Final Call for the Earl of Edgecombe: My Last Day at Silver Heights Farm

by Lee Houck

I started working for Silver Heights Farm in 2013, but by then Trina had already been bringing her thousand-some varietals of organic seedlings to Union Square Greenmarket more than ten years. I felt late to the party. “What should I know,” I asked her on my first day — an incredibly naive and uncomplicated thing to ask someone growing more than three hundred kinds of tomato plants. “Just follow along,” she told me, “You’ll start to pick it up.”

I quickly learned that Silver Heights customers were fanatical, obsessive, loyal and curious. They were artists and architects, therapists and writers, huge rooftop and tiny windowsill gardeners, NYU students, lawyers and waitresses, Oscar-nominated actors, retired postal workers, dog walkers, and jet-setting transgender fashion models. They were optimists and realists at the same time. They understood that growing food and making a space for cared-for plants is sometimes an experiment in hope and good fortune and it can take years to figure out what works best for you. We wished them all luck. We reassured them that they could do it. We hugged a lot of people before they walked away with their first ever basil plant.

Seed-saver, Trina Pilonero of Silver Heights Farm, sold rare and heirloom seedlings including three dozen kinds of cucumbers and three hundred types of tomatoes at the Union Square Greenmarket for over 15 years.

At the beginning of the 2015 season, Trina announced her retirement — September 9, also her birthday, would be her final day at market. She’ll move eventually to West Virginia to be closer to one of her daughters, and to warmer weather. She’ll have a garden of her own! We started telling people: This is your last chance to get the Sinister Minister Cherry Tomato, the Earl of Edgecombe, the Black Sea Man, the Jaune Flamme (which would end up being my favorite.) Not to mention the Yellow Wonder Strawberries, the Santa Barbara Rosemary, the Victoria Rhubarb, the Collective Farm Woman melon, the Scuplit, the Toraziroh, the Orach, the Wild fennel which, we promised, would grow tall and then taller than you — you might have it for years.

As the weeks went by and September 9 loomed closer and closer, the customers arrived each day bereft, grieving and unsure. “What am I going to do?” they all asked, “You cannot retire.” They were joking, but they were not joking. They were happy that would be Trina getting a much-deserved respite from the alarm clock at 2:20am — but they weren’t kidding when they said they’d be miserable without her plants and her wisdom. We tried to keep the tears to a minimum — I’m retiring, she’d say, I’m not dead! — but every day, someone would lose it. When you grow plants for people, you’re also giving them self-sufficiency. In many cases, (the aji dulce pepper, the soldier bean, the poona kheera cucumber, for example,) you’re giving them the foods that make up their memories — a direct line to generations of family culture and ritual.

Trina changed my garden, and my life. Working beside her for twelve or thirteen hours at a time, moving through seasons of what-to-grow-when and how-to-plant and where-best-to, I count those days as some of the most rewarding: dense with learning and filled with friendship.

At the end of every market day, after the plants, the tables, the signs, the tents, after loading all of it back into the truck, Trina and I would take turns pouring water from a jug over each other’s hands and arms. It started as a practical necessity, a way to clean up a bit, maybe wash off some of that yarrow that you brushed up against — but it soon was a minor ceremony that we both enjoyed. So on that last day we did that one last time, pouring and scrubbing our fingers. Crying and laughing and embracing.

Lee and Trina on her final day at Union Square Greenmarket, September 9, 2015, which also happened to be her birthday.

Lee Houck was born in Chattanooga, TN and, in 2016, celebrates 19 years of living and working in New York City. His work includes essays, stories and poems published in Corium, Sixfold, Trunk Books and The Billfold, as well as three artsy chapbooks, and an old school printed zine, Crying Frodo. His novel, Yield, was published in 2010. He has worked behind tables at the Union Square Greenmarket every week since 2006. More at LeeHouck.com.

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