Ryan is this Heirloom Farm’s only game in town, labor-wise. There are volunteer hours during the week, but for most every day it’s Ryan, pulling weeds, watering, planting, maintaining. He wears a blue baseball cap, sunglasses and flip-flops. The garden was begun by a Hull House Executive Director who is now moving on to other projects: as such, Ryan finds himself with a bounty of vegetables with no clear outlet. The series Rethinking Soup, in which the Hull House distributed soup every Tuesday, along with a lecture, performance or cultural event, has closed for the season. By the time new decisions are made for the future of the farm, the growing season will be over. Ryan occasionally donates bushels of produce to local organizations. I occasionally munch on the purslane we are weeding from around the leeks. For most of the afternoon, we train tomatoes along trellises. The trellises are giant stakes in the ground, branches twisting upward, and our task is to lift the sprawling tomato plants off the ground and velcro them to the stick in a way that faces the plant southward—without damaging it. Ryan emphasizes that there is a front and a back to a tomato plant. It’s labyrinthal, the task. It’s important to trim secondary branches off the tomatoes, to make sure they don’t get too heavy and prevent them from growing upward. But at the same time, large trimmings represent a kind of wasted energy on the plant’s part. It’s a shame to be doing this so relatively late in the plant’s growing life. “It would be less difficult if the plants weren’t so mature,” he says. But since Ryan is the tomatoes’ only gig in town, with banks of kale, okra, leeks and all else, it’s difficult for him to keep up with everything. We pluck whole ripe tomatoes off the vines and munch as we go.
The heat beats down, steady and persistent. To take a break, we head over to the Hull House basement, where, to my secret joy, there is garlic hanging. It’s a bit of a quirk that it’s hanging in a supposedly haunted basement—Ryan tells stories of Jane Addams chasing off exorcists, not being a believer in ghosts herself. I’m inclined to side with Jane. And while the garlic looks just the slightest bit spooky in the cellar light, it’s just too damned awesome that there is garlic curing in a museum basement for me to be spooked. The garlic does not have fancy labeling or demonstration windows, it is not on display for the Hull House to show off its garlic curing methodology. It is curing in the basement because that’s what makes sense. It’s the Hull House garlic, and now, Ryan will take it home and clean it while he’s watching the olympics.
I have a little time left towards the end of the afternoon, and get assigned the independent task of planting okra and zucchini. By the end of everything, I am hot and dusty, covered in the dirt of work.
Writer: Meghan Moe Beitiks
Location: Hull House