In which we, all things considered, aren't doing so bad really
Thursday farmers market on Greenway, 3-6pm
Saturday OpenNursery Hours 9am - 3pm
Sunday Farmers market in City Park, 8am - 12pm
Fall & Winter Herb Garden class, in partnership w/ Sprout (sign up through their website)
Sidewalk Sale @ Canopy Plant Co, Saturday Nov 12, 9am - 3pm
November. All Saints Day. Samhain. Day of Innocents.
We’re deep now into Fall, and what a season it’s been so far. It has now rained exactly twice in the last couple of months, my lips have been chapped and my hair like a wire brush for the better part of that time. The Mississippi is troublingly low, and until the last week or two there’s been no clouds in the sky and no sunrises nor -sets to speak of. Combined with the sharp decline in nighttime temps, this has all truly put our gardens through the ringer. About thrice per market I hear from customers who left town for a week or three, counting on late summer monsoons, and returned to dead and desiccated gardens. All the herbaceous tropicals — our bananas and turmeric and taro leafs — have gone limp and yellow. The bees descend on our nursery tables whenever we water, to drink up the droplets from the surfaces of leaves and to sting me when I move the trays around. Snakes are taking refuge in greenhouses and mice in our bedroom walls. But then again, the daylight hours have been beautiful, and we did recently have those couple little systems come through and wet the parched soil for a day or two at least.
Of course, this is still prime gardening time here in the gulf south (12 month growing season, baybee!), some of our best, really, and we’ll keep growing and selling you plants into the winter. Some of the best veggies go in the ground in this season, and far be it from me to downplay the good fun of ripping out summer plants, collecting seeds, curing sweet potatoes and the like. But there’s something to be said also for the natural/reasonable/alltoohuman impulse to slow down in these cooler nights and shorter days, to hunker, to hibernate, to mulch and crimp and tarp and to harvest.
So, in light of that shift in spirits and vibe, I thought we could take this opportunity to step back a little and to lay out, broad-strokes, some of the things we’ve been working on over here at Too Tall, as well as a few of our bigger, grander and higher aspirations for what we’d like to see the Nursery grow to become.
There is so much that we want to do. I’ve always been plagued and/or blessed (take your pick) with pretty extreme and unpredictable Ups and Downs, both emotionally and energetically. Many of you who know me irl, and especially those of you who have worked with me on (or simply entertained my pitches for) various projects may be only too familiar with this fact. Usually I can count on at least a few Up, or manic, days in a given month, and that’s generally when I write these newsletters, as well as my world-famous 500+ word text messages (sorry again to those of you who are on the receiving ends of these). But I’ve been in a bit of a prolonged Down time, and I sit here writing these words on Nov 1, the day this newsletter is supposed to go out, with not an ounce of energy, nor much at all in the way of enthusiasm or confidence. Rather than downplaying or avoiding the situation though, I’m gonna try to embrace it. I’m gonna slow down a little, take a breath, and get reflective. What I’d like to do here, as I mentioned, is to take a broader look at just what it is that we’re trying to accomplish, what we’ve managed thus far, and where we’re back at (or never left) the drawing board.
I want to be careful not to oversell or aggrandize our work because, at the end of the day, it’s just a business and we’re just trying to pay our bills and fund our fairly meager lifestyles, and lord knows there’s grander and more pressing work to be done these days than running a little urban plant business. At the same time though, we take what we do very seriously — not because this business of growing and selling plants is particularly important or profound on its own, but because of what else it allows us to do, what aid we can lend, whether to people or movements or actions, facilitated and/or funded by said business. We are far less interested, and I mean this in all sincerity, in what we can sell than in what we can give away.
I won’t spend any time here on exactly why I think that gardening is important and liberatory, because I’ve written a lot about that already and will likely do so much more in the future. And besides, I gotta budget my energy. Instead I’m going to focus on the nuts and bolts of our business and attempts to spread that Good Word. If you want to know/talk more about how or whether gardening is a radical act, you can read back through our past newsletters, and feel free to hit me up.
We started Too Tall 6 years ago with no real plan other than to spend as much of our time as possible working with plants and dirt. Since then we have learned a ton obviously, and our vision has in some ways crystallized while in others growing more fluid.
Both Maggie and I have always been the type of people who are motivated and driven by our own deeply held moral convictions and love for other people, as well as an aversion to ideas of growth-for-growth’s-sake and the blind pursuit of personal enrichment. This remains true today, but along the way we have better identified what exactly it means for us — especially as (gag) small business owners — to aim for these ideals, and how to build something that, beyond just being a kitschy little cocoon seeking to insulate ourselves from the greed, exploitation and degradation of the outside world, where we eat our homegrown vegetables, sew our own clothes and whittle our spoons with our fingers in our ears, might actually help to move the needle in some small way toward a kinder, safer, freer, more ethical and generous world for all people — or at least for those within our reach and in our communities.
That desire to Spread the Wealth was one factor in our eventual decision to eschew the selling of produce and to focus in on the Nursery and the growing of plants for home- and other small gardens. Doing so has enabled us on the one hand to really dial in our nursery operation and to provide solid and well-cared-for plant starts, as well as to divorce our in-ground garden space from the economic incentives inherent to any business enterprise. We then were able to get more experimental with the crops we do grow out, as well as with different methods of cultivation, rather than being wedded to row crops and intensive succession planting/bed flipping. We let things go to seed; we left wild areas for critter habitat; we kept chickens and gave space over to our friend Colin to keep some bee hives for their own little honey business, Honey Wild.
For a while I was harvesting around our gardens and delivering the produce to Community Kitchen, a local mutual aid kitchen, for their weekly meals. Eventually we arranged for members of their collective to just let themselves in and harvest as needed, since the people on the ground, doing the actual cooking and distribution of meals, would have a much better intuitive understanding of what they needed, in what quantities, at what times. This is an ongoing process, and we are working now to plant out this season’s gardens and develop a harvest routine that works best for everyone.
What I’d really like to see ultimately is for a number of mutual aid-minded gardens and farms around town to band together and collaborate to these ends. We could plan our crops, share resources and information, and coordinate harvests weekly or however-so-often. We could prepare meals and process excess produce into preserves. We could network or form a loose federation with other, similar groups in other regions and urban centers to divert resources where necessary, respond to disasters and cooperate on the installation and maintenance of new gardens and projects. We haven’t made a lot of headway on this particular aspect of the project, but I encourage anyone who is interested to reach out, either to us or to other sympathetic growers in your region.
Another outlet for getting stuff out there to those who cannot or are simply less inclined to spend money at the farmers markets or the nursery itself has been the Free Plant Table out front of Too Tall (a beautiful and much beloved table, courtesy of our friends at SPROUT NOLA). As an active nursery, we have of course been able to keep it fairly well stocked with plants, but the unfortunate (if inevitable) fact is that the plants that made their way to the table were often the uglier, leggier, more over-grown specimens, or those that were reaching the end of their season.
This is why, since acquiring our new Greenhouse and moving the bulk of production over there (more on that in just a little bit), we have been transitioning toward dedicating the old greenhouse (the little hoop house on site at Too Tall) to mutual aid and Free Plant production. We’ve given much of the control of our Free Plant Operations over to Cat, our long-time volunteer/co-gardener and friend, and we are now better able to keep the Plants for Sale and the Plants for Free a little more separate, both mentally and physically. The idea being that now Cat will be able to seed, up-pot and distribute plants to their own greatest benefit, rather than putting out whatever we cannot or would simply rather not sell. And, lemme tell you, the Free Plants are lookin top notch these days.
One major throughline in this journey has been our interest in cooperative ownership/management and solidarity economies. We’ve toyed time and again with formalizing in one way or another as a Workers Co-op, but of course we have no employees, nor managers to organize against. As a married couple, we already operate by consensus. So, in time we’ve had to accept that, as things stand now, this would be a fairly empty gesture. But the goal is to cooperate, not to secure some document certifying us as a co-op in the eyes of the state, and there is no short supply of opportunities for cooperation.
As I mentioned, we recently(ish) acquired a much larger commercial greenhouse in the lower 9th ward. We could eventually grow our business to fill it, no doubt, and could make a tidy sum renting space along the way, but that, in my opinion, would be a treacherous path. What we would much prefer is to share ownership and management of the property with other like minded nursery growers. We’ve not yet found the right candidates to co-own the space with us, but we’re talking to some people and exploring various models for the cooperative management of such a property/resource, and we’re pretty confident that something really cool is going to come of it. In the meantime we’re sharing space in the Greenhouse with a small handful of other friends and growers (Caden, from Delta Flora, a wonderful local native plant nursery, and Zach from CRISP farms, who does (sub)tropical fruits and other cool permaculture plants) who need the space but aren’t interested for the time being in committing to shared legal ownership. These friends are contributing to help cover bills + the mortgage for the Greenhouse, but we feel that it's important that we not profit from or pocket any rent money from the very get-go, as this can only become a trickier and more weighty temptation as time goes on. If we won’t operate from a position of solidarity + camaraderie right now, while we are all small and living hand-to-mouth, we most certainly won’t do so in any future where we’re more established or comfortable. No business ever does, and none ever will.
So that’s one level of cooperation. We’ve been experimenting also with Producer Co-op ideas: many of you no doubt will have noticed that we’ve been sharing tent- and table-space at the farmers markets with some more friends (Rotglow Farm, check em out) to sell their log-grown shiitake mushrooms. This was a no-brainer for us. Having them there at the market is fun, the mushrooms don’t take away from our plant sales at all, and it’s one more way to try and move that needle toward a world premised on solidarity and fellowship, community and generosity.
One last idea, an idea that’s currently way out on the horizon but is especially dear to me, is that of opening up a little radical garden shop. We could sell the plants obviously, but we could also provide regionally appropriate fertilizer mixes and other inputs, teach classes and host workshops and other events, distribute literature, engage in community-wide plant breeding, crop trials, climate data gathering and all kinds of other projects. This could dovetail very nicely with all of the ideas already mentioned here, as well as serve as the locus for cooperative efforts of all kinds: a workers’ co-op, producers’ co-op, consumer co-op, and a hub for all things at that nexus of gardening x radical action. This is the real dream.
So, having now said all of that, I would like to congratulate myself on getting this dang newsletter written (even if it is now Nov 2), to congratulate you on having read it, and again to give us both permission to take it slow and go easy on ourselves. Breathe in, breathe out, and keep our eyes on the prize.