By Lindsay Arbuckle
Every day at 3 am, I wake up, stumble downstairs, throw on a coat and boots, and trudge out to the greenhouse to feed the woodstove. The stove is the sole source of night time heat in our greenhouse, which houses the baby plants that we sell to home gardeners and seedlings that we’ll transplant at our farm field in West Rutland.
My other half, Scott, has a knack for building fires. He makes sure the stove is roaring from dusk to midnight. Since I have a knack for falling asleep under adverse circumstances, I take the shift in the wee morning hours.
This labor of love lasts only a month or two each spring, depending on the weather, but this period is crucial to our farm’s success every year. Most of our main crops, like tomatoes and peppers, are started in the greenhouse rather than sowing the seeds directly in the field. Also, our leased land at Boardman Hill Farm has heavy soils that are often wet in the spring. Working the soil too early could damage it for decades to come. Last year, the field was tilled and ready for planting on April 8th. The year before: May 23rd. This is the nature of farming, and as farmer Greg Cox would say, “Control is an illusion.” So we wait patiently for warm, breezy days that will dry out the soil and instead focus on greenhouse production for spring income.
Like infants and small children, baby plants need to be nurtured with keen attention and awareness. When kids are hungry or sleepy, they let us know. Similarly, baby plants that are thirsty, light deprived, too cold, or too warm will give us signals to remedy the situation. With proper care in the early stages, both humans and plants are more likely to lead strong and healthy lives. This is what I keep in mind on the mornings when waking up at 3 am feels like a medieval torture ritual.
But most nights, this feels like a small sacrifice to make in exchange for healthy plants. The thousands of tiny seeds we plant this spring will generate thousands of pounds of fresh vegetables later this season. Those tiny eggplant seeds that have now morphed into baby plants? In little more than three months, the plants will be loaded with shiny-skinned, heavy fruits. Our crop of eggplant, which began as a bunch of seeds that fit easily into my palm, will stretch to cover hundreds of feet in the field, and will yield hundreds of pounds of food. This amazing transformation—from sun, water, soil, and seed, to food—is what continually inspires us to be farmers at Alchemy Gardens.
Even more inspiring are the seeds that have been saved and handed down for generations. We have several varieties of heirloom tomatoes that were originally brought to the Rutland area by Italian immigrants and have now been kept alive for decades by devoted home gardeners. These varieties have names like Menduni, Pratico, and P. Lunghi Giallo. We don’t know their whole stories, but we like to imagine someone in Rutland many years ago, holding those tomato seeds in the palm of his or her hand, and later, harvesting bushels of ripe fruit.
I like to imagine that Scott’s great-great-grandfather Arthur Courcelle may have been one of those people. Like most people of that era, his family had a large vegetable garden. He was the proprietor of Courcelle Flower Shop in Rutland, starting in the late 1800s. The business operated two large glass greenhouses and flourished for nearly 100 years before it closed during Scott’s childhood. These legacies—of family trade and of seeds—remind us daily of those who’ve come before us, and our connection through food and agriculture.
The next time you eat, let your mind wander to these transformations from seed to food—whether you’re eating a carrot, a bowl of cereal, or a cheeseburger. What seeds were sown to yield that food? What labor, or labor of love, was done to transform sun, water, soil, and seed into the bites you take, day in and day out?
Lindsay Arbuckle & Scott Courcelle own Alchemy Gardens, a farm business growing vegetables and herbs in West Rutland. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published in the Rutland Herald.