Dan Barker initiated the Home Gardening Project in 1984 and has since built, free of charge, more than fourteen hundred raised-bed vegetable gardens for the aged, the disabled, single mothers, and caring institutions. In 1996, arthritis, angst, and reduced funding led Barker to hang up his hammer and begin a foundation to help others start their own garden projects. He says this effort is “predicated on the notion that we’re all in this together, that nothing gets done unless you do it, that impoverishment is nonselective, and need universal.”
“Payday” is excerpted from Queen Jane, an unpublished narrative about Barker’s fourteen years of garden building. Though the book has been summarily rejected by all the better New York publishers (“It’s probably not going to be a bestseller” was one editor’s comment), the gardens, Barker says, are still feeding people’s stomachs and spirits. And new garden-building projects are rising up to help reduce the suffering. The Home Gardening Project Foundation can be reached at 8060 Upper Applegate Rd., Jacksonville, OR 97530-9314, or at www.teleport.com/~hgpf.
It’s summer, and I’m taking two women from a foundation that helps fund my work to see where the money is being spent, and if the money is being turned into productive, life-sustaining gardens. We come to a sort of shabby house with tomatoes planted in cracked urns on the steps, go through a plywood gate set on half a roller skate, and enter a back yard that has been completely denuded of plant life by a two-hundred-pound malamute. The mother of three orders the wolf-dog into its shed, then leads us around the side of the house to the small fenced patch where we built the garden.
Going through the garden gate, we are met by a swarm of vigorous, resplendent, superbly managed growth. Tomato vines bowed with fruit climb the trellis. Onions spike straight up between radiant heads of Red Sail lettuce. Squash vines spill along the fence tops, their bright horns of yellow flowers leading back to expanding pattypans and acorns. Here and there bloom blue ageratums and bright orange nasturtiums. Small clumps of new lettuce and spinach are sprouting from the dark, wet soil. It’s a scene as fertile as the inside of a young mother’s womb. Every inch of soil space is well occupied by plants, growing, producing, grandly healthy. The woman’s kids are grazing off the vines of peas and beans that have bounded from the frame and taken over the back wall. Ferny carrot tops and asparagus, interspersed among strawberries, are still dewy from watering, the sun’s dazzling waves captured by the drops on the leaves and transformed into glistening fire.
“This is a wonderful garden,” the taller of the two fund-management women says. The other, a shy scholar, looks perplexed. She probably thought all the gardens were going to black people. “How long have you been gardening?” she asks, and the young mother answers, between commands to her children, “This is my second — get off the fence, boys — garden, my first one with raised beds — I mean now.”
“But, Mom,” they whine in unison, “we’re hungry.”
“Well, save some for dinner. Other people live here, too.”
The kids offer a welcome rebuff: “Aw, Mom, we’re never going to run out of food.” She lets them eat; maybe now she won’t have to prepare lunch.
The tall woman asks a few more questions, but it’s just a formality; the gestalt of the garden and the family has fully penetrated. The inspectors kindly do not ask where the father is. We’ve seen no tools or dismantled cars or motorcycles to suggest a man’s presence: just three bikes in various stages of repair and the dog. The tall inspector wants to know if the raised beds are a better method of gardening, and the young mother says, “I had no idea that this kind of garden could be so productive and easy to manage. I don’t think I’m out here more than an hour or two a week. I just send one of the boys out to turn on the water in the evening. The beds are so full, no weeds sprout up. Not only is there enough for us, there’s enough for all the neighbors.”
“Are you going to do some canning?” the inspector asks. I interject with an offer to send along the address and schedule of the canning co-op, where clean, specialized equipment is available at no charge. The young mother accepts. (She will later become one of the planters with the Project and tend the gardens of people too old or frail to plant for themselves.)
We say our goodbyes, then crowd into the half-ton Ford that has hauled five hundred gardens, sheet metal showing through its floorboards, for the drive down Liberty Boulevard, a four-lane industrial byway neither of the women has ever traveled. The next garden is in a neighborhood they only suspected existed. Down 63rd, a narrow street with no sidewalks, past seedy, ramshackle dwellings composed of sheds and old single-wide trailers; past two-bedroom ranch-styles with peeling paint, their arborvitae hedges gone rusty from red-spider-mite infestation; past one-bedroom shacks that house couples locked into all-consuming hobbies like birds or yappy lap dogs or jigsaw figurines; past homes holding perpetual garage sales, their front yards cluttered with knickknacks.
We pull into a gravel driveway. The house is freshly painted, the flower beds weeded and planted with impatiens. A variegated box elder shades the mown lawn. The old folks who live here come through the screen door beaming glad-you’re-here smiles. The man looks a little lost, and I remember how he got in the way when we were building the garden, as if he’d been in front of the television so long he couldn’t remember that physical work required space and held danger. His wife in her apron is everyone’s grandmother, always busy in the kitchen. Her eyes shine as if she’s got something to show us.
And she does. We walk around the back of the house, through a narrow gate made from aluminum siding, and the memory of the womblike garden we’ve just visited is dwarfed by a veritable jungle of tomatoes and corn, completely filling the back yard, winter squash and cucumbers sprawling and vining ten feet high, beans planted Aztec-style, climbing the cornstalks. She’s planted not only the raised boxes but the paths between them, and her husband has laid down planks of wood for passage. The foliage is so thick, the fruits so abundant, that walking through the garden almost requires a machete. Without asking, she starts breaking off perfect ears of corn, filling a basket, and handing it to one of the inspectors. “Peck o’corn for ya, honey,” she says. “An’ you eat that. You’re way too thin. City life, huh?” Then she grabs me by the arm and plants a big wet kiss on my cheek, saying, “Look at this! We’re feeding everybody. The kids are afraid to come over anymore. We make them take a bag home for the grandkids. You knew this was going to happen, didn’t you?” My heart goes giddy, but I must remain reserved; the folks with the money are watching.
The old man chimes in, “Hell — sorry, Mom — heck, even the folks at the center are shying away from us. We show up with a trunkful,” he cackles. Then he says, “Wait a minute,” grabs a paper bag, and starts filling it with tomatoes. “You gotta take these home with you. They are the best we ever grew. Sweet, juicy as a young — sorry, Mom.” He hands it to the scholar. I detect a twinge of embarrassment in her face, as if she’s ashamed to be taking from the people the program is designed to help, but she graciously accepts the gift. The garden is in neither perfect order nor wild abandon; it is thick and bent with the harvest, but it feels as though, if it weren’t for the roots, it would wing right off into the sky.
“Mom” leads us inside, and, while we try to find comfortable positions in the narrow kitchen, she removes a tray of homemade chutneys from the refrigerator, ceremoniously adds a dozen demitasse spoons to the tray, then passes it to us. She’s been collecting the spoons for years, she says. They have enameled pictures of state flowers on them. The chutneys are piquant and delicious, and we’re all exchanging glances of surprise and making appreciative noises — and not out of politeness. Mom is delighted and beaming and just a tad smug. The food industry doesn’t have her convinced that science has made them better cooks.
So we come away from there with a peck of corn, ten pounds of tomatoes (four different kinds), many perfect summer squashes, several pint jars of chutney, and a quart Mason jar of superb salsa, which I get to take home. That, and a treasured memory.
But we’re not done, not by a long shot. Two good gardens out of a hundred aren’t sufficient to convince the inspectors to recommend spending forty-five thousand dollars over three years. They act reserved, unimpressed, as if they get shown the fruits of astonishing and Herculean tasks every day. And maybe they do.
So it’s on to old Mrs. Smith, who lives alone in her suburban house and is out in her garden when we pull up, watering in her tattered housedress and jeweled slippers. We approach the garden from the alleyway, and the scholar and Mrs. Smith, both black women, smile broadly at each other. The scholar asks Mrs. Smith if she has been enjoying her garden, and there is no hesitation to her response. Sunlight glints off a silver tooth, and her eyes shine. “Enjoying it? This is my garden! Mine. I’m out here every day. Just look! These cucumber vines are fifteen feet long — Burpless, you know. I’ve been eating out of this garden since the first of April. I’ve got collards all winter, pumpkins for the grandkids — they already have their names carved on them. They come over and water them. With the diabetes, I got to have fresh food. Look at my onions; they’re as big as baseballs.”
“The secret to growing giant pumpkins is sugar water,” I say. “Teaspoon per gallon, twice a week.”
Mrs. Smith winks at me. We’ve never met. She was gone to the doctor the day I came to build, so I cheated on the form. So what? She’s a great gardener.
“You know what this is, girl?” Mrs. Smith asks the scholar.
No, she’s never seen it.
“This is poke salad. From home.”
The scholar smiles shyly, showing teeth as perfect as orthodontics can produce.
We’re still chuckling at Mrs. Smith’s enthusiasm as we walk down the alleyway to the house next door, where the young mother tending her garden is not nearly so happy. She’s got a black eye and is trembling in shame. I feel a twist of heartache, a bilious anger, and a stab of guilt that I might have precipitated the violence by bringing her the garden and shaming him.
“I ain’t putting up with it anymore,” she declares — no hellos, no introductions; just a sympathetic presence is enough to start her talking. “I would’ve gone by now, but the garden is feeding us.”
“Take it with you,” I say. “It’s yours. It belongs to you. Find a friend with a truck, get a couple of shovels, and spirit it away while Bozo is out getting a six-pack.”
“I don’t have any friends. You don’t know what it’s like living with that asshole.”
I give her the number of the women’s shelter I built a garden for this spring, telling her to keep it hidden. (I’ll drop back by later in the summer, and the garden will be gone: taken or destroyed; I won’t know which.)
As we leave, I get the nape sensation of a rifle being aimed at us — just a feeling; I didn’t see a barrel poking through the back-bedroom drape. The inspectors step a little closer to me, hurrying me along toward the truck, eyes furtive and saddened. “How about one more,” I offer, “one on a major street?” They exchange a look of relief, and I hear the tall one say, “I’m sure glad he’s six-foot-three.”
We head out of the ramshackle neighborhood and onto the blacktop artery, a broad, residential two-lane that stretches thirty blocks without a stoplight or a store. The south-side boys use it to test their Firebirds and Camaros. Along the avenue I point out houses where I’ve built gardens: a widow, an old couple, a family man with Crohn’s disease, a middle-aged woman with mental afflictions who’s planted yellow wooden daisies among her salad crops. Several of the gardens are in the front yards, all of them growing quite nicely. I can see now that I don’t have to convince the inspectors; they’re won over. I almost suggest that we skip this last one, but I want to nullify the poison of our previous encounter.
We pull up in front of the corner house, and there’s the garden: two double-high soil frames in the front yard, spilling over with produce. A child with spina bifida is watering from her decal-decorated wheelchair. She’s dressed in stone-washed Levis and a colorful blouse, her pretty blond hair combed back into a country-girl ponytail. The soles of her running shoes are white and clean. This is her job, and the abundant garden attests to the fact that she takes it seriously. She is being supervised from the ramped porch by two other children in wheelchairs. In all, there are five children younger than fifteen, each born with congenital defects, living here under the care of a woman whose heart must be the size of New York.
The older woman who lives next door — the one who called to get the garden for them — comes over, crying. She gives me a big, sobbing hug, looks me straight in the eye, and says, “Do you have any idea what a blessing this has been for those kids?” She wipes her tears on my shoulder, then calls out, “Marjorie, come on out. The garden man is here.” And the caretaker appears in the doorway, wiping her hands on a tea towel. She’s frumpy and tired and doesn’t have time to chat. “All of those kids have been abandoned,” the neighbor tells us. “She gets $150 a month from the state for each kid. That’s it. She works all the time. I help when I can, but I’m getting too old to be much good.”
The three of us agree that we’ve seen enough for today, make some polite small talk, and are off, back to downtown. I’m not worried about funding from that foundation. I’ll be well received when I show up there.
For me, it is time for a silver bullet — Tanqueray and a blush of vermouth. Maybe two. With big olives. If the scent of fresh ginger is ecstasy, plant ginger.