On one overcast afternoon, Tammy Toad Ryan kneels beside a row of marigolds, plucking off the dead heads. The marigolds are companion plants, she said, which attract pollinating insects and keep away different bugs that can damage crops. Removing the dead tops allows stronger, healthier heads to grow in their place, she said.
As a child, Ryan barely even knew what a farm was.
Today, she manages the Urban Farm at Lafayette, behind the Lafayette Learning Center on Hazel Street. She is the only paid member of the all-volunteer Grow it Green Morristown organization, which also maintains a community garden on Early Street.
"This is the coolest project around," said Ryan, who also is the community outreach coordinator for The Health Shoppe, on Morris Street. "I want to break stereotypes that farms are out somewhere else."
The Grow it Green program was created by three women–Carolle Huber, Myra Bowie McCready and Samantha Rothman–who met while fighting a proposed development of the Willow Hall property. "We fought for five years and won," said Huber. "Then we looked at each other and asked, 'what next?'"
What next would be the Grow it Green Morristown program, which, according to its Web site, seeks to "empower residents to be advocates for sustainable communities through: capital improvement projects, education and outreach and legislative advocacy."
The first project was the Early Street Grow it Green Community Garden, currently in its second year of use. Over 40 families rent plots, at $35 a season, which are in raised beds throughout the small lot.
"We had been eyeing this and thought, 'what a great place for a community garden,'" Huber said.
Although Huber confirmed there will be a third season of rentals at the garden next year (complete with a waiting list), the future beyond that is unknown.
"It's been part of a redevelopment plan for nine years," she said. Despite once being the proposed site for low-income housing, Huber said property owner Tim Jones, of TJC Custom Homes, has expressed interest in seeing the property remain as a community garden. "He has said he would love something to happen," she said.
In the meantime, peppers, tomatoes, snap peas and sunflowers grow instead of housing, which is fine by Jim Casola, who is renting a plot in the garden.
"It's a great place to meet people, and the experience of having full sun [for growing crops] is mind-altering," said Casola, who is growing cucumbers, peppers, pole beans, broccoli and zinnias from seed, which he said, "just grew like crazy."
Besides the garden, a bee house is located behind a fence in a part of the property currently not being utilized for agriculture. Ryan often teaches beekeeping classes with that bee house, among other classes taught to some of the 4,700 students in the Morris School District, at the Urban Farm.
"Grow it Green is about education," Huber said. The impetus for the Urban Farm, she said, was to have a place students can be educated about agriculture and where their food comes from. And, what better place than behind the superintendent's office?
Nine months later, a portion of underutilized play area has been transformed into a fully-functioning farm. Besides raising crops to teach children, Grow it Green holds various events promoting the farm and their program like produce sales to the community, and donations to various soup kitchens at the Morris School District. About 1,000 pounds of produce have been donated to places like the Interfaith Food Pantry and Market Street Mission, Huber noted.
On Sept. 26, Grow it Green Morristown will hold its inaugural "Alfresco in the Garden" program fundraising event, with music, croquet, an auction of produce as well as food prepared by Nomad Pizza, of Hopewell, Mercer County, using ingredients from the Urban Farm.
Funds for both projects have come from multiple sources, Huber said, including private donations and through organizations including the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. Today, the community garden on Early Street is supported by the $35-per-plot it charges. The Urban Farm, whose property is owned by the school district and is used by Grow it Green Morristown for free, has been sustained through various grants and donations, including the brick pavers being laid out for its small classroom right inside the farm.
A lot of progress has happened in less than a year. Covering nearly a half-acre of land, the Urban Farm is bursting with tomatoes, basil, corn, flowers, watermelons, pumpkins and more–much of it planted by Morris School District students through Urban Farm programs. A sunflower "house" rises to the sky as a centerpiece to the farm. Its seeds were planted by nursery school students.
With both projects–the Early Street Community Garden and Urban Farm at Lafayette–a dream of bringing a diverse group of people to agriculture, right in Morristown, has become a reality.
"I'm pretty proud of this," Huber said. "It's a work in progress."