by Tim Gilmore, 6/11/2020
Surely, Armstrong Farm has nurtured communities, hidden away in the woods, for lifetimes. To find out otherwise is surprising. It’s hard to believe Tim Armstrong bought this 43 acre “hole in the swamp,” as he calls it, as recently as 2009. It was all hardwoods, back here behind warehouses and St. Johns River Water Management land, until Tim cleared out his swampland oasis with a John Deere tractor.
Tim’s both Old Florida and new. He’s in the business of springing life from compost and earth, constant renewal, and his family’s been in Florida “since the last Indian war.” The Third Seminole War ended in 1858. “They ran a steamboat on the Apalachicola River and were postmasters for three generations,” he says, “almost a century.”
A lithe and sun-darkened man with a light beard and silver hair protruding from his “Eat Your Yard Jax” ball cap, his eyes light up when he talks about his childhood, almost as much as when he hands me this perfect small gem of an Australian beach cherry. Growing up, he rode his bike through the woods on Commonwealth Avenue. He fell in love with the plums that grew in the yard next door. He breaks off reminiscences to point out the difference between the yerba mate shrub and the native yaupon holly, the leaves of which Timucuan Indians brewed for tea, centuries before us, right here.
Of the hundreds of species Tim grows and sells here, he’ll just as readily describe how people used what look like weeds in the Middle Ages. Pennyroyal spreads across the ground beside the two story red barn. It’s easy to confuse it with chickweed, which grows everywhere it can. Tim pulls up a sprig of each to demonstrate the differences. Pennyroyal is a mint that kills germs and keeps away bugs. Also called fleabane, half a millennium ago, people placed it in mattresses to deter fleas and bedbugs. Midwives used it as an abortifacient.
As for chickweed, the chickens eat it voraciously. They also devour the lubbers, the grasshoppers that grow up to three and a half inches long and eat crops en masse. Lubber eggs lay waiting all fall and winter. “When they first hatch,” Tim says, “they come up from the soil in these great big congregations and eat every leaf.” So Tim walks the farm with a Shop-Vac and vacuums up their hordes. What he misses, his chickens and ducks don’t.
Tim’s grandfather was a fireman at the Woodstock Park fire station on West Beaver Street. He walked to his elementary school and high school. Though a grandfather and uncle harvested turpentine, Tim laughs and says they made no moonshine. They were teetotalers. Still, in high school, Tim and his friends studied up at the Woodstock Park library “on how to make illicit wine” and rigged a contraption for vinting grocery store grapes behind a barn.
For 20 years, Tim was a steelworker, worked for the union, then devised an “escape plan” when the industry faltered. He bought, renovated and flipped houses for 10 years “until the real estate market overheated” and decided it was time to do something he loved. His family had farmed just to live. Survival was not a vocation. Still, as a kid he’d joined 4-H, the century-old cooperative extension program dedicated to Head, Heart, Hands and Health, then worked for Hall’s and other local nurseries. So he bought his own, Fruit Cove Cactus and Foliage, just south of town.
The greenhouses from that original cactus and succulent nursery now stand at Armstrong Farm. One houses pencil cacti, sedums, kalanchoes, cereus and aloes, while the other houses the farm’s aquaponics. Plum trees line paths around gardens and greenhouses, since they’ve occupied, since Tim’s childhood, such a prominent place in his palate and personal ecology.
When he first got the farm up and running, carved out of the woods the way Henry David Thoreau writes about “making the earth say beans instead of grass—this was my daily work,” Tim ran a booth at Beaches Green Market, wholesaled blueberries, then decided “to open things up.” He’d still bring the farm to the community, but he’d also bring the city to the farm.
He leans to one side of the path and grabs a delicate limb, demonstrating, naming, explaining. He’s a natural teacher, because his passion for what he does demands that outlet. “I mean if you come out here, you see all these different kinds of mulberries—dwarf mulberries, regular, red mulberries and white—and you can see them in situ, and ask yourself, ‘Is this the way I can grow this tree? Are my kids gonna like pulling off this fruit and eating it?’”
So he helped start Berry Good Farms, in conjunction with North Florida School of Special Education, off Mill Creek Road near Regency Mall. At both farms, he’s employed “special needs” adults and has a son with special needs, “so this whole vision and mission,” he says, “is near and dear to my heart.” Now 62 years old, Tim plans to develop this farm and its educational services for the rest of his days. So he’s seeking non-profit status and working on a model of hiring educators to negotiate the farm with classrooms.
It’s started to rain. It’s that time of year. The rain comes every afternoon and pours like the end of the world. I’ve often wondered if I’ve inherited my personality from such weather patterns.
I tell Tim how my father grew up on a farm in Central Georgia, swore to himself he’d never farm again, then gardened his back yards the rest of his life. One of my earliest most meaningful moments was standing beside his circular wire-fenced compost heap—it spread wider than me and stood as tall—and feeling the heat radiate off of it. Even in the rain. I understood it to be an engine of breaking down death to renew its parts for living.
My father grew what he knew: tomatoes, corn, beans and peas, onions, carrots, occasionally peanuts, blueberries, okra when it got too hot for anything else, and winter greens: spinach, broccoli, lettuce, cabbage and mustards. Even in the last months of his life in 2019, when he no longer otherwise remembered my mother, he still quoted what she’d said when he’d cooked mustards. Though she’d been dead for more than 30 years, the punchline somehow thrived in this mind. “You don’t like to eat nothin’ than don’t stink!” he’d say she said. I’m not sure I ever found it funny, but as many times as my father told this anecdote, he never failed to laugh.
Out here on these paths, plantings from nearly every continent thrive. Here grow cotton plants, cassava, the “superfood” Moringa from the foothills of the Himalayas, Topi Tambo, also called “New Guinea arrow root,” the Mediterranean Arbutus Unedo, or “Strawberry Tree,” whose fruits taste like cotton candy. Tim counts passionfruit beneath their alien-but-oh-so-earthly purple blooms, and tells me of the bar at the beach that made margaritas with the syrup Tim made of native “beauty berries.”
Tim’s “Eat Your Yard Jax” youtube videos have shown Floridians and Southeast Georgians how to consume the produce of the ground all around them since 2015. He focused on loquats in March of that year, sugar cane (with “celebratory trills and African drumming”) in May 2017, prickly pear in October 2018, peaches in early 2020.
We’re standing beneath chaste trees, by dragonfruit and cranberry hibiscus, amidst dragonflies and honeybees. Signs explain permaculture guilds. Worms are for sale from deep wooden compost bins. “One pound of worms will eat one pound of kitchen scraps in one week,” Tim says and I remember that all the earth is recycling, that worms turn the dead and the purpose of dying is feeding the living. Earthworms have channeled all the earth, uncountable times over.
“The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,” wrote Walt Whitman 170 years ago, “And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it, / And ceas’d the moment life appear’d.”
Armstrong Farm grew of Tim’s family history, a century and a half of piloting steamboats and farming in this brutal Florida climate, water for air and sand for soil. Everything grows according to its purpose, a purpose evolved over untold time to coincide with all else that grows in its world. It’s not fatalism and it’s no clockwork god. It’s called ecosystem. It’s called love. It’s called the earth.
Tim stands atop a watershed. It’s a divide on which he’s planted his farm. To his left, as he faces me, east and north, the swamps burble down through hardwood basins to the waters that start the flow toward Trout River. To the southwest, on down from the farm, the swamp settles and modulates and percolates and slowly joins McGirts Creek. Both beds of water graduate toward creeks and rivers and tributaries that join the St. Johns River and flow that might body of slow-moving inexorable water north toward the ocean.
From this sacred spot, walk the lines of plums and take home gingers, bring home strawberries, Okinawan spinach, Malabar spinach, parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.
On the other side of these trees, the world falls ever apart. A white policeman kneels on the neck of a black man named George Floyd, murders him. Not an isolated incident, it’s systemic. More than 100,000 Americans have died from Covid-19. More than 40 million Americans have lost their jobs.
I love the world and I love the earth, but the world, as human-made, ever decays, dissolves, falls away. The earth, however, ever springs new, the growth, Gaian, the system of ecosystems, planet as living organism. There’s only ever one earth, though countless worlds have already passed away. Always the world falls into the earth. Always the earth rises anew.
I bought a pomegranate tree and a papaya here last fall. The pomegranate flowers drop their petals to push out their fully pregnant multi-celled fruits. My papaya tree grows a half inch a day in these early summer rains. By the barn and the greenhouses here, five kinds of figs fruit forth as the rain begins falling hard on the farm.
People in the ancient world wondered why fig trees never flowered before they fruited. We know, in this nitrogenous rainfall, what they never guessed, that figs are not fruit, but inverted flowers, that hundreds of kinds of wasp evolved each for each kind of fig, that they ferment them from inside, that every delicious fig contains the broken body of at least one female wasp.
Even on days the farm’s closed, friends arrive, teachers, families. Tim hardly seems to notice it’s raining. A distant cousin to St. Francis and Johnny Appleseed, an old friend of Prissy Bowers, who wrote a book called I Eat Weeds, he walks patiently to a young woman and her small children who exit the car and squeal with delight in cold wet shock. They run under the awnings of a nearby cabana. Tim leaves me with the kindness with which he met me. I see the rain—hard, ancient and nutritious—pound its nails into Mexican Sunflowers and overflowing mounds of squash and cucumbers, and I see Tim walk calmly into the verdure and the laughter of children, then vanish into the impressionism of rain on vegetation.