George and Jake and Their Gorgeous Greens
By: Jessica Leigh Lebos
From the street, the old Victorian house looks like any other in its west side neighborhood, its porch crowded with folding chairs, shaded by a tall magnolia tree planted long ago.
Peek into the carefully tended flower garden to the side yard, however, and it’s clear the residents do more with their time than sit in the shadows, watching the world go by. Wildflowers ring a goldfish pond as lilies and amaryllis give way to a path lined with herbs, not a weed to be seen. Azaleas and lantana train up the white picket fence, festooning it with oranges and pinks. It becomes even more lush towards the back, where a glimpse through the gate reveals one of the city’s most profuse and vibrant small farms in Savannah.
George Wilson and his partner, Jake Kawatski, have been tilling this patch of urban paradise since 2006. Utilizing every square foot of space, they’ve cultivated an impressive variety of blooms and veggies for favorite friends and selling the rest under the banner of George’s Gorgeous Greens at the Forsyth Farmers’ Market. On a sunny afternoon in late spring, a small forest of chard, kale and lettuces pushes up above the rim of an old swimming pool filled in to create more growing room on the urban lot.
“We grow a little of everything,” says George, stooping down to brush away a few dead leaves from the tightly packed rows. “Who wants to be bored?”
Also among the plots are rarities like French sorrel, radicchio and sen posai, a collard-like green from the Asian tropics. George starts seeds indoors, then transfers the strongest seedlings to the ground, which Jake amends with coffee grounds from local cafés. Though our sandy Savannah soil requires constant composting, they promise that growing food on a meaningful scale is feasible at any age.
“We’re like missionaries,” muses Jake. “Part of it is showing people, ‘hey, we’re doing this in our backyard, and you can, too.’”
“Yep, we’re changing the world, one head of lettuce at a time,” adds George with a chuckle. “Of course, we have about a hundred years of experience between us.”
Born and raised in Miami during its art deco heyday, George married and raised two sons in his former wife’s native Atlanta. After an unhappy stint as a public school teacher, he opened Le Papillon in 1978, a traditional French restaurant where he grew herbs and edible flowers to serve on the plates.
“I got turned on by Julia Child!” he says of the career change. “But the long hours got to me.”
In the 90s, George and his wife founded an intentional community in a “big ol’ house” in Inman Park, sharing the work and bounty of a giant home and garden with 15 to 20 others. After the marriage ended, he wanted to continue living the communal life, but needed a change.
“I was looking for another commune and another partner, a guy this time. I found both at the same time,” recalls George with a grin.
He met Jake, a midwesterner, in 2000 at Twin Oaks, a radical LGBTQ-friendly intentional community in rural Virginia. Founded in 1967, it is one of the longest-running secular farming communes in the country, with a wholesale seed company and thriving tofu business.
“We met on Beltane,” adds Jake, referring to the ancient mid-spring tradition celebrated with flowers and fire. “We had a lot in common.”
The two lived and worked at Twin Oaks for several years, until the climate called them south.
“The garden there was marvelous, just huge, and I worked in the orchard for a while. But I got tired of those winters—it was cold as hell!” remembers George.
George’s younger son was living in Savannah at the time, and the partners decided to try their hands in balmier Zone 8b. The long growing season yielded more than they could eat themselves, and they soon found themselves with a booth at the local farmers market, then hosted on Desoto Row in the Starland District. George’s Gorgeous Greens was one of the Forsyth Farmers Market’s first vendors, and they’ve been delighted to be joined by so many others over the years.
“Seeing the growth of the market has just been wonderful, especially people like Rafe and Ansley of Canewater Farms,” says George. “It’s so inspiring to see young people trying to make a living farming and for the community to come out and support them.”
The mates still enjoy something of a communal life, sharing their rambling home with a couple of roommates and occasional couchsurfers from around the globe. Jake serves tea and cookies in their cozy living room, the coffee tables covered with George’s seed catalogs and sewing projects that Jake oversees with the children of Charles Ellis Montessori Academy.
“It’s important for kids these days to know how to do things with their hands,” says Jake pointedly, looking over his reading glasses as he threads a needle.
When they’re not in the garden, George and Jake can be found volunteering for local progressive political candidates and volunteering for the Savannah Music Festival. George also continues to manage the garden at the Owens Thomas House and keep up this qi gong practice, though he admits to tiring more easily these days.
Come Saturday morning, the gray-haired gents are always in Forsyth Park, with artfully-arranged bouquets of flowers and bales of crisp, freshly-picked greens. At 81, George lets Jake, a spry 68, do the set up, then takes over sales while Jake returns home to tend the garden.
“That’s fine by me,” says Jake. “It says ‘George’s Gorgeous Greens’’ on the sign. ‘George and Jake’s Gorgeous Greens’ was too long and doesn’t have the same ring to it, anyway.”
George doesn’t mind keeping the conversations going as the market bustles into the early afternoons.
“At the market, I get to interact with the customers and the community—even the tourists are so interested in what we grow and how to prepare it,” he says.
“That gives me the strength to keep going. And I enjoy every minute.”