By Tallahassee May, Growing Together Education Manager
On any morning during the spring and summer, the Growing Together garden is a bustling place. The greens sparkle in the dampness and gentle, early light. The farmers, moving back and forth from their plots to the central washing station, are usually harvesting their crops to fill vegetable orders from restaurants around the city. Discreetly tucked behind a church parking lot, nestled in between Nolensville Rd. and interstate 40, the one acre garden is an urban oasis as well as a model for small scale agricultural productivity.
One of my favorite parts of my job as Education Manager of the Growing Together Program at TNFP is getting to walk through the garden in the morning with fresh eyes. Inevitably, while I spent time at the office for the afternoon or was home for the weekend, the farmers have added something new to their plots. This usually takes the form of a farming technique or innovation that may not previously fit with my experience.
Any farmer or gardener is familiar with the practice of trellising a vining crop, mulching, or seed-saving. And while most of us would run to the nearest Lowe’s or Home Depot for supplies, the New American farmers of the Growing Together program often make other choices. Foraging branches from the surrounding scrubby woods, they build support structures out of the salvaged material, sharpening with their knives the ends of the sticks until they are pointy enough to sink deep in the ground. The material is held together with strips of fabric or even the heavy duty plastic from fertilizer bags, tied securely at the joints. The towering structures remind me of fantastical childhood forts. The affect is incredibly artistic and lends a beautiful aesthetic to the space. It may not be fitting for larger scale production, but is perfectly suited for the amount of crops being grown by each farmer, the resources that are readily available, and the financial investment that is desired.
Entering through the gate of the garden, any visitor is welcomed by the crazy quilt-like visual of all the work taking place. The one-acre field is divided up into 7 plots; the newer farmers having a smaller growing space than the more experienced ones. Each farmer is autonomous, planting the crops they want and working according to their own schedule. All the farmers share practicing certain techniques. The yellow flowers of the blooming mustard greens are left on the plant to eventually mature into dried seedpods. Sometimes these long stalks are tied into neat bundles as they dry, and sometimes they are left to sway in the wind. The seed saved in many cases is of certain crops that are hard for the New American farmers to source here in the States, such as a Nepali variety of mustard green, or a particularly hot pepper variety.
If you can look more closely, past the long stems of seed -ripening vegetables, you will notice a lack of bare dirt. Every little bit of space in the garden is well used, as larger crops are interspersed with smaller crops, slow growing crops mixed in with fast. Although sometimes a more Westernized practice of straight rows is used, more often the entire 3 foot wide bed is filled with various crops at various stages. Again, this doesn’t necessarily fit well in a larger scale agricultural situation, especially one that uses tractors for cultivating. But maximizing space through the technique of intercropping is perfectly appropriate technique for a farmer in a small space that wants to maximize the food they produce.
This time of year, as we transition from spring to summer crops, the farmers are replacing cool weather vegetables with heat loving ones. New seedings and transplants are carefully mulched using the pulled up leaves and plants from the previous crop. The large, flat leaves of old cabbage plants are gently laid over new rows of carrots, keeping the soil moist and cool as the seeds germinate. Old stalks of kale are pulled up and now form tents over tender squash transplants, nursing them until they are well established in their new home. Eventually the re-purposed mulch returns to the dirt as compost, feeding the soil biology and keeping the circle intact.
The narrative of these times is one of rapidly disappearing farmland and the demise of the family farm. Driving through Nashville’s surrounding rural areas and counties, it is obvious how quickly the farmscape and green space is being transformed into subdivisions and parking lots. The Growing Together market farming program is inspiring in so many different ways, and has the capacity to mean various things and include a broad reach of people. One of the most inspiring components for me is that the garden space, and the farmers that work it, demonstrates that large acreage or big equipment are not required for a healthy agricultural system that produces a bounty of food. The Nashville Food Project believes that the equitable sharing of food and resources nurtures a vibrant community. The Growing Together program extends that mission to include land access and market inclusion to people who otherwise may not have such needed resources.
This acre of green space that is the Growing Together garden is a wonder. The beauty of it is not only found in the vegetables and flowers that the farmers cultivate and in the generous bounty they produce for the Nashville community, but also in the care and devotion the farmers and their families give back to their small bit of earth. The garden is a small part of all that The Nashville Food Project works to achieve, but the Growing Together market farming program shows that meaningful work can begin with what we have available right before us.
Between May and October, you can visit the Growing Together farmers at the Richland Park Farmers’ Market every Saturday 9 am to 12:30 pm, and at The Nashville Food Project in the Nations every Wednesday 5 pm to 7 pm.