Six questions – and answers – about the community garden

January 19, 2011

In 2010, the community garden has sprouted food, volunteers and friendship. Fr. Bill Morton updates us on the garden in El Paso, Texas, and what to expect in 2011.

See all our new photos below. Click on a thumbnail to view a larger image.

1. In learning about the obstacles that you were facing in getting permission to use the land, have all of the technical points been resolved?

We arrived at an understanding with the owner of the land and moved forward to plant the garden.  Up to the present there have been no problems.  We will probably have a more formal contract in the spring if we continue to use the same lot.

2. Has there been more community involvement in the garden in the past few months?

That depends on what you mean.  There has been growing interest in the garden which is actually one of its “fruits.”  Whenever I go to water the garden, invariably people stop and ask: What we are planting and who we are. And in the ensuing conversations there will be suggestions, advice, as well as an invitation to join us in the spring. I often end up giving some vegetables to whomever I am speaking with.  A community garden can become just that:  A garden where community “grows” by virtue of the simple fact that you are out there doing what human beings have been doing for millennia.

The veterans who live at the TLC (Transitional Living Center) right next to the garden were invited to plant one of the raised boxes but never did.  During the last couple months, however, as they’ve seen us cultivate, plant, water and harvest vegetables, their interest has grown.  I was speaking to the director yesterday, and she said now that they’ve seen it can be done she is sure the Vets will want to be more directly involved next year.

We will be calling some meetings in the early spring and try to do a more thorough job of explaining to people exactly what a community garden is and how they can be involved.  Last year was our first effort and so we were still learning a lot about how you go about inviting, organizing and educating the community to have a successful community garden.

3. How did the youth group’s visit in August turn out and what did they contribute to the garden?

The St. Cantuloapes Youth Charity came from Los Angeles with Fr. Yong Hoon Choi.  There were 21 high school youth varying in age from 14 to 17 along with two Moms and Rosa Lee, currently volunteering with CCAO in D.C.  They were a great group of enthusiastic, hard-working kids and made a tremendous contribution to the garden and to the neighborhood.  Some of them did weeding, watering and general clean-up of the community garden space.  Some others rolled up their sleeves and tried to dig out all the grass, dirt, weeds and even small trees that had grown up in the cracks of the sidewalk all along the side of the garden. It probably took some 15 hours of really dirty, sweaty labor to create a beautiful, clean, safe sidewalk which all who walk down it have enjoyed since August.

4. Are there new crops that you have added to the garden?

In July one of the Jesuit brothers from Sagrado Corazon parish planted some sweet corn.  As the corn grew I noticed melons coming up between the rows. I complimented Brother Pete on his ingenuity in planting the melons to keep down the weeds.  He looked surprised: What melons?  Then we realized they were “volunteers,” seeds from the compost that had remained intact and sprouted and are now producing cantaloupes.  A community garden is full of surprises.  We also planted an eggplant, really just for fun and curiosity.  It ended up being one of the most prolific and delicious of all our crops and we’ll do even more next year.  We also learned that carrots and cucumbers don’t fare too well in the desert heat and will substitute something else in the spring.

5. What are your next steps in getting more people involved in community gardening, specifically in El Paso?

Sister Bea, FMM, works at the Immigration Detention Center where I sometimes celebrate Eucharist for the detainees.  She’s asked me to take her in the pick-up to get compost from one of the ladies who works in the detention center and raises horses on the outskirts of El Paso.  Sr. Bea suggested we get some of the confirmation kids from St. Pius to help us ready the garden for the winter by turning over the garden, burning the plant material and spreading the manure/compost over the area, to let the sun and rain send the nutrients down in the soil for the spring planting.  Likely the students and maybe Sr. Bea will want to stay engaged with us in the spring.

We will also publicize a meeting locally in the spring as well as ask specific individuals and groups—like the Vets, Annunciation House—if they would like to participate.  Part of the formation process would be getting one or two of the community gardeners from New Mexico to come and give talks/demonstrations about both the “community” and the “garden” dimensions of the project.

The CCAO website can also help get more people involved by simply presenting the idea with texts and photos to encourage them to try something in their own neighborhoods and homes.

6. As this season comes to an end, what have you learned, personally, from your experience with the community garden?

It has been a wonderful, healthy and even holy space for me.  It is good therapy in a world where everything seems so complex, long-term and too often impossible to resolve.  Here you can prepare soil, plant a seed, water and then eat a tomato, a chili pepper or a green bean.  It takes us back to our most primordial selves and engages us in a tradition of relating to the earth in a mysterious dance of give and take which sustains our human lives by its fruits.

Spiritually, gardening teaches obvious lessons about good preparation/cultivation, faithfulness/watering and weeding, and gratitude/eating the fruits.  It also challenges our sense of entitlement and ownership.  When I see a beautiful, ripe zucchini and return the next day to pluck it and it has been “stolen” by someone I’m furious and indignant.  But before long I think of Matthew’s gospel: “Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect who makes the rain to fall on the good and the evil; the sun to shine on the just and the unjust.”  Caring for the earth and one another is what love is all about.  Who am I to feel I “own” what the garden grows, when all I did was plant and water?  It is God who makes it grow!  And how often have I taken advantage of or “stolen” the fruits picked by migrant laborers, paid miserable wages, and never given a thought to their well-being?  The garden can be a sacred space to reflect and grow and even repent of my selfish ways.

God is a God of plenty and not scarcity.  It is our selfishness and fear that often make us covetous and possessive of what God has blessed us with.  As the mission song of the nineties said “We are all one people of one same birth, and we all share the wealth of the one same earth. We are one great song from the heart of God; we are all the beloved of the One Great Love” (All One People, Dan Schutte, sj, commissioned for the USCMA)