When we moved to Prince Edward County from Toronto ten years ago, I had the good fortune to be invited to join a women’s collective: a ‘work group’. It made my transition to country living much smoother and the cultivation I wanted to do at our farmhouse much easier. The group is now an important part of our life’s rhythm.
Every Tuesday morning six of us take turns meeting at one of our houses for a two-and-half-hour work period. The work can be anything we request but it is most often centered on our organic gardens. All of us live in a rural setting and all of us have huge gardens by both city and country standards. Twenty-five hundred square feet or larger is not be an exaggeration. Although we have some respite during the winter months, the spring, summer and fall are unbelievably busy.
Imagine April or May, looking out on a very large, weedy, messy plot of ground with a few black tarps weighted down by a myriad of rotting planks, metal fence posts, stones and bricks. There are also some old tomato stakes that managed to withstand the months of snow and fierce winds and the remains of some old dead squash and kale plants. No big deal. Just yank out the old plants; dig two feet down to remove those unearthly thistles and weeds; rototill; spread a pickup truck’s worth of sheep manure; rake; reposition the 50’ x 12’ tarps where appropriate and start planting! Now, imagine a group of friends, one by one unloading pitchforks, rakes, wheelbarrows and, our favourite, ladies’ spades. We’re all gung ho and everyone is carrying a contribution to the wonderful potluck lunch we have every week after finishing a morning of hard work. We’re off and all of a sudden the task ahead does not seem so daunting. In fact, not only does all the onerous work get done, but the onions, flageolets, leeks and various types of peas are also planted.
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Unfortunately, the weeding never, ever ends but come late spring and early summer, it’s time to plant everything else: potatoes, carrots, bok choy, pak choi, Swiss chard, kale, lettuce, beans, kohlrabi, beets, basil, rosemary, various kinds of peppers and eggplants, zucchini, cucumbers, squash, watermelon, cantaloupe, artichokes, sunflower seeds, gladioli and, not only planting but staking, 45 heirloom tomato plants. Believe it or not, all this too gets done in one work session.
With late summer and early fall comes some serious harvesting and the accompanying canning and pickling. After picking numerous baskets full of cucumbers (I’m always begging friends to take some off my hands) or bushel baskets of tomatoes, when I think I can’t bear to look at another cucumber or tomato again, I remind myself that in no time at all I will be forced to eat tasteless hothouse tomatoes and cucumbers for the next nine months.
Every fall I think I’m out of my mind as the jars of pesto, dill pickles, chutneys, antipasto, pickled beans and 60 to 70 quart jars of tomatoes pile up in the kitchen. I’m always looking for any free counter space or stovetop to put jars. Walking over and around the multiple canning pots, jugs of vinegar or boxes of jars and lids without tripping is a miracle. Anyone who belongs to a work group during this period is very fortunate indeed. In fact, during one recent session we managed to both harvest and can 40 quarts worth of tomatoes in one morning. But oh my, it is such a beautiful and rewarding sight when it is all finished.
The last fall tasks involve putting the garden to rest; bringing in plants such as rosemary or lemon grass that can be wintered indoors; and planting and mulching the hundred plus garlic buds. With a friend from the city, who is an avid roof top gardener and married to a French chef, I plant hundreds of bulbs. In fact, the goal this year is 500. Vampires beware!
Two members of our group have vineyards, one commercial and the other personal. This often involves labelling hundreds of bottles for the former and pruning or bottling and capping for the latter. Another member who makes various products from all the beehives that she and her husband have placed around the County (herbal teas, soaps, lotions and shampoos, as well as candles) employs us when she is preparing for the One of a Kind Show in Toronto. Another friend has chickens that she keeps for both the eggs and eating. The day we all helped pluck and gut 25 chickens was memorable indeed!
Every week, no matter the tasks, we look at what we’ve accomplished in two-and-a-half hours of labour , or a combined 15 and-a-half hours, as nothing short of a miracle. We give ourselves a big pat on the back and then sit down to a marvelous lunch that everyone contributes to, share gardening advice, recipes, local gossip and generally have a wonderful time together.
It’s surprising that more people don’t form these groups. We often encourage our husbands to do so especially when they start suggesting we do some of their tasks such as stocking a couple of cords of wood – not that we haven’t done that either. Many have commented on how fortunate we are and yet the work group idea is something that has always been a part of rural living. In fact, there is no reason why city friends could not do the same. I imagine many of the shared tasks would be different but no less rewarding.
– Mary Lou McQuillan
The Workgroup is the grateful recipient of a homemade Solar Dehydrator. Here’s what they do with all those sun dried tomatoes:
ALICE’S YUMMY SUN-DRIED TOMATO PESTO
Use any well-powered blender.
Everything is measured by weight.
Put in blender:
100 grams dried tomatoes (that’s about 8 large tomatoes)
2 cloves garlic (always large at my house)
50 grams nuts (pine or almonds)
50 grams basil leaves (a handful)
150 grams olive oil
BLEND at medium to high speed for about 20 seconds.
If you want finer, then blend longer.
ADD 50 grams grated parmesan cheese and a pinch of salt to your taste.
BLEND at lower speed for another 20 seconds.
Put in a clean jar and cover to seal with olive oil. It makes about 1 1/2 cups.
You can FREEZE in smaller containers, but I usually don’t add the cheese as in basil pesto.
Put on anything, including your finger!
– Alice Mennacher
This article is part of our issue FEEDING TORONTO.