Learning and growing go together in urban garden

On the north side of Kalamazoo there is a rich dark dirt that grows just about anything planted in it. And in a particular garden tucked away on North Westnedge there’s a lot more growing in the garden than vegetables. Some call it self esteem, some say it’s a new self-sufficiency. For others it is simply the appreciation of being outdoors, learning something new.

The Fair Food Matters Garden at 2119 N. Westnedge  is a place where a young person can plant  a seed, be gone for a few weeks, and when he comes back shouts in delight: “I grew a water melon.”

That kind of thing happens regularly, says Erica Barajas, garden manager. Each year since 2003, youngsters have come to the garden to learn what goes into growing food.

Although, the bulk of garden work is done by staff or volunteers -- no children do the heavy lifting of raising of the vegetables -- the youngsters do learn where food comes from and have hands on experiences with plants.

An educational staff leads them in lessons on soils. They get to see worms at work and find out about how important worms are in creating fertilizer that makes plants grow. And children who at first are afraid of the worms are soon wearing them up and down their arms.

On another day, they might experience music in the garden -- instruments made of seeds, drum circles and songs accompanied by guitar.

Simply paying attention to their environment is one more lesson. They count the number of different sounds you can hear -- birds, bugs, frogs and the wind in the trees.

They learn food preparation in lessons like making ranch dressing from scratch or refrigerator pickles.

The education focuses on food with a secondary goal of teaching appreciation and awareness of nature. This summer children enrolled through Family and Children Services are participating in the summer program. And earlier this year, students from the Milwood PASS Academy and the Arc Shelter offered by Catholic Family Services were able to visit the garden to learn lessons there.

“We try to have them connect their senses with nature and develop a connection with the earth,” Barajas says. Children are encouraged to talk to the plants as they harvest them.

It’s common for youngsters to come to the garden with no interest in growing things to find out they enjoy their time among the plants. “Gardening is demystified a little,” Barajas says.

Two paid staff and two college interns and as many as 50 volunteers at various times keep the garden program going. The Fair Food Matters garden program is paid for through grants, corporate and private donations. This year the Give Peas a Chance fundraiser also brought in contributions.

The Growing Matters Garden Program has a second location, the  Roots of Knowledge garden at Woodward Elementary School. At both gardens sustainable and organic practices are followed.

The bulk of the food grown in there sells at the 100 Mile Market at the People’s Food Co-op on Harrison or the Farmers Market at the Douglass Community Center that began this year. The garden originally was started as a way to raise vegetables for the co-op.

Today the garden has 6,000 square feet of growing space and 27 beds of plants. Barajas says one of the goals of the program is to raise vegetables in ways that are different from the typical monoculture garden. Instead of a bed dedicated corn, for instance, the Fair Food Matters garden has a bed where the “three sisters” grow together -- corn, beans and squash. On a walk through the garden, she shows how the beans grow right up the corn stalk.

“We don’t know exactly why they complement one another, but they do,” Barajas says.

So far this year, the garden has produced nearly 300 pounds of food. That’s 131 pounds of green onions, 20 pounds of green beans, 18 pounds of turnips, one pound of basil and 27 bundles of chives. When the tomatoes come in that will outweigh everything gathered so far. If past years are an indicator, the garden may produce as much as 700 pounds of food.

Not everything flourishes. This year a critter wiped out the kale crop, but the chard in the same bed is coming back. (The attack prompted children to create a scarecrow to drive off further invasions.)

During the walk between the beds of growing things, Barajas gives advice on edible weeds, pointing out how to identify lambs’ quarters (a silvery powder on its inner leaves) and purslane (a succulent).

Barajas learned her gardening skills in the Peace Corp in Bolivia, the high desert where it initially seemed nothing would grow. She quickly found out all kinds of plants would thrive in the garden and provide enough food to put in the school cafeteria. She also has done her own container gardening and has come to know what makes plants happy.

“I connect with the agriculture here,” Barajas says. “It reminds me of home.” She grew up in the San Fransisco Bay area and is proud that as her involvement in growing wild things has expanded her immediate family has become more interested in gardening, too.

Each time a new group of youngsters comes to the garden Barajas sees the same thing.

“There’s a lot of ‘I don’t want to do this.’ And it quickly turns into, “when are we doing that again?’ Soon they are loving it and having a lot of fun.”

Kathy Jennings edits Southwest Michigan's Second Wave. She is a freelance writer and editor.

Photos by Eric Holladay.

Erica Barajas in the garden on Westnedge.

Youngsters delight in learning to grow vegetables.

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