College guys try weeds

"Do you want to try some chickweed?" I get laughs, and more questions: "What's that?" "Is it a weed or a vegetable?" "What will it do to me?"

I scoop up a few more sprigs of this rampant, delicate garden weed from our greenhouse beds and hand them to the fraternity brothers that've come to volunteer today.  A couple try it and nod ambiguously.

Chickweed in bloom

Chickweed in bloom

"Tastes like grass!" they say with smiles.  At least they seem to like it.

Dozens of groups come to volunteer at the farm each season.  Churches, businesses, school groups, clubs from the university, and a ton of fraternities and sororities.  I've been wracking my brain about how to best take advantage of the captive audiences, and especially the Greeks.  They are not much older than our youth crew, immersed in college life, being fed by their house, and majoring in fields like business, marketing, economics, and political science.  They come from a wide array of backgrounds in suburban and urban areas, and while some of them helped out in their grandparents' gardens as children, few have much direct experience growing food.  Or even wondering where their food comes from.

This particular fraternity, Alpha Sigma Phi, has been one of the most consistent to volunteer since I started at the Youth Farm two years ago.  I recognize most of them now, which is starting to give me hope that we can have a real impact on their lives.  I asked the returning members to recap what they know already for their new brothers, and it was the first time I'd done this and gotten meaningful responses.  They're starting to remember!

We broke them off into different groups: filling seeding trays, prepping trays for next week's seeding party, weeding the greenhouse garlic, and going after the weeds in our new big greenhouse.  Chickweed, speedwell, purple dead nettle, and grasses had overtaken our long beds of spinach, salad lettuces, and escarole.  In fact, the whole greenhouse had become a sea of low-growing vines that were slowly strangling the greens.  The greenhouse crew went to town on it all, and by the end of the day the space was transformed.

I kept rotating back and forth between groups to make sure everyone had what they needed to get their projects done.  In the middle of one of these rotations, I was showing a couple guys which paths to run a wheel hoe through, and happened to be standing on the other edge of a patch of flowering arugula.  The buds are one of my favorite additions to salads: nutty, spicy, and a bit sweet.  I plucked a couple from the patch and handed them to the hoers.

"What part do I eat?"

Arugula buds and flowers

Arugula buds and flowers

"The whole thing!" I say while breaking off a handful of tips to bring to the others.  In between more questions and offering sprigs and endless comments, they all took the flowering tips and one by one nibbled, chomped, or inhaled them.  Some wanted more.  No one balked.  In my mind, a wildly successful volunteer party.