275 years ago, English settlers chose the highest point on the Savannah River bluff as the site of the first experimental garden in America.
Today, Trustees Garden at Bay and East Broad streets is reclaiming its original role as host for groundbreaking agricultural exploits, chiefly through the twice-weekly Market at Trustees Garden.
Beginning as a monthly farmers market within the Charles H. Morris Center onsite, the Market then went weekly every Wednesday afternoon. It recently added a Saturday market from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. and has moved to a larger, more accessible space next to the Pirates House directly facing East Broad.
Market Director Maria Castro explains that "we originally went with Wednesdays because farmers harvest on Tuesdays, and we wanted to really involve the chefs from the restaurants to come in and work their weekend menus around what the market offers. It was also to give working people in the downtown area an opportunity to come after work on their way home."
Castro says the Saturday market will give those who don't have an opportunity to shop on Wednesdays a chance to go to market.
A stone's throw away from the Market on East Broad is Cha Bella, a restaurant devoted to a New Southern menu using the freshest available organic ingredients. Cha Bella executive chef Matt Roher is one of the original forces behind the Market, and continues to put on cooking demos and sell fresh produce from Cha Bella's three-acre Avondale Farm tract.
"It's been phenomenal," says Roher. "As a chef, now there's a reliable place downtown from a professional standpoint to buy organic or locally grown produce and eggs that I can bring back to my restaurant."
By now, farmers and restaurateurs at the Market have evolved an interdependent relationship that benefits both.
"We've got a relationship now where we'll go down there we'll bring food and stuff that we have, and basically at the end of the market since we don't want vendors to take the food back where it came from, we'll work out trade deals," says Roher.
So is it like "Iron Chef," where restaurants may have to improvise entire menus on the fly based on what's at the Market that week?
"From a seasonal basis we're in a rhythm right now where for the most part we know what's going to be there," explains Roher. "Maybe it isn't there, but if it is there we're going to know what to do with it."
For example, Roher says "if it's early spring like it is now, there are going to be some baby root vegetables down there, a decent amount of smaller leafy vegetables, lettuces and that kind of thing. As we get deeper into the season and it gets a little bit hotter, we'll start seeing things like squash and zucchini, tomatoes and cucumbers. When you're cooking seasonally you get into that rhythm."
Interestingly, there are times when a chef, even one as aggressively hyper-local as Roher, wants non-local ingredients.
"I'm a firm believer that I don't want local and fresh if for some reason I can get a higher quality elsewhere," he says. "For example, right now a lot of the preserved meat, like traditional European charcuterie is perfected over thousands of years. I can get to a point where I can come close to duplicating a cured leg of pork, but I'm not going to nail the prosciutto de parma (laughs)."
However, Roher says he does "appreciate the dairy and eggs that are available locally, because dairy breaks down when it's preserved and changes the flavor profile."
Another avenue with opportunity for local and regional growth is fresh meats.
"We're working real hard to get a good local natural pork producer," says Roher. "We're at a point where probably this time next year we'll have a reliable strain of hogs just outside of town that will be all natural and a reliable product. We'll get there and in al likelihood while we're working through that process I'll probably be using offsite and nonlocal. But as long as we keep our eyes on the prize and continue working towards it, we'll get there."
Indeed, the folks behind the Market at Trustees Garden have by all measures done an excellent job of keeping their eyes on the prize, whether the prize is fresh local produce or a heightened sense of community and interaction in the northeastern corner of the Historic District.
Trustees Garden itself and several acres around it are owned by Charles H. Morris, owner of Connect Savannah and a multitude of other publications and concerns. Some of the founding members of the Market concept include Morris, Roher, "Farmer D," original manager Tate Hudson, and Maria Castro, who was on a planning committee before being employed at Trustees Garden.
Castro says planning has been motivated in part by a desire to learn from the mistakes of the fully half of all startup farmers markets that fail.
"We wanted to give Savannah a year-round market and an opportunity to buy local produce and support local farms. The committee wanted it to be a sustainable green local community asset," she says.
"We recognized the need for Savannah to have a reliable downtown market," echoes Roher. "Mr. Morris originally gave us the warehouse space just off General McIntosh, but it was really too big and off the beaten path. Then he offered the Morris Center itself, which was awesome."
Another key aspect of the Market at Trustees Garden is community outreach, chiefly represented by its budding, year-long partnership with Union Mission. A small but well-tended garden behind the fence at the corner of President Street Extension and Gen. McIntosh Boulevard grows produce for the homeless at the Mission. A volunteer tends the garden and actually delivers the produce to the shelter.
In addition, a plot of the garden will be used by Charles Ellis elementary students as a class project. "It's a really cool project where they're helping to feed the homeless," Castro says.
Many urban farmers markets around the nation serve a vital role in delivering fresh produce to the urban working poor, who many times only have convenience stores close by and are often miles away from a supermarket produce section. So far, reaching out to that community has been "challenging," according to Castro.
"Before when the Market was in the Morris Center and then in the tent environment next to it, maybe that was too upscale. Now that we're in the easement area next to the Pirates House, we're in more of a public space where everyone will feel more comfortable to come," she says. "It's always a challenge in Savannah to mix those communities, but it's starting to catch on - things are all coming together."
Future plans for Trustees Garden include a replicated, medicinal "physic garden" closer to Bay Street -- in the area old-timers will remember as the place where there was a jumble of natural gas pipes and a sign announcing the terminus of I-16, saying "My other end's in Texas."
"Mr. Morris and the managers there have found a sister garden in England," says Matt Roher," referring to the Chelsea Physic Garden in London. "Within the next year or so the plan is to kind of recreate and reconnect the two gardens, so we can have that connection to the history of the site."
The Market at Trustees Market
4-7 p.m. Wednesdays and 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturdays on East Broad Street next to the Pirates House.