This year in addition to having a tiny spot for tomatoes at Farmer Billy’s place, a friend and I decided to plant a row for the hungry at the community garden. I am breaking my promise to her with this blog post; we had vowed to keep our project silent, but today I must share how community gardens bring people together, and, sadly, how sometimes it brings out the worst in people.
Community gardens require team efforts and most feature raised beds that are planted as a group. Come harvest, all participants share in the bounty. The one I belong to has individual plots that allow each gardener to grow what they want. This year we had trouble finding enough gardeners for all of the raised beds. Johnson grass and weeds- the bane of existence for gardeners-quickly took over approximately 6 unplanted beds.
Enter the Garden Stranger
The church had opened a farmer’s market each Saturday and on one particular Saturday a man moseyed over to where I was hacking in the dirt, I was trying to get enough space to plant some sweet potatoes, which one of the ladies at church really like. Because the dirt is so rock-hard I was failing.
The man said, “I didn’t know there was a garden over here?”
By the way his eyes lit up, I could tell that he knew a thing or two about gardening. Straightening, and leaning into the shovel, I said, “It’s a community garden, feel free to come over and claim a spot.” I felt a bit embarrassed my the grassy overgrown plot I was working on, but I unhooked the gate then walked him through the area. A gate is necessary or deer will eat everything. This veteran gardener walked around taking in the peace that comes by watching things grow. Stopping at a particular plot he said, “They’re overwatering.”
“I know,” I replied with a nod. “Soaker hose.”
He nodded. “Ruination of many a garden,” was his reply.
Moving to the next row I said, “Now I’m serious. Come over here and pick out a spot.” I gestured around. “All of those are empty. Then I squished over to the pipe and turned off the water. (which probably broke some unwritten rule, but bear with me).
The garden is my mission field. Beside the soggy soaker-hosed-raised beds, a nineteen-year-old young lady has started her first garden. She desperately wants to grow her own food, to eat healthier. She and I had pulled weeds, planted onions, beans, one tomato plant and some spinach. I want her to succeed. Want her first garden to yield something she can be proud of. Returning to the garden two days later, I noticed the Garden Stranger, had cleaned off two raised beds and planted some tomatoes. He had reserved the second bed for squash. I don’t know when he managed to get the work done, but our little community garden was looking great and yes, the soaker hose was still on.
Then Bible School week hit and I had the opportunity to reach more gardeners. A father of two walked over with his kids. He was having trouble with his tomatoes at home. By now the community garden was getting away from us. Weeds were growing fast and I hadn’t had the time to get all the stakes piled out of the way before I began the search for someone to cut the weeds around the raised beds. Each morning I dropped off my daughter at Bible School and then worked until the Georgia sun stole most of my breath. Then I hydrated and headed toward Farmer Billy Albertson’s place for more of the same. That particular day, I had several realtor signs I had recycled. Billy and I use them to let his customers know that fresh produce is available.
“I’ve got a problem with my tomatoes,” this gentleman said while his children chased each other. “Wonder if you can help me out.”
I let him and his children inside the gate and said, “Tell me the trouble.”
For the record, I don’t consider myself an expert on tomatoes, but one does learn a thing or two when she helps an 82-year-old farmer tend 300 plants.
“Well they are yellow and all wilted,” he said. “Kind of like those.” He pointed to the bed with the soaker hose attached. Again, I walked over and turned off the hose-which was unscrewed all the way to wide open. By now, the spinach in the neighboring plot next door had rotted.
After a quick discussion, the gentleman told me that his wife was watering his plants every single night. “It’s like a ritual at my house. She unrolls the hose and I can’t get her to stop. What should I do?” I gave him some suggestions and then had the idea of making a sign so everyone in the community garden would have success, and others who chanced by the garden might incorporate some tried-and-true tips. He snapped a picture of the wilting plants and said, “I’m going to show her these. We’ve got to stop watering. I explained that I rarely water my plants and more water equals a less-tasty tomato. “That makes a lot of sense,” the man said.
Retrieving a sign I jotted down the tomato tips. The man’s daughter helped. His son found a June-Bug. We had a great time.
-Eggshells, coffee grounds, tums, powdered milk (sprinkle around plant)
-Hot Dry Weather
– Soggy, wet soil and wet leaves, water only once a week (too much water = rot and disease)
We placed the sign at the entrance of the garden where others who might be growing their own tomatoes could see. Then we walked around the garden and his children (ages 6 and 4) help weed. Even though they weren’t growing anything in the garden, his children begged to help. I have found that most young children love the opportunity to learn about growing their own food. I invited them to claim their own spot, and I hope they do.
Then I sent an email to the community garden organizer and expressed my concern over the enormous amount of water being used by the soaker hose. No plant, not even grass, needs water every day. Too much water encourages shallow roots and breeds disease. And besides, it takes a lot of water to fill a raised bed, even more to rot the vegetables planted in the adjacent plot.
Figuring that my email would solve the problem, I didn’t give my suggestion much thought until I returned again and found more standing water. By now they had re-planted the tomatoes and were on the same path toward another failed crop. I unhooked the hose and wrapped it around the base of the pipe. I didn’t remove the soaker hose because it is beneath a layer of landscape fabric.
I am blessed with the ability to step on the toes of others because – apparently -my opinion about the water was not well received as evidenced by the writing on the sign which greeted me today. YOU WIN, WE GIVE UP. (As an aside, the birds didn’t like his message either!)
This type of hateful attitude hurt my feelings (which we know was the intent). Stepping into my space I will admit that I cried a little and had a bit of a pity party. I was only trying to help, trying to make sure everyone was successful, that water was conserved, and their neighbor could grow her own food. The garden was becoming a mission field. Already four people had entered the garden and one felt welcome enough to return and plant two raised beds!
I sought comfort in the green peace of the garden. Moseying over to the Garden Stranger’s spot, I smiled to see his tomatoes growing strong and healthy. Then I noticed something that caused me to cry for another reason. Someone had tilled all of the spaces where nothing was planted, this same someone had cleared away the weeds and then scribbled upon the back of a piece of cardboard the following message I tilled this spot just to get rid of the weeds, feel free to use. Then I found another sign, and another, all with the same message.
Not only had he tilled the plot, he had removed all of the horrible roots and other junk that was in the beds. Hours of selfless work. This, my friends, was the work of the Garden Stranger, whose name I don’t even know. He understands the meaning behind the words community. He knows that when we all work together instead of getting hurt feelings, and lashing out in a juvenile, immature, not-so-Christlike-manner, everyone benefits. Some people- like me- might even catch a glimpse of Jesus in the freshly tilled dirt.
Renea Winchester is the award-winning author of Mountain Memories: True Stories and Half-Truths from Appalachia. Her first book, In the Garden with Billy: Lessons About Life, Love & Tomatoes earned her a SIBA and GAYA nomination. In September of 2014, Mercer University Press will release her next book titled Farming, Friends, & Fried Bologna Sandwiches. Email her through her website at www.reneawinchester.com. She welcomes new friends on Facebook. Follow her on Twitter Here.