The Spontaneous Urban Farm Outing

Since my arrival in late November, I’ve been pounding the pavement, interviewing, and happily reconnecting with friends, family and colleagues. Best of all, I’ve been discovering neat initiatives that have made their home in Kingston since I lived here thirteen years ago. I’m very glad to be back.

Today—a Thursday—is the least productive I’ve been in nearly a month. Having nothing to do drives me to the edge. Worse, Kingston is dreary at this time of year. The grey of the limestone and the damp in-betweenness of the weather puts me in a mood. I climb into a hot bath, morose.

At 1:55 p.m., I find an unexpected message on my cell phone. “Something to occupy me: oh joy, oh bliss!” I think to myself.

I’m gonna take advantage of warm temps and go to the field this aft. If you’re free, text me back please. Tim.

Hi Tim are you still here or have I missed my chance?

I’m still going. Are you game for a spontaneous urban farm outing? Do you have a bike, or can you easily walk to Oak/Victoria St?

My bike is stored in a Toronto shed just now: I’m definitely missing her, but I don’t mind walking. From where I’m staying, it’s twenty-five minutes to the Oak Street Community Garden. Tim hadn’t been clear about my destination, but I can see a series of large beds in an open space behind the Victoria Street houses. So, Tim’s garden is in a public space.

Tim Lyon is the owner/operator of Main Street Market, one of those neat initiatives I’ve serendipitously tripped over.

http://mainstreetmarket.ca/en/

Main Street Market offers weekly CSA shares basket that includes home-grown veggies, fruit and herbs, as well as other products (like honey) that Tim gets from other local producers. The business element that attracted me is the green delivery: Tim offers delivery by bicycle. I recently told a friend that bikes seem to follow my movements.

“You must love bikes!” she’d suggested when she heard about Tim’s business model.

“No, I’m just a commuter,” I told her, a little distraught at how quickly everyone leaps to this conclusion. “I do like bikes, though. What I really love is how inspired I feel every time I hear a bike story.”

Tim has bike stories.

Arriving at the “farm”, I realize I’ve been making assumptions again—about where an urban farm might fit in this town that I thought I knew so well, about how much Kingston has changed since I left, about how progressive Kingstonians have become.

I used to coach kids’ baseball in Kingscourt, not far from where the Oak Street Community Garden now sits.

OakSCGSign

Tim hasn’t arrived yet, so I wander aimlessly around the plots, checking up on what he’s been growing, and satisfying my inner herbivore—kale, spinach, herbs—it’s been damaged by frost but is making attempts at a comeback. There’s some good eating here. Munching on a delectable kale leaf, I turn round and find Tim grinning at me. I grin back, wondering if I have telltale kale leaf on my teeth.

“You must have visits from the neighbours, curious about what you’re growing here,” I ask him, mortified. “Do you mind if they help themselves?”

“Yes,” Tim sighs. “There’s too much of that. I put out signs that they could take from this plot but not that one, but then I realized how serious the literacy problem still is, and I wonder if there isn’t a better way to handle this.” He looks out across the field, which is incredibly green even now, the first week of December. Tim’s garden is enormously inviting: I couldn’t resist, but then I have a foraging heart that’s been sadly curbed since leaving Newfoundland.

Later, I will Google the community garden and find that it’s associated with OPIRG Kingston. According to the website, “Ontario Public Interest Research Group exists to serve as a training ground for concerned citizens to recognize and engage the problems of society.”

Shed

After collecting two wheel barrows, garden forks and some gloves from the shed, Tim and I walk to the other end of the garden and he points out things that are doing well: the uncovered spinach, the covered spinach—which is doing better than the uncovered—and the kale.

SpinachUncovered Kale

There’s a spiral herb garden. When I ask about the design, Tim tells me it offers better drainage and adds interest. I’m in learning mode, suddenly.

SpiralHerbGarden

Tim pulls a Sunflower Shoots muffin from his pocket. It’s a little squashed, but incredibly delicious.

“These are gluten-free,” he explains. “We baked them this morning.”

Tim is a pragmatist, like me. I don’t care what my food looks like, as much as whether it’s wholesome. And that he’s brought it for me demonstrates kindness. Tim then yanks a beat-up but funky hat from his backpack and pulls it down over his ears against the bitter wind blowing in from the northeast. Looks don’t matter so much to him, either.

Mud

From the same backpack, Tim brings out a bag of edamame that he’s grown.

“I brought this for you, if you want it,” he tells me. When I nod enthusiastically, he says, “I’ll leave it in my backpack for transfer later.” Tim and I originally met through the WWOOFing site (www.wwoof.ca). The muffin and now the edamame are Tim repaying me for my valued time. A thoughtful pragmatist: I admire him.

We start by harvesting the remaining pink sunchokes. I’m learning at a wild rate now: there are white and pink sunchokes? I had white in my Toronto yard, but pink?

Sun chokes, or Jerusalem artichokes, are herbaceous perennials. The Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus) is also called sunroot, and earth apple, and is a species of sunflower native to eastern North America. It’s a tuber so you eat the root.

SunChokesHarvesting2 SunChokesHarvesting
Next, we move to the beds of white sunchokes. These chokes have been planted in mounds, which are a lot easier to harvest that the pink, unmounded ones. You can literally pull up the white tuberous roots by tugging gently on exposed stalk. Hardly any forkwork is required here.

Unfortunately, the field is very wet, so the mud clumps alarmingly to our rakes, giving the harvest a madcap feel. As I galumph between mounds in my mud-caked boots, I laugh.

“What?” asks Tim.

“I have bragging rights,” I tell him, wiping my leaky faucet of a nose. “We have bragging rights,”

I correct myself, offering him a tissue.

Some small animals have been chewing on some of the uncovered chokes, so those ones are only good for making mash. The unchewed ones will be cleaned and then sold to local businesses and farmers’ markets. Tim will also deliver some of his harvest to local soup kitchens.

As we pick up the harvested chokes, Tim and I also pick each other’s brains. He wants to know how long I’ll be in town, what I want to get involved with. Advocacy and writing, I tell him. He’s pleased that I’m keen on bikes, because he’s looking for help with wrenching. We both know Yellow Bike Action (http://opirgkingston.org/projects/yellow-bike-action/). Frontenac Cycle, Cyclepath
Kingston, Gears and Grinds, J & J Cycle, Ted’s. As we trade names, we’re both impressed at how connected I am already, after less than two weeks.

After harvesting some of the chokes, we go back to the rows of uncovered spinach and place plastic covers over the metal frames. Once in place, the edges of the plastic are rolled up. Large rocks hold the plastic rolls in position in each of the four corners, while more rocks rest inside the rolls along the sides.

Sky2 SpinachCovered

Curious, I ask Tim about this implementation. He tells me that it has two purposes. First, any water that accumulates on the plastic runs down into the rolls and collects there as ice. The ice doesn’t have a chance to damage the spinach or the plastic that way.  Second and more important is that the ice becomes heavy in the roll, which then assists the rocks in holding down the plastic against the strong winds that blow across these fields. It’s pretty intelligent farming.

Two hours later, we have three tubs of sunchokes harvested. Hauling the harvest back to the shed, we tie down the heavy tubs on the bike trailer in the dark, hoping that nothing falls off as he rides. Tim has a very common-looking bike hooked up to the trailer.

theBike theTrailer

Impressed with his impending ride home, I ask about the weight he‘ll be pulling behind his bike. Tim tells me that each of the three tubs weighs about sixty pounds. The trailer weighs about seventy or eighty pounds. The green bin, which he brought from home so he could empty the contents onto the compost pile, is still probably twenty. There are three forks, each at about ten pounds. Tim, my height and slender build, is about to drag about three hundred pounds behind him, on a mid-range bike. Looking into his eyes, I realize that I‘ve missed a statistic. He‘s going to do this feat happily.

When I point all this out to him, he says, a little sheepishly, “I left a car at home in the driveway with skis in it, but I prefer to take the bike.”

Tim climbs on his bike and begins the most arduous part of his cycle home: getting the bike through the sodden field and onto the paved road.

“I should have put the winter tires on the bike because these slicks don‘t do very well in the mud,” he explains. Tim guns it to get traction through momentum, and I get behind the trailer and push when I feel resistance. Together, we get the load to the street without too much trouble. We shake hands and he heads off into the night, waving. I begin walking, musing on all that I‘ve learned and on the sense of accomplishment I carry with me. Farming is very satisfying.

Seven minutes into my walk, I notice Tim up ahead unexpectedly, circling the bike on the street and parking on the sidewalk.

“Did you lose something?” I ask, now sorry that I didn‘t do my share of tying down.

“No,” says Tim, a big smile on his face. “I realized I hadn‘t transferred the edamame from my backpack to yours, and I knew you‘d be a fast walker, so I just turned around.”

The thoughtful farmer had come back to repay me for my work today. This ‘urban farm outing’ is the kind of story that keeps me coming back to bikes. It‘s not the bikes I’m in love with, it’s the bike stories. Welcome to Kingston.

by Christine, WWOOFer