Monday, August 31, 2009

Supergrains harvest time go!!!

Over at the Botanical Gardens "secret" garden site, we are harvesting the quinoa we started from seed in May. No one on the Cultivating Community team has experience with harvesting quinoa so we delved the internet for answers. When the quinoa plant leaves are dried and the plant itself looks dead the quinoa should be ready. The seeds are mature when you can no longer make an indent on the kernels with your fingernail.

The quinoa stalk in the above photo is ready to harvest. In fact, we were late on collecting the seed because many of them started to germinate while on the plant!

We collected the seed by rubbing up the stalk and angling the seed head into a bowl we used to store the quinoa. The collection process left us with a bowl full of quinoa seed and the dried "chaff". We used a technique called wind winnowing to remove some of the "chaff" from the quinoa. Wind winnowing is a simple method of grain processing that has been used for thousands of years.

Many cultures developed simple contraptions to accomplish winnowing. We are substantially lower tech at this garden plot, so we simply would wait for a light breeze and take handfuls of the mixture and drop it back into the bowl. The wind would blow away the unwanted plant parts because they were so light while the seeds fell right back into the container. We also did this for amaranth seed. A photo of those plants can be seen below.

Both of these grains have their roots in the Andean region of South America. The Incans cultivated these plants to fuel their empire. After the Conquest several indigenous groups kept the strains alive despite Spanish government prohibitions. The Rodale Institute considers them "supergrains" because of their high protein, fiber, and iron content. Quinoa contains all twenty essential amino acids for human nutrition. North Americans grew Amaranth for years, mainly for its asethetic appeal, but now it is gaining popularity as a food crop. There are detailed Wikipedia articles on both plants if you want to know more about these wonder foods.


Hope everyone is ready for school to begin! Be sure to check out the Cultivating Community table at Festifall and at Northfest!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

We have worms!

Two weeks ago the Cultivating Community team recieved a package containing a wrigging mass of worms. We ordered four pounds of red wigglers (Eisenia fetida) from Flowerfield Enterprises which is based out of Kalamazoo. The worm woman, Mary Appelhof founded the business to further educate and provide people with the means to start vermicomposting for themselves. She wrote Worms Eat My Garbage a comprehensive how to guide for people desiring to start "worm wrangling". We use her book as a reference guide on the handling and housing requirements for the worms. We followed her bin specifications to handle the scraps of a single person as well as a small group of individuals. The smallest bin volumes were reserved for those that lived on their own while the larger bins were for two to three people, maybe more if the group did not produce that much food scraps that the worms could eat. We made up containers and divided up the worms by weight into the bins that we then gave away at the vermicomposting workshop we held last Wednesday. The bed preparation went as follows:

We used shredded computer paper for the worm bedding and lined the bottom of the bins with it. Other materials that can be used for the bedding are newspaper, leaf mold, animal manures, coconut fibers, woodchips, and peat moss. We picked computer paper because it was already shredded and in amble supply in the Garden's recycling baskets. The bedding functions to hold moisture, and provide a medium for the worms to move and eat.

We then added small rocks and sand to each bin to give the worms "grit". Worms do not have teeth and because of this they need a hard and fine material to use in their gizzard to break down food so it is digestable. We put finished compost into the bins to increase the bedding volume and to inoculate the containers with the microbial community found in the soil. The worms work in tandem with other organisms in the soil to decompose food scraps.

Many came for the workshop, and took bins for themselves. If you are interested in starting your own worm bin or have a bin, but lack experience Worms Eat My Garbage is a fantastic reference. Be sure to visit Appelhof's website here for tips and as a source to order your own crawly critters.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Jam making: berries not beats

Last week Wednesday the Cultivating Community team and students made jam! We hosted a jam making workshop to instruct participants on one of the more famous methods of food preservation. Everyone brought fruit to jam. Because time and equipment was limited, one jam including all of the fruits was made. The fruits used to make this "monster" jam were: plums, grapes, raspberries, strawberries, and blueberries. They mashed the fruits until it was a thick paste.

And then put all of the mashed fruit into a large pot and cooked the fruit using a gas stove.

The jamming group poured the fully cooked jam into several sterilized Ball jars. They then placed the jammed jars into a rolling boil water bath for about ten minutes to seal the jars from the outside air. Dana removed the jars from the water bath using tongs.

The jam making team left the jars at the Trotter Multicultural Center overnight to cool. The Cultivating Community team and the other participants picked up their share of the jam the following day. I recently tried the jam and it is one of the best jams I have tasted...ever. So myself and the rest of the Cultivating Community team encourage you all to experiment with canning, and jamming!

Friday, August 7, 2009

Detroit Urban Ag Tour: Farming in the D!

Last Wednesday night the other interns, myself, and a CC member went on the Detroit Urban Agriculture Tour. The tour had three separate buses going to different parts of Detroit (east side, central, and west side) as well as two bike tours. Our group went on the east side bus tour which visited Earthworks Urban Farm, Farnsworth street neighborhood, Peacemakers Ministries, and Georgia Street community gardens.
The full history and origins of Earthworks Urban Farm can be read here. The farm looked amazing with native wildflowers interspersed with massive eggplants, beans, and tomatoes. The Farm has youth outreach programs that teach entrepenuership, and healthy eating so there were many young volunteers explaining different parts of the farm to us as we moved through. There was a hoophouse on the property showcasing one of the main methods for farms in Michigan to have a longer growing season. This farm used to be a vacant lot of open grass, but now feeds the soup kitchen patrons as well as supplies the Gleaner's Food Bank with fresh produce. There are several other initiatives around Detroit that are doing similar things to combat poverty and hunger within the city.

The next point of interest we saw was the Farnsworth neighborhood. We drove by many quaint houses that were teeming with plant life, both ornamental and edible. The neighborhood is home to Paul Weertz, the science teacher at Catherine Fergueson Academy that founded the farm program at the school. Himself and others in his immediate community fully embrace the joys of gardening as evidenced by what we witnessed.

The next stop was at Peacemakers Ministries International which is a non-profit that offers transitional housing, and food organizers grow in adjacent lots, for people suffering from substance abuse. This visit was especially intriguing because one of the garden spaces is in an old abandoned building that no longer has a roof. Within the building, there is a chicken coop and several raised beds that have flowers and vegetables.

The final stop on the tour before the reception was the Georgia Street Community Collective. This organization is right in the middle of the community it serves with its garden in close proxmity to a great number of houses. They are also starting an orchard on an adjacent lot to the garden. I especially admired the garden because it had a great deal of artwork in the signage which is great to see because gardens are spectacular community art spaces.

The tour reception was held at Catherine Fergueson Academy, where the tour organizers, local chefs, and volunteers provided a taste of Detroit's harvest with small samplings of various dishes made from Detroit grown produce. After the meal we explored Catherine Fergueson's fields, which were filled with vegetables, fruit trees, bee hives, goats, rabbits, ducks, geese, and a horse!

Overall I really enjoyed the tour and it was exciting to see all the dynamic things that are happening in this post-industrial city. The blending of urban and rural elements within the city helps to establish a greater ecological balance because Detroit is not currently experiencing pressures to develop land, but instead has vacant land that can be farmed which produces a harvest that is every more closely approaching food self-sufficiency.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Mini herb gardens!

On July 15th, the Cultivating Community team hosted a mini herb garden workshop outside the Ginsberg Center. We provided the containers, seeds, soil, and water. First step in the workshop was the punching of drain holes into the window box containers. Then we filled the containers with organic potting soil and each participant chose which seeds and/or plants to put into their herb gardens. The herb seeds we had to offer were chives, lavendar, basil, oregano, thyme, and mint. Also we brought some cilantro plants to offer as transplants. Herb plants do not take up that much space, therefore many plants could fit into one container. So everyone selected and planted their plants, watered their container, and carried it home to watch it grow. We would love to hear feedback on how your herbs are doing so email me at to let us know, maybe even send pictures so we can post them to the blog!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Spray baby spray

Aphids have taken residence in the Secret Garden at the Matthaei Botanical Gardens. Luckily, we have been staving off major losses by using a special organic spray. The spray we use is very effective and simple to make. We take about a handful of tomato plant leaves and place them in a container filled with water and let that steep for twenty four hours inside the Gardens’ main building. The next day we removed the leaves from the container and funneled the liquid into a spray bottle. We used a spray bottle that had been designated as the organic methods bottle so we were sure it did not have any pesticide or other questionable chemical residues. We then went out to the garden with the bottle and sprayed the leaves of the afflicted plants which in this case are the nasturtiums in the square foot bed. I am confident the aphids will no longer pose problems because we have used this spray before on one of our quinoa plants and it has made a complete recovery with no aphids in sight.

There are other home remedies for pests on plants. Here is a link to one of the pages we found that has different spray recipes and other techniques for eliminating pesky insects.

We made sure to spray both the tops and undersides of the leaves to make all the leaf parts undesirable for the aphids.

The tomato spray had a strong offensive odor, but I took great joy in applying it knowing that I was not using synthetic pesticides. I felt free to spray as much as I wanted without fear of poisoning myself or the garden.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

This past Monday the other interns and I hosted a fieldtrip to Rowe’s Produce Farm ( in Ypsilanti. The farm is a u-pick with fresh and ripe strawberries as well as sugar snap peas. We arrived around five in the afternoon and the sun was still baking the fields. The strawberries were warm and sweet. Also the water they contained was a welcome respite from the heat. The farm is all u-pick so the choicest berries are up for the picking while they are in season. U-pick farms are private operations that plant and care for the plants, but leave the activity of harvesting to the public, who then purchase what they pick.

Rowe’s farm has an email list that they use to notify their patrons about the picking conditions of their various crops. They call it “the” list and you can join it by emailing them at: The season for strawberries ends around the beginning of July so head out there soon for some fresh berries and peas!

We helped the Habitat for Humanity cluster in Ypsilanti with weeding their raised beds, but more work needs to be done to ready the beds for planting. The cluster is a very quaint neighborhood of young families. If you want to assist with the community establishing a beautiful and bountiful garden contact Habitat for Humanity of Huron Valley through the email: and specify your interest in setting up garden spaces.

The plants in the secret garden have grown tremendously in the past few days. The corn towers over all the other crops and the tassels are now visible.

The polyculture bed’s radishes were picked, topped, and washed. By clearing out the radishes, sunlight can now reach tiny seedlings of the other plants. I will need to thin in the next few weeks and I have the agonizing decision to choose which vegetables will grow to full size and those that will not. I cannot wait until the seedlings grow larger and observe how much this method yields.

An uninvited volunteer helped himself to our Ritz crackers at our Ginsberg workday last Friday...

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The display garden

The second garden that the other interns and I have been nurturing is the Display Garden. As the name suggests this garden is open for public viewing near many of the other garden collections. Several features of the garden make it out of the ordinary. All of the beds are raised and done so with reused/reclaimed materials like cinder blocks, bricks, and wood. Also it showcases using vertical growing space through trellising.

Another goal is to demonstrate that gardening practices can be adapted to people’s personal needs. An example of this is the enabling table, which is a raised bed that is elevated to a height for a seated gardener to plant, weed, and harvest. One of my favorite features is the “rabbit” bed. It shows that gardens do not have to be rectangular rows and as such are more pleasing to behold. In addition, the bed maximizes edge in a small compact space thereby making it easy to reach all parts of the bed. The plants needing more frequent attention are placed near the edges of the bed while less needy plants are more in the center. This makes weeding and general upkeep more manageable and decreases the likelihood of work strain.

Enabling table

The "Rabbit" Garden

Old bed springs used as trellises

The primary caretaker of the garden is Project Grow volunteer Dan Marcus. We joyfully help Dan make the garden beautiful and healthy. He has been taking many of the unwanted plants from the Botanical Garden plant sale and placing them in the display garden. Most of them are flowers that should blossom in the coming weeks, adding some more color while attracting a swarm of pollinators.

One organization that is doing great things in the Ypsilanti-Ann Arbor area is Growing Hope. Growing Hope’s mission and their current and past projects are displayed on their website: They have made big strides in providing people with the means to grow their own food and opening access for people to purchase wholesome nutritious foods from gardeners/farmers. There are many volunteer opportunities with Growing Hope. Feel free to email the volunteer coordinator Karen Spangler ( to find out how you can get involved. Currently they are providing forty families with three four by four raised beds and plants. The raised bed builds and installs are going on all this week. Be sure to check the Growing Hope Google calendar to see what times work for you to head to the Growing Hope center ( and lend a hand ( We will be helping Habitat for Humanity of Huron Valley and Growing Hope tomorrow by doing raised bed repairs and general garden maintenance at a Habitat community site.

Also an aside to the bike enthusiasts: there is a great bike trail linking Ann Arbor to Ypsilanti which is called the border to border trail.
Map link: (
It is a very peaceful ride with a large portion of it running along the bank of the Huron River. Flowering trees adorn the path making for a very fragrant journey.

“When I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair for the future of the human race.” H.G. Wells

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The secret garden revealed!

In addition to managing the Ginsberg Garden site, the other interns and I have been gardening at the Matthaei Botanical Gardens. We work at two gardens each with their own unique charms. One of them is between greenhouses one and two. We call it the secret garden because of its secluded location. There is one main bed with four raised beds. We had first arrived at the secret garden at the beginning of May and cleared the beds of the cover crop from the previous season. Also we composted several dried out sunflower stalks. These sunflowers seeded almost every corner of the garden so now we have many, many sunflower seedlings. We tilled with rakes, planted and now the garden is buzzing with:


Along with all these new additions we also are nurturing several volunteer plants and perennials. One of the raised beds has almost been completely colonized by strawberries that recently have started to bear fruit.
The strawberries take up most of the bed space, but one of the corners has a teepee with cucumber seedlings planted along its base. The other raised beds in the garden are showcasing different small scale gardening techniques.
The bed pictured above is our companion planting bed. Companion planting is placing different plants in close proxmity to one another because it is believed that they aid in nutrient uptake, pest reduction, weed reduction, attract pollinators, etc. We learned of the pairings we did through the book Roses Love Garlic by Louise Riotte. There is little to no scientific evidence in support of companion planting, however, many gardeners, and farmers believe it works.

This bed is using the methods outlined in Mel Bartholomew's Square Foot Gardening. A gird is placed on the bed cordonning it off into foot by foot squares which serves as a guideline for spacing. An example would be that one corn would fit in one square while sixteen beets can be in the same space. There are other aspects to the technique that we chose not to follow, such as the soil requirements. The author wants his readers to use a specially measured out soil mixture, but we simply used the soil that was preexisting in the bed.

The final bed is being used to test the idea of a polyculture bed, which I first read about on the blog Homegrown Evolution ( Several different vegetable and herb seeds were broadcast (thrown evenly over the surface of the bed, not in rows). A thin layer of topsoil was placed over the seeds and was watered. The vegetables chosen all have differing maturation times and plant families so it serves to save space because multiple things can be grown in the same area without plants crowding out, and directly competing for nutrients.

In other news we have picked a date for the Earthworks Urban Farm fieldtrip: August 8th!! All those wanting to go... mark your calendars! Toodles.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Bringing the farm to school

Yesterday the other interns and I went to the Agrarian Adventure, which is a program based at Tappan Middle School. They have a really cool operation that tries to integrate the garden into almost every academic subject for the students. The math classes measure out the garden beds, and make sure they are parallel to each other. History classes take food from the three sisters’ garden to make a colonial American meal. Science teachers instruct students on the greenhouse effect, and basic botany. These are a few examples of how the garden is part of school life. They have a large strawberry patch, several garden beds, and a huge green house. Tappan students constructed the green house with help from the MSU student organic farm, which leads the state in investigating season extension possibilities.

Link to MSU student organic farm:

Beds in the green house are filled with healthy kale, chard, sunflowers, tomatoes, and lettuce greens that were started at the beginning of January! The program is expanding with discussion of starting an orchard nearby the garden. Those interested in getting their hands dirty more than two days a week with us can help out at the Adventure Tuesday evenings from 5 to 7 pm at Tappan Middle School. Elissa (email:, the program director, told me that they will be doing Tuesday evening work from now until October! Google map (or Mapquest, etc) this address to find the sweetest route that works for you to get gardening!
Tappan Middle School
2251 E Stadium Blvd, Ann Arbor, MI 48104
(The garden is behind the school on the soccer field.)

Note: AA has an ongoing fundraiser, where they are selling tickets for a garden tour that happens on June 13. More details can be found here:

Jeremy, one of the managers of the MSU student organic farm, was at the workday yesterday and he mentioned that the Sustainable Agriculture and Education Association ( is having a national conference July 15-17 in Ames, Iowa. Student farms as well as other groups/farms around the country that promote sustainable agriculture will come together to discuss their successes, failures, and how best to move forward collectively. Deadline for early registration is July 1 so if interested look into it now!

I went by Ginsberg yesterday and the potatoes, spinach and radishes are doing really well. The warm weather vegetables seem like they are still recovering from their transplanting, but these recent rains are a definite help.

Nifty Trick for Starting Seeds

At, Andrea found a cool way to start seeds:

Instructions are here. The egg carton is biodegradable, so you can cut apart the compartments and plant them directly in the ground.

Also, Alex says that his housemate uses toilet paper tubes cut in half (also biodegradable) to start his seeds. Try it!

Friday, May 22, 2009

Out, out brief candle

I have some bad news to report. Three of the tomato plants, all of the basil and all of the bean plants in the Ginsberg Garden died. We have many more replacements in the greenhouses at the gardens and plan on replacing the lost plants. We investigated the dead plants and the garden at large to try and determine the cause of their untimely end. From inspecting the dead plants, it appears frost killed them. Frost burn is a condition that plants exhibit when damaged by frost with the “burned” portions of the plant looking reddish orange and very dry.

Image of frost burn (not taken at Ginsberg)

Frost burn does not necessarily mean the plant is doomed. If the burned part of the plant is cut from the plant, it has a chance to recover. In our case, however, the plants were very small and completely burned. Although we transplanted these plants after the USDA frost date, that date is a guideline and not iron clad in their certainty about climatic conditions year to year. For this reason it is good to check weather forecasts to assess frost risk and take steps to protect frost intolerant plants. A common tactic would be to cover the vulnerable plants with a sheet or tarp at night to trap the heat collected by the soil during the day. If the plants are in containers simply moving them inside before the frost hits should be fine.

We are having drop in hours today from three to four this afternoon. We are going to install PVC piping underground that we are going to put the water barrel hose through so it can reach the garden while being out of the way of the U of M grounds lawn mowers. Also we are going to replace the lost plants by transplanting. I plan on making a dent on the garlic mustard patch that is on the grounds because it appears that the patch is sending seeds into the garden plots and the herb spiral. Garlic mustard is a very prolific invasive species that produces allelochemcials that harm mycorrhizal fungi which are vital for many plants to fix nitrogen into the soil thereby inhibiting other plants’ growth. When weeding garlic mustard be sure to not place the plants in the compost because it is known to seed even if uprooted and also be sure to introduce a diverse mix of native species into the newly cleared area to fill the niche that was vacated.

Garlic Mustard

Hope everyone has a great weekend!


Tuesday, May 19, 2009

It's getting hot in here....

We had another Ginsberg Garden workday on the 15th because that is the USDA frost free date for southeastern Michigan and we had a lot of plants that needed transplanting. The plants we planted were:
Around eight volunteers helped with the workday. They watered, planted, and aided in the installation of a bean teepee.

Bean teepees are supportive structures that allow bean plants to vine upwards. The teepee we used is four wooden posts tied together at the top with string. The string was then tied around the teepee in a trellising pattern to give the plants more opportunites to vine. I have seen instructions on how to make a bean teepee so large that people can go inside it when the beans are at their peak of growth. Bean leaves are large and numerous so the teepee is very well shaded.

We mulched all of the plants with straw that we found on site. There are a myriad of reasons to mulch such as to prevent weeds, and to retain moisture in the soil for longer periods. Straw is an organic mulch so over time the straw will decompose which improves the quality of the soil. Also the mulch acts as a windbreak for the tiny new transplants keeping them warmer than if they were more exposed. The volunteers then watered the plants with buckets because we forgot to bring the hoses (we will bring them next time, promise!).
Tips about watering:
Be sure to water in gentle streams and have the water temperature be lukewarm to warm to not shock the plants. Another thing about watering is that you would want to focus on watering the plants low near the roots to prevent the water you are using from evaporating into the air. In order to avoid daily waterings make sure that when you water it is a deep soaking. Soil that contains a large amount of organic matter is like a sponge in that it can absorb large quantities of water at once without washing out. The soil will stay moist for longer so the plants can be watered less often.
We have an upcoming field trip to Agrarian Adventure, this is their website:

It is a great program that has tons of youth and community involvement in the Ann Arbor area. Also the garden they manage at Tappan Middle School has a huge strawberry patch! I hope the strawberries will have fruited by the time we head out there on May 26th.
Happy gardening!
References: Rodale's Complete Guide to Organic Gardening

Friday, May 15, 2009

First post of summer 2009!

I have been really excited with all the activity the Cultivating Community team have been up these past two weeks. We have already had the first Ginsberg workday of the summer and three volunteers showed up!

The volunteers and interns roused the garden from its winter slumber by removing the Rye Grass cover crop and weeding out several maple saplings that had taken root in the garden beds and herb spiral. The purpose of the cover crop is to prevent soil erosion as the beds overwinter, to prevent the establishment of hardy weeds, and to provide nutrient rich plants that can be composted when the summer begins. Rye grass is a very good choice as a cover crop because it is regularly used for erosion control programs.

Through clearing of the straw and rye grass we discovered several plants from last year: dill, Russian kale, turnip, cilantro, and parsley. Many of the perennials planted last year are coming back as well like the raspberries, chives, mint, and flowers.

In late April, we planted potatoes, spinach, onions, radishes, and carrots. They have all started to sprout especially the radishes which needed to be thinned on the workday.
The healthy cover crop of Rye grass that we pulled went straight into our compost bins. We turned the newly formed piles and watered them down to aid in the establishment of the microbial community that will break down the plant matter into humus-rich compost.

Composting closes the loop between growth and decay. The remains of dead and unwanted plants decompose into a black soil that serves as a great growth medium for future plants. There are many sources on how to compost online and in print. Some sources: The Rodale Book of Composting, Compost Guide (