HOW DOES YOUR GARDEN GROW?

Lessons in enlightenment through gardening

  • THE Tomato Queen

    In a gilded age mansion on what was once a 150-acre farm, the Tomato Queen of East Nashville lives with her 800 baby tomato plants.
         “I grow an average of 1,000 heirloom tomato plants each year, with an average of 75 different varieties,” admits Tracy Herron, who has been selling her plants in East Nashville for about five years.
         “This year I’m only growing 800 plants, though. I’m going to be doing some traveling so I told myself I might just share with friends instead of try and sell any.”
         Herron began her tomato reign about nine years ago when she and husband Patton James moved into the old Oakland Farms farmhouse off Rosebank Avenue. From the beginning, Herron claimed that tomatoes simply loved her, and that the soil around her home was excellent for tomato growing. “This was once the farmhouse for a working 150- acre farm built in the late 1920s,” Herron says. “It was called Oakland Farms. So the soil is very rich. Plus, we’re pretty close to the river.”
         After picking up her tomato habit during the first year she lived in the old Oakland Farms house, Herron began to try her hand at different varieties — the whites, the purples, the bicolors, the cherries. During this time of trial and error, she realized how much she felt an affection for a particular flaming yellow bicolor. “The Hillbilly Flame is by far my favorite heirloom tomato,” she says. “It’s beautiful and delicious, and it never fails. Everyone else likes the Cherokee Purple, but I love the Hillbilly Flame. Plus, I love the name.”
         As a child, Herron would take trips with her dad to her grandfather’s garden and watch him harvest fresh watermelons and cantaloupes. It left a mark on her and influenced her to become a gardener herself. “I still picture that garden,” she says. “To me, gardening represents respect for Mother Earth. It is such a beautiful thing to watch a tiny thing grow into a flower, a tree, or an actual plant that will feed or clothe us. It’s spiritual for me to have my hands in the dirt.”
         Herron isn’t your typical gardener; she knows what she can grow and she grows it well, and is not interested in adding anything else to her repertoire. “I really feel that tomatoes love me, and that’s what I can grow. I don’t try to mess with anything I don’t do well with. I know what I know, and I know tomatoes.”
         About five years ago, she began selling her plants at the East Nashville Farmers Market, and after a couple years decided to set up shop in her own yard. “After a while, I felt like I just wanted to sell them out of my house. I set out a tent, put it on the East Nashville listserv, and every year it’s a success. I have so many return customers, especially men buying for Mother’s Day.”
         Every year, Herron sets about 200 tomato plants in her garden, and struggles to keep up with their prolific productions. “I’ll have thousands and thousands of tomatoes covering my kitchen in the summer, so I can what I can and give a lot away to friends.”
         Though Herron isn’t interested in straying too far from her tomato garden, she does add hot peppers so she can make the Tomato Queen’s famous hot sauce. “I don’t have an official name for my hot sauce, but it’s incredible,” she says. “I add roasted mangoes and peaches with chipotle pepper. I’ve mastered it, but I don’t want to mass produce it.”
         When asked what Herron is looking forward to the most this year, like most tomato growers, she hopes for a better season than last year. “The weather last year was very rough — the plants bloomed and then it got really hot and dry, so the flowers died and never flowered again,” she says. “So I’m hoping for better weather. Which brings me to another point. If there is anything my tomato garden teaches me every year, it’s patience. You have very little control on how it will turn out. No matter how much fertilizer you apply, soil testing you do, Mother Earth is really the only one in control.”
         Herron closes by shedding some light on how her title of Tomato Queen came to be. “When people started calling me the Tomato Lady and the Tomato Queen, I took it and ran with it,” she explains. “My husband is a musician, my ex-husband is a musician, and I wanted something for me, something that was mine. I’ll say it again: Tomatoes just love me. And in turn, I love them.”

    THE Gentleman Gardener

    When he’s not lending his talents to major projects like the Music City Center or the Country Music Hall of Fame, mechanical engineer Scot Lyle can typically be found in either one of two capacities — trying his hand at a new recipe in his kitchen, or nurturing the crops in his backyard garden.
         “I’m out of town managing projects in other cities almost half my week,” he says. “When I’m home, I want to spend my time doing the things I enjoy.”
         For Lyle, doing what he enjoys almost always involves food. Whether he’s starting flats of vegetable seeds beside his brightly lit kitchen window or preserving his summer garden bounty in colorful jars of jellies, he has an unmistakable love and talent for cooking and agriculture. Yet along with his passions comes his propensity for order.
         “I don’t like things that I perceive as out of place,” he says. “I like organization. It can be a blessing and a curse.”
         This proclivity can be found in most every space Lyle has created for himself — the simple and open design of his remodeled Victorian, his impeccably clean Nissan Cube. But nothing reflects Lyle’s personality like his pristinely kept garden. “My gardening style can best be described as analytical control, or anal, to be frank,” he says. “As a mechanical engineer, I analyze every aspect of my life. It’s deeply engrained into my personality.”
         And like any good engineer, Lyle designed his backyard plot to resemble a perfect Cartesian grid. The tetrad of 8-foot by 8-foot raised cedar beds form a coordinate plane of detached quadrants, which allows him to plot plants like points along an x and y axis. It’s a technique that allows him to rotate crops easily, minimize spacing, and maximize his limited space.
         “The advantage of my need for organization allows me to get the most out of my small garden,” Lyle explains. “The disadvantage is that sometimes it takes a failure to make me change my ways. And I have had many failures in the garden.”
         To lessen his alleged failures, Lyle carries maps and notebooks with him into his garden to record his journey. He jots down notes in leather-bound journals and methodically records his successes and hiccups every year. He is not a by-theseat- of-his-chinos kind of gardener. Lyle is thoughtful, intentional, and a skilled, knowledgeable grower.
         “I love growing herbs like basil, tarragon, and lavender,” he says. “And peppers — they’re so prolific, especially here in the South. I dry them and make my own hot pepper flakes, hot pepper grind, and chili oil. They’re a very beautiful plant.”
         In many ways, he is a paradoxically unique individual. His Southern drawl lays thick as he describes his sixth visit to France, and his technicolor tattoos slip from beneath the cuffs of his pressed oxford shirts. But as a gardener, Lyle is most endearing when his conversation swings from topics like mapping and graphs to the most sensual poetic prose about his passion for garden plants.
         He describes the curves of Turkish eggplants and the aromas of summer tomato vines he experienced as a child. He can talk about the color of a simple golden beet as if he were describing an oil painting. He remembers the first time he enjoyed a Parisian radish with butter on a simple baguette. The smells and colors of his garden seduce him, and he recalls his first memories in the garden.
         “Gardening to me reminds me of my paternal grandmother and my maternal great-grandmother working in the garden when I was a very young child,” Lyle says. “Memories of canning parties with the neighbors. Hands purple from shelling peas — a chore I hated then and still do 40-plus years later. Gardening holds a very special memory of my maternal great-grandmother. She was at her most vibrant then.”
         When asked what his favorite pepper is, he answers the Thai chili. His favorite root vegetable is the golden beet (and can eat them at every meal, he admits). But when asked what is his favorite tomato, he hesitates as if suffering from an inner emotional struggle.
         “I do like the yellow pear which is a cherry type of tomato,” Lyle says. “I also love an orange strawberry which is a beefsteak tomato and is beautifully colored. When it’s ripe, it’s like cutting into summer in 1970 when I was a kid. The scent is perfect.” When asked how gardening makes him feel, Lyle’s response is humble and gentlemanly.
         “I’m a very untalented person,” he says. “But when I see something that I’ve grown in the garden … I sense that it’s what a craftsperson must feel like when they create something. It gives me a nice sense of satisfaction to see something that I’ve nurtured and created with my own hands.”

    THE Homesteaders

    "Our backyard looks like a thirdworld country,” Jami Anderson says as she covers her eyes in feigned shame. She’s referring to the smattering of culinary and medicinal herbs, flowers, food crops, and free-roaming hens that cohabitate behind her home. And though it might seem discordant and unkempt to an uptight suburbanite, to a romantic East Nashvillian or anyone with a touch of horticultural know-how, it is a harmonious, intentional space forged by a skilled, seasoned duo. Jami Anderson and Russell Kirchner’s home is nothing short of a Cleveland Park Secret Garden.
         When approaching the couple’s front gate on Stainback Avenue, visitors are immediately greeted by a mixed bag of ornamental plants. Numerous rainforest succulents and dessert cacti like African milk plant and aloe cover the bungalow’s front porch. Bearded purple irises and native spiderwort lie at the base of the steps, as a kiwi vine meets you at the entrance to the garden. It is a space that the couple began to cultivate nine years ago when they first bought the property.
         “We were at the lawn and garden show that year, and there was a Davidson County Master Gardener booth,” Anderson says. “We were curious, signed up, completed the 14-week course, and gained more knowledge than we ever thought we would. It was incredibly interesting.”
         The course was a jumping-off platform for the duo. They learned from specialists skilled in areas such as soil composition, fruit trees, organic practices, beneficial insects, and companion planting, and the couple left as certified master gardeners. They moved into their home, and began building their urban garden the first year.
         “Our backyard was nothing but grass and a 1980s satellite dish back then. So I planted a trailing moonflower vine around it and used it as a trellis,” Kirchner recalls.
         “I would guerilla seed the alley,” Anderson says, “and we basically started battling the grass from day one. There’s no more grass anymore — just herbs and other plants.”
         The couple began their organic gardening journey through a series of trial-and-error processes, and would eventually launch their business, Slocal, at the East Nashville Farmers Market. This year marks their fifth year as dedicated vendors.
         “Before we joined the East Nashville market as vendors, we were shoppers, and noticed that no one was selling herbs. We had more herbs than we knew what to do with at home, so we decided to create Slocal and essentially fill a void,” Kirchner says.
         “We have always been huge supporters of the East Nashville Farmers Market, and we also love that it is a Delvin market. We love Delvin Farms — their produce is top notch. So it’s easy to promote a market when you have them behind it. We want them to do well.”
         At the market, Slocal sells anything and everything from luxurious bundles of fresh organic herbs, to potted vegetable plants, and icy cold cups of handmade teas and Jun (a kombucha tea fermented with honey instead of sugar). As a graphic designer, Anderson loves to create recipes with catchy names, and has had the most success with her popular Arnold Balmer — a lemony tea blended with her homegrown lemon balm.
         “I like to grow varieties that are difficult to find, such as salsify, sorrel, skullcap, lemongrass, holy basil, and hyssop,” she says. There’s also cat mint that lies at the base of a sprawling rose in full bloom. Lemon balm and mint spill out of raised wooden beds. A stand of cilantro spreads without boundaries, and clumps of feathery yarrow are found in a random rhythm.
         Last year, Anderson and Kirchner welcomed a new addition to their family. “My greatest day in the garden with baby Harper was watching her taste all the herbs. She really liked mint. She really liked lemon balm. Parsley was just OK,” Anderson says. “I’m really looking forward to working with Harper in the garden as she gets a little older,” Kirchner adds.
         When asked to describe their growing styles, the two answer differently. “I think my creativity in the garden comes from being a prepper,” Kirchner says with a half-kidding smirk (a “prepper” being someone who prepares for disasters). “A lot of things can be taken from you — your money, your house, your farm, but nobody can take your know-how. That’s the good thing about knowing how to grow your own food.”
         “My gardening style can be described as a wing and prayer,” Anderson adds. “Put it out there and hope it grows. Pretty much how people have farmed throughout the ages. It’s so dependent on weather, animals, circumstance.”

    THE Urban Farmers

    Nicole Mattingly emerges from her half-acre urban farm to greet guests beneath a tulip poplar that she planted in the third grade. She is a warm, welcoming soul as she pulls an icy beer from her cooler and hands it over to be enjoyed during the farm tour at her home.
         “This is actually the house I grew up in,” she says. “My grandmother used to have her garden here, and I began to bring it back to life a little every year beginning about 10 years ago. I enjoy gardening like my grandmother. It’s my way of connecting to Mother Earth and giving back. It’s my meditation time.”
         The home is on Greenwood Avenue where Mattingly’s parents still reside, but she and husband Nick live not too far away, allowing her to bike to the farm every day. She swoops a soil-covered hand across her rows of spring crops and begins to describe what’s in store for their business, Double N Urban Farm and Apothecary, this year.
         “Here are beds for beets, radishes, carrots, and onions,” Mattingly says. “We’ll have 10 varieties of lettuce. I’ve planted a 100-foot row of potatoes over there. Here are more than 1,000 plants that we’re hardening off. These will either go in the ground or we’ll sell them at our upcoming plant sale.” She sips her beer, smiles, and exudes a genuine fulfillment.
         The Mattingly’s farm is impressive, and her hard work shows in abundance. The farm is neat, plants are healthy, and measures have been taken to keep varmints and deer at bay. Though Nick helps out with projects like building fences, greenhouses, and tilling, he has his own business — Double N Lawn Care — which means most of the farm responsibilities are managed by Nicole herself. Yet nothing seems to deter her enthusiasm as she begins to run through a list of her latest projects that excite her the most.
         “We’re establishing a new asparagus bed at the moment, lots of new varieties of tomatoes, and — oh! Bees! We’re getting bees this week! Mainly for pollination, but eventually for infused honeys, as well, which I am really looking forward to.”
         This year marks Double N Urban Farm and Apothecary’s third season to host a CSA, with a diverse selection of food to choose from. “For spring, we should have mizuna, mustard greens, arugula, kale, collards, spring onions, peas, and radishes,” she says. “Then we’ll start incorporating beets, carrots, strawberries, garlic scapes, tomatoes, and several varieties of squash, eggplant, sweet and hot peppers, bush and pole beans, and okra.”
         The first year, the farm had six members in their CSA. The next, it grew to nine, and this year Mattingly has 12 CSA members to feed — demonstrating a steady growth and rising demand.
         “It can be challenging to feed 12 families from a half-acre farm in addition to your own,” she admits. “We also will be donating a CSA to a family in need every week.” To ensure maximum yields, Mattingly adopts urban bio-intensive practices, squeezing in as much sustainability within her row crops as she can. She composts heavily and shields the soil with a dense planting method that promotes a healthy amount of water retention.
         In addition to her vegetable growing skills, Mattingly is a seasoned herb grower and herbalist, with more than 40 medicinal herbs in cultivation. “I prefer to call myself a folk herbalist,” she says. “It’s a lot of botany and a lot of folklore, which is fun. It’s a nice marriage of those two.”
         Her handmade apothecary products have been growing in popularity, and can be found at the East Nashville Farmers Market, Gardens Of Babylon, Old Made Good, and more. “We offer our normal skincare line, plus aromatherapy rollers, tinctures, balms, and salves,” she says. “Everything is infused with our homegrown herbs for four weeks.”
         When asked what she is most excited about for the upcoming growing season, Mattingly replies like a true East Nashvillian: “Tomatoes. More accurately, the new Michael Pollan variety. We will have more than 19 varieties of heirloom tomatoes for our CSA this year, including lots of oranges, greens, stripes, pinks, and whites. That’s exciting.
         “I am also looking forward to meeting and spending time with our new CSA members. I love the new faces and hearing all about the new recipes people are trying out with our herbs and veggies.”
         Mattingly’s biggest challenge as an urban farmer? She doesn’t even hesitate. “Squash bugs!” she says. “I don’t even have to think about it. They’re horrible. I spend an hour every day picking them off the plants and dunking them in soapy water. They’re evil.”