I remember it was four years ago in April when I got them in. Along with the 500 strawberry plants I also got 12 grape vines and 15 or so raspberry brambles. Everything about me was green except my thumb. I had apprenticed the previous two years at Seeds of Hope under Gabriel who had left in the Fall to “get his cabin built before winter.” A little known story is that I wasn’t actually hired for the job after Gabriel left. Another farmer, Eric, who had much more experience was hired and I started working in the food pantry at the office. I wasn’t ready anyway, and I wasn’t the only one who knew that. Around late January Eric was on his way out and I was on my way in. He was heading to another local farm – the Founding Director of which just so happened to be my housemate – and Seeds of Hope kind of fell into my lap. In fact I was no better than third in line for the position after I interviewed, but I’ll save that story; suffice to say fortune was in my favor.
It was one of those Missouri Aprils where the spring pastels were drowned out by endless grey and wet. Even the gigantic forsythia across the road seemed a bit drab, subdued even; the typical golden, effervescent flowers had nothing from above to radiate back so there it sat flat for weeks waiting like me for any little bubble of hope. The fading and falling purple and white flowers of the tulip trees gave way to the red buds and violets as it goes but it all seemed as if nature was nonchalant, indifferent – to human aesthetic appeal, anyway.
Sometime in early April I was sitting in my new office, silently panicking, wondering why in the heck I was hired to manage a farm when I knew nothing about farming. I had never even been on a farm before May, and those who know anything about it know the season begins in January, generally speaking, though really it never ends. Anyways, there I was twiddling my thumbs on another rainy day when I noticed Eric had left a sticky note on the file cabinet. It was for IndianaBerry.com and it was a login and password. I realized – right about then, I guess – that Eric before he left had told me he ordered some plants that would arrive in April. I logged in and saw that I had those five hundred plus plants coming in on Friday of that week. The ground was soggy and there was nothing but rain in the forecast so I called and asked them to push back the delivery date, which they couldn’t do because they’d already been shipped.
I had about a week to get the dormant plants in, or so I recall from the instructions they mailed with the plants, so long as I kept the roots moist. There was a section along the western edge of the main field near the neighbor’s red bud tree that I had tilled prior the farm becoming a slop. I was able to get two north and south beds planted with two hundred or so plants. It was way too muddy to plant or do anything really and it took lord knows how long, but there wasn’t a choice that day. Mud was sticking everywhere, a trowel was useless and I was miserable out in the cold and rain on my hands and knees for hours – I guess nature was breaking me in. After planting those two beds I snuck some more plants into a nearby section that runs east/west, two or three shorter 30 foot beds that had just had their first crop harvested the previous fall; they were carrots, I remember. Anyways I somehow got about 350 of the plants in and the rest I sent down to another farm site we had in Bel-Ridge for planting there. The grape and raspberry cuttings went in that week as well, but that’s a tale for a different day.
This is our third year of harvest. It’s hard work. Every other day at 6 AM crawling around on your hands and knees for a few hours, in the wet grass, with the mosquitoes pricking your face and the buffalo gnats flying kamikaze missions up your nostrils and into your eyeballs for some unknowable reason. Searching around in a sea of perky, saw-toothed leaves for the little red ruby’s that are just right, plucking them off one by one, careful not to bruise or slip a fingernail into it, and putting it gently into the pint container. Years ago when I picked strawberries as an apprentice I found it monotonous. But it isn’t. To do it well on this scale takes focus, dexterity, body control, honed muscles, flexibility, keen eyesight, experience and a fair bit of determination – especially when the gnats start gnawing on you.
The planting was more of a controlled crash landing than anything and I’ve read and been told of all the ways you’re supposed to care for your berry plants. You’re supposed to mulch them; you’re supposed to mow them; you’re supposed to thin them; you’re supposed to fertilize them – but I haven’t done any of that. I’ve just watched them grow. The beds have changed shape, grown together, conquered new ground in some areas, lost some ground in others. Dock weed pokes up here and there, it’s large seedhead towers ominous above the short strawberry plants, threatening to really disrupt the operation if those potent seeds take hold. Poison ivy and violets are creeping in on one section, and a small grove of goldenrod somehow snuck in and got established. It’s already four feet tall. Nature, having quite the sense of humor, teasingly (I assume) planted false strawberries all around the patch, too. But still every April as that watchful red bud sheds her magenta hue the berry plants spring back to life and open their little white flowers to us: the select, lucky few in this world who know the best berries to be found are tucked back in that little nook.
Over the past three years we’ve have good strawberry crops. Number-wise I have no idea if this is true, I don’t have anything to compare it to, but we’ve had plenty of berries for what we need. But they’ve surely got to be the tastiest strawberries this side of the river. I’m convinced of that. And that’s what counts right? Havin’ just enough of a good thing? Seems like I’ve done everything wrong with these plants, or just mostly done nothin’ at all. Maybe that’s the secret? Maybe a little less farmin’ and a little more watchin’ is the way to go about things. In some ways I feel like that strawberry patch. I wasn’t ready to go into that field either, but I did. It was someone else who like me was in a pinch and said a prayer and grabbed me and threw me in the ground. It was a surprise; there was no plan. I’m thankful for it. So are those plants. That place sure has changed me, too. I have a little footprint there among the oaks, and that little garden is stitched into my soul.
When did this happen? Wednesday night I guess. We’ve been hot, humid and dry all week but I heard some thunder Wednesday night. Ground looked wet in spots but it didn’t feel at all like an inch of rain. Guess I need to break a few more bones so my aches’ll tell me when the rains comin’. Weatherman said a hurricane is blowin’ through Monday night so we’ll have to make sure everything is tied down real good.
What I’m Eating
Strawberry Lemon Kombucha, what else? My friend and I recently began brewing kombucha thanks to some help from a friend of the farm. It’s been a great experience and very easy and inexpensive to get started. If you’re interested I’d really encourage you to start brewing it, especially now as I find it wholly refreshing on hot days. There’s tons of information online and I’m a beginner myself, but I’d say just pick the method that seems easiest to you and go with it.