Tuesday, March 9, 2010

News From Our Vermont Trial Garden: Thinking about Spring

Jay Leshinsky, Garden Advisor/Manager 

Here in the Champlain Valley of Vermont the snow cover has almost totally disappeared and plans for this summer's trial garden are well underway. Ever since the Middlebury College Organic Garden began in 2003 we've been doing seed trials for Renee's Garden. Last night I met with this year's summer garden interns (Shane, Hannah, Max and Sarah) and a group of 5 volunteers to determine how we will run our trials for this year.
When we do trials at the College garden we are sometimes testing new varieties and sometimes growing out our current varieties under different conditions in different parts of the garden. Renee sends us new varieties she is considering for our seed list. We evaluate flowers, herbs and vegetables for germination, early growth, disease and insect resistance, and harvest quality. Vegetables are the most popular to trial because of our taste testing. In past years we trialed Padron Peppers, Baby Persian cucumbers and Crispy Colors Duo Kohlrabi before they were included in the Renee's Garden seed list.
It is always lots of fun for the garden interns and volunteers to taste our trial vegetables right out of the garden as well as to use them in recipes of their own creation. The student's creativity produces some very unique "recipes". Several years ago when we were doing edible flowers trials with nasturtiums I worked with a student who loved the flower's peppery taste so much that she decided to experiment with nasturtium leaves. She would take a nasturtium leaf and spread cream cheese (we are from a dairy state) on it and then roll it up like a wrap. Last summer I worked with a student who made her version of capers by pickling green nasturtium seeds she picked from our trial varieties after the flowers had bloomed out.
We also run trials on some of Renee's Garden herbs and flowers for their effectiveness as pollinator attractors. Over the past four years we worked with some of Professor Helen Young's students to observe which flowers and flowering herbs are attracting native pollinators as well as honey bees. Her students have begun to assemble a list of flowers that are attracting a wide range of pollinators at different times during the growing season.
We plant the flowers at the end of each of our planting beds and during the summer and in the fall Professor Young's students record and identify the pollinators they find in the flowers and herbs. This past summer we grew "Marble Arch" salvia next to "Bridal Veil" nigella and researchers noticed a distinct preference among our pollinators. Throughout the observation period the honey bees busily worked the nigella blossoms, while right next to them the bumble bees were working just as busily in the salvia. It's a wonderful garden benefit to have these students doing research that is so specific to our garden site, and it helps us expand our organic techniques.

"Bridal Veil"  nigella

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