Mary Phillips tends a lush stand of watercress at Urban Farms in the Binghamton community.
On a bright, chilly morning in late January, Josephine Williams stands inside a greenhouse and points to tiny stems shooting through moist earth. A few are weeds, she explains, but some are vegetable seedlings planted just weeks ago. Says Williams: “You learn what not to pull up.”
Williams should know. She was raised in rural Maine, where her mother grew and canned vegetables and fruits, and a neighbor raised cows. Moving away to college in a large Midwestern city taught the 28-year-old Memphis transplant a vital truth about herself: “I felt very disconnected from nature,” she says. “That was draining me, and I knew I needed greenspace to sustain me.” She found that sustenance during college breaks, when she volunteered and later worked at organic farms. “I studied geology,” she laughs, “but my farm experience taught me so much — about where the food comes from, how to get good food to people, how to engage them in the farming process.”
When romance brought her to Memphis three years ago, she first worked for Lichterman Nature Center in native plant propagation. Then an offer came that she couldn’t refuse. Today, as coordinator of GrowMemphis, she’s using that farm experience — which clearly shaped her life — to teach and assist others.
Launched in 2007 by the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center, GrowMemphis has helped 20 local communities start their own gardens, and Williams has seen their “transformative power.” Not only in providing healthy food that’s unavailable in many low-income areas, she says, “but in getting to know and care about your neighbors.”
This particular morning, she’s visiting the Angelus Street Garden in midtown. It was started when Williams, who lives on Angelus, went door to door inviting neighbors to a meeting about the GrowMemphis project. Over the past few years, seven wood-framed plots on what used to be vacant land have yielded everything from lettuce, kale, and spinach to such summer bounty as tomatoes, corn, and squash, along with strawberries, blackberries, and figs. “Look at that right there,” says Williams, pointing to a bushy brownish-green plant. “Before long it will drop its seed and this bed will be bursting with basil.” In another plot, which is covered with plastic, are leeks and garlic, planted in November.
Community gardeners may sell their produce at one of various farmers markets around town. “But primarily they eat it, cook it, and share it,” says Williams, “reducing the family food budget.”
As GrowMemphis coordinator, Williams — who with her fiancee cultivates hops, brews beer, and tends a backyard honeybee hive — wears many hats. She holds monthly networking meetings; provides training on such topics as winter gardening, canning, and making a rain barrel; orders and distributes seeds and helps members start plants in a greenhouse; and writes grants for communities that need extra funds. She explains that any community can join GrowMemphis as long as gardeners agree to use chemical-free methods whenever possible, share information and resources, and participate in joint projects. Williams is working with four new communities this year.
While the Angelus Street Garden is composed strictly of neighbors, several other community gardens are affiliated with churches, neighborhood associations, or community development corporations. “It helps to have a structure to plug into,” says Williams, “to get the project off the ground and pull in more support.”
For example, the Uptown Community Garden, located in the mixed-income neighborhood just east of The Pyramid, is “plugged in” to the North Memphis Community Development Corporation. As one of its employees, Tanja Mitchell was asked in 2008 to start a garden on land donated by St. Stephen Baptist Church. She turned to Williams for help.
“I was raised by my grandmother, who preserved peaches and pears from her own fruit trees,” says Mitchell, an Uptown resident. “I didn’t know what [store-bought] jelly was till I was on my own, and I still don’t like it,” she laughs. “But except for flowers, I had no gardening experience myself. So I contacted Josephine and we hit it off instantly. She’s a wealth of knowledge. She explained about covering the land with cardboard, instructed me on soil.” And when the Rotary Club donated a load of manure-rich soil, Uptown gardeners showed up with shovels to fill and build up the beds. Today those beds are tended by area residents or volunteers from various churches or organizations, including Bridges, and Girls, Inc. “The Uptown community is diverse, and this community garden is representative of that,” says Mitchell. “We have some lower-income residents as members, and we’ve got lawyers and other professionals who work downtown.”
Mitchell has grown cucumbers, tomatoes, bell pepper, and okra, and plans to try such herbs as garlic this year. Her favorite vegetables are curly mustard, which is still hardy in its bed, and romaine lettuce. “You know how expensive that is,” she says, “so it felt really good to come pick it and fix a salad for dinner.” She points to a plot that was full last summer of “volunteer” tomato plants that were “so big you could hardly walk around them,” says Mitchell. “People were making lots of salsa!”
At another plot, Mitchell probes under lacy foliage and plucks a tiny carrot from the earth. Then she spots red lettuce and cabbage, curry and lavender. She pinches a sprig and sniffs it with pleasure. “The lady who grows this is going to make some lavender soap. I definitely want some of that.”
Perhaps even more satisfying than growing their own food and herbs is the fellowship enjoyed by community gardeners. “A lot of times we’ll come out here and work and you can tell if maybe somebody had a bad day,” smiles Mitchell. “They’ll be sipping on a glass of wine. Being together, talking, laughing — it’s all therapeutic. I like the sense of community.”
Her mentor, Williams, wholeheartedly agrees. “Sharing food has profound significance — breaking bread, sitting and eating together. But I also think our food just tastes better. It’s not shipped halfway across the country. It’s not bred, like commercial produce, to look exactly the same and be the same size. All that sacrifices flavor.”
Besides food and friendship, GrowMemphis fosters environmental stewardship and sustainability. “To me that means using, re-using, and recycling all your resources in a way that you don’t use them up,” Williams explains. “Encouraging composting, using these old tires as planters or to hold down tarp to kill weeds — that’s just smart use of what we already have.”
As spring approaches, Williams feels the anxiety of every farmer. Although each year she witnesses the earth’s miracle, “it still doesn’t seem possible the seed will germinate and turn into a giant tomato plant. I know it will, it does every year,” she laughs. “But there’s always that suspense, that waiting to see.”
Another organization that promotes community gardening — and will soon open a neighborhood market — is Urban Farms. Located on three acres at the end of Wills Street in Northeast Memphis, it sprawls beneath the morning sunlight, still yielding brassicas, or winter greens. Managed by Mary Phillips, the farm was formed about a year ago by several partners — including Christ Community Health Center and the Binghamton Development Corporation (BDC) — that wanted to bring nutritious alternatives to this “food desert.”
“We were concerned about obesity rates in the area,” says Phillips, who serves on the BDC board, “and we looked at the availability of food here. We saw dozens of fast-food outlets, six corner stores, but no real grocery or fresh-food stores. So the most practical way to get food in the area was to grow it here and sell it.” That plan should come to fruition when the Urban Farms Market opens later this month in a former gas station at Sam Cooper and Tillman.
Phillips, age 23 and a native Memphian, started out as a volunteer at Urban Farms until the BDC hired her as manager. Like Josephine Williams — whom she considers a good friend and colleague — she learned about sustainable agriculture while attending college. “It was in Asheville [North Carolina] and it had a working farm and garden,” she recalls. Though she majored in English, her experience at the farm, along with her study of honeybees at a bee school and later at the Peace Bee Farm in Marion, Arkansas, laid the groundwork for her knowledge of plant life and growth.
When the first two acres of Urban Farms was cleared last April, the staff and volunteers started with a test patch of leafy greens and lettuces. Later came tomatoes and watermelon. “Then it just exploded,” says Phillips, adding cantaloupes, peppers, cabbages, and onions to the harvest list. “And we still have greens, arugula, and spinach.”
This week in late January, Phillips has been planting seedlings for spring crops, including parsnips, carrots, and beets. “We get things in early because we have season extension methods — hoops and plastic covers that keep the earth warmer.”
Inside the steamy greenhouse, Phillips feeds about a thousand tilapia, which are raised in a tank topped with a tray of watercress. “The water is pumped over the watercress and into the tank and that filters out ammonium nitrates from the water, keeping the fish healthy,” says Phillips. “We sell the fish and the watercress, so everything is used.” Also in the greenhouse are big bins of dirt with red wriggler worms. “We feed them vegetable scraps and compost and they leave behind fertilizer, and these bins of dirt go into the gardens.”She stresses the importance of growing and buying locally. “We want to keep the money close to home, and at some point to help provide jobs here or train people for work at other greenhouses,” she says.
So far the community’s response has been gratifying. “Last summer the neighborhood kids came to help,” she says. “They’d collect litter, help unload compost. And of course getting to feed the fish was a big deal. It was almost like summer camp. We had well over 100 volunteers, including church youth groups. We couldn’t make it without our great volunteers.”
Looking ahead, Phillips expects to expand the garden by another acre, have chickens and goats to graze naturally and fertilize the earth, and perhaps add a honeybee hive later this spring. Meanwhile, she’s excited about the Urban Farms’ Market opening soon and selling locally grown produce, bread, honey, meat, and dairy products. Already a few restaurants are buying the Farm’s sunflower greens, sprouts, mesclun, and more.
As Phillips leaves the greenhouse and heads down a muddy path back to the open earth, she smiles and says, “I love what I do. I think I have the best job in Memphis.” For more info about community gardening, go to growmemphis.org or urbanfarmsmemphis.org.
Not everyone grows veggies with groups, but they’re still part of the urban garden scene, giving the fruits of their labor to others, and their time to local farmers markets.
One of these is Greg Coy, who moved here last September from Wilmington, Delaware, to anchor Fox13 TV’s Good Morning Memphis. Though he previously worked his green thumb in a spacious backyard, harvesting herbs, heirloom tomatoes, strawberries, and a variety of vegetables, he’s learning to adapt to a tiny fraction of that space.
Near a window in the dining area of his downtown apartment, Coy has a tray of pods that contain dirt and peat moss. In each pod is a seed and over the tray is a plastic cover to hold in the warmth and moisture. Looking out the window at a small patio, Coy reels off the different plants he hopes to nurture in that space once the seedlings are ready to transplant to pots: Tomatoes, leeks, arugula, baby bok choy, cilantro, dill, sweet peppers, rosemary, perhaps strawberries in a container attached to the balcony rail. “I’m just figuring out how to do it right now,” says Coy, who learned about gardening from his Jamaican father. “One big pot might hold a tomato plant in the middle, and around it I’ll put spices.”
Although intense heat could be a problem on his west-facing concrete patio, Coy figures he can rearrange the various containers that he’ll place outside to grow — and hopefully thrive — this spring. “The beauty of pots is, you can move them around,” he explains, “so if one is in too hot a location it can trade places with another.”
During his years as a gardener, Coy has known the heartache tending the soil can bring and the lessons it can teach. “I remember in August 2008 when the Northeast got hit with the first hailstorm I’d ever seen. My garden was wiped out. I was depressed for days. It gave me a better understanding of the risk a true farmer has.”
In appreciation for those who grow our local food, Coy volunteers at downtown’s Memphis Farmers Market. “Being around the experts who farm for a living, not as a hobby or a passion, but as their livelihood — that’s exciting to me. I like helping them sell their products and providing a service to people downtown.”
And he truly loves sharing his own garden’s harvest. “I found that fresh vegetables can open doors for fellowship and meaningful relationships,” says Coy. “There’s nothing more rewarding than putting a basket of tomatoes, zucchini, and peppers in front of friends and coworkers. They know these are from your garden, not the supermarket, and they treasure the gift.” — MS
Marilyn Sadler | Photos by Justin Fox Burks