Former master gardener and First Congregational UCC congregant Tom Harris agreed to meet with me to share his thoughts, concerns, and experiences as a gardener. His parents had a big garden when he was young so he fell into gardening naturally. Harris’s own children enjoyed the vegetables he grew, and when his wife, Judy, who was accustomed to eating vegetables out of a can, was introduced to vegetables fresh from the garden, she became a fan. Nothing beats fresh! He says, “I used to say, put a pot of water on to boil, go out and get your corn, bring it in and put it in the pot. It’s so sweet!”
Tom and Judy grow approximately 8 different kinds of vegetables: beans, pea pods, zucchini, garlic, chives, beets, a number of different kinds of lettuce, kale, kohlrabi, and they also grow an assortment of herbs, which Judy dries and uses in the winter months. “It’s fun!” Tom has even grown cherry trees, which aren’t supposed to do well in northern Illinois. “I did extremely well for a couple of years except that the birds ate them before I got there, but that happens. That’s the way it goes.”
Thirteen years ago, Tom and Judy thought it might be a good idea to hold a plant sale to raise money for various special needs groups. “A church that Judy was in earlier had a sale of vegetables and some plants, things of the sort, and they made a lot of money.” They decided to try to hold a plant sale, too. It’s been a very successful venture which is now being conducted by fellow congregant Jerry Gorshels.
The garden efforts expanded when Tom’s friend, Skip Mecklenburg, joined the church. “He was a farmer, and he had a truck, and he loved to do farming, and so we got together and said, ‘Hey, we could grow plants and do things for others.’ We started the garden in the back of church. Skip had a rototiller and we put in for some money from the Illinois synod. I think it was $1,100 or something like that that we got, which was fantastic because we were able to pay for gas and fence posts, and a lot of materials were donated. I could go down a list of all the people involved.” The church community got behind the project. “It was fun, even when the ground hogs came. We watched the deer jump over the fences and into the garden, eating the produce. I think the most we ever counted going into the garden was something like 12 deer inside.”
Eventually, Skip moved away and others stepped up to help. “The Harnesses, Jeff and his son Troy worked one year for a program that had to do with Scouts. The kids took care of it. Another year it was Eric and Carly Hill. Actually, it was two years that they were involved.
“All of the monies generated by the Plant Sale go to groups that have special needs: Hope Haven, Safe Passage, Habitat for Humanity, CASA, groups such as that. There’s a list of six of them, I believe. So that’s where all the money went. I’ve often said we work awfully hard to give it all away. But it is a good feeling. The more we can do for others, the better we feel about ourselves. It isn’t just give to be giving; it’s just, hey, it makes us feel like we’re trying hard to do something good. We don’t do it for the attention; we do it because we know people really need it.”
There are others who have contributed most recently to the gardening effort. Congregants Ken and Jody Burton donated the supplies to build raised garden boxes, three of which went to Hope Haven, two at the apartments at Hope Haven, and two at the church, which the Sunday School kids cultivate.
In those boxes, the kids grow vegetables. In addition, plants that are left over from our plant sale go to Safe Passage. “We also give our perennials to the Garden Club because they’re non-profit. Then we also give perennials to the Master Gardeners, whose money is, of course, helping all the different areas that wouldn’t have flowers or are food deserts. Master Gardeners take care of several homes, the county homes. They’ve been taking care of them for years. They also put in flowers for the city in different areas to beautify.”
“So anything we have, we pass on. It’s a way of helping others. We’re not competing or trying to beat each other.” Cooperation and interconnection, that’s the aim.
It should be obvious at this point that community outreach has knit us into a network that works to support, nurture, and encourage people in a number of ways. That same process of one thing being influenced and supported by the next is mirrored in Nature itself. “We’re all interrelated and we’re all helping each other in different ways. Everyone has a place, plays a role. Everyone.”
In that same way, Tom and a number of other gardeners I’ve known share a reverence and amazement for how everything in Nature is also interrelated. For them, everything has a place. Tom shared a book with me that explains that “we need just the right amount of green and brown materials, and nitrogen and water and air. It’s wonderful, and it all works together.” That book, entitled Teaming with Microbes: A Guide to the Soil Food Web by authors Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis explains that in one square foot of good soil, you’ll have 10 to 50 worms in it alone. You’ll have a “soil food web,” that is heavily populated and nourished by bacteria, fungi, insects, a microcosmic world without which we are hard-pressed to grow the food we need to survive. The chemicals we use to grow our food may yield produce while blocking some of these organisms, but what are their long term ramifications of doing so?
Chemicals in herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, or simple chemicals like road salt all interrupt the natural balance inherent and essential to that microscopic world. Tom explains that even run-off from road salt into farm fields will leave those fields infertile—permanently. In the last chapters of their book, Lowenfels and Lewis point out that “no one ever fertilized a forest.” They and other environmentalists ask us to consider our need for caution. Tom says, “We should take from that that you don’t have to use chemicals for a good life to happen in a forest” or in our gardens. “We do need to be very sensitive to all the chemicals that we’re using. Wanting to be a farmer at one time, I don’t want to be negative toward farmers in any way. That’s their livelihood, but if it’s the food I’m putting into my system, I really want it to be as close to organic as possible.”