Firsts

by Sarah West

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Seed pots came first—a windowsill full of them that I started with the preschool class I was teaching at the time. We’d planted with abandon, filling egg cartons and yogurt cups for the fun of it. A complete novice who’d kept no more than a few planters on the porch, I had purchased cheap soil and cheap seeds, not expecting much to happen. We watered them with spray bottles and waited, the kids enthralled.

Like magic (and at the time, I could explain it no other way), nearly every seed sprouted and we soon had a windowsill full of infant plants—beans, corn, sweet alyssum, sunflowers, squash. I was proud to send each kiddo home with a box of garden starts at the end of the school year. A few forwarded pictures of corn stalks or sunflowers towering at the edge of their backyards later that summer. I was hooked.

That unexpected experience was followed by another: a summer spent working on a friend’s garlic farm, enjoying the quiet company of plants and good people. By mid-winter, I enrolled in a two-year horticulture program. Four years later, I found myself in a place my preschool teaching self couldn’t have predicted: standing in a field, sowing tray after tray of seeds (confident now that they would grow), preparing for my first attempt at small farm entrepreneurship.

I was on leased land, owned by a woman whose rural plot had more back yard than she needed. Two other women had farmed the site before me, developing the acre parcel into a spare but functional farm. When their lives shifted, I (and my soon-to-be-husband that I dragged along with me) became their successor. The opportunity arrived when I was ready and willing to give up my day job, so I took a chance, spent much of my savings, and found myself standing there, unsure of everything I thought I knew but happy for the fresh air, the possibilities, the view.

Most of the seeds I planted that day were eaten by mice who left a calling card of empty husks and ample droppings. From that point forward, nothing about the farm was simple. The view quickly narrowed to a list of tasks that lengthened exponentially with each day. Every action invited reaction from the field and its inhabitants, rarely in my favor. It was only an acre, but that field grew fiercely in spring, faster than I could till or mow. With mostly hand tools, a twice-rented tiller, and a frequently failing mower, I was ill prepared and outnumbered.

We never even got to a quarter of the acre that summer; kale, collards, leeks, and white clover left behind by the previous farmers grew towering seed heads. Weeds, unshackled, exploded into a dense, four-foot jungle around them. The blizzard of thistle seeds that poured from that feral patch in late July—onto the freshly turned soil of my winter garden, and over the fence into neighboring pastures—still triggers a wave of panic when I think about it.

Though my days that spring increasingly read like a detailed manual on how not to farm a small plot, the vegetables grew. After three new belts and a trip to the repair shop, I could finally keep up with the mowing. Almost everything went in late, but it all got in—last of all the irrigation tape, which wasn’t fully installed until late June, a milestone that allowed me to quit hand-watering and start hoeing. It was too late, of course, to catch the weeds at a manageable size, and among them I found the first free gift that field gave me: scattered between lettuces I’d grown for opening market day were dozens of mustard plants I hadn’t planted—gorgeous purple- and fuchsia-splashed leaves with wide, pale green petioles. I let them stay, knowing I wouldn’t have much else ready for sale in two weeks.

On that first harvest day, as I plucked heads of lettuce and bundled greens, sprayed the dirt from radishes and salad turnips, and sliced bags of baby arugula leaves, I felt like an archeologist: from those unruly rows, those four months of thankless toil, emerged artifacts of authentic beauty. I was in awe of them, spread out on my modest market table, in awe of the customers who were drawn to them, smiling, who returned week after week for my field’s glowing vegetables.

We never made any money. The work didn’t really get much easier. We grew tired of the commute, and lasted only one more season. I’m back to a tiny urban garden with tight, infertile soil. The field is back to pasture. But its secret has been revealed: even when you can’t see the vegetables for the weeds, they’re still out there. Having tasted them all but assures that in some other field, some other version of me will give it another go.

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