Senior year of college I volunteered with Habitat for Humanity. Every Friday at 8AM a group ventured east to Detroit for a full day of glorious building. For me it was a chance to do good for the community with the added benefit of relieving the stresses of school. I enjoyed all the hammering, painting, installing, power-tooling - and how it allowed me to get lost in my own thoughts. The repetitive tasks in farming provides like feelings of comfort. Now I understand why there are so many hobby gardeners.
This week I spent most of my volunteer hours harvesting. I was surprised to see that there was still so much green in early December, despite a severe lack of rays and freezing temperatures over the past month. Swiss chard, lettuces, carrots, turnips, Jerusalem artichokes, kale, broccoli, and baby cabbage were very much alive and well.
I hunkered down for the first hour and felt like a hunter-gatherer ninja, with my knife, slashing down all that was edible for the local soup kitchen. Before I knew it, an hour flew by and I had harvested 4 bags of bucolic Swiss chard leaves. I kept peeking into the bags to appreciate the gorgeous leaves of color, leaving me reminiscent of my summer at the farmers’ market.
TREES OF DECEIT
As I strolled through the farm to find my next leafy victim, green tree-like plants caught my eye. At first I thought they were broccoli, but how wrong I was. It was kale. I am still amazed by how some vegetables look before they are harvested. When I was at the farmers’ market in SoCal kale was always pre-cut, so all I saw were the beautiful, curly-edged green leaves in neat, little rubberbanded bundles. I did not have the slightest idea that kale grows this way!
You’ll notice that the tops of the kale plants are slightly discolored. My first thought was, I don’t want to harvest anything that is not at its prime. Although I quickly changed my tune after reminding myself how much TLC it took to bring this plant to life. I got out my knife and started slicing off stems. I then noticed gray colored, moldy-looking matter on the back of some leaves. Aphids.. aka plant lice. JEEPERS! I freaked out.
While not dangerous to humans, aphids are pests that infest cultivated plants - especially those that have not been harvested in a long time. They’re a nuisance to farmers and gardeners alike, as Wikipedia notes. A wave of sadness washed over me as I thought of all the students who spent months nurturing these plants, only to have them grow inedible. But the circle of life waits for no one; the plants were cut down to 4-inch nubs, the infested part thrown into a trash bag to rot/compost, and its nutrients will be used to fortify soil come spring.
Rounding out my 4-hour stint was transplanting spinach. I had done a bit of this during my first visit to Northside, but this time I was hell bent on doing a better and faster job. I was told that transplanting is not something that many farmers will do because it is so labor intensive. It is much easier to just sow more seeds than to root up existing plants and re-plant each individual root system. Did you know 1 tiny patch of spinach has at least 40 little baby stems that need to be put back into the dirt?!
It’s a delicate process separating spinach roots and it can’t be done with gardening gloves on. As a result, I could barely feel my finger tips after transplanting 50ish spinach plants to another location on the farm. But I was proud of the finished project and it was a rather pleasant 30 minutes of separating roots, digging a hole, putting in spinach, and covering up with soil.
The spinach plants will continue to grow through the winter months, under a blanket of special plastic - poly-something-ene - which keeps in the heat that plants and soil naturally emit. So I am looking forward to enjoying several baby spinach salads soon.
THE CHOPPING BLOCK
Overall, I had a great second visit to Northside. Despite the cold rain and lack of sun, I was excited to experience farming with the elements. It was a great first step in learning about farming in the winter.
Until next weekend, try not to throw away too much food… or I will chop you! :o)