Every year, we give each of our apprentices their own bed to grow whatever they choose. Sometimes there are surprizes. One year, an apprentice had to be talked out of trying to grow rice. Greg Reed, one of our apprentices this year, posted this report.
One of the benefits of working as a season-long apprentice at Persephone Farm is that we each get a 50-foot bed for ourselves. So, this year, instead of trying to coax unhappy plants from urban fill, in another first-year garden at one more rented house, I get the opportunity to grow vegetables and flowers in fertile soil, placed years ago into organic rotations under Louisa and Rebecca’s care.
Starting my bed was a bit overwhelming. Like an artist staring at a blank page, gessoed canvas, tuned guitar or chunk of unhandled clay, it took some unsticking to move past the furrowed-forehead stage and take the first steps toward this new creative project. What to plant? When to start it? Direct seed, or transplant seedlings from the greenhouse? How to squeeze multiple crops out of a single space by staggering early and late plantings? What won’t the farm already have enough of to eat or preserve?
These questions keep me up at night.
Living and working on an intensive vegetable farm means that I spend my days surrounded in lush foliage and edible landscapes. Overwintered leeks, brassicas, carrots, rutabagas and greens have been in the ground, waiting to be picked, since I arrived here in late February. Now, two and a half months later, we are harvesting truckloads of this season’s early annual crops for sale to excited customers every week, and the summer’s CSA program is about to start. Produce is grown and eaten here year round.
But I did not have the convenience of planting last fall for harvest this spring. When we learned of our personal bed space in March, there was nothing growing in them but some immature dead red nettle weeds and clumps of carrot grass in the paths. Well, that is not entirely true. Our colleague Joel had a bed full of rutabagas still colonizing his patch. We picked them as March turned to April and they were beginning to use spring’s light to start growing again.
Nor did I have the years of experience with weather and succession planting, or binders of records like my farming mentors. In market farming, getting crops to customers before your competitors can mean extra cash. There are risks of course: setting out plants while the weather is still volatile can lead to disaster when a late spring cold snap settles on your tender young veggies. You gamble, but like any wise gambler you calculate the odds carefully.
While we spent our work days seeding turnips, radishes, mustard greens, broccoli and cauliflower, I spent my evenings sketching ideas for my garden bed. On weekends, I scoured the area’s feed stores and co-ops, choosing my seed. And I waited for that tell-tale sign—maybe just a feeling—that the warming weather was here to stay and it was time.
Waiting gave me a chance to organize and think through how to paint my empty canvas. But waiting also meant my own harvests will be weeks behind the rest of the farm. We pulled the first french breakfast radishes from Persephone’s beds early in April, while my three small rows of new Cherry Belle radishes arrived this week. Waiting is frustrating, but tasting those radishes sliced thin, tossed with par-cel and covered in salt, pepper, with a touch of lemon juice, was worth the wait. My bed is filled with early crops like peas and beets—already well on their way to producing more satisfying morsels.
It is starting to feel like I can do this.
This week, Caitlin and I will transplant the cucumber and winter squash starts that are sitting in four-inch pots in the greenhouse. We will plant beans, too, and try to find another section of pathway that we can sacrifice between our two beds in order to squeeze in a couple more flowers and veggies we must have. We are thinking about how to coax the most food possible out of our combined square footage. And that means we will likely end up merging our beds. Can’t we forego a pathway altogether and just slip between those cabbage plants in order to harvest and weed?
Sometimes, it is hard to visualize exactly what these growing plants will do as they take solar energy from the sky and nutrients from the ground, filling out with stem and leaves, flower and fruit. And–a paradox–while it is hard to remain patient, watching them grow so slowly each day, at the same time I remind myself that I want this season to linger so I can enjoy every passing moment and learn from every lesson, every observation, every touch.
On the farm, we scramble to keep up with acres of plants bursting with growth under their row covers, competing with vigorous weeds, putting up vegetables that must be picked at just the right time. Our own gardens, though, are a very different place; a microcosm of the larger farm, somewhere to dawdle and experiment, to shed the demand of efficiency.
I will weed my garden again this afternoon and the plants I am growing don’t look much different than they did yesterday. But the pace gives me a chance to get to know them, to rethink their habits and their needs. The slow passage of time also builds anticipation for the moment when they will be ready to harvest and eat. I could buy haricot-vert at the store tomorrow, shipped up from Mexico or California–they would have a similar look and the same name. Waiting, I know these will taste better. Waiting, I take a deep breath.