Remain in Light


Just one moment of Gratitude
is enough to know
that it will always be there,

for you and I,

a most simple of ways
to remain in light
on the cold and snowy days.



Douglass DeCandia is the Food Growing Program Coordinator at the Food Bank for Westchester, which operates on five sites located throughout Westchester County – Leake & Watts Residential Campus, New York School for the Deaf, Sugar Hill Farm at Westchester Land Trust, Westchester County Department of Correction and Woodfield Cottage.

Is That Chervil Winking at Me?

A seed should be fecund, no apologies. Yet certain vegetables may advertise their potency a little too insistently. That is, anatomically. O.K., pornographically.

Ten years ago, Ken Greene founded the Hudson Valley Seed Library in Accord, N.Y., to disseminate the kind of heirlooms that once abounded on nearby farms. Not modern hybrids and genetic dead-enders.

This brings us to the case of the exhibitionist cucurbit (a mystery that sounds more suited to Clouseau than Poirot). When the Hudson Valley Seed Library commissions original art for a seed packet, Mr. Greene makes a point of matching the vegetable to the artist. In this instance, he enlisted Joan Lesikin, a Hudson Valley oil painter who specializes in depicting textiles.

“I thought, how cool would it be if we had a fabric draped over a vegetable?” Mr. Greene said last week. “I made the mistake of assigning her squash.”

The mock-up for the seed packet presented a shape that appeared, um, a little overenthusiastic in its masculinity. “We very quickly decided to go with pumpkin instead of squash,” Mr. Greene said.

Blue Jade Sweet Corn, by Daniel BaxterCreditHudson Valley Seed Library Catalog/Courtesy of The New York Botanical Garden

The 59 seed-pack designs collected in a new exhibition at the New York Botanical Garden are as wholesome as the Holiday Train Show. But Mr. Greene, 42, holds a passion for the way seeds relate to the birds and the bees. The “Art of the Heirloom,” as the title goes, is ecological, historical, commercial and, he hopes, participatory. After you’ve seen the full-size art in the Ross Gallery, there’s a rack of seeds for sale in the gift shop. Gardeners can also find them online, and in some 200 retail sites across the country. (“Art of the Heirloom” remains on display through July 19, before going on a yearlong tour, with stops at the Philadelphia Flower Show; theTower Hill Botanic Garden, outside Worcester, Mass.; and the National Heirloom Exposition in Santa Rosa, Calif.)

With the little art packs — three-and-a-half inches square — Mr. Greene hopes to provoke the same big conversations that have become commonplace around the dinner table: “Where do my seeds come from, who grows my seeds and how do they grow my seeds?”

Originally, Mr. Greene and his partner, Doug Muller, raised most of the company’s stock on their ramshackle farmstead near New Paltz, N.Y. The wooded 27-acre site was once a Ukrainian summer camp and, before that, a Catskills resort. (“Picture ‘Dirty Dancing,’ ” he said, but with beet greens instead of borscht.) Soon, a few dozen cultivars turned into 400 different seed lines.

Sourcing seed at this scale proved difficult. It’s no secret that multinational corporations like Monsanto, Cargill and Syngenta dominate the seed market for commodity crops. But vegetable seed originates mostly from the same players, on large operations in California and the Pacific Northwest. How an Idaho-adapted pole bean might perform in the Catskills is a guessing game, Mr. Greene said.

Many of the other seeds, he said, “came from Asia and China, for the same reasons so many things are coming from those places: cheaper labor, less regulation. And we didn’t want to participate in that system ourselves.

The art packs of the Hudson Valley Seed Library do not look like the agitprop from a Chipotle ad: a scarecrow wearing, say, a gas mask. The pieces are generally whimsical and personal. The seed pack for the Gilfeather rutabaga, for instance, includes a rendering of Mr. Greene’s farm dog, Rutabaga, which he describes as a hybrid of an Australian shepherd and a Jack Russell.

The painting, by Eric Losh, a Brooklyn artist, shows Rutabaga snoozing in the garden, having dug up a huge root vegetable. The Gilfeather was first bred in Vermont, and Mr. Losh has included images of the state animals: the Morgan horse, brook trout and hermit thrush. It’s a happy menagerie fit for a children’s book. (Fine print: Children may be less happy to encounter an actual rutabaga on their plate.)

Other pictures are elliptical and poetic. Will Sweeney, a storyboard artist and illustrator, portrays the Cocozelle zucchini as a frigate crashing over ocean waves. The squash blossom takes the place of a bowsprit; the leaves act as a mainsail. Mr. Sweeney’s image suggests the journey of the squash plant from the Americas, where it originated, to colonial Spain and Italy, where it assumed a new shape and taste, and then back home again.

Mr. Greene calls this rendering a seed story. “You can grow a seed story that is about creating hybrids and corporate-owned-and-licensed seed,” he said. “Or you can grow more personal stories that have history or spirituality or personal anecdotes or humor.”

Amy Valuck, for instance, created a stained-glass profile of the tricolor bean blend. “It gives the beans a spiritual, religious perspective,” Mr. Greene said. That’s an almost comical amount of reverence for the musical fruit.

Seed-pack art, by its nature, is disposable: You buy new stuff every year. And it’s democratic, too. More than 400 artists applied to create just 16 new art packs for the company’s 2015 offerings. A few of them will receive their first creative paycheck ($200) from the Hudson Valley Seed Library. By contrast, the eminent conceptual artist Robert Morris (who painted arugula) chose to collect his payment in garden seed.

The New York Botantical Garden selections include watercolor, raku tile, copper etching and embroidery. The medium itself can seem like a comment on the plant. Jenny Lee Fowler, a 39-year-old paper artist, has created art packs for variegated nasturtiumRagged Jack kale and, this season, chervil.

“Chervil is so lacy, it’s a natural,” Ms. Fowler said, looking out the window at her permaculture-inspired garden in Port Ewen, N.Y. Her silhouette piece, in origami paper, captures a woman wielding a pair of scissors to harvest a giant herb. It’s sort of a visual pun. “The paper cutter is like the plant cutter,” she said.

There’s a word for this kind of product: artisanal. Scoff if you will. Irwin Richman, a historian and author, calls the Hudson Valley Seed Library the “Restoration Hardware of the seed industry.” But he is not dismissing the brand as a rusticated simulacrum.

“There’s nobody in the business who does them better,” said Dr. Richman, 77, who is a research associate at the Landis Valley Village and Farm Museum, in Lancaster, Pa. This is not a casual opinion. Dr. Richman sorted through 200 years’ worth of catalogs and seed packs to compile the book “Seed Art: The Package Made Me Buy It” (Schiffer, 2008).

The introduction lays out the parallel evolution of the American seed industry and its commercial packaging. This story starts with the Shakers, the first farmers to sell seed by the packet instead of bulk weight. And it includes commercial art from pioneering seed houses like D. Landreth & Sons (in business since 1784) and D. M. Ferry and Company (now Ferry-Morse). Along the way, the packets change complexion with the advent of new technologies: hand-tinting, chromolithography and, ultimately, photography.

Hudson Valley Seed Library, Dr. Richman said, plays off nostalgia in a phenomenal way: “They realize now everyone with color photography can make everything look delectable and edible and gorgeous.”

Mr. Greene has been losing his taste for the lipstick-kissed tomato in a stock photo. These seeds have been deracinated from any context. What’s the difference between anywhere and nowhere?

“The seeds you grow are going to turn out a little bit different, and that’s O.K.,” he said. “In fact, maybe that’s the point.”

You could, instead, choose the seeds from an early ripening tomato that the artist Rachelle Cohen has wrapped in a collage of found maps. In one corner lies St. Raymond’s Cemetery on East Tremont Avenue in the Bronx. Another quadrant marks the old Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, beneath the East River.

Where should you plant the New Yorker tomato? Right around here.

A version of this article appears in print on November 20, 2014, on page D1 of the New York edition with the headline: Is That Chervil Winking at Me?

Means to Meditate


It’s only us
we fear the most.

Fear in thought
create the ghosts.

A frenzied stress;
forgotten peace.

Give the mind to rest;



Douglass DeCandia is the Food Growing Program Coordinator at the Food Bank for Westchester, which operates on five sites located throughout Westchester County – Leake & Watts Residential Campus, New York School for the Deaf, Sugar Hill Farm at Westchester Land Trust, Westchester County Department of Correction and Woodfield Cottage.

This Urban Farmer is Breeding Seeds for Rooftops

Urban farmers in New York City face many obstacles—from high winds, to lack of space, extreme temperatures, and more. But now, there’s a line of seeds made just for them. Zach Pickens of Rooftop Ready Seeds, a small NYC start-up, has been cultivating, packaging, and selling seeds bred specifically for New York urban farms for the past four years.

Every fall he lets a portion of his crops go to seed and saves the ones that have done the best—those that have been the most flavorful or produced the most fruit in rooftop conditions. Along the way he has developed a few new varieties and honed pre-existing ones. For example, after last year’s harsh winter, he selected seeds from the hardiest of the survivors.

“I was saving seeds from year one,” Pickens told me while giving me a tour of the small urban farm he manages for Chef Tom Colicchio’s River Park Restaurant in Manhattan.

Pickens moved to New York from Ohio in 2007 with a Masters in Political Science, not farming. When he and his girlfriend (now wife) moved into their apartment in Bushwick, they discovered a 4,000-square footroof deck, and, conveiently, a landlord who said: “Sure, grow anything you want up there.” That first year he saved seeds from his basil crop.

At first, seed saving was part of Pickens’ efforts to repurpose materials, reduce costs, and “find ways to do things outside the norm.”

Urban agriculture was just beginning to take off, and Pickens, tired of being locked up in academia, threw himself into his new hobby. After attending a weekend workshop taught by Ken Greene, founder of the Hudson Valley Seed Library, he spoke to Greene about his plan: to sell seeds he had cultivated from his rooftop to other urban farmers. Greene thought it was a great idea and in 2010, Rooftop Ready Seeds was born.Rooftop_Ready_farmer

Zach Pickens at Riverpark Farm (Photo by Larissa Zimberoff)

As a novice gardener, I had no idea where seeds came from––other than a packet––so I asked Pickens to educate me. Most people don’t understand how crops go to seed, he kindly assured me. For one, he said, it involves harvesting plants at a much different stage of development then when you might want to eat them.

Pickens walked me over to a crop of Redbor kale, which had “bolted” or gone to seed.

“You wouldn’t want to eat this,” he told me, as he pointed to the dried shoots growing out from the middle of the curly purple leaves. Blowing in the wind at the top were long beige seed pods. He opened one up and crushed it back and forth in his palm with one finger so I could see the round, brown seeds, they were so tiny I almost missed them.

Pickens lets the seeds mature and dry, then he separates the seed from the chaff. “It’s labor intensive and delicate and you want to do it in a controlled environment,” he said. He uses low-tech tools including a tarp, a clean, dry trashcan, and a screen.

But that’s just one way to get seeds. Pickens pointed to a wrinkly red Ahi Verde pepper on a yellowing plant that was just about ready to harvest. To remove the seeds, Pickens puts peppers into a blender with water. The seeds deflect off the blade without being damaged, then they get strained, washed, and dried. In fact, all the seeds Pickens harvests go into a hot water bath to be cleaned of any mold or unwanted layers. Then they’re dried and stored in a cool, dark place––either a refrigerator or at the bottom of a closet. I wondered if Pickens’ wife has a hard time finding space to store her shoes, but I didn’t ask.

In addition to River Park Farm and his rooftop in Bushwick, Pickens grows plants at Brooklyn Grange (where he also teaches seed saving classes) and Weeksville Heritage Center. “An important part of having these four locations is isolation distance,” Pickens told me. When some crops, like carrots, go to seed, their pollen can travel up to two miles. “If you want to grow more than one variety of carrot, you need to literally plant them further part,” he said. This year, Pickens will be selling Chantenay carrots, a variety that tastes great and grows exceptionally well in small containers.

One of Pickens’ favorite aspects of the job is meeting other urban farmers. Many of them stop by before or after eating at River Park Restaurant. This year he’ll be selling a variety of green bean given to him by an Italian couple with a home farm in Sheepshead Bay. They referred to it simply as their “long Italian bean,” but they urged him to take some seeds and grow it. The heirloom bean will be available for sale in December, newly named after the husband: the Mateo bean.

This year Pickens will have 50 varieties of seeds for sale on his website, up from his previous years. New Yorkers who want to start stocking up for spring, can also find them online at and at the New York Botanical Garden Store, Dig, Urban Garden Center, and Crest Hardware.

Larissa Zamberoff is a NYC-based writer specializing in food, science and health issues. Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Food & Wine, Huffington Post, The Washington Post, Saion & Sci Art in America. Follow the chopstick-wielding writer on Twitter.



Gather your bones, Brother,
your strength,
and stand up to that bully which is Guilt.

Throw your arms
around its puffed-out chest
and hold on tight.

For it wants nothing to do
with the Loving Kind
and it will fight to keep

the Act of its Becoming a “mistake” in your mind,
for you to dwell over
and tire out all the good you have ever done.

Give it power with blame and doubt.
Make it bigger than it needs to be,
and Guilt will bury you in your own despair.

take the Act as the beginning
of a chance to practice righteousness:

let go protecting your pride
and the judgements
which tie you to regret;

with all you are
just one memory of contentment,

and commit your every day
in bringing to life that peace you have known,
and can know again.

Persistence alone through grief
will build the Will,
but soon your arms grow tired.

It is True Love
and a Perfect Faith
that goodness is at the heart of everything,

which will hold you hugging the Beast
until its eyes
and anger soften.



Douglass DeCandia is the Food Growing Program Coordinator at the Food Bank for Westchester, which operates on five sites located throughout Westchester County – Leake & Watts Residential Campus, New York School for the Deaf, Sugar Hill Farm at Westchester Land Trust, Westchester County Department of Correction and Woodfield Cottage.