Boys Club STEM in the Garden Wrap-Up: Tomato Love, Seed Starting and Keeping Cool with Cucumber Pops

The summer with the neighborhood boys from the Boys Club of New York has flashed by in six fun- and STEM-filled weeks. Twice a week, with a total of five classes of boys each week, we connected the dots between the garden as a microcosm of our food system, the scientific world, and the food on their plates. We watched with pride as the boys’ interest in and understanding of gardening and the cycle of our food system grow and blossom along with the plants in the garden. We covered a lot in six weeks, progressing dramatically from the basics of tools and garden safety, to soil health, through plant parts and into companion plants. For example, in week four, the boys learned about the many ways that companion plants are essential to a healthy garden. Companion plants, such as flowers and herbs:

  • help other plants grow
  • keep pests away
  • attract pollinators like bees and butterflies
  • have many culinary uses and often have very distinctive flavors that complement certain other foods; and
  • are packed full of vitamins, minerals, and other healthy properties, such as “anti-oxidants,” that help support immune, digestive, cardio and other bodily functions.

They went on an herb hunt, armed with only photos and their senses (sight, smell, taste, touch), and tried to identify and describe the plants as they experienced them.

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We finished off the season with the final two weeks of classes: the Life Cycle of the Tomato and Seed Starting and Seed Saving.

Tomatoes at Children’s Garden at Campos

The boys picked and tasted a variety of heirloom and classic tomatoes from the Children’s Garden at Campos and learned about their qualities. Here are the tomatoes the boys had the chance to learn about in the garden:

Beam’s Yellow Pear: Small yellow pear shaped cherry tomato, about 1-1/2” long. This selection of Yellow Pear has far less cracking than others. Flavor is a winner when compared to other yellow pears. Low in acid, mild flavored. Yellow Pear itself has been grown since the late 1800s. 70-80 days. From Seedsavers.org seeds. 

Cherokee Purple: Medium-large, 10-12 oz. fruits are dusky pink with darker purplish pink shoulders. Flesh is brick red with green gel when less ripe. Thin skin and soft flesh, somewhat perishable, but pleasantly sweet. Resistant to mild drought, Septoria Leaf Spot. Expect some concentric cracking. This variety is traced through Craig LeHoullier to J.D.Green of Tennessee, who claimed it was more than 100 years old and originally from the Cherokee people. Heirloom, pre-1890. 72-80 days. From Seedsavers.org seeds. 

Dr. Wyche’s Yellow: Really a tomatillo. Tall, sprawling plants produce larger fruits that ripen yellow and sweet. All plants associated with the name “Dr. Wyche” are outstanding varieties. From Seedsavers.org seeds.

Green Zebra: 3 oz. fruits ripen to a golden yellow with green zebra-like stripes. Fruits are slightly elongated globes, ridged at the shoulder. Flavorful green flesh is choice for slicing and for colorful salads. Chosen by Alice Waters for the famous Chez Panisse restaurant in California. A 1985 tomato developed by heirloom tomato breeder Tom Wagner of Tater Mater Seeds. Not an heirloom – but just you wait! 78-86 days. From Seedsavers.org seeds.

Hillbilly Potato: Bi-colored yellow-orange with red and pink streaking and mottling on skin and throughout the flesh – all on a 1-2 pound beefsteak. In addition to a highly colorful fruit, flavor matches its appearance, being sweet and fruity, low acid. Potato leaf plant. Heirloom, West Virginia. 85 days. From Seedsavers.org seeds.

Japanese Trifele Black: Dark purplish brick skin on a fruit the shape of a Bartlett pear, about 5-8 oz. Green shoulders. Highly productive plants. Rich flavor for fresh eating and for cooking. Very pretty and unusual fruits are usually blemish and crack-free. Probably from Estonia. 70 days. From seedling. 

John Baer: aka Bonny Best. This old time canning favorite is best grown in a cage or staked. Up to 8 oz., red, slightly flattened at the stem end, this has a smooth, meaty, very rich taste. Prone to cat facing and far too soft to make it to the farmers’ markets, but superb for eating fresh. This medium sized vine does well in the North. (John Baer is a 1915 selection of Bonny Best.) Best for the home gardener. Heirloom, Bonny Plant Farm, Union Springs, AL, 1908. 76 days. From Seedsavers.org seeds.

Martino’s Roma: Canning tomato. 3” long paste tomato is pear shaped, red. 2-3 oz., dry, meaty with few seeds and little juice. Okay for fresh eating, superb for cooking. Extremely productive, compact plants with dark, rugose foliage. Heirloom. 70-75 days. From seedling. 

Purple Russian: Purplish-black. Plum shaped. 3-4” long. 6 oz., meaty and sweet. Flavor is good enough for fresh eating as well as for pretty sauces. Very productive. From Ukraine. 80 days. From Seedsavers.org seeds.

Rainbow Cherry:  colorful mix of sweet, candy-like cherry tomatoes. Sweetie (Red), Bi Color (orange and red), White, and Yellow cherry tomatoes will provide a rainbow of flavors all summer long. 50-80 days (Peaceful Valley seeds)

Siberian: Originally from the Lowden Collection, this tomato was introduced by Will Bonsall through Seed Savers Exchange in 1984. Very early fruits are red, egg shaped, 2-3”, and rather tasty for such an early tomato. Do not confuse this variety with Siberia, which is rather mushy and bland in comparison. Plants are short and sprawling. 57-60 days. From Seedsavers.org seeds.

Sweet Baby: Short, compact, easy-to-train vines yield hundreds of ¾ oz. candy-sweet fruit. The dark red clusters cover the plants. High quality fruits have a good shelf life once picked. 65 days. From Burpee Seeds.

Trophy: Introduced in 1870 by Colonel George E. Waring, Jr., of Rhode Island. Sold for five dollars per packet (equivalent to eighty dollars today). Gardeners paid the exorbitant price hoping to win the $100 grand prize at the local fair. Sweet 5-7 ounce tomatoes are ideal for slicing. Indeterminate, 80 days. From seedling.

(Italicized descriptions from Silver Heights Farm Catalog)

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They learned how a tomato goes from seed to seedling, to flower, the pollination process, ripening of the fruit, flavors of various tomatoes, returning to seed and back again. They tasted numerous tomatoes at various degrees of ripeness for comparison. Many boys reported that this was their favorite class (see bottom of page for thank you notes to garden education assistant, Erin Hodges for examples)

tomato life cycle

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Seed Starting and Seed Saving 

The last session said goodbye to summer with an eye towards fall harvest. The boys learned about starting plants from seed, in good soil mix. We read seed packets for instructions, planted greens and brassica for the fall and watered the plants. Many of the boys will return in the fall, but some will not and this was their last chance to see the garden and know that they are planting seeds for the benefit of others.

Among other varieties, we planted:

  • Broccoli de cicco
  • Brussels Sprouts
  • Collard Greens
  • Cos Lettuce
  • Lacinato Kale
  • Red Russian Kale
  • Rainbow Chard
  • Spinach
  • Arugula

The second day of planting was a Friday and that’s when we planted the arugula. Thanks to the hot growing conditions, by Sunday, the seeds had already broken through the soil and a day later were bona fide seedlings with their first leaves!

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Seed Saving for our Future Food Security

The boys also learned how important it is to save seeds and learned how to gets seeds out of sunflowers. As we told you in April, Children’s Garden at Campos is part of Seed Savers Exchange’s Community Seed Resource Program (CSRP) grant, which provides tools and guidance to community groups interested in creating seed-focused events, exchanges, libraries and gardens. Under the grant, CSRP provides:

  • Community seed toolkits, including seeds, educational resources, and seed saving supplies
  • Access to SSE’s national seed exchange
  • Mentorship

The CSRP helps groups hold seed swaps, create community seed banks and grow seed gardens. We held our first grant in April (See our April 16, 2015 post, “Swap Seeds at Campos Community Garden: Saturday, April 18, 11 a.m. – 3 p.m.) and will be holding another seed swap in September–keep your eyes/ears out for that announcement.

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Two Recipes to Cool the Body on a Hot Summer’s Day

Here’s how we kept the boys and ourselves cool during the hot, humid, mid-day lessons in the garden

Cucumber, Mint & Lime Ice Pops

What’s more summer than popsicles? And what is more comforting than popsicles made from garden fresh ingredients that don’t need a lot of sugar to taste good

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Recipe courtesy of NYC Foodscape’s garden education assistant Erin Hodges

IngredientIMG_5085s
1 cup of water
1 tablespoon agave nectar or sugar
1-2 limes, freshly squeezed
10 mint leaves
1 medium cucumber, chopped

Instructions

  1. Heat water and sugar until dissolved, then set aside to cool.
  2. Ad remaining ingredients and blend until smooth, with flecks of mint remaining.
  3. Pour into ice trays or popsicle molds.
  4. Freeze for at least 4 hours or overnight. Insert popsicle sticks or toothpicks when firm enough to stand.

 

 

 

 

 

Unripe Melon, Cucumber, and Peach Soup

One day a couple of weeks ago, a curious camper from the Boys Club of New York took the “initiative” to pick one of our melons growing on the vine. Tempting as it was, it was sadly, not yet ripe. This proved a valuable lesson for the boys about patience, how fruits ripen under the hot sun, and why we ask them not to pick anything without asking first. But not to worry: there is no need to waste an unripe melon, whether it be prematurely picked or purchased at the supermarket and cut open to find it is not ready to eat. Instead, use it to make a cooling and somewhat savory cold soup, sweetened a bit by peaches and honey, and blended with lots of mint. (Note to adults: it also makes a tasty and refreshing cocktail mixer!)

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Ingredients
1 medium cantaloupe- or honeydew-style melon, ripe or unripe, rind and seeds removed, and cut into chunks
1 large cucumber, seeded and cut into chunks
1 green bell pepper, seeded and cut into chunks
2 peaches, skin removed and cut into chunks
1 small onion, chopped
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
1-2 teaspoons lime juice
1 tablespoon honey
1 cup mint leaves
1 hot chili pepper
2 teaspoons chopped orange zest
1 teaspoon chopped lime zest
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
Mint leaves and diced cucumber for garnish

Instructions

  1. In a blender, combine half each of the melon, cucumber, pepper, peach and onion with the vinegar, lime juice, honey and 1 cup of cold water and puree until smooth. Transfer the puree to a large bowl.
  2. Add the remaining melon, cucumber, pepper, peach and onion to the blender along with the mint, chili pepper, orange and lime zest and olive oil and pulse to a chunky puree. Add the puree to the bowl and stir well. Refrigerate the soup until cold, about 1 1/2 hours. Season to taste with salt and pepper and ladle it into bowls. Garnish the mint leaves and diced cucumber, with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and serve.

(Kids aren’t the only ones who will like this. Adults:  this also makes a great cocktail mixer with gin or vodka and some seltzer–just skip the olive oil, pour in a jigger of your favorite spirits over lots of ice, add about 3 ounces of the gazpacho, add seltzer to top of glass, stir, garnish with lime and/or mint and enjoy!)

IMG_0449Thank You for a Wonderful and Fruitful Season of Learning!

Thank you to the Boys Club of New York and 75 or so spirited and joyful boys who came to the five sessions each week and learned how gardening can inspire and develop skills in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). You were like sponges, soaking up the knowledge and taking it with you back to your friends and family! Thank you to Ely Siems and Melisa Nosier, the awesome teachers at the Boys Club for inspiring such a hungry group of learners and thank you to your team of group leaders who helped chaperone the boys to and from the clubhouse. Thank you to Kazz Pinkard, the director of education for setting this whole project up, connecting us with Ely and Melisa, and keeping the focus on STEM education. We will see you in the Fall for a scaled-down version of the program and watch as our seedlings turn into fall harvest.

And of course–many thanks to NYC Foodscape’s two amazing and dedicated Garden Education Assistants, Erin Hodges and Ian Weill, who took the baton from previous years and helped build the program for Children’s Garden at Campos into a serious and formal curriculum for young people interested in learning the STEM skills that gardening can foster and experiencing and tasting the many more subtle flavors that gardening and healthy cooking imparts to our life.

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tomato life cycle

 

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