Seeing Something Really Green

IMG_1266By Will Stahl
In the back of my closet, I have an old USGS topographic map made from a 1950 survey. It’s one of the old 1: 62,000 type, very small scale, but it’s interesting because it shows at that time, the City of Neenah ended at Cecil Street. A few houses tail off down the road we call Congress Street, and just east of there, a small cluster of buildings is shown on the south side of Cecil.
This was Pansy’s Garden Center, or whatever they called it then, and it was a venerable community institution, supplying generations of Neenah’s residents with their landscaping needs and garden supplies. Old Mrs. Pansy was tough, didn’t suffer fools gladly, and she hung on as long as she could, but finally she had to put the old place up for sale.
It was on the market quite a long time before a family named Quigley purchased it, and they continued the tradition, renaming the business “Pansies.” Paige Quigley took on most of the management (full disclosure: I worked for Paige on and off over a couple of years, doing landscaping and maintenance). She updated the line and put some fresh energy into the operation.
A few years ago the Quigley’s were faced with relocation for husband Jeff’s day job, so they in turn put the place on the market. It sat empty for a long time. I began to fear it would not find a buyer who wanted to run a garden center. The business is grandfathered into its residential zone, but only if it remains something like a garden center. I thought it would probably be sold to a developer who would tear it down and replace it with an apartment complex like the one up the street or a row of condos or a couple of large lots for McMansions.
Then signs of activity appeared. Vehicles were parked there, people were working on things, especially large wooden boxes. Sometime in recent months, a sign went up reading, “The Garden-Neenah.” I knew I had to find out what this was about.
Tyler Koehn is an intense young man, fit-looking, extensively tattooed and boiling over with ideas and enthusiasm for what they are trying to accomplish at The Garden in Neenah.
A Neenah native, he is the grandson of Tom Otto, long-time heating and air conditioning contractor who installed a furnace for me, and son of Cindy Koehn, a one-time colleague at Neenah High School. Given that he had worked for Paige Quigley in the last phase of Pansies, we had several points of connection. In many ways Neenah is a small town.
The main goal of The Garden, Tyler told me, is to grow food for the local market, sustainably and organically. They want to show that it can be done. An Appleton businessman, Jordan Banda, purchased the business, and Tyler is the man on the ground, developing ideas and doing the work. He knows what he’s doing; he earned a degree in horticulture from Fox Valley Tech, and he has worked in South America teaching more sustainable agricultural practices. Though he has lived there and in several places in the United States, he has chosen to return to his home soil.
“I always liked the healthy aspects of food,” Tyler said. He wants to bring those back to the place he grew up.
The first thing Tyler wanted to show me was the half of the large greenhouse that would be devoted to “aquaponics,” that is the raising of fish and vegetables in the same system. The fish provide fertilizer, which with the addition of light will allow The Garden to grow vegetables in a medium of small rocks or pellets of clay. All plants will be organically raised with non-GMO seeds and should be able to produce through the winter. Aquaponic vegetables grow faster, about twice as fast as conventional.
And of course the fish are a marketable product. They plan to begin with tilapia, frequently raised in fish farms, and expand to yellow perch and rainbow trout.
The other half of the greenhouse will be devoted to the cultivation of mushrooms in a wood chip bed and starting seeds in soil to be ready for spring planting. Long-term plans include using solar and geo-thermal water heating to support winter cultivation.  For watering they use collected rainwater, adjusted for pH. Neenah rainwater is just slightly acidic.
Tyler showed me the tank they will use to brew “worm tea.” Castings taken from cultivated earthworms with some added molasses will be placed in mesh bags to infuse the water. Tyler claims it is the best available fertilizer and functions as a pesticide, repelling or killing harmful bugs. The Garden will have a worm pile of compost to use on site.
The old Pansy property encompasses nearly two acres. The front half is occupied by the structures: the main building which houses the store and some space for storage and other functions (mushroom growing being current), the greenhouse (the older, smaller greenhouse was blown down in a storm) and the big red pole barn where equipment and tools are stored. The area once occupied by the small greenhouse and displays of ornamental plants now has large wooden boxes full of vegetables raised for sale.
When Tyler and I walked out to look at the back acre, behind the red barn, he had more ideas than space could accommodate, and he knew that. Much of it had been used, in the past, to winter-over young trees, bases buried deep in wood chips, so they could be sold the next season.
When I had delved in that dirt, it seemed thick and rich. Only on top, Tyler told me; the Pansy family had greenhouses out there, floored with gravel, and that’s what you find digging a foot down. Probably, they would need raised-beds to successfully grow vegetables on that land. To make money from it, several ideas seemed possible:
Maybe they could raise vegetables to sell at the store, eventually progressing to a CSA (community supported agriculture) where customers would pay a fixed amount to receive a box of vegetables every week.
Maybe they could create community gardens where people could rent some raised bed space to grow their own vegetables.
Maybe The Garden staff could raise vegetables and offer people a “u-pick” option as many strawberry farms do now. Pickers would pay by the pound as they left.
On the smaller west side of the back property, Tyler wants to do landscaping with native plants that will attract insects, butterflies and birds. He envisions “farm to table” events when meals would be made from food grown sustainably on the property or nearby farms.
Along the east side fence, The Garden has planted berry bushes, red raspberries, golden raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries, adding to some already growing. Tyler is learning to cultivate the aronia berry, a native berry, something like a blueberry, that has the highest known content of anti-oxidants.
Behind the red barn is a slope long-mulched and canted toward the south. Tyler said they are thinking of planting a vineyard there. Already, on the east end of the greenhouse is an old Concord grapevine, putting out fruit suited to jelly. He plans to have some fruit trees to sell fruit and small trees.
“We want to practice permaculture,” Tyler told me. “We give to the earth and the earth gives back.”
The Garden has acquired a large refrigerator to keep fresh vegetables, and they will be selling fresh eggs from a farm in Stockbridge. Eventually, they want to have bees and produce honey. Already they have for sale a few houseplants, soil, and pots for them. As the holidays approach, they will revive Pansies’ selling of Christmas trees and decorations. “People won’t have to drive way out of town to find good Christmas trees,” Tyler said.
And maybe through the winter season, they will be able to purchase fresh vegetables, herbs, mushrooms, eggs, and fish. I cannot help but wish Tyler Koehn and anyone else involved in The Garden in Neenah success that lasts as long as the original Pansy’s had.
Recently, I realized that, with a semi-hiatus in the 2010-11 years, I have been writing the Seeing Green column since 2007. In most of those many columns, I have been trying to draw attention to the egregious crimes our economic system has been committing against the environment that sustains us all.
In recent months I’ve found myself writing about people who are in their own ways trying to make their own little piece of the whole earth system work in way that benefits life, the life we all share. The Wild Ones people, trying to increase in the midst of our cities the habitat for our native birds and insects. Monte Alverno being turned into an environmental education center. The Butterfly Gardens made to be a sanctuary for those creatures whose natural habitats have been run over by roads, farms and housing development.
And here we have an effort to produce food year-round in a small area in the middle of a city. It’s a bold reach toward an economic model that could someday make a huge difference in the way we live. If it can be shown that determined, inspired people can, on two acres of land, surrounded by housing, produce enough food to make enough money to sustain themselves, we have a model that could grow roots, and disperse seeds and spread through this civilization.
This isn’t rainbows and unicorns. I don’t think enough calories to sustain our population will be grown on neighborhood vacant lots. What it means is that we need to question the assumptions about how our food needs to come to us. Maybe it doesn’t all need to come from irrigated, chemically treated fields in some far-off place.
We may be, almost without sensing it, entering a time when the work that a great many people do for a living will become superfluous. Vehicles are being developed that can run without drivers. Driving requires a quite sophisticated skill-set; if driving can be outsourced to machines, what will be left?  How many human beings drive for a living? How many jobs are as easily automated?
Have you left a super market through the self-checkout lane? What if all the lanes were self-checkout? When was the last time you called a company’s customer service and talked to a human being? What will all these replaced workers do?
For 99% of human history, most of us spent most of our working time finding, growing or preparing food. Only in the last few hundred years have we built an economy, using
the products of the Industrial Revolution and fossil fuels, that separates people from the earth. By now in America, maybe only two or three percent of us are growing food full time. And most of those are doing it from high in large machines, spreading genetically modified seed, fertilizing with derivatives of natural gas, spraying poisons that will kill everything except the GMO seeds designed to survive it.
It’s been an enormous if understandable mistake to drive most people off the land. We need a cultural reset. In the next few decades, unimaginably many jobs will become superfluous. What are we going to do with all these people?
Conservative friends have said, well, give them a stipend to stay home and out of trouble.
Really? You think millions of people with nothing to do will stay out of trouble?
Why not admit that we made a mistake in thinking that mass-produced, chemically treated, cheap food was the nutritional future? What if we made a goal of training as many people as possible in the art and science of producing good food? What if we created a national program to resettle the rural land and grow real food? And figure out how to grow good food in whatever space is close to where most people live?
The Garden in Neenah is a place where different ways of growing food are being tried. As they work their way toward its potential, I would urge anyone who believes in sustainable local food to support them. Spend some time; it’s a beautiful green enclave in the city.
The Garden in Neenah is located at 833 E. Cecil St., Neenah, WI 54956.
For more information go to or call 920-915-5373.

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