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Locals come together to embrace sustainable living

Christina Johnson is a member of the Natchez chapter of Gaining Ground, a nonprofit focusing on growing locally and sustainability. Johnson grows a garden on her property, Sligo Plantation, that supports 20 families. The families are regularly delivered vegetables the day they are harvested. (Photo by Lauren Wood \ The Natchez Democrat)

NATCHEZ — As Ralph wrestled with an intruder in the grass south of town, Ty Anderson swooped to his rescue, rake in hand.

“It’s dead,” Anderson shouted over his shoulder, his body still bent toward the dead snake.

Ralph, still suspect, kept barking.

Christina Johnson, the owner of Sligo Plantation and of Ralph, inquired mercifully about the type of snake Anderson had just slayed.

“Was it a rat snake?” she asked.

Rat snakes eat mice, so you don’t want to kill them, she said. Rattlesnakes, she explained, give plenty of warning before they poison you — so that’s not a fair fight either.

Anderson, the caretaker at Sligo, marched over an illustrated snake book and pointed to a cottonmouth.

Anderson got Johnson’s approval for the kill — cottonmouths didn’t serve any purpose worth poisoning Ralph over — not that it would have changed the fate of the snake.

For Johnson, the ecosystem that elementary students learn about in school is alive and audible at her corner of the earth off of Hutchins Landing Road, even when it comes to snakes. For her, everything has its place.

“Use everything you’ve got to try to make everything better without waste,” Johnson said as she walked down a row of tomatoes, kale, beets and turnips. “That’s what sustainability is all about.”

Johnson moved to town eight years ago from New Mexico to live in a log cabin on the property she inherited from her family.

She said she found it frustrating that she had to go to Whole Foods during trips to Baton Rouge to buy organically. So it was natural that she began planting at home, though learning what grew well in heavy humidity versus the desert took some time.

“(Plant) a big variety, and then you know what works,” Johnson said.

For instance, she said malabar spinach grows beautifully in the Natchez area.

“(Malabar spinach) just loves heat and humidity,” Johnson said.

“And cucumbers (grown in the area) are really tasty.”

Johnson’s garden will soon provide enough food for 20 families, she said. Weekly deliveries allow families to get their veggies picked fresh daily rather than shipped and delivered to the aisle of big superstore chains. And it cuts down on her food bill, too.

“Eighty percent of what I eat (I pull) from my garden,” Johnson said.

Johnson said just because she knows what works well, doesn’t mean she abandons a wide variety. That’s because growing certain herbs and vegetables near each other, sometimes known as companion planning, make for a more healthful product.

“It’s like an art, or like handling a baby,” Anderson said.

A row of flowers had yet to bloom near the vegetables in order to produce pollen that attracts the good bugs, who eat the bad bugs, Johnson said.

And there are also no-nos. For instance, carrots should not be planted with dill. But dill is a good companion plant for tomatoes, as is borage.

When you know how to plant, you don’t need chemicals, Johnson said.

A few months ago, people who live and eat like Johnson or aspire to do so might not have had a network to learn more. But a new group of like-minded fans of sustainably formed a local chapter of a group called Gaining Ground.

The purpose of the group is to promote and make connections about sustainability, growing vegetables naturally, improving health and contributing to a “vibrant and balanced world for your family’s future,” according to the group’s mission statement.

Mitzi Callon, a member of Gaining Ground along with Johnson, said she grew passionate in recent years about living a toxin-free, sustainable life after she grew so sick she got to a point in which she couldn’t digest her food and it almost cost her life.

At this week’s Southeast Master Gardener’s Convention, state representatives from Gaining Ground Sustainability Institute of Mississippi, a nonprofit focusing on growing locally and sustainability, attended the conference with local Gaining Ground chapter members. Pictured from left are, GGSIM Executive Director Dan Doyle, GGSIM Southwest Coordinator Preston Sullivan and Natchez chapter member Mitzi Callon. (Photo by Lauren Wood \ The Natchez Democrat)

By ridding her body of artificial foods and chemicals, she’s on the road to recovery and has a new perspective on life.

“What has helped me come back (to good health) is being aware of what I consume and looking at my life holistically, physically, mentally, spiritually and emotionally,” Callon said.

Callon said she hopes Gaining Ground, which is a chapter of the Gaining Ground Sustainability Institute of Mississippi, will also help educate younger generations about naturally grown food with educational programs and workshops for children and adults.

Callon said she’s already been teaching her grandson, Grant Manning, 5, about gardening. It’s important to connect children to gardening at a young age, Callon said, so they understand where food really comes from other than at the grocery store.

At the Natchez Children’s Home, educating children about gardening is a lesson Executive Director Nancy Hungerford said she fears some children are only getting at school.

Hungerford said she grew up in the garden, but that doesn’t seem to be the case for younger generations.

“Many rushed families tend to have what I call easy food — fast food…a sandwich or a bowl of cereal,” she said. “We’re trying to introduce not only identification of (fruits and vegetables), but how they taste and how they taste good.”

The vegetable garden and citrus tree orchard at the Children’s Home provides much of the produce cook Yolanda Morgan mixes in salads and serves as a side dish, Hungerford said.

“It’s amazing what (children) don’t know and that they love to learn about (food) that doesn’t come from Walmart in a cellophane bag but comes from the ground,” Hungerford said.

Callon said if people understood that God provides everything we need, they might be more inclined to live a more natural life and teach it to their children.

Johnson said understanding the purpose of everything in nature, from herbs to vegetables to butterflies, bees and bats, is the basis of sustainable living.

“Almost everything has a place in nature,” Johnson said. “Except mosquitoes, I can’t figure that out,” she added.

But a minute later, Johnson said she guessed mosquitoes might exist as bat food. After all, the guano — or bat excrement — she collects from the bat farm on her property makes a great fertilizer.

Those interested in joining the Natchez chapter of Gaining Ground Sustainability Institute of Mississippi should call Mitzi Callon at 601-446-8160.