Long Story Short: Gardening and the sweet life
Vegetable gardening: a growing trend
Just as with clothing, foods, and hairstyles, gardening has trends. Unsurprisingly, with recent food shortages caused by COVID-19, the big news in backyard horticulture is the vegetable garden. Coupled with another trend toward urbanization, the demand on plant breeders for vegetable varieties that thrive in small city spaces is rising. Phrases like heirloom food, food miles, source locally, and food transparency are becoming commonplace among gardeners, who are approaching the grow-your-own movement in a variety of ways, many quite creative. Container gardening is gaining popularity, with growers seeking disease resistant, short season, dwarf indeterminate, parthenocarpic, and short-vine varieties. With all this to consider, vegetable gardening can seem intimidating for first-time or even experienced gardeners. We talked to several local people who are giving it a try.
Fear of growing
“I am so terrified I'm going to kill everything, or that it will get eaten by the deer,” says Katherine Malik, who is starting a first-time vegetable garden with her husband at their North Buffalo home. Though she has tried gardening before, with her grandparents and late mother-in-law, she’s keeping this one small to start, due to her dubious track record with vegetation in general. “I have killed every plant I ever owned, including an air plant that was the last gift I got from my mother-in-law before she passed away,” says Malik. “I didn't even know it was dead until someone pointed it out to me. She gave it to me because they are so hard to kill, and I killed it, so I have a lot of fear going into this.”
Malik starting planting seeds in a “chicken wing box,” which she says has worked out well. She’s starting with tomatoes, zucchini, and peppers, with plans for herbs, Napa cabbage, and beans later this month. She’s been learning from “the back of the seed packets” and YouTube videos on starting seeds, weeding, and prepping soil. “So far the only thing I’ve seen is zucchini and mold on the other boxes of dirt that are holding seeds,” she says. Malik and her husband are fortunate to both have jobs working from home during the pandemic. But it means sitting in front of a computer for long hours. “We both try to find ways to stay active,” she says. Initially she didn’t think gardening involved much exercise, but she says weeding and digging have taught her otherwise.
Sustainable food angst
Ashley Smith’s main concern is where the food she eats comes from. “I distrust the food industry, corporations, and big farming,” she says. “They traffic in food addiction and profit on our biological need to seek sugar, salt, and fat.” Smith’s grandfather and great uncle were farmers, and she recently visited their farming town for a church dinner. The church wouldn’t serve tap water because they say it’s no longer safe. “This is the result of big farming,” she says. “I want access to sustainable healthy food without having to rely on grocery stores, which in the quarantine has become a somewhat stressful shopping experience, on top of the fact that I really have no idea where my food comes from.”
A change of plans
Smith was planning to relocate from her Elmwood Avenue home to the country, so that she and her husband, a chiropractor, “could raise our kids near the woods and grow as much of our own food as possible.” They were approved for a mortgage, and then the stay-home mandate happened, and their plans changed.
Though chiropractors are considered essential, Smith’s husband temporarily closed his office to protect his patients and family. She converted his waiting room into a plant nursery. “Instead of patients waiting, there are plants patiently waiting and growing,” says Smith. The plan is to transplant the sprouts into ten or fifteen-gallon containers, placed on homemade carts, “with wheely-gigs so that I can move them in and out of the house and all around our backyard, which is paved for off-street patient parking.
“We are growing basics like dwarf kale, cherry tomatoes, dwarf tomatoes, bush beans, cucumbers, calendula, parsley, cilantro, basil, dill, and chives,” says Smith, “each chosen for their success in containers, and being hearty and easy for beginners.” The couple has grown more seedlings than they can use, so some will go to friends or family.
Vegetables as metaphor
Smith is also an artist, and, to her, plants are “loaded with metaphor and mythology.” “I've always used plants and nature as inspiration for my art,” she says, “but participating in this process has been empowering and inspiring.” Watching beans grow for instance, heightened her understanding of the beanstalk’s use in fairytales. “The bean has quite frankly become a heroic symbol of resilience for me during quarantine times,” she says.
Hoping to expand her small annual edible crop, artist Kath Schifano moved planters and flowerpots—with a few cubic feet of Miracle Gro potting soil—onto her ceramic studio worktables. “Living next to a huge wetlands and forest without a fenced yard makes a regular garden impossible,” she says. “Deer can do a standing jump over a five-foot fence, so the garden I’ve been dreaming of will never be at this address.” She’ll use her porch and an elevated bench to keep potted plants up off the ground. “They can munch my front porch garden roses instead,” she says, “as usual.” Clipping fresh dill parsley and basil makes Schifano giddy every summer, she says, “so I’m hoping adding homegrown salads to the menu are commonplace this year.”
This is not Rhonda Parker’s first vegetable rodeo, but this year’s garden will be her biggest yet, since her early days when she discovered to her amazement that tomatoes grew out of flowers. Parker has been watching the Netflix show, Doomsday Preppers, and pondering self-sustainability. “The current crisis had me concerned about a disruption in the food supply,” she says, “so it seemed logical to get started.”
Parker lives in the country where she and her husband have about an acre of useable land. “I planted fruit trees and bushes a couple years ago,” she says, and the veggie garden will be about twenty-four square feet.” She’s growing garlic, peas, strawberries, various varieties of tomatoes, peppers, and squash, cabbage, eggplant, cauliflower, and several herbs, and she’s planting seedlings directly into the ground, bypassing seeds.
There’s been a learning curve over the years. Discovering that dirt must be added to potato plants as they grow, that carrots need to be planted directly in the ground or they grow deformed, or that birds favor tomato seedlings for nest-building, was all part of her gardening education. Parker is now researching low cost hydroponics for year-round indoor food-growing.
Seedlings in the shower
Melissa Campbell may be the most urban of the urban gardeners we talked to. She has a tiny, mostly shady spot behind her apartment for gardening. “In the corner that gets the morning light and half a day of sun, I plant food,” she says. But where can a small apartment dweller plant seeds to begin the process? “I'm starting my plants in the shower,” says Campbell, “I have a board that goes across the tub. I move it when I take a shower. I pull the light all the way up above the shower head and move the board each time. There is a light hanging down on a tension rod with a pulley system that raises all the way above the shower head.”
This might sound potentially shocking, but as Campbell puts it, “This is my reality.” The tub was chosen as the plant nursery because the grow lights are on sixteen hours a day and are too bright for sleeping in her open studio apartment. Besides, her five budgies have the run of her studio/office/storage room. “The shower curtain hides the light enough and I still have a kitchen table,” she adds. “I spray the seedlings with water at least twice a day, and I talk to them and make sure they are happy.”
Sweet Rockin’ Buffalo!
“Back where I come from, there are men who do nothing all day but good deeds. They are called phila-, er, er, philanth-er, good-deed doers! And their hearts are no bigger than yours."
—The Wizard of Oz
Kimberly LaRussa’s heart is plenty big. The Florida native relocated here thirteen years ago, and quickly came to see Buffalo as a pretty sweet place. She is the founder of SweetBuffalo716.com, a good news website focusing on heartwarming philanthropical opportunities and events. “I wanted to share stories of hope, love, and kindness in our area,” she explains. A recent story on upstartny quotes LaRusso as follows: “The stories I liked the most were the ones that helped people. My focus is on helping people. The more money I help raise for others, the happier I am.” Many of the stories on Sweet Buffalo invite followers to actively engage in helping their Western New York neighbors.
A bagel that isn’t a bagel
Kristen Brandt is a local artist. She recently posted an image on Facebook of a slightly irregular-shaped everything bagel, sliced, with cream cheese. It had readers doing a doubletake, because it was only about twice the size of the penny lying next to it in the picture. The bagel was so convincing that one viewer thought the penny was oversized. But the bagel is actually a rock, painted to look like a bagel. Brandt plans to place it someplace outside for someone to find. This made LSS curious to know more, which led us to LaRussa.
Sweet Buffalo Rocks
“A close friend from Florida told me about this rock painting group near where I used to live,” says the Sweet Buffalo founder. “She said they were spreading kindness through rocks and she thought it would be a nice thing for me to start in Buffalo.” LaRussa began painting rocks, with the phrase “Sweet Buffalo Rocks” on the back, and word began to spread. “We now have close to 40,000 members and a vast majority are either painters, finders, or admirers of the art,” she says. Participation as a Sweet Buffalo Rock artist is easy: “Get a rock; paint it; decorate it; hide it; let someone find it; repeat,” according to the instructions on the Sweet Buffalo Rocks website.
We wondered what kind of people paint rocks, and why? Brandt explains: “There are SO MANY examples, from novice to pro painters who see the rocks as endless canvas opportunities. It’s fun to paint one at a park and then hide it on your hike.”
Shortly after the group was launched, LaRussa turned it into a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization to raise funds for children in need. “We’ve held events at Children’s Hospital,” says LaRussa, “which has also recommended Sweet Buffalo Rocks as a way to stay connected with friends and family and the community during COVID-19.
A community of rock stars
“Kids get the biggest kick out of the project when they find Ninja Turtle rocks, Trolls, Minions, and so much more,” says LaRussa on her website. When someone finds a painted rock, they can either keep it, or hide it again for someone else to find. Lately, many of the rocks carry encouraging messages like, “You can do this” or “Just believe.” Portraits of nurses are popular too, but LaRussa is particularly fond of the work of Glenn Scott, a group member who paints portraits of children battling cancer.
“It became so much more than just painting rocks,” LaRussa emphasizes. “Whenever there is a child or family in need, all I have to do is reach out on Sweet Buffalo and Sweet Buffalo Rocks and there’s someone willing to help.” A particularly impressive example of this coming together happened on Easter, 2019. Rockin’ Easter Hunt gave children an opportunity to search for plastic eggs, for a three-dollar per egg donation. Each egg could then be turned in for one of over 2000 painted rocks that the group had been creating for over half a year. The money raised was used to help four local families with children battling illnesses.
There’s something magical about stumbling across a tiny rock painting in an unexpected place. It forms an oblique bond between artist and discoverer. Sweet Buffalo Rocks was bringing people “together” like this since before social distancing became a thing. Now, more than ever, it’s a way to connect across time and space.
Where might someone discover one of these tiny works of art? “They hide them all over,” reports LaRussa, “but parks are a favorite hiding place—Canalside, Children’s Hospital in the Winter Garden.” “My nephew found one at the supermarket,” adds Brandt. Sometimes artists post messages telling when and where they’re hiding rocks, or they give hints. “Everyone does their own thing which makes it fun and unique,” LaRussa says. Some hidden rock discoveries are posted on the Facebook group by finders. Sometimes a single rock is found and hidden several times. Others, it must be assumed, are treasured privately.
“I like the rocks that mean something to someone,” LaRussa reflects. “When someone feels like they are losing hope, they might find a rock that says, “Don’t give up,” and they take that as a sign. I’ve heard a lot of things like that, where someone is going through a difficult time but then they find a rock that says something meaningful to them and it makes all the difference.”
Long Story Short is an opinion column by artist and educator Bruce Adams, a longtime contributor to Buffalo Spree.
Get Long Story Short delivered directly to your mailbox as an enewsletter. Sign up today.