Blooming gardens invade concrete jungle

If the Vision of St. John, that Book-concluding acid test crowded by multi-eyed beasts, oceans of blood, and a Lamb with a crown of horns, scared you away from the Holy Church, perhaps the vision of July Moreno de Lopez will draw you back again.

The tomato-popping executive director of the Basilica of the Little Flower imagines a West Side where empty lots are not only cleared of vacant and disassembling buildings and graffiti, but revived with hoards of fruit trees, vegetable beds, and mounds of flowering herbs.

At the Gardens of St. Therese, a formerly vacant acre hidden behind the Shrine of the Little Flower in West SA, Moreno inspects the rows of scorched tomato plants.

“We planted them too late,” she says.

Another gardener blames the heat for the paltry crop.

Be it heat or handling, the tomatoes here are still being converted into Holy Salsa a year after the operation first attracted parishioner dollars.

Since that time, however, the parish has joined up with the Green Spaces Alliance of South Texas to convert their pecan-shaded back lot into a community garden packed with flower beds, a raised salsa garden, fruit trees, and mounds of devotional blooms. More than 20 beds are sponsored and tended by families of the community.

Art and gardening classes are in session, and Moreno and Michael Montoya, community-programs manager for Little Flower, are planning a nature-based curriculum to present to area third- and fourth-grade classes in this increasingly lush quarter.

Montoya’s and Green Spaces Alliance director Julie Koppenheffer’s ambitions extend far beyond this growing lot. Already GSA, formerly Bexar Land Trust, has helped launch or support 10 similar gardening projects in the urban core of downtown San Antonio. Soon, with a bit of coaching, these will be dividing and spreading like healthy tomato cells.

“I see this as a template that will be replicated across the many vacant lots out here,” Moreno said, speaking of the neighborhoods around the church. “There’s nothing like it anywhere out here.”

With starter grants between $3,000 and $10,000, GSA was able to launch programs like the Gardens of St. Therese. Conditions to that cash mandated that at least five unrelated individuals take up the lead at each new garden.

“We want the gardens to be walkable, and most have a school within a quarter-mile of them,” Koppenheffer said.

For the church, it all started in the Fall of ’06 as Green Spaces Alliance was just starting to hold community meetings about an urban greenspaces program. One friar had already started a cherry tomato patch as a science project with some students, but since the brother’s departure a few seasons ago it had been left untended.

The friar’s cook complained the tomatoes were starting to pop and spoil and Moreno responded, “Well, do you know how to make salsa?”

After that, they were quickly bottling 50 jars a week and selling them in front of the church. Soon, folks were coming before Mass to buy bottles; then requests for cases of the “Holy Salsa” rolled in, followed by shipping orders.

“That was really the support for creating a community garden,” Moreno said.

Today, the group’s community members have adopted 24 beds boasting several varieties of roses, a mini orchard with grapefruit, pomegranate, and plums, and the struggling “salsa bed.”

“We just need more people,” Moreno said, as we parted ways.

Those numbers may turn out when the church hosts GSA’s “Growing Communities” conference on leadership and community development next month. By that time, Brother Joseph’s massive pine deck will be finished and visitors will be able to see what vision and a lot of hard work can accomplish in a year. •


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