Over the Fence Urban Farm

Cooperatively farming small patches of Earth in Columbus, OH


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Finding time…

Sunshine for cloudy days

This isn’t nearly close to the first time I’ve sat down in front of this screen and realized it has been a l- o-n-g while since I shared an update. My last one was over 2 months ago. I’m not sure where the time went. Like the rest of the world, we’re over here in a holding pattern waiting. We’re waiting for rain, waiting for back-to-school plans, waiting for election day, waiting for an invitation to a party, waiting for a lead on a job, waiting for a vaccine. You’d think the farm would be booming and this blog would be filled with updates with all the time I’ve had on my hands.

Big bulbs, bright spot

But time does not equal action. Action requires motivation.

One great thing about cultivating plants for food is that they need you. And they tell you want they want. Water me. Prune me. Pick bugs off me. Eat me. And those kinds of finite tasks are great when you can’t see the end of the tunnel your traveling through. Washing dishes and walking the dog helped me write my dissertation without going insane. (Thank you Thich Nhat Hanh!)

Mystery Squash

Creative and academic friends share they’re also having trouble doing work – making art, writing articles, designing rituals, wrestling around with an idea for more than 10 minutes at a time. I know this feeling. I had big quarantine plans to attend a printmaking workshop a colleague was teaching (two-week artist residency, sign me up!), to work through old writing notes that have been littering my desk literally for years, and to read some of the old professional journals collecting dust on the bookcase. None of that has happened. But there’s still time, right? We’re not going anywhere anytime soon.

Summertime views

Cultivating vegetable plants offers us multiple times to start over throughout the year. As a Jewish farmer I appreciate how this echoes our traditions of seeding, fertilizing, and pruning our life goals. We have just begun the countdown to our New calendar year, a period of time marked by deep reflection, reconnection, and redirection as we review time gone by and plan for the next round of living. It’s nice how this coincides with the time to plant fall gardens.

Seed(ling) bed

This fall I hope to have a better showing of greens than I did in the spring. Greens are usually my point of pride. But the weather is forever messing with our plans. Cold/hot/cold spring followed by dry/hot/dry/dry/dry/hot summer. It didn’t used to be like this. The climate is changing.

The fact that it was so hard to grow food in Columbus, OH this year, a year I planned to take for shmita – to give the land a rest according to Jewish tradition, it’s hard not to think I am being punished for not following through on taking a break. When the quarantine was announced, I raced to plant seeds as a sign of hope and resilience. Gardening is so powerful for us today in part because it is something tangible. It’s a multi-sensory experience that gets us out from behind these screens.

Another one lost to the garden theives

But racing to action isn’t always the best way to go about things. We know this and I think shmita is supposed to remind us of it too. As Rabbi Joshua Heschel taught,

Judaism is a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time… Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of the year. The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals…

I have come to regret not leaning into this Shabbat on steroids. But next year is an official shmita year when Jews around the world will rest. Maybe I wound up growing this year so I can take off on cycle with others.

And, there’s still time to lean into this period of unknowing we are in. To embrace the uncertainty and cultivate values. And plants.

There. I wrote something.


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UPDATE: Victory-Over-the-Virus Farm Report

The farm waking up. (Spring 2020)

Turns out, time flies when you’re living in quarantine, or as my friend Doug refers to it, “the Covidian era.”

It’s been six weeks since my last post. I’ve tried to write at least a dozen times, but I just can’t seem to focus. I hear that a lot these days from friends who write for a living.

While I haven’t been blogging, I have been busy. My daughter and I have led another 5 lunch and learn sessions for kids (you can see them all archived on our new YouTube channel). The farm appeared in two local news stories about increased interest in local foods and gardening in response to the pandemic. We also wrapped up another successful Pollinator Lovers’ Plant Sale, gave away tomato and pepper seedlings to families in need, and got 2 dozen Victory-Over-the-Virus Garden boxes out into the world along with video tutorials to those gardeners with advice on planting, fertilizing, and harvesting.

All of this has helped keep me distracted, feeling like I’ve been doing “something,” at a time when so many of us, don’t know what to do. But I don’t feel the same sustained energy I usually do from my efforts. I still wake wondering how long the virus will plague us and how our society will look, feel, and operate once when and if we get it under control. How will this experience change us long term? So, I’m pretty much back where I was when, filled with eco-anxiety and exhausted from years of juggling too many obligations, I decided to take the season off and reflect on the past and plan for the future.

I’m back to thinking the work I do on the farm is important and making a difference (in some small way) in my community but wondering, is it enough? Is there more I can do? What more could this project be if I focused on it full-time? Or at least more of the time? What would I have to give up in order to make that happen? What might I gain? And would that be worth the trade-offs?

I’ve read Ram Dass and know that, at least for now, all we can do is focus on today. And in some ways that’s the lesson the garden always teaches us. Over and over in lots of different ways. But it also requires planning, because it takes time to grow things. Like change takes time. And our lives are going to be changed as a result of this pandemic. They already have. So I need to make time to process that, along with all the other sh*t I planned to process this summer through my shimta (sabbatical).

While I’m glad to have the farm to focus on when focusing is so hard, I also need to find ways to let me mind wander, to slow down and work through some of the questions I have been harboring, along with the new ones we are all facing. I need to make time to face my fears, rather than distractedly hide from them among the plants. Right?

I hope you are all finding something to focus on, short and longer term. Something that gives you pleasure and feeds you, literally and figuratively. If not, at least we have flowers.

Apple blossoms. (May 2020)


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Victory-Over-the-Virus Gardening: Sabbatical in the Time of COVID-19

“In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.”
from In Flanders Field, by John McCrae (WWI solider)

Well, like everything else in the world at the moment, our plans on the farm have been evolving day-by-day. As a reminder for readers who don’t regularly follow this blog, I was supposed to be taking a year off from farming this season. (Go back to Embracing Persephone for more on that.) I was going to give myself, and the land, a much needed rest. I was going to travel, read more books, take more walks in the woods and learn to hunt mushrooms and other wild edibles, do more yoga…

I’m taking more walks and doing more yoga, and I was reading more books until the world shut down and now I’m back to the basement starting seeds and the backyard prepping beds. 

The worldwide COVID-19 outbreak has made the mission of our little farm more clear. We need to increase food sovereignty, our power to grow our own healthy, delicious, safe food. In the spirit of the Victory Gardens of WWI and II, I am stepping back into production and trying some new strategies to promote Victory-Over-the-Virus Gardens this year, to keep our community stocked with healthy, delicious, and safe produce. [Shout out to Ed Fallon in Iowa, via local friend of the farm “Jimmy Christmas,” for introducing the term which he shared on his blog last week.]

While addressing this moment of crisis as a window of opporutnity to get more people growing, I am also trying to maintain a sabbatical mindset. As scholars use their “year of release” from teaching to pursue research, I’m testing out a few ideas I’ve been thinking about but hadn’t gotten around to. Here are a few I’m playing with.

I) Working through my seed stash
One of my shmita plans was to “clean out the pantries.” In other words, I wanted to pay more attention to the abundance I already possessed rather than buying more, more, more. Towards that end, 99% of the seeds I’m growing were already in my seed library. I will miss the things I’m out of and would have purchased – especially the wide variety of tomatoes – but missing them is kinda the point. Sabbatical time, like crisis time, needs to be marked by some difference in order to make a lasting impact on our mindset.

II) Farm stand
I have been wanting to try a weekly farm stand for a long time. I hope this will attract more folks in my neighborhood to the work we are doing. Columbus is currently working on new zoning regulations to allow on-site sales for urban agriculture, so the time seems right to give this a shot. (With social distancing and hand sanitizing enforced, of course.)

III) Victory-over-the-virus Garden-in-a-Box
Finally, after a few years of successful perennial flower and herb plant sales, aimed at increasing pollinator habitat, we will be offering a series of plant collections to get more people growing, and growing more, this season. Ongoing conversations about climate change and research on bionutrient density loss through travel have promoted sourcing greens locally for awhile, but COVID-19 crisis has brought a new sense of urgency to that work. Faced with empty grocery shelves and halts to distribution, Americans are quickly waking up to the notion that food sovereignty is something we should all be concerned with.

And now, enough with the typing, I have work to do…


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Checking In: First Tertile Shimta Report

[Quick a first note on the title. Did you know “tertile” is the name for a third of a year? Or a third of any whole for that matter. I didn’t. Now we do.]

Dormant fig tree surrounded by rosemary bushes.
Pearlstone Retreat Center( Reisterstown, MD)

Well, a lot’s happened since my last post in which I announced that I was taking this season off from growing for our CSA. Click here to go back and read all about that announcement. In short, this is the seventh season for our little farm and, according to ancient Jewish wisdom tradition, we, and the land, are entitled to a sabbatical year. Back in November, I determined to take the break, since then I have gained a lot more clarity around why, and what the year off will look like.

As I said, we’re taking the year off from the CSA. Thus far that’s meant no member signups to manage and no crop planning to fill those orders. It also means no money coming into the farm account and mounting fears that I won’t remember what I’m doing when I get back to farming next year. But I’m also enjoying getting to know myself again and in new ways – reading lots of books, practicing yoga more regularly, and working to be more present in my interactions with people. The hope, of course, is that I will make these new habits that I can carry out of the year with me into the future.

I spent a good chunk of this first tertile studying about shmita and setting the parameters for my year. Since I am not mandated to observe the practice — Jews outside of Israel are exempt per Torah — and since I’m actively Reconstructing Judaism to fit my life, needs, and desires, I figure it’s my choice how I want to mark the year. I am also finding that some of the lines I initially drew for myself are fuzzier than others. I’m erasing and replacing them as time goes on. It’s a work in progress. Which feels right.

A sabbatical is about release, but not complete rest. As the academic is freed from teaching in order to pursue research, I am free from the cultivation of food in order to cultivate values. It’s time to think about what’s really important to me in the work I’ve been doing here, where I am, and where I want to go in the future.

So far I’ve re-learned that community is key to my project. The following are a few examples.

This past tertile I shared teachings on shmita with my Jewish community here in Columbus and at an international gathering of Jewish Famers. Ironically the conference, the first for the Jewish Farmer Network, was called “Cultivating Culture.” Through these talks, I was building myself a community of support for the break.

For a few reasons, I decided to hold my annual spring plant sale. The sale brings a lot of people to the farm to see our growing space and get inspiration. The plants we send out into the word are nearly all grown to support pollinators in our community. That’s important work that can’t take a break. The bees and their friends need us. In addition, while growing seedlings requires me a bit of work, it’s not much and it’s indoors which means our soil is still getting the reset it deserves.

I also decided to have the sale because I’ve come to realize I have become addicted to having something to tend. The winter gets long, even a mild one like we had this year, and by January I was itching to put seeds in soil and watch them grow. I’m sure this says something also about my inability to be still, I’m more a walking/moving meditator than a sitting Buddha, and perhaps I should have forced myself to feel the absence of seedling season, but I didn’t. Maybe in 2027. (Incidentally, I wrote about my seedling growing practice recently for Mother Earth News.)

I will be hosting the Clintonville Farmers’ Market Kids Garden Club. For many of the same reasons as the sale. I’m happy to have the kids and their parents around and look forward to the field trips we’ll be taking as they fit nicely with my shimta goal of getting out and seeing other operations while I have the time.

And finally, I will be growing some food for me and my family and a few close friends and long-time CSA members. This was my latest decision and one I didn’t make lightly. Keeping our farm community going was part of the decision as was the COVID-19 virus which has me thinking about food security. With the threat of ongoing disruptions to all sorts of distribution channels, I just can’t justify not making plans to take care of ourselves. Just as I’m stockpiling coffee and toilet paper, I’m prepping produce for harvest. One could argue we should relaunch the CSA, echoing more loudly than ever the legacy of the Victory Garden movement. If things continue to go downhill perhaps we will. But in the meantime, if you have a patch of earth you can plant, do it. Then tend it as closely as you do your hand-washing routine.


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Embracing Persephone: My Shmita Year

Today is the start of Persephone Days in Central Ohio; we are about to dip below ten hours of sunlight per day, the darkest time of the year. Many of us feel this darkness deep within ourselves as we head towards the Winter Solstice. (For more on Persephone as she relates to farming practices and Greek Mythology, go back and read Preparing for Persephone.).

This time for slowing down seems as appropriate as any to publicly announce that Over the Fence Urban Farm’s CSA program will be on hiatus for the 2020 season. I have declared this year my shmita year.

Shmita is rooted in Jewish wisdom tradition. Various times the Torah makes mention of this as a sabbath for the land. Just as Shabbat (the seventh day of each week) offers us a day for complete rest and reflection, shmita offers year of release.  

The practice is outlined in the book of Exodus when, before Moses led the Jews into the land of Israel after their forty years of wandering, he agreed to a covenant with YHVH (aka G?d, aka the divine presence in the universe that exists within and between all things, aka you fill in the blank): after six years of growing on and harvesting from the land, farmers would be required to let their fields go fallow. It was an agreement made in recognition of the importance of the land and with reverence for its power and potential.

Questions abound as to whether or not shmita was ever observed as outlined in the Torah. Along with the year off for the land, Jews were called upon to relieve debts and release slaves. Humans, being the self-serving animals that we are – even those of us with the best of intentions – find it hard to let go of material possessions once we have them. And so, early on work-arounds were created to protect assets and income, for example transferring land possession to non-Jews for the shmita year.

Historically, Shmita was required only of Jews living in the land of Israel. (Even there, only the most Orthodox observe it.) It was deemed an undue burden on those living elsewhere and according to Orthodoxy, such requirements are forbidden. However, 21st century Jewish environmentalists in Israel and around the world are finding inspiration in shmita. As we face the challenges of climate crisis and related issues of social justice, we ask what can shmita teach us? How can it help guide us to live our lives in respect and appreciation for the land and all it provides?

For me, as a part-time urban farmer who often finds herself juggling a one million and one responsibilities, I was drawn to shmita as an excuse to take a break. After six years of racing around balancing my work as an art educator, homeschooler, non-profit board member, and urban farmer running a community-supported agriculture project out of my backyard, I am exhausted. I am ready for a sabbatical and grateful to Jewish wisdom tradition for offering me permission to take a break. I need time to reflect on where I’ve been and where I want to go next.

I am also convinced that the land needs a rest. The kind of intensive agriculture I practice—in which a single bed may host as many as 4 rotations of crops per season—is taxing on the soil. This past season was so dry the land really suffered. I hope a year off, a year in which I feed the soil with deep layers of mulch rather than demand produce from it, might pay off in the years that follow. If what the Torah says is true we’ll be set for two years if we take this one off. If not set in food to eat, re-set mentally, spiritually.

2020 is not an official shmita year. But it is my seventh season on the farm and so I’m making it my sabbatical year. Some might not find this kosher, but they’re not in charge around here. I am.

In my shmita year, I would like to explore (without working too hard and ruining the whole point of my break) the possibility of sharing shmita with others. I’ll be sure to share ways to stay connected with this project in this space as it unfolds. Feel free to also leave comments below or email me with your comments and questions.

Peace out. Namaste. Shalom.

jodiK