Farmer in the City

The hardest part of doing something new is simply getting started. In the wake of the New Year, many of us may feel that way about our freshly minted resolutions. Even if we’re inspired and excited about building new habits, there’s an undercurrent of expectation that can leave us overwhelmed.

What we need is a shift in perspective and a compassionate voice. What we need is a cheerleader. Or, better yet, a man in overalls.

Nathan Ballentine is that man, literally. The Jacksonville-based urban gardener, community organizer and entrepreneur officially operates under that moniker. As Man in Overalls, he spouts homegrown wisdom, most important: “You don’t try to do everything. Whatever your standard of perfection is, you let that slide and you get started.”

The freelance consultant helps city slickers grow their own groceries. He facilitates the design, installation, planting and maintenance phases of the various home gardens. But the more Folio Weekly spoke with him, the more we realized that his advice applies to many areas beyond the garden.

In addition to more than 20 years of gardening experience, Ballentine draws on an education in community organizing at North Carolina’s Warren Wilson College. He has held numerous leadership positions for food-based community initiatives and has received awards for his public service. For Ballentine, a garden’s impact is certainly not meant to be confined to its neat wooden box.

“As soon as you have a garden with anything edible in your front yard,” he says, “you’re going to meet your neighbors. They will walk by and say ‘What is that? Oh, my grandmother used to cook that!’ All of sudden, you know them.”

Gardens are community-building because “there is such a convergence of reasons why people grow their groceries. Gardening is at the epicenter, it is a common solution and expression even if your motivations for approaching it are different.”

Some people choose to keep a garden because of fond family memories. Others are troubled by the toxicity of the commercial food system and the negative environmental impacts of large-scale agriculture. They want better choices for themselves and their children. Many people are motivated by having fresh herbs and produce right at their fingertips.

In Jacksonville, Ballentine sees neighbors combining land and labor resources to start a garden. It might look like this: One person’s yard has adequate sunlight and, though they love fresh veggies, they aren’t interested in gardening. They invite their neighbor (who doesn’t have an ideal space) to build and maintain a garden bed on their property. All parties get to share in the delicious harvest, and the entire neighborhood benefits from a newly strengthened relationship.

In a blog post, Ballentine further explains, “You don’t need a farm to have a garden.” Many people assume that “it’s necessary to replicate our grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ multi-acre gardens.” Ballentine traces that assumption back to its roots in early United States agriculture and disputes its current validity. We can take advantage of recent research and technology to grow nutrient-rich produce with less space and effort.

“I really tend to focus on those things that make a dent in the grocery budget and make a dent in terms of nutrition, those things that the American diet tends to lack,” says Ballentine. He also educates his clients about the diversity of the kinds of produce that can be grown in each season, something that often surprises new gardeners.

Here in Northeast Florida, Ballentine explains, “It’s about shifting your understanding of the seasons.” Many of our notions (such as pumpkins ripening around Thanksgiving) are a legacy from Puritan settlers who lived in New England, a place with markedly different weather than our southern clime. In Florida, pumpkins can ripen in June, which feels off-kilter with broader cultural expectations. Indeed, it can even feel a little, well, disappointing. But consider this: We have the good fortune to garden outdoors all year long, while other states endure harsh winters.

People have reasons not to start a garden, too, perhaps the subtlest of which is fear of failure, a familiar reaction to any new endeavor we dream up. Here is where another shift in perspective comes in.

“The biggest thing that differentiates experienced gardeners from beginning gardeners,” Ballentine says, “is that beginning gardeners see failure as a judgment of their skills, and experienced gardeners see it as a chance to learn something new.”

No matter who you are, you will fail in the garden. And that’s a good thing.

“Many beginner gardeners are some of the best farmers market customers, because they come to respect the art of gardening and growing food,” Ballentine says, recognizing the humbling aspects of failure. His compassionate advice is to grow what you enjoy growing and grow well. For the rest, rely on other farmers’ skills and shop at the farmers market.

With sufficient sunlight, a simple 4-feet-by-4-feet raised bed is usually sufficient, says Ballantine. In fact, you might even see him pushing a grocery-cart-turned-food-garden around Jacksonville—an example of how small spaces can contain generous quantities of produce.

“If you don’t have a yard, then you can get a bag of Magic Mix,” Ballentine says, referencing his custom compost-based soil mix product. “It’s in a porous bag. You roll down the side, stick a tomato or pepper plant in it and have a container garden right there in the bag.”

Like any dedicated gardener, Nathan Ballentine is motivated by many different hopes, needs and values. He says that, ultimately, he wants “the business to thrive. I want it to be able to support a growing culture in cities, connecting neighbors with goods that are produced immediately adjacent to them.”