September 13th, 2010

Clutching Hope, Cultivator in Hand

September has settled in on the Farm as a welcomed reprieve from August’s searing heat, and we’ve been busy planting Fall greens – cutting lettuce, arugula, broccoli raab, savoy spinach, bok choy. All of them holding out the fragile promise of an extended, bountiful season. We may get lucky and have a balmy Fall (we are in Balmville after all!), or be dashed to vegetal purgatory by an early frost.

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A thinned bed of Red Komatsuna, a cool-season Asian mustard green, or bok choy, that’s delicious in salads or stir fry. We planted it when the lettuce was still too hot and bothered to germinate.  For a few recipes, see below.


Nature is a temperamental master. We’re all Pandoras, of course, clutching to hope with cultivator in hand. There would be no growing without the folly of wishful possibility. Every viable seed has a wish in its DNA. It wants that delicious, life-giving cocktail of dirt, water and light to set it loose upon the world.

In the wild, mercurial nature settles the score, and plants thrive or falter as conditions allow. On the Farm, however, conditions are created to maximize odds of survival.  And as seedlings push their hopeful green leaves up from the dirt, full of potential fullness, most are quickly dispatched as we thin the beds.

It’s one of the most Machiavellian chores on the farm. No matter how careful you are when planting seed, particularly tiny dust-in-the-wind lettuce seed, overseeding is routine, and a type of insurance against spotty germination, so unwanted seedlings need to be culled (put to sleep, bumped off, sent to the green beyond). Seedlings that will be allowed to grow into maturity are spared, and competing siblings that have sprouted around them are yanked out with a quick flick of thumb and index finger.“Now I have become Death, the destroyer of Worlds”indeed.

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Cutting lettuce seedlings thinned to conformity and order. We are near West Point, after all.  Ten-hut!


Like their carbon cousins, trees, too, need to be thinned.  Our property, once a forty acre estate landscaped in the picturesque style of the mid-nineteenth century, has an abundance of magnificent specimen trees suitable for an arboretum. But decades of neglect, and no thinning of competing weed trees, has weakened most of the green giants. The forest’s relentless, unmanaged vigor has been its own undoing.

It has fallen upon me – God forbid not literally! – to thin the trees to a manageable few, not only for their own health, but for the health of the Farm. I love trees and have been known to hug them, grope them even, but shade is the enemy of most annual vegetables (excepting lettuce and few others), so this Fall more trees will be come down, destined for the wood pile.

When the wood stove in the barn is sending out its warmth this Winter, and I’m just finishing off the last of the delicious Fall lettuce, I’ll most certainly be grateful for the trees and seedlings that made that moment possible.  –Mb


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