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Aly Fox I Gardener | Food Enthusiast | Nursing Student

"Plants are just so important to healing. Whether it is herbal medicine or even being in a place that is beautiful or lush, it makes people feel more comfortable. The idea of using a garden as a space for healing is so intriguing, and it will tie together these things that I have been doing for the past few years."

 

Where did you grow up?

I grew up outside of Philadelphia in a town called Rosemont, which was very “old suburban.” I did not like it when I was growing up, but whenever I go back I am like “Oh, this is great…” It’s quiet and there are sidewalks and you can walk everywhere. It’s not the kind of suburbia where you need to drive everywhere—there are trains and trolleys to take you into Philadelphia. It’s great. And there is a really good smell there too. I am there in the fall and spring the most, so it feels like there is this good woodsy smell, even though it is not woodsy at all. It’s grass and trees. It’s radical!

Describe that place and its people…

Both sides of my family grew up right near there, so I have a huge family in the area. In that sense, I felt like my personal community was really big. All my parents' friends grew up around there too and their kids are growing up there….I liked it. My siblings are probably going to end up staying around there for a while.

What’s your family like?

I’m the oldest of four siblings with two parents who are still together, who are wonderful and cutely still in love with each other, which is really awesome to see. I have two sisters and a brother. Two of them live in the Philadelphia area: one’s in Center City and one's outside of Philadelphia. And then my youngest sister is in college at Fairfield in Connecticut, which is not super far from here. So we’re all fairly close in proximity and very close as a family and really enjoy each others' time. It’s really nice. I really value that. We’re all really different. We always joke around with my parents about how different each of their children are. But you put us in a room together and it’s like nothing has changed, even if we haven't seen eachother in 6 months. It’s cool that we are able to get along even though we are so different and exist in our different ways.

I feel really appreciative of my parents. When I told them I was going to be a gardener they were never like, “What?! You went to college, why are you being a gardener?”  They were like, “We’re so glad you’re happy.” I think there is a part of me that thought, “Really? Couldn’t you like give me an elbow? At all?” But they didn’t. They were always really supportive. They are really supportive that I am making a huge 180 at age 29. They're like, “That’s great” and I really appreciate that. They are equally supportive of my sisters and brother as well.

I also had a large extended family, and they were always doing things that seemed so cool to me.  I was dying to grow up my whole childhood so I could do things they were doing—like backpacking in foreign places, and driving, and watching whatever they wanted on TV.  I went through a phase when I was really looking for trouble.  I thought that trouble would make me more mature. This is hilarious now, because I'm such a homebody and borderline grandma.

What were you like as a child? What did you want to do when you grew up?

I really wanted to be an astronaut or a chef. And I was always reading books and eating grass and being weird sitting outside. I was very happy sitting by myself with a book. We also spent a lot of time at the beach because my grandmother lived by the beach. I was always outside, I just liked being outside...while reading at the same time. If I had to find one word to describe me as a child: odd.

Did you have a garden growing up?

No, we didn’t have a garden really. My mom had a flower bed in the front, but the same plants have been there for 10 years, though I have added some recently. We had a yard with trees and lived down the street from this wooded area that as a kid felt so big: we thought it was a forest until I realized one day when I was 13 that is was not a forest at all. [laughs] It was like four trees next to each other, but it felt so huge.

When did you first leave home? Where did you go? 

I went to college at the University of Vermont. I could not wait to get out of where I grew up. I was so ready to get out. I had an aunt and uncle that lived in New Hampshire when I was 11 to 13 years old. My grandmother and I went up to visit them a few times, and my aunt would drive us all over New England. I remember thinking in Vermont “This is where I will live!” So I went to college there and was pretty convinced that I was going to stay there forever, and then I didn't.

I got my dream job in Chicago. I worked for the Chicago Botanic Gardens on an urban agriculture project they had called The Green Youth Farm. I was a farmhand and I worked on their urban farm which was in west Chicago. It was a quarter acre - raised beds. We grew about a ton of food altogether throughout the summer, which is pretty impressive for the space. I worked with a group of high school kids whose school was about a half mile away from the farm, and we’d do food education workshops and we worked on farmers markets together and had different projects around the farm all while growing the food. They also had one outside the city in a town called Winakwa which was an acre and a half and that was more of a traditional farm. I worked on both of those for the summer and the fall. It was really awesome.

What brought you to New York?

It started to get cold and all my friends started moving to New York, and I was like “I am going to go back to the east coast.” Before I moved to New York, I moved to Philadelphia and stayed with my parents for 3-4 months and got a job at a law firm working as a paralegal and learned that I am not made for an office. I was very happy to have the job and I felt like it was a really good learning experience, but I was really miserable. Florescent lights and bad air circulation just don't agree with me. I really, really wanted to get back outside. So I moved to NYC, naturally. [laughs} I didn't have a job, but all my friends from college were here, and I figured something would work out. And it did.

What was your first job in NYC?

I worked for a landscape designer in Manhattan - I worked for her for a year. It was pretty eye opening in terms of how people live in NYC. I had only been here three times before I moved here, even though I didn’t live that far away. Manhattan gardeners see a lot of crazy places and are expected to do crazy things in order to make other peoples homes look beautiful. That was pretty shocking. And I ended up working for another design company that a friend of mine from college was working for. When he went back to grad school, I took his job and ended up working as the head gardener for this company for about 6 years. It's called Groundworks and is owned by two women who have been in the business for like 15 years. They are rad ladies. And working for a  Brooklyn based company that I could ride my bike to was way better for me.

What was it like working for Groundworks?

It was really interesting. Working as a head gardener for them, I was doing all of the gardening, I also drove a passenger van around New York with all of the tools and dirt and stuff. I talked to all the clients, most of which were really, really wonderful who I was so happy to work with in addition to working for Groundworks. I did all the labor, I did some of the planning and container design, I would go to the nurseries and pick plants. I would do anything that was needed for any of the various projects.

And the scale was really different. Sometimes we would do green roofs, sometimes we would do peoples backyards, we had a couple of big buildings in Manhattan that needed tending. Anything that could be planted, basically, I worked on.

I definitely had the experience of working outside before becoming head gardener. My boss would always describe me as “scrappy,” which I was pretty ok with because you have to figure stuff out on the go a lot of the time. During those years I actually spent a lot of time here [Brooklyn Botanic Gardens] because I got certified in Horticulture, as I was working for Groundworks, through the Botanic Gardens so I would have more of a knowledge base. There is always something to learn while doing a job, which is something that I really, really loved. And everyday was different which was another thing that I loved.

And now you work for Good Eggs. How did you get connected with them?

I had first heard about Good Eggs through my friend, Brian, who is now my boss. He told me about it back in September when they were still starting the New York branch. He had mentioned that when the gardening season was up that he would be happy to get me a job there, because that was the other thing about gardening, there is nothing to do in the winter. I was always scrambling to find somewhere I could work. So, I started working there, and I loved the idea so much.

Good Eggs is a website that builds “web-stands” for farmers and local food makers, and then people can use Good Eggs to order from all their favorite farmers or bakers or whatever. The orders go directly to the farmers, we find out about it, and then we distribute the orders. It is kind of like a farmers market delivery service, and you can have subscriptions so you can have your own personalized CSA, or you can just get 6 dozen eggs delivered because you want to. It is a different sort of grocery experience. It's mostly stuff from the Hudson Valley, Pennsylvania, and Long Island. It hit home for me being an eater and also from my experience working on a farm and not having anywhere to sell stuff. When we worked at a farmers market in Chicago, people would kind of be skeptical of a bunch of kids selling vegetables, you know? If there was some way back then, or even if Good Eggs existed in Chicago back then, we could have used it as such an excellent platform.

What’s your favorite food or plant to work with?

My favorite foods are probably anything that has to do with a tomato. The smell of a tomato plant is so special and unlike anything else, it is sort of spicy, and sort of peppery, and very tomato-y. And there is nothing else like that.  And rosemary is also a great thing to grow. It smells so amazing and has beautiful blue flowers if it survives the winter.

I really love growing flowers. My whole garden right now is all “cutting flowers.” Which is really surprising because I really liked tending to things like ferns and birch trees, things that kind of tend to themselves. But I really like growing flowers right now, and the process of dividing them and pruning them, or not pruning them, some of them look pretty cool when they are all dried up.

What is your favorite season?

So, I’m a summer baby. I was born in July. I love the summer. But as I grow older I have really grown to love fall. After such a hot summer, when it starts to cool down the air smells different and everything is a little more clear. I love layering. Early fall is such a great time to eat because everything is available here.

So, what's next for you?

Well, I just stopped gardening in December. And about a year and a half ago I was thinking about some experiences that I had in college and the job that I had been doing for the past 6 years and really liking it, but also realizing that I had reached my threshold, and I was trying to think about what I could do next. I remember listening to the radio and them talking about nursing and I had never considered working in medicine at all. But this woman was talking about her experience of being a nurse and what it was like everyday, and I had this crazy lightning bolt where I was like “I can do that! And I will do that! And I will be good at it!” And so, I would say to my friends, “So, hey guys...I was thinking about being a nurse….” and they were all like “That is such a great idea! I love that! You are going to be great!” They gave me a lot of confidence to pursue it. So, I started taking classes. I had to take like 9 pre-requisites to apply: math, anatomy, microbiology, chemistry, psychology. So yeah, having studied Anthropology and Environmental studies, I had done any of that.

What were the things that you heard on the radio that made you feel drawn to nursing?

She was talking about how no two days are ever the same, and I was like, "Oh, I know what that’s like." And then she was talking about how being a nurse is 100% about patient care and connecting with the people that you are working with and it’s a lot about reassurance for both the patients and their families and how there is also a lot of room for personal growth. You can always go back to school and there are a lot of different directions that nursing can take you. These were all checkmarks for what I wanted my next job to be. Like, I’d be able to continue to learn all the time and there would be room for growth both personally and professionally. And it’s not sitting at a desk, and everyday is different. That was a big thing. And in a lot of ways, I think what I was doing as a head gardener is weirdly transferable because there’s a lot of heavy lifting and on the spot decisions and there’s recognizing disease symptoms and treating those symptoms—it’s just the difference of plants versus people. The lifestyle seems pretty great too. I have always been working and then doing something on the side, because believe it or not, being a gardener is not lucrative. Nursing is a very hard day, you work like 12 hour days here and there, but then you have 3 or 4 days off a week. It seems like you are really able to have a life outside of your job, and I really like that.

Another thing that really drew me to nursing is that it’s been historically, and is still primarily, a women centric field, and when I was working as a gardener I always stuck out like a sore thumb—there are not a lot of lady contractors, nor are there a lot of ladies that do manual labor. And I really like that, coming into something and being part of a team already, rather than having to fight my way on to a team so to speak.

Gardening, Good Eggs, and nursing all revolve around tangible skills. I LOVE that my work has been and will revolve around actually doing something; using my hands and feeling like I've worked is the best. Maybe it's preparation for the Hunger Games, but I feel really good about continually developing a diverse, physical skill set.

Are you going to specialize in anything?

Eventually I would like to specialize. I am going to NYU and they have a therapeutic garden at one of their centers which is something that I am so facinated by, this idea of horticultural therapy. Both of my grandmas had Alzheimer's and Dementia and it was always really shocking to me to be talking to them as it was progressing, and we would be outside somewhere and they would be like “It’s so green outside….” and then tell a story about when she was outside as a kid. I was so fascinated by that connection between greenness and plant-life and how that triggers all these things. Plants are just so important to healing. Whether it is herbal medicine or even being in a place that is beautiful or lush, it makes people feel more comfortable. The idea of using a garden as a space for healing is so intriguing and it will tie together these things that I have been doing for the past few years.

Do you think that western medicine is moving in that direction?

I do think it is moving in that direction. When I was in college, I took herbalism courses for my own interest. At the time my teacher was teaching at the UVM medical college and all incoming students were having this introduction to herbalism and natural medicine vs western medicine, and that was at a renowned american medical school. So, if it can happen there, then that means that people are thinking about it, and if NYU has a therapeutic garden, of all places, then that means that people are at least willing to take it more seriously. I think people are also scared of prescription drugs. People have addictions to them and they are over prescribed and people recognize that. I think that people are always open to other ways of healing. I like to think it is changing and will continue to change.

Do you have any strong feelings about your place in the world of health and self-care?

I think that the idea of primary care and preventive care and taking care of yourself so that you don't need to take care of yourself is really important, and I think that working in food and trying to provide the healthiest, freshest food for people is the easiest way. If you are eating good food then you are running on good fuel and you are going to be ok. I think ultimately my goal in nursing is to be a resource for people so that they can make easy, healthy decisions without it being overtly “healthy.” People are scared of or against a “healthy” lifestyle because it is wrapped up in this weird “rich-white” packaging, and it doesn't need to be that way. Outside of the past 60 years people have just existed in a simple healthy way.

Good healthcare can get really expensive and hard to find. I would like to think that I will be able to provide or be a resource for people...and how that is going to manifest itself in the next few years with the way that our healthcare system is changing...I have no idea. But, I want to be that resource. Why not? It shouldn't be so hard, and I want to make it easier for people.

What about this path that you are pursuing allows you to be your best self?

I don’t know if I can accurately answer that question just yet. But, I do know that I am looking forward to being challenged everyday, to making proactive decisions that will ultimately benefit another person, and that I will be able to have my personal time to read and work in my garden, and have a personal life along with a professional life.

What does the word authentic mean to you? 

"Authentic" translates to "confident" in my book, and totally owning whatever it is you do...  there's something truly delightful about a person with confidence. Getting to that point is a process of trial and error though. I imagine for most people (including myself) that means taking time so that you can take a look at your choices and figure out what felt right, what felt wrong, and how to live in a way that makes you feel best.  Authenticity means no pretense, there's no show.  You don't have to constantly explain yourself or justify things... you just live.

Being my most authentic self happens because of the support of those closest to me; my family is awesome, I have a fantastic boyfriend who is constantly encouraging me; and I really have the raddest friends.  I'm increasingly empowered saying "no" to things so that I can have time for myself (which is kind of big deal)... but it took me awhile to figure that out, especially in New York. Let's be honest, there is a sea of bullshit to swim through here.

Any advice for someone who is looking to make a big change?

Just fucking do it. It’s really scary and it is really hard. I had a few moments throughout the past year where I asked myself if I was making the right decision. But ultimately, I know I’m making the right decision. And I don’t want to say that it is blind faith as much as it is just stubbornness in following through. Be a little stubborn.

Do you have any thing that you do to prepare yourself for your day?

I wake up at the same time every day (6:12am). I hit snooze at least once, sometimes twice. I drink a glass of water first thing. I have the New York Times app and I always look at the news while I am drinking my coffee and then I ride my bike to work. I feel like I need to give myself extra time when I can't do those things. Except for Sundays. Sundays are different. I like to sleep in, get the paper….

Do you have a mentor?

I mean, the women from Groundworks, I talk to them so much. Especially Carmen, we used to talk like 8 times a day. I am not exaggerating at all. I think in a lot of ways she became my mentor without me really realizing it.

I also have a lot of really strong women in my extended family, aunts and stuff. When I was really young they guided me in a lot of ways that I didn't really realize. Women to emulate.

Any other badass women in history that you look to for inspiration?

There are so many goddamn badass women of history….I really love Julia Child. She may or may not have been a spy, and also revolutionized a kind of cooking for americans and I think that she is really badass. And a late bloomer! And she is like a foot taller than her husband, which I love. Everything about her is great.

Mother Theresa is also a super badass, in a totally different way. Everything she did was amazing, so selfless.

Also Aretha Franklin. She is the shit. I kinda start my day, everyday with Aretha.

Anything that you would recommend for people in NYC that are starved for some nature?

Yeah, totally. I think that the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens are really great, I am really partial to it. The Cloisters is really, really special. The beaches. You can get there by train and be there for 2 hours and have a full day of other things...it is so, so special. If you have your back to all the buildings and your hands in the sand, it changes everything.

One of the great things about NYC is that there really is nature everywhere, you just have to stumble upon it. I think finding it here makes it so much more special because it is sort of a concrete playground.