Monday, February 23, 2009

Bottom Feeding on the Top of the Crop

For a while there hasn’t really been a lot to say about the Free Farm Stand. The organic, sustainable produce is mostly coming from the two farmer’s markets, the Noe Valley Farmer’s market and the Ferry Building Farmer’s Market. The table is filled with cool weather crops that have been harvested, brought to the market, probably most of it sold, and some left over that goes to us bottom feeders. And this week it felt like winter for sure. Our crew got pretty wet with the constant rain which we are celebrating. They say more is on the way.

The rain didn’t stop a lot of people showing up and collecting some vegetables: A few carrots and radishes, lots of leeks, Romanesco broccoli, purple cauliflowers, celery, collards and mustard greens, spicy watercress, and some various herbs in (all from the markets). We had a nice selection of bread too. There was about a pound of baby lettuce that I cut from our beautiful lettuce lawn at the Secret Garden and a bag of fava bean leaves from 18th and Rhode Island.
We also had two or three pound of lemons gleaned from unpicked Oakland trees. Despite the weather and feeling cold and wet at the end of the day, it was a nice scene, great volunteer help, wonderful neighbors and friends dropping by, and even a few of the local homeless dropped by because we were more visible on the sidewalk (and we offered some hot tea and cocoa). Again most of the food was given away and by the time I got home it was all gone.

What was going on during the past week before Sunday was perhaps a bit more exciting. On Friday and Saturday we had two good workdays at 18th and Rhode Island (and there was no rain). Friday a few of us worked on the hill covered with ivy and rocks. We have created an area to put a beehive and below that will be potato towers and below that will be Jerusalem artichokes (I just got a red kind in the mail), and finally below that an area for some various perennials. And above the beehive we will plant more avocados. We are getting the area ready for sheet mulching and there is more shaping of the hill to do and removing the larger boulders and rocks. Next Friday we will do that and then the following week we will get a load of cardboard and mulch to lay down before planting. On Saturday we planted more fruit trees: two varieties of fig (Black Jack and King), a weeping mulberry tree, two varieties of Asian pear (Hosui and Korean Giant (or Olympic), and one European pear (Seckel). Some of the fruit trees we planted last time are starting to bud and leaf out. A few remain dormant and we are waiting patiently for them to spring to life. As soon as we can get to it we have more things to plant, including strawberries, carrots and beets, potato towers, various perennials, and annual seedlings.

I also continue to be eager to plant more potatoes. I just got about ten pounds of potatoes in the mail, five or six different varieties, and am letting them sprout before I plant them. I have recently gotten inspired by reading about how the English grow potatoes (they plant small whole tubers about the size of a “small hen’s egg” and don’t cut them, the way I used to grow them years ago). This one English garden book I read (The Vegetable Expert by D.G. Hessayon) writes about chitting your potatoes (inducing them to develop small shoots before planting). This other site on the internet is also pretty good This place says the sprouts should be an inch long ideally but the more important thing is that the sprout is green not white (though I noticed some of mine are red). Maeve who helps out at the Free Farm Stand talked to me about potatoes in Ireland where she is from. She says the potatoes are very different tasting there and it sounds like a lot of people grow them in Ireland, they know potatoes. I was especially excited about these “potato shows” they have in the UK. It sounds like the Dahlia tuber sale I used to go to every year where people can buy different dahlia tubers, but these shows feature potato varieties and the tubers are sold at good prices. I was thinking it might be fun to organize a tuber swap this year like a seed exchange. We need people to start growing potatoes. I probably will have extra seed potatoes and wil give some away to people serious about growing potatoes and sharing the extra and maybe bringing some to our own kind of potato show.
The other big activity going on is that I have been planting lots of seeds and rooting trees and kiwi vines. Tomatoes and peppers plants are slowly growing and I am running out of cold frame space. The sticks of wood that I got from the scion wood exchange are rooting it seems thanks to bottom heat. I also have trees that I purchased to go in the park that I need to put temporarily in pots.

About the project of planting fruit trees in our local park: The park staff, the guys sort of at the top, do not want to deal with having fruit trees in their park that they think they will possibly have to maintain, so they are pushing for the community garden to expand to include this neglected space, and then it is not up to them to think about it, it will be part of the community garden. This was going to be brought up at the meeting of the park commission to change the land use, but apparently the whole meeting was taken up with who they are going to fire because of budget cuts.

It is fun to imagine all these things growing someday and producing fruit and vegetables, especially the fruit trees. I plan to give away the trees once they are big enough.

I forgot to mention that there won't be any Magnolia trees cut down in front of General Hospital. I think because there was a big show at the neighborhood meeting about the proposed tree cutting, the contractor figured out a way to get around cutting the trees (though there will still be over 100 trees cut in the construction of the new hospital). Someone sent me these photos they took in Hong Kong in 2007, an example of saving trees when they do construction. I put this on my blog here only because I value tree so much.
The gleaning project is moving ahead. We now have two flyers (one a general handout letter about the project and the other to leave at a door if you knock on it and nobody is home, both in English and Spanish). We are ready to start gleaning fruit (my guess is that there are lemon and orange trees that could be picked). I already know of trees to be checked out. I am hoping this year I will be able to pass on the fruit picking to others and that the surplus can go to the Free Farm Stand. If you are interested in getting aboard the fruit picking train go to and sign up to be in the email communication loop (sfglean is a Google group and has a website that is being revamped). At some point soon the fliers will be available to download from the sfglean website.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Grateful Table

Yesterday my friends and I were at the Free Farm Stand embracing the newly arrived weather front that brought much needed rain and cold to San Francisco. Though the weather slows down our gardening efforts and might bring us some discomfort, we welcome the rain that brings water to our soil and plants and chill to our fruit trees that need it to produce abundantly. I realized the other day that the Free Farm Stand is really a welcome table. We welcome in the weather that we have to live and work with. We welcome all our neighbors who come out on Sundays to share stories with other neighbors and extra home grown produce if they have any. We welcome all the beautiful people that come out not just because they need food, but because they want to help make local food growing and sharing a reality. We welcome the leftover fruits and vegetables from the fancy farmers markets here in the city or the extra bread from the bakery. We welcome the gleaned fruit that shows up sometimes almost magically. Then again, the stand is not only a welcome table, but a grateful table.

I didn't pick a lot of produce this week from the gardens, although there was some lettuce mix and arugula that could have been harvested (I had a lot from the farmers market and I wasn't sure how many people would show up in the rain). On Friday fava bean leaves were harvested from the 18th and Rhode Island garden. We just picked off the top leaves of the young plants (they are eaten raw like in salads, kind of like spinach but not in taste), though I haven't tried them in cooking yet. They were actually more popular than I thought. I also was amazed that there were still some orange cherry tomatoes growing there that I could pick (it must be the heat reflected off the white house wall adjacent to the small garden). And the oregano was spreading beyond the fence and provided me with a big handful of fresh leaves.

My friend Gary left me a big bag of lemons at my door that he harvested from the Oakland neighborhood that he lives in. He says there are a number of trees there that he harvests regularly and makes lemon juice that he freezes and that goes into lemonade. Also, I had smaller more yellow and almost orange lemons that Tom brought me on Monday from Santa Rosa. He lives down there but comes up to this area frequently and usually finds something to glean up there to bring down for the stand. I think the lemons from Tom were Meyer and the Oakland lemons were the Eureka variety.

The stand was loaded with the usual cool weather greens like mustard, broccoli raab, and kale, lettuce mix, arugula, radishes, daikon and beets. We had a box of Romanesco broccoli that someone pointed out to me is a fractal food. I finally understood what fractals are by reading online something in the Scientific American: "… a small piece of broccoli, when viewed up close, looks the same as a larger chunk." That is really true!

We had a great group of volunteers and more people came out than I expected. Actually, the rain had slowed down a lot until the end and we gave almost all the produce away (I still have lemons that will keep until next week and some broccoli raab and a few mustard greens).

On Friday in between the little rain we had I worked with two women that want to intern for the Free Farm Stand, Sarah and Ashly. We were at 18th and Rhode Island and planted a lot of hot pepper and tomato seeds in containers. We also helped take measurements for the site so David can produce an accurate map. One of the best things that we got done is that I met with David and Kevin and went over the planting strategy that Kevin had written up. I now have an idea of a lot of work that can be done there in future Friday workdays coming up. There is a lot to do in terms of preparing some spaces for potato towers and a perennial bed. And we can start planting carrots and other biennials perennials and possibly some annuals when we get seedlings. The next project is planting a few more trees: We have a white Sapote, some Asian Pears, and a Weeping Mulberry, and sometime later a couple of figs. Friday Feb 20 we will be doing some work preparing for sheet mulching onFriday Feb. 2oth and on Saturday Feb 21 we will be sheet mulching and planting trees.

Potato Towers

As people must know by now I am excited about planting potatoes this year and last week we built and planted four towers in 2 gardens. On Tuesday a few friends showed up at Treat Commons and we installed the tall wire mesh potato tower there. A lot of kids from the park came in the garden to help and they mixed up soil and mulch and added it to the tower. Later that day we went to the Secret Garden with the Jamestown Center kids and planted potatoes in trash cans with their bottoms cut off.

Someone asked me to describe how to build a potato tower and I explained to her that I was reluctant to get into it in this blog. First of all, I have never planted potatoes in towers before only in the ground. Pam Pierce's book Golden Gate Gardening describes this in good detail and there is plenty of information on the internet and even videos of how to do this. Basically we are planting potatoes in what Pam calls "rings" made of mesh or another way is in trash cans with the bottoms cut off (placing the trash can on the ground bottom side up for stability). Last week we tried out what I call "the cover as it grows" method. We used both mesh and trash cans. We put a mixture of compost and rotted manure on the bottom of the towers and put them on top. We covered the potatoes with about four inches of a mixture of mostly wood chip mulch (what they call compost at Bayview Green Waste Management who will give it to you for free) mixed with a little soil. As the potatoes grow upward we will cover the stems (not the whole plant).The potatoes will eventually grow out the top of the tower (and if it is mesh it may need to be kept from growing out of it). Then when the potatoes die we will remove the tower and pick up the potatoes.

With the lasagna method we will plant the potatoes all at once in layers of potatoes and woodchip compost mixed with soil. The potatoes will grow out the mesh. I have heard we will have a lot more potatoes this way but they will be small. Tuesday afternoon if it doesn't rain we will plant more towers and one will be using the lasagna method. We may have potatoes by the end of May.

Planting Gardens Project

Besides the new gleaning project about to take off (the fliers are almost out), the idea of helping our neighbors put in gardens and offering mentoring advice is about to fly too. I think we have two volunteer interns that want to help make this happen and we might call a meeting soon of people that may want to help out. The idea is to maintain a list of people in the Mission that need help putting in a garden in their yard and to every week get a group of volunteers who will show up with the stuff needed to make a garden. At first we may need to just offer advice or seedlings, maybe at a well staffed table at the Free Farm stand, it all depends on what supplies we can come up with. The idea is to help establish a neighborhood network of people growing food in their yards and sharing the surplus with each other at the stand. Please contact me if this is something you want to help out with and would like to attend a meeting.


Monday, February 9, 2009

Fat of the Land

There is talk about sucking it in and tightening our belt buckles. I have been thinking how ironic it is that this country is so dependent right now on people over consuming and buying lots of crap. Now we are in trouble partly because consumer spending is down and people are losing their jobs. And what traditionally really keeps us artificially alive is government spending on the military and building prisons.

This land North America is fat and we can live off of it. One thing for sure is that we are fat with waste. Land wasted in our cities that could be growing food and unbelievably food going to waste everyday (including fruit trees that don't get picked and dumpsters being filled with good food). I must say San Francisco does a pretty good job of trying to reclaim food that would otherwise would be thrown out, with the existence of the San Francisco Food Bank and Food Runners and all the food programs here feeding the hungry.

Now we have the opportunity to learn how to live off the fat of the land and I feel so lucky to get to try my hands at it. Currently I am excited about growing potatoes in towers or trash cans with their bottoms cut out, and plopping these towers wherever there is unused sunny space. Yesterday I was in Treat Commons and my friend was harvesting potatoes that she had planted for the first time. It was wonderful seeing her excitement at the magic of pulling up the spuds out of the soil, I mean she was so happy!

Also, almost every day I walk by a recently created sidewalk garden and I would love to try planting a potato tower right there on the sidewalk. And an artichoke plant to boot! Where are the crazy people like me?

The Free Farm Stand came off without a hitch yesterday. It didn't rain, though it was rather cool and it kept Thy jumping up and down at the end to get warm. Though we did have brief visits by the sun. Besides our regular crew of helpers, there was a new volunteer Dana visiting from Vermont. I always want to say how much I appreciate the help and it was also great that Jeff came by with his Spanish speaking skills. We still need help in that department.

We loaded the table mostly with excess organic produce from the Ferry Building Farmer's Market, lots of broccoli raab, and other greens, beets, daikon radish, a little broccoli and cauliflower, various herbs, and leeks. I harvested from two gardens 3 ½ lbs of greens (kale and perpetual chard) and 1 ½ lbs of baby lettuce. I also picked some cilantro and arugula, and some more broccoli side shoots. We are still finding a handful of Cape Gooseberries (imagine if we had a long hedgerow of them growing in some sunny spot). Page came by with a small basket full of lemons from the Holy Innocents Church in Noe Valley and brought by some big cauliflower plants to give away and some other seedlings. We also had a good amount of bread and no non-vegan pastries.

Using a counter we counted at least 66 people shopping at the stand this week.

Other news

I went to the neighborhood meeting about the trees being cut down in front of General Hospital (so trucks can get into the site where they are building the new hospital). Immediately we learned that the number of trees on the sidewalk to be cut are going to be two not seven. The architect who is supervising the project seems like he is trying really hard not to cut trees unless he has to and one of the trees is apparently injured and not growing well. I also learned that where they are building the new hospital there will be over 100 trees removed. I got the impression there isn't much that can be done about it at this point. There was also talk about the plans to cut a lot of trees at St. Luke's hospital, but apparently there is no final plan yet, so people can still have an influence in what happens. I have a soft spot for trees and so that is why this gets mentioned here in my space for talking about the Free Farm Stand and growing food locally.

I don't know if this is true but I heard that the Victory Gardens project lost it's funding to put in 15 gardens this year. The idea of helping people put in gardens in their backyards is one that I am particularly fond of and perhaps this year the Free Farm Stand can start doing this. Already last week I visited a beautiful preschool here in the Mission, Las Americas, that has gardens and more space that needs a lot of help. They serve low income families and the staff seems open to any ideas we come up with for their gardens. I saw a lot of potential there including planting fruit trees. What is needed is someone to help start a garden group that would once a week help someone with putting in a garden and then over the season provide mentorship. The idea being the more gardens the more people growing their own food and any surplus could be shared at the Free Farm Stand with neighbors without garden space or other neighborhood gardeners.

I also heard the Homeless Connect Garden ran into problems putting a "homeless garden" in at 16th and 7th Street and is looking for another space to put a garden. What about the idea of closing parts of Market St. and putting in a garden there?

I enjoyed going to the Permaculture Guild meeting on Wednesday night. Though I don't see myself as a permaculturist exactly, I haven't taken any courses and don't have a degree, I like going to the meetings because right now I always learn something when I attend. There was an interesting presentation from some students of RDI (Regenerative Design Institute) in Bolinas. They have made a plan of putting in a food forest in Golden Gate Park next to Kezar Statium that is 2 acres of land. They are facing a similar situation I am with putting in fruit trees on Park and Recreation land.

Talking about that, things are still moving forward with putting fruit trees in our park where we do the farm stand. The head director of parks in our area wants to expand the space for the community garden so that any fruit trees we plant would go in the community garden and not be under the park's jurisdiction. Meaning he wants to pass the problem of growing fruit trees to the community garden, giving him less for him and his staff to deal with. How hard it will be to change the land use we will see, it has to go to the Park Commission.

This week I hope to start planting lots of seeds that I just got through the mail and perhaps installing a potato tower here and there. I've got spring fever already.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Groundhog Day

"The sun has peaked, my shadow I see, six more weeks of winter it will be. According to folklore, if a groundhog sees his shadow on Groundhog Day — Feb. 2, he'll go back to his burrow, predicting six more weeks of winter. If he doesn't, there will be an early spring" (from

I was telling people at the Free Farm Stand that today is an important holiday, especially for urban farmers and lovers. Are we going to have more winter or not or romance and spring fever? Of course here in San Francisco the weather has been sunny and it already seems like spring.

The good weather seems to bring out the crowds and from the get go we had a lot of people. We ran out of food about an hour or so later and by 2:30pm we were ready to close up shop. I want to say that I have really appreciated all the help I have been getting. I love the students that come and help out like Caleb and Thy. It was especially nice that Thy is back with us. She was away during her school break. I feel so lucky to have helpers like the both of them with such beautiful spirits and tremendous energy.

The Free Farm Stand table this week was filled with cool weather growing salad mix, greens (mostly bok choy and broccoli raab) and leeks from the Noe Valley Farmers market. Last Tuesday the Jamestown kids and I harvested the last of the salad mix from the Secret Garden and gave it to them to use for their cooking program, so there wasn't much to harvest there. I did harvest a lot of arugula and lettuce mix from my backyard and some from Treat Commons. Also, I picked some broccoli side shoots and lettuce mix and some small volunteer potatoes from Treat Commons. We also had a bucket of lemons from the Santa Rosa area that a friend picked and brought down here while visiting the city. Later in the day some people from Potrero Hill brought some lemons from their garden to share.

We got more loaves of bread than we have been from Acme, but we are still getting a lot of sweets and rolls with cheese. I don't know if anyone that comes to the stand at this point understands that I am trying to run a vegan farm stand (or beegan because I do give away honey from our backyard hive). I have been a vegan for over 20 years and all the food programs I have run have been vegan with an emphasis on serving or distributing healthy and organic as much as possible, non-animal based food. I still believe in the ideas in books like "Diet for a Small Planet" or "Diet for a New America". One of the points of the Free Farm Stand is to promote eating healthy with an emphasis on fresh local organic produce that we can grow ourselves. The free organic bread just showed up one day My point is that I feel like I have been too laid back recently in giving away these buttery sweets and rolls with cheese that are neither vegan nor necessarily healthy, so I am going to try to not to get them in the future.

February is the month to plant seeds indoors and I have been reading seed catalogs and ordering seed. I am especially interested in planting potatoes in towers and have been planning out how to do it. I hope to start planting seed this week, maybe this Thursday. And as soon as we have potatoes ready to plant I want to plant potatoes with the kids from Jamestown Center.

Friday work days are still happening at 18th and Rhode Island. I took photos of the green berms last week and the site looks good with all the fava beans growing. The lettuce and chard is barely growing, maybe it is because we need the berms to break down into soil before things will grow well. The fruit trees have buds that are swelling. Not many people showed up to help this past week and I think it is because it seems like there isn't much to do right now or we are not communicating what the plans are each week. One thing I am planning to do Friday is build some potato towers and maybe plant some of them. We may also have other planting we can do and there is grunt work to do with what I call the ivy hill.