When it's summer in the city, heat rises from abandoned industrial lots and sweltering concrete pavement deserts, and shimmers in the air.
Chances are, this does not bring gardening to mind. But it does for some people.
Downtown businesses and organizations including Lexington's High Street YMCA and Louisville's Brown-Forman Corp. are finding ways to plant container gardens filled with herbs and vegetables in once-barren and unproductive spaces.
Beyond the delicious, nutritious fresh local produce, the businesses have found they have nurtured community by allowing conversations and collaborations to grow.
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Brown-Forman's executive chef, Mark Williams, has tended, for the last four years, the transition of an empty lot where a warehouse once stood near the company's Westside Louisville headquarters and bottling center. Just a minute's walk from his kitchen sits his sustainable organic container garden.
His initiative was supported by Brown- Forman's director of corporate services, Rick Wimsatt, who says, "We have always taken great pride in Mark's culinary skills and have supported his passion for organic and sustainable food practices. When this parcel became available, he came to us with the idea for a barrel garden, which builds on years of gardening in a smaller plot behind our administration building.
"It was an easy decision because he had already shown us the benefits of previous efforts, and it fit nicely within our corporate sustainability initiatives."
One of the largest American-owned spirits and wine companies worldwide, Brown-Forman has a supply of retired oak bourbon and whiskey barrels on hand, which Williams has had sawn in half and fitted with irrigation hoses, liners and drainage holes to become containers in his 200-planter — and counting — garden. There is room for expansion on the 40-acre campus.
Williams is experimenting with watermelons, including the heirloom Charleston gray and the gold-speckled leafed moon and stars, planted in plastic soil bags around the lot's perimeter.
A convivium leader for Slow Food USA (www.slowfoodusa.org), Williams is an advocate for local food culture and biodynamic gardening, a holistic system that advocates establishing healthy soil organisms, moon-phase planting and the use of organic methods.
His barrels are filled about three-fourths with less-dense tree mulch, then topped with a thick layer of organic soil before planting. The garden provides him with the freshest organically grown vegetables, and he is able to cultivate a variety of unusual flavors to use in his cuisine.
"Mark's absolute passion to grow 100 percent organic local produce and herb varietals is such a great benefit for our employees and our visitors that dine in Brown-Forman's Bourbon Street Café," corporate food service manager Dee Ford says.
"Not only do we no longer purchase fresh herbs such as basil, Italian parsley, rosemary and thyme, but we are also offering new varietals that we cannot even purchase from our suppliers."
Williams' enthusiasm has caught on. A cadre of "garden club members," bringing a cross-section of skills including accounting, bottling and design, has formed at Brown-Forman.
"We get to harvest vegetables for our own use as well as for use in the Bourbon Street Café," says office facility design manager Anne Braun. "With the garden club, I can put in just one hour per week, and I get my own barrel to plant with my choice of heirloom vegetables.
"I like the fact that all the planting is done in barrels, as it makes it easier to work in the garden because there is less bending over for maintenance and harvesting."
The oasis is attracting songbirds and insects, and curious onlookers from neighboring businesses.
An opening celebration was held June 3 in the 35-foot-square courtyard container garden at the High Street YMCA.
Membership and marketing director Vicki Feola says the idea for enhancing the courtyard came naturally, when she realized that raised beds and containers could support a garden, in lieu of a plot of earth.
"We simply wanted to convert our building's empty space, and also encourage healthy eating and nutrition," she says.
This spring, Feola applied for a community gardening grant from the Home Depot Foundation, which provided $2,500 worth of materials and supplies to develop the garden. Volunteer staff, residents and members painted the floor surface green; built, filled and planted large wooden raised-bed containers; and designed a row of suspended stainless steel bucket tomato planters that oddly echo the look and style of the adjacent weight room.
Bright plastic planters hold colorful coleus and marigolds, which Feola jokes, "help to keep the deer away." A bistro table and chairs make it an inviting place to relax.
"It's interesting to sit and talk with members I hadn't really known before, " Feola says. "It's surprising to learn that so many people here know the how-tos of gardening, from using Epsom salts to productive weeding techniques."
Some of the Y residents have taken over watering and care, and some herbs, including thyme and basil, have been harvested and shared at the front desk for free.
In sync with the organization's goals of nurturing body, mind and spirit, "We've created a new culture and environment here," Feola says.