The first time I met Pat G. Smith, she rattled off the names of a dozen plants I’d never even heard of. She was teaching me about watermelons for a book I was writing, telling me to use comfrey tea and worm castings on the plants, and I just blinked at her. I was standing in the garden in sandals, trying to avoid fire ants or crushing the tender leaves at our feet, but Pat didn’t hold that against me. She’s a born teacher and walked me all around Shipshape Urban Farms, spouting facts I couldn’t write down fast enough, or spell, on my little yellow notepad.
Long after I stopped visiting the watermelons every week to gauge their growth and the depth of their green, Pat stuck with me. Meeting her was like stumbling upon a rare, tropical orchid blooming in regular dirt in Irvington. So when the year turned, I texted Pat to ask if I could see her home garden sometime, and she responded immediately.
On an overcast day near mid-January, Pat welcomes me with homemade bread and herb butter and hibiscus tea, which tastes so clear and sweet and clean it reminds me of a ringing silver bell as it slides down my throat. We stand in her kitchen, and she explains how she got to this point: with an encyclopedic knowledge of plants and a garden so teeming it includes four varieties of bananas, in her small yard in Crichton.
Pat’s story begins with a love of animals, inherited from her father, whom she calls “a wild kingdom man” who would take in “stray dogs off the street.” By age 21, she had amassed many mouths to feed: iguanas, ferrets, cockatoos, parakeets, rabbits, guinea pigs and a 55-gallon tank holding fish of all kinds, “and all of ‘em were vegetarians,” she says. She got tired of asking grocery stores for scraps to feed them, “So I said, I’m gonna throw some seeds in the backyard, and that’s exactly what I did. And I’ve been in love with gardening ever since.”
Growing food became even more important later, when Pat had two children to feed and the food stamps began running out before the month did. She started growing even more food and freezing it. One day, while buying fruit trees, Pat accidentally gave the cashier her food stamps card instead of her bank card and it took. It turned out the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits covered fruit trees, seeds and vegetable plants, so Pat expanded her repertoire. She started saving seeds and trading them. The garden flourished; her freezer filled.
She was now growing so much she could give it away. “Watchin’ that one little seed put out so much food, it’s amazing,” she says. “It can feed a lot of people. And I like sharing. Then the next thing I know, I started baking and cooking from the garden.” She would try out new recipes on family and friends and watch their expressions to determine which ones were keepers. Her mother, Geraldine, was particularly amazed and encouraged Pat to keep growing and creating.
And the more Pat ate from the garden, the better she felt. “I was 500 pounds,” she tells me, then looks over at Keith, her husband of 15 years, who is filming our interview on his phone. “He didn’t know that,” she says. “I didn’t want to tell nobody . . . now you know,” she tells him, and shrugs. It’s a quality I’m learning is typical of Pat. A straightforwardness, an honesty.
Providing her family and community with healthy, homegrown foods gave Pat a sense of pride. Her second child, Patrick, has cerebral palsy and requires a high-calorie diet, and Pat could now fill him up with good calories. She set a new goal of being “self-sustained.” She butchered rabbits to feed her children the best meat possible. She learned to make a cold remedy with lemongrass, medicine mint, ginger and turmeric; to treat flu symptoms with papaya leaves.
Much of her knowledge comes from watching gardening videos on YouTube. “I didn’t go to school,” she says. “I went to YouTube University.” Papayas are now her favorite thing to grow, along with banana flowers, which she uses in pineapple curry. She recently tried putting turmeric in bread, “Just to take it up another level, see if I can get away with it.” She used liquid from chickpeas as an egg substitute to make a vegan lemon Bundt cake. “I took the challenge, and I did it,” she says. She loves the experimental aspect of growing, especially grafting. “Puttin’ one species to another species and letting it clone each other. That’s what’s the most amazing thing. And then to have two fruits on one tree.”
Pat also loves when people tell her she can’t do something, which happens often. “Once a master gardener, an older lady, told me, ‘You cannot grow rhubarb in Mobile, Alabama.’ And I said, ‘Is that a challenge?’” She laughs. “Baby, that’s exactly what I said!” By then, Pat didn’t need to consult YouTube. She devised her own trick to coax rhubarb, a cold climate plant, to grow in warm soil. (She makes me turn off the recorder while she tells me her secret). She posted a video of the thriving rhubarb on her YouTube channel, and the master gardener was astounded.
Likewise, Pat was intrigued by a sugar apple that grows in Japan (it resembles an artichoke on the outside but is white and creamy on the inside), so she bought one on eBay and planted it. Like everything else in her garden, it prospered.
“What gave you the guts to do all this stuff?” I finally ask. “You just decided to do it, and you did it. Where did that come from?”
“Watchin’ people die,” she answers, quickly and quietly.
I’m surprised, though I shouldn’t be. “From what?” I ask.
“From obesity. From what they put in our food. These manufacturers. Puttin’ rubber into the breads to preserve them longer. When I saw that, I thought, ‘Oh hell, I’m fittin’ to make my own bread.’”
Pat shares her seeds and knowledge and recipes with anyone who shows an interest, hoping to help her community be healthier and stay alive. “I grew up right here,” she says, so she’s surrounded by people she’s known all her life.
Some take to gardening, but others hesitate. “They think it’s hard,” Pat says. “They don’t realize you don’t have to dig the earth up. You can do the no-till method. You can do a lasagna layer and just build it up. Or do some raised beds.” Others don’t want to grow food because it harkens too closely to slavery. “I tell those, ‘But now what they put in our food is killing us,’” Pat says. “We’re dying from this pretty pink pork. They’re putting ink in it, and that ink is causing cancer.”
We walk out her front door, where a starfruit tree grows and bears fruit twice a year. It’s one of Pat’s favorites. We walk through the yard, and she points out a cherry, blackberry (thornless and American beauty), Victoria rhubarb, asparagus, artichoke, garlic chives, tree collards, pineapple, Mexican Cream guava, papaya, raspberry, two varieties of Asian pear, Granny Smith apple, satsuma, orange, Meyer lemon, hybrid lemon, peach, yellow plum, grape, blueberry, banana, shampoo ginger, wild native persimmon, passion fruit, grapes (wine and muscadine), mushrooms (chantrell and oyster), dragonfruit cactus, corn, spinach, broccoli, lemon thyme, ginger, turmeric, beans, carrots, peas, potatoes, radishes, cabbages.
She grows moringa (for powder), gooseberry (“You can tell it’s healthy ‘cause the thorns are sharp”), lemongrass (used in lemon mayonnaise), ground apple (“It looks like a sweet potato but tastes like a pear”), cinnamon (a natural substitute for chemical rooting powder), aloe (for her sister who likes to make soap), and Buddha’s hand citrus (boiled to perfume the house. She breaks some off so I can smell it, and it’s divine. That is the word that comes immediately to mind. Divine). A pecan tree arches over us, which Pat appreciates, because it keeps the squirrels busy.
Pat calls all of this her “food forest,” and it’s organized into different sections. The fruit trees are on one side, with scrub plants at their feet. There is a place for vegetables, for herbs. A butterfly garden. Raised beds. One side with woodchips that stays colder and another with bricks, which retain heat. Everywhere, organic matter (egg shells, worm castings, compost, coffee grounds) lays over the dirt. “Don’t mix the coffee grounds with the soil,” she cautions. “It’s too acidic. Just lay it on top.”
There is a greenhouse where tiny shoots poke their heads above black dirt. There is a patio corner Pat envisions as a “meditation spot,” where people can light lavender candles and sit with a cup of tea (she makes four kinds: hibiscus, fennel, lemongrass and ginger) and just relax. In fact, that’s what Pat loves most about gardening. “It’s relaxation,” she says. “Oh my God, it’s so much relief. Just a peace of mind when you’re stressed. I make a little tea, and I sit in the garden and chill. I just sit there.” She points out a photograph of bright pink flowers that a local artist has promised to paint as a mural in the meditation spot. “That’s if she comes back in time,” she says.
“In time for what?” I ask.
She sighs. “My landlord’s been talking about selling all the houses on this block.”
We stop our tour and sit at a table in the center of the food forest, amid birdsong and wind chimes and a slow, laden breeze. I ask Pat if she feels gifted, to do all of this.
“When I’ll be able to teach people and really get them into growing their own food, then I’ll feel like I accomplished something because I shared what I know to somebody else and they’re actually growing their own food,” she says. “There’s nothing like growing your own food.”
Teaching is her true passion. “When I teach about gardenin’, I’m all pumped and I’m all hyped. I love the teaching. I want to do workshops on all kinds of things. Cuttings, grafting, how to do organics, natural stuff.” In addition to her YouTube channel, Pat has two Facebook pages: Pat Smith Homestead Living and The Wonderful Life of Tea. But she’s most proud of her new cookbook, “Punkin’s Home-Grown Cooking,” available on Amazon. Punkin is her mother’s nickname for her, “because I was fat and short,” she says, and smiles.
Pat is known for this smile. “When I go to work, I smile all the time. People say, ‘Miss Pat, we love you ‘cause you always smilin’.’” And she does love working at Shipshape, where she’s been for over two years, following four years at Feeding the Gulf Coast. She finds the hydroponic methods different, interesting and easy. And “Shipshape is like a family,” she says. “When I was in a car wreck, they all came to the hospital and to the house to check on me, to take care of me. I love ‘em all, and that’s hard to find.”
But beneath her smile runs an undercurrent of serious stress. There is the prospect of the impending move. There is keeping up with her son Patrick’s many doctor’s appointments and still making it to work, lifting Patrick (now age 20) in and out of his wheelchair and the arm and back pain it causes her, and protecting herself and her two daughters, Victoria (age 12) and Destiny (age 10), when he lashes out. Patrick has started refusing to go outside, so Pat can’t take the girls to the park, which saddens her. “I feel like the girls have to suffer a little bit because they don’t go anywhere,” she says.
It is Patrick’s upcoming birthday, however, that worries Pat the most. In August he will turn 21, and Medicaid will no longer cover the cost of his aide, so Pat will have to give up her job and income at Shipshape if she can’t find someone to stay with him. “There’s so much stress,” she says, shaking her head. “Just so much stress.” She wants to teach more than anything. She wants to share her cookbook, to pass on her love of growing, to improve the lives around her. But how can she make that happen?
I’m about to leave and we’re standing on either side of her chain link fence, the gate between us. Pat is telling me about her current challenge (making tea bags) and new things she wants to try: spawning mushrooms, growing sour sap for its curative properties and cooking with “miracle fruit” that makes everything taste sweet so you don’t have to use sugar. She recently cut heirloom squash into slices that resembled peaches, added them to a peach pie and didn’t tell the girls until after they ate it. We laugh, appreciating the mom trick. “I do that a lot,” she says. “Think of a recipe and then figure out how I can change it to be healthier. But I’ll be honest, sometimes I go to McDonald’s. I know it’s not good for them, but sometimes I’m just so tired.”
I hold onto the fence with one hand. There are herbs tangled in my jacket pocket that Pat has shown me along the way and a loaf of bread tucked into my arm. The sky is leaden above us. “What will you do,” I ask, “if you have to leave all this?” But Pat has a secret for relocating plants too, one that she does let me record: “To keep your plants from stressin’ out, use one aspirin per gallon of water. See that Meyer lemon?” She points to the tree, and I nod. “I moved that sucker seven times. It’s 10 years old, and I pop it out the ground every time, put it in the ground every time, and I use that aspirin and water every time.”
So if the landlord sells her house and Pat is forced to move, her Meyer lemon will be fine. And Pat will be fine, too. Earlier, I asked if she ever failed at anything, and she replied, “Oh, I fail all the time. But I’m determined to make it work, so I go at it again.” I should be heartened by this, I guess, but instead I carry her determination with me like a stone. There is an injustice to it, that Pat has to fight so hard to share her extraordinary gifts with the world.
I caught up with Pat by phone on the last day of March. The artist had set a date to paint the pink mural in her garden, but the coronavirus had forced her to cancel, and Pat was laid off for the same reason. She had filed for unemployment and called several times to check the status, but no luck. Yet Pat was upbeat as always, ticking off everything now blooming and ripening in her garden. Her mind brimmed with ideas about new things to grow, new recipes to try. A YouTube friend had just sent a box of seeds that included sunchokes. “You grow them in a pot and they look like sunflowers,” she told me, “but you cook them down like potatoes.” As my mind struggled to picture this, Pat was already describing two kinds of veggie burgers she’d created. “My imagination never stops going,” she said, laughing. Like a true artist, I thought. Albert Einstein claimed “imagination is more important than knowledge.” Pat G. Smith, however, wields both.
6 cups water
6 bags black tea, like Lipton
1/2 thumb-sized knob of ginger
pinch of salt
juice of one lemon
1/2 cup raspberry syrup*
1/2 cup sugar (add only when using store-bought syrup)
1. In a large pot, add water, tea bags and ginger. Bring to a boil and let boil 4 minutes. Remove tea bag and ginger, then add salt and lemon juice. Add raspberry syrup and sugar and mix well. Serve over ice. Serves 6
* You can use store-bought raspberry syrup or make your own by simmering 2 pounds of fresh raspberries in 4 cups of water for 20 minutes. Remove the raspberries from the liquid, discard berries, add 2 cups of sugar and simmer another 5 minutes. Place in a jar and refrigerate until use.
Recipe from “Punkin’s Home-Grown Cooking” by Patricia Smith
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 leeks, rinsed and chopped
1 celery stalk, diced
32 ounces chicken broth
1 large sweet potato, peeled and chopped
1 – 2 carrots, chopped
2 cups butternut squash, peeled and chopped
1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1. Heat olive oil in a stockpot over medium-high heat. Add leeks and celery and sauté for 15 minutes.
2. Lower heat and stir frequently, then add chicken broth and remaining ingredients. Return to a boil then lower heat, cover and simmer for 15 minutes or until potatoes and carrots are tender.
3. Serve as is or puree in blender for a smoother soup. Can be enjoyed warm or cold. Serves 6
Pork Tenderloin with Herb Rub
The herb rub, which seals in the tenderloin’s juiciness, is home-grown, making this meal all the more satisfying.
2 1/2 teaspoons garlic powder
1 1/2 teaspoons dry oregano
1 1/4 teaspoons ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1 1/2 teaspoons dried thyme
1 1/3 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 1-1/4-pound pork tenderloin
2 tablespoons olive oil
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a medium-sized bowl, mix all dry ingredients to make the rub. Sprinkle the rub on all sides of the pork tenderloin.
2. Heat the olive oil in a large oven-proof skillet over medium-high heat and add the pork tenderloin. Lightly brown on all sides, two minutes total cooking. Remove skillet to the preheated oven and cook for 25 – 30 minutes, or until it reaches an internal temperature of 145 degrees. Remove from oven and let rest for 10 minutes before slicing and serving. Serves 6
4 cups water, divided
1/2 cup ice
1 1/2 teaspoons salt, divided
2 pounds asparagus
3 teaspoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1. In a large bowl, combine two cups of water with the ice. Set aside.
2. In a large skillet, add two remaining cups of water and one teaspoon of the salt. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Add the asparagus and cook for one minute. Remove from skillet and place in the bowl of ice water for one minute to stop the cooking. Remove from ice water and lay on paper towels or a kitchen rag to dry.
3. Drain and dry the skillet, then place over medium-high heat again. Add the olive oil, garlic and pepper flakes. Add the asparagus and toss to cook, approximately 1 minute. Sprinkle with remaining 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Serve warm or room temperature. Serves 6
Garlic Pepper Roasted Potatoes
13 small red potatoes, quartered
1/3 cup olive oil
1 1/4 teaspoons kosher salt
1 1/4 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons minced garlic (about 5 cloves)
1/4 tablespoon red pepper flakes
1 1/2 tablespoons parsley
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Lay potatoes on a rimmed baking sheet and top with the next five ingredients. Toss until well coated, then spread evenly across pan.
2. Bake for 45 minutes, stirring twice during cooking. Remove from oven and garnish with parsley before serving. Serves 4