A Farmer in the Garden

I recently helped my friend, Josh, plant some seeds and starts on his farmland out in the Northeast Kingdom. Josh’s family has always produced vegetables on their small-scale farm for area farmers’ markets, but this year Josh is running the operation on his own.

When I visited Josh’s land, I got to help him plant some of the usual crops that I have in my small garden: tomatoes, squash, pumpkin, green beans… but the planting process was a little bit different here. Forget the gentle loosening of roots on the tomato starts. Just drop them a couple paces apart for the length of the field and then walk back through and quickly tuck them into the soil a few inches above the roots. And while in my small garden I planted every squash seed with an exaggerated amount of care, here we just opened up a small hole in the soil every three paces, dropped three or four seeds in, and were on our way.

It’s funny how long my friends and I took to plan and decide and gently dig up homes for plants in the small garden plot we have when I compare it to the farmers’ methods. But I guess it’s only fair; any farm must be at least 50 times the size of our garden. It wouldn’t be as big of a deal if two or three tomato plants didn’t survive on the farm since this is such a small fraction of the crop.

While I am not about to move away from the more gentle and tedious methods of the gardener, I’m glad to have a farmer friend as a resource. The next day, when Josh visited our garden, he shook his head when he saw how I, on hands and knees, meticulously plucked out small weeds from a bed of soil I hadn’t planted anything in yet. He grabbed a hoe and we broke up the weeds. I grabbed a small rake and pulled out many of  the larger weeds before scooping some of the smaller pieces up in my hands.

In all reality, the garden isn’t just a place to grow food. It’s a place to relax, work hard, get dirty and watch life grow. So, while the farmer has some shortcuts that will still yield a good crop, I know I’ll continue to take the longer and maybe more laborious route for my miniature field of vegetables. I’ll continue to use my farmer friends as a great resource for planting and pests and so on, but somehow the garden would still feel like a productive use of my time even if it failed to produce much of any food.

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One of the Perks of Joining a Community Garden Plot

This weekend, in anticipation for digging into my own garden plot, I attended an event on cold frame building and season extension at one of the community gardens in town. Well… actually, the workshop had to be rescheduled because the workshop leader wasn’t able to make it…

But if you ask me, that didn’t really even matter. While I was interested in learning about cold frames, I was also attending simply because I wanted to see this community garden space and meet other gardeners.

And, on that note, the workshop actually had a pretty small turnout… there were four of us present – two of whom were assisting with the event – which means really just me and one other person – Natalie* – were officially attending the workshop.

I have to admit that generally, when I think about who attends these kinds of workshops, I expect to see that stereotypical experienced gardener who arrives in grungy jeans and sneakers with calloused hands. Natalie didn’t fit this description at all with her manicured nails, sunglasses, and a short latte cup. Having moved to Vermont just recently from the South where there is a year-round growing season, I think Natalie’s motivation for attending the workshop was similar to my own: she just wanted to meet other gardeners and learn a few things as she started her own community garden plot.

Ground cherry seeds in their tomatillo-like pods

And while the workshop didn’t happen, Natalie and I still were offered some great resources. Natalie was set up with a trowel, a pot, and a little direction for transplanting some mint which she took home, and then we were both introduced to ground cherries – which are best described as a small, pineapple-like relative to the cherry tomato. Seed pods from last year’s ground cherries littered a few of the garden beds, and I stuffed a big handful of these into my coat pocket.

I’m getting super-excited to start some seeds in my own community garden plot this spring, and I’m thankful to be splitting it with my boyfriend and my friend so we can share the workload and garden knowledge. Natalie, on the other hand, will be managing her own plot. My first thought about running my own plot was, “Ugh, what a load of work, and do I really know enough about gardening to pull this off?” But after the spontaneous assistance from other community gardeners, I think I’m starting to get a sense of the meaning of the “community” in community gardening. Although it might initially feel more challenging to maintain a plot if you’re newer to the garden scene, there are plenty of resources available within the gardening network to ensure your hard work returns a fruitful harvest.

*Name changed

FN 4/9

Garden Planning: The Case of the Stolen Tomato

It’s still prime-time for skiing and plow trucks in the Northeast, but community garden plans are in full swing. Friends of Burlington Gardens (FBG) has been preparing for one of their youth gardening programs, and, after last weekend’s seed swap, many leftover seeds are available for the program to choose from. I spent close to two hours rummaging through these seeds and reorganizing them, and only made it through about one-third of the seeds!

So what are the best things to plant in a youth teaching garden? Any time I have planted a garden, my choices have been dictated by availability and impulse: my gardens were filled with whatever excess starters I received from farmer friends or the contents of seed packets with the most attractive illustrations. This can work just fine until I end up with a field of overgrown mizuna greens or baseball bat zucchinis.

Luckily, FBG is directed by wiser planners than me, who are more thoughtful about seed and starter selection. The grocery list of seeds for their youth program range from potatoes and onions and radishes to ground cherries and beets and various salad greens.

Perhaps what’s more interesting, however, is what the youth garden will not plant. No watermelons. No pumpkins. No corn. Why? It’s largely due to theft. The youth garden is planted on a large, two-acre plot proximal to low-income neighborhoods, and past experiences have shown these foods are most frequently stolen from the garden. While FBG have stopped planting some crops, they have gotten clever about others: while bright-red, vine-ripened tomatoes are an attractive and easy-to-spot steal, green zebra tomatoes are much less likely to be taken since it is more difficult to determine peak harvest time of this deceptively green-when-ripe fruit.

This is just one example of the tactics that will be employed by the coordinators of the youth program to prevent food vandalism by hungry neighbors. Certainly, these actions could be questioned morally. Should we be preventing the hungry from harvesting nutritious food they may not be able to afford? Can’t we just feed everyone with this garden?

I respect the perspective of the clever coordinator who has resorted to planting green tomatoes: “I can’t solve hunger…we’re not big enough.” FBG offers an amazing service to the community by teaching youth gardening practices and providing food for underserved teens and their families. Much of the food is also sold by these entrepreneurial teens, who bring their product to farmer’s markets. Profits support the program and wages for the teens.

It might feel contradictory to some to prevent the hungry neighboring community from harvesting the garden. I welcome your comments on this. As I see it, the priority of this program is to teach the youth job and life skills through their involvement in all aspects of farming, up through harvesting. Following this experience, I hope to see these youth return to area gardens and farms to help feed – and, better yet, teach – their hungry neighbors.

FN 2/27