Farmer's Diary

Farmer to Dharma

By | March 01, 2010
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Keith Ashley

Winter in Kentucky usually means ianything but sunshine and fresh local greens, but I’m beginning to see there are ways around that. As winter draws to an end, I’m usually eager to rush into spring without looking back, but this year I want to be sure not to forget what I’ve learned about cosmic teamwork.

Last fall, Charlie and I graduated from our farm apprenticeships at Foxhollow and began setting up our own little vegetable venture about an hour south of Louisville, in Bloomfield. A local farmer plowed the land for us. We amended the soil with lime, manure and compost. Friends helped us plant four rows of garlic for this summer’s harvest. And then we built cold frames to experiment with winter greens.

When we sowed early November seeds for mache and miner’s lettuce, we didn’t know what to expect. In a week we had sprouts; in a month, the babiest of greens. By the time snow was falling, we had salad. Mache is a European green, also known as corn salad, that forms rosettes—about 4 inches in diameter—of nutty-tasting, small round leaves. To harvest, you cut the plant just above the root and toss it whole into the salad bowl. Miner’s lettuce, or Claytonia perfoliata, is native to California. Its hardy, spade-shaped leaves remain small, but grow back promptly after cutting. Both of these greens are cold weather dynamos.

Fortunately for our building budget, Charlie’s background is in environmental design and architecture. We made our cold frames from old fence boards and three glass doors, one from his parent’s shower— pre-remodeling—the other two from the Habitat Re-Store. Total cost: $40.

The doors are simply placed on the slanting wooden frames at a 15 degree, southfacing angle, and—Shazaam!—you’ve got instant miniature greenhouses.

After the first snow, as the sun peeked through the clouds, I cleaned off the glass. Thick ice had formed from the condensation in the warm microclimate, but as soon as I scraped just a corner free, the sunlight did its thing. Within minutes, ice on the underside of the glass began melting, dripping down onto the greens like spring rain. Inside temperatures heated up to a balmy 65 degrees. The winter sun and I exchanged a secret handshake.

In January, the recently retired English teacher in me decided to research the new title to which I aspire. As it turns out, farmer shares the same Indo-European/ Sanskrit root as one of my favorite words: dharma, from dher/dhar, to hold or uphold.

This discovery took me back to the summer I taught in India, when a Tibetan Buddhist monk in my class explained: Without the dharma, you are like a scrap of paper resting on a table before an open window. When the first breeze comes along, you’ll be blown out of the house and carried down the street to very bad places. The dharma is your paperweight, he said. It holds you to the truth.

In ancient Hindu philosophy, dharma describes the very design of the universe that holds life together, as well as the human behaviors that uphold this design. Farming also supports human existence, and—when practiced in such a way that harsh chemical pesticides and fertilizers aren’t sterilizing the life out of the soil or polluting local waters—it can also uphold, and even heal, the intricate designs of nature that allow all life to flourish in concert.

The dharma of sustainable farming requires some human ingenuity—like cold frames for winter greens—but asks us to look to the cosmos for our guiding truths, so that we’re working together with nature in our growing practices, and not against it.

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