T Gallo grew up in Orwell in the southern part of Ashtabula County and developed her passion for food very early on in life.
“My mother was growing asparagus when a lot of people didn’t know what asparagus was,” Gallo said. “My grandmother always had a garden, and she had grown up in the Depression when everybody was growing and canning.”
Sarah Brower also learned how to garden from her grandmother.
“When I was in school, I told the guidance counselor I wanted to be a farmer,” Brower said with a laugh. “I always had a strong pull towards that.”
Brower and Gallo met in 2018 while planning an event for Reeds and Roots, a grassroots project of volunteers that promotes sustainable living in Northeast Ohio through teaching earth-friendly life skills.
“We just hit it off on a personal level,” Brower said. “I think what was also fun was we were both just so passionate about the values we shared and wanting to do something with our lives that felt meaningful.”
Starting Harbor Gardens
Nestled among the historic harbor district where the Ashtabula River winds its way into Lake Erie is Harbor Gardens, a general store selling local food and products. In the back half of the shop is a demonstration kitchen where classes are held on cooking, canning and fermenting.
“The shop is really a culmination of Sarah’s strengths and passions and my strengths and passions,” Gallo said.
Gallo, whose background is in nursing, was troubled by health data in Ashtabula County. While it’s Ohio’s largest county by land and offers an abundance of natural resources, it’s also ranked as one of the state’s least healthy counties.
“When you think about all of this water, all of this land and all of this fresh air, it’s hard to believe we can have such poor health outcomes,” she said. “From a health care perspective, I just want people to eat local foods so we can improve health outcomes here in Ashtabula County.”
Brower brings her knowledge of biology, chemistry and botany to the store. She worked on an organic farm while in college, followed by a job working in conservation.
“I learned about foraging and all these native and wild plants that can provide food,” Brower said. “The more I learned about that, the more I realized you could combine farming and conservation and foraging into a type of gardening, which I call ecological gardening and some people call it permaculture.”
Building a food forest
Permaculture utilizes land and the environment in combination with people and resources to create a no-waste, natural way of living. Once such way to utilize this concept is through creating a food forest. It’s different than a traditional garden where the ground is tilled every year and new crops are planted.
“With the food forest, you’re taking advantage of ecological succession,” Brower explained. “Essentially a plant community over time builds and builds until it has this multi-layered structure with trees, shrubs, perennial plants and some annual plants.”
Each plant is selected to have a specific role or function, whether to produce food, medicine or something else that’s useful to people.
“It’s doing all the wonderful things that an ecosystem does to make the earth healthier but also providing for humans,” Brower said.
Connecting food and community
Gallo notes that of course not everybody has to grow their own food. Harbor Gardens also works to connect residents to healthy foods grown around the county.
She partnered with local farmers and growers to develop the Ashtabula Local Food Guide, which highlights more than 100 farms producing food for local consumption.
Like the cyclical nature of an ecosystem and diversity of life in nature, Brower can see those concepts mirrored in the work she and Gallo do with Harbor Gardens.
“Seeing the community that Gallo is building here and the diversity of people it brings, along with the exchange of ideas between growers and vendors and people in the community, it’s really beautiful,” Brower said.