Karen Washington’s Breakfast Is Jet Fuel for Changing the World

updated May 30, 2019
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
Post Image
(Image credit: Amanda Pham)

Welcome to Kitchn’s series My Superpowered Morning, where we show you how interesting people use their morning routine to help them fuel the rest of the day.

Karen Washington, urban farmer extraordinaire, is a woman so devoted to happiness, she called her urban farm in the Bronx The Garden of Happiness. Her commitment to the joys of growing your own food is so inspiring that one conversation with her could make the least earthy person suddenly want to get into gardening. I can’t keep a succulent alive and even I was googling “local urban farms” and fantasizing about springtime volunteer gigs the minute we hung up.

(Image credit: Amanda Pham)

After more than 30 years as a physical therapist, Karen co-founded Rise and Root Farm in upstate New York. Now she splits her time between the farm and her home in the Bronx where she works at The Garden of Happiness or City Farms Market, two Bronx institutions that she also co-founded.

Karen packs two months’ worth of world-changing work into each week. And technically, she’s retired. When she’s not in nature, she’s teaching classes, speaking on panels, and getting hugs from the future farmer kids who look up to her as a role model.

We chatted with Karen about everything from how she starts her day to recipe secrets to community activism.

So you retired from a long career, and now you work even harder.

If you’re in the garden or in the farm and you’re planting, don’t get me wrong, it’s labor-intensive. I come home and I’m aching, but I come home satisfied and I feel fulfilled because for me, farming and gardening is spiritual.

Do I have to farm and garden? No. I could easily take this time to go on a cruise or read books. But I chose this time to be with nature. I want to be a role model. I want people to see me as a black woman farmer and see the potential of what they can be. Just as we attend to the diversity of our plants and our vegetables, we also should attend to the diversity that we see amongst our farmers and workers.

I’m out there each and every day just making sure that people understand that food is a right for all and not a privilege for some. I never look at it as hard, and I never question what I do. I just do it for the love of it.

(Image credit: Amanda Pham)

What got you inspired to start urban gardening?

In 1985 I bought a new house with a big backyard in the Bronx, and I decided that I wanted to grow food. I had no training whatsoever so I started with just four plants: green peppers, eggplant, tomatoes, and collard greens. And it was a tomato that really, really got me.

I thought a tomato was pale and came in cellophane, and I used to hate them. I put that seed in the ground, nurtured it, and found out how red a tomato could be. And then when I picked it and bit into it, the taste and flavor were so sensational that I wanted to know everything, and I wanted to grow everything. I found that passion.

Across the street from my house was an empty lot, and that’s where the activism comes in. Moving into a new home, to have an empty lot across from where you live that’s full of garbage, people start to say “Why did you move here? You live in garbage!” For three years it was like that until out of my window I saw a man with a shovel and a pick. I went over there and asked, “What are you doing?” He said, “I’d like to start a garden,” and I said, “Can I help?” So in 1988 The Garden of Happiness, a community garden for the Bronx, was born. This year, the garden is celebrating its 30th birthday.

(Image credit: Amanda Pham)

What was the most surprising challenge you faced when you first started farming?

Being black and female. If you look at the census, the numbers are dismal in terms of black farmers, not only in New York State but across the country. But that never stopped me, because I always used being a black woman as an asset. I always felt that I would use that as a way to break down doors and break down barriers.

What breaks my heart time and time again is when young kids come up to me and they touch me and say “We’ve never seen a black farmer! We’ve never seen a black female farmer!” And they hug me and then they leave saying one day they want to be like me. They’re my inspiration.

(Image credit: Amanda Pham)

What time does your day start?

In the summer, I start working on the farm or at the community garden at 8 a.m., so I have to get up early.

What’s the most important part of your morning routine?

Gratitude. I start my day with solitude and prayer. I wake up and give thanks, because waking up is a blessing.

What does your typical morning routine look like?

After I take some time to get quiet and pray, I always look at CBS News just to find out what’s going on in the world and make sure we’re okay. Then I take a shower, feed my cats, go downstairs, and eat breakfast.

What’s your go-to breakfast?

Breakfast depends on my appetite. Today I had granola with bananas and raisins and walnuts; yesterday I had two eggs from my chicken coop with salmon and grits. I look for balance at breakfast, so if one day I have eggs, the next day I’ll have cereal.

(Image credit: Amanda Pham)

What are the first steps new urban gardeners should take to start gardening?

First of all, dream big and don’t be afraid. Go out there and remember that it’s okay to get your hands dirty. There are so many places to garden: urban farms, community gardens, front yards, backyards, even windowsills. There are plenty of places that need you.

Sometimes it’s as simple as going the park or a public garden and asking if you can volunteer.

A lot of schools now are starting a school garden and the big challenge that they have is that once school is over, there’s no one to take care of the plants during the summer. Jump in and pick up that slack during the summer months when the teachers are away but the gardens are still there.

(Image credit: Amanda Pham)

What is your favorite vegetable to grow now?

Collard greens, definitely. I like collard greens because they’re a testament to my culture and a staple at every event: Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, Easter. If you had a table in my family and you ain’t got collard greens, something is wrong.

How do you cook your collard greens?

Listen, I have a secret: I like to mix my greens. I mix collard greens with kale, mustard greens, and turnip greens. I cut them up fine and let them cook until they’re tender, with sliced onions and smoked turkey. I sprinkle in some crushed pepper and add a tip of vinegar. They’re slammin‘.

My daughter has taken over collard greens at family events and I’m proud of that, because my mother taught me and I taught her how to make them. Her greens are good too!

If you could have one superpower, what would it be?

Strength! I want to be able to move things like Superwoman.

(Image credit: Amanda Pham)

Do you have music that you listen to when you’re farming?

I am a sports fanatic. Sports. Fanatic. I’ve been a Yankees fan since 1964, so when I’m out there I’m trying to listen to sports radio. I’ve got to find out what’s going on with my team! I need to know if there were any trades, who’s pitching tonight, and who’s pitching for the other side.

Who’s your favorite baseball player?

Before he retired it was Derek Jeter, but now it’s Aaron Judge.

If you could cook for Aaron Judge with stuff from the farm, what would you make?

We pride ourselves on our heirloom tomatoes, so I would definitely slice up the best striped German sliced heirloom tomato with a slice of mozzarella and a few leaves of basil, all in between homemade sourdough bread. And then I’d give him a refreshing drink of mint tea with a little lemon verbena mixed into it, right off the farm. I’ll name it the Aaron Judge sandwich.