to me with a question.  He enjoyed his CSA share and was wondering if he should sign up again for the next season.  I mentioned that I thought he could grow most of the veggies he enjoyed in this year’s share in his small back yard and supplement his harvest with purchases at the farmer’s market.  I estimated that the cost of starting a garden and making a few purchases from the market would be less than that of a CSA share.  He was intrigued and open to trying it out for a season.

I realized I had never actually done personal back yard gardening in a city.  I grew up with a large garden in a rural community.  I maintain the school gardens in Somerville.  I’ve never had access to yard space while in the city, so I’ve grown choice vegetables along the edge of my of roof-covered porch.  Last year I even snuck chard and cherry tomatoes into my landlord’s flower beds.  I’d never, however, built and maintained raised beds for myself just outside my own back door. I was excited about the prospect of participating in my friend’s growing experiment!

After getting permission from the other users of his back yard space, we began to plan.  I would act as an adviser; he would be the garden manager and primary consumer.  I’d document the process so others could learn from our successes and challenges.  By the fall, we’d know how much work it really takes and how much we could realistically grow in 70 square feet of the  back yard. We welcome you to check in with our progress, offer tips or lessons you’ve learned from back yard gardening, and ask questions as we enjoy a season of urban gardening.  Maybe you can even start one for yourself!

Sungold tomatoes I was allowed to grow in my landlord’s flower bed last summer