Interview the Gardener: Sara Finkle

Interview the Gardener: Sara Finkle

We're incredibly fortunate to have an awesome team of plant-loving people here at Cornell Farm, and we want to show them off! That's why, every so often, we try to sit down for a one-on-one conversation with one of our team members so that you can get to know them better. In today's "Interview the Gardener" segment, we're excited to share our recent conversation with Sara Finkle. You likely recognize her from the Patio where she works among the annuals and perennials, and you might have even seen her as the star of our recent video on pollinator gardening, but did you know that Sara is also an awesome resource for kitchen gardeners? It's true! Keep reading to learn more about our very own Sara Finkle.

Tell us about your gardening situation at home. How would you describe yourself as a gardener?

Last winter, we moved into a really cool rental that has this awesome yard with tons of fruit trees, native plants, and flowering perennials. So, I’ve really had a lot of fun this year getting to learn things I never knew about growing fruit, watching stuff come up and having to figure out what it is — not to mention trying to fit all of my own plants into the space! But that’s a good problem to have: more plants than space.

I think I’ve gone through a few different phases as a gardener. I definitely started with all veggies many years ago, and then I got more interested in herbs — both culinary and medicinal. Now that I’ve worked at the Patio for two seasons, I’ve shifted to have a lot more interest in growing flowers, as well, and I’m trying to slowly but surely learn more about natives as I have the time.

I think many gardeners identify with that journey: Our focus may shift, but plants are always at the heart of what we do. What first got you started with plants?

From a very early age, gardening was something that my mom was really into. She’s mostly an ornamental flower grower, so that’s what I grew up with. But when I was around seven or eight years old, there was an empty lot next to where I grew up, and I came up with the idea that we should plant a vegetable garden there. So my mom and a couple of neighbors were super obliging, and they basically did all the work to plant a veggie patch for us kids to learn about. Once I became a teenager, I realized I was actually pretty interested in vegetable gardening, and I got to work on some farms, and it’s kind of just built from there!

That’s really cool! So where did your interest in pollinators come from, then? I imagine many people recognize you from our video on pollinator gardening from earlier this year. Where does that come into play in your gardening journey?

Back when I was a freshman in college — a very long time ago — I got involved with a book publisher that was putting on a film festival about sustainable agriculture, and I volunteered to be on the planning committee. Screening all these documentaries at 18 introduced me to so many different topics that have impacted the course of my life. That was the first time I really thought about bees and their plight.

Since then, the conversation has really shifted way from European honeybees and towards our native pollinators. I think what’s cool is that as I’ve become more aware of the huge diversity of native bees that we have in Oregon, I have started to notice them out in the world. I remember a friend of mine gave me a poster from the Oregon Bee Atlas, and the first time I saw a sweat bee, I was like “Oh, that’s a metallic sweat bee! That’s from my poster!” It was a really cool moment. I feel like it’s an ongoing thing, and I want to keep on learning and sharing what I’ve learned. I don’t consider myself an expert, but I’ve been really fortunate to learn from people that are.

What do you personally find most rewarding about working with plants?

You know, at home, I always call it “playing with my plants.” I find a lot of joy in taking care of them and watching them grow. And I love learning! I think that’s true for all of the staff here: If a guest asks a question and we don’t fully know the answer, we go home and read up, and then we know more the next time. And then, when a guest has an even tougher question, we get to do it again and keep building our knowledge base. That’s a really cool cycle.

I love getting to see what happens when you put different plants together, either because they’re aesthetically pleasing, or because they’re thematically linked, or maybe you’re even playing with an idea from ecology. I’m actually pursuing a masters degree in library sciences, so I guess it’s not a huge surprise that I find organizing plants into alphabetical order or grouping them taxonomically really interesting. I’m personally trying to grow one plant from every order of Angiosperms in my own garden.

I love that goal! So as your collection grows, I imagine this answer changes, but I have to ask: Do you have a favorite plant that you grow?

I don’t know if you’re familiar with the song, but I think it’s true that there’s nothing on earth like homegrown tomatoes! If I could only grow one thing, that’s definitely what it would be. Just the smell of the foliage alone makes me happy. Every year at the end of the season, I do a tomato review, and I write down how each variety of tomato performed and how it tasted, and usually each year the winner is a large yellow heirloom variety called ‘Moonglow.' I first got it from a community garden seed exchange several years ago, and I’ve been saving the seeds every year since. This year I’m trying to grow a full rainbow of tomatoes, so I have seven varieties in seven different colors to try! I’ll have to report back on the results of this year’s taste test.

Please do! So before we go, is there anything else you’ve been particularly excited by in the garden lately, or any other recent takeaways?

Honestly, it’s been a hard year in the garden, and I’m not quite reaping the big vegetable rewards that I was hoping I would be. I did try growing a new herb, though! I found some blue fenugreek at a seed swap earlier this year, and I’ve always seen in cookbooks as a requirement for cooking basically all Georgian food — as in the Republic of Georgia — and where do you ever get that? So I took those seeds and planted them, and I actually just harvested them a couple of weeks ago. I only had three plants grow, so it was a modest harvest, but still very cool.

We also got chickens this year! The first ones have just started laying, so that’s very exciting. I love that I get to weed the garden to feed the chickens, and they turn the weeds into eggs, and then I eat the eggs and turn them into a baby! I was just looking back at my journals from the first trimester of pregnancy, and I was writing about how I feel so tired and nauseous all the time, but the only time that I don’t feel that way is when I go out into the garden. I don’t know why that is, necessarily — I guess there are those “feel good” chemicals that you release when you break up dirt — but whatever it is, it’s been really cool to experience.