Get Growing: A tomato module grows in Manhattan, plus CSAs for pollinator-friendly plants

  • Verbena on a Stick brings in butterflies like this American Lady.  TNS

For the Gazette
Published: 5/27/2020 8:44:48 AM

It’s been a while since I wrote about New Yorkers’ fascination with tomato plants. As I have observed in past columns, tomato plants show up in the darnedest places in The City That Never Sleeps. Last year I wrote about a lone tomato plant growing on a pier out in the East River that was so popular it had its own Twitter account. I’ve recently read in The New York Times about another very different kind of tomato-esque spectacle.

If you happen to be strolling down Fifth Avenue past the Guggenheim Museum (unlikely, I know), you will come across a large, rectangular structure that looks like a cross between a shipping container and a greenhouse emitting neon pink light and filled with cherry tomato plants. I haven’t seen it with my own eyes, but judging from the photographs in the Times, it looks as if some benevolent extraterrestrials decided that New Yorkers, beleaguered by the coronavirus pandemic, needed some cheering up.

The explanation isn’t quite as fanciful, but it’s equally sweet. The Guggenheim Museum had opened an exhibition titled “Countryside, The Future,” but the coronavirus came along, and the museum was forced to shutter the show. But the tomato-growing module outside the museum was already up and running and couldn’t simply be turned off.

The tomato project comes from a company called 80 Acres Farms that grows organic produce in controlled indoor environments that provide ideal growing conditions for year-round cultivation.

The Brioso tomato plants are tended daily by David Litvin, an indoor-crop specialist who works for 80 Acres. He maintains ideal temperature, humidity and light levels for the plants. The neon pink light isn’t for aesthetic effect; it provides light from the slice of the spectrum that tomato plants use most efficiently for growing. Every week he trims the vines, yielding approximately 100 pounds of tomatoes that are given to City Harvest to be distributed to the hungry.

By the way, Brioso tomatoes are technically “cocktail” tomatoes, larger than cherry tomatoes but smaller than regular tomatoes. They are very sweet and grow in a compact configuration, which makes them well-suited to greenhouse cultivation.

Like their country cousins, these tomato plants need to be pollinated. Litwin brings in small beehives that have special doors that open and close on a timer system. This way, he can allow the bees to do their thing while he’s out of the module.

Guggenheim curator Troy Conrad Therrien told The New York Times that he hopes this outdoor portion of the exhibition is even more relevant in the face of the current pandemic. “The supply chains are not just being disrupted but being reconfigured. Cities are battlegrounds in the pandemic, and the ability to move agriculture into cities is no longer just a flight of fancy for agriculture students who want to put gardens on top of skyscrapers.”

Litvin takes pride in his crop of tomatoes. As he told the Times, “When you grow tomatoes on Fifth Avenue, you want to have the perfect tomatoes, there’s no room to mess up. If I have ugly plants, I’ll hear it from the neighbors.”

CSAs for pollinator-friendly plants

Pollinators need all the help they can get these days, and there’s an exciting new way to support them. Pioneer Valley-based nonprofit Local Harmony has worked with three local farms to create new regenerative pollinator CSAs this year. Instead of providing vegetables or seed starts, herbs or plant starts, these CSAs will provide organically grown, native pollinator perennials to increase pollinator habitat in the landscape around us. The three CSAs are That’s A Plenty Farm in Hadley, Kohl Gardens in Wendell and Wing and A Prayer Nursery in Cummington.

Owen Wormser, co-founder of Local Harmony, said that he got the idea for this project last August. “The time just seemed right for this concept in our community,” he said. With a number of local nurseries focused entirely on pollinator plants and lots of interest among gardeners in creating pollinator-friendly habitats, he sees a market for this type of CSA. Wormser enjoys being able to facilitate an endeavor such as this by bringing together people with common goals. “I work as an intervenor,” he said. “The role of Local Harmony is to promote this idea. I want to get the word out and see what happens.”

By signing up for a share directly with one of these nurseries and becoming a member, participants will be able to pick out and take home plants later in the season. Details about how this works with each respective nursery can be found by contacting the nurseries. All three CSAs can be accessed via Local Harmony’s website: localharmony.org/regenerative-csa. Or you can access them directly at thatsaplentyfarm.com/csa; kohlgardens.com/nursery; and aliceskitchenathoneyhill.com/amys-nursery.

Mickey Rathbun, an Amherst-based lawyer turned journalist, has written the Get Growing column since 2016.


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