The Gardenless Season?

I haven’t started a single thing under lights this year, nor have I planted a seed (or a potato tuber, or anything else) in the ground.

I haven’t ordered any new seed (though I have a plentiful supply on hand). Seed inventory took place just after the new year, and although I made notes about what to order, I never followed through.

In a typical year, I’d start leeks and onions mid-February–March 1st at the latest. Peppers and eggplant (and perennial herbs and flowers) would be next, followed by tomatoes a few weeks later, then cabbages, broccoli, lettuce, etc. By this time in a normal season, I’d be running low on seed-starting mix and castigating my worms at how slowly they were turning kitchen scraps into fertilizer for the next batch. I’d be poking around the pea patch daily, looking for signs of sprouting, and the spinach and arugula would be up under the row covers.

The fact that I haven’t sown a single radish might seem even stranger since I’m back at the farmstead where I ran a 20-family CSA and market garden business. My vermicompost bin is here, and my light shelf (though not in the house, nor assembled), and there’s a bale of peat and bags of PBH (parboiled rice hulls–for loft and drainage) in the storage unit. I’ve got flats and cell packs as well as soil block makers. My tools are here, too. So what the hell am I waiting for?

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Spring 2008 Market Gardens
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Another View Through the Mulberries
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Fall Cleanup West Garden 2008

This morning on Facebook, I saw a “memory” from five years ago–a post from this day on a former blog wherein I reported building four raised beds for the backyard of a house I was renting in a little town in Minnesota. There was landscape rock to remove on a flower bed in front, and also another field garden of about 600 square feet to cultivate in back. In the post, I was relating how many gardens I’d built and then left behind (spoiler: I left that one, too, when the house burned while I was visiting family back East). I even said something about maybe getting too old to keep doing that.

And that, my friends? That was three built-then-left gardens ago.

And these were no mere 100-square-foot plots. The next one was composed of four raised beds (the same ones–friends helped me lift the frames and move them across town to my new place) plus two newly-developed 20×80′ field gardens. That’s nearly 3400 square feet of growing space. Then the farm, with 18 raised beds, a 40×40′ lower field garden, plus a 30×30′ upper field garden newly cultivated last year (and in which my fall-planted garlic crop presently resides).

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One of the two 20×80′ plots, Clinton, MN 2012
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June 2014 Raised Bed & Lower Field Garden at the Farm

I guess if I was getting too old for this five years ago, then I wouldn’t have gone on to do even more in subsequent years. I could say that this year is different because I was moving during most of February and much of March–except that I moved to the aforementioned rental house in mid-March of 2011 and it burned in early August, and I still had a full garden there. I simultaneously managed both the Clinton house gardens and developed the farm gardens, helped with house renovations, moved (and helped my husband move) in the spring of 2013. So, I know it’s entirely possible to start seeds and plan a garden even in the process of moving.

But maybe this year, instead of just getting older, I am getting (OK–trying to get) wiser about garden development. As in, not doing so much, so quickly, and then having so much ground to manage and food to process. So much stress when there’s a window of good weather to plant, but the equipment isn’t working or there’s a work project taking precedence or some damn other thing is getting in the way of what absolutely needs to be done in the gardens right this bloody second ARRRRRRGH!

And then, there’s this:

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This is what the old market gardens look like now.

I hesitated a little to even show these images because I don’t want the people who grew here last year to feel bad about it (even though they’ve already told me they feel bad about it–don’t feel bad about it!). Life happens. In their case, a baby happened. And when a baby happens…well, this can happen, too.

And it’s totally, completely OK. Because it also happened to make me less inclined to make myself crazy about an acre or so of ground that might be better off planted into cover crop and maybe some fruit trees next year. And yeah, I will probably till some up and throw in some potatoes. And I may have pulled a couple of flats and some other seed starting supplies out of the storage unit last night. And a few boxes of seed out of my stash. And I might do a little, but I won’t do it all. And that is also totally, completely OK.

Because what I’ve decided about this place, and also about myself, is that it’s time to take a lot broader view than a perfectly cultivated garden on a little patch of ground. There’s a lot more that I could do–both on this 90 acres and in the world and my life, too. It’s just not worth making myself crazy about regaining “control” over a little patch of ground when I could be developing a plan that, over time, would improve the whole in ways that slowly, methodically, eventually, work to the benefit of everything that lives here (OK–except the brome and cedars–death to the brome and cedars).

Although it will be a season of less garden, it will not be altogether gardenless. And it will be full of beauty and appreciation nonetheless.

Now, then. Time to start some seeds.

Settled In

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The past two months have brought many changes–from terminating my position at a well-respected sustainable food and farming non-profit, to leaving my second marriage, my little farm and gardens and flocks, the rural food co-op I tried to help steer out of rocky financial waters for the [second? third?] time, to exiting Minnesota–the state I called home for over five years.

I’ve come back to Southeast South Dakota, to a community I’ve called home more often than not over the past two decades, and specifically to a site I came to know while tending market gardens for my CSA and farmers market customers.

It took a couple of years to exorcise my feelings for this farm after I moved away: I wept more than once–occasionally, to my embarrassment, in front of complete strangers–while describing the process of leaving. Now, I’m embarrassed to reveal how little I knew it, having in the past weeks taken a fuller measure of its acres of bluffs and ravines on long jaunts with the dog, and hours spent cutting invasive cedars and searching for the skeletons of remnant prairie forbs poking through the thick mat of brome. Then, I only had eyes for the few acres of soil I turned and tended.

Since the announcement of my impending return, a number of friends and acquaintances have expressed their pleasure over the fact, and have suggested that we get together when I am “settled in.” Granted, I have been on the road frequently, and back up in Minnesota almost every week (last week more than once) to retrieve my belongings and tie up loose ends. On Super Tuesday, I left in the mid-afternoon, drove the three and a half hours up to the old farm, filled the car with art and houseplants (and enjoyed a convivial glass of wine with my ex), then headed to Clinton to caucus before turning south again–arriving back where I’d started an hour before that day turned to the next.

My landing here is potentially temporary, so “settled in,” to me, is approximately where I am now. Not quite all my possessions are relocated, but the dog and cats are with me, and my houseplants sitting in front of a sunny window. My tractor and most of the garden tools still need fetching,. and I’m trying to figure the logistics of transporting the greenhouse spans. I don’t have a job yet, but I offered myself up for a few shifts at a little fair trade shop in town, after sensing from the ladies who work there the same friendly tension I felt as manager of the primarily volunteer-run co-op I left in Minnesota: How soon is too soon to pounce on a potential new volunteer?

One of the volunteers I trained before I left, who had recently moved back to the area after many years away, shared that the transition had been more difficult than she’d imagined. Sure, she knew a lot of people from her youth, and even people who, like her, had gone off to the Cities to pursue careers and then returned–to retire, to care for aging parents, to settle the farm affairs. But, weaving herself back into the fabric of life in that small rural community, where relationships and social circles and guest lists were so, well, settled in, was difficult.

She ended up finding more comfort in the new relationships she kindled than in the ones she’d counted on from the past. It turned out for her that settling in meant something very different than she’d envisioned–letting go of those who had built up a surfeit of rich relationships without her, and creating a vibrant new network of people who, like her, wanted to share ideas and experiences they’d gained while away.

Armed with that experience, and others like it (while not implying any disingenuousness on the part of friends), it occurs to me that settling in can function counter to expectations–the more “settled” a person is, the less likely they are to form or re-kindle relationships, and the more likely they¬† have established new patterns that exclude. For that reason, and my tendency toward restiveness, I am determined to avoid settling in for as long as possible.

To wit: a recently planned excursion to the New Mexico/Arizona border area to visit a few ecological restoration organizations and projects–on a route that crosses paths with the Sandhill Crane migration in progress, and near the lekking grounds of Greater Prairie Chickens. More than the grand vistas of the canyons and deserts (which are exciting in themselves), these moments of witness, and of connecting with people who are working to heal and protect the environment are what I yearn for most of all.

But, of course, I’ll be returning to my South Dakota roost from that adventure (and others, I hope)–not to settle necessarily, but to seek out new connections, new understanding, and a deeper knowledge of this place I once believed I knew so well.