With the sun setting behind them, the newly engaged couple sits on their front porch in Historic Springfield. The surrounding yard is filled with edible plants, and their plan is to expand it, add more fruit trees and install garden benches and a swing. Don, a black belt martial artist and former president of Sustainable Springfield, jokingly refers to the two of them as Master Don and the Garden Elf.
“I’ve always been sustainable,” Don says. “My mother gave me that: gardening, going out and picking some collard greens, and teaching me how to cook. So I had basic knowledge, but Val came along and sharpened it,” he says, gesturing toward his fiancée. Don was raised in San Francisco but spent most of his summers in the north mountains of California. “A country way of life was how I spent my summers, and that included hunting and farming and fishing. So I brought that here, and now I’ve been in Springfield twenty years.”
For Val, living sustainably started with her family’s health. “I got into food mostly through my father when he had a heart attack, and we were searching for the best diet for him. He really propelled my whole journey.” She got into raw foods, moved to California, worked for a raw food company, and it progressed from there. In 2010, she came to Jacksonville to start an urban homestead in Arlington. She also began a business called the Food Park Project. A food park “has trees and paths,” she says. “Herbs and vegetables. It’s a destination rather than another job like many community gardens.” Recently, she decided to move to Springfield. “Springfield is the kind of neighborhood that is more community-oriented. In Arlington it just felt like nobody else was doing what we were doing. The connectivity wasn’t there.”
Val consults with homeowners and businesses to establish and maintain more sustainable landscapes in the urban core. She wants to also teach the homeowners to do it themselves. “We want to educate people on growing the soil on their own properties.”
Regenerating the biology in the soil is very important, Val says, and it makes it a lot easier to grow and maintain your plants. “Just like in our guts, we need a certain biology to break down nutrients; it’s the same in the soil for plants absorbing nutrients. Our goal is to get to the soil and change the composition of it in the urban areas, especially downtown.”
Another important aspect of their lives that supports sustainability is biking versus driving. Don and Val try to walk or ride bikes to do errands, go to work and socialize. To be sustainable in the urban core, Don concludes, “We can walk, we can ride our bikes, and we can garden.”