Robbins Farm Garden is a cooperative community garden project at Robbins Farm Park in Arlington, MA. Since 2010, we’ve grown vegetables organically as a group, created an educational resource in the community and continued the agricultural tradition of the farm at the park. We garden Saturday mornings April – November and Tuesday evenings June – September. The project is run through Arlington’s Recreation Department.
2020 was the season COVID-19 hit. Our early seedling work – and the work at the garden – was conducted with several precautions in response to the pandemic.
The season began with temperature extremes in the spring, followed by a hot summer and drought until quite late in the season. As a result, there was less mildew damage, the heat-loving nightshades and squashes did really well, and the tender greens suffered.
We also saw quite a bit of bunny blight, despite fencing around the beds. Thankfully, the new fence was completed at the end of the season – ahead of schedule – and not a moment too soon!
Garlic: very good, do again
Leeks: overall good, but not as stocky as previous years
Onions: Sets not great, on the small side; seeded varieties did well, but smaller than usual (temperature stress?)
Scallions: the best ever; planted in 4” rows; lasted all season!
Shallots: did well, but smaller than usual (like the onions)
Walking Onions: good scallions in spring; productive year; replanting went well
Broccoli: first crop badly discolored again (heat stress?) and heads smaller than usual, with some early aphid damage; second crop was mostly eaten by bunnies as young seedlings (even after a second seeding), those plants that survived didn’t mature
Brussels sprouts: grew well, but had tons of aphids at end of season (like almost everything this year) not contained to the leaves, so poor crop of sprouts. Sprouts were small and also had some sort of rot: research and look for resistant variety?
Cabbages: first crop: smaller than usual (temperature stress?), with lots of cabbage worms; second crop green variety was okay, but Jersey variety completely eaten by bunnies after transplanting and savoy didn’t fully mature by end of season
Cauliflower: first crop behaved strangely (temperature stress?): a few heads matured when expected, but the rest took the entire season! Also had some aphid and (striped) cabbage worm damage. Second crop was awesome!
Kohlrabi: very good, do again: planted all seedlings (more than appeared on plan)
Carrots: remay worked well for germination, but should have been left on longer; should have thinned better and left room for planting board; serious bunny damage mid-season through end of season
Celery: did fine
Parsnips: seeded twice, with zero germination (bad seed?)
Artichokes: started out well (from seed, with vernalization) but hit hard with aphids mid-season and wilted after insecticidal soap treatment; recovered with new growth later in season (some plants hit again by aphids); experimenting with wintering over – Lisa’s plant (which didn’t get aphids) in cool plant room, 2 bare-rooted plants from garden kept indoors and 2 plants left in pots with leaf mulch in raised beds.
Basil: plants badly damaged by beetles, try Neem oil early?
Cilantro: good variety but not the best year; try alternating corners w/arugula for more sun; super cold-hardy!
Corn: new variety had good germination, good height & strong stalks, nice productive popcorn
Herbs: Thyme and Fennel did great; Oregano and Tarragon doing better than ever; Parsley was spotty. Dug/divided Sorrel, Savory, Lavender & Lemon Balm in spring. Next spring, dig/divide all Chives. Dig/replant Saffron in June (when dormant)
Nasturtiums: first seeding was spotty (too early?), so reseeded. Otherwise very good, do again. Consider planting with artichokes to attract aphids
Okra: seedlings were good; rocky start after transplanting due to cold; some plants were large and robust, others were smaller and weaker; overall, very good
Rhubarb: badly damaged by beetles; try Neem oil? Move to a sunnier spot and give fresh soil in spring
Saffron: best crop yet! Remember to dig and replant bulbs in June, when dormant
Sunflowers: leaf damage (beetles), but somewhat protected by volunteer sunchokes (which were hit even harder); matured to good-sized heads
Arugula: first crop bolted (as usual); second crop planted super dense and took a very long time to mature; third crop was fine
Bok Choy: first crop did okay, but bolted in heat before fully maturing; second crop mostly matured; try fertilizing more; new green variety (2nd planting) more attractive
Collards: transplanted as seedlings due to planting mistake, but recovered and did fine
Kales: lots of bunny, cabbage worm and aphid damage this year, but still did okay; try ladybugs or lacewings next year?
Lettuce: new variety (Optima) not great; first crops (from seedlings) did well; summer crops did particularly poorly, stunted and rotten (keep well thinned and use shade cloth on bed after solstice); late lettuce did really well, especially in bean bed, transplanting went well and were able to harvest until the end with plastic tunnels. New Red Fire and Little Gem the most cold-tolerant
Mustard: very good, do again; alternating rows for second planting and planting dates worked well; green variety super cold-tolerant
Perpetual Spinach: very good, do again; very productive and long-lived; every other week harvest (with Swiss chard) worked well
Swiss Chard: best yet; feeding schedule good; covered a bit late in spring, but no leaf miner damage (sticky traps?); productive and long-lived
Beans (bush): Dragon’s Tongue died back too quickly (earlier than others), possibly shaded by tall soybeans? Green variety did better, but still died back earlier than usual
Beans (dried): germinated and vined well, but matured unevenly so some were still green for first frost and were lost for harvest; those that were harvested were lovely
Beans (pole): all did well, but Romano type wasn’t a proper Romano; alternating colors worked great for identifying varieties; TV was earliest, others about 2 weeks later. Kentucky Wonder better of the green varieties (less stringy than Blue Lake); maybe grow with Kentucky Blue next year
Fava Beans: slow start, but did well; some aphid damage, controlled with careful insecticidal soap application; sadly, most of crop picked by vandals, with a few strewn on paths
Lima Beans: needed some reseeding, but were productive; research optimum plant spacing
Peas: Spring crop: did well, except for bad germination on Tall Telephone; trellis particularly successful. Fall crop: germination good, especially under 2 layers of shade cloth; sadly, all were eaten by bunnies
Soybeans: new variety very tall; did well, but had some beetle damage
Eggplants: a solid year overall, productive and good-quality; the best Italian type yet (Galine) though some had worms; White Egg slower than usual; some leaf damage
Peppers: reasonable year overall, significant leaf damage (beetles?); Lunchbox, King Arthur, Serrano, Thai and Cheyenne productive; Poblano not as productive; Hot Lemon slow but large; consider topping/pruning taller varieties to reduce immature peppers left at end of season
Potatoes: blue most productive, then red, then gold; blue slowest, red fastest; some wilt, but all plants produced; a little beetle damage
Tomatillos: bad early beetle damage, but checking/treating every few days for a few weeks got them through; topped plants end of August, but still had tons of small ones at end of season; research pruning, topping, put on fertilizing schedule next year
Tomatoes: overall very good; don’t plant Sun Gold, Supersweet 100 and Juliet together next year; snakes (dangling from strings) and marigolds worked well (didn’t need CDs). Darkstar had a different type of disease (look up); Brandy Boy did well; look for a new paste type; Ramapo seemed determinate this year; a few seedlings got mixed up as seedlings; smaller-fruited varieties did best
Beets: first crop: very good, do again; second crop: should have been planted 2-3 weeks earlier (put in where fall broccoli should have been planted) but was super cold-hardy
Jerusalem Artichokes: bad bug damage to leaves early and some mildew, but good flowers; not as productive harvest, with lots of stringy tubers; consider buying fresh stock for replanting in spring
Radishes: first crop ok, but bolted in heat; second crop not as robust as first, try fertilizing more?
Rutabagas: spotty germination (cover seed with remay next year); transplanting seedlings set back timing, but worked well
Sweet Potatoes: seed potatoes planted too closely in tray (slips came up together and couldn’t tell different types apart); harvested tubers were fantastic: large and numerous, despite bunny damage to leaves
Turnips (cooking): very good, do again
Turnips (salad): first and second crops: very good, do again
Butternuts: Metro PMR productive and larger than usual, feeding schedule good; trimming/thinning of extra leaves helped with air flow and Serenade helped with mildew; new variety (Honeynut) was stunted (probably from bad real estate in 3 sisters bed), try on trellis next year; think about no squash in 3-sisters bed
Cucumbers: productive and healthy until premature die-off from wilt: look for wilt-resistant varieties, research bugs for potential traps
Delicata: more productive than usual; fewer vine borers (alternating planting with butternuts and sticky traps worked well); Serenade helped with mildew; feeding schedule good; long harvest season
Pumpkins: productive and larger than usual (one was enormous); less borer damage due to sticky traps; feeding schedule good
Summer Squash: not as productive as zukes; try fertilizing more; Serenade helped with mildew; vine borer damage not as bad due to sticky traps; look for new variety?
Zucchini: very good, do again; vine borer damage not as bad with sticky traps
Each season brings a new set of insects to the garden. These are some of the insects we found and the pest management we tried in the 2020 season.
|May/ June||Aphids (black)||Artichokes and fava||Insecticidal soap|
|July/ August||Beetles (Japanese and Asiatic)||Basil, sunflowers, rhubarb, peppers, marigolds||Neem oil (peppers)|
|July||Striped cucumber beetle||Cucumbers||None|
|July-Aug||Squash vine borer (SVB)||Winter and summer squash||Sticky traps with SVB lures|
|July||Horn worm||Tomatoes||Hand removal|
|July||Flea beetles?||Tomatoes, eggplants||None|
|July||Flying aphids?||Jerusalem artichokes||None|
|July-Sep||Cabbage worms (green and striped)||Cabbage, kale||Hand removal|
|Oct||Aphids (grey)||Rutabaga, kale, brussels sprouts, cabbage||Insecticidal soap weekly|
[May/June] Spring aphids on the artichokes
The artichoke seedlings were beautiful when they were transplanted, but within a few weeks, the undersides of the leaves were covered with black aphids.
We sprayed the artichoke leaves with insecticidal soap to reduce the aphids, but the leaves were seriously damaged after spraying (leaf burn?) and the aphids continued to be a problem through the summer.
Lisa grew one of the extra artichoke seedlings in a similar-sized pot at her home and did not have any aphids on the plant. We aren’t sure what caused the aphid infestation on the garden artichokes or how to manage it.
[July] Beetle damage on the basil, peppers, rhubarb and sun flowers
The basil and rhubarb leaves were decimated quickly. We never found any insects on the plants, but the skeletonized leaves were consistent with beetle damage. In addition to the leaf damage, some peppers also had bug damage in the fruit. We didn’t use any spray or treatment early summer, but later in the summer, around August, the peppers were sprayed with neem oil once a week. Results are inconclusive, but there seemed to be some improvement with the neem spray.
[July] Cucumber wilt from striped cucumber beetle
In late July, the cucumber plants began to wilt and Lisa noticed these yellow and black striped beetles on the cucumber vines and took the photo below. The beetle has a black head as opposed to the similarly striped potato beetle which has a yellow head. Adult cucumber beetles can carry and transmit a bacteria to cucumber vines that causes wilt and damages the fruit. The articles below have some information about the beetle and treatment options.
[July] Squash vine borers
Squash vine borers typically attack the summer squash, delicata and pumpkins in the garden. We monitor the vines closely for frass and have to hand remove the larvae from the stems. The butternut squash is usually resistant to the borers.
This summer, 2020, was the first time we tried using traps to catch the squash vine borer moths. We purchased 2-packs of the trap from VivaGrow! and placed two in the garden in late June. We hung them about 2 feet above the ground in a bed a few feet away from the squash plants. Within a week, there were several squash vine borer moths (and other bugs) in the traps.
We added two fresh traps after about 2 weeks and caught a few more moths. The majority of the moths were caught in June, though.
In July or August, we did find some borers in the summer and winter squash, but it seemed like fewer than normal and the plants survived and continued to produce squashed much longer than normal. The traps felt like a successful experiment and we will probably repeat it next year.
[July] Flea beetles?
Several varieties of the tomatoes had small but densely packed holes in the leaves and some small insects were observed on the leaves as well. The leaf damage appeared consistent with flea beetles, but this has not been confirmed. We did not apply any treatment to the tomatoes to try to mitigate the leaf damage, but the productivity of the plants was great and the fruit did not appear damaged with the small holes. Since the impact to productivity and quality was not noticeable, we probably do not need to worry about treatment for flea beetles on the tomatoes.
The eggplants also had small, densely packed holes in the leaves that might be due to flea beetles or something similar. With the eggplants, the holes were not limited to just the leaves — some of the fruit also had small holes and bugs inside. The bugs inside the eggplants appeared to be small larvae a few millimeters long, so this may be an unrelated pest.
[July] Flying aphids?
For a short period (a week or two), the jerusalem artichokes were covered with small insects plus a few larger flying ones. The initial thought was that they might be flying aphids. They did a fair amount of damage to the leafs of the jerusalem artichokes, but we didn’t see them spread anywhere else in the garden so we did not spray or treat them.
[Jun-Aug] Cabbage worms
Green cabbage worms are usually found on the green cabbage starting around June, but the worms are also occasionally found on the collards, kale, cauliflower and broccoli. They are difficult to spot since their color blends in so well with the leaf, but usually the tell-tale sign is the frass near the new growth in the center of the cabbage. When we see fresh frass, we keep searching until we find the worms and hand remove them to stop the damage. Sometimes, large amounts of frass are from one large worm like the one in the picture, but it can also be from multiple worms in the same plant.
[Late Oct] Fall aphids on… well, just about everything!
The second round of aphids in the garden hit around October and they are light gray rather than the black aphids found in the spring and summer. These gray aphids appear quickly and cover the plants. We spray with insecticidal soap regularly, but it seems like once the gray aphids infest a plant, it is next to impossible to get rid of them.
All four pole bean varieties were harvested this week (Sep 19).
Trionfo Violetto was the earliest to mature and is very prolific. The other three varieties took 2-3 weeks longer to mature, but were all harvestable around the same time. We noticed some thin rusty blemishes on some of the surface of the Blue Lake beans (seen in the close-up picture), but it’s not clear whether the blemishes are a concern.
One of our experimental crops this summer was Henderson’s Bush Lima Beans from Rohrer. They are described as a prolific heirloom variety with smaller 3-4″ pod.
By early August, the plants were loaded with flowers and beans and they can continue to produce for months until the first frost. Since they have a long growing season and pods can be at different stages of maturity, we weren’t sure how to decide on whether a pod was ready to pick or not.
The pods grow to about 3-inches long and seem to go through 3 stages once they reach that size:
1) relatively immature where the pod is full length, but it is still flat-ish and the beans inside are very small and difficult to shell
2) mature where the pod looks about the same size, but the girth fills out as the beans expand inside
The pods dry out on the plant surprisingly quickly, so the transition from mature to dried might happen in week or so. Some of the earliest dried pods we found had very small beans inside. It was discouraging at first because it seemed to suggest that the limas would be small, no matter how long we waited to harvest them. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case though. After a couple weeks of harvesting, the mature limas beans that we picked were larger.
With the first big lima harvest of the season, I decided to try sorting the beans as I shelled them to try to figure out what signs we could look for when deciding which beans are ready to pick. The biggest limas had a pod that felt full to the touch and I think the shell starts to turn a little paler green in color like the unshelled pods in the second column of this photo:
On the left are the dried beans. Those are easy to tell apart. In the middle are the mature beans. Most of the mature pods were plump to the touch. On the right are the less mature beans which were a deeper green on the outside. These took a lot more effort to get out of the shell and the beans inside were smaller and still a little green instead of the bright white color of the mature limas. It was tricky to tell some of these immature pods apart from the mature ones because the immature ones had also filled out, and were plump to the touch. I found the slightly yellow/pale color on the plump pods to be the best clues that the pod was mature and would shell easily.
Both the green and white limas tasted good. The main difference was the size of the bean and the effort to shell them.
Take way: Harvest pods when they are plump to the touch and the color is just starting to pale (lighter green).
In the end, I had a nice pile of shelled limas, some were big, others small; some had turned white, others were different shades of green:
I just boiled the limas and served them with salt and pepper. They all tasted pretty good, even the little green ones!
As for the dried beans, they were extremely easy to shell but there are only a few of them, so not sure how the dried ones taste yet. Interestingly enough, the dried beans seem to be a little smaller than the mature limas. Perhaps they shrink a little as they dry out?
Mike, Michael and David planted all five of the new fence posts on the far side of the garden in one day! (Well almost – one still needs some digging). I (Alan) finished the rails on the Eastern Ave side. If the weather is good Tuesday evening, I’ll oil the rails, and should be ready to hang the fence fabric next Saturday. I have no doubt now we can finish this season.
The general fence-building process is:
- Measure and plant the metal post bases, in a reasonably straight line, evenly spaced, right height, and plumb. Every so often we get lucky and just pound one straight down without any digging. Most of the time we need to dig a hole, get the post base in the right position, and pack the hole with rocks and dirt to hold it firm.
- Cut a notch in each 4×4 posts for the irrigation lines and paint them with raw linseed oil.
- Cut and fasten the 1×4 rails, making everything nice and square, and paint them with raw linseed oil.
- Screw and staple the 1×1 hardware cloth to the posts and rails and trim up the edges.
- And when the new fence is finished, we need to disassemble and dispose of the old one.
A couple of challenges left – we’re recycling about five post bases that are currently holding up the old posts, so we need to at least partially disassemble the old fence to finish the new one; what do we do with the Philosopher’s Stone?
Mid-summer is a time of transition in the garden. Today we pulled the spring peas and replanted the area with pole beans. (We use the same tall trellis for both.)
The garlic was also harvested today and replanted with turnip seed. Last week, we harvested the first spring broccoli and cabbage, and the last of the fava beans, which were replanted with fall peas.
Harvesting of our heat-loving nightshades (eggplant, peppers and tomatoes), okra and squashes (cucumbers, crooknecks and zucchini) has begun and the first of our bush beans were ready today.
Our everbearing greens (collards, kale, perpetual spinach and Swiss chard) are in full production and the sequentially-planted greens (arugula, mustard and lettuce) have been providing continuous harvests.
Next week, the first of the potatoes should be ready for harvest. That will herald replanting with fall brassica seedlings (broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower) seeded last month in our nursery bed.
The last of our spring salad turnips and the first of our onions were also harvested today. There is much to look forward to, and it’s feeling like the garden is in full swing!
A sign has been posted at the garden with guidelines for gardeners to follow in order to grow our food and keep everyone safe during this health crisis. A pdf of the sign is available here. The text appears below.
TO DO OUR PART TO STOP THE SPREAD OF COVID-19
WE ENCOURAGE GARDENERS TO:
• Stay home if you or those you live with are not well or not sure.
• Maintain physical separation of 6 feet or more.
• Avoid clusters (of more than 10), schedule gardening at different times.
• Use your own tools and take them home.
• Don’t leave things outside the fence while you’re working.
• Ask visitors to stay outside the garden fence.
• Use gloves and sanitizer to keep your hands clean.
• Cloth masks are (required).
• Sanitize commonly-touched surfaces: gate, locks, water spigot, hoses, storage bin, seed box, fertilizer bags.
We left the smaller parsnips in the ground last fall and harvested them today.
The ground was already pretty workable, probably due to lack of rain, but still pretty cold.
The artichoke and allium seeds we planted on February 22 are off to a strong start. The front row has 1 pot of Tavor artichokes & 3 of Walla Walla onions; the middle row has 2 pots of Rossa di Milano red onions & 2 of Conservor shallots; the back row has 2 pots of Megaton leeks & 2 of New York Early storage onions. Next week, we move on to seeding our first brassicas and greens.
We’ve been making our own seedling soil for a decade. Yet, this is the first time we’ve attempted to document it as a recipe. For germinating seeds, like the leeks, onions and shallots we started yesterday, we use a light, less nutrient-rich mix.
- Coconut Coir – 1 brick (rehydrates to 0.33 cu ft)
- Compost (sifted & sterilized ) – 12 cups
- Vermiculite – 3 cups
- Sand (rough builder) – 3 cups
- Garden Tone fertilizer – 2 TBS
- Wood Ash – 2 TBS
- Limestone (ground) – 1 TBS
For transplanting the seedlings into 6-packs and small pots, we shift the mix closer to fertile garden soil by increasing the compost and nutrients.
- Coconut Coir – 1 brick (expands to 0.33 cu ft rehydrated)
- Compost (sifted & sterilized ) – 24 cups
- Vermiculite – 3 cups
- Sand (rough builder) – 3 cups
- Garden Tone fertilizer – 4 TBS
- Wood Ash – 4 TBS
- Limestone (ground) – 2 TBS
About the ingredients:
The coir is made from ground coconut shells, and is a pH-neutral, sustainable alternative to peat moss.
The compost is all vegetable-matter based, from a home compost pile and from the ones at the main garden.
The Garden Tone organic fertilizer is rated at 3-4-4. For our eggplant, pepper and tomato seedlings, we often substitute Tomato Tone.
The wood ash is collected from a home fireplace, sifted to remove charcoal chunks.
The limestone buffers the pH of the compost. We use pure ground limestone. (Our garden soil tests high for magnesium, so we’re wary of adding more.)
Save the date – our annual Seed Selection Meeting will be on Saturday, February 1st in Community Room of the Arlington Police Headquarters from 10 am to 1 pm.
Everyone interested in the crops & varieties we will grow at Robbins Farm Garden this season is welcome. Prospective new members of the garden group are especially encouraged to attend and join in the discussion. Bring your seed catalogs and great expectations for the season to come!
The Arlington Police Headquarters is at 112 Mystic Street. When you enter the building, go directly up the stairs; the community room door will be on your left.
- Many of the seedlings were affected by putting too much Coast of Main fertilizer in the potting soil – some peppers and lettuce died, some eggplant and onions were stunted, tomatoes were okay.
- Several crops were affected by rodent predation: corn, eggplant, tomatoes, watermelons and, to a lesser extent, both winter squashes.
Garlic: very good, do again
Leeks: be more careful in planning for raised bed later in season, otherwise very good, do again
Onions: Sets did well. Seedlings suffered from over-fertilization of potting soil, most did well
Scallions: did fantastic in crappy soil, try rows @ 2” apart next year
Shallots: did well, but didn’t have two full rows of seedlings due to over-fertilizing potting soil
Walking Onions: did well, provided beautiful scallions in spring, transplanted bulblets over several weeks
Broccoli: early crop very good – fertilized when heads begin to form. Late crop did well too, good number of side shoots after main heads
Brussels sprouts: no aphids this year, some sprouts stayed small, but overall good. Plant on north side of bed next year to keep from shading bed
Cabbages: early crop did well, except some had rot at the base (disease?). late crop didn’t mature well, lots of cabbage worms – two types and late into season, also shaded by Brussels sprouts
Cauliflower: early crop was very good, do again. Late crop was the best yet, but plants had signs of Black Rot on the leaves (look into seed supplier and succession planting in beds)
Kohlrabi: fantastic, do again
Carrots: single crop of different varieties worked, most did well (Mokum not as good) a fair number of split roots this year
Celery: late (seedlings had to be replanted), but all were stocky and healthy, didn’t lose any to disease
Parsnips: good germination & thinning, but not as perfect – some stubby and with nodules – research