Entrepreneur seeks to build community bonds one plot at a time

Through her Farm Girl Food Gardens landscaping business, Mary Phillips builds raised garden beds and plants whichever crops her clients want. She looks at her venture as a calling, to help people connect through healthful food.

Mary Phillips sees food as a universal language.

“I really believe that food translates in ways that other things don’t,” said Phillips, 24. “Especially food that grows in your garden.”

'Being outside in the sunshine is good for a person. Getting your hands in the dirt is healthy,' says Mary Phillips, who installs and stocks food gardens for Memphis-area residents.Photo by Mike Maple
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“Being outside in the sunshine is good for a person. Getting your hands in the dirt is healthy,” says Mary Phillips, who installs and stocks food gardens for Memphis-area residents.

Recently, the young horticulturist found a way to incorporate her belief into a business plan.

Phillips installs raised garden beds in residential yards as part of her edible landscaping business, Farm Girl Food Gardens.

Since April, she has helped green up the thumbs of seven Memphis households.

“It’s about keeping people healthy and promoting personal wellness,” she said. “Being outside in the sunshine is good for a person. Getting your hands in the dirt is healthy.”

The job begins with a visit to the client’s yard to assess the property, estimate the size of the beds and discuss what plants the client is interested in.

She builds the containers out of wood and transports them to the client’s house in her truck.

Then she fills the beds with compost, and plants and waters the tomatoes, squash, peppers, herbs or whatever else is requested.

“Everybody wants tomatoes, of course,” she said. “Herbs are really popular, and I think they’re fantastic. They’re low-maintenance, and you reap the benefits year after year.”

She hesitates a bit when she gets a request for watermelons and cantaloupes.

“They’re tough in a raised garden because they spread,” she said. “It’s good to plant things that are easily preserved and things that can be pickled and canned.”

Besides building the beds for a fee, Phillips offers consultation services, including when to expect a harvest, how much watering is necessary, what kind of mulch to use, and the seasonality of different crops.

“Mostly it’s, ‘When can I plant,’ and ‘When can I eat it,'” said the native Memphian.

Midtowner Pamela Mashburn, 61, enlisted Phillips’ services in the hopes of reuniting with her love of gardening.

“I had not had a garden in a while, and I thought it would be a wonderful way to try out gardening again,” Mashburn said. “My husband and I are kind of empty-nesters, and it’s a fun way to have fresh vegetables. If they actually make it.”

Mashburn settled on four tomato plants, two squash, two cucumber, one okra and two types of basil.

“She came and filled the beds with wonderfully rich dirt and some well-started, healthy plants. All I have to do is keep them watered and maybe weed a little bit,” Mashburn said. “It’s a way to be a part of the grow-your-own-garden movement, and we can just catch on the shirttails of Mary. She’s quite a farmer.”

Phillips first got bitten by the gardening bug while interning at a Kansas farm during high school, but it was her college experience that would cement her love of the land.

“(At Warren Wilson College in North Carolina) we had a sustainable agriculture program, where we had a fully functional farm. My roommate was on the farm crew, so I would go out there Saturday mornings and milk the cows,” Phillips said.

Phillips acted as the manager of the Binghamton Development Corp.’s Urban Farms before leaving to help head up the Cooper-Young Community Farmers Market (she is marketing manager through the summer), and she was recently hired to teach farming at the Hutchison School.

“Obviously, she’s someone who has found her passion and is excited about local food systems and encouraging people to grow their own food,” said Josephine Alexander, coordinator of GrowMemphis. “She’s so passionate about sharing with other people and helping them get set up to grow their own food and experience the joy she experiences.”

Phillips views her new venture as more of a calling than a business.

“I am called by the mission of food access and creating community through food,” she said. “I want to get food gardens out there, to get people to grow their own food and for folks to meet their neighbors. For me it’s an act of community development.”

She has seen it in action.

When Phillips moved into the Binghamton neighborhood, she noticed her neighbors weren’t as friendly as she would have liked.

“I would try to chat with my neighbors on the block, and they would tell me they don’t speak English. They would never have a conversation with me,” she said.

Approaching them with homegrown watermelon in hand, she met with a different reaction.

“She said, ‘Oh, thank you, thank you so much,’ and she spoke perfect English,” Phillips said of one neighbor. “It completely broke down the barrier.”

“It’s these little interactions that seem like trivial daily decisions. They’re a lot more. They end up making good communities,” she said. “Food is a language that transcends all barriers — class, gender, race and age. Everybody can talk food. If I can feed good, nutritious food to people and establish bonds between neighbors, I will feel I’ve been a success.”


About Kim Martindale

Mother of two, wife of one, home manager, gardener, student of health and wellness, world traveler, nature lover, researcher, Jesus follower, community builder. I'm seeking to become resilient and to live sustainably. I desire to give back and share what I'm learning with others.


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