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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.

[00:14:54.120] - Jody

Yeah, but we have about 2000 packets of seeds there now. And we have the attention of Kentucky.

[00:15:00.530] - Jody

State University, jefferson County AG Extension office.

[00:15:04.260] - Jody

And Bullet County's AG Extension office. So we have a plethora of seeds and we've helped over the

past three years on those 275 families.

[00:15:15.490] - Elijah

And looking to 2023. What are some of the main projects you're looking at? Doing more rehabilitating

urban environments, I'm sure, but do you have any particular places you're looking at?

[00:15:27.070] - Jody

Sure. So we like to focus on some of the major roads around the urban neighborhoods. And when I

say urban neighborhoods, I'm usually talking shotgun neighborhoods very closely together, small kind

of patchwork areas where there's a lot of people living in a small space. Shelby park, right on Preston

Highway, is getting a multi million dollar investment from the federal government to add transit

across most of the stretch all the way down to the Bullet County line. So what we want to do is.

[00:16:03.750] - Mariah

Start changing the conversation.

[00:16:05.230] - Jody

Since the money is already coming down there, we might as well get them to encourage parks and

gardens along the entire stretch as well. So we're looking at space along Preston Highway, along

Shelby Street, Logan Street, some of these longer roads that connect a lot of different neighborhoods.

So that theoretically if it's on a busy street, you're able to get that many more people to the garden.

And we don't want to put a parking lot, of course. So it'll encourage people to start walking, to start

biking, just to be able to use that space. The dream would be to have every park have their own

orchard or garden because that would be city owned land and there would be a park close by almost

every resident. But with the city you have to kind of take things as they come and start small. So we're

starting to look at just vacant lots for right now, but eventually we're going to start negotiating with


[00:17:06.350] - Elijah

Parks Department and say someone is in their local neighborhood in Louisville and wants to push for

a garden or maybe wants to start their own, what would be a good place to start for them? Maybe

some resources you all have or where to look for the seed bank again.

[00:17:24.050] - Jody

Oh, absolutely. So the best place to get information on how to start their own garden would be

through the group Food and Neighborhoods. That is a local group in Jefferson County of many

different kinds of gardeners and farmers, chicken farmers, goat farmers, vegetable growers, orchard

growers. And they are all fighting to change the way that the Land Development Code, the zoning is

so that the city, instead of selling vacant land to an auction for development purposes, can also give

the land to farming communities across the city. So they would have a knowledge of where the

vacant lots are. They would have knowledge on the best places to go to set yourself up for a lot in

that neighborhood that you're looking at. And relatively cheaply developers can usually buy a vacant

lot from the city for under $500. And if we're able to change one sentence in the Land Development

Code, that the same could be done for farmers.

[00:18:34.050] - Elijah

And I hadn't really thought about this until you mentioned goats and chickens and different things. Is

there any sort of difference in the reactions you get when you talk about farm animals on a property

versus just producing vegetables on the property or fruit?

[00:18:51.130] - Jody

Well, it's interesting because there have

been so few people until recently that have ever used

livestock in an urban neighborhood that there haven't been many laws about it. So that's been in our

favor because to restrict something now, the Metro Council people will have to create a new law to

punish the existing farmers. So it would be very especially for the people that are currently trying to

get reelected. That's going to be an unpopular thing. I haven't seen much pushback. I don't know if

cows would make a comeback. But it's really interesting because my neighbor, who is 96 years old,

who lives in Smoke Town, she remembers growing up in a shotgun neighborhood, how every block

had their own chicken coop and had their own milk cow, and that was in Smoke Town. And that was

legal up until the city passed an ordinance in the they took the cows away. So it just seems like the

more I learn about it, the more I realize that, you know, just because you're in a city doesn't mean you

have to give up everything about rural farming practices. As long as you're able to learn the rules and

potentially find the sentence that needs change, once you organize, you can really make a lot of ways.

[00:20:22.310] - Elijah

That'S super encouraging to hear about the cow and the chicken on every block. It sort of does make

you remember that if you space it out correctly, like you're talking about it is doable sunflowers was

one thing you mentioned that people get into a lot or is a popular thing. What are some other things

you might suggest that people get into for the first time? Tomatoes, I heard you mention.

[00:20:44.510] - Jody

Sure. Well, you want to make sure that you have flowers nearby just to make sure that if you're in, say,

a really industrial neighborhood, that the pollinators have somewhere to go. So I'm always down for

sunflowers, marigold and then next to it. I would say that assuming you tested the soil for lead

brassicas like kale and lettuce do great. But I really enjoy tournaments and radishes. They're very fast

growing and you'll be able to see results within, say, a month. And for the first time, gardener, that's

really beneficial. And because they're more of a cool weather crop, they're one of the first.

[00:21:31.620] - Jody

To grow during the spring season.

[00:21:33.510] - Jody

So it kind of gets people hooked a little bit and be able to wait out for something long term like, say,

corn, that it's slow growing until it isn't. But it's really exciting to have people that have never gardened

before start talking about growing like corn and learning about wind pollination and all these different

kinds of terms that before they never really had an interest in.

[00:22:03.190] - Elijah

And do you all do any preserves too? Since you talk about doing all of these different plantings in

urban areas, do you find groups at all where people talk about canning or jarring?

[00:22:15.040] - Mariah

Yes, actually we do can ourselves, mainly water bath, but there are a few people that can in the city.

[00:22:24.610] - Mariah

I think that the biggest being guard girl suits Whitney Power Washington. She's actually the one who

taught us how to can, and I think she still does canning classes and they were fantastic.

[00:22:40.130] - Elijah

What did you all can this last year?

[00:22:43.190] - Mariah

So we made some preserves using the berries. We also really enjoy pickles.

[00:22:50.300] - Elijah


[00:22:51.020] - Jody


[00:22:51.930] - Jody

Got a lot of collards, got a lot of zucchini.

[00:22:56.390] - Jody

And I grew a cut of squash twice the size of my head that was in a tiny little shotgun lot. So I think

that if I can do it in Smoke Town, you can do it anywhere.

[00:23:11.630] - Elijah

Would you all like to mention the website and the social media accounts where people can find you all

in particular? I know people go to the website, but also other relevant YouTube channel if you all have


[00:23:23.510] - Jody

Sure. So we're bear grass thunder. You can find us online at We do

consultations as well as make custom native plant seed mixes specializing in Kentucky wildflowers.

And our YouTube channel is Bear Grass Thunder. And you can check us out for just walkthroughs of

native plant orchards around the state. Different people that we talk to in the city making change in

policies. And one of our favorite things to do is talk about paw paws. So there's a lot of information


[00:24:03.470] - Jody

Persimmons and papa's, and we really hope.

[00:24:06.270] - Jody

To eventually start getting into grafting some of these localized varieties.

[00:24:11.790] - Elijah

Before you go, you want to talk a little about the persimmons and the Pope? I didn't mean to cut you

off, Mariah. I'm sorry.

[00:24:18.150] - Mariah

Oh, no.

[00:24:18.770] - Mariah

I was just going to add on to that. But with our social, I'm pretty sure our handle is Fairground

Thunder. Also for Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Jody runs all of them. The instagram is

particularly funny, I hear. And we do have an online store. It's kind of empty right now, but you should

be able to find us on square space.

[00:24:48.250] - Elijah

Do you want to talk about the persimmons and the pop ups for a second? Because that's interesting

since it's a couple of those things. I see persimmons more now, but you don't see them in the

supermarket as much.

[00:25:00.800] - Jody

No, they're hard to keep. And we found a large persimmons tree that must have been used as a

marker probably way back when Louisville was small and young. And now it's on a public right of way,

kind of in between. It's actually right in Phoenix Hills, and they're native American persimmons, and

the street has to be at least 100 plus years old. So we started collecting, canning some persimmons

and then also trying to grow them from seed. And we do the same thing with poppies every year. We

get pops from we take a trip out to KSU. They have the only papa orchard, I think, in America.

[00:25:50.210] - Mariah

One of the best papa research orchard.

[00:25:53.150] - Jody

In the there we go. Okay.

[00:25:55.000] - Jody

They have 60 different cultivars, and they've.

[00:25:58.140] - Jody

Been researching papa's longer than almost any university in the US. So it's almost like taking a trip.

[00:26:07.030] - Jody

To a candy store for me.

[00:26:08.390] - Mariah

I just love looking at the different varieties.

[00:26:10.560] - Jody

Yeah. So we do our best, and we grow all of our persimmons and pop ups from seed, and we also do

the same. We're out of stock right now, but we do the same with spice bush. And there's one other

native bush that we're really big into, and I can't.

[00:26:26.430] - Mariah

Think of it, but yeah, it's really.

[00:26:31.120] - Jody

Exciting because getting into crafting, we can literally go to some of the best.

[00:26:35.820] - Jody

Healthiest trees around the city and take cuttings of them, especially out in the rural areas of

Jefferson County. It's important to find these trees before.

[00:26:45.160] - Jody

They'Re lost to development, because that means that if they're old, say, 50 to 100 years old, then

they've survived all.

[00:26:52.870] - Jody

Of the crazy heat fluctuations that happen.

[00:26:56.460] - Jody

In the summer and the winter. So they're that much more prepared for these 30 to 50 degree

temperature changes in a week. And some of the ones that you get from, say, Georgia, Tennessee,

they're not prepared for those very cold weather days that could potentially cause the tree to die. So

I'm always about local types of seed and local types of fruit production.

[00:27:23.310] - Elijah

What was your favorite heirloom papa? And your favorite local grab that you're looking to grab.

[00:27:30.710] - Jody


[00:27:31.540] - Jody

So there is a local papa on.

[00:27:34.930] - Jody

The corner of Barrett and Breckenridge. And there's also Sister Variety. So papa is on the corner of

Barrett and Breckenridge. And there's a sister variety on the corner of Barrett and Lambton. And they

have really high sugar content. They taste almost like, I like to say, a dream sickle. And I'm going to try

to call those Barrett best. They're in the middle of a planned development to build a 600 room

apartment complex. But the developer has actually given me permis