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Dreamer into Doer: Gardener Jimmy Williams

Martha Stewart Living, March 2011

Text by Susan Heeger

At age 4, Jimmy Williams discovered that if he threw leaves and vegetable scraps into a pit in his grandmother's yard, he could make superfood for his family's corn. "The magic of compost hooked me," he says, recalling the long hours he spent digging beds under the watchful eye of Grandma Eloise, the household's gardener in chief. With 12 children in the family, Williams says, "We had to garden if we wanted to eat."

Raised in Eastern Long Island, New York, Williams loved the rituals of turning soil and rowing out plants so much, he couldn't give them up -- even after moving to New york City and launching a career as a clothing designer (for Calvin Klein, Cacharel, and his own label, Jimmy Williams Stitches). Several times a summer, he rode the train to Long Island to tend his family's garden. Finally, after moving to Los Angeles in 1984, marrying, having children, and buying a house, he returned to gardening full throttle. He planted his entire lot in vegetables, including cuttings from tree collards, an heirloom variety of collard greens that he had brought from his childhood home.

Gradually, fashion design went by the board as Williams began giving away extra plants to neighbors, then selling seedlings on weekends. In 1997, he launched his business, HayGround Organic Gardening. Today he sells seedlings and herbs at farmers' markets and designs edible gardens for clients. Most recently, he compiled a lifetime's worth of growing knowledge, along with his family's traditional recipes, into a book, "From Seed to Skillet: A Guide to Growing, Tending, Harvesting, and Cooking Up Fresh, Healthy Food to Share with People You Love" (Chronicle, 2010; coauthored by Susan Heeger). "There's no deeper satisfaction," Williams says, "than sitting down with family to a meal you've grown and prepared yourself."