Peyton Johnson Collins calls herself a high-heeled hippie. A wife, mother of two young children and a part-time employee at Lakeland Yard and Garden Center, Collins operates an almost 15,000-square-foot vegetable garden on a farm just north of Clinton. She works on her garden in her spare time with her friend and gardening partner Don Maxwell. "We are the labor," she says.
Wearing an orange blouse, a white taffeta skirt and, of course, high heels at our interview, the Tchula native and Pillow Academy graduate talks enthusiastically as she describes her gardening operation. Without missing a beat, she pulls her 6-year-old son Jack off the coffee-shop table and explains her quest to farm organically. "The only way not to use insecticides is to grow enough vegetables for you and the bugs," she says. While not certifiably organic, Collins and Maxwell's philosophy is to be sustainable, use local materials and grow for taste minimizing chemical use.
After a fitful start to her higher education, Collins earned three degrees from Mississippi State University: a bachelor's degree in history in 1992 and master's degrees in horticulture and landscape architecture in 1995 and 2005, respectively. Her degrees come in handy for growing her own produce.
She and her husband, Ben, have lived and worked in many different communities but she says Jackson is home. She explains that even when her family lived in Tchula and later Natchez, Jackson was where they came to shop, to go to a nice restaurant or to hear a concert.
Collins and Maxwell grow heirloom tomatoes and melons, greens, lettuces, beans, squashes, okra, pumpkins and many other crops as the seasons change. They sell what they grow at farmers markets such as the Mississippi Farmers Market and distribute to local restaurants such as Mimi's Family and Friends. Having worked in production agriculture, Collins knows the sacrifices of growing vegetables on a large scale: taste and texture are secondary to easy production. She almost cried after eating her first homegrown Brandywine tomato, she says, because it was so good.
When she talks about the future of the farm, Collins' eyes light up. As she retrieves whatever Jack has picked up from the floor and is about to put into his mouth, she lists a dizzying array of vegetables she and Maxwell are growing this season: 20 varieties of tomatoes including large red, Cherokee purple and mortgage lifter (invented by a radiator repairman); watermelons, cantaloupes, moon and stars, black diamond and crimson street melons; and a historic "cut-short greasy bean" as well as rattlesnake and Louisiana purple beans.
She wants to improve the soil she grows on and figure out how to irrigate uphill from a farm pond. She also worries about weeds.
"If anyone has an organic solution to nutsedge," she adds, "I'm game."