I’ve long romanticized gardening. As soon as I got my hands on “The Adventures of Peter Rabbit” I was fixated by the idea of growing your own food. It’s only recently I’ve made the leap from childhood dreaming to tangible learning and practice.
In this, I’m not alone. The concept of Urban Agriculture, or gardening in city spaces, has exploded in popularity in recent years. Urban Farming is not a new idea; there’s evidence of urban growing as far back as 3,500 BC Mesopotamia. However, it’s current resurgence is due in large part to the desire for more sustainable practices.
One Jacksonville non-profit is hoping to spearhead this Urban Agricultural Revolution locally. Eat Your Yard Jax, founded by Tim Armstrong, is an edible plant nursery and education center. Recently, I stopped by to have a chat with the farm’s manager Amanda Van Der Eems. The farm, located on the Westside by 295, utilizes nursery sales to achieve their central goal, empowering the community to grow and eat locally.
Although open to all ages, Eat Your Yard Jax places emphasis on educating one of the most influential demographics: children. In “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle,” a book about a family’s decision to eat only locally grown food for a year, Barbara Kingsolver writes “food companies spend over $10 billion a year selling food brands to kids.” While major corporations heavily invest in shaping children’s food decisions, the farm’s programs provide exposure to alternative food sources.
One of the most beloved ways the farm directly exposes kids to urban farming is a pick-your-own lunch. Participating children get a tour of the grounds wherein they gather ingredients to make a veggie soup and lemonades/teas. Parents, skeptical that their child might consume anything with leaves, are astounded by the enthusiasm with which the children approach such a simple activity. This hands-on experience is foundational, influencing the way kids perceive the world around them in their most formative years.
We can see the results of growing up without such educational programs: some adults arrive at the farm and are surprised to learn blueberries grow on bushes, Amanda says. So far removed from our food system, it hardly occurs to us that our meals don’t manifest out of thin air. Signs lining the road to the farm acknowledge this conceptual and physical distance we maintain from our food sources. One such sign discusses how our food travels an average of 1,500 miles to reach our plate, further than most families travel on vacation. Meaning, you likely would have traveled less than your food if you drove from Jacksonville to New Hampshire to grab lunch right now.
Aside from the obvious negative implications of fossil fuel use in such travel, our current food system causes a lot of other problems, namely: pollution, soil degradation, and food waste. Growing locally combats many of these issues. Food doesn’t travel as far, you have more influence over growing practices (pesticide use, water use, etc) and can compost waste. It’s especially important to compost food scraps, as lack of oxygen prevents uneaten food from breaking down properly in landfills. According to the EPA in 2018, food waste accounted for 21.6 percent of all Municipal Solid Waste. While food waste causes harm in landfills, it’s foundational to garden health by recycling precious soil nutrients. Although, it is important to remember not all food can be composted. Make sure to research what items can be utilized in a compost before tossing them in.
Aside from educating, Eat Your Yard Jax also practices their own values by avoiding use of harmful chemicals on their farm. They prioritize organic farming, often utilizing waste from the Tilapia in their aquaponic system and their own compost as fertilizer.
With just 100 companies responsible for 71% of the world’s greenhouse emissions since 1988, it would be misleading to say growing your own food or composting can single-handedly combat climate change. However, shifting your daily life towards more sustainable practices contributes to a culture of change.
When I asked Amanda if she had any tips for newbies, she said frankly “you just have to start. It’s not as complicated as people think it is.”
There’s no better time to do so. In Jacksonville, we benefit from the potential to grow year round and March is a prime month to get a garden started. To dip your toes, it’s often easy to try some garden annuals like beans or watermelon. Plants can even be kept in pots to avoid HOA restrictions.
When met with difficulties, Amanda wants us to remember that plants are a bit like us. Although her own kids have unique personalities, they all share the same home and the same basic needs. Other flora and fauna aren’t that different. It’s important to learn as you go. Keeping a journal to track how your plants fare to different sun, moisture, and temperature conditions can help you get a sense of their preferences. Some are more finicky than others.
Even the most seasoned gardeners can have a veggie that just doesn’t want to grow for them. For Amanda, corn has been her biggest struggle. Instead of getting discouraged, she accepts she and corn may always have a tricky relationship. There’s plenty of other foods to grow, so don’t get hung up on the one that gives you a hard time.
It’s also important to note many of the practices that allow us to grow subsistently, as well as the land on which we grow, were taken from indegneous people. We must remember, although Urban Farming can feel novel to us, it’s not a new trend we’re hopping on. Rather, learning how to grow our own food is rekindling a relationship that’s existed as long as we have.
So, do whatever gets you excited about taking your first steps toward gardening: grow some culinary herbs in the kitchen, build a shrine to the matriarch of cottagecore, Beatrix Potter, or snag a fruit tree from your local nursery. Join the revolution and learn to love growing food as much as you love eating it.
To learn more about Eat Your Yard Jax and to see their upcoming events check out their website here: eatyouryardjax.org