In the warmer months, lanky, soft-spoken Jim Kovaleski often can be spotted with a scythe in his hands, cutting graceful swathes of grass through fields and meadows in Washington County the old-fashioned way: with skill honed by years of practice, a good, sharpened tool and the power of his own muscles.
With his silver ponytail and his Muck boots, the 56-year-old likely doesn’t look like anyone’s idea of a breakout YouTube star. But this year, that changed in a big way. Videos showing Kovaleski scything in Maine and working as a successful “nomadic gardener” in New Port Richey, Florida, and Washington County garnered more than a million views. He was featured on Freakonomics Radio, in an episode titled “How Stupid Is Our Obsession With Lawns?” and in a story in the Tampa Bay Times about urban farming. Kovaleski, though, isn’t taking his newfound and surprising fame too personally.
“It hasn’t gone to my head at all,” he said, adding he suspects his unencumbered, simple lifestyle is what is really resonating with people. “All I need is a hay fork, a scythe, some tarp and access to land and seed. I’m debt-free. That’s a big deal.”
And monetary freedom isn’t the only — or most important — kind of freedom that Kovaleski has found. Years ago, he ran a lawn care business with his brother in Minnesota, where they were from, then moved to Florida to start a branch there. He was using chemicals and gasoline-powered tools to help folks keep their lawns emerald-green and perfect, no matter what. But as time passed, his interests changed. Although he never grew tired of working outside with the land, he did get tired of all those chemicals. He began gardening more intensively at the house he and his former wife had purchased together in New Port Richey, which they named “Freedom House Farm” because they had no mortgage on it.
Kovaleski, switching from lawns to organic vegetables, found he had more than a knack for the job. He expanded from his own front yard and now tends the front yards of other neighbors, too, in what has come to be called the New Port Richey “Garden District.” From October to May, he grows vegetables such as Chinese broccoli, kale, collards, carrots, lettuces and sweet potatoes and fruits including star fruit and mulberries. He sells what he grows at a local farmers market and can earn as much as $1,500 per week doing that. Kovaleski, who doesn’t have a lot of expenses, said the money adds up fast.
“I used to keep my money in a yogurt container,” he said, adding that at one time he had $10,000 stuffed into that container. “It started making me nervous. I moved it to the bank.”
When film producer and permaculturist Justin Rhodes featured Kovaleski this spring on his YouTube series called the Great American Farm Tour, he made a video called “5.6 K A Month Gardening (Other People’s Yards),” more than 400,000 people tuned in.
“If cable TV had this as a channel, I wouldn’t [have] cut the cable,” one commenter chimed in. “We all need to get back to this way of life.”
But Kovaleski, true to his nomadic gardener moniker, doesn’t stay in Florida. As soon as May comes around, he gets into his old pickup truck and heads north, to a parcel of land near the ocean in Washington County. Kovaleski had begun coming to Maine during his second marriage and even after the marriage ended, decided he liked it and wanted to stick around.
“It feels like Minnesota with an ocean,” he said of Washington County.
He owns a cottage near Eastport, but when he returns north every year he works and lives on a different parcel of land: an old farm near the ocean, which the owner asked if Kovaleski would tend.
“I said sure, if I can beat back the puckerbrush,” he remembers telling the landowner. “Over the years, I’ve improved the land quite a bit. It’s more valuable to me than ownership of the land. Everybody’s winning. The landowners are winning. The land is winning. And I’m getting a little piece of cash in my pocket.”
Maine is where Kovaleski learned new ways to work the land. He had taken a permaculture design course 10 years ago that had a big impact on his thinking about how humans can interact with nature in ways that can be mutually beneficial.
“That changed my outlook on how human habitats can be,” he said. “Permaculture put me in the landscape as a participant. The environmental movement didn’t even want me to throw an apple core in the woods.”
So Kovaleski, who ventured over to Scythe Supply in Perry about eight years ago, learned how to use the European-style scythes that are made and sold there. A scythe, which in Maine is often pronounced “sigh,” is a long, curved blade atop a wooden handle, or snath. It’s an old agricultural hand tool that first was invented about 500 B.C. and which historically has been used to mow hay and to reap crops. Although largely replaced in the western world by motorized tools, Kovaleski took to the old-fashioned tool right away.
“You think of the tool as hard work, but this is a skill that probably every kid in the 1800s had. When everything’s right, there’s no resistance or effort,” he said. “It’s just this motion. It’s almost like a meditation.”
Most mornings in Maine, Kovaleski wakes up early in the large, four-season, canvas-sided wall tent he has set up in view of the ocean. He watches the sun rise over New Brunswick, makes a fire so he can heat his dishwater and make coffee and oatmeal for breakfast. He writes in his journal and reads a little poetry. Then he sharpens his scythe and hits the fields to start mowing, his body sliding easily into the pendulum-like motion that lets him cut a 10-foot wide swathe of grass. He does that for three hours most days and then does other gardening tasks.
“It’s definitely a time when I can just zone,” Kovaleski, who has a streak of the mystical, said of his hours with the scythe. “I think the land wants to talk to us as a species. I think the land wants to communicate what it wants. I call it ‘garden fairy’ messages. The land’s telling me things.”
He knows that not all humans, on the other hand, can hear those messages.
“We have these muscles and hands and they are meant to be used,” he said. “But I’m right on Route 1. I’m out mowing in the fields. I see these joggers coming by, and I know they’re shaking their heads, saying what’s wrong with that guy? Why doesn’t he get a lawnmower?”
But scything is more than just a way to replace a gas-powered lawnmower or a good core body workout. It’s also allowed him to develop his idea of growing “grass-fed vegetables,” using grass to feed and enrich the soil beyond what most people thought it could do. This is how he has grown 2½ pound onions without watering once, both this summer and last summer, too, despite the lack of rain that fell both seasons.
“The results and yields have been pretty spectacular,” he said. “The fact that I had huge onions in a dry, dry year here is amazing.”
He takes the grass he has cut and piles it on top of the half acre of land he is using as his garden in Maine. Kovaleski takes his seed and plants it directly into the grass — “believe it or not,” he said — and lets the cut grass feed the microorganisms and worms in the soil. He doesn’t like to call this composting, because that’s not what he feels is happening. Instead, he prefers to think of taking the grass to feed the “microherd” of organisms in the soil. Sometimes he thinks of himself like a herdsman.
“I’m feeding the animals in the soil,” he said. “There’s a cycle of life I’m feeding.”
He doesn’t weed. He doesn’t water. He doesn’t use fertilizer. He just piles the grass on the garden and lets the microherd do its thing. He sells many of the vegetables he grows in Maine to customers in Washington County, but will also load hundreds of pounds into his truck to sell in Florida when he heads back there next month. He brings hard-neck garlic, winter squash, onions and potatoes to his customers in the south, where the cycle of planting and growing and harvesting will begin all over again.
Kovaleski said he used to suffer from periods of deep depression, but not anymore.
“The last few years have been the best years of my life,” he said. “I’m having fun with it. I’m definitely following my heart for something I want to do.”
And he would never replace his scythe with the weed whacker that played such a big role in his former life.
“I swear I could mow a putting green with this,” he said.