Garcia’s Gardens

One of the great things about freelancing is coming into contact with the coolest people: farmers.

A story assignment recently took me out to the eastern edge of Marion County to meet Daniel Garcia, proprietor of Garcia’s Gardens. This suburban Lawrence farm takes up most of the Garcia family’s back yard and is overlooked by their neighbors’ subdivision houses.

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This photo was taken in late fall, showing the crops that Daniel was going to protect through the winter.

“Do you ever wonder if people are looking out their windows at you while you farm?” I asked him when he took me on a midwinter tour of his grounds. We were looking under row covers at salad greens and “the babyest of baby spinach” as he put it.

“I hope so,” he quipped, “because nobody is ever outside, except for the occasional smoker.”

For someone who grew up working in his Mexican-born dad’s huge garden in northwest Indiana, and took a job picking strawberries at age 12, it’s hard to fathom why people would never show their faces outside. “Everybody’s always indoors. It’s weird,” he says with a shrug.

He says some of his neighbors think he’s crazy, but one older couple gets it. “When we first got our chickens,” he says, “they were like, ‘oh I used to tend my chickens and we used to have a big garden.’ I think they really like what I do.”

Chefs and customers like it too. In addition to direct customer sales, Daniel supplies restaurateurs who love his carrots, Asian greens, heirloom tomatoes, and green onions, just to name a few. Because of the size of his enterprise (he farms intensively on about half an acre) he can pay close attention to the quality of his produce.

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Daniel checking under the hood of his 1940s-era David Bradley two-wheeled tractor.

One of the interesting things about this particular farm is Daniel’s use of a walk-behind David Bradley tractor, which dates back to the 1940s. He says it works like a mechanical mule with tires, and runs on a three-horsepower engine like a lawnmower’s. Just about any farm implement that would be hooked up to a regular tractor has its matching implement for this one-axle machine. Using it to keep weeds at bay allows Daniel to avoid chemical herbicides, which he’s committed to doing.

When I asked him if he felt like he was helping to keep history alive by using the David Bradley, he said, “I think so, a little bit—I hope it’s not like a curse!” He’s one of many organic farmers using this type of tractor—and some use it even for planting seeds.

Daniel takes his produce to the Fishers Winter Market and also sells it through stores like the Good Earth. Spring through fall, he can be found at numerous outlets, including the Irvington Farmers Market, which is where I met him. I believe we bonded over kohlrabi or some such thing, and I was struck by the joy he radiated, standing there in his veggie booth. Here is a man who loves what he does, I thought.

Later I got to meet his sweet family and hang out with them and their dog Gonzo (Gonzo Garcia, love it!). I got to crunch a freshly pulled carrot, and even made off with some delectable chickweed, as I wrote about here.

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One of the best parts of working at home instead of in a corporation, as he did a few years ago, is more time with his daughters.

I know I’m not alone in appreciating the fact that people like Daniel are out there growing healthy food in innovative ways. Today I learned that Grist Magazine has honored another farmer I met “on the job,” Ben Hartman of Clay Bottom Farm. More on him in a later post!

To Pause and Give Thanks

Gratitude is not just a seasonal thing for me. I look to be aware of the blessings in my life all the time, the better to enjoy them. Lately I’ve been taking a few minutes before I eat a meal (when I remember to!) to celebrate all the contributors to my food.

I will look down at a humble bowl of oatmeal with raisins and almond butter and pause for a second. I will think (or say), Thank you! I love you I love you I love you! And then, if I feel like I have the wherewithal in this moment, I get focused and consider:

  • the farmers responsible for growing these oats, grapes, and almonds
  • the bees that pollinated them
  • the sun and rain
  • the worms and microscopic wee buggies that do so much unseen
  • the people involved in processing and transporting
  • the folks at my local food coop where I bought these foods.

Thank you, I love you!

What’s really fun is to look down at a meal and realize how many personal connections it embodies. I’ll think: Oh yum, I get to eat Amy’s spinach (from South Circle Farm) or Randy’s squash (from Stout’s Melody Acres). The celebration feels even more expansive when I know my farmer. And the food tastes better too.

Today’s lunchtime moment: thanking Earl (Blue River Natural Foods) and his pastured hens for the beautiful eggs, Laura (dear friend) for the tomatillos that went into my salsa verde, Matthew (Big City Farms) for the gorgeous carrots.

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Local eggs cooked cooked “over hard” and topped with homemade salsa verde, with dilly carrots and spicy sauerkraut on the side.

Also Joshua and the folks at Fermenti Artisan for the spicy Latin American kraut known as curtido. And…myself for the small part I played in planting and harvesting dill from Seven Steeples Farm, where I sometimes help out Mike, the farm manager.

Thank you, I love you!

No matter where the food comes from though, this mindful, grateful state brings texture to a meal. A good thing, to pause and give thanks.

Fomenting the Ferment

Fermentation on Wheels rolled into town over the weekend. Tara Whitsitt has been driving her mobile fermentation lab cross country since October 2013. As soon as I heard she was coming to Indy, I knew I had to make it to one of her events.

Fermentation on Wheels, a 1986 International Harvester school bus converted to a mobile fermentation lab

Fermentation on Wheels, a 1986 International Harvester school bus converted to a mobile fermentation lab

Tara’s mission is to initiate more people into the wonderful world of fermented foods (like sourdough breads, kefir, sauerkraut, wine, and kombucha). So far her tricked-out bus has traveled over 12,000 miles to share the love.

Tara with pawpaw vinegar

Tara with pawpaw vinegar

Saturday she did a fermentation workshop, which I hear was fabulous. Sunday evening, Seven Steeples Urban Farm (see my earlier blog post about them here) hosted a potluck and culture exchange. That’s where we met Tara and her beautiful kitty.

Tara's cat Franklin is her traveling companion.

Tara’s cat Franklin is her traveling companion.

We had a terrific meal together that included loads of fermented drinks and veggies, some from the pros: Joshua Henson of Fermenti Artisan brought cultured ramps and daikon radishes, along with water kefir lemonade and a bunch of other delicious stuff. There was also a popular fermented drink called beer.

After we ate, it was time to check out the bus.

Inside the bus, where all kinds of groovy stuff ferments!

Inside the bus, where all kinds of groovy stuff ferments!

“I really want to spur the movement of getting back in the kitchen and doing things with our own hands instead of relying on other people to do it for us,” Tara told us.

All across the country, she’s been partnering with farmers and homesteaders to turn local harvests into something out-of-this-world delicious. People give her their home-canned peaches, for example, and bushels of chili peppers. She dried the chilis and used them in kim chee, and they are also a key ingredient in her peach-habanero mead.

Peach habanero wine-in-the-making

Peach habanero mead-in-the-making, with blackberry mead at left

We sampled kombucha, miso, and a mysterious drink of Tibetan origin called “jun.” (Instead of the black tea and sugar that make up kombucha, jun favors green tea and honey.)

We sniffed three types of sourdough starter, each with a different backstory. For example, the Alaskan sourdough came from a person in Portland whose great-grandmother had made it in the 1900s in Alaska. White flour and milk were the original ingredients, and that’s what Tara feeds it to this day. The starter is a key ingredient in creamy sourdough hotcakes favored by Alaskans.

No wonder she calls her starter cultures “heirloom” cultures: They’re completely different from something purchased online, typically made in laboratories.

Eating food from a starter passed down for generations is like wrapping your grandmother’s Afghan around you. Versus a Kmart coverlet. One is imbued with love and history. The other with factory threads and who-know-what labor injustice.

IMG_4728I wish I could say I had something terribly cool to swap with Tara, but she wasn’t all that keen on my dairy kefir grains (of unknown origin: a friend of a friend gave them to me). So, I purchased a rye starter that hails from Brooklyn. As we speak, I’ve got sourdough rye bread dough fermenting on the counter. I’m using Tara’s instructions and recipe: Fingers crossed!

The Miracle of Seeds

I’ve been thinking about how tenacious life is, encapsulated in a tiny seed. Some seeds I plant, but others sprout all on their own.

I’m probably the only person on my block who gives a cheer when she sees these coming up.

Lamb's quarters

Lamb’s quarters

These are lamb’s quarters, considered a weed, but deliberately planted two years ago in my garden. This is the second year they will have reseeded, and I can’t wait to taste them again when they get a little bigger. (They’re terrific fried crispy in my cast-iron skillet, with a couple eggs cracked over them. And incredibly energizing, as all edible weeds are.)

Here is part of another patch of self-sowing plants that are on their third (or fourth?) year of growing freely in my garden: arugula.

Arugula volunteers in leaf mulch

Arugula “volunteers” in leaf mulch

I wasn’t sure they would come up this year because I mulched so heavily last fall with shredded leaves. But lo: I pull away the top layer and find them rooted right in the leaf mold.

Miracles like these show up all the time, if we know to look.

“There is no way to re-enchant our lives in a disenchanted culture except by becoming renegades from that culture and planting the seeds for a new one.”

Thomas Moore, author and psychotherapist

Perhaps growing food for people in need would fall under this “renegade” notion? Here is a seedling started by a southern Indiana farmer and planted by a volunteer for the Hoosier Hills Food Bank.

Cabbage seedling planted by a volunteer at a food bank garden

Cabbage seedling planted by a volunteer at a food bank garden

And one more: Late last fall I blogged about starting Austrian winter peas and my happiness at their growth in cold weather. They are generally not grown for a pea harvest, but intended as a cover crop with benefits—pea shoots are sweet and tender.

They didn’t do much during the winter, but this spring they are the healthiest of plants in my garden. I have snipped them nearly every day as salad and smoothie additions, and they are growing as fast as I can cut!

Austrian winter peas in spring

Austrian winter peas in spring

With seeds on my mind, no wonder this statement in a new mother’s Facebook post snagged my attention:

“I did not know until I got pregnant that the first organ to develop is the heart. It’s as if a heart seed gets planted and from the heart grows the human.”

Laura Henderson, founder of Growing Places Indy

Miraculous.

Love Where You Live

I asked for a magnifying glass in my Christmas stocking this year. I’d just read Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s excellent book Crow Planet, in which she advocates becoming a “citizen naturalist.” I aspire to that: to take the time to look closely at nature, right here in the urban habitat. (She takes up a similar theme in The Urban Bestiary, which I enjoyed just as much.)

I wish I’d had the magnifying glass with me the other day when I was walking my dog and spotted the first yellow crocuses popping up. I could have fallen on my knees in front of them. I love the beauty of winter, but after days on end of white/gray/black/brown, that splooch of color just about knocks me out.

Photo by Vincent de Groot, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Vincent de Groot, via Wikimedia Commons

Wendell Berry has written of the importance of “backing out of the future into the present, where we are alive, where we belong.” As we make this shift, he says, we also move our focus from an abstraction called “the environment” into the places where we actually live.

This makes sense. When I co-founded the Irvington Green Initiative some years back, we settled on the tagline “Love Where You Live.”

The notion was echoed by my friend Maggie Goeglein Hanna, executive director of Fall Creek Gardens Urban Growers Resource Center. In a recent conversation, she said:

“I feel like you can’t really expect people to care about the natural world if they have no investment in their own place … In my mind, environmental solutions aren’t going to come if we’re only concerned about the pandas in China or the rainforest in the Amazon. Those are important things, but so is our own place, and it won’t ever get better if we all don’t take care of our own place.”

She went on to say that organic gardening in a community setting, as at Fall Creek Gardens, is a way of “opening up the conversation.” Finding earthworms in ground that used to be compacted dirt, watching a family of mockingbirds, planting seeds—all of these root us in the soil that nurtures us.

So with spring officially just hours away (wahoo!) (at least in the northern hemisphere), I’m doing more than planning this year’s garden. I’m renewing my commitment to enjoying the place where I live, and to observing the creatures and plants that share it with me.

What about you: What does it mean to love where you live?

Seven Steeples Farm

Last month I got to meet Justin Berg and Mike Higbee, who are doing something I admire: turning unused urban land into an agricultural oasis. As with many such endeavors, they glean local materials to build soil—leaves from curbside refuse, manure from the police department’s Mounted Patrol stables.

What’s unique about this urban farm, though, is that it’s being built atop the pulverized remains of an old mental institution.

Seven Steeples Farm

Seven Steeples Farm

To anyone growing up in Indy, as I did, “Central State” was synonymous with the loonybin. We all knew that it was an insane asylum, back in the day, and as late as 1994 it was still operating as a psychiatric facility.

The enormous campus fell into disuse after Central State Hospital closed, but recently the site has been redeveloped into Central Greens urban village. Part of the project includes Seven Steeples Farm, so-called because the 5-acre parcel being farmed is on the footprint of a building called Seven Steeples, where women were institutionalized.

The building was demolished midcentury, and apparently is now buried under the vast lawn area where Justin and Mike have begun growing produce for the past year. Sheltering old trees that must have borne witness to all kinds of pain still stand, shading the chicken run and outdoor classroom area.

I have to say, this thing has lit my imagination in surprising ways. I’ve read The Yellow Wallpaper and other stories of “madwomen in the attic.” How easy it was to cart women away for any infraction back when this asylum was established (1850s.) I can think of several reasons why I myself, in an earlier era, could have gotten myself tossed in there.

And what sort of “treatment” did the women undergo, inside the walls of Seven Steeples?

It feels to me like a major healing of an old wound to have an urban farm there. Community volunteers (and patrons) enjoy a peaceful setting smack in the middle of a somewhat sketchy part of town. The food is accessibly priced so that people living in the middle of a food desert can have a decent choice of nourishment.

Justin Berg, farm manager, and Mike Higbee, project coordinator, with lady friend

Justin Berg, farm manager, and Mike Higbee, project coordinator, with lady friend

Visitors love to sit on the stumps next to the chicken run and just get on “chicken time.”

The farm has announced 2015 CSA (community supported agriculture) plans, and will also have a weekly farm stand to sell eggs and produce. (More info: info@sevensteeplesfarm.com or 317-713-9263.)

Justin says, “Call to set up a tour, and everyone’s more than welcome to come by the farm stand if they’re in the area. They can grab up some produce and come check out what a rural setting could look like in the city.”

See my Farm Indiana piece for more on this project.

Expanding the Medicine Chest with Herbs

Last week I spent a sunny afternoon working an herb garden while learning more about the uses of medicinal herbs. My friend Greg Monzel is a community herbalist who’s helped many (including me) with natural medicines that he grows, gathers, and prepares. Another friend, Dawn Ryan, also helped with Greg’s culinary herb garden in exchange for several transplants.

We started with homemade herbal tea in the kitchen, where Greg’s son charmed the socks off us.

Ready for action

Ready for action

Since moving to this property, Greg’s had all his herbs in the “back 40.” Our goal was to help transplant culinary herbs to a kitchen garden right outside the back door.

To the back 40, with Greg's dog Timber eager to show us the way.

To the back 40, with Greg’s dog Timber eager to show us the way.

His ingenious plan: to keep a slight trench running the length of the bed, starting near the hose and slanting slightly toward the opposite end. With cornstalks laid in as slowly-decomposing organic matter, the trench will allow for ease of watering. Prepping the bed was our first task.

Planting cilantro in front of the trench

Planting cilantro in front of the trench

Then, over lunch of butternut squash soup and salad straight out of the garden, we talked about medicinal herbs. Greg produced a book called The Herbal Medicine-Maker’s Handbook, which included a list of the most useful herbs. I realized I already have several of these in my garden, though I only actively use one. (We have a passionflower growing up our fence. I cut the vines in fall to dry into a calming tea. That’s after we—and the bumblebees—enjoy the blooms all summer.)

A maypop planted along our fence, one of many plantings inspired by permaculture

Passionflower in summer. We thought we were growing it  for its fruit, but for me, it’s all about the tea!

And did you know that many culinary herbs also have medicinal function? Greg gave the example of sage: It dries up things like colds and post-nasal drip. This makes me happy to host three large sage “bushes,” which we periodically snip for seasoning and smudging.

Later, after we’d dug up and moved sage, lavender, thyme, parsley, and the like, it was time to make our selections from Greg’s herbs. I chose creeping thyme, feverfew, valerian, motherwort, pennyroyal, spearmint, yarrow, and a lovely wild mint that has been going strong for a couple generations now. Greg’s Dad first brought it into his garden, and Greg took starts of it, and now is giving starts away.

Herbalist and son showing us medicinal herbs

Herbalist and son showing us medicinal herbs

That’s the way of gardeners, isn’t it? In fact, the day reminded me an awful lot of hanging out with my Dad in his garden on a fall day. He’d divide plants and offer them to me and any of my friends who expressed the slightest interest.

Dawn and I worked together the next day, figuring out where to tuck in our new babies, giving them a good start. It felt great to expand the resilience of my home medicine chest, especially in such good company. And maybe someday soon I will have starts to give away myself.

diggin