Man in Overalls helps you #GrowYourGroceries!

Friday, December 18, 2009

"We made it through the depression because we had a garden..."

My grandmother this coming spring will turn 92. She grew up picking cotton on other folks' farms in "LA, Lower Al'bama," south Georgia and N. Florida. She continues to "farm" to this day. Her vegetable garden-- heavy on peas, tomatoes, squash, sweet potatoes and peppers during the summer and collards, mustards and turnips during the winter-- is one of the things that keeps her going. Born in 1918, she "didn't fall off the turnip truck yesterday."


Here she is in her garden harrowing a row with her five-year-old great-granddaughter, Mackenzie.

Ever since I started growing vegetables when I was eight-years-old, food bearing plants-- and the eating that goes along with them-- have been one of the mainstays of our relationship. When we write letters, we always end up reporting on the state of our gardens, sharing things like the purchase of a new fruit tree or a bumper crop of collards. And when I visit her, the first thing after hugging is to dig into the freezer for peas and greens; then we cook-up a skillet of corn bread and maybe heat some tomato gravy too.

I've grown up on stories from my grandmother about the Great Depression. Of course, that's not what she calls it. She refers to that period as "Hoover's Time." "Back in Hoover's Time..." she often introduces memories. And then she'll tell one of countless stories. And just perhaps I'll goad her to tell my favorite: the one about the time she put pulverized red chilies in my grandfather's snuff can because he'd promised to quit dipping in order to save money... but he didn't, and she found his can of snuff hidden out in the barn wall concealed by some "ole piece of trash." "Uuuuu Oh my!" she always concludes. "He didn't sleep all night long. Kept gettin' up to get water. Now, if he'd just told me he couldn't live without his snuff; if he'd just said, 'That's just not something I'm willin' to give up,'... ah well, but he didn't."

I don't believe I'll forget those words as long as a live. I've heard them plenty.

Another sentence that stands firm in my mind is Granny stating, "We made it through Hoover's Time because we had a garden, because we had a cow and our chickens." And knowing that she regularly worked twelve to fourteen-- even sixteen-- hour days picking cotton for 25 to 35 cents a day, I know she doesn't mean, "We were on easy street because of our garden, cow and chickens." No. What she means is that they survived--they were able to feed themselves-- because they had access to vegetables, milk, butter, eggs and occational chicken meat. In other words, the family made it through tough times because they raised food.

Today I was at the seed store (Standard Feed) in Jacksonville, FL. The man working the desk told me, "We haven't sold this many seeds in at least ten years." He then recommended that I get an early start with my spring garden because he anticipated there weren't going to be enough seeds for all the folks that want to plant.

Seems more and more folks are following in my grandmother's footsteps.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

New Community Garden

Orange Ave Apts community members, supported by Damayan volunteers, installed a 500sq.ft. raised-bed, community garden in their neighborhood. The beds are framed with recycled concrete and filled with mushroom compost. Damayan brought in a few benches. Children and volunteers planted blueberry bushes and a tangerine. Already, the garden in creating a new sense of welcome to a forgotten space in the neighborhood. When I pass through to check in with community folks, I notice people mlling around the garden to check on the growth of the newly planted collards, mustards, and flowers. Here are a few pictures courtesy of Michelle.

Mr. Oliver overseeing the compost dump.


Jacob busting up concrete.


Mr. Oliver and the Man in Overalls talking plants after spreading compost.








Trystann and William bringing over the plants.


Planting collards.


It's been an honor working with the children and adults in the Orange Ave Apartments community that are bringing food movement dreams to life.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Food Garden Certificates

Certificates available for raised-beds, fruit trees, grape trellises, loads of compost, food garden consultations, and brute garden labor.... for your fam and buddies that say whimsically, "Gee... if only I had some help to get started..."



Raised-Vegetable Gardens (4x10)
 *Square Foot Garden
*Assembled and Prepared for you to plant
*DIY Kits (including lumber, compost, and seeds)
*DIY 4x8 Economy Kits (including lumber, compost, and seeds)
Herb Gardens
Fruit Trees
Grape Trellises
Edible Landscape
Mushroom Compost Delivered
*(1/2 Truckload)
Weekly to Seasonal Gardening Services
Gardening Tutorials & Consultations
Neighborhood Garden Workshops


Send me an email with questions and/or to arrange a certificate exchange. ManInOveralls at gmail dot com (For additional services and prices, click here.) Redeemable in Tallahassee or Jacksonville areas. (Not valid without my signature)

Friday, November 27, 2009

Did I ever tell you about the night someone tried to rob me?

Before I get around to that, let me say it was a sunny, crisp and convivial Thanksgiving. My family and two visiting friends ate on the picnic table out front in the garden. The table sagged under the weight of food. Okay, that's a lie. It was, however, loaded. Loaded. Chicken--not turkey-- I daresay, marinated with rosemary, thyme, oregano and homemade white wine, all from the garden. Rosemary flavored sweet potatoes with black beans seasoned with peppers, onions and chilies. Mashed turnips. A mess of collard greens, southern style. Mustard greens, vegetarian with soy sauce. An egg-fritatta with onions, kale and beet greens. Did I mention that everything listed thus far was from the garden save the chicken, beans and onions? (The eggs for the fritatta came from a chicken-raising neighbor the next street over.) And, of course, there was stuffing and cornbread and cranberries, and only God-knows what else, but as-sure-as-I'm-alive, I ate it.

Here's a picture of a few veggies I picked the night before Thanksgiving to prepare. (Plus some honey from a neighbor up the street.)



So, did I ever tell you about the night someone broke into my truck?

It was Thanksgiving 2009.

After a hard day of, uh... eating, eating and then eating homemade apple-blackberry crisp and pumpkin pie, I sat up late talking with two friends, Geoffrey and Martha. They were sharing their plans to marry and farm in Wisconsin just across the hayfield from where Geoffrey grew up. Additionally, they spoke of their dreams to start a 50 to 100 member vegetable CSA with additional enterprises springing up around the edges such as might include goats and homemade soaps and knitted washclothes and dexter cattle and draft (animal) traction. As I listened to their visions, I suddenly heard a bump outside.

At first I thought it was our cats, but it sounded like a bucket being kicked... plus both our cats were inside. As there has been a rash of neighborhood car break-ins lately, I figured it was worth a look.

As soon as I cracked the front door and the flicked the lights on, I saw there was a guy running alongside (his) bike away, up my driveway. When he reached the road, he lept on his bike.

And I took off! "Hey! Hey man. Hey!" I yelled. He called back, "I didn't take it. I didn't get anything." Course, he was on a bike, so I was outmatched from the start. Nonetheless, at 12:30AM, barefoot, reaching in my pocket for the cellphone to call the cops, I bolted. For two and a half blocks I chased, but finally he passed out of sight over the next hill, and I stopped to gain my breath so I could talk to the dispatcher without panting.

The frustrating thing was, what I actually wanted to do was talk to the guy. He was about my age. In a weird way of looking at it, he was knocking on my door, and apparently, he was hungry or needy. (Why else would he be looking through the change-tray of my beat-up, old truck?) And, like I mentioned, we had tons of Thanksgiving food, loads of leftovers. Additionally, I know something about growing food, so just perhaps, within a few months, we could set him up with a garden of his own somewhere. Alas.

Instead of "Good evening. How's it going? Want some mashed turnips? How about roasted chicken and cranberry sauce? Or, tell-you-what, I've also got some soul-warming southern collard greens and cornbread.... What da ya say?" all that got out was: "Hey! Hey man! Hey!"

I daresay the words eluded me. I'm gonna have to work on being more articulate.

Well, a few minutes later the police showed up. I offered the best description I could muster: "Guy about my size. In a hoodie. On a bike. Real fast." One of the officers zipped off to look and the other gave me a ride back to my house. In the driveway, the officer took down my information for back-reference: name, date of birth, etc. Finally, the officer, she asked me, "So, do you have a job? You work?"

"I'm self-employed," I say.

"What's your line of work?" she questions.

"Uh... landscaping," I simplify.

"Okay," she processes offhandedly, "So, when I need some yard work done, I'll give you a call?"

"When you want a food garden," I say, "Yeah, let me know."

"A food garden?" she looked up quizzically.

"Yeah. Vegetables. Fruit trees. Stuff like that."

"Really? Because," she lights up, interested, "What I've been wanting is an herb garden."

As she continued telling me about how she wanted a little herb garden and all about her grand-mother who used to work medicine with "every kind of herb" and bark and roots and flowers and leaves, I pointed to my own raised herb garden in the beam of the squad-car headlights.

After we compared more grand-mother stories, just as the other patrol pulled into the top of my driveway, she said, "Yeah. I'm gonna have to give you a call."

- - -

My life is so wierd. Folks, really. I wear overalls. In the 21st century. In the city. I farm in the suburbs. I start gardens all over town. I stand beside the road with signs that say things like, "Grow Your Own Food and Share It."

And at 1 O'clock in the morning just after someone broke into my truck, I talked food gardens with the police, and it turns out Officer Abney wants my help to start an herb garden.

And for this, for all these things, I'm thankful.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Amidst the Construction

Here's one of the greatest things about gardens: Even in the face of neglect, they keep growing.

For most of the past three weeks, I laid the overalls aside to complete a home renovation. In preparation for my sister's belated wedding party here in Tallahassee (she lives and was married in the Seattle area), our family frantically renovated both our kitchen and bathroom. On more than one occasion, I found myself at Lowes before the sun came up and worked well past midnight in order to achieve some semblance of order before the party. Needless to say, I didn't have much time left over to garden. And yet, things continued to grow and to ripen.

Below are a few pictures from my own food garden. The bounty astounds me; I find myself surprised that so much goodness could self-create outside my windows while I struggled to refinish old cabinets. Take a look.

Turnips. We ate greens at my sister's party. Last night, we ate some of the roots in a stir-fry with onions and left-over barbecue meat.




Collards. These are just coming on line. I'm looking forward to feasting on these. Collards were the first kind of green that I ever grew. Whenever I visit my grandmother, collards are always on the menu.

Cayenne Peppers. This plant has been putting out three to five peppers a week for the better part of three or four months. For seasoning greens, meat, potatoes... chop 'em up and drop them in the oil before everything else; that way, the flavor distributes evenly, and you're not kicked in the mouth by a wallop of spice.


New Herb Garden. Oregano. Rosemary. Thyme. Basil. Dill. Fennel. Garlic Chives. Sage. Nasturtiums. Lavender. And I've got a few lettuces growing in there too. Last night we ate purple mustards seasoned with garlic chives. Last week we used a bit of rosemary to cook homefry-style sweet potatoes. And today at lunch, I ate egg salad with some fresh dill.

Pomelo (or Pummelo). This citrus monstrosity has only been in the ground two seasons and already we've got a batch of fruit: three 5 to 8 pound fruits that taste like the best grapefruit you'll ever come across. In case you can't tell, these citrus "melons" are eight inches in diameter. They'll be ready for picking within a month or so.

Amber Sweet Orange. Third season in the ground and the first year we're getting any fruit. The tree is only about three and a half feet tall. I remember tasting this one at the nursery: super sweet, easy to peel, great sections... and cold-hardy down to sub-20 degrees.

Satsuma. Look at this itty-bitty-baby tree. Only been in the ground two seasons, not even three feet tall, and it's bent over with fruit. My kind of tree.

And the bananas. The trick with bananas is that your typical grocery store banana requires two years to go from flower to ripe fruit. With our freezes here in north Florida, that would never work. These finger bananas, however, take just nine months from flower to ripe fruit. So, assuming the tree times things right, we can enjoy local bananas. Who would have guessed? Four years in the ground, this is the first year it's looking as though we'll be passing over the Chiquita stand at the grocery.

Note #1: If you're still looking to grow food and don't want to wait on spring and as it's getting a bit late to start your fall veggie garden, you've still got a few options: a)It's a fine time to start your herb garden from potted varieties available at Tallahassee or Native Nurseries. b)Winter is the best time of year to plant most fruit trees as it gives them a chance to get rooted before the fierce heat of Florida comes back around. c)Go ahead and start your fall veggie garden with plants. (Gramlings still has collards and kale and cabbage and chard and broccoli for sale.) Just know things will grow a bit slower because of the shorter days. d)Ready your garden for spring by banking it with leaves and grass-clippings.

Note #2: Just Fruits down in Medart is where I purchased all the above fruit tree varieties. If you want to blow your pre-conceived notions about what fruits can and can't be grown in north Florida out of the water, it's worth the trip.

Note #3: As a little side project, I undertook to fundraise a bit of money for the Damayan Garden Project using this personalized Damayan fundraising webpage. Already folks have chipped in $390. I'm looking to raise $500 as that's a rough estimate of the cost to install the new Damayan community garden at the Tallahassee Housing Authority site just off Orange Ave. Just like my garden, even amidst my lack of attention and solicitation, the fundraising total kept growing. Thank you for your support of Damayan, an organized piece of the Tallahassee Food Movement.

See you around town.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Economy of Kale

If I'm not mistaken, this past summer, the universities' budgets in town were struck by 95 million dollars. Add to this the collapse of the housing boom and reductions in state government spending, and what you get is a Tallahassee economy heading for hard times. In fact, for many, times are already tough. This is our current reality.

In the midst of such a financial situation, does it make sense to food garden? Is it worth it to shell out a few extra bucks upfront to either a)hire someone to plant a garden for you or b)to dig, sweat, make a run to the seed store, and plant your own garden? If money is already tight, if we're facing a tough economy, is growing food a good idea?

Think for a moment about the places hardest hit economically over the last several decades. If I had to brainstorm such a list of US cities with the worst economic fortunes, I'd name towns like Flint, Michigan, Detroit, New Orleans and inner-cities in New Jersey.

Interestingly enough, in all of these places, folks are proactively planting backyard gardens, starting community gardens, and taking strides to re-create and re-network their local food systems.

For starters, take a look at a recent article in the New York Times about Flint, Michigan: "Amid Ruin of Flint, Seeing Hope in a Garden."

Flint, Michigan
"On one side of the fertile lot stands an abandoned house, stripped long ago for scrap. On the other side, another abandoned house, windows boarded, structure sagging. And diagonally across the street, two more abandoned houses, including one blackened by a fire maybe a year ago, maybe two. But on this lot, surrounded by desertion in the north end of Flint, the toughest city in America, collard greens sprout in verdant surprise...." read more...

Next, visit Mo-town Detroit just down the road from Flint. There, an organization named The Greening of Detroit is beautifying the city with gardens and trees... including a two acre community farm in Romanoski Park that includes a teaching pavilion, playground, and a fruit tree orchard. The farm itself is tucked in amidst a sugar maple grove, a 1-mile walking trail, soccer complex, and numerous athletic fields.

Next, consider New Orleans who continues to recover both physically and economically from Hurricane Katrina.

New Orleans Food and Farm Network asks the questions: "What if you only had to walk a block or two to talk with your local farmer and your kids could see where food comes from and what a “real” farmer looks like. Remember the taste of a fresh tomato just off the vine, or salad greens picked first thing in the morning for dinner at night?"

Their website is worth quoting at length: "New Orleans Food and Farm Network envisions a city where everyone has access to fresh, healthy foods. One way to get there is by increasing the amount of food grown right here within our neighborhoods. In the last few decades we have lost sight of what’s possible to grow year round in our backyards, front yards, and climbing up our side yard fences. Our grandparents knew and they produced gorgeous tomatoes, bushels of okra, eggplant, mirliton, satsumas, grapefruits, broccoli and lettuce (to name a few).

"As our neighborhoods are rebuilt the vision of more fresh food and farmers markets seems to be a common desire among neighbors throughout the city. Weekly or monthly markets are showing up everywhere. What’s missing is the army of farmers needed to support the rapidly growing demand by chefs, retailers and consumers for local fruits and vegetables. "The Food & Farm Network recognizes this gap. For the past 6 months we’ve been talking with the handful of farmers currently growing in the city to see how we can support them in their efforts to turn their sites into models and the farmers themselves into mentors for the next generation."

Which is to say that folks in New Orleans-- in the midst of their continual recovery and economic hardship caused by 2005 Hurricane Katrina-- are strategizing to re-create their local food system.

Finally, Brick City Urban Farms is working in Newark, NJ. They grow veggies using the SPIN Farming (i.e. Small Plot INtensive farming) method on concrete and chemically contaminated vacant lots using Earthboxes. To read up on their work and to get a primer on SPIN farming, click here. Or, just watch the Youtube video below.



To wrap up, in times of continued economic stress, residents and organizations in Flint, Detroit, New Orleans and Newark are growing food for local consumption. The lesson, it seems, is that a rediscovery of our food raising potential makes sense when our wallets are thin; i.e. it's a good idea to start a garden.... right about... now.

(Okay, here's why: In a 4x10 raised bed, you can grow the equivalent of 40 kale plants. A month and a half after planting kale starts-- or collards, chard, mustards or turnips--from Gramlings, assuming adequate sunlight, you should be able to harvest four handfuls of kale per week... until sometime mid-April to early May. That means four handfuls of greens from mid December until May: 4.5 months or roughly 18 weeks. 4 handfuls x 18 weeks = 72 handfuls. Each handful of greens cost about a dollar and a half at Winn Dixie and roughly $3 for organic at New Leaf. So in six months, with one small raised-bed, you potentially can grow $216 worth of greens. That's what I call an economy of kale.)

PS- My raised-beds cost $200. In six months, you can grow back the expense. And then, of course, there's the next six months, and the next, and the next, and the next... You get the idea.

Monday, October 26, 2009

A Little Note on the Weekend with Damayan

I spent this past weekend at Lichgate with the Damayan Garden Project to receive folks stopping by as part of the 2nd Annual New Leaf Farm Tour. Amidst guiding folks through the demo garden, talking about good soil and compost, encouraging folks to peruse the silent auction tables, pointing out the labyrinth, and providing snacks, we volunteers had a bit of time to brainstorm. One idea that came up was this: as an organization, Damayan could increase its notoriety and ability to encourage food gardening by attending neighborhood association meetings all over town with a standard presentation. Said presentation would highlight a) WHY we should garden; i.e. the reasons (economic, health, environmental, communal) for food gardening, b) HOW we can garden; i.e. models of home and community gardens, and lastly c) THE WAYS DAMAYAN CAN HELP get things rolling.

Thus, if you serve on a neighborhood board and would be interested in having Damayan present, please let me know-- or email Damayan directly: damayan at yourvillage dot com.

(Just in case you didn't know: The Damayan Garden Project is a Tallahassee non-profit that specializes in food gardening education and in helping to establish community gardens. As with most things these days, if you want to learn more, take a look at their website.)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

"Tallahasseean Gothic"

"American Gothic" was painted by Grant Woods from 1930. The key components as you can clearly see are a farming couple, the pitchfork, and the background cottage "with a distinctive upper window." Notice, the man in overalls. According to Wikipedia, the painting "is one of the most familiar images in 20th century American art and one of the most parodied artworks within American popular culture."

You don't say.

Let's call it "Tallahasseean Gothic" staged from 2009. The key components as you can see are a food gardening couple, the pitchfork, and the background capital "with distinctive upper windows and dome." Notice, again, the man in overalls.




(...with major thanks to my partner in crime, Mary Elizabeth... and my mother who's behind the camera...)

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Bringing Garden Dreams to Fruition

A friend wrote me to ask, "Are you getting any business amidst all the 'awareness-raising' that you're doing?"

I am, I'm happy to report. Below is one garden project I worked on this past week: a food garden in Carol's backyard.


Carol wanted two raised beds with a small fence around them to keep her pups from digging up her winter greens. The day before I started digging, she called with a question: "Are you familiar with the Square Food Gardening (SFG) method?" "Yes," I responded,"more or less." Many people have called my attention to Mel Bartholomew's gardening approach over the years, and I'd just perused his website at length the week before. Additionally, without even knowing it, I'd been incorporating many of his ideas into my own practices in my home garden.

Carol offered me Bartholomew's book, which she'd purchased thirty years previously. "I wonder," Carol submitted, "if I could loan it to you over night, you could take a look, and then apply the principles in my garden when you install it tomorrow...?" I accepted the book and dug through it.

In addition to Bartholomew's fondness of a few extra soil amendments like vermiculite and peat moss, the major difference between SFG and other natural small-plot gardening methods (like biointensive) is the grid. SFG calls for a 1x1ft visual grid over the top of the soil to aid gardeners-- newbies and experienced, alike-- in intensive planting. The grid, Bartholomew argues, allows gardeners to easily manage a multitude of crops in a small space. Plus, the grid breaks the tendency to plant in rows, which, he says, is an inefficient spacing of plants.

Below is a close up of one of Carol's SFG beds complete with a grid made with twine. If I'm not mistaken, in this single raised-bed there are kale, chard, broccoli, red cabbage, rosemary, sage, dill, and thyme plants; snap-pea, radish and carrot seeds; plus a handful of shallots. Oh, plus beets and a couple squares planted with oats as a cover crop to fill vacant squres. And some flowers.


I received an email from Carol last night in which she wrote, "If I haven't told you how much I love my garden, let me tell you now. I LOVE MY GARDEN!"

So, to answer my friend on the topic of business: things are good.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Homecoming and NC Community Gardens

This past week, I made a trip up to North Carolina to my alma mater, Warren Wilson College for homecoming with two friends, fellow alums. Warren Wilson is a work college, which means that all students on campus have a 15-hour-per-week job. Most of the routine maintenance and tasks are performed by students. For example, there's a plumbing crew, a library crew, cafeteria (dish-washing) crew, etc. And, as there is a working farm and a three-acre garden on campus-- both which supply food to the dinning halls-- there are farm and garden student crews as well. I actually didn't work on either. Instead I spent two years on Electric and two years on Landscaping. As part of my duties on Landscaping, I managed an edible landscape around a student dorm.

The extended weekend was a great chance to catch up with friends, professors and old crew-bosses. I shared the "dollars and cents" of Tallahassee Food Gardens with four friends who are investigating the possibilities of food gardening ventures as post-graduation plans. My old Sustainable Agriculture professor and I talked about soil, worms, chickens, cover crops, bio-char, and church community gardens. With my old Landscaping supervisor, Tom "Lam" --as he's affectionately known because nobody seems able to pronounce his real name (LaMuraglia)-- I conversed about manures and granite dust as soil amendments.

And the food! With grass-fed beef in the cafeteria, garden-fresh greens on the salad bar, and a dorm that has an edible landscape, Warren Wilson has developed quite a food culture. In other words, much of the socializing takes place around food: growing, picking, preparing and eating it. And did we ever eat. Root vegetable stir fry. Fresh eggs with chives grown just outside. Oatmeal with fresh milk. Homemade donuts. Pumpkin. Greens. Fresh bread. Fried Okra. Bacon....

~ ~ ~

On Friday last week, I stopped in at the Black Mountain Community Garden, which, I learned, has three main objectives. First, it provides a place where families in the Swanannoa Valley can grow vegetables for their own use. Second, with the help of volunteers, the garden supplies fresh vegetables for low income families. And third, they seek to teach folks about how to grow and and the value of sharing food.

The bulk of the food grown by volunteers is distributed through Swanannoa Valley Christian Ministries and The Welcome Table, an open community meal prepared at Swannanoa Methodist Church for anyone who shows up-- whether or not they can pay.

~ ~ ~

As a side trip, on the way back to Tallahassee, a friend and I stopped in at Anathoth Community Garden in Cedar Grove, NC-- near Durham. The garden came into being in the outwash of a murder just up the road. The white and black pastors and churches came together for a prayer vigil. A black lady had a dream that she ought to donate five acres of her land to the greater community. A white man had visions of good food, sustainable agricultural practices, a vibrant and gathered community, and a pastor championed the cause. Out of the wash emerged Anathoth Garden.

With a grant from Duke and the ongoing support of a Methodist church, Anathoth is a managed community garden whereat people pay $5 a year and commit to work at least two hours per week. In exchange, they go home with an arm full of whatever is ripe and ready whenever they stop by.

The name Anathoth comes from the book of Jeremiah. Just before the predicted onslaught of the coming Babylonian invasion, God tells Jeremiah to purchase and settle a piece of land in a place called Anathoth. Similarly, in the face of racial divisions, murder, environmental degradation, and unhealthy food, the community of Cedar Grove chose to garden and share food together.

Twice a week, the garden hosts a community meal full of garden-ripe produce.

~ ~ ~

All these conversations about and visits to church related community gardens has me thinking of our potential here in Tallahassee. The bounty of food that could be grown in church gardens brings cornucopia to mind. So, if you have ideas about how I (how we) could encourage, facilitate, organize, and/or plant church community gardens, please share. Or, if you're dreaming about starting such a garden at your church and want someone with whom to brainstorm or someone to help you with grunt work, let me know.

...because I am still dreaming of the day when Tallahassee can feed itself, when everyone here can go to bed nutritionally satiated without worry of where their next weeks' of food will come from...

Sunday, September 27, 2009

An Emerging Food Movement

Folks, the food movement is growing quickly in Tallahassee; however it is not root-bound within our home town. A few years back, I read a book named Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software by Steven Johnson. It's about how semi-connected individuals can work together as a coherent whole; the system can and usually displays an "intelligence" greater than that held by the component pieces and a productivity greater than the sum of its parts. In this light, think about yourself... or even all of us in Tallahassee who are "experimenting" with and "just beginning to" food garden. At first glance, it seems we are all fumbling with pests and heat and humidity beyond our abilities. Most food gardeners I talk to comment upon how they're not growing "that much." But, if we take a step back and look at the entirety of the city... or the country (or the world for that matter) we begin to gain a sense of the great abundance of front-yard, back-allyway, raised-bed, and small-farm food we're producing. We can also come to appreciate the way in which we are re-creating our food systems through our localized and modest actions.

To gain a sense of the food movement beyond Tallahassee, I've included a few Youtube videos below:

This first video is a look at Growing Power, an incredible nonprofit in Milwaukee striving to inspire "communities to build sustainable food systems that are equitable and ecologically sound, creating a just world, one food-secure community at a time."

Here's another Growing Power video that features Growing Power's CEO, Will Allen, a retired NBA star who was the recipient of the 2008 MacArthur Genius Award. "It is my belief," he says, "that everybody-- regardless of their economic means-- should have access to the same healthy, safe, affordable food that's grown naturally...."

This next video highlights Urban Farming, an organization that started in Detroit with three gardens. By 2008, they had the "equivalent" of 600 gardens planted across the country and abroad providing fresh produce for an estimated 50,000 people.
According to their website, their mission is to "end hunger in our generation."

The following video overviews the work of The Food Project in Boston. The narrator informs, "We farm with teenagers. We grow over 250,000 pounds of produce each year. We distribute that food in and around Boston to hunger relief organizations, to farmers' markets in low-income communities, and through our community support agriculture program."

The Food Project's mission is to "grow a thoughtful and productive community of youth and adults from diverse backgrounds who work together to build a sustainable food system."

~By the way, I know an impressive lady in the Tallahassee area with dreams-- and the necessary land-- to re-create something like Boston's Food Project here in north Florida. If you're interested send me an email, and I can put you in touch with her. (maninoveralls at gmail dot com).

The food movement is endless, and it's not all up north either:
What follows are a handful of videos about the work of Urban Harvest, a nonprofit in Houston. Their programs involve food gardening education, organizing community gardens, and coordinating farmers' markets. To gain a sense of their impact, take a look at this map of Urban Harvest sponsored community and school gardens. There are over forty of them scattered all over the Houston.

The emerging food movement is not confined to the States either. Globally, according to a CBC news cast about urban agriculture, "there are an estimated 800 million urban farmers, and they produce about 15% of the world's food." Whoa.

The Tallahassee food movement, therefore, is part of something emerging all over the world. So, with Rosy the Riviter cheering, "We can grow food!" let's follow the words of my friend who mis-quoted Plato as saying: "Grow Your Own Food and Share It."


PS- the work and ideas of the above organizations are expressed to some degree through our local Damayan Garden Project here in Tallahassee. I encourage you to investigate, support, and further their work in our community. Of course, Damayan, like any nonprofit organization, appreciates volunteers and funding from time to time. Another way to support their work is to chat-up or otherwise publicize their name... especially with folks interested in starting community and/or educational gardens as those are Damayan's specialty. ("Damayan" is a Philipino word that, as I understand it, means "the way in which you seek to remedy your own hunger, so should you seek to remedy the hunger of others." Or, in other words, "feed others as you would feed yourself" with a golden-rule slant to it.) Want to make a youtube video for Damayan? Email me. maninoveralls at gmail dot com.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Notes from the Roadside...



Monday through Friday this week, I spent hours-upon-hours on roadsides in Tallahassee clad in overalls, holding an upended pitchfork in the vein of the "American Gothic" painting. I simultaneously held signs with catch-phrases about food gardening like, "Grow Your Own Food and Share It" and one with a picture of Rosy the Riviter that said "WE CAN GROW FOOD." Another one, an infomational sign refered people to this blog, "Man in Overalls" on Youtube, and Man in Overalls' Facebook fanpage. Yet another one read, "HONK! for Food Gardens."

On Monday around lunch time I wrote: "I made my roadside debut this morning. It was a stunning success. I connected with all number of folks that I otherwise would have not had access to. I remained shocked by the numerous honks, waves, fist pumps, smiles of humor, and quizzically-puzzled looks aimed my direction."

I also remained impressed by the sheer quantity of passing vehicles. I kept tabs on traffic flow and the length of my roadside stunts. By the end of the week, over 19,000 vehicles had passed by with enough sight distance to see the Man in Overalls. Of the 6,717 or so cars that passed by on Friday when I was holding my "HONK for Food Gardens" sign, over 10% of vehicles honked. That's over 670 honks in one day. That's more than one in every ten cars. And that's not counting hollers, waves, nods, fist pumps or red-light conversations. There is a lot of excitement about food gardening.

Gosh. How do I even begin to communicate the eclectic experience of roadsiding in overalls? What do you want? Humor?

The first day, a lady pulled up at a red light and asked, "Young man, who pays you?" I laughed. 'Course, that's part of the whole idea. "For standing out here?" I asked; "No one," I replied. I guess I should have given her a business car and said, "I'd let you, if you wanted to..." Alas. I didn't. Let's just say, I'm still getting my "Salesman" act together.

The second day, up on Thomasville Rd just north of 7th, a man nearly jumped out his driver's window with a camera. As he swerved by he yelled out, "It for my blog!"

Wednesday afternoon, I met a guy named Kieth. He came walking down the N. Monroe sidewalk around 5:30 dressed in white painter garb. He'd just gotten off the bus-- a full mile before his stop becuase the driver had told him it was broken down. "But look!" Kieth pointed out, "There goes the bus now." And, indeed, it drove past. "Whew. It pissed me off, that did. And I needed someone to talk to, and here you are. So, I guess it works out."

I smiled, said, "Yep. Perfect. Indeed. Here I am," and I continued offering two-fingered waves to passing vehicles.

About that time, we exchanged names, a handshake, and then he was off to the races telling stories and sharing little pieces of his life. He'd just finished a job re-painting all the doors in the Country Club Housing Project. The next day, he was headed for Joe Lewis. Turned out, he was also an artist; he drew exquisitely with pencils. He shared one drawing with me that depicted a sea-scape complete with a frigate, waves, cumulus clouds and exotic vegetation all along the shore. Every plant was chosen either for its botanical rarities or was a imaginary synthesis plant of two or three interesting species about which he knew all kinds of details. In the forground, the focus of the image, there was a flower which he'd drawn using three different techniques. Cross-hatching, air-brushing, and regular shading, he informed me. It was truly a work of art.

Kieth was also a musician. After putting the drawings away, he pulled out his harmonica and muttered to himself, "Now, how's Neil Young's 'Harvest' go...." With a few introductory notes on the harmonica, he sung it through without a missed beat. Then he offered to play requests. "Know any Johnny Cash?" I inquired. So he did "...shot a man in Reno."

You never know who you might meet.

Like this guy Colin I met on Tennessee Street who crossed the road, camera in hand. "Can I take your picture?" he requested. "Yeah. No problem. Want me to rearrange my signs or anything?" I responded. He didn't. He clicked the photos, and then stood up. I asked, "So... what are you up to?" as if he was the person doing something unusual. He stammered. "...I mean," I continued, "with the picture? What are you up to with the pictures?" "Oh," he said, "I work at a law office just over there." He pointed in the direction of Franklin Ave. "The people in my office, we're big supporters of yours."

How do you respond to that when you daily stand beside the road in overalls brandishing a pitchfork? Really?

Instead I asked, "So... are you growing anything this fall?" Come to find out, he's getting married in two weeks, and he and his future mother-and-law are discussing the possibility of buying a little bit of land-- "out east of town"-- to grow a bit of their own food. Food dreams. I love 'em.

On the roadside, I've seen all kinds of people and heard all kinds of nonsense. The first day out, I saw two or three of my neighbors, one of my sister's ex-boyfriends, an elementary-school friend, and a board member of the Damayan Garden Project. On Tennessee, a boy at Leon yelled across the street, "CHECK YOUR EMAIL!" Three times during the week, I saw an old high school buddy named Meg. I saw my pastor and a few other folks from my church. Friday on Apalachee Pkwy a lady studied my signs very carefully and then tried to offer me $2. I gave her my business card instead. And I swear a group of high school girls drove by and then circled back around to tell me, "You know you're adorable, right." I laughed.

To wrap things up, I'll share that repeatedly folks asked me some version of "What are you promoting?" or "advocating?" or "doing?" They want a soundbite. Here's the best I've got so far: "Food Gardens. I'm just trying to pay my bills and get some folks growing food so we can eat well in Tallahassee. In other words, I'm planting vegetable gardens, fruit and nut trees, and/or teaching other folks how to do it themselves."

And generally, as I told Christine, the Damayan board member, I'm trying to "Create a buzz about food gardens."

Saturday, September 19, 2009

"Taking things into their own hands and backyards"

Last year CNBC ran a news story called "New Victory Gardens."

It tells the story of how folks are "taking things into their own hands and backyards" by starting more and more gardens in 2008-- a year before, mind you, 2009 when the sale of home vegetable garden seeds jumped over 30% by some sources. According to the CNBC news report, there were 25 million households with home vegetable gardens.

Now is as good a space as ever to mention briefly the outrageous economics of food-gardening. As the news report mentions, a large tomato at Whole Foods cost $3, and a package of tomato seeds in the same produce section cost $2.50. "So even if only one of these seeds turns into a plant," the reporter states, "then I'll have tomatoes all summer long." Okay, fine, but we don't have a Whole Foods in Tallahassee nor do most folks shop for organic produce. More and more folks buy organic, granted; the majority, however, still do not. So let's talk about Winn Dixie instead.

I checked the ads in the Democrat this morning. Winn Dixie was selling tomatoes for $1.69/lb. So, the same giant tomato at Winn Dixie would have cost roughly $1.50. A package of seeds from Gramblings on S. Adams St, on the other hand, typically cost .95 cents. But of course, we're not comparing a mere pack of seeds with a single tomato. It's more complicated than that.

Say you start your seed in a little tray. That's a buck. And, of course, with a seed tray you'll need some potting soil. That's another five bucks. Maybe you buy four pounds of fancy organic fertilizer for eight bucks. Plus, perhaps you even hire me to deliver a DIY raised-bed vegetable garden kit. That's another $100. Add that up. We're at .95cents for the seeds, a dollar for the tray, five dollars for the potting soil, eight bucks for the fertilizer, and $100 for a DIY raised-bed you still have to assemble: $114.95. So, now you're looking at that $1.50 tomato thinking, "Maybe it was worth it."

But hold on.

Do you know how many tomato plants can grow from a packet of seeds? Neither do I, but it's somewhere in the vicinity of "Whoa, what am I going to do with all those?"

They won't all fit in your raised bed. But ten of them easily will. With loads of space left over. Truth is, in a 4x10 bed, you could fit between 12-18 tomato plants without a problem. And with decent sun, each plant can produce between 8 to 15 pounds of tomatoes.

So, lets take the low estimate on both those numbers: 12 tomato plants x 8 pounds/plant. That's 96 pounds of tomatoes. With that many tomatoes, you'll have to start giving them away before your family breaks into a Tallahassee version of the Spanish Tomatina.

But wait; we're not finished. Ninety-six pounds x $1.69/lb at Winn Dixie... and you will have raised $162.24 worth of tomatoes. If you're paying attention, that's $47.29 dollars worth of tomatoes over and above the cost of seeds, supplies, and your Tallahassee Food Gardens raised-bed.

One more thing: have you ever HAD a homegrown tomato? When it comes to taste, all I can do is agree with John Denver. "There's only two things that money can't buy. That's true love and homegrown tomatoes."

Of course, fall is on the seasonal horizon, so it'll be months before you can plant tomatoes. Now is the time for greens like collards, kale, cabbage, chard... and turnips, onions, carrots, radishes, and snap peas. But, the gist of garden economics are the same spring or fall.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

"All in a Day's Work," or "A Day in Overalls"



It was a busy day today. First, I built, filled and planted a raised-bed vegetable garden at Jackie's house. Collard and cabbage plants, carrot, mustard, radish and lettuce sees. You can see the finished bed to the right.


And then, I moved on to spruce up Faith Presbyterian's -my home church- children's garden before the young folks arrived for Wednesday night program: Planting the fall garden. We planted brussels sprout, collard, lettuce, rosemary, and a few late winter squash and basil plants; carrot, radish, and snap pea seeds. Last spring, the kids named it "God's Giving Garden." Any surplus food will be distributed through a food-pantry being developed in partnership with St. Stevens Lutheran, a church across the street. Take a look at the kids at work.

Around the edges of work, I made a little stop-action video. It makes me laugh. If I can figure out how to upload it... Ahha!

Who is that guy? and for the record...



Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Nathan, Nathan Ballentine. Tallahassee's home.

Here's the gist of it: I love food. I love growing, smelling, giving, cooking, tasting, sharing, and eating food. And I live under the impression that other folks at least like food too. It's pretty universal.

- - -

I've been food-gardening since I was eight-years-old. My mother who grew up on a farm in west Florida, set me on the task of creating a vegetable garden in our front yard as a home-schooling project. As I remember it, I grew some bitter carrots, bug-eaten lettuce and a few bush beans. The next year, I carried on the project, but- back in school- it was no longer an obligation. It was just "my garden."

The second year, I planted sweet corn and watermelon. In the years to come, I grew tomatoes and peppers, potatoes, squash and cucumbers, beans, onions, pumpkins, collards, parsley and basil and every year: more sweet corn. In the years since, my food-gardening horizons have grown considerably. But more on that later.

From the time I was eight-years-old to at least ten or twelve-years-old, I subjected my family to daily garden tours. Upon pulling in the driveway and exiting his car, I'd invite my father to look at what was new. "Aw Nathan," he'd say. It's the same as it was yesterday." But, I was ready with counter evidence: "No, come look," I'd say. "There are three cucumber blossoms. And look! This tomato plant has a baby tomato. And the beans! Look right here," I'd be nearly whispering with the excitement, "They'll be ready to pick by, oh, probably next week. See 'em?"

I loved it, and I loved sharing it too.

Still do.

- - -

Before I go any further, I need to state clearly that my aspirations in starting Tallahassee Food Gardens is much larger than a business or a profit-plan. Yes, I have to pay my bills like everyone else. But, if it were just about making ends meet, I'd choose another path.

See, I want Tallahassee to be able to feed itself. I want everyone in town to end their days nutritionally satiated without worry about their ability to eat in the days and weeks to come. This is more than money can buy. Such a dream requires a mass-based social movement for fruition, a local-based city movement defined by popular participation in raising food for self and neighbor. My hope, therefore, is that Tallahassee Food Gardens will serve as a platform from which we can jump-start and sustain a Tallahassee food movement.

Starting a business with a social mission alongside the profit motive is an exercise in bridging the gap between the for-profit and non-profit worlds. Social entrepreneurship, I've heard it called. The truth is, I don't know how to do it. It's an experiment, like all my food-gardening since I was eight. Will it work?
Is it doable?

I have lots of questions, most of which are circulating around this one: Can a food-gardening business stay in the black while it seeks to further a food movement in Tallahassee?

Rumi once wrote: "And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without ever noticing it, live your way into the answer."

Perhaps. I welcome your advice, comments, and ideas. If you're wiling to share, I'd also love to hear your food dreams. Perhaps we can make a few come true.

Questions? Contact Us via

Email. Phone: (850) 322-0749. Facebook. Or, Form.