“Welcome to the Hinds County wilderness!” Taylor Yowell yells as he strides up to greet us as we pull in the gravel drive at The Garden Farmacy.
It’s the outskirts of Bolton, Mississippi. The drive past a few farm fields and more woods has been long enough and far enough I figure we would’ve come across another little town already. Instead, we’ve reached deep into one of Mississippi’s rural pockets, where all the best-kept vegetables are tucked.
This visit is a long time coming.
We’re keen to see the spot he always calls “my homestead” — a term I associate with tax exemption and pioneers. When I call him a pioneer, he does not disagree.
We’ve been hearing about this spot every time we bought fresh vegetables from him or sought his fresh advice on our own fruit tree endeavors. We’ve given him pear scions and gotten young apple, persimmon and pawpaw trees. We named our first Asian persimmon – a gift – in his honor. “He’s branching out!” I love to report.
This is Yowell’s homestead and the year-old home of The Garden Farmacy, where the young farmer nurtures multiple gardens and a budding 200-plus-tree “fruit forest.” Immediately, it’s obvious that he’s as steeped in an appreciation for the old ways – the land’s history and plants’ stories – as he is in current back-to-the-land, organic farming and sustainable practice movements.
Taylor’s pale green shirt and khaki trousers blend in with budding leaves and garden dirt. At the back door, he stops to pet his cat, Layla, before leading a tour.
Bright birdsong and a weed-eater’s buzz make a welcoming chorus at this work in progress. Always in progress. Keeping a clearing on this verdant landscape takes constant attention and Justin Moore, Yowell’s apprentice, whacks back the growth on the slope.
This place is a new home for Yowell, but it’s really an old place that’s lain fallow for about 30 years. Previous owners had cattle and hogs.
“The soil is very fertile. We’ve just kind of uncovered it,” he says of their efforts to clear trees and put in gardens.
Yowell bought the six acres for its elevation, which catches the breeze and helps the water on its way downhill. Stewardship techniques help to maximize drainage — key in growing produce — and minimize erosion.
“But hopefully, we can write a book one day,” he continues, to set an example for sustainable farming in central Mississippi. “We would like to see this pass from generation to generation, as it once did.”
Yowell is the sole owner of The Garden Farmacy, but “we” creeps into his conversation a lot — wrapping in Moore as well as other folks who’ve helped him along the way. Originally from Canton and a trained chef, Moore is getting back to the basics of how food’s grown with his work at The Garden Farmacy, with an interest in working toward self-sustained products, food preservation and herbal medicines.
Education is a huge part of Yowell’s effort as he seeks to replicate his own six-year experience apprenticing at one-man organic farm operations in California and Virginia for Moore. “It becomes a lifestyle,” Yowell says.
Yowell wants to share knowledge to feed a growing crop of organic farmers in the state. Yowell says of Moore, “He works with me full time — if not overtime by far, actually — and I’m teaching him, through hands-on experience, how to start seed, get it in the ground and then harvest a crop, take it to market and sell it and try to make a living doing it.”
Moore’s been on site since February. He says Yowell opened his eyes to homesteading, “not realizing I was kind of bred for it.” From the chores he and his brother did for his stepdad to his experience with Mississippi weather and wildlife, he feels his upbringing prepared him well for this path.
For Moore, the farm provides about 60 percent of his diet. He wants to up that to 80 to 90 percent, even “hopefully one day, 100 percent off the farm, which is hard to do, but I want to see if I’m capable of doing it,” he says. “A lot of people don’t know what their body and mind can do. … I came out here for a free gym membership and I get to learn on the way.”
“We are giving away free gym memberships by the way,” Yowell chimes in. “We call it Farm-Fit.”
Nothing’s wasted at The Garden Farmacy. Stacked logs of firewood are the chunkier remains of cleared trees, and their gnarly branches, pushed to the edges, create a natural barrier cheaper than other fencing.
Little orange flags alert the eye that a a baby fig orchard is almost knee-high.
A cedar tree, possibly struck by lightning, lost a limb that’s become a landmark. It looks like a mythical creature, keeping watch. Over what? The Dragon Garden.
There, a broadfork — nicknamed Big Bertha — sticks up from the ground, ready to help with sod busting. Heavy, with long, strong and wicked tines, it’s a key tool in that Farm-Fit regimen.
“This is how you turn raw ground into a vegetable garden,” Yowell says, “without a tractor.”
A lush, vigorous row of young squash is already in seasonal production in one of the gardens. Taylor brushes big leaves aside to admire sunny blossoms and the straight and slender Zephyr squash, its two-toned profile a bonus in the farmers market lineup.
Swiss chard leaves wave a bright hello. Their bold red and yellow stems easily are the season’s eye-catchers amid all this green.
They harvest while it’s still small and flavorful.
Carrots were also a big hit this year for the Garden Farmacy, their frilly green tops such a draw buyers wanted to use that part, too. Cucumber vines are just starting their climb.
Yowell introduces us to the Mississippi apple tree, a mascot of sorts with grafts of five apple varieties. Metal tags on the branches keep the varieties straight.
His friend Larry Stephenson of Carrollton grafted the tree, a homestead warming gift when Yowell first bought the property. “These are Mississippi apples. This is a Mississippi homestead, and we’re trying to bring all these concepts together for Mississippians.” The tree represents that mission.
Stepping in for a closer look, my heel sinks in soft ground, and I have a sinking feeling to go with it. Yowell confirms it, proud of the fertilizer feeding this prize. Horse manure. Good thing I wore cowboy boots.
A jujube grove near the plateau garden is becoming a favorite part of Yowell’s farm. He shows off a flowering one, “a very happy specimen” he’s proud to have in Mississippi. The tree, native to China, is also known as a Chinese date.
“This is an experimental crop,” and that’s one reason it’s a favorite. “Also, because it’s extremely medicinal. It’s used by herbalists throughout Asia. It’s very good for the heart, both the seed and the fruit. We’re happy to grow as much heart medicine as we can out here,” he concludes.
Korean mint, blooming nearby, has been used to treat morning sickness, stomach flu and more since antiquity, he says.
More fruit trees include Shangjuan lemon (also from China), Meyer lemon, apples, pears, Asian and American persimmon, kiwi, pawpaw and more. About 100 young trees, just a couple of years old, are planted on a slope that’ll grow into the fruit forest.
“I started that pawpaw by seed,” he says when we approach his pawpaw patch in the works. The seed come from fruit he once harvested on a river in Virginia. “It was either me or the black bears that were getting this fruit, and I usually beat them to it,” he says.
Yowell hopes to trellis a European grape, Sugar Plum, onto a native chinaberry tree. He fingered the tender tendrils, introducing them to their future support.
“We’ll try to wrap this up, get it to take, and it’ll start naturally growing,” he grasps the flexible trunk, “and we’ll bend this guy down, and we’ll have grapes.”
“This is a challenge that I’ve created for myself, but that I’ve seen replicated on the farm I worked for in California. But they were doing it with native trees to California, not Mississippi. This is my first real, pure example of the term called permaculture in central Mississippi.”
From what he’s gathered from neighbors in the area, the property was a homestead back in the 1800s. The original cistern is next to the house. Original terracing remains, and a farming family had a shotgun cabin where his house now stands. Loggers and cattlemen followed.
The cistern will come back into use in the future, with a gutter chute from the roof directing rainwater, and a pump for use in irrigation.
A short walk from the house, a rustic old red outhouse evokes an era of fewer conveniences. Taylor chuckles as he passes a mature fig tree that hugs the most direct route to the privy, wondering if previous homesteaders found other uses for its leaves.
Bearded irises bloom a showy deep purple in his herb garden. “They weren’t part of my crop plan, but mom showed up with two boxes and said, ‘You should plant these.’ I didn’t question her.”
His mom, Donna Yowell, is executive director of the Mississippi Urban Forest Council.
“It’s paying off. They’re very beautiful,” he says.
He hasn’t tried to sell any yet; he likes having them around for the nice backdrop. Cut flowers are a great crop to incorporate into the plan for make a living off this land, he says. “A lot of people don’t really know what kohlrabi is, or what to do with it, but people know what to do with flowers.”
A big tarp covers one swath of land, laying the groundwork for the future. “That’s to suffocate the grass out,” Yowell says. “We’re not spraying chemicals, obviously,” and this set-it-and-forget-it way does the work until they create that garden. “It’s called occultation. It’s an old French method.”
“That’ll be our last and largest vegetable garden. We’re going to try to break ground on it as soon as possible.”
Meanwhile, current gardens are growing strong, with a supply bound for vegetable share members, restaurants in central Mississippi including The Gathering, Lou’s Full-Serv and Babalu as well as the Livingston Farmers Market and Mississippi Farmers Market.
Historically, homesteading was pure survival as residents hacked out a living from their land. Taylor’s doing that, too, and working hard at it. He wants to enjoy the peace and quiet, too. But he’s also out to make a living.
“I live here. I take pride in that, finding that balance between comfortable and livable, but also productive and profitable. That’s what I call modern homesteading.”
For more information on The Garden Farmacy and his modern take on homesteading, please visit their Facebook page where they post current photos and behind-the-scenes from their farming operation frequently.
Guest post by Sherry Lucas