Virginia is for Farm Lovers: Lessons on an Herb, Flower, and Seed Farm (Part Four)

The summer was coming to a close, which meant leaving my dream job of volunteering on an herb, flower, and seed farm to return to my full-time job. The realization of this made me appreciate my experience and be eternally grateful for this opportunity.

I admit, leaving the farm was both extraordinarily hard and heartbreaking — for a variety of reasons which span from personally to worldly. The fact is I am in a constant state of panic and fear when it comes to thoughts on our plant, the land, and the environment. More needs to be done to protect it, and working on this farm has instilled in me an even stronger belief that more also needs to be done to protect those that farm on the land.

The truth is there are half as many farms today than there were hundreds of years ago.

Virginia alone is a powerhouse when it comes to agriculture — The farming done in this state is some of the most diverse in the country.

Therefore, this is what I held onto as my summer volunteering days were disappearing — the opportunity to take part in something larger than myself and the opportunity to learn. I hope you’ve taken away knowledge too from my Part One, Part Two, and Part Three lessons and so, on that note, here is my last bunch of farm lessons . . .

↠ Volunteering on the Farm ↞

The harvesting board was ready again and slowly but surely I have grown in harvesting strength (read: speed) to where my name L shows a little more . . .

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A Lesson on Harvesting Mugwort
Mugwort is a massive plant — bushy and tall — so when I was told to harvest it, I was quite excited. Holding a large bin, I set to work cutting the tops of the plant that had begun to flower. This mugwort was being cut for its medicinal value — Research now shows me that it can boost energy, help the stomach, aide intestinal conditions (such as diarrhea, constipation, cramps, and vomiting), and more.

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A Lesson on Catnip
Speaking of harvesting medicinal plants, I want to take a moment to talk about the powers of catnip — and yes, that is catnip as in the catnip your kitties go crazy over (which, by the way, fresh catnip serves as an aphrodisiac for cats so I learned it is actually quite frustrating to them to be around it.)

Back to humans: Catnip is a digestive aid because it is helps bloating and gas. It also calms the nervous system and is seen as a mood stabilizer; therefore, it can be used to treat insomnia, anxiety, and headaches. Importantly (at least for females), it is anti-spasmodic for smooth muscles, such as the heart and uterus. This means it helps alleviate cramps.

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To use when that time of month rolls around, test catnip properties by using half of the suggested amount but for me, I take a palmful of the leaves and flowers (seen on the far left), drop them into a mug, and pour boiling water over them — the way one would to make an herbal tea. Another interesting catnip fact is the entire catnip plant can be used all the way down to the roots!

Catnip has a light woody, natural taste so it was recommended for me to pair it with peppermint mint (seen on the right) — Peppermint is known to cool, too. Oh, and another recommended pairing: Nettle because it replaces iron due to loss of blood.

A Lesson in Harvesting Camomile
Speaking of medicinal, Camomile is a war-horse in the medicinal world. It is known to be similar to yarrow because it is calming, camomile is a great sleep and digestion aid. It is also packed with antioxidants that research now tells me may lower disease risks, such as heart disease and cancer.

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When harvesting camomile for medicinal purposes, it is best to pluck the blooms that have the white petals falling directly under the disks/middles. Rain came on suddenly though so it was a dash to get as many of the farm’s flowers plucked, cut, and gathered so I tried to fill my bucket with as many camomile blooms as quickly possible . . . which, let’s be honest, I’m new to this so I’m extremely slow compared to everyone else who is experienced here!

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A Lesson on Other Medicinal Herbs
I’ve written before where my most prized farm lessons are ones that span medicinal herbs. I learned medicinal herbs fall into three categories: unnerving, sedative, then hypnotic.

Looking at other specific herb lessons, I was taught lemon balm is wonderful for the nervous system and skullcap helps with panic attacks.

A Lesson on Harvesting Gaillardia
Gaillardia flowers are from the sunflower family and come in practically every color. Also noteworthy: They are said to be drought-resistant.

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A Lesson on Harvesting . . . Grass
Yep, you read that right: Grass.  I harvested bunny tails (pictured first below), fire explosion (pictured second below), and another type that I am forgetting but all are grasses. Grasses! The farm’s owner told me through a smile, “A part of me does die when I plant and harvest grass” but it’s for a simple but important lesson that I learned: All plants are beautiful, even grass.  Tall grasses can be used in bouquets while the shorter ones can be used in boutonnieres. I confess, those first ones are quite pretty!

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A Lesson on Harvesting Dara
Dara is in the carrot family, which is known for wilting so great care has to be taken when harvesting it. Only the large and fully bloomed Dara are ready to be cut; otherwise, the little blooms will wilt. Looking at the big delicate blooms, they are very similar to yarrow.

Okay now sad Dara facts: Other farmers are growing pollen-less flowers, which is exactly as they sound. These flowers lack pollen so pollen does not drop on tables when people put them in vases at home. I say this is sad news because by choosing to farm pollen-less flowers, these farmers are choosing sterile flowers, which means bees, butterflies, birds, and more do not get any food. What is even worse is these animals do not damage Dara . . . so now imagine rows and rows of beautiful flowers like these at other farms but not one feeding a bee. When the owner told me all of this information, she confessed there is nothing sadder than going to a sterile sunflower farm and not seeing a single bird. I agree whole-heartedly. Further, knowing humans have engineered flowers to be sterile — The combination of these facts is honesty a travesty. This is also why I respect this farm owner, her farm ethics, and her farm so very much.

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A Lesson on Bouquets
The flowers here are purchased for businesses (such as florist shops and restaurants), people (who want beautiful flowers at home), and weddings. When picking flowers for weddings, the top most care goes into the color and size. While I did not graduate to wedding bouquet, boutonnière, and arrangement flower-cutting, I did learn that before flowers are arranged, they need to rest for six to eight hours after they are cut.

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A Lesson on Harvesting Garlic
Super cool lesson I learned involved garlic: Garlic is sun-sensitive, which is how it got a reputation involving vampires.

At this farm, garlic is harvested from 6:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. — This time allows for morning light sun rays and also cooler temperatures versus the afternoon and evening heat.

When harvesting garlic, the garlic is not far in the ground so with a light tug on the green bunches, the garlic can be removed. From there, we immediately placed them in covered black bins so that our once packed garlic lines turned to these nice, fresh soil rows.

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Overall, volunteering on this farm did more than reaffirmed my love of plants. My time taught me to put aside some preconceived notions about certain plants, to embrace the beauty of others, and to welcome all lessons plants teach.

In the end, plants are truly remarkable — not only because nature can produce something so stunning but because plants can cure; they are medicinal. At a bare minimum, too, they cured me — That quiet time cutting flower stems is one I cannot describe. It is cathartic and the mind slips deep within itself in the most simple and beautiful way. At the start of this global pandemic and time of uncertainty and fear, plants healed me — They provided stability and reassurance. They would be there — today, tomorrow, and the next day — and I could help plant, cut, and harvest them as best I could and they would never complain but instead continue to grow. There is so much beauty in that.

Farm work is also incredibly rewarding — With hard work, rows upon rows of plants can be weeded, pulled, and cut down, leaving glorious mounds of soil ready for new plants to go in.

And farming taught me patience — Not all jobs need to be done quickly and over-the-top. Some can be done methodically and silently, and in fact — I would rival to say these tranquil jobs are the best.

There are so many lessons I learned from my time on this farm that I could live a lifetime dedicated to the cause and still not learn all, but I suppose this is merely the start and for that, I am incredibly grateful.

Until next summer and more farm lessons . . .

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