I am not a farmer.
I wish I were; all of the things I wish for myself–discipline, consistency, faith, foresight, intuition, production, connection to land and season and creature– are contained within the farm. I know some incredible farmers. I have visited some incredible farms. I’ve put in a couple of hours of work here and there on a handful of farms. Oh, boy, do I long in my gut to be a farmer. But I am not a farmer.
I am just barely a gardener. I have read a lot of books about gardening. I have thought lots and lots about gardening. I have visited many gardens, made lots of spreadsheets and plans, talked to gardeners and urban gardeners and master gardeners. I’ve grown some things, even eaten some things I’ve grown. But gardener is not exactly a word I would use to describe myself.
One day, just before I found out I was pregnant with Winnie, I decided Mike and I needed a break from the city. We needed to touch some land, say hello to some livestock, and the like. I bought tickets to a tomato seed saving workshop upstate, and we decided to stop off at a Rockefeller manse turned agricultural center on the way. We ate heirloom tomatoes on thick toast, bought a couple of sweet little jars, and set off for the workshop at yet another Hudson Valley agricultural center.
The workshop was taught by someone I knew distantly from my hometown, and included a tour of the farm garden. She and her husband were looking for land to start a farm, and she worked for an incredible seed company, the Hudson Valley Seed Library. I learned about tomatoes named for Russian astronauts, and how to hand pollinate squash. In a funny turn, years later I would book a job with the same agricultural foundation where we stood to help spread the word on the importance of orchards and farm-based cider. But I still didn’t have a garden.
I collected some seeds here and there. We didn’t have a lot of direct sunlight in our apartment, so I couldn’t figure out how to make containers work besides growing some leggy lettuce and killing a number of well-intentioned herbs. I found birthing babies and subsequent parenting to be far easier than keeping a plant alive.
We tried to get a spot in the community garden a block over, but our timing was always off. We joined the neighborhood CSA and made friends with our farmers’ market farmers (our oyster gentleman could remember Winnie and her size from season to season, and the fruit farmers did make fun of our kale habit, but marveled at the volume of peaches and eggplant we could plow through in a week). A youth market would pop up outside of the library in the heat of the summer, with local grains and honey and eggs, and it felt like our little concrete neighborhood exploded with life.
Despite our lack of growing, things still grew. We learned how to forage, and found dandelion roots and greens, persimmons, ginko nuts, lambs quarters, purslane, sumac, wild black cherries, sarsaparilla, and so much more in the park near our house.
In my third trimester, while perusing the library storytime calendar, I saw a notice for a meeting about the gardening group at the library. Why not? I thought. There were some decorative beds surrounding the library, one with explosive roses bound with a vigorous clematis that had been present during my last few weeks with Winnie, and which was now beginning its bloom just as I entered my last weeks with Georgie.
So I bounced over to the library common room on a Saturday morning, where grow lights were fostering seedlings, and a handful of neighbors made a plan to grow. Little did I know, half of the parking lot behind the library had been transformed to raised beds, which we weeded and composted and conditioned. I dug out the seed packets I’d collected over the years, and shared them with my fellow gardeners. We had incredible luck with dill and collards, plus a middling bok choi, radish and carrot crop. Sage was taking off when we left the city, and I didn’t have the heart to destroy the tomato volunteers from the last year, so they taught me an excellent lesson about hybrids (it might look like a sungold, but it ain’t gonna taste like a sungold).
Winnie and I watered on Tuesdays throughout late spring, and as my belly grew, so did the eyes of my fellow gardeners when they saw us out back, hauling water around to the beds. It was fabulous– I felt strong, I felt productive, I felt useful. And so did Winnie.
I went into labor with Georgie on a Saturday. While in active labor, I walked past our little garden, past the youth market, past the CSA pickups and the folks headed to their community garden workshifts. I had a baby. She’s a delight. My mom came into town, and so did Mike’s sister. I went home from the hospital on Monday, Winnie’s birthday, and a strawberry-rhubarb spooncake was in order. Tuesday was our watering day. We had four adults, a child, and a baby. I insisted.
So that’s me, three days postpartum, wrangling a bunch of folks to water a garden, filling watering cans and explaining earthboxes, and why raised beds helped circumvent the heavy metal content of the soil. Check out that postpartum belly, y’all! They all thought I was crazy, but they didn’t dare say anything.
Winnie loved sharing her garden with her friends after storytime, showing them the swallowtail caterpillars that had taken up residence on the dill. Soon the dill began to flower (delicious) and eventually those flowers turned into the most prolific and incredible seed heads.
Do you see those seeds on the right? I planted maybe a dozen seeds. I thinned the seedlings. We watered on Tuesday, clipped dill when we needed it, and LOOK! Look how we were rewarded! Seeds for us, our neighbors, our friends, our fellow gardeners. Seeds for the wind, seeds for the tiny creatures looking to munch. Seeds for days and weeks and years. Seeds in the same sweet little jars we had bought on our first seed saving adventure years before.
We moved across the country, and whatever I had learned in my one community garden season in New York was out the window. Alkaline soil? Drought? Last frost day in May? But things grow, as evidenced by one of the best farmers’ markets in the country.
I’ve signed the paperwork for our next community garden plot. We worked as a family, alongside other families, to prepare the massive garden at Winnie’s school for planting. We attended a community seed exchange, and were lucky enough to happen upon the Seed Broadcast truck, a truck that serves to record and broadcast the stories of seeds, and to share those seeds with others. And a few days ago, Ken Greene, the founder of the Hudson Valley Seed Library mentioned above, just came to speak at our farmers’ market.
He spoke of his transition through seeds, spurred by a career in education and a passion for libraries (and a little bit of e-bay thrown in for good measure). He talked of GMOs and biotech companies, not in the OH NOES FRANKENFOOD WILL CERTAINLY KILL US ALL way, but of the very grounded reality that foods that are not open pollinated belong to someone, not everyone, and that indeed they are and will be bred as a product that requires another product (pesticides), that traps farmers into a cycle of buying in order to sell, and that does nothing to preserve the traditional foodways and seed sovereignty of individual communities. He spoke of the stories told through seeds, of indigenous peoples, of African American communities, of immigrant communities, and of the seed-saving practices of someone’s father, who always selected the best beans for baking, whose seeds now lived on, in perpetuity.
I once saw seed-saving as a quirky DIY task that made me feel pretty neat, a way to continue my own cycle of growth, but now I see it as necessary– to support my local food growers, to preserve the history written within each seed, to help us grow and adapt as our climate most certainly changes.
As the slide pictured above proclaims, “Every seed is a story.” I know which stories I want to tell. Do you?