|Planting a lifestyle at Birdsong Hollow Farm|
|Wednesday, April 4, 2012|
BY KEN BECK
CANNON COUNTY -- Plant nurturer Angie Ott not only has two green thumbs, but these days she often has 10 very dirty fingernails. For those who enjoy eating from their own garden, that’s a good sign.
With the time just about ripe for planting season, this pastor’s pulpit is a greenhouse filled with thousands of little, green growing things. From her 144-acre Birdsong Hollow Farm in the northeast corner of Cannon County, she shares the gospel of tomato love as well as adoration for dozens of other vegetables, flowers and herbs.
“That’s my sea of tomatoes,” Ott said, pointing to hundreds of potted tomato plants, each green stalk rising from 4 to 6 inches high. “We specialize in open-pollinated plants that are unusual and produce interesting and delicious food.”
Ott has approximately 12,000 plants springing up from the soil and reaching for the sun right now. Indeed, the Birdsong Hollow Farms greenhouses, which are open 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays from April 5 through May 13, offer about 70 varieties of tomatoes, 40 types of peppers, eight eggplants, 15 to 20 melons, okra, lettuce, cucumbers and squash as well as lots of herbs and flowers.
“I grow what I like and I grow enough to share,” said the greenhouse gal, whose farm sits between Gassaway and Auburntown and lies but 2 miles from the Wilson and DeKalb County lines. She sells her plants to hundreds of customers from those two counties as well as to gardeners who come from Murfreesboro, Nashville, Cookeville, Shelbyville and other towns to nab her green, green baby plants.
Among those is Watertown's Debbie Bentley, who has been purchasing plants from Ott for four years.
"We buy a lot of vegetable plants for our garden and a wide variety of flowers for accompanying plants to help keep bugs away. She's got just about every kind of vegetable you could imagine," Bentley said.
"We've done a lot of reading on the Internet and we kind of stumbled onto to her through a Tennessee farmers' Web site. Watertown is pretty close to Woodbury, so we decided to go see what she's got. . . . She’s not certified organic, but everything she does is natural growing practices. She’s always been real helpful to us," Bentley said.
“It’s not just about selling the plants and meeting people. It’s about growing your own food and being connected to the soil and learning to be connected to that cycle. You can save the seed and expect to get a very similar plant from that seed the next year, and that’s pretty magical to people,” said Ott, who did not grow up here but has deep roots via her mother, Agnes Adams Adkison, who grew up in Woodbury and today lives in Gulf Breeze, Fla.
Ott was raised in Pensacola, Fla., and she and her husband Chuck, who served in the Army for 20 years, have two grown daughters. They were chased out of Florida six years ago after a series of four hurricanes struck their area over a 15-month period.
“When hurricanes wipe out a community, it tends to take the soul out of the community for a long, long time. So we just decided to move to the hills of Cannon County and plant fruit trees and live more self-sufficiently and sustainably,” she said.
“We looked all over the place. I remembered Tennessee as a little bit of heaven from summer vacations here as a girl, but I didn’t think I was that connected here. But after doing research about the elements, I found that Cannon County was the most environmentally undamaged county in the state.”
As they were departing the Sunshine State, friends gave them some heirloom tomato plants as a going-away gift.
“That got me excited about tomatoes, in particular, the yellow, pear tomatoes. They were delicious and not something I had had anyplace else. The first thing we did was plant a garden,” she recalled.
“The next year I chose 26 kinds of tomatoes, and we got a little 20-by-25 greenhouse, and I planted seeds, and they grew, and I had so many that people said, ‘I bet you could take them to the yard sale in Liberty,’ and it took off from there. I never planned to be in the plant business at all,” said the plant lady.
“As I learned about heirloom tomatoes, I became passionate about all of the colors, flavors and shapes. When we came here, I knew there were red tomatoes and yellow tomatoes, and now I could tell you about at least a hundred different kinds of tomatoes and what’s special about each kind. This has been a great way to learn about other gardeners and about growing here.”
Ott shared that the average last frost hits this area around April 15, but a lot of the old-timers tell her to not plant until after Mother’s Day.
The plant provider begins studying seed catalogs and Web sites in early December. She orders her seeds from organic suppliers in states ranging from Virginia to Maine to New Mexico to Oregon. She puts the seeds into the soil (in her greenhouses) the first week of March, and about five or six weeks later they've sprung into green plants ready to go to out the door and into home gardens.
“My customers range from those for whom it is their first time to touch a plant to people who have been gardening all their lives and have been taught by generation to generation how to grow food and store it. So I’ve gotten to learn from all sorts of people. I read a lot and talk a lot and listen a lot,” she said of her education.
(Birdsong Hollow Farm will present two introductory herb classes to be taught by Helga Thompson on Saturday, April 14, and Sunday, April 29.)
Ott has two greenhouses, a big greenhouse for retail display and socializing space, and a smaller one she calls the nurturing greenhouse. “Most things when they get over here (to the big greenhouse) just need sunlight and water. It’s the same as in the other greenhouse, but there they get a little more loving touch.”
Birdsong Hollow Farm’s best sellers are: 1: black cherry tomatoes; 2: red canners (a group of 15 different tomatoes); and 3: Goldman’s Italian American, a ribbed, pear-shaped paste tomato.
“Hundreds of people find their way back here in the hills to come choose some interesting plants. There are others doing what I do, but they’re further away,” Ott said.
“Mom’s groups come, and I plant tomatoes with their children while they shop. Church groups come and have a picnic and get their plants. We get to talking here, and people tell me about the tomatoes their granddaddies grew and how the seeds were passed down.
“People come back for their fifth year and tell me how their gardens grew. There are lots of conversations here and a lot to learn, and eventually I’m going to learn a lot about gardening,” she said modestly.
“It is such a joy to have people say, ‘We’re going to grow a garden this year,’ and work with them, and some of them come back each year and develop confidence about producing food. People get passionate about growing their own food and the flavors they discover,” Ott said.
“We’re eating better now than we ever have, and we have a relationship with the plants from the seed on. I find eating much more satisfying when we eat from our own garden. It sure does taste good,” said the pleasant gardener who’s planted a home and a lifestyle in Birdsong Hollow.