I really love that this place has a working farm, an educational + artist’s garden, and a seed conservation component. If you know me, you know this is my jam! I feel right at home except for having to hold any responsibility or accountability! These are what I call my “working vacations”.
The first chance I had to volunteer, I signed up to help with the Indigo harvest. I’ll write more about that later, but basically we harvested a row of Japanese Indigo, Polygonum tinctorium that is currently fermenting, the first step of the careful practice of extracting indigo pigment. The following day, I came out for another harvesting activity, this time for veggies and herbs. I helped the crew pick peppers, basil, sage, and kale.
It’s really a lovely space! Very well maintained and laid out. Although as a fellow farmer, I admit to easily seeing the things they do too when I praise the aesthetic of it all but they kind of sigh and look around, saying yeah but….the weeds, the disease, the never ending list of chores, the pests! In some strange twisted way it’s comforting that even on well resourced and managed farms, nothing is perfect and there will always be weedy sections and some kind of pest that keeps the farmers awake at night. We’re a collective support group, commiserating on the challenges of growing!
The part of the operation that is focused on food production, is separate but adjacent to the educational and seed gardens, which all together are part of the Rokeby Farm side of the Oak Springs Garden landscape and referred to as the Biocultural Conservation Farm (BCCF).
A series of glass covered greenhouses feature more tropical plants that are pushing the limits here for outdoor cultivation in Virginia. Many familiars: turmeric, ginger, basil, butterfly pea, and malabar spinach. The butterfly pea variety they have is stunning, very convoluted and deep blue petals. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on her for any available seeds before I leave.
Their little office is adorable and as you might expect, stocked with books, jars and packets of seeds, and found objects like birds’ nests. I was able to get a sneak peek at the new art seed packets that just came in, filled with seeds from the plants they stewarded just outside the office doors: sorghum, tomatoes and corn. Specifically these are heirloom varieties significant to the Appalachian area that were passed onto them from a nearby family that has been keeping them for many generations.
I’m excited to learn more about their seed conservation work and how we might be partner-friends. The folks from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange are going to come visit me here in early September and it will be nice for us seed heads to geek out together!
The production part of the operation donates most of the produce to the local food pantry, provides a community CSA program (weekly farm share box for sale), and provides ample produce for the residents and staff onsite. Three times a week we are treated to dinner by Chef Jason, who is creative at making tasty dishes with what’s available.
We eat communal meals in the historic school house, which has a cozy little downstairs area with a small sitting room, a few books, and better internet than most of the resident houses. Here is where the chef’s larder exists, a work of art in and of itself! It drew my eye the minute I walked in. I sampled Chef Jason’s homemade tomato jam and I approve, but I still like mine better!
Upstairs is the kitchen and main dining area, cute and well stocked. There is even enough open space after hours for pop-up mini Zumba workouts!
Over the weekend, I received notice that extra tomatoes were up for grabs. Figuring no one else would need that many, that some were already starting to go bad, and that I just can’t let good food go to waste, I rescued several pounds of cherry tomatoes and giant heirlooms, which we just don’t get in Florida with regular success.
I guess old habits die hard, because I immediately went home (after the impromptu chance for a 20 minute Zumba dance workout!) and started making sauce. I used most of it for our Sunday potluck brunch roasting it with eggplants and basil we got in our CSA box. There was extra we used to dip cassava bread into, that Jackie brought from the Dominican Republic, where she’s from. Yum!
It’s a blessing to be able to eat well while traveling, when it can be easier or unavoidable to eat poorly. I’ve really been enjoying the weekly farm produce and the opportunity to also go pick a few additional items (I ask first!), forage some nutritious local plants, and eat the leftovers from Jason’s incredible meals.
Every evening, after dinner and doing some art, I wander over to the gardens to see what’s happening. There is always something new to see, even though I’ve now visited multiple times. The first evening, 3 very active Sphinx moths were cruising the lilies and four o’clocks. I felt them before I saw them. They came so close a few times that I felt their wings and wind near my face, and heard their distinctive vibrations. Their proboscis is so long, specialized for a deep drink into long tunneled flowers. I imagine they came from the tomatoes nearby, where their previous life as a tomato hornworm started out. Although I did search and couldn’t find evidence.
Other daily observations: The Goldfinches seem exuberant over the wild thistles going to seed everywhere; Kestrels swoop in for the cornucopia of field insects and small birds; sparrows are snacking on plants going to seed in the gardens; rabbits are hopping about being cute little naughty garden pests; an array of pollinators are visiting the diverse buffet of flowering crops; and the indigo vat nearby bubbles silently its blue riches, filled with leaves picked just a few days ago. It really feels like home even though the seasons are off by a bit, and some of the flora and fauna are different.
There are a lot of rabbits, ground hogs, and squirrels that are serious farm pests, but they say Buddy the 15 year old black cat does a formidable job of keeping them in check. Of course he’s likely also eating birds and frogs, but hopefully his belly is mostly full of organically fed, free ranging rabbit and squirrel.
Being here for a total of 5 weeks I’ll get to observe a lot of changes as the microseasons shift from late summer to early fall. I’m excited to volunteer at the farm at least one morning a week and help out. I always appreciate volunteers that help us at our gardens at GROW HUB, especially those that kinda know their way around a garden. It’s a lot of work to maintain these spaces, and it shows.
I am so grateful for this backdrop and canvas of both inspiration and beauty, while I am provided ample time to explore, create and rest.