Gearing Up for Planting Season: Meet Debby Williams

Debby Williams at Southall Farm

If you peer through the windows of the conservatory greenhouse at Southall, you might not believe that the woman making the magic happen inside started her career with the Federal Reserve Bank. Fortunately, the prospect of working inside a financial building in downtown Nashville didn’t appeal to her for long.

Debby Williams grew up just one county away, in Dickson, Tennessee. Like a lot of country kids, she was drawn to the city, but the outdoors kept calling her back. After a short stint in property management, she joined the staff at Camp Whippoorwill in the hills outside Nashville. Her son Mason, a founding member of the farm team at Southall, was a young camper back then, and they needed a counselor. She ended up spending a decade there, most of it as office manager.

“It was a win-win situation, with both of us playing outside all summer,” Williams explains. “We lived close by and that gave me a chance to not only be there with Mason, but also to engage with the natural world. I’d always been a gardener, but working in that environment put me on the path to what I do today.”

That’s when the ‘madness’ of native plants entered her world. She joined the team at GroWild in nearby Fairview, now recognized as one of the leading native plant nurseries in the eastern United States. She’s thankful the owner, Mike Berkley, saw potential in her love of plants and gave her the opportunity.

“I soaked up native plants like a sponge. When you start learning Latin, it’s getting real,” she says. “I always knew the common names of local plants, but now that’s flipped. It was a tremendous experience.”

After seven years as the primary grower there, Williams says the job of a lifetime popped up at Southall. In January of 2019, just as the greenhouses were being completed, she was offered the chance to help create something special, from the ground up. She started just as the seed orders were being put together – where her office manager experience quickly came in handy.

By February, she was sowing flat after flat, pot upon pot of vegetables, native flowers, shrubs and trees. Thousands of them: late winter crops to be grown in hoop houses, and warm season starts hardened off to go in the ground all over the property.

“We grew over 600 tomato plants last year, nearly 50 varieties,” she remembers. “I’ve always been a traditional slicer girl, but chef Tyler has introduced me to some amazing old cultivars you’ve probably never heard of – Garden Peach, Sun Gold, Striped German, they have the best names and they’re just fabulous to eat. We had so many two-foot tomato starts in here that people drove by and thought we were growing pot!”

In addition to the crops, herbs, berries, nut producers and flowers she’s propagated for pollinators, Williams also cultivates and maintains a range of ornamentals, annuals and of course natives for use at the Farm Stand on the Rambling pad (where seasonal live-fire dinners are hosted). She’s also nurturing exotic indoor plants into maturity, so they’re ready for decorative use when the Inn, Spa and Event Center are opened at Southall in 2021. Guests will likely marvel at the size and health of species originating from across the globe, like the snake plant (also called mother-in-law’s tongue), the ZZ plant, the fiddle leaf figs, a decades-old wandering Jew, and the orchids, ferns and succulents that Williams grows.

Now, in mid-January, she’s gearing up for the planting season – vegetable starts will soon be planted in the hoop houses, and warm-season seedlings won’t be far behind. She estimates about 10,000 plants came out of the greenhouse in 2019, and up to 75,000 are projected for this year.

“I look forward to coming to work, working with plants and walking the land, year-round. I’m able to collect native seeds – the lobelias, coneflowers, brown eyed Susans, monarda – from the property and introduce them to new areas,” Williams says. “This year we’re creating a pollinator garden by the roadside full of native flowers that will attract more insects and spread more pollen. The goal is to have flowers blooming all the way from April to November.

“It makes me proud to know that I’m doing my part, as is the entire team at Southall, to make the world a better place. This is all a classroom, and if we can inspire people to learn more about where their food comes from and how a whole ecosystem provides for us, then we’ve made a real difference for the future.”