Ground Yourself at Da’Shack Farmers Market
You don’t need a green thumb to appreciate the centering effects of a well-tended garden, and according to Donna Nickerson of Da’Shack Farmers Market, you don’t need a green thumb to cultivate your own garden. But you will need to get there before the end of June!
Da’Shack, a plant nursery, farmers market, and mental health hub in an East Waco residential neighborhood just off Waco Drive, is Nickerson’s vision for a holistic approach to mental and physical health. Nickerson, a licensed psychotherapist with a thriving, multi-location practice in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, has been cultivating a growing fan base of Wacoans since she opened the doors to Da’Shack in 2017, and she’s just getting started.
An Edible Oasis
Nestled among the small cottages and newly-built duplexes on Houston Street, Da’Shack quietly alerts guests and neighbors to its presence with a painted wooden sign and a front door that stands open all weekend long, welcoming any and all to partake in a little garden therapy.
Da’Shack has a cozy cottage feel, with the main entrance giving way to a small wood-lined retail space dotted with potted plants, t-shirts, jewelry, sun hats, and gardening tools. As you pass through, you might see Nickerson’s father John enjoying the cool of the shaded room in a large, comfy armchair.
Walk out the back door, and you’ll find yourself in a beautifully cultivated garden, tidy but informal. Footpaths twine around curving plots of thriving produce, with collards reaching for the sunlight alongside green beans and summer squash. As you meander along the walkways, you’ll brush past dill, basil, oregano, rosemary, thyme, and fennel.
Wooden shelves of affordably-priced starter plants—Armenian cucumbers, everbearing strawberries, heirloom tomatoes, white flower squash, glass corn—cultivated from organic seeds by Nickerson and her mother Melba, await the attention of eager gardeners hoping to recreate Nickerson’s edible Eden at home. And that, as Nickerson will tell you, is entirely the point.
“I don’t want to just sell stuff,” says Nickerson. “I want to educate people. One of the things I want to show people is that you can grow, and we’ll teach you how to grow.”
Nickerson is an ever-present fixture at Da’Shack, and she will no doubt greet you when you arrive, hand you a wicker basket, give you a tour, and explain that not only are the starter plants for sale but also the produce growing in the beds. Request a handful of Lacinato kale or lemongrass and Nickerson will get to harvesting as you browse her carefully curated selection of organic plant varietals, many of which cannot be found at commercial nurseries.
The garden extends well beyond the back fence, with a long, tree-shaded corridor lined with ruffled purple daturas, trailing muscadine grape vines, and myriad other for-sale ornamentals and edibles. Follow the path until it disgorges into yet another shaded garden with a large plant-filled greenhouse sheltering moringa trees, ghost peppers, artichokes, taro, cucamelons, and more.
Local makers and healers are often in attendance on weekends, offering $8 loaves of scratch-baked sourdough or 10-minute healing vibrational massages, while Nickerson’s son Zake can be spotted running barefoot through the plants, avoiding capture. It has a vibrant, neighborly atmosphere that naturally eases visitors into a sense of calm and belonging.
Donna Nickerson Wants You to Grow
Nickerson spent most of her childhood in Clifton, Texas, where her parents tended a thriving garden during the hours they weren’t working their respective jobs as a nurse and at a lumber company in Clifton. They also ran a thrift shop catering to the East Waco community called The Shack in the same building that now houses Da’Shack, Nickerson’s nod to the old neighborhood and her parents’ legacy there.
With a master’s degree in clinical social work and a doctorate in psychology, Nickerson began a thriving psychotherapy services practice in the Dallas-Fort Worth area called 3 Dimension Inc. But when her parents, who had retired to North Waco, both began receiving cancer treatments, Nickerson began making regular trips back to Waco. It was during those trips that her parents offered her the old thrift store property, and the seeds of Da’Shack were planted.
“My parents said, ‘Here, take the building. We’re not doing anything with it.’ And it was kind of run down. I only went to Waco High here for a year-and-a-half before I went to college, so I didn’t know much about this area. So I came back to see what’s here and what’s not here, and my social work antennas went up. What does this community need? I noticed this community didn’t have any behavioral health services nearby. That was the first thing. The second thing was that it’s a food desert. There’s not a lot of places where people can get fresh, affordable food. And then I told my mom, ‘We love to garden. We garden all the time. Let’s just garden here.’”
Nickerson tested and amended the soil (a crucial step to successful gardening, as she will tell you when you visit), and cobbled together found items and recycled building materials from all over Waco to create a welcoming, relaxed environment for visitors.
“Sometimes when things get too fancy, they feel inaccessible,” says Nickerson, “so that’s why I wanted to leave the name, Da’Shack. And if you notice everything here, we try to make it nice but at the same time, we want to make it simple.”
After establishing Da’Shack as a nursery, Nickerson expanded her offerings to include affordable, freshly-picked seasonal produce.
“So then I’m like, okay, we have plants, now we can offer produce,” says Nickerson. “But we need to be inclusive. I need to make sure that every person from any socioeconomic background can shop here. I don’t want any financial barriers, so that’s when I applied to accept SNAP [the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, aiding low-income individuals and families to purchase food]. We were the first farmers market to take SNAP.”
Nickerson hopes to entice more of her neighbors to explore and enjoy Da’Shack because most of her visitors still come from other Waco neighborhoods. By keeping it simple and leaving the door open to everyone, literally and figuratively, she hopes that in time, the folks who live near Da’Shack will find a place of belonging there.
Gardening toward Mental Health
Nickerson will counsel visitors on how best to begin a garden, steer them toward entry-level plants and, most importantly, offer her infectious brand of optimism, realism, and gentle encouragement. Don’t think you can grow tomatoes? Just ask Nickerson. Tired of killing your houseplants? Nickerson will advise you. As her low-key positivity rubs off on you, you’ll find yourself expanding and relaxing simultaneously. It’s all part of her plan.
“Therapy has such a stigma, especially in smaller communities. You have to be careful. A lot of people, especially in African American communities, don’t talk about depression. ‘That’s for crazy people.’ So you have to let people warm up to the idea of therapy and kind of integrate it in without people really knowing what you’re doing. If you notice, I try to make it really relaxing here. There’s lots of seating. It’s a happy, welcoming place. In a sense, you’re exposing them to therapy, they just don’t know it. You have to understand that sometimes people aren’t ready, and that’s ok. But if you have the opportunity to give them a taste of it, then do it.”
In the early days of Da’Shack, Nickerson offered accessible, often pro-bono behavioral therapy to visitors. While she no longer offers those services regularly due to her other work obligations, she still keeps her door open for anyone in need.
“I wanted to teach the community how to grow their own food,” says Nickerson, “and also offer psychotherapy services, which I still do to this day. If someone were to contact my office in need of pro bono services, I will see them virtually or here at Da’Shack after hours.”
Even her careful selection of plants is geared toward education and inclusivity.
“I think, for different cultures, for people who are not in their homelands, to see us growing things like ube and taro—plants from their homeland— it’s like, ‘Wow, you grow that here?’” says Nickerson. “And then you have people who have never heard of it and want to try it. We’ve had customers from so many different cultures that are out there talking about plants. They may not have anything else in common, but they have Da’Shack in common.”
Lumpiang Gulay (Vegetable Lumpia)
Nickerson’s mother, Melba, is from the Philippines, and this is Nickerson’s take on a family favorite, often made with their homegrown produce. In true Nickerson fashion, it’s approachable and customizable. Don’t like to julienne your veggies? Chopping works just fine. Don’t like any of the veggies included here? Choose your own. (Nickerson suggests adding bean sprouts or tofu, but the choice is yours!) You’ll want to add this to your regular meal rotation, and freeze some extras for busy weeknights.
1 white or yellow onion, grated
2 cloves garlic, grated on a microplane or finely diced
4 lb. green beans, julienned
1 russet potato, peeled and julienned
2 carrots, grated (peeling is optional)
2 T soy sauce
2 T oyster sauce
1 egg white, lightly beaten
1 package frozen lumpia or egg roll wrappers
1 T coconut or vegetable oil for sautéing vegetables
1–1½ c vegetable oil for frying
Heat 1 tablespoon of vegetable coconut oil in a large pan. Once it is hot, add the grated onion and garlic. Stir for less than a minute or until light brown. Add the green beans, potatoes, and carrots, stirring and cooking for a few minutes until the vegetables are softened. Then, add the soy sauce and oyster sauce, toss to combine, and remove from heat.
Once the vegetable mixture is cool enough to handle, prepare a lumpia wrapper for filling.
Position the lumpia wrapper on its corners in a diamond shape, and then add 1 to 1 ½ tablespoons of vegetable filling. Fold the opposite edges of the wrapper and roll them till you get a log shape. Brush the edges of the wrapper with egg white to help seal them together, then press the edges down. Continue assembling lumpia until no filling remains.
In a separate pan, heat 1 to 1½ cups vegetable oil on high. Once the oil is hot, add the lumpia, being careful not to crowd them. Deep fry for 2 minutes or until golden brown, then flip them over and continue deep-frying until golden brown. Transfer lumpia to a paper towel-lined plate, and continue frying until all lumpia are done. Serve hot with rice vinegar and soy sauce or a sweet chili sauce.
Through gardening, education, therapy, and oceans of goodwill, Nickerson believes she can bring people together at Da’Shack and imbue them with a lasting sense of mental and physical well-being.
“It’s my profession,” says Nickerson. “If you model the behavior, then it’s going to stick eventually. And we model inclusivity. We model diversity. We model not leaving anybody out, where society does that all the time. And how does it stop? Well, it takes people in the community—if you have the means, the ability, and some sort of knowledge—to try to incorporate that into what you do. Because people say all the time, ‘Our nation needs to get better. Our nation needs to improve.’ Okay, well, this is how you begin.”
Da’Shack Farmers Market is located at 925 Houston Street and is open March through June, on Fridays from 2 pm to 6 pm and on Saturdays from 9 am to 6 pm. For mental health services, contact Donna Nickerson at Da’Shack (click the “Get Quote” button at the top of the page) or at 3 Dimension Inc.
Learn more about Waco’s food scene on the Waco Insider podcast Eat, Drink, Repeat, hosted by Angelica Mazé.
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