Preparing the earth is a labor of love for gardeners in the Community Garden Coalition. For Zackary Riley, it’s also a way to give back to someone who gave a lot to him: his late girlfriend, Autumn Cox.
Earlier in the spring, Riley was moved to donate a strip of land on Seventh Street and 10 acres near the Lake of the Woods, east of Columbia, to the coalition.
The Autumn Cox Memorial Garden at 1004 N. Seventh St., a little way from the home that Riley and Cox used to share, has a water source and plenty of open space.
Now that it has more land, the coalition needs more gardeners, said Karen Dwyer, the group’s president.
“We’d like people to know about all of the community gardens and to let people know that we’re here in case they want to get one in their neighborhoods,” Dwyer said.
Reserving a garden plot is free, and seeds and tools are provided.
Julie Davis and Chris Schenewerk are old friends who have recently taken advantage of the available garden space. They meet for breakfast every Sunday, catch up and then head to the garden to tend their plot. Davis said she has room to garden at her home, but it’s too shady.
“At first, I didn’t understand that I’d be gardening for myself,” Davis said. “I thought I’d be gardening for other people. Either way, it’s cool.”
Davis and Schenewerk are using their plot to grow tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, carrots, squash, radishes, sage and beans. They opted to buy their own seeds and plants, so the start-up cost was about $25.
“Pending success, we’ll indulge, and then I’ll imagine we’ll donate it,” Davis said.
Dwyer, charged by the enthusiasm of new coalition members, wants to make food donations a focus on the new 10-acre plot. She said the coalition is encouraging its gardeners to “plant a row for the hungry.” She said she hopes a substantial portion of the acreage will yield produce for the Central Missouri Food Bank.
All they need now are willing gardeners.
“Donations from folks who have gardens, whether individuals or organizations, are important for what we do — we distribute them through our food pantries,” said Peggy Kirkpatrick, executive director of the food bank. She said the size of the donation isn’t nearly as important as the fact that people are getting personally involved in the lives of the needy.
Humanitarian concerns and honoring the memory of his girlfriend were main motivations for Riley’s donations.
“Autumn was big on civil rights and freedom and taking care of what people need,” he said. “I’m hoping to be a little more like her now that she’s gone. I’m trying to be a better person, like she was.”
The couple’s 14-year romance ended abruptly last February when Cox died in what was ruled a suicide. Riley thinks the fiery car crash that ended Cox’s life was a result of corticosteroid psychosis, which he said is a side effect of the steroids in asthma medication she had just begun to take.
After Cox died, Riley found out from her mother that Cox had gardened in the community garden 15 years ago, before the couple met. Riley recalled that Cox used to plant a lot of flowers every year and that when he ran into the Community Garden Coalition’s booth at an Earth Day celebration downtown, he decided to donate the land he and Cox owned on Seventh Street and near Lake of the Woods.
Dwyer says that although Riley’s donation is not the largest ever received, it is definitely one of the biggest. “Especially his Lake of the Woods property,” she said. “It’ll let us feed a lot of people.”