On an overcast January afternoon, Jessica Joy is thinking about warm spring days. Working in soil, tending to veggies and fruits. “It’s very exciting to watch all the sprouts pop up,” she says, her face lighting up in anticipation.
Jessica wants to be a farmer—a challenge given the price of land in California. So she started thinking of ways to become a farmer in suburban Benicia. Her first idea—using local school yards for large, “food-forest” style gardens—didn’t pan out. Benicia Community Gardens then offered her a 600-square-foot plot at Avant Garden downtown and she grew more than 800 pounds of produce in her first two seasons there. “That filled my soul, that built my confidence.”
Jessica completed a Land Caretakers program offered by Benicia Community Gardens last spring and is taking agriculture classes at Santa Rosa Junior College. She is on track to earn her associate’s degree in sustainable agriculture in May. Last summer, she launched The Edible Yard and now consults with people who want to create sustainable food gardens in their yards.
She started her career as a skin care specialist and laughs heartily as she talks about her journey from working in spas to working the soil. The shift began during her time as co-owner of the Inn at Benicia Bay. She initially offered spa services and then opened a restaurant there, Vino Paladini. “Even if you’d asked me in 2012, I wouldn’t have said I wanted to be a farmer,” she says.
The single mom lives in Benicia with her 7-year-old son and her mom. Their garden has lettuce, bok choy, Japanese spinach, kale and chard this winter. She also has bunnies and plans to add chickens soon.
How did you move from skin care to raising food? The whole reason I got into this is through the restaurant business. Vino Paladini was the first organic restaurant in Solano County. I’d go to farms in Petaluma, Dixon, the Suisun area. We didn’t want large food vendors—we wanted food from smaller farms.
When I started feeding people organic food, people were always coming up to me and grabbing my arm and asking, “Why does your food taste so much better?” I would tell them it’s organic and that it comes from nearby.
I think people are looking for sustainable food—food that is good for your body, that is good for the soil, that’s grown in a way that’s not degrading or hurting the workers. Food where there’s no waste, there’s no injuries.
How did you get introduced to actual farming? Have you heard of WWOOFing? It’s the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms organization. A neighbor told me she always wanted to go WWOOFing in Italy. I was interested in farming after the restaurant closed, but I wanted to stay close. I went to Green String Farm in Petaluma for a year …
One day I asked if it was a WWOOFing farm. The woman I asked got excited and said she’d just come back from WWOOFing in Italy. She told me I should go and gave me a phone number. … A few months later, I was on a plane to Italy. That was 2012.
What is an edible yard? In a perfect world, I’d like everything in a yard to be edible. But flowers are imperative to attract bees. Without bees, there would be no food. Without food, there would be no people.
I have a friend who’s a beekeeper. Being around the bees was an experience. You realize the importance of bees. That vibration of the buzz is like nothing else. Being in the center of that was like being in the presence of God.
What makes up a “food forest” garden? In a food forest, you create seven layers: the large canopy and the small canopy, which are fruit trees, are the first two layers.
Next are berries and then perennials like collard greens, kale—did you know there are 12 varieties of kale, not just what you see in the grocery store?
Then you have annuals like turnips, radishes, potatoes, spinach and bok choy.
Herbs are the sixth layer, then you have ground cover.
That’s the food. The rest is beneficial native plants. You want to create a habitat that is beneficial to insects like bees, butterflies, ladybugs. The most important is bees because you need them to pollinate the plants. That turns a food forest into its own eco-system.
Pruning stays on the ground; it’s called chop and drop. That way the organic material helps the soil.
You create swails—that’s a fancy word for ditches—for water. You can even harvest rain water, or install a graywater system so you can use your laundry water in your garden. But you’ll have to change your soap.
What’s your favorite food that you grow? I’m grateful for all the food I grow. I’ve never enjoyed fruit and vegetables as much as I do now, knowing they are grown without insecticides or herbicides or hurting anyone. I guess my favorite right now is pineapple guava, mostly because I didn’t even realize we could grow it here.
What’s the first step to creating an edible yard? The first step is to have a consultation to find out where there are wet spots, where there are dry spots, where there are high spots, where there are low spots in your yard. Where is the wind coming front? Where is the sunlight? What direction is the yard facing? What’s near the house so it will be warmer? You use that information to create a map so you know which plants will grow best in which location.
It also helps to know the history of the land, what uses were there prior, any flooding in past, if the place is on a former toxic wasteland. Fortunately, the soil does clean itself through funguses. Mushrooms are one of the best soil cleaners.
You also send a soil sample to a lab so you know the soil type, the nutrients that are there, and if there are any chemicals in the soil.
What one thing would you recommend to start an edible yard? Incorporate organic material into the soil to create the nutrients for your plants. You don’t have to buy nitrogen, you don’t have to buy potassium, you don’t have to buy Miracle Grow. There’s a really simple technique you can use, using wood chips and wood shavings to add organic material to your soil.
What should people be doing in their gardens in March? Planting! They should have seedlings started earlier that are ready to plant in their spring garden—lettuces, beans, kale, chard, beets. And they should start their summer seedlings—pumpkins, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, melons and such—so they’ll be ready to plant by May when the ground starts warming up.
What do you do to relax? I garden (laughing heartily).
I make jewelry. It’s another element of the earth that I get to play with. I only use semi-precious stones, gold and silver. I leave a crystal in all my gardens to link the two together.
What’s next for you? My dream for Benicia is to establish a community café that would be a place for people to exchange food, sell sustainable food, have coffee and tea available, a place where high school students could work as part of ROP, and have a learning space for the community. I would love to have a place to teach people how to cook healthy food quickly and have it be delicious, a place to create feel-good food that really is good for you, things like spaghetti made from zucchini, or smoothies with kale, apple, cucumber and coconut water.
My personal dream is to have a farm either in Oregon or Hawaii, about two to five acres, and continue to educate people about the food they eat. I feel that my calling is to educate people about this.