TT with HD: Royer Held
[Ed. note: Consult Project Grow to find the
location of a Community Garden near you and to download
a PDF application for a
Project Grow garden plot.
Royer's class on potatoes, which is mentioned below, is being taught at the Leslie Science Center on 31 March from 10-11:30am. Further details on the class include the request to pre-register at (734) 994-4589 or info##at##peoplesfood#dot#coop ]
HD: So, let's climb aboard! And the first order of business is to ...
RH: ... balance?
HD: Yeah, establish a balancing point and then I'll snap the standard teeter tottering photograph. We're just in time to avoid the glare from the sun. [Ed. note: photography ensues]
Okay, so let' see if we can actually ...
RH: ... get this thing going ...
HD: ... get some tottering motion going. Alright. So, Happy St. Patrick's Day!
RH: And the same to you!
HD: And welcome to the teeter totter.
RH: I'm glad to be here!
HD: How did your class go this morning?
HD: Yeah? Well attended?
RH: Yeah, had about 12 people.
HD: What exactly did you teach them?
RH: Well, this was kind of our beginning introduction to organic gardening and so essentially went through the basics of how to get a garden going organically--starting off with the fundamentals of soil science and all the good things that grow in garden soil when it's grown organically and how it establishes an ecology that helps keep your plants healthy. We also got into how you sustain that. So, how you create it and how you sustain it.
HD: Did you actually have any dirt for people to play in?
RH: Sure did!
RH: Sure did. I dug up four different samples. One sample was taken out of my plot--I'm at the Greenview Project Grow site ...
HD: ... now when you say your 'plot' this is one of the standard 25-by-30 foot plots?
RH: Yeah, one of the Project Grow plots. And I also picked up some from a garden plot that hadn't really been cultivated particularly well, so you could see the before-and-after difference between the two soils. I did the same out at the Catholic Social Services plot, where I'm involved with the Heirloom Garden Plot with Project Grow, that has been operating for the past three or four years.
HD: So that particular Community Garden is the one designated as the Heirloom Garden?
RH: Yeah, it's a very informal thing that's come about. It was originally a proposal that I floated to Project Grow's Board and it's taken on a life of its own.
HD: The seeds that you gave me--let me fish them out of my pocket--are they a product of the Heirloom Garden?
RH: They are!
HD: Now remind me what exactly they are, because you said they're not what the label says?
RH: Yeah, there's a label inside the package there. They're Cherokee cornfield pole beans. And it's a mix. It's an astonishing assortment--I guess probably varieties that may have been cultivated by the Cherokee. But they kind of represent nearly every aspect of what a bean could be.
HD: Are they easy to grow?
HD: They don't require a tremendous amount of horticulture knowledge?
RH: No, no. Beans are pretty easy. In fact, you know, you could probably get some going right over here.
HD: Over in the corner?
HD: Well, let me ask you about that, because we've had almost zero success growing much of anything here in the backyard and someone pointed out to us that ...
RH: ... oh, you've got a walnut!
HD: Yeah, there's a walnut tree and guess there's something called juglone--is that how it's pronounced?
RH: Yeah, yeah, that poisons the soil!
HD: Yeah, so there's a couple of ferns that show up every spring, which are really nice--I wish we would get more of them--but basically that's the only thing that will grow. So if wanted to grow these pole beans back here anyway, are there any measures I could take?
RH: To alleviate that? Well, I think the root perimeter probably reflects where the branches are. So as long as you stay out from underneath the drip-line of the tree ...
HD: ... okay, so I'd need to get pretty close to the house.
RH: In fact, you could try it up against the porch there, too.
HD: Or, I guess if you wanted to make a pitch for one of the [Project Grow] plots, I could apply for a plot. I assume Project Grow gardens don't have problems with black walnut trees right next the plots?
RH: No, no. [laugh]
HD: I guess there was kind of an important deadline that passed on the 15th [of March]: if you wanted the same plot as last year, you had to get your application in?
RH: Oh, if it's passed, I'm in trouble!
HD: Yeah, it was the 15th, I think.
RH: But they're not real sticklers.
HD: How is the vacancy rate? Is there a lot of competition for getting a plot at all? Or is it competition mostly for getting the best plots?
RH: I garden at Greenview, and there were a fair number of open plots there last year. Now they're closing the Good Shepherd plot. I guess there's a church off of 7th, next to Eberwhite Woods?
HD: Yeah, is that Zion ... ?
RH: ... Zion Lutheran, right. And that's being shut down, so there'll be gardeners that'll be moving out of there and looking for places.
HD: I remember reading about that. Did that space end up getting purchased with Greenbelt money? Do you know the details of that? I remember Zion Lutheran Church might have sold some property or something, and there was some question about whether it was going to be developed as residential housing or whether the City was going to swoop in there and buy it up with Greenbelt funds.
RH: Boy, it would have been nice if they'd done that.
HD: So as far as you know then, the Community Garden there is going to be shut down?
RH: Yes, and I think the reason is that they need the property. They're putting in a parking lot and they need a mitigation area for the runoff for the parking lot, which is, I think, just obscene! But, you know. [laugh]
HD: So how many gardeners are we talking about who're going to be looking for a different plot?
RH: I would put the number probably at about 30. But Project Grow is trying to work with the City. I think Virginia Park was a potential site where they might put in a Project Grow plot. I think Matthei Botanical Gardens is opening up an area that will be Project Grow gardens. And I believe there are additional initiatives afoot. We have additional space at Catholic Social Services where the Heirloom Garden is. So I don't really think there is an issue with getting ...
HD: ... there's plenty of Project Grow land if somebody wants a plot.
HD: Can you get more than one plot?
RH: I believe you can.
HD: So it's just a matter of ...
RH: ... paying the rental.
HD: Which is a sliding scale as understand it ...?
RH: ... it is.
HD: So the lower number is, I guess, the break-even number, and the higher number is the number it would take to fund Project Grow without any additional, um ...
RH: ... input, yeah.
HD: So how do the plots work as far as what you're allowed to build up structure-wise. I mean, these are pole beans, right?
RH: Ah, so you need something for them to grow on!
HD: I would think so yeah. Right, so you have to build some kind of deal for them to climb, but is that within the rules and regulations?
RH: That depends on the area that you're in. There are basically two different kind of plots that you mind find in Project Grow. Some areas have perennial plots, which is where you could have permanent structures. Good Shepherd was a place that had the permanent perennial plots. I think all of them were perennial, in fact. And that means they don't get tilled every year. The Greenview plot--where I'm at--gets tilled twice a year.
HD: So you have to have your stuff out of there.
RH: Yes, yes, ...
HD: ... but conceivably you could still build kind of a temporary pole-bean structure and ...
RH: ... yep, I store them in my attic and haul them out. On July 4th I get my wheel barrow and get everything put on the wheelbarrow and truck it over to the garden.
HD: My wife and I, when we were grad students at Indiana University, participated in something similar to Project Grow through the university, where you could just sign up for a plot on some outlying farm and they did pretty much the same kind of thing that Project Grow does--they'd provide a water source, and they plowed the entire field with all the plots every spring and every fall, and they staked it off. And I remember the frustrating thing about it was that it was such an ordeal to gather up the stuff ...
RH: ... in the fall?
HD: Mmm, not so much in the fall, but just to make a visit.
RH: Oh, oh, I see.
HD: They didn't have any tools onsite, and it was just a cistern with a hand-cranked pump, so you had to take your own watering cans, your own shovel and hoe--if that's what you wanted to do. So I'm wondering at these various Project Grow sites, how much infrastructure is there onsite?
RH: Most of them have water, which means they have hoses available that you can run into your plot and connect it to a sprinkler system even, if you want it [laugh] ...
HD: ... so you don't have to haul buckets of water.
RH: No, no. Greenview has an assortment of hand tools that are available onsite and some wheelbarrows and garden trucks of various sorts--two or three of them. And beyond that, I always bring over my fork or my shovel or whatever I'm going to be working with.
HD: So the guidelines for growing stuff on a Project Grow plot can pretty much be summarized by: you have to grow organically. That's a fair characterization?
RH: Right, that's true. And they don't want you introducing invasives. Like mint.
HD: Is mint a common thing that people think they want to try to grow?
RH: Well, it commonly occurs in the plots now! [laugh] Somebody must have brought it in at one point.
HD: So growing organically, I mean, if you read the description, it winds up being a list of a lot of things you can't do. So, no pesticides, no herbicides, no ...
RH: ... no fertilizer.
HD: Yeah. What I find a little frustrating is that there's all these proscriptions against things, and what I would like is for somebody to say, Here's what you should do, here's some seeds, here's a gardening kit, go out and execute it! As opposed to saying, Here's all these things you better not do. I want to know what to do!
RH: Well, I'm a to-do kind of guy! I've never approached it that way, really. I guess the comments I was making this morning were mainly about the bad things that happen when you use fertilizer. And the to-do's in my mind are that you want to grow healthy soil--that's what you want to do. In order to do that, there are some real fundamentals. You need to supply organic material. Initially, when I first started, I was bringing in manure. I had a nice supply of rabbit manure ...
HD: ... do you keep rabbits, is that where you'd get it??
RH: No, there was a stable out on Wagner Road, they had show rabbits. So I was getting the manure from the show rabbits [laugh] and hauling that out. I do raised-bed gardening, so in the spring, I dig up my beds--because they've been plowed up, obviously--and form them into about three- to four-foot widths basically, by building trenches around them.
HD: As opposed to just mounding them up?
RH: Yeah, I dig the trench and then throw the dirt on top of where I want the bed to be, and that builds it up a bit. The cool thing about Project Grow is that the City of Ann Arbor dumps leaves at the Project Grow site.
HD: I was going to ask, for somebody who doesn't have access to rabbit manure, ...
RH: ... right, what do you do?
HD: I mean, I don't want to fill my Civic Hatchback with a bunch of leaves and haul them out to the garden.
RH: They're onsite, so what I do is I truck my wheelbarrow over in my Honda Civic [laugh] and ...
HD: Can you actually get a wheelbarrow in that car you drove over?
RH: You know, actually, I misspoke [laugh] I use the minivan. [laugh]
HD: Fair enough! [laugh] Okay, so the City of Ann Arbor--this is through the leaf collection program that it runs in the fall?
RH: Right, they dump a truckload or two or three [of leaves], depending on what the order is.
HD: Great, so you can use that to build healthier soil on your Project Grow plot.
RH: Yeah. So what I do then is I take the leaves--I've dug the trenches--I fill the trenches with leaves. And then that gives me something to walk on that's reasonably mud-free. Then I plant my plants out in the plot. I grow tomato plants and start them from seed indoors and then set them in.
HD: Have you already started those from seed this year?
RH: No, I start them mid-April, because that's early enough so they get big enough, but not too early so that they get too big. And then after I get my plants in, I bring in more leaves and put in a layer of mulch on the top of the beds. So, in effect, the entire bed has been covered by about six inches of leaves. In the course of the season they all kind of pack down, and the ones that are in the trenches are sort of composting in-site. They get tilled in in the fall then, come spring, after the second tilling I don't see any sign of leaves in my plot at all.
HD: So they're just churned through there, huh. How does that tilling take place? Is that somebody just going through there with a big rototiller or do they pull a tractor with disks and whatnot?
RH: There's a guy who works for the University ... he has the equipment and brings the rotovater, which is kind of like a rototiller. He attaches it to a tractor and then goes through. It's not a deep tilling, it's just kind of surface--maybe about six or eight inches worth of depth to it. That keeps perennial weeds down.
HD: So you always have tomatoes? Anything else besides tomatoes?
RH: Oh, lots of other things. But there's a lot of tomatoes [laugh].
HD: So you mean a lot of different varieties of tomatoes?
RH: Yes! I'm going to be starting 80 different kinds this year.
HD: Holy Cow! You can get 80 different kinds of tomatoes in a 25 by 30 foot plot??!
RH: Well, some of them will be growing in my plot, and a bunch of them I'll take over to the Heirloom Plot. We'll probably have over 100 varieties at the Heirloom Plot.
HD: Typically every year somebody will give us a couple of cherry tomato plants, and my wife puts them somewhere or other. We've learned, of course, that here in the backyard doesn't work, so typically she'll put them in a giant pot somewhere over there [by the house]. The problem with them is that the plant gets really, really big--a lot of vine--but then very few tomatoes ever appear. And I don't know if it's a problem with the variety or if it's something we're not doing or that we are doing ...
RH: Do they bloom?
HD: They do bloom.
RH: And they just don't set a lot of fruit then, or?
HD: Well, I guess is should say they do bloom and what does bloom turns into fruit, but they don't bloom ...
RH: ... profusely. Ah. I see.
HD: Is that a typical tomato problem for this area?
RH: Mmm. Does it get a lot of sun?
HD: I think so. I don't pay that much attention, because tomatoes are not my favorite thing to eat, so I don't have any interest beyond, Oh, okay, tomatoes, that's nice.
RH: You know it's hard to say. It's interesting that you're getting a lot of vine production, because that's a good sign.
HD: It's like all the energy of the plant is going into making the vine as opposed to making fruit.
RH: It might be too much fertilizer! You don't want to give them too too much nitrogen, however you deliver it, because then they will put out more foliage and they won't worry about fruiting as much. It might be that. The other side is, depending on where they're being grown, it could be that they're not getting quite enough sun. They really need about 8 hours of solid such--as much sun as they possibly can get.
HD: So full-blast sun.
RH: Yeah. Usually, I don't care what plant it is, as long as it's getting enough light, it's going to be happy. [laugh]
HD: Let's see, so what are some plants that are easy to grow around here in the kind of soil you start with at the Project Grow plots? Just sort of slam dunk easy, you can't screw it up?
RH: Beans! Peas! The legumes in general.
HD: So legumes, those are like soybeans??
RH: Yeah, and peas, and fava beans. I tried fava beans last year.
HD: What about carrots and potatoes?
RH: Potatoes! Potatoes would be good.
HD: In the past, the problem has been when I've tried to grow potatoes, in order to check on them, you pretty much have to dig up the plant.
RH: That's true! [laugh]
HD: It's very difficult to keep my curiosity in check. Because you wanna know, right? You wanna see how they're doin, right? And once you dig them up you discover a lot of little potatoes got started, and now they're ruined.
HD: Do you have any advice for how to deal with the human psychology of growing potatoes?
RH: You know, I guess I just let them be. Although if you want to check on them, the best bet would be to grow them in a raised bed and then just pull the soil away from them until you ...
HD: ... oh, so brush it away with like a whisk broom?
RH: Or you'd have to actually maybe use your fingers to pull the dirt away from them--or a trowel or something. But just pull it away and then check them out and then put it back, [laugh] and that way you're minimizing the disruption.
HD: Given the size of the plots, say somebody just wanted to put in all potatoes--I think I read on the Project Grow website that one of the plots last year was dedicated solely to potatoes and that the crop was given to Food Gatherers at the end of the summer or something like that. But how many potatoes are we talking about for a plot 25 by 30 feet, just roughly?
RH: Oooh. That's, mmmm, an average crop? I'd say that you'd get somewhere between a hundred and two hundred pounds.
HD: Okay, so that would be enough to, wow, ...
RH: ... maybe even more depending on how well they grew, how decent the soil was and so forth.
HD: For potatoes is it okay to just go to the supermarket and grab a couple of potatoes and chop them up and throw them out there?
RH: The problem with supermarket potatoes is that many of them have been irradiated--that's to keep them from sprouting--so they're not going to respond as quickly as potatoes made available specifically for garden cultivation.
HD: So where can you get starter potatoes or seeds, or whatever it is you need? You can't get potato seeds, can you?
RH: Boy, you're asking some good questions I happen to have answers for! One of the reasons we're doing the Heirloom Garden is that four years ago or so, I had sent off to the USDA for seed for potatoes for varieties that are grown in Bolivia. My daughter had gone to Bolivia as an exchange student. And she came back, talking about how wonderful the potatoes were down there.
HD: Wonderful with respect to taste or size, or what?
RH: Taste, texture, color--just this whole wide array of potato traits that you don't see typically here. So I was looking all over the internet trying to find seed for potatoes and couldn't find any--until I stumbled across the USDA website. And through Project Grow I wrote a letter and requested 10 different Bolivian potato varieties.
HD: Wow. So they hooked you up with some?
RH: They gave them to me for free, because they make them available to educational institutions and commercial breeders and ...
HD: ... whereas if you had been just some guy, they would have said, Uh no ...
RH: They might have, they might have. But they definitely went for Project Grow's deal.
HD: So the Heirloom Garden now has Bolivian potatoes.
RH: Absolutely. And not only that. We have seed from them!
HD: So those aren't considered 'invasive species'?
RH: No, I wouldn't. Basically, all the potatoes that we cultivate today evolved from the ones that were cultivated in the Andes, ...
HD: ... that's where all potatoes come from?! Huh.
RH: Yeah, I think they were native to Bolivia, actually.
HD: So the potatoes that the Irish were growing back in the day, they all came from Bolivia??
RH: They all came from Boliva.
HD: Holy Cow.
RH: Or the Andes.
HD: Well, I guess it's fitting for St. Patrick's Day, then, that we're talking about the origin of potatoes and where the Irish got them. I just assumed that potatoes were a European vegetable.
RH: No, no. It took them a while to catch on in Europe. In fact, I'm teaching a potato class in two weeks from today.
HD: Oh really! Is that through the Leslie Science Center as well?
RH: Yes, and we'll talk about growing them from seed and growing them from tubers, we'll talk also about sweet potatoes as a little side note.
HD: They're in the same family then?
RH: No, sweet potatoes are in the morning glory and the potato family is the same as tomatoes and...
HD: ... wait up, you said morning glory??
HD: Huh. Gosh, I'm learning all sorts of stuff.
HD: Do you have anything special planned for St. Patrick's Day?
RH: Oh, we're having corned beef and cabbage.
HD: Do you grow cabbage at all in your plot?
RH: Noo. You were asking about easy things to grow. One of the things in the cabbage family that I really enjoy is the kales. There's Red Russian Kale, which has a flat leaf with a real lacy serrated-edge leaf.
HD: So you eat that in like cole slaw?
RH: Well, when it's young it's very tender and you could put it in a tossed salad. What I like to use it for is, I'll wait until the leaves get huge and then chop them up and pan-fry them in a little bit of olive oil and water. It's a very tasty--I'll slice them thin--and it's a nice green vegetable dish.
HD: Just fried up by itself?
RH: Yeah, just cooked until they wilt, and pretty much they don't need to be cooked much longer than that. And there's also an Italian kale variety that I've been growing recently. It's kind of a dark green leaf that's maybe about a foot and a half long, say, and maybe about three inches across, and is mottled like savoyed cabbage--it's kind of got bubbly bumps on it all over the leaf. And that has a very mild flavor also.
HD: And also easy to grow?
RH: Yes. And the plants get to be about three feet high and maybe about that big around. They just pump out the leaves, and come September you can start--actually as soon as you want--you can start picking the leaves off and using them.
HD: So these greens that grow above the ground, I imagine that animals like deer, and whatever else, might like to eat them? Is that an issue for Project Grow plots?
RH: You know, Greenview is located is located just west of Pioneer High School, and there's a wooded area in there. The interesting thing is, I've seen deer over there, and I've seen tracks in my garden, but I haven't seen any sign of them doing any damage.
HD: So in general, the damage to crops from animals--like big animals, not bugs and things--is for Project Grow not ...
RH: ... the one real source of damage is woodchucks. You get a woodchuck and they really will just eat you out of house and home!
HD: The official policy I thought was an interesting choice of words for animal pests: 'exclusion is the preferred method'.
RH: [laugh] Expatriation!
HD: Yeah, I thought 'exclusion', there's an interesting word. What does that mean, exactly? That fencing off is preferable to just killing them?
RH: I imagine that's what they're trying to get at.
HD: Mmm. But the fact that it's just the 'preferred' method might mean that there are other methods. I read that as, We'd prefer you build a fence, but if you want to just whack them over the head, that's okay, too.
RH: Well, they have made available have-a-heart traps, so we have live-trapped a number of them.
HD: And you relocate them?
RH: Yeah, we try to relocate them.
HD: Across a freeway, maybe? I mean, I'm not suggesting you set them free on or near a freeway, I'm just saying ...
RH: ... I've never been on hand when they've been liberated. [laugh]
HD: I mean, when you put them on the other side of a freeway from where they were trapped, then they're not going to come back.
RH: Yeah, we find a nice home for them someplace. I think they've mostly gone for rides out in the country.
HD: So squirrels are not so much of an issue? Birds?
RH: No, they seem to leave things alone. I haven't had any problems with them. The real issue has been the woodchucks.
HD: Well, I noticed that the microphone just blew over, so that's one sound system probably out of commission. Before we hop off the teeter totter, anything else on your mind you wanted to make sure we covered?
RH: Well, you know I was thinking about this talk for a long time and one of the things that has been on my mind of late has been the need for there to be more gardening going on, mainly on account of global warming and the use of petroleum in general. The Sustainability Institute of Michigan was saying that 20 percent of our petroleum use is attributable to food production. And that's through not only the cultivating it and the ...
HD: ... growing of it, but the transportation of the food from where it's grown to where it's eaten?
RH: Right. And I don't hear anybody talking about trying to localize that especially as a means to alleviate the use of the energy and the contribution to global warming. I mean, it's a relatively easy thing to do. You know, there are a lot of opportunities if you really want to do something local.
HD: What I thought was interesting about Project Grow is that it's not just one area, not just one Community Garden. They're sprinkled all over the city. I haven't researched it in detail, but my guess is that you could take public transportation from wherever you are to pretty close to wherever a Community Garden is. I don't know that for sure, but they're widely distributed.
RH: I often walk--it's about a half mile to my plot.
HD: So the plots that are vacant--you mentioned that there are some vacancy--what happens to them? Does Project Grow just go ahead and say okay that's going to be vacant this year, so we'll just go ahead an plant something ourselves?
RH: Well, that happened last year. We had the Social Services plot for the Heirloom Garden. When we started were only two other gardeners there, and last year we had eight. So we were kind of tight on space and ended up using some of these vacant plots in Project Grow areas to grow beans and potatoes. So it does tend to get used. Maybe middle of June, word gets out that anybody who's interested, plots are available to use.
HD: Okay, so any last words?
RH: I don't think so! I should have warned you I can talk for hours!
HD: Well, you know, part of the beauty of this as a conversational venue is that the hardness of the wood and the austerity of the outside weather can serve as a built-in limiter! [laugh] I'd like to thank you for coming over, and spending part of this really spectacular day. I mean you cannot order up a better day, I don't think.
RH: Thanks for inviting me!