Gusto has a temporary new home on an organic farm in rural Vermont, where I will be spending the next six weeks learning how to coax fruits and vegetables from the ground. As a lover of food and a proponent of sustainable agriculture, I felt I needed some practical experience with dirt and a shovel under my belt in order to earn my right to write, so to speak. I found my host Elizabeth through World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF), an organization that has connected hippies, foodies, travelers, and gluttons for punishment with the farmers who love them since the 1970s.
I arrived by train in the nearby town of Castleton yesterday evening, where Elizabeth and her German shepherd Taiga were waiting to pick me up. There was not a single stoplight on the 20-minute drive from the tiny lodge-like train station to the farm (though Elizabeth claims the one blinking light in the center of town counts), but there were plenty of hayfields, birch trees, and cows. The other summer intern, Worrill, was just finishing mixing up a bowl of gingersnap cookie dough when we lurched through the screen door hauling my 60-pound suitcase, guitar, and sundry other possessions. After a bowl of steaming lentil soup with a couple of slices of sourdough bread and a generous glass of red wine, I was ready for bed.
I began my slow ascent up a steep learning curve this morning, when Elizabeth gave me my first task: weeding the cold frames where lettuce, chard, beets, peas, and various herbs were lounging in varying stages of growth and decay. Cold frames are basically large bottomless boxes set on the ground with windows on top that gardeners use to trap sunlight and set plants to growing before they would be able to survive in the bare ground. After the chills of spring have passed, the windows are removed and the plants allowed to soak up the summer sun on their own. As it turns out, telling real plants from weeds is not always easy: Elizabeth spotted me about to yank a spindly English pea seedling from the ground just in time to save the young legume’s life.
Weeding was followed by watering a bed of asparagus, onion, and beet seeds while trying to keep thirsty Taiga from trampling the garden in her pursuit of hose water. Then came pulling up spent lettuce plants, chard plants gone to seed, with roots so thick they resembled a small tree, and old cilantro plants now covered in coriander seed that we will dry and save for future recipes.
After lunch on the porch, I chopped up all those old plants into pieces to throw onto other beds as “food” for new growth. We transplanted tiny butternut squash seedlings from seed trays into a freshly prepared bed, then covered the ground around them with water-logged cardboard and decomposing straw bales to keep weeds from growing. These materials will further decompose as the sun, rain, and worms work their magic over time, producing new soil for future plantings. If you have ever wondered what to feed a worm, try cardboard: every time we lifted a piece that had been lying on the ground for weeks, at least 10 earthworms squirmed beneath it.
Then we made “germinating mix” by combining horse manure compost with food waste compost, peat, and aged sawdust in a wheelbarrow. We mounded rows of this soil inside prepared cold frame beds, and finished the day by planting each row with seeds that will eventually grow into beets, green beans, carrots, arugula, escarole, mesclun, and chard (these last four are all different types of leafy greens). There is a 99% chance of rain tomorrow, so we didn’t bother to water them: the clouds will take care of that for us.