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Cultivating hardy seeds to withstand Louisville’s summer heat

A Louisville couple has spent nearly three years collecting local seeds and sharing them with local gardeners for free. They founded the Louisville Seedbank to promote urban agriculture and cultivate gardens that thrive in the city’s urban heat island.

Taking their cues from weeds that grow in between the cracks in the sidewalk, Jody Dahmer and his fiance Mariah Corso are growing fruit, vegetables and wildflowers that can flourish in the harsh conditions of Louisville’s urban core.

On a steamy Saturday in June, the pair tend the Preston Street community garden, tasting the fruits of their labor: a tart blackberry; the last of the surviving asparagus before it goes to seed.

The garden used to be an asphalt lot and neighborhood dumping site, situated between Preston Street, Interstate 65 and the train tracks in Shelby Park. Now there’s a bed of mulch, a rainwater collector and a series of raised beds filled with rainbow chard, onions, cabbage, asparagus and more.

All the food is free for people to harvest. What’s left goes to seed, on purpose.

“So the idea is we planted 10 asparagus plants. It’s super hot right here so even though only two took, these two will go to seed and will produce seeds that will become more heat resistant,” Corso said.

All of these hardy plants are part of a pilot program they’re calling the Louisville Seedbank, aimed at improving urban agriculture, teaching people how to grow their own food and sharing local seeds.

Urban agriculture is a bit of a lost art in some parts of the city. It was only last year the city overturned a decades-long weed ordinance that stopped many neighborhood homes from maintaining native landscapes and gardens. Corso and Dahmer were instrumental advocates in getting that measure passed through their state-licensed plant nursery Beargrass Thunder.

Coming from the Appalachian hillsides of Cumberland County, Dahmer learned to grow his own food and has brought that homesteading mindset to the streets of Louisville.

“I’m the first one in my family to grow up in the city,” he said. “And what I found was a lot of the deserts, the food deserts and food apartheid here in the city, a lot of that is policy-based,” Dahmer said.

 The Louisville Seedbank inside the Louisville Tool Library.
Ryan Van Velzer
The Louisville Seedbank inside the Louisville Tool Library.

Back at the seedbank, located inside the Louisville Tool Library, Dahmer and Corso have amassed a huge collection of seeds. Some are donated by the local agricultural extension offices, others have been donated by local farmers sharing heirloom varieties that have been growing in the neighborhoods around Shelby Park and Smoketown. They have heirloom okra, black eyed peas and spoon tomatoes.

“They’re called spoon tomatoes but they grow so teeny tiny you can strip them off the vine and use them as a vegan caviar because they are itty bitty like that,” Corso said.

They’re particularly interested in collecting seeds that can survive in the neighborhoods of Shelby Park and Smoketown, which are part of the city’s urban heat island. Nearly a decade ago, researchers found Louisville had among the worst heat islands in the country — around 10 degrees warmer than the surrounding areas.

“The flowers, especially wildflowers that we see in the neighborhood, they are very important because if they survive here, we can use them in gardens everywhere,” Dahmer said.

So far their research has been fruitful: At the Preston Street Garden, they’re showing it’s possible to grow food even under harsh urban conditions, and only watering once a week. The raised beds are especially important for urban gardeners because so much of the city’s soils can be contaminated with lead. Each bed is lined with landscape fabric and mulch to ensure the roots don’t penetrate into the soil below.

“There has been a huge amount of lead contamination. Whether that's from the lead gasoline that was only banned in the 1970’s or the lead paint that is found on many of these Victorian structures,” Dahmer said.

Dahmer and Corso want to help people across the city build their own gardens, grow their own vegetables and improve access to fresh produce in Louisville's food deserts. Already, they’ve helped more than 250 people this year and are exploring partnerships with other cities in the region.

The seedbank is open Wednesdays and Saturdays inside the Louisville Tool Library in Shelby Park.

Ryan Van Velzer is the Kentucky Public Radio Managing Editor. Email Ryan at rvanvelzer@lpm.org.

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