Farming 101: Chop Wood, Carry Water

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Leona Palmer

Leona Palmer › Leona Palmer was a native of rural Wisconsin before becoming a time-tested New Yorker. After having ...


Repetitive physical labor, otherwise known as “farming,” has become a sort of zen boot camp for me. Some farmers love the way it gives their brain time and space to work itself out. I like that it shuts my brain up. Being the sort of person usually stuck in my head, over-thinking ridiculous issues with general monkey chatter, when I have to focus on the work at hand here at Newton Community Farm, my mind empties itself out and a spaciousness opens to the air, the birds, the dirt. My mind still comes to resolutions, but they erupt spontaneously instead of dragging me through the process–one such moment caught me tearing up over seedling trays in the greenhouse, struck with a happy revelation about a childhood memory.

But a spacious mind is not the only lesson of farming. Patience is required, a refresher for this New Yorker. Patience awaiting the bounty of the season, the strawberries or tomatoes or melons, which seems far away. Patience required when setting up your brand new irrigation pump and, between phone calls and visits from the company, there are days of hose-wrangling, patching and dragging.

While one is patiently, or eagerly, awaiting the future, the rate of change here and now startles: seedlings double overnight, pear and apple blossoms burst open, asparagus surges between dawn and dusk and the rhubarb fills out in weeks. Here, appreciation for the moment springs up. My instinct is to salvage each last leaf of winter spinach before it is tilled under, and while it’s commendable to preserve the bounty of today for the future, I have to remind myself that there is another crop of greens just around the corner, like the asparagus I now gobble. There’s value in planning ahead, but also in enjoying the moment and letting go as it moves past.

Not all things are equally appreciated and nurtured on the farm. To create, one must make room by destruction. The dead growth of last year is pruned back. The undesirable makes room for the desirable through a series of careful actions.  As the season gets started there is weeding and mulching. After it gets going there is weeding and mulching: you run the risk of neglect if you don’t keep up with your beds. Like anything, if it goes too far it’s harder to remedy later on. The blueberries and chives have been weeded and await mulching. The raspberry paths have been mulched and await weeding. The strawberries and asparagus were freed of ground ivy, dandelion, burdock and morning glory, requiring both perseverance and flexibility in action, which I felt sorely for days.

But the most extreme example of “tough love” here on the farm has got to be “flame weeding”, which we did to beds of carrots seeded in the field (see the top image). We seeded beets on the same day, since they germinate some days before the carrots, it gave us a window of time to burn all of the weeds in the carrot beds, which are a terrible hassle to hand weed as carrot seedlings are fragile and hard to distinguish. So when the beets “knuckled” (when the sprout just breaks out of the seed shell in a little curl), Joshua donned a backpack-mounted, propane tank with nozzle, Megan grabbed some matches and we headed the carrots’ way. The flame sparked and singed budding weeds but also bursts their germinating seeds by boiling the water inside. It was the most rock star moment of farming I had heretofore witnessed.

To this destruction I will contrast the basil, beets, lettuce, greens and cucumbers seeded in the greenhouse. We transplanted beets, onions, chard and spinach from seedling trays to the field—more stretching, more flexibility! Besides the beets and carrots, we direct-seeded a greens mix and peas into field beds. The peas were coated in a pro-biotic mix, giving them a head-start in nitrogen-fixing bacteria, microorganisms that transform atmospheric nitrogen into fixed nitrogen, which is the other basic element that plants need to grow besides water and sunlight. Legume plants (like peas) are the only plants that work with this bacteria. This is why they are often used in “cover cropping” (when crops are planted in a “fallow”, or resting, field to “amend”, or balance, the soil’s nutrient content and texture). My beginner’s curiosity piqued when I was shown an uprooted clump of clover (a legume) with small white nodules dotting its roots: nitrogen! Then I was told the most amazing thing: the only other time that atmospheric nitrogen is fixed in the soil is when lightning strikes it. That’s it, legumes and lightning! Transcendence.

What do we try to transcend except past and current circumstances? We are all products of our environment to some degree. Which brings us to “edge affect” in the greenhouse: when the plants around the edges of the tables or trays dry out first and need extra watering. You want the seedlings to go through a semi-continual cycle of being reasonably wet and then drying out and then being wet again, rather than too wet or too dry for too long. Balance is the optimal condition and life seeks it even in extreme circumstances.  For instance I also learned that a hot pepper’s hotness is a direct embodiment of the heat of its environs. The more hours of full, direct sunlight and dry soil experienced, the more of a toxic defensive chemical called “capsaicin” the plant will produce to ward of mammals (except humans, for whom the hotter, the better), while the bright color attracts birds who spread the seeds, unaffected by the taste. No longer simple ‘peppers’ to me, these plants are concentrated orbs of solar heat growing on the vine.

Nature does her work, and nurturing takes many forms. It’s a careful dance through many steps and stages and pitfalls. This is where the rubber hits the road, or the flame hits the carrots, rather. Patience, attention, curiosity, flexibility, planning, preserving, destroying, appreciating, relinquishing. Applying the best we know in good time and measure while also learning from our mistakes. On the mountain tops and in the valleys. Just another day on the farm.

Photo Credit: Leona Palmer