Few can deny that it’s been a strange winter. Spring seems to be off to a rollicking start, much to the dismay of skiers and snow lovers and the jubilation of golfers.
As a case in point, the temperature in one of the greenhouses at a small farm at Saint Joseph’s College in Standish hit 95 degrees at 10 a.m. one day last week.
“We had to open it up,” said Michial Russell, farm manager at Pearson’s Town Farm. “We had spinach in there that was bolting in March. This is not normal.”
Fact is, the gardening season never really ended at the college this year because St. Joe’s experimented with greenhouse and indoor gardening all winter to supply the school’s cafeteria with fresh produce.
Russell calls it the “Secret Garden” because many students had no idea much of the produce they ate last winter in the cafeteria was grown there. “Even when we were bringing produce into the cafeteria very visibly, many were unaware,” he said. “I coined the name Secret Garden mostly as a joke.”
Between the two outdoor “hoop houses” — small greenhouse-like structures that needed snow shoveled off of them periodically this winter — and grow lights suspended above seedlings in the basement of the college’s marketing office — an old farmhouse across from the main campus — bok choy, lettuce, peas, carrots, radishes, rosemary, sage, thyme and dill were raised here regardless of what month appeared on the calendar.
Russell said many leafy greens are hardier than one would believe. As long as they’re protected from frost, they can go into a brief state of hibernation; they can actually sustain a freeze when the mercury drops. “When the temperatures come up again they thaw out like nothing ever happened,” said Russell. “You just can’t harvest them frozen.”
Russell said the college’s food vendor, Bon App?t, deserves much of the credit for the winter-gardening project. St. Joe’s was honored to be the pilot program for the venture, one Bon App?t seeks to establish at many of its client sites nationwide.
Stuart Leckie is general manager with Bon App?t and has been at St. Joe’s since 2000. He got a call early last year from Bon App?t’s corporate office outlining an unusual request.
“I was told to hire a farm manager, erect greenhouses and provide produce year-round,” Leckie said. Somewhat dumbfounded, he hired Russell and ordered some seeds.
It was experimental at first. Russell left a full-time job with benefits and signed on to a one-year contract.
“The contract’s been extended for another year,” Leckie said. “The whole idea is to make it integrated with the college for the common good of all.”
Growing food at the college is in keeping with St. Joe’s sustainable and educational missions, as well as community outreach. The college’s Office of Campus Ministry began donating food to York and Cumberland County residents through an entity called Catherine’s Cupboard in early 2008. Keeping things local is a renewed area of focus for many businesses and institutions today.
Russell said “food security” is a term acquiring meaning, as folks realize just how much of their food is trucked in from away rather than raised locally. An interruption in transportation networks that are intimately linked to the volatile nature of oil production makes the issue relevant to anyone who likes to eat regularly, including most college students.
Through the farm project, a full-time intern is working with Russell, as are student volunteers, including some from an environmental science course. Besides produce, the farm also raises Thanksgiving turkeys, a few sheep and chickens.
“This is something I’ve wanted to do for many, many years now,” said Russell, noting that the first year was spent refining different techniques. “Things move a lot slower in the winter. That was one thing that was hard to come to terms with.”
But Russell has proven year-round gardening is possible for more than just a family-sized menu. Perhaps others can find inspiration and realize you needn’t hang up the gardening tools after Halloween.
You can follow the happenings at Pearson’s Town Farm at St. Joe’s by visiting pearsonstown.blogspot.com
Don Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Raymond. He can be reached at: