Jo and Keight attended a Greenthumb event on seed keeping and storytelling, led by Owen Taylor of Truelove Seeds and hosted by East New York Farms. Growing plants for the purpose of saving seeds is a bit different from growing plants for harvest, mainly in that it takes longer, as you want to leave the plants growing until the seeds are as developed as possible, usually far beyond the point you’d want to harvest the plant for eating.
We walked around the farm looking at different plants and their seeds, including the popular callaloo variety of amaranth and motherwort, learning how to tell when seeds are ready to be collected. One method Owen mentioned from experience on his farm is watching when the goldfinches begin snacking on a particular crop.
Afterwards Owen walked us through different seed saving techniques depending on the type of plant. Tomatoes, cucumbers, and other plants where the seeds have to be separated from the fruit itself benefit from soaking in water for several days until they begin to ferment.
Peppers are pretty easy to deseed and don’t require fermentation, and the beet seeds we worked with weren’t too difficult to strip off the dried stems by hand. But getting seeds from dried flowers can be more difficult, as with the motherwort and tobacco Owen brought, which required several stages of work to separate the seeds from the chaff. Starting by threshing the whole plant in a bucket with a stick through a few passes through different sifters (sadly missed getting photos of these steps while we were seed saving ourselves!). In the end, he used a vacuum powered separator which uses suction to separate that lighter chaff from the seeds.
In addition, the workshop touched on the deeper stories that seeds bring with them. Truelove Seeds offers rare and culturally important seed varieties, and Owen spoke to the journeys seeds have taken around the world over just the few hundred years, becoming an important part of one culture and then evolving into other cultures. Growing plants for the purpose of seed keeping ensures the health of those plants and decreases our reliance on large seed and seedling producers.
It also inspired us to be less anxious about our plants that go to seed before we harvest them — especially as we rarely harvest all of something before the point it’s less tasty for eating! It’s as an opportunity to save those plants for future sowing and have a hand in keeping those varieties alive in the grander sense.
It’s been a hot, wet summer, and the farm is still pretty lush and green (except for the tomatoes and cucumbers which are getting a bit blighted). We are finally finding out what some of our mystery, volunteer vines are: we have a honeydew melon (hanging on the fence, supported by a plant pot) and some delicata squash. Our butternut squash is also doing fabulous, and we’ll have a few melons from the straw bale.
Sadly, all our zucchini succumbed to the vine borers yet again. Here’s one of the plants with the tell-tale slits. They are so frustrating because the plants look so healthy until they suddenly start dying — at which point it’s too late to save them. We will have to be more aggressive with our vine borer prevention if we decide to try zucchini squash again. Luckily the borers are less interested in butternut and other winter squashes!
Elsewhere around the farm, we are excited about our new terraced beds behind the compost bins, some beautiful amaranth, volunteer okra, and the new upper pathway on the hill.
We posted last year about Swale, an edible forest on a barge. This year they are docked at Sunset Park’s Brooklyn Army Terminal (specifically Pier 4 at 58th Street) through August 1st. They can also be found weekends on Governors Island.
Last month a few farmers went to attend a workshop on medicinal plants led by Marisa Prefer. We got a guided foraging tour of various plants and their benefits, which was of course fully interactive with plenty of tasting and exploring around the 5,000 sq foot barge.
Swale is a great spot to visit, but even more inspiring is the effect that the project has had on public policy. The NYC Parks Department has a strict rules against foraging in its parks, but Swale has proved to be a test case for how foraging could work on public land. This year the Foodway at Concrete Plant Park opened, near Swale’s first dock home in the Bronx.
See also this great short video BRIC TV produced about the project that includes an interview with founder Mary Mattingly as well as Marisa and Amanda McDonald Crowley.
We’ve been a little remiss in updating our website over the last month, but not for lack of developments at the farm. (Plus we’ve posted some shorter updates on our Facebook page.) It’s been a great season so far; we have a lot of healthy plants and are already harvesting many cucumbers and eggplants, with the tomatoes, green beans, and okra beginning to come in as well. We successfully dealt with some powdery mildew on the cucumbers but lost a squash and a watermelon to vine borers — happily we have plenty of others that made it through un-bored. Our farmers have been excellent trellisers this year, keeping cucumbers and tomatoes off the ground and less likely to become diseased.
Our infrastructure committee has also been keeping on top of necessary maintenance. After realizing how water run-off down the hill has been piling soil up behind the compost bins, Phil cleared a path behind the bins (using the excavated soil to re-level the seating area at the top of the hill). We picked up some donated concrete parking stops to construct a retaining wall. There are more improvements in process, including a new path to the top of farm. More pictures to come!
We are a few days away from the summer solstice, and it is kind of the best time of the year at the farm. (Aside from when we can start taking tons of tomatoes home.) Everything is blooming and fruiting, and it hasn’t been too hot yet, so only the most tender greens have bolted and been pulled up.We replaced most of them with three rows of bush beans. There are only a few signs of pests, so we are mostly watering and weeding and awaiting those summer harvests.
Eggplant & squash
Tricolor bush bean row
We are also playing a new game we’re calling “Spot the mullein.” Mullein is a member of the snapdragon family that is a biennial and flowers in its second year. We’ve never planted it (that anyone present today could recall), but it has popped up in four different places around the farm. It has many medicinal uses, the leaves are good for the lungs and respiratory issues in general, and oil from the flowers is traditionally used for ear infections. Ours are just starting to bloom, and we hope it will seed itself again.
We’re gradually nearing the point of the growing season where things start getting really exciting. While we’ve been harvesting some greens and strawberries, our peas are finally blooming and some of our hot peppers are about to flower as well. Two weeks ago we planted more cucumbers, beans, and vining flowers along the fence…
… and the beans have shot up the fastest of them all!
As of this weekend, we are pretty much all planted. We have a few spots available for some late finds, but we seeded our dedicated kale bed and our straw bales, so we have fulfilled our initial planting plan, including achieving our goal of doing more companion planting, like our raised bed with onions and scallions paired with lettuces.
This year we have two bales, one with melons (watermelons and cantaloupe) and one with squashes (we have an heirloom spaghetti squash and then a variety of zucchinis). We’ll be watching these for one of our biggest pest nemeses, the vine borer.
Since our fruit trees got pruned this year, we’re seeing an impressive amount of fruit, way more than we’ve ever had, presenting us with a new problem — our pluot tree had branches so heavy with fruit that one even broke! So we learned that we also need to thin fruit from the trees. Aside from avoiding damage to the tree, it also will help the tree bear bigger and tastier fruit, as well as encouraging the tree to “promote an annual fruit set.”
… sometimes plum trees only fruit biennially instead of every year. This is due to the fact that the tree has produced such a copious crop that it’s just plain done and needs an extra season to gather its resources before it can fruit again.
So what to do with all these unripe pluots?
The result of thinning: lots of green pluots!
Jo, one of our trained pruners, was inspired by her friends Carrie Dashow and Suresh Pillai at Atina Foods who make amazing salt pickled “herb jams” and chutney based on South Indian Ayuvedic traditions using their garden in the Catskills.
Tkemali is a sour plum sauce from Georgia (think the crossroads of Western Asia and Eastern Europe, not southern US). Jo says it’s something they make in huge batches when they have to thin out the orchards, or when the “june drop” happens. They then use it as a condiment all summer. She used this recipe as a guide, which is a lot more specific on the quantities of ingredients and each of the steps, with pics along the way, but you can adjust based on the amount of unripe fruit that you have.
Unripe green Pluots from our farm
Cilantro and Dill from store (because our herbs aren’t ready to harvest yet)
Green, mildly hot Peppers & Garlic from the Windsor Terrace Food Coop
- Finely chop the cilantro, dill, and peppers. Separate the garlic into cloves.
- Wash plums and add to a deep pan. Add water until the plums are covered (no more).
- Heat on high temperature until the plums are boiled and then reduce temperature to simmer the plums.
- Continue to simmer the plums until they are soft.
- Remove the plums from the pan and add to a bowl and leave to cool. Put the water left in the pan in a separate bowl.
- Crush the chopped coriander and green peppers together. Crush the garlic cloves separately.
- Place a sieve over a deep pan and add the cooled plums. Gradually add the plum water that was saved after boiling the plums and firmly press the plums with a wooden spoon. You may need to use your hands to ensure that all of the pulp and juice is strained through the sieve. (This could take a while.)
- Discard the plum stones once all of the pulp and juice has been strained into the pan.
- Add the cilantro and green pepper mixture, together with the crushed garlic. Add salt (to your preference), stir to thoroughly mix and then heat on a medium temperature.
- Taste the sauce and if it is too sour add a little sugar and stir thoroughly. You may need to keep adding and tasting until you’ve balanced the sourness of the plums.
- When the sauce has boiled, add the chopped dill. Stir to mix thoroughly and boil the sauce for one minute.
- Allow the sauce to cool before bottling or storing in glass containers.
Tkemali sauce can be served with meat, poultry and potato dishes; it has a place in Georgian cuisine similar to tomato ketchup in America.
One of the benefits of being a GreenThumb garden is getting support to help us farm better. A big part of that support is free materials, and most of our planting committee went out to East New York Farms this Saturday for a GreenThumb-sponsored plant giveaway. The event was very organized, with each registered garden receiving a number when they checked in and one person for each garden entering to pick out a tray of seedlings and native perennials. We chatted up a bunch of fellow gardeners while we waited for our numbers, sharing resources and contact info for further networking.
It was great for us to see such a large, well-run farm that hosts a weekly market during the summer, featuring local gardeners and vendors. While East New York is the neighborhood with the least grocery stores per capita in the city, they also have the most community gardens, in large part due to the stewardship of East New York Farms. Running three urban farms and one community garden themselves, the organization additionally provides support for over 60 gardens in the neighborhood.
Back in our little plot, we set to work planting up the beds, currently carpeted with a yellow-green dusting from our resident tree’s blooms. With the late start to spring, we’ve been a little slow out of the gate, so this was a good opportunity to jumpstart our planting. We picked up cucumbers, butternut squash, hot and sweet peppers, parsley, and traded out some tomatoes for eggplant with another farm. (Don’t worry, we have plenty of tomatoes coming — members of the Windsor Terrace Food Coop should look out next weekend for our surplus seedlings.) The Brussels sprouts that survived the winter have since gone to seed, which we are leaving until we are ready to plant in that bed, since they are so popular with the bees.
More to come soon as we continue planting out our beds!
Now that we are learning more about fruit tree pruning, here’s a project that could make use of those pruned branches and help us improve the borders of our garden plots and better support our plants.
Wattle weaving is a craft that has been in use as far back as the Bronze Age in parts of Europe, in particular across the British Isles. Stakes are put in the soil and branches are woven in-between them; they can be arranged in horizontally in fences or around plants as towers. Traditionally hazel, willow and alder were used, as their branches are sufficiently flexible, but Lovely Greens has a video tutorial using raspberry canes and bamboo — the result is pictured above.
We’ll definitely be trying this technique out at the farm!
We had beautiful weather for our Earth Day event this year, and we saw a lot of folks from our community come out to join us. They helped us sift compost and look for worms and learn a bit about climate change. After an extended winter, it was great to bask in the sunshine and plant seeds for the season. Thank you to everyone who stopped by and enjoyed the day with us! We hope you’ll come back throughout the summer.