A profile of three summer gardens: Part I
Home and garden sections of newspapers usually feature beautiful flower gardens and professionally landscaped yards. They rarely feature spinach. Vegetable gardens don’t often get the attention they deserve unless, of course, you’re the gardener and the garden is yours. It’s almost as if the vegetable patch was some kind of dirty little backyard secret.
So we thought it would be fun to let the sun shine in on a few of our Block Island neighbors who are passionate about growing things to eat. We’ll follow them throughout the season. Welcome to part one.
We first caught up with gardener Shannon McCabe at the Block Island Farmers Market in late June. Donning a ruffled yellow apron, she proudly displays her produce in front of her on a table spread with an Indian print cloth. There are mainly greens —red and green leaf lettuces, kale and other mixed greens. These are among the first vegetables of spring in a Northeast garden. Nestled in a white basket, pinky red radishes reside. But the babies she is most proud of, and perhaps secretly loathe to sell, are the small, dark red beets. She is wistful as she thinks of roasting and savoring them for herself. After all, they have just been plucked from the soil and are barely larger than golf balls: the perfect size for a beet connoisseur.
An island resident, McCabe graduated from the University of Rhode Island (URI) in 2012 with a degree in horticulture and turf management. She spent her first summer post-graduation back on Block Island both “cabbing” and gardening with her sister Allie (who she says “probably has more of a green thumb than I”) at Rustic Rides Farm, her home since birth. Back on the mainland for the fall and winter, she worked again in the greenhouses at URI as well as at the Matunuck Vegetable Farm in South Kingston, which supplies fresh vegetables to the iconic Matunuck Oyster Bar and to local farmers’ markets.
But the siren call of the island brought her back in early May, with a new adventure in mind. Her goal for this summer is to further her understanding of the rhythms and workings of a farm. Ultimately, she would like to continue on the missions she encountered at the Matunuck farm: those of bringing the “farm to table” in both restaurants and schools and of getting more fresh local food into communities in general. She feels that farming also provides the perfect peaceful counter-balance to being a waitress in the hectic restaurant industry here on the island.
Cathy Payne generously let her till an area up at her own farm off Payne Road. Shannon is working a plot that holds eight 3-foot rows that are each 95 feet long, using all organic methods. When I asked to visit with her, she at first hesitated. She wanted to do some clean-up with a hoe. “No, no,” I said, “We want to know all about it: the good, the bad, the ugly. This is going to be like “So you think you can garden?” (This is a reality show — on paper, of course — so I won’t be providing the challenges. Mother Nature can take care of that herself.) With a giggle, she admitted that her first challenge had been getting irrigation to the site. With that accomplished, the weeds then flourished, thus the need to hoe.
Shannon will continue to have the lettuce mixes, kale and bok choy at the Farmers Market. There will also be Bright Lights Swiss chard, spinach and, of course, those lovely beets.
The Littlefield Family
Down on Old Town Road is Team Littlefield. Everett and family, that is. Complete with a flock of sometimes errant turkeys, six young pigs and a vegetable garden that is probably a good 5,000 square feet, Everett’s spread comes about as close to an old-fashioned family farm as you are likely to find on Block Island. Except for the years he was in the Navy, Everett has been gardening for his entire life. His current garden was started in 1975. It wasn’t always so large, but as his extended family has grown, so too has the garden. His granddaughters Kelsey and Dakota especially enjoy helping out. Dakota, who just graduated from kindergarten, recently assisted Grandpa planting the potatoes, carefully spacing them out by three lengths of her tiny feet.
Almost every type of vegetable that one may grow in a garden grows in this one: carrots, beans, potatoes, tomatoes, corn, winter and summer squash, and on and on. There are bell peppers and a variety of hot peppers that the family will make into hot pepper jelly in the fall. Looking at the mounds of squash plants I ask: “What are you going to do with all those zucchini?”
“Well, we eat them until we’re sick of them and then we make zucchini relish.”
This year there are even sweet potatoes: Georgia Jet, to be specific. Needing only 80 to 90 days to mature, they would seem to be a good bet for an island garden. Since I don’t normally think of sweet potatoes as a northern crop, I ask if he has grown them before. He has, but not in a while and not this variety. His past crops were in too dense of a soil, making the potatoes almost impossible to harvest. This year he is trying a different spot in the garden, and a slightly different method of growing them.
Although the season seems early, by June 30 Everett had already harvested some small red potatoes, onions and a few green peppers. The peas were past, with only a few remaining on the vines to dry. They will become the seed for the next crop. The cilantro was also on its way to seed, “because someone who asked me to plant it never came and picked it,” says Everett.
So does this veteran gardener ever have anything that goes awry? Soon after he transplanted the cauliflower plants that he had started in his greenhouse from seed back in March, they bolted and became food for the “porkers.” And last year he inadvertently sliced through the horseradish with the tiller and now, well, it will suffice to say: if you need fresh horseradish, you know who to ask. But his biggest challenge will be the corn. He will have to catch the tassels at just the right time in order to insert some mineral oil to prevent corn borers.
I ask him if he ever has to buy vegetables at the market. “Not really,” he responds. Come to think of it, the only veggie I’ve ever seen him buy there is cauliflower.
Our third gardener is Irina Murphy of Connecticut Ave. Her plot, at 26- by 20-feet, is considerably smaller, but nevertheless she has it packed with all kinds of vegetables, fruit and herbs. Irina is from Moldova where she grew up on a one-acre lot that she says was an “edible yard,” and she aims to achieve the same here on Block Island. Back home, her mother is already enjoying apricots and peaches.
While studying for her master’s degree in accounting at the University of Rhode Island, she, along with a friend, attended the URI Master Gardener’s program. So don’t think that she is at any kind of disadvantage in our little summer drama.
URI’s East Farm, where she has volunteered, was a source for most of her plants. Some of them are delightfully exotic sounding, like chocolate and white cherries — tomatoes that is.
Irina loves fruit and one of her newest acquisitions is a fig tree. Although it is only two feet tall, it already has three figs on it. The strawberries she planted last year yielded lots of berries this spring and her raspberry canes are full of fruit just waiting to ripen. There are a couple of grapevines and an actual cherry tree all within the borders of her fence. In one corner is an asparagus patch. Planted only last year, it can’t yet be harvested, but it sure looks tempting. Interspersed throughout the fruit are perennial herbs such as tarragon, lovage and rosemary. Volunteer dill and red poppies come up where they will, and Irina seems reluctant to weed any of them out. Packed in, around and under is an incredible array of other vegetables and herbs. She does say her biggest problem is over-crowding, although such tricks as planting the cucumbers under the corn so that their vines will climb up the stalks is one way to deal with such things.
Irina’s got Everett beat in the corn department — her plants are a foot tall. Everett’s have just sprouted and are only three inches. He’s got everyone beat in the tomato category, though. His plants are already sporting 2-inch green tomatoes. The rest of us don’t even have blossoms.
So, that’s part one.