Friday August 28, 2015
I can’t help myself. I want to spread the word that happiness exists right here on Earth for almost anyone. This of course is what goes through my head and in my delusional mind that everybody shares the same likes as me or just has not figured it out yet. I’ve decided that it is my job to spread the word and educate their ignorance. I’m talking about the joys of the soil, plants, animal friends and all that goes with a farm. I’m not suggesting that people go out and buy a farm, have the means to do that or even the desire. My vision is for people to incorporate some version of that life that fits into theirs.
I find myself bringing pots filled with soil and tomato plants to friends with balconies as house warming gifts instead of wine (I am noticing fewer invites to these things…). I love planting lettuce for my friends’ kids in their backyard and getting picture texts weeks later of them picking the matured greens. And yes, I preach about the benefits of chickens and argue they could fit anywhere. Apartment on the 23rd floor in Manhattan? No problem. Just think about it. Fresh eggs! Recycled vegetable scraps! Fewer trips to the dumpster! (I downplay the manure in this situation). I scan the world looking for situations to bring farm life into people’s routines.
By the end of first year of owning the restaurant, before I had anywhere to plant, the stress of small business ownership was getting to me. Long days led to long nights and somehow my waistline size increased. Life became work and work became life. I was missing an outlet and just when I was about to crack, a community garden saved me. For years I had tried to get into one in LA and for some reason it is harder to get a plot than get into the hottest club in Hollywood. I think the gardening angels saw my struggle and gently nudged my car down an obscure street that lead to a new garden. I applied, waited and luckily was granted a 15 by 4 foot bed that I dreamt of filling with everything including my built up work stress. And it worked.
I would wake up early just to rush to that little piece of heaven before work and right back when the day was done sometimes just to sit there and watch things grow. My community garden became an education. People from all types of backgrounds had plots and I learned about new-to-me varieties of peppers from my Thai neighbors, crazy good herbs from my Latino friends and a fantastic way to trellis plants from a crotchety old southern woman. I also learned that Borage spreads like crazy and not to plant it in a small plot. It really was a community with harvest BBQs, parties and characters. Even a garden smack dab in the middle of the city had its challenges. Raccoons would dig for grubs upending new plantings, there was an occasional tomato thief and I found a way to discourage our local alley cat from thinking my plot was his personal litter box. Boy did that cat eat a lot! I produced so much food from that little plot by using intensive planting methods and realized that our garden was a perfect example of excellent permaculture with the diversity happening in the neighboring beds. I told anyone who would listen about the benefits of the community garden and for just ten bucks a month I had the cheapest therapist in town. But best of all my work/home life started to find that great balance and I really do believe it saved me.
I was lucky enough to sponsor a plot for a local homeless teen shelter. Each week the kids would come to work their plot with me. You know when people say they have life changing moments; well this was one of them. In the beginning, the kids were shy and reserved but as we talked about plants they started to open up. I loved how rosemary brought back memories of one child’s time working in the garden with her grandmother. Tender summer beans awakened the warm memory of Aunty Madge’s soup and the smell of wet tomato plants lit up the eyes of one particularly quiet child. I watched most of them blossom working in the soil and loved how connecting kids to where their food came from really made sense. I like to think they will make better food choices in their futures.
My constant soapbox preaching of farm life is starting to work. My friends Frank and Trish have started keeping chickens in their small backyard in the middle of San Francisco. I get excited when they call with chicken related, and sometimes weird, questions. I felt like as I was there with them as they experienced the joy of their first egg. My sister-in-law planted the fruit trees I sent her for her birthday and I am rewarded with pictures of spring flowers that will soon become food. I look forward to the description of the taste of her first home grown plum. My proudest accomplishment so far is the awakening of my lifelong best friend Brad’s love of growing food that he never knew he had. He runs his own business, has three kids and a fantastic wife, and yet manages to find time to grow veggies. It all started with the seemingly innocent suggestion to put a tomato plant in his food barren backyard. Man has my friend come a long way. The kid now starts his own seeds, become an avid composter and graduated to a full sized backyard bed AND a 500 square foot plot in the local community garden. His kids work the gardens with him and his wife cans and freezes veggies that last throughout the year. I am still working on her to put in a chicken coop out back but no success yet. He is my greatest student so far.
My not so hidden motive is connection. When friends or even strangers create their own version of the farm I feel closer to them. We have something in common and I love hearing about their adventure. I’m there with them when they get that first tomato, pick that bunch of flowers and really enjoy the most satisfying meal that they grew themselves. I love how reconnecting people to where their food comes from and the land educates all of us. It makes us better stewards of this place we call home and forces us to want to take better care of it. Maybe it seems a bit selfish but I want the joy that I get from it to be shared by all even if it comes in the form of the tiniest pot of basil on the kitchen sink. The Starter Farm is spreading and I want everyone to have some version of it.