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 beargrassthunder.com. 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
[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 permission to go on site to harvest the
scion wood before the tree is cut down. So I'm really excited about that. In terms of an heirloom.
[00:28:24.680] - Jody
Papa, I like the KSU Cultivar Chapel.
[00:28:29.890] - Jody
That's been a really good one. Personally, I like papa's as much as I can get them. But the paw paws
usually are ripe in September. The chappelle usually gets ripe around end of August. So it's one of the
first ones I'm able to eat to kick off papa season. So I can't really be too mad about anything about it
because I love papa so much.
[00:28:56.350] - Elijah
Quick harvest is always nice. And before I let you all go, was there anything that you all wanted to talk
about in particular?
[00:29:04.190] - Jody
It's just really exciting to see more and more people get into agriculture, especially.
[00:29:09.140] - Jody
In urban areas like Louisville, because if we can start changing the way that the narrative is, where the
city and the country just are two separate areas, there's a lot that we can learn.
[00:29:23.530] - Jody
In terms of practices.
[00:29:25.430] - Jody
And also we could probably start getting a lot of this state money for agriculture. And if we can think
of projects that can be done within Jefferson County, it will only benefit us because we're going to be
able to feed more and more people and families. So it's really exciting. And you know what they say
about gardening, right?
[00:29:49.120] - Elijah
[00:29:49.560] - Jody
That it grows on you after a while.
[00:29:52.590] - Elijah
Absolutely. Hopefully a cow and a chicken on every block, right?
[00:29:57.090] - Jody
[00:29:57.730] - Mariah
That's the dream.
[00:29:58.970] - Elijah
Mariah, Jody, thank you all so much for stopping by today. I really appreciate it.
[00:30:04.610] - Jody
Thank you so much.
[00:30:08.850] - Elijah
Thank you so much for listening to this episode of the Bluegrass Podcast. If you'd like to check out
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