Post by Kriss and Shannon
Circle M Market Farm
Get Growing! Learning to Garden with your CSA
When I first started growing for CSA members six years ago, I was always surprised when I found out that a customer also maintained a vegetable garden. I guess I underestimated how much folks were interested not only in eating fresh and local, but also in being intimately connected with their food. This is a trend that has grown tremendously in the past few years, and now I find that almost half of my CSA members work a garden of their own. For some it’s a neighborhood plot, a square in their backyard, or a collection of pots on the balcony. Others take a shift in a church garden that supports a food pantry, and some have even started their own community garden in a field next to an office building that is one of my CSA drop-off points. Turns out, we really, really love our vegetables in the Madison area, but even more than that, we love the opportunity to see how they grow.
To meet this demand, I’ve started to teach garden classes, both here at the farm and at offices and schools. The classes are usually initiated by a CSA member, but draw a lot of folks I don’t know, and one of the first things I tell beginning gardeners is “Join a CSA!” I’ve seen from experience that walking through the season with a CSA farm is one of the best ways to learn what you can grow in your own garden and how. Many CSA programs have an active blog updating members on farm activities, so members can read along in the off-season and see what the farmer is starting and planting each week. Some CSA farms have an open-farm program so you can visit by appointment, and actually go see how the farmer covers tender crops or trellises vines. And of course, the box harvest list generally provides wonderful recipes as well as storage information for each vegetable, as well. Perhaps the greatest advantage of CSA for the home gardener is exposure to vegetables you might not gave given a try otherwise.
Many of my customers use their CSA memberships to great advantage when learning how to garden, posting questions for me on facebook about everything from planting dates to frost protection strategies to bug infestation emergencies. They attend community work days or volunteer throughout the season at the farm so they can work alongside the crew and learn how to use tools and take care of vegetables after harvest. Some of these folks become former CSA members when their gardens grow big enough to support their families needs, but we stay in touch and I watch with joy as they become proficient – this is Community Supported Agriculture at it’s best!
For those of you getting in the ground at home this year, it’s not too late to make something beautiful in your backyard. Get busy with a shovel and lift some sod, or rent a rototiller from your neighborhood hardware store. Even though Memorial Day weekend is the traditional time for “getting the garden in” around this area, I encourage people to think of the garden as a season-long planting project, rather than a once-and-done planting day with weeding and harvesting the only activities the rest of the summer. Right now, you can plant lettuce, spinach, carrots, radishes, kale, collards, turnips, arugula, beets, chard, bok choy, kohlrabi and scallions from seed. If you want cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower or Brussels sprouts, you can buy starts at a garden center and plant them now (it is possible to start them from seed, but you would have wanted to start them a month ago in the house). Many of these crops will be finished by the time the weather heats up, and then you can plant them again in July or August to enjoy again in early fall. Now is a good time to plant potatoes, though folk wisdom in my neighborhood prescribes Good Friday. There is still plenty of time to produce lots of potatoes.
We should be done with frost in this area by mid-May and that’s when you can pop seeds in for summer squash, fennel, okra, basil, cucumbers, sweet corn, melons, pumpkins and winter squash – though it’s not a bad idea to start these things in flats a few weeks early and then transplant them when it’s over 50 degrees most nights. Tomatoes, peppers and eggplant should all be bought as starts and planted in mid-to-late May. Use a good source for all of your started plants! Diseased plants from cheap outlets can bring sickness to your garden for years to come. Your CSA farmer might be a good source for such plants, since many farms start far more plants than they need.
Of course, some of these crops are easier to grow than others, and you’ll have mixed success – don’t give up! Gardening is something you never stop getting better at – and you’ll eventually learn what you enjoy growing and what is best enjoyed straight from your CSA box. Have a great season and bon appétit!