Garden grows bumper crop of fresh food, sense of community

Garden grows bumper crop of fresh food, sense of community
JEFF-VANDER-LOU – Walking to the nearest grocery store and back with fresh produce would cost Rosie Willis, a senior citizen, about an hour and a half.

But in less than a minute, she can walk right across the street to her own Fresh Starts Community Garden, at 2901 Dayton Street. And it not only saves her a long walk, it saves her dollars.

Willis says it would cost her about $2 to purchase four peppers, but one 25-cent pack of pepper seeds would grow enough peppers to feed everyone in her immediate Jeff-Vander-Lou neighborhood.

“You see that squash growing down there, it came from one seed, so people can save a lot of money by planting their own garden,” said Willis, whose community garden turned 10 years old in April.

And plenty of people do grow their own produce and save.  Her 55-bed community garden is nearly full with gardeners, most of whom who come from other areas. One gardener used to come from as far away as Jefferson Barracks (but she worked in St. Louis).

Dr. Jeremy Goss, who is back and forth between Connecticut and St. Louis, has several beds at the garden. He is also the founder of the Metro Market, a nonprofit mobile produce bus that serves people in distressed communities. He donates money to the garden and stocks his bus and two kiosks here with yields from the garden.

Darin Lewis, who lives in south St. Louis, has three beds, two for him and his wife and one for his aunt, who told him about the garden that he has fallen in love with.

“This is so beautiful,” said Lewis, who used to garden in his window above a cafe where he lives. “Each and every time I come out here it is so peaceful, and you get to meet other gardeners and trade crops.”

Along with learning, Lewis said, he especially enjoys the process of planting and growing his own food and knowing where it comes from and what’s in it.

Willis excitedly teaches new gardeners, and on Tuesdays guest presenters talk to seniors about gardening, nutrition and healthy eating.  Some presenters even cook items in the garden, which is well equipped.

Along with a shed full every imaginable gardening tool, there’s a power generator, water faucets, a barbecue grill, seating and gazebos (one of which was blown away by a storm).

The garden has a cornucopia of vegetables including three kinds of greens (collard, turnip and mustard), sweet potatoes, onions, okra, squash, chard, chives, carrots, tomatoes, kale, beets, peppers and lettuce. Fruits include blackberries, peach and pear trees. And a 9-year-old girl from the neighborhood grows watermelon and cantaloupe.

“I’m so proud of her because you don’t want to put too much in your garden bed and you try to grow what you like to eat,” Willis said.

Willis has a free-for-all bed where she offers area residents crops and sometimes barters labor with those with able bodies.

She acknowledges that many in the area don’t participate, but it was a community of people that helped her to get started.

19th Ward Alderwoman Marlene Davis was instrumental in getting the city, which offered the lot for $1 per year, to pour money into the garden for a fence, a large shed and irrigation plumbing.

An area lumber store provided wood for the garden beds until Willis was able to repay. Some of the money came from gardeners, who pay $20 per year per bed.

Constance Siu, community engagement specialist for the North Newstead Association, which facilitates some of the workshops for older adults, was on hand Tuesday, picking greens for her boss. And giving back.

“You get to give back to the community, and you can build relationships and just sit in the garden,” said Siu, who also volunteers in the garden.

Willis, a retired job developer for the state of Missouri and a former home daycare owner, said she was also motivated to start the garden because the lot that it now grows on was an eyesore.

She remembers how piles of trash and other dumped waste kept growing and she decided she would grow something else there.

“I looked around at how this horrible this neighborhood looked and I said, ‘I’m sure there’s something positive that I can put on this lot instead of all this trash and dumping all around here,’” Willis said.

Today it is a lot of beauty, serenity, savings and nutrition.