Cultivating Connections Through Gardening

Many people garden, but the lifestyle is especially suited for the nurturers, caregivers, and agents of change. With a strong natural instinct to care for and provide, nurses in particular seem to thrive in this environment. There are two Lake Country women, both retired from nursing careers, who now use their time and energy to garden. A Greene County vegetable grower shares her herbs with local restaurants and a Hancock County flower farmer sells her fresh-cut market bouquets at local farmer markets. After visiting their farms and learning about their special connections with the land and their gardens, I was inspired to order seeds for my small garden. Their stories serve as inspiration to grow, share, and connect with others during the bounty of this season and beyond.

Growing Vegetables at The Pond Place

Beth Lewis grew up in Kentucky, but her late husband Ed’s roots run deep on “The Pond Place” in Greene County that’s now her home. As a young boy, Ed would stay at the old cabin with friends. They would hunt, fish, and cook for themselves with Ed’s father driving out daily to check on them. The family also hosted church picnics and fish frys there. During that time, corn was grown in the bottomland bordered by Richland Creek.

The corn is no more, but in its place, Beth has cultivated a farm of abundant beauty and provision. Beth started gardening as an adult while living in Athens. She was a founding member of the Piedmont Gardeners Club, which, in 1992, partnered with University of Georgia Horticulture Professor Allan Armitage to host a garden tour, which became a large annual event.

People ask Beth how she does it, getting up every morning to feed the chickens and tend the farm. As she looked across the pond where the two Toulouse geese that she rescued were swimming, she said “It’s a meditative time. I don’t know how to explain it. It’s like a form of contemplation in a way.” This connection to land, gardening, and keeping chickens, runs in her family. She has a turn-of-the-century photo of her great-grandmother surrounded by hens and a turkey. Families back then relied on animals and gardens for sustenance and self-sufficiency. In today’s convenience culture, having a garden is usually a choice rather than a necessity.

“It’s a total luxury for me to be able to live close to the land which sustains me physically and spiritually,” Beth shared as we walked around her winter garden full of broccoli, kale, and chard. She had recently planted peas and leeks. Beth loves to use leeks in her eggs and shared that her go-to breakfast is a combination of kale, collards, leeks, mushrooms, onions, and peppers sautéed with fresh eggs. From farm to table, her passion and knowledge is consistent throughout the entire cultivation and culinary process.

With a goal to become completely self-sufficient, Beth uses recycled materials, such as the shower doors she picked up at Habitat for Humanity for her lettuce beds, and organic gardening practices like composting. She makes jams, and bakes and purées tomatoes, okra, and pumpkin, which she freezes in two-cup packs. She grows herbs like parsley, cilantro, rosemary, thyme, and lemongrass. One garden row is for basil, which her friend, Jamie, of The Chef and the Wife restaurant in Greensboro, uses for pesto and and caprese salads. Beth, a true Kentuckian, also makes a mean mint julep. The recipe was perfected over years of hosting an annual Kentucky Derby Party. Undoubtedly, the fresh mint from the garden is one of the not-so-secret ingredients.

Though her Kentucky roots run deep, Beth recalled the first time she came with Ed to The Pond Place, she felt a connection. In those early weekend trips from Athens, she learned if she wasn’t fully present, she couldn’t keep a garden going. Her gardening tip: “You are wasting your time if you can’t water it and if you can’t keep the deer out.” To that note, her garden is surrounded by a nine-foot fence and has drip irrigation on automatic timers. Beth enjoys eating in season and sharing the abundance of what comes from her garden with the community.

Flower Farming at Mary-Anna Farm

Belinda Peebles’ farm that is now home also started as a weekend getaway for her and her husband, who both worked in the medical field in Augusta. They bought the property in 1997 and named it Mary-Anna Farm after their two daughters. On weekends, they would drive to Sparta and stay in the old, rustic farmhouse. As the girls left for college, Belinda and husband, Jimmy, knew they wanted to be at the farm permanently.

Belinda’s brother had kept bees on the farm, so she joined the Lake Country Beekeepers Association, which provided welcomed friendships and connections with other beekeepers, gardeners, and growers in the region. Belinda continued to pursue education through the UGA Extension programs and became a Master Gardener, Master Composter, and Master Naturalist. In the following years, this base knowledge helped her tremendously as she ventured into the world of flower farming. Last year, Belinda sold her flowers at the Harmony Crossing and Sandersville farmers markets, and online through Augusta Locally Grown.

Growing specialty cut flowers for the market involves planning months before planting to obtain specific seeds, bulbs, and shrubs that make beautiful, lush, fragrant bouquets week after week in the growing season. The flowers grown at Mary-Anna Farm are grown organically from seed started in the greenhouse on the farm. Market bouquets purchased on a Saturday morning at the market are cut early Friday morning, conditioned throughout the day, wrapped with care in the evening, and delivered to the market in a conscious, sustainable way to ensure quality blooms and vase life for customers. Within a 24-hour period, the flowers go directly from Belinda’s hands in Sparta into her customers’ hands.

Brenda hopes the recent addition of a high tunnel hoop house will extend her growing season so she can sell flowers at the Harmony Crossing Market earlier this year and through the fall. When I visited in mid-January, she was completing the Floret Online Workshop for her fourth time, a practice she finds valuable as a flower farmer. Floret is a flower and seed company in Washington State that offers educational courses as well as seeds and gear for aspiring flower farmers.

The market bouquet, a customer favorite, is an orchestration of colors, scents, and textures of flowers and foliage. Belinda showed me the barn and table space where she puts together the bouquets. She starts with a focal flower, such as a sunflower or hydrangea, and incorporates four or five additional floral or foliage qualities like spikes, discs, filler and air as she works her way down the table. At the very end, she likes to incorporate herbs to ensure the bouquet speaks to all senses. Last but not least, a little “sparkle” is added by weaving in some Jewels of Opar, a foliage with tiny pink, star-shaped flowers.

Belinda is considerate of techniques to ensure proper harvest time and ensure maximum post-harvest vase life. She encourages customers to trim stems and change water for a longer vase life, but most of all, to make sure they take time to enjoy the flowers. She said she was honored and humbled to know her flowers were used this past year for virtual baby and wedding showers and brought much joy into customers’ homes during the pandemic.

Collard greens, a perfect zinnia, and a farm fresh egg, these are the simple, yet profound things that grow and and nourish our bodies, spirits, homes and plates. The opportunity to be in nature is such a gift, and we are truly blessed in Lake Country by the abundance of natural beauty. So this season and beyond, visit local farmers markets, support the growers, buy some flowers, and most importantly, savor these beautiful gifts that come from the gardens and people who nurture them.

Story by Katherine Lacksen Mahlberg

Photos by Katherine Lacksen Mahlberg, Beth Lewis & Belinda Peebles