ON THE first and third Saturday of each month, organic farmer Kerry Shay jaunts down to Bay and East Broad Streets, where a diverse assembly of Savannahians awaits him. They're there to learn about the art of gardening.
The complimentary morning sessions at the emerging cultural center, Trustees’ Garden, owned and provided by Charles H. and Rosalie Morris, provide Shay’s horticultural philosophy and instruction to all who are interested. Attendees enjoy kicking off their weekends in the fresh air in the garden emitting aromas of spicy arugula and fresh basil.
But people are here to learn for different reasons: while some want to learn how to grow expansive gardens at their own homes, others want to save money by growing produce; some want to bring home the day’s bounty for springtime dishes later that evening, and some are there to meet new friends.
Regardless of the guests’ reasons for being at Trustees’ Garden on these Saturday mornings, Kerry Shay teaches thoughtfully and kindly, inspiring even those who are new to gardening.
Shay, a born-and bred Savannahian, lives with his wife Kristen and their new baby girl.
“Gardening is part of our daily rhythm. I think part of why I fell in love with Kristen is we both shared a mutual love for gardening; making the connection between healthy soil, healthy food, and healthy people. And she isn’t afraid of getting dirty and down in the earth,” exclaims Shay.
The Shays are interested in knowing where their food comes from and feel good that much of their produce comes from their own backyard.
An organic farmer, Shay is one of three local men who own and operate Victory Gardens, a respected, Savannah-based landscaping company whose name comes from the victory gardens, and initiative to support the war effort during World War I and World War II.
The initiative encouraged all Americans to harvest their own fruit, vegetables, and herbs, making gardening a way of life on America’s home front and allowing commercial farms to harvest mainly for America’s troops.
Shay explains, “People were rallying around the war effort. As a country, we had a problem and our answer to it was gardening. We obviously have different challenges now. But I think a lot of answers for me come back to gardening, like when we talk about health and taking care of our environment. Gardening is our fundamental connection with the earth. It’s something everyone can participate in. In a small way or a big way, it can have a huge and beneficial impact on our homes, our communities, our country.”
Despite his ethos, Shay wasn’t always interested in farming.
“Growing up, my mom may have had a patio tomato plant, but that was the extent of it. I didn’t become interested in agriculture until college,” he says.
While earning his English degree at Clemson University, Shay fell in love with the writings of Wendell Berry, the influential Southern novelist, poet, cultural critic, and farmer.
Shay discussed Berry’s philosophy and how it stimulated him: “The land and all it contains, including soil, water, plants, and animals, is a gift. We can’t treat it as just a resource base to extract from. We must participate in preserving it and returning to it in our use of it.”
Shay started reading about modern agriculture and saw how the toxicity of modern farming was leading to environmental issues and social problems, such as childhood diabetes. Shay decided he wanted to help change the way people farm and encourage others to grow their own food.
After spending years of labor-intensive work at farms across the southern United States, Shay landed back in Savannah, taught farming at Bethesda Academy to middle and high school students, and finally launched Victory Gardens in 2013 with his business partners. He began giving the biweekly gardening sessions at Trustees’ Garden almost one year ago and welcomed all members of the community.
“My goal is to make people healthier and more aware,” says Shay. “A lot of it is about pleasure too. I like watching fruits form on a tomato plant that I planted. I like harvesting fresh, nutrient dense produce for a big salad for my friends. And I can show others how they can do this too. Overall it’s about how interconnected everything is: healthier soil, healthier food, healthier people.”
One of Shay’s dedicated session attendees, Gloria S. Brown, has been to Shay’s sessions since they began in May 2014. Brown, a member of the Second African Baptist Church in Savannah, learned about the gardening sessions through a holistic health and wellness initiative she had joined through her church.
“My pastor encouraged members of The Senior Saints Ministry of the church to be more a part of the community and so he recommended we apply to a program called Canyon Ranch Institute Life Enhancement Program.”
CRI LEP, as it’s known, is a holistic health and wellness initiative that was brought to Savannah last year, due to the high number of Savannahians with chronic illnesses and other health problems. Funded by Charles H. and Rosalie Morris, the program has successfully educated underserved (both economically and healthwise) members of the community on how to live a healthier, more balanced lifestyle in a way that integrates mind, body, and soul.
One activity that Brown found solace in during her mentorship with CRI LEP was Shay’s gardening sessions, as Shay’s sessions came highly recommended by the health professionals at CRI LEP due to the calming effect of gardening and the healthy produce it yields.
Brown continues, “I’m diabetic so I found that growing and harvesting vegetables at Trustees’ Garden was a lot healthier for me. I’ll come home with cucumbers, arugula, lettuces, herbs, and make big fresh salads for my family. I make salads galore now! And local, raw vegetables are so much healthier.”
Brown now encourages members of her church to attend the gardening sessions because she has found the teachings so helpful.
“I cannot say enough about Kerry [Shay]. He has helped us so much on how to start and grow a garden. He’s provided all the information we need.”
Shay provides the knowledge needed to start and maintain a garden. And while Shay provides the instruction and direction, there are many health professionals who support Shay’s efforts.
Among them is Chris Ferrelle, a pediatric nurse practitioner at Curtis V. Cooper Primary Health Care. Ferrelle has also attended the sessions since they began.
“You learn a lot from Kerry. You learn something new every single week,” she says.
Ferrelle has learned extensively, even though she is an advanced gardener herself. “It’s my relaxation, it’s my hobby, it’s what calms me. Gardening is meditation.”
Ferrelle encourages her patients to garden, as it teaches them how to nourish and grow a living entity and provides them with a sense of accomplishment.
“Now with community gardens there is more access to gardens for my patients. Also, Kerry is great because he teaches us how to garden in small spaces,” she says. “During the winter he brought in a fruit tree and taught us how to grow fruit. This is something a lot of people can manage because it’s both affordable and space-conscious.”
Gardening also helps people be more mindful about their food. Registered Dietician, Kim Floyd, explains, “One of the most beautiful things about gardening is it helps you connect with the food you eat. A lot of us are so removed from our food. We don’t have a relationship with the food we eat except just putting it in our mouths. Because of this, people have problems with their weight and with medical illnesses.”
Floyd goes on to say, “The more connected we can be to the food we eat the more mindful we can be about what we’re eating and how it can affect us. And gardening is the very best way for us to do this.”
The people of Savannah are getting together on the first and third Saturday of every month at Trustees’ Garden for a purpose. They come for different reasons that inspire them individually, but together they are making a difference and providing a contribution to themselves, their loved ones, their communities, and their country.
And as a wise man once said, “I say, if your knees aren’t green by the end of the day, you ought to seriously re-examine your life.”