It’s almost three o’clock on a recent balmy autumn afternoon, and Susan Giddens is fretting over the sweet potatoes.
“I’m worried that I only made one pan,” murmurs the vivacious owner of Gratitude Gardens, a pretty patch of earth between Ogeechee Road and Highway 204, as she busily rearranges Pyrex dishes on a long table.
She wipes her brow and takes a deep, centering breath. “I get like this every year, though. It doesn’t matter how many people come — there’s always enough.”
The gentlewoman farmer and her husband, Joe, have been sowing these 11 acres without pesticides or commercial fertilizers for 22 years, coaxing out corn, tomatoes, black–eyed peas, mustard greens, several kinds of potatoes and almost every other vegetable that sprouts in the Southeast.
Every year for the past several, a few weeks before the peak harvest, the couple puts out a call that’s heard throughout Chatham County and across state lines to come partake in their land’s bounty.
“We do this every year is to educate and remind folks that this is what people used to do,” Susan says over her shoulder as she ladles soup.
“The biggest compliment I got today is when my daddy told me this reminds him of the old church picnics when he was a boy.”
“We also really like feeding people,” adds Joe with a wink as he mans the barbecue.
They call it the “Fall Family Fun Picnic,” and whoever shows up is treated to a feast that’s fast becoming legendary in this neck of the woods.
Some are blood kin, many are neighbors. A handful are farming newbies they met at last spring’s Crop Mob event.
Others don’t know them from Adam but were forwarded the Facebook page. Black, white, Latino and hailing from down the street and from as far as Jacksonville, everyone is quickly united by their appetites.
This is what happens when organic farming meets Southern cooking: Corn on the cob. Two kinds of barbecue. Roasted chickens. Deviled eggs. Homemade jalapeno cream cheese poppers wrapped in bacon. Curried pumpkin soup. A vegetable stew.
A plate of late season tomatoes, sliced and arranged in a spiral. Pickled okra. Those vaunted sweet potatoes. A dessert table sagging under red velvet cakes, pecan pies and blackberry compote.
“Why yes, we have been cooking for three days,” laughs Krystal Boyles, the eldest of the Giddens’ three daughters. “Nights, too.”
As the open–air barn begins to fill with people piling up their plates, Susan leads a tour around the cultivated circle of her acreage, its corners left wild for “gleaning” by those in need, as commanded in the Book of Leviticus.
Drawing from a lifetime of spiritual curiosity, she invokes a playful combination of Native American wisdom and astrology to guide her planting schedule and is experimenting with a feng shui-ish energy balancing system comprising four large swings at the compass points of the property.
Between Susan’s earthy spirituality and Joe’s wild–eyed Santa visage, the two present a picture of a joyful life spent in the dirt and on a tractor, laughing and singing, quite the opposite of the lemon–faced farmers a la “American Gothic.”
And while glossy magazines hold up small–scale suburban farming as a hip new trend, the Giddens, both in their 50s, are an example of its enduring capacity to create community and find fulfillment in its simplicity.
Gratitude Gardens lies in a part of the county where jobs are scarce and times are almost always tough. The tidy rows of vegetables are a magnet for the neighborhood kids, many of whom have rough home lives. The Giddens have become something like fairy godparents, providing a place to play and learn how food grows.
“We’ve got a lot of drug problems around here, and the children aren’t always as well cared for as I wish they were,” Susan laments. “But they’re always welcome in the garden.”
With income from a few rental properties and Joe’s retirement, the Giddens are able to farm full–time. Most of what’s harvested out of the Gardens is given away to neighbors and friends and stored for the winter, though there seems to be a never–ending yield year round.
Last spring, Susan enlisted the help of Elise Zador, agriculture education teacher at Windsor Forest High, to create a farm box program through the school in order to promote an appreciation for fresh food.
Zador, a former soil engineer and agronomist who now teaches the fundamentals of food production, is also partnering with the city on a recycling project that could garner a $50K green makeover at Windsor Forest, where the Giddens’ youngest daughter, Emily, attends school. (Middle daughter Myra is at Armstrong.)
Zador brought her own kids as well as a few of her students out to the picnic. “It’s great they get to see the harvest in action,” she said.
She and Susan talk about future projects to get more kids outside and eating well while teenagers toss horseshoes in the waning light. Sated and smiling, a Latina grandmother and a college student chat at a table.
A group of men have finished a rousing game of cornhole and are heading back to the barn for seconds on dessert. Joe tosses another wooden palette on the bonfire, and a relaxed quiet descends on the land.
“It’s become a burning passion for me, to help people see how simple and sacred life can be when it all comes down to growing food,” Susan says as the fire crackles. “I’m grateful that this is how I get to do it.”
A small boy comes up and Susan kneels down with a plate of pie. “Hey Junior, did you have enough to eat?” she asks gently.
He nods shyly and starts to say something, but instead puts his arms around Susan’s waist and hugs her. He takes a bite of pie.
Suddenly Joe fires up the tractor, and Junior, along with every other kid within running distance, takes off to leap on the back for a hayride.
Sometimes it’s hard to find the right words to give thanks. Especially when your mouth is full.