How does your garden grow?
by Elizabeth Ruiz
Posted on March 23, 2009
Although the desert soil might not be as rich as in Anglish Burnet's native Louisiana, it's enough to draw him to a Northeast El Paso lot where he and almost 100 others garden year-round. The Welden Yerby Senior Citizens Garden fills multiple roles for Burnet and the others, providing exercise, fellowship, and, importantly, food.
Standing among plots that hold a wide range of herbs and vegetables -- tomatoes, basil, Italian squash, and collard greens -- three-year member Burnet said the place provides a little taste of his Louisiana home, where "everyone has their own garden."
Although the garden's been around for more than 20 years, it's also on the cutting edge of a movement that has flourished in spots around the country, but has yet to take hold in El Paso.
There are plenty of good reasons why it should. El Paso's nearly year-round growing season (or year-round, depending what you're growing) and a high rate of diabetes that experts say could virtually be wiped out simply through better eating habits make the city a natural for the community garden movement. Add in the positive effects of eating local and the opportunity for low-income neighborhoods and, in the words of local Slow Food member Rebecca Krasne, "The only way to change those trends is to teach people the right way to live."
Wendel Yerby's coordinator Joyce Ealey attests that the Sun City's desert ground can sprout up a surprising variety. "Don't let anybody tell you that something can't grow here. You can grow everything here," she said.
THE HEALTH AND COMMUNITY ISSUES
In a 2007 survey for the Texas Department of State Health Services, 9.7 percent of El Paso adults were deemed “at risk,” or were told by their medical practitioner that they had diabetes, surpassing the nationwide figures by 1.1 percent. The number is a jump from a similar survey developed by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 1996, which showed that there were 7.3 percent diabetic adults in El Paso. That percentage might not include all the diabetic adults who remain unaware of their own condition. “We have a high proportion without health insurance, and they are less likely to know whether they have diabetes,” said Jon Law, the program officer for the Paso Del Norte Health Foundation.
Medical professionals and conventional wisdom led to the conclusion that a healthy diet helps prevent, or at least delay, adult-onset diabetes. However, that might be easier said than done when El Paso carries the badge of honor known as The Seventh Fattest City in the United States, bestowed by Men’s Fitness magazine.
The simple but not easy way to promote better diet and community inclusion has been offered nationally, and locally by NPT readers and columnists.
Community gardens, often located in dense urban areas, have sprouted up around the country, going back to Eleanor Roosevelt's WWW 2-era "victory gardens" and forward to Michelle Obama's White House vegetable garden. The People’s Garden, a former flower garden in front of the US Department of Agriculture headquarters in Washington, D.C., opened last month as a source of fruits and vegetables to be donated to D.C. soup kitchens.
At the 28th annual Make Brooklyn Bloom event, Brooklyn's Botanic Garden promoted the idea of green jobs with the event theme “Growing Up Green: Guiding Youth From Gardening to Green-Collar Jobs.”
A galvanized interest in sustainability and added health benefits of eating fresh produce are not the only by products of community gardens. “Urban agriculture” is attributed to an increased sense of community in neighborhoods, often those that are low-income.
Nuestras Raíces, a grassroots organization from Holyoke, Mass., promotes the agricultural roots of the large Puerto Rican population in the area while they (literally) plant roots in their adopted cultures. Julia Rivera, the garden projects organizing director with Nuestras Raíces, who has been involved since 2000, said that the 11 gardens have been funded through the Kellogg and Ford Foundations, city grants, and private donors who were moved by the positive effects the gardens had on the city.
“We have youth in the program, and they’re doing good in school because they’re learning something that’s positive,” said Rivera. About 150 families in the area have benefited from the use of the gardens by growing their own food, which saves on grocery expenses, and earning extra income by selling it in local farmer’s markets.
BACK AT THE RANCH
The strong sense of community is reflected in a mantra heard among the Welden Yerby Senior Citizens Garden members: “We all help each other out.” Ealey started to visit the garden about 20 years ago. “The seniors had something to teach, not only about gardening, but about life in general,” she said.
This garden is just off Hondo Pass, offering fresh air, a mountain view and guidance so those older than the 55 can grow any starch, root, or lettuce to fit their dietary needs. Ealey, who found the site and started gardening after she accompanied her neighbor there, says that people tend to hear about the site through word of mouth. “This garden seems to have been a big secret. But it’s not; it’s always been here,” she said.
To grow your own food and share with others at the site, the gardening aficionados (and some blossoming novices) pay a $10 membership fee. Based on their own diet preferences, they each grow their own unique set of vegetables. Longtime member John Moore touts that his selection is “as diverse as it can get.” His plot, one of 90 in the garden, includes cabbage, collards, swiss chard, and scotch bonnets. “I grow a lot of what I can eat; it doesn’t go to waste,” he said. “Someone else takes the excess vegetables, so it goes to good use.”
In addition to helping others maintain their plots or offering expert advice (such as planting marigolds as a natural and aesthetically appealing pesticide), the members will offer each other their excess vegetables or donate them to soup kitchens. The garden is also a host to monthly meetings and occasional potlucks, in which the members bring more than just their appetites. “People bring their own cultural traditions; they all cook their vegetables differently,” said Moore.
While being able to eat their own produce, seniors are able to keep themselves active and in the desert sunshine, a major plus for four-year member Paul Dagostino. In the summer, he will visit his plot and visit his fellow gardeners at least four times a week, while he visits during the winter about once a week. “It gets you outdoors, and you get to enjoy what you grow,” he said.
Dagostino says while the garden is not his only source of food, “It helps a lot.” Raising her own grandchildren, Ealey uses the produce to help feed the family.
WANNABE A GARDENER?
Enthused about all things natural, sustainable, and healthy, Jim Tolbert mentioned the garden on his blog after a morning walk around, calling it “the best kept secret.” During his time in Carnation, Wash., he volunteered to write newsletters for the Sno Valley Tilth, a nonprofit that supported organic and sustainable production of food to be sold at a farmer’s market. He’s been back in El Paso for two years, but community gardening is not out of his system. He lamented the lack of utilization of our garden-friendly climate, but also pushed for the potential for El Paso to take part of the slow food movement. “That’s what slow food is all about: local and indigenous food shared with family and the community.”
Krasne has a strong sense of what “slow food” means: “From the time the seed is planted to when it’s on the plate, [we’re] aware of every step.” Slow food, which launched in Italy in the 1980s as a counterpoint to fast food chains, eventually made its way across the pond. She is a strong proponent of bringing community gardening to El Paso. “We live in this agriculturally rich place, yet we take no advantage of it,” she said. She also cited the potential financial benefits as a good motivation for the community to partake, and she advocates education as a way to entice those who would not otherwise participate. “It’s going to be a total paradigm shift for some people,” she said.
What if you don’t live anywhere near Northeast El Paso and were born after the 1954? Mayor John Cook has offered a few suggestions, including a visit to Welden Yerby and a discussion with your city representative about the issue, also consideration of requesting community gardens in the 2010 quality-of-life bond. He acknowledged added task of finding the plots of land and potential for high expenses because of the water supply, but added: “I think it’s a great community resource.”
At their best, the gardens can seem like an organic utopia, but starting a vegetable garden is sometimes easier said than done. The Chihuahuita Neighborhood Association decided to create a space for locals to escape from the invasiveness of the border highway, the railroad, the future international terminal, and the damage caused by the 2006 floods. “We need a garden where we can sit and enjoy; something positive for the people,” said the association treasurer Mannys Rodriguez. The appropriately named Serenity Gardens was built on an empty lot on Charles Street and open to the public in August 2008.
What was originally meant to be a vegetable garden morphed into a flower garden for several reasons: The risk of stray animals eating or otherwise messing with the produce; the necessity for parking space that was not included in the donation of the lot; and the proximity to the border, which the association members saw as a risk for theft. Rodriguez accentuates the positive, stating that the efforts made to give the area a garden empowered its residents: “People thought, ‘The city won’t let us do that,’ but if we put our efforts together as a community, we can accomplish certain things that we set our goals to.”
Anglish Burnet tends to his garden of romaine lettuce, garlic, and collard greens at the Wendel Yerby Senior Citizens Garden. Though his native state is more renowned for its rich soil, a move to the desert didn’t change his gardening habits.
The Northeast El Paso garden has 90 plots for its members. For those who gardens despite the winter cold, their efforts show in their sprouting plots.
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