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Episode 25 Beargrass Thunder Transcript - The Bluegrass Podcast

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[00:00:01.290] - Elijah

Welcome to the bluegrass podcast. Today we're talking with Jody Dahmer and Dr. Maria Corso about

Bear grass Thunder, their community garden resource and seed bank. A quick show note before we

begin. There is a little bit of a problem recording the first minute. So we jump right into it today.

[00:00:22.850] - Jody

When we wanted to, you know, do the Louisville Seed bank, we wanted to try to make sure that people

that had never grown gardens before had free seeds, and more specifically, seeds that could survive

in downtown neighborhoods. So it's it's really been a lot of fun. And it seems like every year that we

do it, more and more neighborhoods and more and more community partners want to get involved to

help scale it. So it's a lot less work on us as it goes forward because more and more people are


[00:00:57.570] - Elijah

Do you want to just talk about the yard instrument one more time? Because I love that, and I love you

talking about changing the laws to actually be able to do this. Could you talk about that a little more


[00:01:08.950] - Jody

Yeah, sure. So just to backtrack what Bear Grass Thunder is, we are a Kentucky nursery plant nursery

that we specialize in what is called yardens. So being able to grow food or flowers on previously

mowed grassland and before in Louisville, up until March of 2022, for about 90 years, from the 1930s

onward, it was actually illegal in the city of Louisville to grow a garden higher than ten inches tall. And

if you were reported, then you would face a property lien and fines up until you cut your garden down.

And so from the 1930s up until 2022, we've had generations of farmers that have been punished for

trying to grow.

[00:02:08.240] - Jody

Food on the land that they live on.

[00:02:10.320] - Jody

And it was with the county merger in 2003 that meant that that farming restriction applied to any

farmer in the merged Louisville metro government. So any farmer on the periphery of Jefferson

county, that was actually illegal, what they were doing if someone called the code enforcement on

them. So when we started selling plants, we started getting clients that were being fined for the same

plants we were selling. Except in the wealthier areas of town, it was completely fine. But in a shotgun

neighborhood, people would get code enforcement calls, sometimes up to weekly complaints where

the fines would stack up and they would have to pay $500 to keep their house from being sold. So it

really got kind of ludicrous there. And so we decided to start calling all of the metro council people

and write some bluegrass songs. And we sent that to almost every single local politician we could,

and we even made it to the state level. And so the bluegrass song, we called it grassholes. And we

called any politician that didn't want to change that law a grasshole politician. And luckily, in March of

2022, they actually changed the law citywide.

[00:03:33.720] - Jody

So now there's over half a million families that can now legally, for the first time in 90 years, grow

food gardens as well as native plant gardens for the pollinators.

[00:03:45.430] - Elijah

I love that. And what are some of the ways you're looking at this spring now that you've sort of

unlocked the potential of being able to do this in the community? What are some ways you're going to

be getting plants and seeds out?

[00:03:58.510] - Mariah


[00:03:59.100] - Jody

So one of the ways that we like to do things is through this concept called place making. We do

choose a pro bono project every year in a different neighborhood, although it's usually Shelby Park,

and we pick a vacant lot that has been a dumping ground or a community light. And with the help of

the neighborhood association and the city government, we're able to change that vacant lot into a

community garden. Or just proving the concept of being able to grow flowers on, say, 3ft of alley.

Right. Of way just to show city officials that you can grow food and you can grow these flowers in

areas that if you've never done that before, it's very hard to kind of see that. You could have food in

downtown neighborhoods. You could have flowers on the rooftop of a parking garage and just getting

more and more city officials on board because the more people that allow us to, I guess, beautify

spaces that are city owned, that opens up hundreds of acres in a very short amount of time.

[00:05:19.030] - Elijah

What's the biggest problem that people bring up when you start talking to them that they might have

against this? Or is it just they're not open to the concept to begin with?

[00:05:31.370] - Mariah

It's the perceived property values. And we had the shift in the 1930s for cities to try to start emulating

what the suburbanites were doing, and that was large grass lawn. Now, for a lot of people, the idea of

a shortcut bluegrass or fescue glass lawn is like the height of what property value would bring. And

then you also have people who are so unfamiliar with possums and raccoons and just vermin in

general and how they ecologically exist within our city that there's this perception that if your grass

grows tall, then you're going to get varmint in your house, basically.

[00:06:29.150] - Elijah

Okay, so it's really just a perception of value and a perception of what it's going to be. Not any

practical problems people are bringing up about it.

[00:06:39.090] - Mariah

No. And the most practical problem was what if absentee landlords want to take advantage of this

because there is the situation in which you do have just regular grass that's being let go and not taken

care of because the property owners perhaps two states away and not doing maintenance. And we

were able to get that written into the code to where it's explicitly stated that if you're letting your turf

grass kind of go out of control, you can still catch a citation for that, but every other plant is planted

with intention is allowed to get taller than that.

[00:07:19.710] - Elijah

Okay, and are you seeing any sort of preference that people have when you talk to them about

planting more naturally and planting maybe something that might produce some food? Is there

anything that people gravitate more towards?

[00:07:34.850] - Jody

Well, you can't go wrong with the sunflower that kind of fills both niche groups because sunflowers

are gorgeous, people know what they look like most of the time. And you can save the seeds if you'd like for next year's production or.

[00:07:51.260] - Jody

You can roast the sunflower heads or use that as a food source. So it's a really easy way to kind of get

into the agricultural scene without calling it agriculture.

[00:08:03.870] - Mariah

Yeah. So our bear grass clients, I would say primarily they get flowers from us and then we do some

raised bed building. And then for the seed bank, I wonder if Jodie can remember off the top of his

head was the most popular seed was because we did collect data on what seeds were taken the

most of and then we'll have to round up the 2022 year data for you still. But in 2021, what was the

most popular seed?

[00:08:32.520] - Jody

Number one was definitely the brassicas tail.

[00:08:35.610] - Mariah

Especially we try to grow a lot of seeds within downtown of the brassicas, and those brassicas are

able to survive the heat island effect a lot better than just a normal variety that you would get from a


[00:08:55.210] - Mariah

Yeah, I didn't know much about gardening at all, but I get lettuce and all the brassicas, they really like

that low shade. So it's one of the hardest things to actually grow in a hot lot. So that's one of our

favorites to try to collect seeds from, like Jody saying. And then after that I would say like tomatoes

are huge because they can be grown in pot containers. That's one of our big asks when it comes to

the seed bank, what can I grow if I don't have land at all?

[00:09:27.910] - Elijah

And what do you find is normally the person who maybe comes up or gets in contact you all some

level of gardening experience? No level of gardening experience a lot.

[00:09:40.730] - Jody

Well, to be honest, most of the people that come are first time gardeners.

[00:09:45.690] - Mariah

For seed bank, I would say absolutely green, first time gardeners. And then for our client base, it's

been in middle to high who want to completely redo their yards and usually.

[00:10:00.210] - Jody

That skews, I would say over 40.

[00:10:03.890] - Jody

They'Re looking to reduce the amount of yard maintenance they need to do in the summer. And then

under 40 it's to have more time with their children and save more time every week by not mowing the

lawn. So it's the same, I guess need. But for the people that are leaning more elder in our community,

they don't want to have to deal with the physical exertion side of it and having pretty flowers to see or

food to grow. It's easier on the eyes and it's easier on their bodies. So it's been really interesting to


[00:10:42.830] - Elijah

Well, and it's encouraging to hear about a lot of new people too, coming to the seed bank who maybe

you're getting in for the first time and will help it spread.

[00:10:52.050] - Mariah

Yeah, our dream is to incorporate the library system to be able to have potentially a seed bank close

by to almost every neighborhood in the city.

[00:11:04.770] - Mariah

That's why right now I'm like we're really proud to be able to give all those seats away for free.

Because if you are a first time gardener, I feel like cost is like a big thing when you're trying to get into

it. Once you have all the pots and the seeds and the fades and the this and the that, you kind of have

sunk your cost in. At that point you're going to be saving money, making food. But I do think that's an

intimidating factor for first time gardeners. So we love that we're able to offer like, what would be four

or $5 seed packets in a grocery store for free. And that way if the seeds don't grow, there isn't this

monetary loss for the new gardener. They can just come back and try again because when it comes

to the urban environment, there's a lot of reasons that the plant might not grow that has nothing to do

with the person's alleged or green thumb or not.

[00:12:04.710] - Elijah

And it takes a little bit of the choice out, I think, for some people like you're talking about with the

sunflowers just giving them a good place to start.

[00:12:13.690] - Jody

Exactly. There's a lot of variables, like Mariah was saying, but what's been really interesting is now

that more and more people are starting to grow their own food or grow their own flowers, we're

starting to see other governmental policies that might need to change in the very short term to

encourage the farming even more. So. Like, for instance, in Smoketown, we are right next to Bear

Grass Creek. And for the past 30 years or so, the way that the city officials reduce the mosquito

population is by pesticide fogging almost every block. And if you're trying to grow food.

[00:12:53.910] - Mariah

And flowers and that's just sorry, interject that's to prevent West Nile.

[00:12:59.730] - Jody

Yeah. And when you're killing all of the bugs and the pollinating insects within an entire neighborhood,

a lot of times people don't have the best crop yields because those flowers that they're growing aren't

actually getting pollinated to turn into anything.

[00:13:15.810] - Mariah

So it's a reactionary solution to a problem, which is the high mosquitoes in the West Nile that could be

solved with longer term solutions. Mitigating standing water in places, cleaning Bear Grass Creek that

will restore the ecological amount of frogs that are kind of in the city and stuff like that to reduce

mosquitoes instead of just blanket fogging every year. But if there's no other option for the

government to take, they're going to fog. But it's important that as we move the Zeitgeist, we realize

that farming in urban and urban cores can be important too. And maybe fogging isn't the best.

[00:14:07.710] - Elijah

And on a little bit of a positive note, I think that you all have been remodeling your space.

[00:14:13.650] - Jody

Yes, yes. We have the seed library.

[00:14:18.730] - Mariah

Seed bank inside loop.

[00:14:20.380] - Elijah

Where is the seed bank?

[00:14:20.800] - Jody

The seed bank is inside the Louisville Tool Library.

[00:14:24.470] - Jody

The Louisville Tool Library is on Logan Street.

[00:14:27.180] - Jody

It's been there for approximately six months now.

[00:14:30.070] - Jody

And that is our first brick and.

[00:14:32.260] - Jody

Mortar location for the Cbank.

[00:14:34.810] - Jody

So we got an entire new room. We are currently trying to alphabetize and.

[00:14:40.910] - Mariah

Make things a little bit easier.

[00:14:42.510] - Mariah

Yeah, right now everything is kind of group bite types ish, but you could find a few surprises. So that is

one of our big 2023 goals is to get everything alphabetized.