COLUMBIA — The commotion of digging holes and discussing plans for planting was just too much for 5-year-old Christopher Samuels. He picked up a tomato plant, ran up to John Dunbar, who was doing some of the planting, and asked, “Can I help?”
When no one immediately answered, Christopher asked again in a much bigger voice: "Can I help?"
Dunbar knelt down and told him to put the plant in one of the newly dug holes. Christopher struggled to remove the little plant from its plastic holder, so Dunbar popped it out and then handed it back to Christopher to plant. He placed it gently in the ground, a smile of sheer joy across his face.
The new garden at Harbor House, a residential arm of the Salvation Army, is part of the Community Garden Coalition, a not-for-profit volunteer organization that supplies plots, gardening supplies and support to up-and-coming gardeners in Columbia. Most of the meals at Harbor House, 602 N. Ann St., are made from donated canned goods including mixed vegetables, tomatoes and refried beans. But this fall, because of the new garden, the menu will include the fresh tomatoes, cabbage and strawberries.
“We are trying to help nurture (residents') lives and give them an opportunity to be involved in nurturing a garden, because gardening is nurturing and our work – Salvation Army work – is about nurturing people’s lives,” said Maj. K. Kendall Mathews, regional coordinator for the Salvation Army.
The Salvation Army garden is part of a bigger movement. This year, the Community Garden Coalition in Columbia has about 50 more gardeners than last year with 250 gardeners, families and groups participating. Bill McKelvey, president of the board for the coalition, said the influx of gardeners stems from concern about the economic downturn and an increased desire for fresh food.
“In part, people are concerned about the economy and they are looking for ways to save money on their food bill,” McKelvey said. “People are also really starting to wake up to this idea of knowing where your food comes from.”
Mathews started gardening projects this year for Salvation Army residents in Columbia and Jefferson City. The residents at each location are to be responsible for tending the plants. Harbor House serves 27,000 meals per year, and Mathews said he hopes that 5,000 of those will incorporate the fresh produce the residents are growing.
Mathews, who has lived in Columbia for a year, is approaching this project with a preacher’s zeal. He describes himself as a “servant leader” and said he is willing to make personal sacrifices to motivate residents to participate in the garden.
“I’m willing to get dirty, get in there and get involved — stand in there with the people and say, 'I’m here to help, I’m here to help, I’m here to help,'” he said.
Mathews knows about the power of gardening from experience; he learned about gardening from his father and grandfather and said this “generational gardening” has formed his character, his work ethic and his perseverance.
“Gardening is such a part of who I am and helped to mold who I am,” said Mathews, whose favorites are mustard greens and collard greens. “I just had to have a garden one way or another.”
He wants the garden's new caretakers to share his passion. “I think that we are offering them a chance to play an active role in improving their health, their physical health, because they will be consuming and partaking of fresh vegetables,” Mathews said.
Dele Williams, coordinator for the gardening project on Ann Street and a drug counselor for the Salvation Army, said she got involved with the project because she understands the hard times residents are facing.
“It’s tough to be homeless," Williams said. "This being able to get the clients involved in something other than their crisis I think will help them a lot.”
Dunbar said that for residents willing to get involved, the garden provides focus. Last year, he made $1,500 a week as a commercial vehicle transporter. He was then unable to find a job but just recently started driving for Tiger Taxi. The lesson to be learned from the garden is related, he said: “to keep motivated, track the situation that’s going on so they don’t get behind and stay focused.”
Columbia's community gardening movement
The Community Garden Coalition has more than 20 community and group gardens. Each is run differently.
“The Benton-Stephens garden is unique in that they are attempting to have both space for individual plots and space to do some shared gardening,” McKelvey said. He gardens at the Ash Street Garden and is mostly planting sweet potatoes and black-eyed peas in his plot this season.
The plots are open to community members to grow whatever they want. New to the coalition this year is Centro Latino. The Cesar Chavez garden, which is part of the Ash Street community garden, is broken up into nine plots. Mary Ella Steck, a volunteer coordinator for Centro Latino, has her own plot there and grows herbs, tomatoes, peppers, lettuce and arugula.
The garden is aimed specifically at the Latino community, for inexperienced gardeners to get help from experienced gardeners. Centro Latino started the garden because the organization "is very interested in promoting healthy living through a plant-based diet," Steck said.
McKelvey said he's noticed people wanting to have a more involved role in providing their own food, whether through gardening or shopping at a farmers market.
On April 24, residents at Harbor House planted bell peppers, habanero peppers, strawberries, Roma tomatoes, cayenne peppers, bell peppers, tomatoes, cauliflower, broccoli and cabbage in the 30-by-100-foot plot. Like Christopher, the boy who wanted to plant the tomato, 7-year-old Raychel Karhoff was full of energy for the project.
"Are those little lines the roots?" she asked anyone who would listen. "Where are the strawberries?" Raychel decided to gather up the empty plastic plant holders so that she could help without getting her pink dress dirty.
A day earlier, Mathews had waxed on the garden's symbolism. “You sow the seed and you reap what you sow, and we are hoping that our beneficiaries will sow the plants and reap the harvest,” he said. “And we want to sow salvation; we want to sow hope into them. We want to sow seeds of love and joy so that they will reap the harvest, which is a more productive life.”
Williams said she is impressed with the involvement of the children, some of whom are just learning that the food they buy at the grocery store has to be grown somewhere. Tomatoes, she said, are great for children to grow because they are relatively easy and will be fun to harvest. A plastic orange fence was just put up to keep out rabbits, she said.
Originally, Mathews wanted to have the garden in a plot behind the Salvation Army headquarters on Ash Street but was told the soil there has too much clay in it. The soil at Harbor House was more suitable for growing, though at first it didn't seem that way because the topsoil was dry and cracked, he said. But underneath was cool, moist soil.
The residents will use compost to fertilize the garden. Mathews said his battle cry is, “Gardening! Going green!"
"I’m just excited about it because it teaches the value of taking advantage of our natural resources, our God-given resources,” he said. “We don’t want anyone to go hungry. We want them to learn to feed themselves and be free from starvation — that’s physically and spiritually.”