Text by Todd Boutte, Community Garden Volunteer
It was early morning in July, the air as thick and warm as it always is, and I was preparing for a busy day in the Community Garden. We had seen a projected high temperature in upper 90’s, so we were all hoping to finish our projects before the summer heat kicked in. That particular morning was a Family Serve Day, so we had a good supply of helping hands. I was ready to jump in with them if needed, but it was a small group, so I mostly stayed out of the way and took care of my own plot. I focused on the weeds, the potatoes they were hiding, and a mini bell pepper plant that wasn’t doing well. In fact, I focused so hard that I didn’t hear him coming up behind me.
“Hi, can I help?”
I shifted away from the dirt and plants to see a boy, maybe 8 years old, standing behind me. His jeans ran down into calf-high rubber boots. Whether he had dressed himself or his parents had equipped him for the day, you could tell this kid was serious about getting his hands in the dirt. His little voice didn’t quite match the determination in his eyes. Still, I’d have to be crazy not to accept his help.
I walked him through my plot and my agenda for the day, and then we got to work. We talked about the garden his parents kept in their backyard as I pulled weeds and he plucked peppers from a plant that I wanted to harvest. I learned that he had two younger sisters, neither of whom were really old enough to work in his parent’s garden yet, and that he knew his way around a garden. He pointed out his parents and we exchanged waves. It was a special morning already, but we had no idea what was in store!
The Thrill of Discovery
When it came time to clear out my potato pen, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Potatoes are fickle things; you don’t know what you have until you dig them out. So we started the journey, with my little helper firing questions the whole time. I use a round “pen” system to plant somewhere between 6-10 potatoes at a time. They all grow inside of the pen, which you can unearth and unpack all at once. We pulled the dead stalks out first, my little helper enthralled by this new garden discovery and excited by the baby potatoes we found at the foot of each stalk. His determined eyes grew a little wider with every move we made.
Eventually, we lifted the pen fence away. Its contents clung together, dirt and potatoes in a tightly packed tower. We started to knock the dirt away, revealing the most bountiful haul of potatoes I had ever grown! We were both giddy. He was discovering something new, and I was stopping to enjoy every beautiful potato we found. His enthusiasm made it harder to contain mine!
It was like a treasure hunt for a little while as we sifted through the dirt looking for stragglers. Once we were certain that we’d found them all, we called it done and started collecting our little trove to wash and weigh. Shortly after we started cleaning them, and just when we were about to weigh them, his parents needed to leave because his youngest sister was running a fever and they needed to get back to her. I thanked the entire family for their help in the garden all the same. Unfortunately my assistant never found out that we’d dug up 13 pounds of potatoes — more than double my biggest crop ever!
Who knows, maybe he’ll be a Community Gardener someday.
Part of the fun of our garden is that we were all that little boy once. We were all amazed by the things nature could do. I know I was.
The town I grew up in was small, even by Louisiana standards. At that time, residents of New Iberia usually did one of two things to the earth: planted seeds in it or drilled through it for oil. My dad picked door number two, and my mom took a more difficult, less traditional job as a school teacher. Neither of them was an outright farmer, but we always had a garden.
When I was three, we grew the biggest tomatoes our family had ever seen. I was so young that I have to be reminded of the details, but I know for a fact that we never matched those ripe, red beauties. It wasn’t until a few years later that we discovered the fortunate mistake that gave us that crop: Dad unintentionally built the garden on top of an old septic tank! That’s another amazing thing about produce. It can turn the worst of things into the best of things.
Fast forward to age 10 (ish). Another house, another garden for Dad. This time he rearranged his layout so that my sister and I could have our own little sections. I remember being excited about the idea of growing plants to eat, even if I can’t recall whether or not I successfully grew a thing. Sometimes, I can still feel the rich, black soil crumbling between our fingers as my sister and I smoothed out every clump. I’m fairly certain that she was better at it than me that year, because my only memory of those first crops was that they took way too long to come in. Ten-year-olds are not fertile ground in which patience can grow.
High School brought a bigger house and with it, a bigger garden. Dad spent hours in our backyard, nurturing everything from tomatoes to peppers to cucumbers. He’d always grown those things, but never in the abundance that they came now. Even then, I wasn’t hooked on gardening. But it was starting to get traction in my heart.
I loved the outdoors, and I grew to appreciate the sweetness of a freshly plucked carrot; the sugary sting of a tomato right off the vine. I didn’t know it yet, but those experiences were a part of me. Yet another fact about gardens: the more you care for them, the more they give to you.
Despite my agricultural background, I got a degree in Computer Science from a nearby college. Two months after graduating, I landed my first job and moved to DFW. I spent five years as an apartment-dweller before taking the plunge and buying my first house. And, just like Dad, I started a garden there. But this one was different. This one was mine.
It didn’t take long for me to learn the difference between the unfamiliar red clay of North Texas and the supple black soil of my home state. Dad helped me as much as he could, but the rugged clay underneath my new home presented us with questions he couldn’t answer. As it turns out, amending the ground here in North Texas can take several years. And there were no fortuitous septic tanks for me to build around.
A Backyard That Gives Back
Fast forward 15 years, through two more homes (each with gardens) and lots of trial and error. My backyard garden was in pretty good shape. As much as I loved growing things there, however, I knew that it wasn’t much more than a convenient hobby for me. After my daughter left for college, I had time to work on things around the house and wanted to give back to the community. But I didn’t feel that my other skills were in demand.
I do some woodworking and carpentry, and was happy to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity, but I didn’t have the time to really make a difference there. I cook and most people love my cooking, but I’m not a trained chef. Many a fish has found themselves on the wrong side of my skill with a rod and reel, but no one seems to be looking for volunteers there. I honestly felt like gardening was my strongest skill set for sharing.
My chance came in April 2012, almost 20 years after I started my gardening journey, when we received our quarterly copy of the Bedford Connection in the mail. I always browse through it, looking for interesting items and classes that I might be interested in taking. That day, an article about the city's new Community Garden caught my eye. My very own community was going to have its very own Organic community garden, and it was just two miles from my house! How perfect was that!
I reached out to Annette Lee (because the flyer told me to) and let her know that I was willing to trade volunteer hours for access to her wealth of Master Gardener knowledge. At the time I wasn’t interested in getting a plot. I had my own at home, and I had just planted my summer crops. Mostly, I wanted to learn about organic gardening and help others by volunteering at something that I knew I could make a difference doing. I recognized and admitted before I started that my knowledge came partially from beginner gardening books and partially from my dad. And some of his knowledge came from his dad. I had learned from lots of trial and error, but I didn't have any formal methods. Regardless of my inexperience, Annette emailed back and asked if I could help her that Saturday. So I did. And I never stopped.
The two of us clicked on that gorgeous April morning, despite the fact that I was nervous to start such a grand adventure. I showed up with an open mind, not knowing what to expect, but hoping that it would go well for both of us. I felt at home among the rows of plants. This place was much bigger than I expected, but I knew I had basic gardening knowledge to fall back on if I needed to. Annette didn’t question or challenge me, she just put me to work and started teaching me. I asked a lot of questions.
That first month with Annette I learned more than I had picked up anywhere else in my almost 20 years of previous gardening experience. At that point, I was the ten year-old-kid in awe.
Dirt, Sweat, No Tears
I occasionally ask myself why I love gardening. I can tell you that there’s nothing better than a garden-fresh tomato or a sweet carrot plucked straight from the earth, but why do I even care? Why do I look forward to planning and ordering seeds in November, spending countless hours planting seed trays starting in January, working with indoor grow lights, watering, and transplanting in February, and then playing every grower’s favorite guessing game: “when will we have our last freeze and be able to start growing our favorite summer plants?”
Why do I show up at the crack of dawn on those one hundred degree summer days just so I can work a few hours before it gets unbearably hot?
Part of it is that I like a challenge. I think the majority of it is that it’s a connection with nature and my dad. Its an activity we can share. It’s also a very calm, almost meditative experience. Everything moves slower. You have to “read” the plants and conditions to make sure that things are working as they should. Those little things force you to be intentional, whether you are identifying good and bad bugs that may affect the plants or making sure nothing gets dehydrated or overwatered. You have to be in touch. And patient.
Taking care of a garden is a good way to take care of yourself. Not just because you get fresh produce, but because the process that yields that produce requires a lot of thought and work out of you. A garden disciplines you as much as you tend to it. It can be very satisfying to know that you’re eating something you grew with your own hands.
It All Grows Together
Our garden is full of variety. The reclaimed earth out there is stuffed with potatoes, carrots and beets. There’s also a community of people of all different experience levels. We have young and old, garden newbies and master gardeners. I’ve made some incredible friends out there, whether I’m planning work with the “Boss Lady” (Annette) or chatting with my fellow gardener and volunteer, Marcus, early on a Saturday morning (our standard ritual, except for weekends when one of us is out fishing).
I never realized how difficult it was for so many people here in HEB to get quality food until I got involved with the garden. Even though I spent a few years in an economically disadvantaged part of Hurst, I thought “the needy” were a small, concentrated subset of our community. I had no idea that there were so many others in our area that need our help. Now, some of them grow their food next to me or eat the food that I helped to grow. That gives me a feeling of satisfaction that drives me to keep doing it.
One of my favorite things to do on a Saturday morning is to take my harvest up to the New Hope Center, meet the other volunteers, and watch the people who come through. Most of them get excited when they see garden-fresh vegetables coming in and being put on the table for them to take. Tomatoes and okra seem to be the favorites. Sometimes, if only rarely, I even get to chat with families. Some of them don't discover until then that we have a garden a hundred feet away from the building we were talking in!
My final observation about gardens (for now, anyway) — they don’t discriminate. Fruits and vegetables don’t divide themselves up or push away whatever is different from them. They just grow. Side by side.
You might call it a community.