Creating Beautiful Agriculture at Gardens Oy Vey

By / Photography By Cecil H. Yancy, Jr. | May 29, 2014
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If the exclamation “oy vey” has a personality, it likely would appear in the form of Diane Meucci — natural, sustainable, spunky, and always willing to show others how to get to that place.

Bounding from the small cabin she built with her husband, Wolfgang Marquardt, Diane presents a personality as vivacious as the five-acre “nursery inside a garden” the couple built 20 miles from Downtown Memphis in Arlington, Tennessee.

Even the name of the gardens brings a smile to the face when Diane explains her reaction to folks who first visited the nursery and remarked “how doing something like this is so ‘Martha Stewart.’”

“Oy vey.” The saying is Yiddish and translates loosely as, “Oh, dear!”

“We’re just rednecks posing as Europeans,” Diane quips.

Diane has been “drinking the Kool-Aid” of the green movement from its inception on the first Earth Day in 1970.

Therein lies the truth, hidden in the witty explanation of this woman of Italian descent who describes herself as an “exuberant hermit.”

The story of Gardens Oy Vey begins in Greece, where Diane and Wolfgang met. Diane had dropped out of school to tour Europe; Wolfgang was a printer. “I’m dating myself, but when I met Wolfgang, he had this truck with the phrase “No Nuclear Energy” in German emblazoned on its side.”

Wolfgang wrote to Diane every day for a year, and they were soon married.

They traveled Europe and the U.S. and settled in Chicago.

Searching for an authentic life, they moved from Chicago to Arlington in 1980.

What they found in rural West Tennessee was more akin to the lifestyle in which they had been both been raised.

“We lived interactively with nature,” Diane says. When they moved to rural Arlington, she found a peaceful retreat “stuck in the last part of the 19th century.”

“The good part was that my African-American neighbors had survived on the edge of society as a sustainable community for generations,” Diane says. “They told me that all I needed to survive were greens, chickens, sweet potatoes, milk, and butter. The people out here taught me so much.

“I grew up under poor immigrants who were used to living simply,” she says of her second-generation, Italian-American upbringing. “Wolfgang’s folks were blue-collar, first-generation immigrants from Germany.”

The self-sustaining lifestyle, she points out, called for “bringing the wisdom of the old country to the new country” and living off the grid. Diane felt as if she were rediscovering her 1950s childhood.

Part of that rediscovery applied to the word “agriculture.”

“We’re not talking about row crops here,” Diane says. “We’re talking about growing things, even in your yard — that’s agriculture.

“You start with chickens in Midtown, goats in Orange Mound and sheep in Collierville, and soon you have an investment that leads to pleasure for humans,” she adds.

Diane encourages people to “plant something besides grass in your front yard. Start treating your yard like beautiful agriculture.” Several years ago, she drew a template for garden design that was published in Edible Memphis. The formal garden template is meant for herbs, blueberries, tomatoes, figs, grapes, and, of course, benches to sit and enjoy the view.

“We’re talking about healing your yard and creating a beautiful space,” Diane says.

She points back to her ancestry, “In Italy, they live in agriculture. It’s been our philosophy to be sustainable in any way we possibly can.”

Drive down Chester Road just off Tennessee Highway 205, and you’ll pass the solar panels that supply the property with much of its electricity. “I wanted to have them by the road so my friends would say, ‘Yep, that’s where she lives,’” Diane laughs.

You won’t find asphalt parking spaces in this combined business and residential property. Tree mulch covers the ground; logs cut from fallen trees are stacked in creative patterns and inoculated with shiitake mushrooms; and white and black placards point to the parking spaces. Potted plants line the driveway that goes toward a pond and then circles back around.

Wolfgang holds court most days in a small building across the way and works today at Gardens Oy Vey at the pleasure of his wife. “I actually did fire him because he tried to boss me around,” Diane says, “but he keeps coming back.” After a layoff from his printing job at age 60, Wolfgang returned full time to Gardens Oy Vey. “Now, we split up the work,” Diane says, “because there’s just so much to do.”

Wolfgang can build and fix anything — “He’s German,” says Diane. On a recent day, he was fixing a car. He takes care of shipping the plants and customer service. His work at Gardens Oy Vey has garnered the nursery national attention. “He’s running in circles,” Diane says. “He’s eccentric, loyal, and headstrong.”

“She does the design; I ship the plants out,” Wolfgang smiles.

Diane is available for consulting on garden design throughout the year. “Call for an appointment,” she reminds. She starts with the soil. “We have very high standards to create soil that will give life back to the earth and an ecosystem that reflects the needs and desires of the client.”

When they bought the property, it was filled with kudzu and tree-filled gullies. Today, it’s a vibrant ecosystem fed largely through healthy soil.

At first, the couple tried growing organic vegetables, but the public showed little interest at the time. So Diane went to work mowing lawns and helping to design landscapes with famed Memphian Plato Touliatos, who revolutionized horticulture in the Southeast. There is more interest in organic now, so the couple has plans to reintegrate food into the garden.

For a ten-year period, Diane left the field and worked at a local hardware store. A call to design the landscape of the Mirimichi Golf Course in Millington revitalized her and brought to the forefront all of her sustainability training and experiences. “It was a magnificent moment in my life,” Diane says. “It enabled me to use everything I had learned over 30 years and gave me the ability to work with Russell DeMotsis, a wonderful young man. The experience also helped me attract a new group of young people who work with us in the garden.”

Throughout their travels both abroad and in the States, Diane has studied ecosystems by walking in the woods. “As a child, my mother would stop the car, get out, and start walking in the fields and woods with me. My friends were hippies from an early age. I rode a bike up the West Coast in 1978, going off the beaten path.”

Even today, she’s just as likely to go for a walk in the nearest woods as she is to drive. “Whether it’s woods or an unmowed ditch, it’s my theater,” Diane says. “I know an ancient wagon road that hasn’t been touched by the 20th or the 21st century. Germantown was an alley between ancient oaks with barely enough room for a wagon to pass.”

It’s that first-hand knowledge of ecosystems that informs visitors around her property on Saturdays, and most Fridays, from 10 to 2, the only time you’ll find Gardens Oy Vey open, except through appointment. However, you can get a taste of the nursery inside the garden each week at the Memphis Farmers’ Market Downtown. Look for Wolfgang surrounded by plants and his unique concrete planter bowls, overflowing with an entire miniature garden.

On a recent Saturday, a group of young farmers from Memphis toured Diane and Wolfgang’s property. They were more than happy to learn the art of pruning fig trees while Diane regaled them with the air of a mother telling stories about the glories of the outdoors. The young farmers received it without the slightest hint of “oy vey.”

Gardens Oy Vey
Open on Saturdays and most Fridays 10 AM – 2 PM or by appointment , 4655 Chester Road, Arlington 901-867-8367

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