Farming for Abundance and Aesthetic

Foxcroft’s 2024 Helen Cudahy Niblack 1942 Arts Lecturer Joneve Murphy's career in farming started right out of college. “I had just finished college and was looking for a summer job while I figured out what my next move was going to be. We had 20 acres in production, and I worked almost 80 hours a week that first season.”
“On the third week of my new job, I called my mom and told her that this is what I was going to do for the rest of my life,” continued Murphy. “She was not thrilled about farming right from the start. I went to school for biology, thinking that I wanted to be a scientist. Unfortunately for me, scientists have to spend a lot of time indoors, running numbers and comparing data points. I wanted to spend all my time outside, and the farm felt like one giant science experiment. Every day was different with new problem-solving opportunities, and it has been the job for me ever since.”

Murphy spent the next several years at a few different farms, soaking in knowledge and conducting gardening experiments, before making her way to the Inn at Little Washington, where she started a garden to supplement their Michelin 3-Star restaurant. "I love showing up at the back door and seeing the chefs get excited about each delivery.”

After several successful seasons, Murphy decided to take a sabbatical. She had always wanted to travel and learn about agricultural techniques in different countries. She contacted multiple non-governmental organizations and individual farmers, volunteering to teach about organic practices, as well as learn. Beginning in Europe, she then traveled to Asia, Africa, and Central America before returning to the United States. 

“I spent just over two years traveling, working on 225 different farms in 18 countries,” shared Murphy. “I got to learn about all the different business models that farmers use and the techniques they employ to deal with their various climates. I will be forever grateful for the time I spent traveling and learning. Those two years taught me more about farming than the entire 12 years I had farmed previously. It was, and still is, the most impactful thing I've done with my life.”

Returning to the Inn at Little Washington, Murphy brought new ideas and a desire to add more artistry and whimsy to the garden. “One of my first initiatives was to add more flowers into my space. I learned the importance of flowers during my travels not only to increase food production and fruit size by bringing in wild pollinators, but flowers also helped to bring in other beneficial insects and increase the overall health of the garden. I also started to get more into the aesthetics of the garden beyond just keeping it neat and tidy. I had seen incredibly beautiful gardens in my travels, and I felt ready to put my artistry to use.”

From there, she became more adventurous — experimenting with colors, textures, and heights to create beautiful and beneficial plant pairings. “We regularly pulled between 6000 and 8000 pounds out of that quarter-acre garden, and that quantity seemed to increase year-over-year," she shared. She also decided to explore her artistic side by creating unique structures and sculptures out of planting pots and garden produce, and even an insect hotel to attract beneficial insects to add a bit of whimsy to the garden. 

“All of it just added more depth to the garden. Our work to lure and keep beneficial insects had wiped out most of our pest problems and our effective microorganism sprays had done their work over the years. The garden was healthier than ever. At this point, I was able to stop using organic spray to manage pests or fungal diseases, and we had our best season yet, both for production and utilization within the kitchen. It was the first time in my career that I went a full season without having to use any spray … the garden buzzed with life, and people came from all over to walk through it.”

After all this success, Murphy decided to strike out on her own to consult on garden designs and structures using local or onsite materials. More recently, she has begun experimenting with growing pigment plants. “I've always enjoyed painting,” she shared. “I've got around 30 different types of pigment plants that I'm putting in and experimenting with this season. My dream is to start an art farm where I grow different art supplies and have people come there to take classes and learn how to use them.” 

After answering a multitude of questions from students and other guests, Murphy spent the remainder of her time at Foxcroft conducting an "Art in the Garden" workshop, where she worked with students to build a natural trellis structure using freshly cut branches and teaching them about the best materials and tools to use for the job so that they can feel confident in building one on their own. 

Established in 2007 by Austi Brown 1973 in memory of her mother, the Helen Cudahy Niblack 1942 Arts Lecture Series seeks to bring a variety of fine, literary, performing, and practical artists and designers to Foxcroft to share their work, the nature of the creative process, and the breadth of artistic pursuits with both students and the community. It has sponsored visits by a Broadway actor and director, a champion cowboy poet, hip-hop artists from Senegal and New York, musicians, storytellers, and more. 
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An all-girls boarding and day school in Northern Virginia, Foxcroft prepares young women in grades 9-12 for success in college and in life. Our outstanding academic program offers challenging courses, including Advanced Placement classes and an innovative STEM program. Our premiere equestrian program is nationally recognized, and our athletic teams have won conference and state championships. Experience the best in girls' boarding schools: visit Foxcroft.