By KEVIN PROFT/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — Despite an average daily temperature of just 18 degrees and 32 inches of snow in February, Rich Pederson spent the month seeding vegetables in a balmy 80-degree greenhouse on the city’s South Side.
To prepare for the Southside Community Land Trust’s (SCLT) annual plant sale in mid-May, the growing season began early.
The plant sale, now in its 23rd year, has grown tremendously popular. The two-day event attracts some 2,000 people to a three-quarters-of-acre urban farm on Linden Street, where they peruse hundreds of varieties of fruit, vegetable and flower seedlings.
This year’s sale — scheduled for May 16 and 17, rain or shine — will include 52 varieties of tomatoes, 30 varieties of hot and sweet peppers, basil, sunflowers, poppies and medicinal herbs. It also includes a section of perennials dug from the personal gardens of SCLT supporters and donated to the event.
The sale is one of SCLT’s major fundraisers. Pederson, the full-time steward of City Farm, which hosts the event, labors for every penny earned.
“Once we start planting seeds, its a seven-day-a-week job,” Peterson said.
Seeding begins in mid-February with slow-growing plants such as chives, onions and peppers, and continues in waves until the end of April. By then, Pederson is watering and caring for more than 20,000 plants.
He doesn’t do it alone. The day ecoRI News interviewed Pederson was also Nayeema Eusuf’s first day on the job as a part-time assistant farmer. Pederson also receives help from an apprentice and about a dozen volunteers who water and transplant seedlings and prepare City Farm for plant-sale visitors and the farm’s growing season.
Like everything that happens at City Farm, the process is chemical-free and sustainable. Seeds are bought from a variety of sustainability minded companies and organizations, including Coventry-based Small State Seeds, Maine-based Johnny’s Selected Seeds and Iowa-based Seed Savers Exchange. Pederson also saves his own seeds and receives donated seeds saved by supporters and other farmers. He estimated that City Farm bought more than $1,100 worth of seeds this year.
Pederson’s growing methods are low-tech but time-tested. He keeps notes on each variety planted in a composition notebook. “I always encourage gardeners to use a journal,” he said.
Everything is done by hand, “from seed to sale,” he said. Seeds are tapped out of their packages individually into countless plastic seed-starter flats — recycled from past seasons. Flats are placed on baking sheets and watered from the bottom up. When seedlings outgrow the starter flats, they are transplanted into larger seedling pots.
By mid-March, stronger plants are rotated out of the greenhouse into cold frames or protected areas in order to make room for new seedlings. Because different seeds are planted at different times, each stage of the growing process is happening simultaneously.
To keep track of it all, Pederson records plant varieties on popsicle sticks and inserts them into the soil after seeding and transplanting. The whole process feeds into Pederson’s mission to grow and sell the best quality plants he can.
“I really want to give people awesome plants,” he said. “If an individual plant doesn’t look good by the time of the plant sale, we don’t sell it.”
Leftover plants — those not impressive enough for the sale and those not purchased — are donated to schools and community gardens. “They all go to good homes,” Pederson said.
The plant sale’s popularity is multifaceted, according to Pederson. In addition to being an excuse to enjoy the spring weather, the plant sale offers an opportunity to support “hyper-local agriculture,” to buy rare and unusual varieties — such as the ghost hot pepper, which Pederson said is supposed to be the hottest hot pepper — and to learn from knowledgeable staff and volunteers.
“It is a real community experience,” Pederson said.