Saturday, January 14, 2012

What's Your Favorite Vegetable?: Winter days with spinach


One of the most enjoyable parts of winter farming is the pace, although only a fleeting moment, the December/January growth slowdown has offered me an incredible opportunity to not only observe, but to truly dwell in my relationship with the greenhouse.  Upon further reflection, it's amazing to think about how much I overlooked during the summer, between getting acclimated to this new lifestyle and simply trying to keep up with the summer burst of life, there were many times when I forgot to really look.  Obviously I saw and experienced an incredible amount, but as Fred Kirschenmann, President of Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture references in his book of essays, "Cultivating an Ecological Conscience," "it is not by looking at things, but by dwelling in them, that we understand their joint meaning."  The summer was a blur, although I was working with many different plants and plant families, it was difficult to create a solid relationship with any one plant since every bed required so much attention.  Now, here in the dead of winter, I have started to dwell and build these relationships.  After 7 months as an apprentice on top of a year and half of volunteering/Beet Reporting, it can be easy to take for granted the incredible information that opened my eyes to the extraordinary world of plants in the first place such as our method of harvesting spinach.  During this year's winter months, the greenhouse is covered in spinach.    Every week I spend a few hours cutting spinach leaves for local restaurants Blue Hill restaurant, Sweetgrass, Tomatillo and the occasional winter green market.  As illustrated in the picture above, we can clearly see that the spinach leaves get smaller as you get closer to the center of the plant.  What does this tell us?...

That spinach's growth comes from the center and therefore pushes the more mature leaves to the outside , when they are big enough we harvest them.  Each plant has a story to tell us and by simply watching this story unfold, we can figure out how best to care for the plant.   By cutting off the outer leaves, we trigger the plant to push out new leaves from the center whereas the maturing leaves are now pushed to the outside.  By looking back a few stages we can see it all happen.

A great way to see this in a mature plant is to fold back all of the leaves, with every fold towards the center a new, sometimes tiny leaf will become visible.

Once we identify the leaves we want to harvest, like a carousel, we can go round the outside of the plant harvesting big leaves.  Another important point to remember is that the plant uses it's leaves for photosynthesis, which is the way it produces food for itself.   Larger leaves have a greater surface area and therefore it's best to leave one or two of the bigger leaves to maximize the sunlight that the plant can use.

Using a knife, or my fingers, I go around the plant taking the leaves with as thin and straight a cut as I can make.

The straightness of a harvest cut is also important because when we take a leaf we are injuring the stem.  Whenever a plant, person, or any living organism is injured the first physical reaction is to fix that problem before it moves on to anything else, so for the spinach, we want a straight cut minimizing the surface area of the wound so the spinach can heal quicker and move on to producing new leaves and pushing out bigger leaves for the next rounds of harvest.


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