THE NATION'S first experimental garden is returning to form, with a 21st century twist. Begun soon after Oglethorpe founded Savannah in 1733, Trustees Garden was intended as a research center of sorts for what was hoped to be a thriving local silk industry.
That particular vision didn’t work out, but there’s a new one at Trustees Garden, courtesy of new owner Charles H. Morris, who recently purchased the historic tract. (Morris also owns Connect Savannah.) A local farmers market is part of the garden’s new identity as a center of organic, sustainable living.
The next event takes place July 2 from 4-8 p.m. at Trustees Garden at East Broad and Bay Streets, perhaps more commonly known as the location of the Pirates House. Expect seasonal veggies, fresh herbs, nursery plants, organic compost, food from local organic restaurants in town, eco-friendly art, honey-based products from the Savannah Bee Company, and coffee and tea from the Sentient Bean.
One of the people implementing the new (or is it the old?) vision for Trustees Garden is “Farmer D,” aka Daron Joffe. The former vice president for Georgia Organics has made a name for himself as one of the area’s main sustainability advocates. Farmer D’s in charge of the actual “garden” at Trustees Garden, currently a quarter-acre tract, but is also helping with the overall vision.
“We’re bringing back Trustees Garden as historical garden with modern relevance to issues of food security, nutrition, organic farming and gardening,” Farmer D says. “Because this garden was the first experimental garden in America, older than the state of Georgia, and was intended originally as an agricultural experiment, it made a lot of sense to me that this would be a great project to bring that same concept back to life, because we need it as much today as they did then, if not more so.”
Farmer D says Trustees Garden has a role to play in helping people weather the current food shortage, which is exacerbated by rising fuel costs.
“We’re facing in my lifetime what is the first real food crisis,” he says. “So we’re going to have a monthly market, and hopefully soon a weekly market, that has a series of educational programs that looks at these issues and helps connect people closer to their food—growing it and cooking it.”
Farmer D’s involvement was concurrent with the hiring of a site manager, Tate Hudson, known for his longtime role at the Sentient Bean. Hudson became involved with Trustees Garden while working Savannah Music Festival events at the Morris Center on the same site, and then ended up getting hired on as the Center’s site manager.
Hudson says Savannah is uniquely positioned for an effort like Trustees Garden, for several reasons.
“Charleston’s farmers market is sort of the benchmark, but they don’t have a historical garden and fresh fish and cheeses,” the latter component being something Hudson says is in future plans for Trustees Garden.
At one point, Hudson and Farmer D found themselves in a room brainstorming ideas for Trustees Garden.
“Farmer D and I sat down one day and talked about what we could do to get some interest going and turn people on to the fact that there’s this amazing thing going on down here with this historic garden, and of course just the story behind Mr. Morris’s vision for entire property,” Hudson says.
Eventually they settled on the first step of a farmers market, a “soft launch” for which happened earlier in June.
“Those people who are always at the forefront of community action in town, or who just want to see something great happen in Savannah, came out. So we realized we were on to something,” he says. “We then wanted to get some people together and pick their brains and say, ‘We have this market, we have this infrastructure, we have farmers and vendors and restaurants who want to be involved, we have the first experimental garden in America right here—how can we bring all this together?’”
Hudson says the farmers market is only a first step of what’s hoped to be a full-fledged “urban education farm.”
“We’re at the point of organizing committees and talking in terms of education from top to bottom, from kids to middle school to high school to adults, master gardening to historical research,” he says.
“We want to be a place people can come and purchase family-produced local products, and hang out and learn,” echoes Farmer D.
“We want to make that available to everybody in Savannah, irrelevant of their socioeconomic status, if they’re a tourist or a local, a five-year-old or 95-year-old. We’re striving to bring local farmers in with seasonal produce and let people come and do their shopping there, fresh-from-the-barn shopping, and feel like they can hang out.”
Hudson says a key part of that “festival feel” will be hosting sustainability lectures and book signings.
“We’ll be bringing folks in who are sort of gurus in different fields to do different presentations, whether it’s gardening or a cooking class,” he says. “We’ll maybe have a book signing and then a lecture and presentation, all in that 4-8 p.m. window.”
That said, it all begins with the garden itself. The seed, so to speak, came from a Union Mission grant that Farmer D applied for to help connect low-income people to local farmers and teach them about growing their own food.
“Working with Union Mission I saw a couple of venues in Savannah for a garden to serve as an educational venue, and Trustees was one of the sites,” he says. “I got invited to some of the Trustees Garden charrettes through the Project for Public Spaces, and as I engaged in these brainstorming sessions it became more and more apparent that a garden was an important first step in redeveloping the site.”
Farmer D began farming organically in the mid-1990s at age 17. “I got into it out of curiosity about where my food comes from and it turned into a real passion,” he says.
“I was always really driven by education and social justice, but using agriculture and organic farming as the medium,” says Farmer D. “I love growing healthy food for people and seeing what it does for people’s lives and for communities.”