The plot ripens: Grow It Green Morristown chooses leader with farm roots for second ‘Decade of Dirt’

Lisa Alexander, the new executive director of Grow It Green Morristown. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Here are two things you should know about Lisa Alexander, the new executive director of Grow It Green Morristown.

Her grandparents were farmers.

And if she goes bananas, don’t go nuts.

“I love bananas,” Alexander said this week, showing off a purse decorated with a green banana motif.

For 23 years, she worked for Dole Fresh Fruit International. Her territory included Costa Rica, Honduras and Colombia. Her portfolio was, you guessed it, bananas.

grow it green logo

Did you know there are more than 100 varieties of banana? Or that most supermarkets carry only one kind, the Cavendish? Can you explain the difference between a banana and a plantain? Alexander can. (Think starch.)

Bananas, it turns out, have seven stages of ripeness. Baby bananas–those pint-sized treats–taste sweetest when they look their worst: Stage seven, black peels.

Oh, and if you want to ripen baseball-hard peaches, toss them in a paper bag with a banana. It will emit natural doses of ethylene and voila! Everything’s peachy.

Sunflowers at the Urban Farm at Lafayette. Photo by Meghan Van Dyk
Sunflowers at the Urban Farm at Lafayette. Photo by Meghan Van Dyk

If you’re wondering where this is leading, no, Alexander is not planning to convert Grow It Green’s Early Street Community Garden or its Urban Farm at Lafayette into New Jersey’s first banana plantation.

But she does see parallels between her past and present avocations.

“Bananas were an excellent, healthy product, one of the least expensive healthy foods,” and Dole promoted nutrition education, Alexander said.

Grow It Green supports and promotes healthy, affordable diets, too.

The nonprofit introduces schoolkids to a real farm; educates them about the advantages of fresh, locally grown food; provides that food at little- or no cost to disadvantaged families; and donates produce to the Morris School District, the Interfaith Food Pantry and Nourish NJ (formerly the Community Soup Kitchen).

“We’re about dignity and respect, and helping people make their own food choices,” said Alexander, who studied architecture and business management at Arizona State University.

She chose a career at Dole because she wanted to travel; she left the company when it sought to transfer her to North Carolina.

That was good news for Grow It Green, according to board President Greg Socha.

Ladybug release at the Urban Farm at Lafayette, June 2, 2018. Photo by Katharine Boyle
Ladybug release at the Urban Farm at Lafayette, June 2, 2018. Photo by Katharine Boyle

“Lisa brings a passion for our mission and years of professional experience working with fresh produce. We look forward to her leadership as the organization enters its second decade,” Socha said in statement.

Hatched by three local women, Grow It Green has yielded 30,000 pounds of food donations to the community during its first “Decade of Dirt,” according to the organization.

Some 250 families in need have benefited through a joint program with the Atlantic Health System, while 700 school trips to the Urban Farm have shown youngsters what farm-to-table means.

Meanwhile, the Community Garden, where Grow It Green started, has quadrupled in size, to 100 families with garden plots.


Alexander, who lives in Morris Township with her husband and their two teens, is Grow It Green’s third director. She succeeds Erica VanAuken Colace, who recently took a job at the New Jersey Conservation Foundation.

Farmer Shaun tending bees at the Early Street Community Garden.

Grow It Green’s staff consists of two full-time employees–Alexander and “Farmer Shaun” Ananko–and four part-timers.

“My son and his teenaged friends all know Farmer Shaun and Farmer Tina (Miller). It’s such a wonderful experience for them to be at a farm and taste first-hand what comes out of the ground,” Alexander said.

Staff duties include managing a greenhouse at the College of Saint Elizabeth in Morris Township, and running a Winter Farmers Market, which kicks off its seventh year this Sunday, Dec. 1, 2019, at the Alexander Hamilton School in Morristown. Grow It Green is assuming the reins from the Foodshed Alliance.

Gateway Totems, Nov. 17, 2016. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Morristown’s Gateway Totems, at entrance to Community Garden, Nov. 17, 2016. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

The annual Winter Solstice Celebration also is returning, on Dec. 21 in the Community Garden.

In addition to raising funds for all these operations, Alexander said she aims to improve Grow It Green’s summer pop-up farm stands –an experiment experiencing some growing pains — while adding new ways to bring produce to people who need it most.

She met this week with staff at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church about distributing food at the church’s after-school program.

Alexander said she would love to see rooftop gardens sprout on all the apartment buildings under construction in Morristown; Grow It Green is available as a consultant, she noted.

Grow it Green Morristown’s founders: Carolle Huber (left) Samantha Rothman (center) and Myra Bowie McCready (right) in 2010. Photo by Nayna Shah

Although not a gardener herself, she enjoyed childhood visits to her grandparents’ farm in Ohio, where they grew vegetables and raised cows and pigs.

“Driving the tractor was my favorite part,” Alexander said, describing controls modified to accommodate her grandfather, who could not walk because of polio.

Her grandparents were seventh-generation farmers. Which isn’t so unusual, Alexander suggested.

“When you think about it,” she said, “we all come from farmers.”

Meet Lisa Alexander at the opening of the Winter Farmers Market in Morristown, Sunday, Dec. 1, 2019, from 10 am to 1 pm, at the Alexander Hamilton School, 10 Mills St. Now in its seventh season, the Market will feature more than a dozen regional vendors selling everything from pasture-raised meat to winter produce. It runs each Sunday (except Dec. 29) through March 29, 2020.


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