Food & Drink How does this garden grow?

Volunteers sow the seeds of community gardening in SA

If you pass by a certain vacant lot in the cool of the evening, you might see several people kneeling in the mud, pulling weeds, or gently lodging tiny tomato plants into the ground.

Near the corner of Ferndale and Keats on the South Side, volunteers raise organic herbs and vegetables in El Jardin de la Paz - the Peace Garden - on a 1/3-acre patch loaned by the landowner.

Volunteer John Apollo plants a tomato seedling in the ground at the Peace Garden. A neighbor allows gardeners to use his water to irrigate. (Photos by Lisa Sorg)

The community gardeners donate the weekly harvest to Food Not Bombs, which feeds the homeless at Milam Park; the Catholic Work House, which also provides food to the homeless; and the House of Neighborly Service, a senior citizens' food bank.

"Our biggest focus is to do this city-wide," says volunteer John Apollo, as he hoes the weeds that proliferated over the wet weekend. "The ultimate goal is to get people thinking about growing food in their own neighborhoods."

After recent rains, the plants are thriving, even in the rocky soil: perfectly oblong eggplants with unblemished purple skin, cherry tomatoes weighing down their vines, a plethora of green beans hiding beneath the leaves. Brush against the effusive patch of peppermint and it kicks up a scent stronger than any chewing gum. Because this is an organic garden, volunteers use no chemical pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers.

Eventually, volunteers would like to sow the idea in other parts of the city by identifying vacant plots in inner-city neighborhoods. "We'd like to get a set of stable city properties and offer the community gardens regularly," says volunteer Airie Hicks. While popular in many cities, community gardening hasn't caught on in San Antonio - even though the warm climate encourages two planting seasons. Doris Trotter of the Bexar County Master Gardeners, part of the Texas A&M Extension Program, says there used to be several community gardens throughout the city and county. Through a grant, the Master Gardeners provided a volunteer to run the program, but there wasn't sufficient interest to sustain it. The Master Gardeners no longer have the grant for the volunteer position and the program is dormant.

Tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, green beans, lettuce, cucumbers, and herbs grow in El Jardin de la Paz, also known as the Peace Garden.

"In order for a community garden to be successful, it needs community leaders to keep it going," Trotter explains. "And the neighborhood has to be involved."

Trotter says the intense summer heat deters some people from participating in community gardening. It also requires time, which for single-parent families or low-income people working two or more jobs, is in short supply.

The City offers small parcels of land for community gardens, says Chuck Taylor of the Parks and Recreation Department. This summer, the City opened a plot near the Barbara Jordan Center, but interest in maintaining it has waned, Taylor says.

This is the second year for El Jardin de la Paz. In the spring of 2004, volunteers contacted the landowner through a friend at Food Not Bombs and received permission to start the project. The Reverend Tom Flowers blessed the land, and volunteers cleared it of rocks and broken glass, tilled the black soil, laid the beds, planted, and harvested crops throughout the summer.

El Jardin de la Paz

Volunteers work twice a week harvesting, weeding, and planting. To volunteer or donate tools or supplies, call 826-6656.

This year, fewer people are participating in the Peace Garden, although a half-dozen committed volunteers are tending it. Passers-by often volunteer and entire families have worked the land.

The future of El Jardin de La Paz, at least on this plot, is uncertain, as volunteers arrived this evening to discover a "for sale" sign posted on the fence.

If necessary, volunteers say they will move or restart the garden on another spot. Not only do the fruits of their labor help the hungry, but they also nourish the volunteers' souls.

"It's nice after a long day," says Amanda Chamberlain, who is volunteering for the first time tonight. "It eases your mind and feels good."

By Lisa Sorg

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