The expression “Go big or go home” resonates these days. I had been looking for a job this last year. Something full-time. Little did I know I’d find myself managing the largest raised bed garden on a farm in Illinois. Twenty years of freelance writing and photography done ten feet away from my bedroom has taken it’s toll. I’ve wanted a little more distance between my work life and my home life.
With the girls away at school, there’s no need for me to stay here doing something that no longer brings me joy. A quiet house gets lonely, fast.
The idea of returning to full-time employment both thrills and scares me. When you’re a work-from-home mom, you’re the boss. You get used to it. The schedule, the errands, the flow. Transitioning to someone else’s schedule is slightly daunting. I’d be lying if I said I don’t worry about being able to do it all. The fact is, I can’t. Life is changing fast and I’m coming to the realization that with this change comes a slew of new expectations with no playbook other than the one I’m writing on the fly.
So here’s the skinny…
My suburban backyard and all the lessons I’ve learned while gardening in it have lead me to the largest raised bed garden in Illinois – Navarro Farm. Currently, there are 84 (and counting) 6’x12′ beds, all at accessible height. Why is that important? Because this enormous garden is worked by individuals with special needs and I’m stoked to be part of this incredible place. Their farmer program uses farming and gardening practices to teach or enhance life skills. Having been here for just a few months now, I see the excitement among the farmers who’ve been hard at work making me seed tape and vegetable markers for all the beds.
Many hug me when they see me. Some sign “work”, point out the barn window, then point at themselves then me. They know we’ll be growing together very soon and I love their enthusiasm. One young man, Alex, expressed his love for radishes because his grandma loves radishes. He smiled when I asked him to make me radish seed tape. He and his grandma will have plenty of radishes this year.
It’s hard to believe the farm is less than a year old and so much has been built in a very short time. My boss likes to say we’re building the plane and flying it at the same time. I totally agree and I think that’s why it’s so thrilling.
When I think of it with my gardener’s brain, you know the kind that accepts a slower pace and gradual change (to a point), it’s a little scary and I feel alive. Uncomfortable. Since starting in January, I’ve ordered a semi-trailer of compost, about 40 yards. Until now, the most I’ve ever ordered for my own garden was six. I used a compost calculator to help me determine how much I would need to top off each bed with two inches. Big help! I came up a little short on my first go since some of the beds needed a little more than two inches. More compost is coming in the next few weeks.
In my first week on the job, I established a four-year crop rotation based on last years plantings to minimize the development of pest issues.
I’ve ordered more seeds in the last three months than I think I’ve order in my entire life. And just when I thought I had the beginning of a plan, my boss handed me four acres and simply said he wanted crops. Crops?! I maintained my game face, trying hard to look unfazed. Meanwhile, what felt like ferrets in a pillowcase fought it out in my head. The land was home to a soybean field last year, that I knew. What I didn’t know was how to farm acres. How hard could it be? Except I don’t have a tractor. But I do have a community of volunteers itching to get dirty and a plethora of farmers willing to volunteer their time to help me get this done.
Which brings me to the mountain of composted horse manure currently sitting at the south end of the farm. Let’s just say I gotta guy. Make that three guys. Two volunteered their one-ton dumps, the other brought his end loader and we scored more crap in one day from area farms than a dung beetle trailing an elephant herd. It’s cooked and ready to rock. As soon as the field dries, we’ll broadcast it and revive the soil.
So here’s my plan. Push the uncertainty aside, embrace the chaos and grow. In every way a girl can. Just writing this is thrilling! I’m imagining a successive planting of Ambrosia sweet corn. It’s a 75 day bi-color. If I plant an area every two weeks beginning when the soil hits about 60 degrees, hopefully sometime in May, I should have a constant supply for the farm stand as well as plenty for those who’d rather pick their own.
There’s a beautiful 100+ year old barn on the farm. When I walked the acreage on a cold day last month, I thought how lovely it would be to grow a field of sunflowers. While I love the Procuts, I wanted a sunflower variety that would make the farm money during and after flowering. So we charge per head anyone who’d like to enter the sunflower field. I’m thinking photographers accompanying families for a photo shoot. Who wouldn’t want their pictures taken among so much sunshine?
Then, when the flowers droop and their backs turn from green to yellow, we harvest the seed and sell bags of it for the birds. Black oil sunflower seeds are highly nutritious and great for birders like me. I buy plenty of it every winter. Why not grow it? Since jumping down this rabbit hole, I’ve learned that Peredovik is another name for black oil sunflower seeds and that I need about eight pounds of seed per acre. Now I have to figure out how to spread it.
I don’t think I’ve ever spent more time with a calendar in my lap, a calculator in my hand. And when things feel crazy, and I know they often will, I’ll remind myself that it’s part of the process. It won’t always be this uncomfortable. This time next year, I want to look back on all that we grew. How I grew. What I’ve learned. Where I can improve. It’s thrilling and challenging and a little scary. Ok, a lot scary. It’s different when you’re growing for someone other than yourself. There’s expectation, now, where before I was growing just for me and ok when things didn’t turn out.
I’m paid to grow so I feel the pressure. But here’s the thing. Seeds want to grow and I know what I’m doing. Of that, I’m certain.
And when things get really tough and I feel like a total failure, I’ll go talk to the goats on the farm. They’re very nonjudgmental, or so it would seem.