Eat This

Another Life-Changing Gardening Partnership

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Jimmy Williams and Susan Heeger

Garden Rant is a unlikely partnership that has made my life infinitely more fun. Here is another great gardening-based partnership: writer Susan Heeger, a contributing editor for Coastal Living and Martha Stewart Living, and city farmer Jimmy Williams.  Their book From Seed to Skillet has just been published by Chronicle. 

Please welcome Guest Ranter Susan Heeger. And the two best comments about somebody who influenced your gardening style–or life–win copies of the book.

When I met Los Angeles urban farmer Jimmy Williams, I was a bit surprised by his experimental zeal. Having come to his garden to interview him for the LA Times magazine, I crouched with him on his garage roof, hemmed in by potted seed starts, and peered queasily down on a crazy quilt of beds and salvaged bricks, nothing matching, no logic. Instead of the farm-style order I expected from one who grew seedlings for a living, I spotted mandolin-sized squash dangling from vines on the back of a shed; another wall was swallowed by tomatoes. There was no real plan that I could see, just an endless testing of hypotheses that produced the sweetest peas I’ve ever tasted.

He had a story, too—and what a story. Raised in a family of 12 kids in eastern Long Island, NY, he’d been taught to garden—they all had—by his stern-sweet paternal grandma, a descendant of Caribbean slaves, a foot-stomping Baptist. Besides instructing them on making compost, starting seedlings, planting beds and fighting pests, Grandma Eloise (or ‘Weezy,’ as they called her behind her back) schooled the Williamses in self-reliance, self-respect and family pride. Their great-great grandmother had carried the seeds of a great tomato, dubbed ‘Goosecreek,’ to South Carolina on a slave ship in her apron pocket. The family still grew that tomato, still saved and replanted its seeds and the children all learned how to cook it, thanks to Eloise and Jimmy’s mother Gertrude–who was part Shinnecock Indian–into traditional South Carolina Gullah and Native American dishes.

Of all the young Williamses, Jimmy particularly took to gardening, and kept at it after he grew up and started working as a New York clothing designer. Eventually, after he moved to California to get married, bringing some of Weezy’s seeds with him, it literally overran his life, and the tiny lot around his first Los Angeles house. He grew the seeds into seedlings, planted them out, saved more seed, began selling plants and in 1997, leaving fashion behind, he officially launched HayGround Organic Gardening.

When I met him, he was selling mail-order seedlings and starting to design gardens. His enthusiasms were wide-ranging and infectious. As I toured his pint-size farm, we had to stop every few feet for a story: Here was a giant Belgian tomato—“so sweet,” he told me, “that Europeans make wine from it;’ and there was a collard-green tree–“My family grew these, but you can find lots in black neighborhoods around the country.” He pointed out spicy leaves used in Latin cuisine for wrapping fish, and hot peppers that could ease the pain of arthritis.

I asked about his methods, and he showed me how he was trying a dense planting of tomatoes, training them up a wall with electrical cord. He demonstrated a simple compost tea (“Half-fill a bucket with finished compost, top it up with water, set it in sun till it begins to smell, strain it, dilute it with five parts water and spray it on plant leaves—for stronger plants, fewer pests, sweeter fruit”). Then, there were things he wouldn’t reveal: his secret soil amendments; his ways of speeding germination.

He sent me home with seedlings and a family recipe for sweet-pepper dip. As I left, I said, “You should really write a book.”

He smiled. “I’ve been thinking that for ages.”

In the years since, we’ve had hundreds of conversations. As I’ve written more articles on him, I’ve learned how much the flat-out mystery of nature gets him going–the revelations that come with trying this and that amid the vagaries of a garden. Just watching him operate boosts my faith in experiments, of pursuing passions and enthusiasms.

In our own vegetable garden–which my husband Rob and I started several years ago, partly inspired by our friend Jimmy—we’ve grown foods we never ate much before we grew them: Russian kale, fava beans, white eggplant. We’ve learned a lot about cultivation from him, tried his plants, given him some of ours. And with him, we’ve watched interest in home-growing build gratifyingly across the country.

One day, after I’d seen a high-profile article another writer had done on Jimmy, I got a call from him. Remember that little book talk we’d had so long ago? Was I interested in pursuing? Because agents had started calling.

Well, I asked, was he ready to spill his secrets?

He was. We did. Captured much of our decade-long conversation in a book that takes off from Jimmy’s life, his grandmother’s teachings, his belief in the powerful thrill of self-sufficiency that comes from growing food. There too is the sense that gardening builds community and affection among people from different places, with different traditions, who find it comfortable to sit down at the table with other gardeners, other cooks, others who cherish a satisfaction Jimmy calls “fundamental to our nature.

“Growing food is natural,” he concludes. “Our ancestors did it. It’s not difficult or complicated. It all starts with a seed. And without seeds, after all, we wouldn’t be here.”

Posted by on November 20, 2010 at 6:35 am, in the category Eat This.
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24 Responses to “Another Life-Changing Gardening Partnership”

  1. susan harris says:

    Susan, that was wonderful – I want to start reading the book right away.

    You can guest-post here any time you want, girlfriend.

  2. commonweeder says:

    I came to gardening by way of vegetables and visions of self sufficiency in those Back to the Land. I was inspired by the writings of Scott and Helen Nearing and Eliot Coleman, by my friend Helen Opie in Maine with her super-soil and amazing vegetable gardens, but the biggest influence on my garden and my life was Elsa Bakalar who died this year at age 91. I met her in 1980 when I came to live on a hill in Heath and visited her British perennial gardens on another Heath hill. She introduced me to perennials, the whole concept of garden design (which is not to say that I have mastered design), and the energy to move out into the world of gardening, writing and speaking and finding an amazing community of gardeners. Elsa inspired, entertained, taught and delighted those who came to her gardens, and her lectures. She began her professional life as lecturer in her 60′s; another lesson was it is never too late to do the things that give you pleasure and satisfaction.

  3. carpetbag_garden says:

    Although my passion is growing vegetables and heirloom flowers and shrubs, Pearl Fryar has taught me so much. His lessons are simple, but so true and so inspirational.

    What is said to be impossible can sometimes be done.
    Think outside the box.
    Garden for yourself, not for your neighbors.
    Turn mistakes into something else.
    Make due with what you have.
    Be patient.
    Success is determined by work.
    In the end, it’s all about LOVE.

    His words of wisdom apply not just to gardening, but to life as well. I hope to keep his words close as I move through life and create new gardens.

  4. shira says:

    Thanks for sharing this Susan. Even though I’ve been growing my own vegetables for a long time- I love getting new ideas, especially from people who learned to garden from previous generations. Just ordered it!

  5. Michelle D says:

    This has got to be one hellova book. With the natural gardening talent of Jimmy Williams and the innate writing skills that Susan brings to everything she touches .
    Looking forward to having this book in my office to share and inspire my clients with.

  6. ellen k. says:

    For my family, like Jimmy Williams’s, gardening was a matter of from seed to skillet to survival — in land-run days in Oklahoma, my great-grandfather and his wife and small children once found themselves in such a bind that all they had to eat in the winter was turnips they had grown before winter set in — mashed turnips, fried turnips, baked turnips, boiled turnips. By spring, they said, they were grateful to be alive, but sick of turnips.

    But my gardening influence was my Aunt Char, who lived and died on that same plot of land in Oklahoma, for 75 years. She gardened like gardening was her job, her avocation, and her classroom. I lived outside the country for most of my working life, and when ever I would come back to Oklahoma my Aunt Char would take me into her back yard. She’d show me her vegetable patch on their table-top flat, dry, red piece of Oklahoma soil. She would always be more fascinating and thoughtful talking about her work in the backyard garden than I ever would be about my work where-ever. (Aunt Char traveled extensively in Concord, is what I always thought of her, via Thoreau.)

    I don’t think Aunt Char ever grew turnips, though.

    I’m still thousands of miles away from my own patch of ground back in the States. I read your blog every day, for the same kind of job/passion/classroom feeling, and think about what I’ll put where in my garden when I get home.

    P.S. I think it probably says a lot about Susan Heeger that she and Jimmy Williams stayed in touch. She was the one he called when he went looking for a muse.

  7. Cool, I will have to wait to be discovered. One hundred species, over one hundred posts, 105 cities, and five continents.

    What do I have to do?

    endemismotrasnochado.blogspot.com..Setting trends, kicking butts….

  8. anne says:

    Wonderful post, thanks! Jimmy Williams seems like a treasure, a “heritage gardener”–one who carries the traditions of the past forward to share with the future, so we can all learn.
    A neighbor from my childhood, Mrs Hawkins, influenced me as a child with her garden. In a classic 60′s suburban California neighborhood heavily influenced by Sunset Magazine and full of landscaping heavy in lawns, shrubs, trees and the seasonal annuals in a row, Mrs Hawkins planted vegetables in her backyard (where the neighbors couldn’t see). I well remember as a 5-year-old being handed a radish for a snack, straight from the ground, washed in the garden hose; mmmmm! When I told my mother about the experience, she looked down her nose at someone growing vegetables in the yard–but I’ve always remembered that experience fondly, and continue to grow food in my own yard, front and back.

  9. A little humility wouldn’t kill you Antigonum Cajun. I’m sure that can be found in Puerto Rico. And just to be difficult – that seems to be your style – only 100 species in a tropical garden is pitiful, a really pitiful number in a any garden really. In a tropical garden where plant diversity is highly magnified it is doubly pitiful.

    Over 100 blog posts? Big whoop. You’re still a rank amateur.

    Nice that you have traveled. If you hate the landscaping there so much maybe it is time to leave Puerto Rico again. Complaining about it won’t change a thing.

  10. Pat Sarikelle says:

    Williams is another example of the product of “Grandparent Lore.” Many of us are gardeners as a result of the example of grandparents who knew how to make things grow — and knew how to teach what they knew to their offspring. My own grandmother, didnt’ garden. She supervised. And the supervisee was my grandfather. He joked that she was the brains and he the brawn of the outfit, but together they created a garden of vegetables, flowers and fruit that inspired (and fed) two generations of gardeners.

  11. meemsnyc says:

    That is awesome. I can’t wait until the book is ready!

  12. My inspiration was my sister-in-law, Victoria. My husband and I house sat for her and my brother-in-law Danny in June of 1982 for a week. They had little money, lived in a humble Victorian-era house, and were over a decade older than we were (I was 19). With creativity and hard work, Victoria had made their 1/4 acre urban plot (near a rowdy bar–and in the difficult climate of high and dry Colorado)into what I saw as a PARADISE. There was a three tiered strawberry bed, crafted out of salvaged metal (that to me, looked like a wedding cake), and a lush growth of plants everywhere–poppies, wildflowers, herbs, vegetables, small fruit trees–in the ground and in containers. The soil had been enriched with manure from a small flock of chickens, she used hay for mulch. It was the first true cottage garden I had ever seen, the very definition of beauty, exuberance and life.

    Even though I had no experience or family instruction in gardening, I knew right then that I would one day create my own garden. It took over a decade before I had a home with the space, but as soon as I did I followed Victoria’s example and applied to the master gardener program. One piece of advice I remember, from very early on, was asking her about, of all things, color schemes with flowers (back then, I was worried about doing everything “right.”) She said, “Don’t worry about that, just plant what you love–it’ll look like a beautiful bouquet!”

  13. Ellis Island wouldn’t allow produce in, but many immigrants tucked seeds on them. I designed the Immigrants Gifts garden in the mid-90′s – - a large planter on Pier 84 in Manhattan where this story was told and their plants were grown.

    We all have our “I’m hooked; I can now call myself a gardener” moment – - it is so nice to have my passion/work in a field that involves people who are caring-connected.

  14. Catherine says:

    two best comments about somebody who influenced your gardening style–or life–win copies of the book.

    Although I’m straight as an arrow, “Out in the Garden,” which I think I picked up on a whim, as the complete making of me as a gardener and of my now-somewhat-famous-in-Arlington garden. It showed me that it was ok to treat coming up with a garden as a process and how important it is to sit with and learn from the land.

  15. I loved the story about Jimmy Williams. thanks so much.
    I remember my father, taking care of his prized sedum plants along the fence. There were several of them. That was all he had, but he treasured them, and cultivated them to produce a fabulous show in the fall.

    I can picture the plant, though I couldn’t name it til years later, by its hard, tough leaf.

    Garden memories live forever.

  16. Cindy Schffgens says:

    Rats! I wish this was based on luck instead of good writing.
    Both my grandmothers gardened. They would let me help them when I was little. I gave up anything related to domesticity in my teens and early twenties, but when a boss kept showing up with roses on her desk that she grew herself, I got hooked all over again. I went from roses to herbs. The herbs got me cooking, and now I’m always trying to grow food.
    This book looks like one I really enjoy.

  17. kari says:

    Thomas summed it up perfectly… “Garden memories live forever!”
    My grandfather is 95, and spends every possible moment he can enlarging his garden. He retired several years ago from being the head gardener at Four Oaks Farm, an estate owned by the late Viscountess Mary Eccles. My cousins and I spent our summers on the estate, my grandmother watching over us. I remember sooo fondly the days of running through Grampy’s gardens. They are the childhood memories that you wish could have gone on forever. I can picture the rows of dahlias in the cutting beds and I can remember the smell of the potting shed, and the thick humid air of the greenhouses. My favorite memories were in Grampy’s gardens. So when asked who most influences the way (and the why) I garden? I don’t question it for even a moment…it’s my Grandpa!

  18. Lana says:

    A short post from a commenter for the first time; thanks for all the time put into your blog! It’s great reading

  19. Lisa, Ontario says:

    When I was a child both my grandmothers gardened, but in different ways. Gram was a veggie gardener. My brother and I would spend hours snacking from her garden. The carrots and peas were my favourites, until the pears were ready of course! My other grandmother had a little house on a corner lot by the highway. The flower garden went around the house and was about 12 feet wide with overgrown lilacs blocking it in. It was magical, but I was probably the only person who went in there and thought so. I made many stories about the gnomes who lived in there (and no grandma didn’t have the plastic kind), and when I had my own places to tend I have tried to recreate the magic. Unfortunately I keep moving so never quite get there, I have had the veggie gardens but the magical kinds of gardens keep eluding me. I am trying to create one at my current home, I have planted too many trees on my little lot. It should be fabulous in a few years! Long live grandmas!

  20. Laura Bell says:

    My inspiration ? I can’t name just one. My Mom taught me how seeds plus rain & sun become food – just-picked green beans with garlic, asparagus too good to make it to the table, sweet Concord grapes right off the vine, tomatoes sandwiched between lightly toasted slices of “Grandma” bread. Dad showed me how to gather ALL of the potatoes in newly-plowed rows, and that organic farming can be hard but rewarding work (the whole family used to walk through his soybean fields pulling cocklebur instead of spraying herbicides on them). And before them, there was Grandma & Grandpa (Mom’s parents), who raised their children to value the food from their own land first, to preserve the produce for long winters & to share their bounty with neighbors, and to preserve the best seeds for next year’s crops. And after I left my humid Southern home for this dry, foreign Western land, there was Doc Bell, who showed me the agricultural miracles available to the common gardener out here – and what to do when those miracles went awry. I’ve told my husband that I might not have married him, had it not been for his Grandfather & the bond we formed picking oranges in his backyard orchard.

  21. John says:

    One of my earliest gardening “influencers” was an elderly neighbor that helped my mom when the five toddlers and a husband overseas got too much to handle. I don’t remember her name but I think of her everytime I smell an iris blossom or see a watermelon pink crape myrtle blooming – she helped me plant both of them in our yard. I remember when she saw me capturing honeybees in a mason jar off of her honeysuckle covered porch. I had just learned in school that it was bees that gave us honey and I wanted to get it straight from the source. My problem was that everytime I opened the jar to catch bee number two, bee number one would escape. Our neighbor sat me down and explained that beekeepers wore gloves and veils and that getting honey out of a beehive wasn’t easy to do otherwise. Undaunted I raced home to dig out my sisters white lace church gloves and headgear. You can guess the rest of the story – trap bee in gloved hands – get stung – run home crying – explain it all to mom who can’t wait to tell the neighbor all about it. Teaching young kids about nature has to be very entertaining to adults.

    A note to anyone out there involved in Garden Publishing – THIS IS THE KIND OF BOOK I WILL BUY. Buy for me. Buy for Christmas presents. Buy Buy Buy – get the message.

  22. Elaine in NY says:

    Serendipity is the operative word in the literary/gardening partnering of Susan Heeger and Jimmy Williams: Harvard grad writer shares gardening passion with Designer’s (clothes, gardens) passion for the seeds of his heritage and a vision of how to perpetuate it.

    Gardeners everywhere– (on city rooftops and terraces, in suburban backyards as well as more rural dwellers) — will appreciate the sound, practical advice so generously offered in “From Seed to Skillet.”

    The story is fascinating. The recipes are terrific!

  23. daniel says:

    My great “Uncle Williard” had a huge impact on my gardening. He was an ol’ bachelor who lived with my grandmother. My relatives said that he was “feeble-minded”. Uncle Williard lived with the seasons by sitting in his cane-bottom chair under the pin oak outside. Days were spent shelling beans, raking leaves, picking wild huckleberries, and waving at the regular backroad, passing traffic. Some people would say that he lived a boring life. I consider it a life rich with somehow understanding, better than most of us, the richness of the natural world, only enjoyed with the patience of regular, keen observation of one’s place with it.

  24. shira says:

    I just received the book in the mail yesterday – and the photos and layout are just gorgeous. Hoping to get to spend some quality time with it over this long weekend!

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