Planting a Garden, Growing a Community

Matthias McCoy-Thompson, Advocacy Intern | April 29, 2011 Print

Father Morton feels the garden has been a success

Upcoming Dates

“Father Al Utzig with members of the
community preparing the garden”

“Padre, que vamos a sembrar?” asked a child in his native Spanish, curiously questioning Father Bill Morton about what vegetables they would be planting that day in the local community garden. Like many community gardens springing up across the country, the project, undertaken by local Columban Fathers, is designed to promote community interaction and sustainable living. Unlike many community gardens growing  in lush suburban environments, this garden was growing in the harsh desert soil of urban El Paso, Texas, a twenty minute walk from the Mexican border.

Begun in late spring 2010, the garden has been a success. According to Father Morton, people in the area have shown increasing interest in the garden. He recalls numerous people passing by and asking, “Who are you? What are you planting? And in the ensuing conversations there will be suggestions, advice, as well as an invitation to join us in the spring.” Despite the harsh environment, crops flourished in the little plot last summer and plans are underway for a replanting this year.

But the plot of land was not always the flourishing environment it became last summer. When the primary coordinators of the project, Father Morton and Father Utzig, decided on the abandoned lot across the street, it was littered with trash, strewn with broken glass, infested with weeds and had a broken sidewalk. But they had a goal. According to Father Morton, “They wanted to bring people together, get children and young people engaged in something related to their existence: food.”

With their hard work, as well as the work of countless volunteers, including local community members and even out of state students, they turned the vacant lot into a garden. Father Morton recalls how volunteers from the Korean-American youth group led by Fr. Yong Hoon Choi who were visiting from Los Angeles spent, “fifteen hours of really dirty, sweaty labor” just to get the sidewalk in good shape. But the volunteers persisted, and soon the plot was an environment ripe for growing plump, juicy vegetables.

And the plump, juicy vegetables definitely came. Numerous tomatoes popped up next to a nice group of zucchinis, carrots, string beans, “frijoles” beans, jalapeños, bell peppers and one lone corn stalk. Watermelon and cantaloupe grew in the hot desert sun. An eggplant flourished. Even melon seeds that had accidentally been mixed in the compost sprouted in the previously inhospitable environment.
But, more importantly for Father Morton, what really sprouted was community engagement in where their food comes from. He says ”The garden makes access to produce something accessible and less mysterious and not dependent on people far away and far removed from our lives.” He hopes the local people become more engaged and knowledgeable about food production and that this will translate to a demand for government to ensure food safety, monitor fertilizers and restrict additives.

As neighbors come together first for the planting, then the harvest, and now a second planting for this summer, people are being brought together. Father Morton offers this analogy: “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.”
Father Morton has recognized a personal spiritual growth as well. He recalls, “Spending time preparing the garden, doing the back-breaking work of tilling, planting and cultivating, watering and having the pleasure of seeing things grow, can be life changing.” For him, the lessons were numerous, from faithfulness in the watering and weeding to gratitude in the first bite into a ripe tomato. He calls the garden his “therapy in a world where everything seems so complex, long-term and too often impossible to resolve. “

As the garden gears up for another planting this year, who knows what vegetables will sprout? But it is evident that, from community to political action to spiritual growth, the fruits of this garden are numerous.

May 14 – World Fair Trade Day

May 16 – Reception for Fr. Sean McDonagh, Washington, D.C. – email for more info

May 21 – Dancing for the World 2011- Filipiniana, Los Angeles, California

May 22- International Day for Biological Diversity

May 23- Columban Advocates Conference Call (join the Columban Advocates at

June 6 – Summer Advocacy Internship begins, Washington, D.C. Read their blog

June 18-27 – Mission Exposure Trip to Peru