Putting the garden to bed

Volunteers at community gardens around Syracuse pull up the last fruits and vegetables and make preparations for winter.

Deborah Keirsey worked quickly. She was undeterred by the rain drizzling down or the finger-stiffening cold as she scooped shovelfuls of dirt away to make room for a young fruit tree. There wasn’t much time left before dark; Keirsey knew there was ample work to get to. After a few turns, her shovel hit something solid. “You’ve got some sparks there!” her daughter, Jessyca, yelled out as Keirsey finally took a moment to laugh.

The Keirseys, along with Jessyca’s boyfriend Anthony Fasana, volunteered at a garden-closing event at the Rahma Garden on the Southside of Syracuse. Keirsey, a resident of Madison County, heard about the event through a friend she met through Occupy Syracuse. The friend directed her to Frank Cetera, the CEO of Alchemical Nursery, which organizes the Rahma Garden.

While Keirsey said she brought her daughter and Fasana along for the ride, Jessyca, 19, protested that the event was important to her too. “I’m not a hippie by any means,” the Onondaga Community College biology major explained, but she said she feels society doesn’t value food enough. She said she’ll take any chance to garden that she can get, especially when there’s social value. 

The five volunteers that joined Cetera helped plant fruit trees, like nectarines and peaches, and daffodil bulbs. The trees are dormant, Cetera explained, so they should be OK over the winter despite their small size. Cetera instructed volunteers to spread mulch around the base of the trees, leaving a small ring of space around each trunk so they wouldn’t be damaged by the moisture held in the mulch.

The volunteers also harvested the last of the garden’s produce, a mass of unripened cherry tomatoes that would have to be enjoyed green. Huge, leafy rhubarb plants stayed in the ground. The Rahma Garden, located on the site of a new free health clinic at 3100 S. Salina St., is one of many community gardens which grow fresh produce throughout the spring, summer and fall seasons in urban Syracuse. Syracuse Grows, a local food justice organization, supports many of the gardens. With Syracuse’s snowy climate, the gardeners prepare the plant beds for winter at this time of the year.

Mable Wilson, co-director of the West Newell Street Garden, said her gardeners started closing things down a few weeks ago and are planning finish up as soon as there’s one more warm day. Syracuse Grows gives the member gardens suggestions for winter preparation via email, Wilson said. “Composting, clean out weeds, garden maintenance, planting seeds, harvesting seeds; there were so many [emails] I can’t think of them all,” she said.

“The Isabella Garden presents a unique set of challenges,” said Jonathan Logan of Syracuse Grows about one of their newer member gardens. The garden on Isabella Street is cultivated mainly by members of the Burmese and Bhutanese community.  Because some gardeners have recently come to Syracuse, they still have limited English language skills, which makes it hard for them to read some messages about events. Logan said that the Isabella garden has not been prepared for winter; the plants will stay in the ground and will be weeded out in the spring, instead. The state of the garden shouldn't affect future productivity too much, said Logan.  “It’ll merely be an aesthetic issue over the winter-time,” he said.

After all the tools were packed up at the Rahma Garden, Cetera joked with a volunteer that they were cutting it close. Snow was predicted for the next day and the clocks were about to change. Winter on any farm is less than romantic, but the cold fingers and wet toes will be long forgotten when the daffodils push their way up in the spring. 

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