The Art of Gardening

Jul 20, 2021 | Gardening, Living

Whitney Powers made the decision to start growing her own food during the uncertainty of the pandemic. Now she runs Garden Girl, her own community-based shop on Oak Street featuring her now-famouscanned goods.

Gardens are diverse, and these green-thumbed artists are as well. One took a quarantine necessity and turned it into a thriving business, another uses gardening as a practice in daily meditation, and the last moonlights as an emergency plant triage nurse. But all of these gardeners have the will of an artist — risk-taking, self-reliant, passionate, and scrappy — and all have created life out of the dirt.   

Whitney Powers: The (Vegetable) Garden Girl

Like many in the early stages of quarantine last year, Whitney Powers saw the bare shelves of the grocery stores, the uncertainty of our economy, and worried she wouldn’t be able to feed her family. So out of necessity (and a little bit of boredom) she decided to try growing her own food.

Whitney, who was a caterer before the pandemic, not only needed to feed her family, but also found her source of income challenged.  “I was originally going to sell starter plants, so I had all these little starters lined up along my back sidewalk, but the squirrels ate them all!” she says from the front window of her brand new shop Garden Girl Foods in historic Old Louisville.   

Whitney’s entrepreneurial spirit didn’t die with her first seedlings, though. Her second attempt at gardening took place in a community garden where Whitney says the squirrels had a “buffet to choose from” and left enough of her plants alone. That summer in the community garden, she learned the art of gardening from the neighboring elders and was given some heirloom seeds from “doc,” one of the garden’s tenants.

As summer progressed, Whitney’s crops grew. And grew. And grew. “I think I had 17 plants in there at first; we had more food than we knew what to do with. Tomato plants are as big as  grown men and the plants were all fighting for space — it was a mess.” Whitney was then presented with a new gardening conundrum: What to do with all the yield.

As a girl growing up outside of Nashville, Whitney was taught to can by her great-grandmother.
When she realized that her canning skills were not keeping up with supply, she called her grandmother for some help and asked for some help purchasing a deep freeze. “She told me to keep canning and that her cornbread was burning, she had to go. And that was that. I realized I had to learn more about canning, so I enrolled in an online food preservation class through UofK’s Agriculture Department.”

And this is where Garden Girl sprouted. Whitney’s penchant for do-it-yourself, along with her country and culinary backgrounds, turned a quarantine hobby into a budding business.

“My friends started ‘shopping’ in my basement for food. Then, I started selling out my canned goods [homemade soups, veggies, jams, and jellies] at Logan Street Market.” Soon, Whitney’s demand was larger than her yield, so she returned to her rural roots and partnered with several farmers, as well as the Amish. During COVID-19, many of the rural processing plants were shut down, so farmers were having to throw out their rotting meat. Whitney decided to help curb the waste by putting the excess produce and meats to good use in stews and recipes that could be preserved through her canning operation.

“I got all the way deep into canning,” Whitney says. Her now-famous canned goods (she was recently on The Today Show and has been contacted by The Ellen Show for a spotlight) are now showcased at her brick-and-mortar community-based shop on Oak Street. In addition, Garden Girl also sells homemade heat-and-serve meals to the community, provides fresh produce in an urban food desert, and adds life to the landscape with a full-sized garden in the neighboring lot. The shop offers cooking and gardening classes to adults and children. This garden girl has made something out of nothing — literally built a community resource with some sweat and dirt and seeds, and of course with a little help from her husband and daughter who buzz around, their garden girl, her like bees.

Friends and family bring their ailing plants to Jen O’Connell, who brings them back to life.

Jen O’Connell: The Indoor Plant Nerd

There are 87 plants in Jen O’Connell’s humble Germantown cottage. This self-proclaimed “hobby gardener that has taken [her] skills next-level” is testament to the theme I’ve heard from all the gardners interviewed in this feature: The only thing it takes to make a great gardener is enthusiasm and the willingness to get your hands dirty.

Jen is hesitant to call herself an expert, but her passion and expertise betray her modesty. From a living wall adorned with the spindly vines of philodendron, to the myriad of vessels spewing forth tropical pupps and cuttings, to a “plant curtain” above the kitchen sink, Jen’s home is an amatuer plant nursery and emergency triage center.

“I have a lot of hand-me-down plants,” she explains. Friends and family bring their plants to Jen whose green thumb and proclivity for propagation bring them back to life. Jelly jars fill every surface the sun teases. Inside, Jen nurses their roots to recovery, creating an amniotic haven to nurture them from infancy.

Jen has been a plant hobbyist for years, but after taking the Jefferson County Master Gardeners course, and through the time and space that Covid-19 quarantine provided, she has since turned into a “full plant nerd.” She is even tossing around the notion of turning this gift into a full-time gig, and has already worked on landscaping teams throughout town at places like the Parklands and local businesses (she is currently working on a “beer garden” made of climbing hops at Zanzabar). Her 87 houseplants are also roommates to a backyard vegetable and pollinator garden she started from seeds in her tiny greenhouse, and she has a moon garden filled with purples and silver plants that bloom at night. Her inside beaties, though, were inspired by the tropicals she fell in love with while living in Hawaii — and of course from the babies and sick-ones she has doctored for friends.

“You don’t have to be an expert,” Jen says, “you just have to learn a few tricks of the trade and know how to do your research. For instance, most of my plants came from cuttings or pups–a plant will create pups when crowded in a pot. The plant thinks its time is waning, so it will produce a bunch of offspring. Thin them out and replant, and then pass them on to friends. You can sometimes ask nurseries to sell you cuttings and then propagate the roots in water. You just have to have a vision and know what you want, and not be afraid. The worse thing that can happen is that the plant will die — and then you just start again.” 

A few years ago, Sarah Dutton dug up her front yard and transformed her urban lot into a floral sanctuary.

Sarah Dutton: A Patio Garden Oasis

Tucked away in her Crescent Hill garden oasis, Sarah Dutton is busy at work. “This is all I do with my life,” she says with a laugh, “pinch and prune and plant.”

A few years ago, Sarah’s love of flowers and loathing of lawn inspired her to dig up the front yard and transform her urban lot into a floral sanctuary. Several years in, it is a sight to behold: tantalizing textures of ferns and fronds, pops of magenta and lilac peeking from a sea of verdant vegetation. It makes the eye marvel that there is so much to green — the entire spectrum of the color is on showcase here.

“We live in a terrarium,” Sarah says pointing to her front bedroom window that looks out over her secret garden, her place of daily worship. “We’re like little two frogs looking out on this pleasure zone that starts as soon as spring starts breaking.”

Sarah’s garden is designed around texture, sculpture, and bloom. Blossoms are timed like a fireworks display: The hellebores begin the show in February and add to the greenery throughout the season. The crocuses chime in as March emerges and are followed by the jonquils. Peonies pop their bulbous faces forward in May and signal the onset of azalea and iris season. Late summer alerts the day lilies to tower over the crocosmia and clematis. Finally, the roses, echinacea, and peppermint patty hydrangeas burst open in the grand finale before the close of summer.

“I have a slight method: I like flowery, happy spaces with a little wildness, and I’m drawn to sentimentality,” Sarah says.“These sculptures are my brothers and these pots were either roadside finds or gifted to me from friends that aren’t much into gardening. I like to throw in some containers because you can move them around when you want. I’m a 360 girl, 180 at least. I like the change,” she says as she walks me through her meditative floral mecca.

Every plant in Sarah’s flower garden has a story and a personality. She talks to them, as well as the sticks that fall onto the immaculately lush plot, “I could just spank these daylilies I’m so angry with them. They have all reverted back to orange after I transplanted them. And these sticks,” she says as she bends over to snach it out of a fanning waxy hosta, “these are my perpetual and ever-after.”

In her backyard, there is more of the same magic, cultivated lovingly from a canvas that was once nothing but English Ivy it took an entire dumpster to haul away. The care for her flowers is as clear as her wit: “Ask me if my children have an inheritance and the answer is no. They can come stay in the garden though, before they sell the house.”

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