Sowing Seeds

I am not a farmer.

Well, duh.

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.

11009201_10206588066361789_9033767094003249961_n

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?

The Seed Library Social Network

List of 230+ Heirloom, Independent Seed Companies

 

 

 

 

Week-ending

Working retail (and retail compounded with food– two industries known widely for their super fun hours of operation), neither Mike nor I ever counted on a weekend.  Two days off in a row, even in the middle of the week, was the unicorn of scheduling.  Once our roles shifted, and we routinely found ourselves free on the same days that much of the rest of the world is off work, it felt like we were getting away with something.  Nearly every weekend, it *still* feels like we’re getting away with something– something wonderful and not to be wasted.  While we spend a good number of hours lazing about, we try to shove out the door on a regular basis, and we’ve had some pretty excellent adventures this way– scrambling over rocks on the coastline of Rhode Island, sledding down hills in Vermont, eating our way down Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, or exploring decommissioned artillery batteries on the beaches of Queens (where we also stumbled on some pretty angry bees, so I don’t really want to talk about this last one).

Last weekend, we were treated to a sunny day wedged between some cold, wet ones, so we took full advantage.  Winnie zen’d out on Mike’s lap at Eucharist while I served as a lay Eucharistic minister (something I am absolutely LOVING– looking forward to during the week with such joy and anticipation) with nary a request to roam the aisles (a first!), so we jumped on the opportunity to pack a sleepy babe in the car after church and head out to the Queens County Farm Museum, a working farm within the city, where Mike and I were married.

Full disclosure: I saw this picture on the farm’s Instagram feed before we headed out to church that morning, and was determined to have those eggs (I was/am also completely obsessed with re-creating the eggy, vanilla-bombed White Cow Dairy custards I ate constantly when pregnant with Winnie, and I felt like these eggs were calling out to me).  Winnie fell asleep on our way up to the farm, which we’d expected, and Mike and I were perfectly fine with sitting in the car and reading while she finished her snooze.  Egg sales opened at noon at the snowy, nearly deserted farm, but when we pulled up at a few minutes before one p.m., I had a feeling we should get moving on those eggs, so I sent Mike in.  He laughed at me, looking at the complete lack of any human presence on the farm’s grounds, and offered to fight the crowds for the eggs.  He returned with the last half dozen eggs, so, you know, good thing I’m an insane person about eggs is all.

image

image

image

Winnie’s new favorite word is alpaca, shortened for efficiency to “paca!”, of course.

 

In front of the barn where we were married. Winnie doing her best Blue Steel.

 

image

image

After we’d visited every animal (cows, sheep, alpacas, and the chickens twice), talked about the resting fields, explored the greenhouse, and ducked into the gift shop for cocoa and dried apricots, we left to do some more Queens exploring.  We ended up at Ben’s Best Deli for a late lunch of matzo ball soup (so much dill!), pastrami and tongue sandwiches, half sours, and cole slaw. Winnie was particularly excited about the tongue and pickles, because that kid just is who she is.

We popped into Carmel Grocery to stock up on dried sour apricots (which Winnie and I destroyed in a matter of days), za’atar, citric acid (for cheese), chickpeas, and to try out some Cornelian Cherry jam (there’s a Cornelian cherry tree just inside the entrance we take to Prospect Park) and Russian honey harvested on the taiga.

image

By that time, we’d put enough distance between us and the pastrami to consider ice cream.  Clearly, this trip into Queens was pretty heavily motivated by well-cropped Instagrams (see:eggs) and this ice cream stop was no different– I’d been drooling over a friend’s shots of old-fashioned sundaes and mounds of freshly whipped cream at Eddie’s Sweet Shop, so we meandered through the ridiculously charming tudors of Forest Hills (seriously Forest Hills, you are out of control with your charm), stepped back a few decades into a spot where I could imagine my Poppie as a teenaged soda jerk, and ordered one of everything.

Not really, but the hot fudge sundae, vanilla malted, and sweet little Winnie-sized dish of ice cream nearly put this family over the edge of a sugar-butterfat cliff (the very best cliff there is).

image

image

 

You would have thought that once Mike went back to work on Monday, the weekend was over, but you would be wrong, my friend!  Tuesday brought, if not the century’s greatest blizzard, a healthy heaping of six inches of powdery snow and a day off of work for all of us.

We headed to the park, sled in hand.

image

image

image

The day before, as the snow started to fall, I somehow had the presence of mind to sear a giant beef shank, start a broth, soak some chickpeas, and toss everything together with a heap of leeks and kale (and a ton of za’atar, obviously), which we’re still eating on a week later.

Pretty good week-ending, if I do say so myself.