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    After the Polar Vortex winter of 2014, Heather Watson knew that she wanted to be surrounded by as much greenery and vegetation as possible in the St. Matthews home that she shared with her fiance. “I started with a little patch where the house’s previous owners had grown some tomatoes and peppers, and worked hard to build up the soil,” Watson said. “The funny thing about moving into a ninety year-old house is that you never quite know what you’re getting with your soil or your plumbing--let me tell you, we’ve had to fight with both!”

    Watson says that when you think about it, the entire area that is now St. Matthews probably used to be a potato farm, so it makes sense for her to reclaim the farmland in her backyard. Her 12-by-6 garden started as privacy measure of sorts, mostly to keep her dogs out of the neighbors yard, but quickly it developed into something equally as practical-- but infinitely more delicious.

    “I’m a fairly serious home cook, so I wanted to grow the herbs and vegetables that we use in cooking. We grow basil, rosemary, thyme, sage, tomatoes, and a few varieties of hot peppers,” Watson said. “I chose these because I had some experience growing these plants in the past, I knew them to be hardy and relatively low-maintenance, and I knew that we would use them.”

    She continued: “I’m a strong believer in, for lack of a more eloquent term, eating ‘real food.’ Real, vine-ripened tomatoes are going to taste better than those that have been raised in a hothouse and carted around the country. There’s simply no substitute for fresh herbs. It’s also great that I know where my vegetables have been: how recently they were harvested, the absolute knowledge that they are pesticide-free.”

    As urban gardening-- a term defined by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations as “the growing of plants and the raising of animals within and around cities”-- grows in popularity, stories like Watson’s are increasingly common in Louisville. People are recognizing both the personal and community benefits of turning back to our state’s agricultural roots, despite the fact that our world is growing more densely urban.

    Getting a ‘Fresh Start’

    So how did we stop eating food we had planted ourselves? Well, long answer short, as we moved towards the modern conveniences like supermarkets and drive-throughs, we’ve moved further away from the bounty in our backyards.

    However, in recent years, home gardening has enjoyed something of a renaissance, with 37 percent of American households now maintaining a garden. According to the Mother Nature Network:

    Home gardeners are relatively evenly spread around the country, although the Southeast has a few more green thumbs than other regions. Most U.S. gardeners have at least some college education, and a slight majority are female. Regardless of their demographics, though, the country's home gardeners seem to be getting their money's worth: After collectively spending $2.5 billion on seeds, supplies and other upfront costs in 2008, American gardeners reaped a whopping $21 billion return on investment. For the average 600-square-foot garden, that comes out to a profit of about $530.

    Steve Paradis is the owner of Fresh Start Growers Supply, a supplier of organic and sustainable farm and garden products for commercial growers and backyard gardeners, in NuLu. He’s one of the people who is helping Louisvillians get a handle on the sometimes daunting process of getting started on their home gardens.

    “We help make people successful by showing them how to work with nature in economically viable and environmentally appropriate ways,” Paradis said. “We are a community center, not a sales business. We support local artists, non-profit organizations, and the public in general by creating and promoting events and causes that improve our community.”

    In order to further help gardeners, there are online video tutorials and blog posts on the Fresh Start website.

    Additionally, as Watson found out during the process of starting her garden, family members may also have some insight when it comes to adapting to the home gardening learning curve. “I grew up in Eastern Kentucky, in one of those families who just always had a garden. You pick up so much about gardening when you’re always around it, even if you don’t necessarily think you’re listening.”

    For example, Watson had never sewn a pea plant in her life, but she can tell you that you’re supposed to do so around February 14 to ensure a spring harvest.

    “I did have a few questions for relatives who’ve always gardened; I think they were pretty amused when I was freaked out that one of my tomato plants didn’t yield ‘on time,’” Watson said. “Of course, I wound up getting over 50 tomatoes from that plant, the fruit just didn’t come in until late August [or] early September.”

    Growing Community

    Returning to gardening can also have an impact that goes beyond the home, especially when addressing two areas with which Louisville particularly struggles: obesity and food deserts. As of 2010 Kentucky had the 3rd highest rate of childhood obesity in the country; additionally, food deserts, neighborhoods where residents face physical and economic barriers to fresh, healthful food, do exist in Louisville.

    One of the programs working to change this is the Food Literacy Project, Louisville’s only farm-based education non-profit, sharing space with an 8-acre production farm managed by Ivor Chodkowski called Field Day Family farm located at Oxmoor Farms on land provided by the Bullitt family.

    “We offer a variety of experiential learning programs designed to empower kids to develop healthy relationships with food, farming, and the land,” said Adam Price, the organization’s treasurer and president-elect.

    They do this by welcoming kids to their outdoor classroom, which includes a learning garden and outdoor kitchen, along with engaging the families of kids who visit to develop healthy cooking habits, working with teachers and food service workers to implement these concepts in school meals and lessons, and partnering with community leaders to build a just and sustainable food system.

    He continued: “It’s our belief that addressing issues like the safety of our food sources, rising obesity and diabetes rates among youth, and a growing disconnect between people food and the earth, requires a comprehensive approach incorporating all of these aspects.”

    Price-- a Louisville-native and accountant at the University of Louisville--says that his background would not in anyway point to his involvement in this program. “I encountered the organization at a YPAL (Young Professionals Association of Louisville) community connections event during a search for volunteer opportunities, and was initially drawn by the local food angle,” he said.  However, he says that he was inspired to remain connected to the program by seeing firsthand how these experiences change children’s lives.

    “Just this week I was able to visit the farm to watch a group of 1st graders on their field trip. I saw these kids plant seeds, taste rhubarb straight out of the garden--planted by the Duchess of Cornwall, no less-- and learn about making a salad and healthy homemade dressing,” Price said. “They did it all with more enthusiasm than I often feel towards vegetables as an adult.”

    A priority of the Food Literacy Initiative is ensuring opportunities to get fresh vegetables in the hands of the children they serve. Through a partnership with Sts. Mary & Elizabeth Hospital and the Refugee Agriculture Program (RAPP), they are making fresh vegetables from Oxmoor Farm available to residents of the neighborhood near their partner school, Hazelwood Elementary.

    However, while Price is an advocate of individuals exploring gardening for themselves, he acknowledges that it will take communitywide effort to make a difference in Louisville.

    “I’m in favor of anything that gets people closer to the food that they eat and I think urban gardens are an important piece of that puzzle, but I don’t think they can realistically address the food access challenges that are facing our community,” Price said. “So while I embrace them as a tool that can strengthen the relationships the Food Literacy Project is working to build, enhance community, or educate folks about the importance of growing their own food, ultimately work needs to be done on a larger scale to address the deficiencies in our current food system that are driving rampant childhood obesity and diabetes rates.”

    Louisville Grows is another organization working to change the food landscape-- literally and figuratively-- of the city.

    Louisville Grows was founded in 2009 to assist community groups and individuals on their journey towards sustainability by providing resources--volunteers, funds, tools--and consulting support. During the period between 2009-2011, Louisville Grows assisted with the creation of 13 community gardens across Metro Louisville with a focus on food-insecure neighborhoods. In 2011, we switched to planning and implementing its own projects such as The People's Garden, Seeds and Starts, and Love Louisville Trees.

    Valerie Magnuson is the executive director of the organization. She says that in a city the size of Louisville, 26 percent of available land is either vacant or underutilized and, like other midwestern cities, the city was built on productive farmland.

    Much of the available land in our urban environment can still be put to use as community and market gardens, orchards, and training sites where beginning and refugee growers can grow food for their neighborhoods or beyond.  A recent study estimated that Louisvillians are ready to spend an additional 300 million annually on locally grown produce.  The current demand could potentially be met through intensive production on the available urban land within the city.

    “Louisville Grows is working to train urban farmers to increase their scale of production to serve low-income communities classified as food deserts and locally owned groceries and restaurants in east Louisville,” Magnuson said. “Lack of reliable transportation makes localized production and distribution a necessity, not just in our low-income communities but across Louisville”  

    Magnuson said that our current food system is almost entirely dependent on oil; a nonrenewable resource that many in the scientific community say has already reached peak production.  That means radical changes are needed to put an alternative, neighborhood based food system in place.  

    Louisville Grows currently leases or owns seven acres of land located within walking distance of 12000 families-- and in the near future, they hope to acquire more properties that can be preserved as 'Commons' through an urban land trust.

    The organization has a program called 'Seeds and Starts' which promotes urban gardening at the home or community garden.

    “We produce thousands of plants in our greenhouse at the People's Garden that are sold during an annual sale in the Shawnee neighborhood and at local hardware stores and groceries.  We're working to increase awareness among SNAP/EBT recipients that seeds and plants can be purchased using SNAP benefits, and that for just a few dollars it's possible to grow much more produce than the same amount would buy at the store,” Magnuson said. “Through Seeds and Starts and the Urban Grower's Cooperative we're working to make resources available to would be urban agriculturalists by providing training, seeds and plants, land and tools, resulting in a long-term, robust and sustainable solution to food insecurity to protect the health of at-risk members of targeted communities, and stimulate local socioeconomic development.”

    Perhaps most importantly though, establishing a community garden-- or a gardening group among neighbors-- can help people further identity with their neighborhood. While working as a field investigator for the Annie E. Casey Foundation through the Making Connections Study, Magnuson found that individuals in the Shawnee, Russell and Chickasaw who reported a feeling of safety and love of their neighborhoods were active participants in their community through involvement in local churches, community centers, or schools.  

    “If more opportunities are available for these links between neighbors to take place the quality of life would increase overall,” Magnuson said. “Community gardens and orchards are places where these connections can take place while people learn valuable skills that increase the self reliance and resiliency of the community as a whole.”  

    Photo courtesy of Louisville Grows


    Ashlie Danielle Stevens's picture

    About Ashlie Danielle Stevens

    I am a freelance food, arts and culture writer. Among other publications, my work has appeared at The Atlantic’s CityLab, Eater, Slate, Salon, The Guardian, Hyperallergic and National Geographic’s food blog, The Plate.

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