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A bit of earth Shared plot welcomes Kenyans, Sri Lankans

  • Published Friday, July 19, 2013, at 2:07 p.m.
  • Updated Saturday, July 20, 2013, at 7:23 a.m.

Stuff the wheelbarrow

You can donate fresh fruits and vegetables from your garden for the needy at Tomato Day on July 27. Until then — and afterward — donations can be made to Plant a Row for the Hungry during business hours at these locations:

• Kansas Food Bank, 1919 E. Douglas

• Augusta Ace Home Center, 316 W. Seventh Ave., Augusta

• Brady Nursery, 11200 W. Kellogg

• Hillside Nursery, 2200 S. Hillside

• Hillside Feed and Seed, 1805 S. Hillside

• Johnson’s Garden Centers, 802 N. Ridge Road, 21st and Woodlawn, 2707 W. 13th St.

• Valley Feed & Seed, 1903 S. Meridian.

“It’s that time,” Albert Ogenche says with a knowing smile as night begins to fall over the community garden just east of Webb Road on Harry.

Storm clouds on the western horizon have brought an early end to one of the hottest days of the summer, but the people descending on the garden aren’t counting on the clouds to bring rain.

Instead, they’re dragging hoses, hooking up sprinklers and sending streams of water over the fruits and vegetables that they’re shepherding toward harvest, taking advantage of the relative coolness of the evening, which at this point is getting on toward 9 o’clock.

It’s a strange and wonderful scene on many fronts: several heads bent in labor in the twilight over a large enclosed garden in the shadow of a new Wal-Mart, the sounds of an African dialect rising from a group of Kenyans working their plots, a couple from Sri Lanka on one side of them, a neighborhood teenager on the other, laughter rippling across the tops of the plants.

It’s the third year for the community garden behind The Journey Church at 9999 E. Harry, and after two brutal summers, when many of the plots went unclaimed, this year it is starting to shine. And not only because of the beneficent weather.

Charity begins at home

Alan and Carol Roth belong to the church and manage the garden, making the trip from their home up north at Larksfield Place a couple of times a day to tend to the necessary tasks. A realization hit them just before this year’s growing season, as they helped feed local children during spring break, and it caused the garden’s 35 plots to quickly fill up.

“We've been doing a lot for people overseas with the church,” Alan Roth says. “But we hadn't thought about doing much for people in Wichita.

“I told the gardeners if they would take a second plot to raise produce to donate to Mennonite Housing and Plant a Row for the Hungry, they could have both rent-free. We would get donations for water.”

Returning gardeners embraced the idea, increasing their acreage, and the church also ended up helping foreigners in another way, through the international community at Wichita State. Albert Ogenche from Kenya, an electrical-engineering student, found out about the garden during Earth Day activities on campus. He grew up farming and was thrilled to get a chance to cultivate African crops in Wichita.

Chamila Kadigamuwa and Sumudu Mapa, a husband and wife from Sri Lanka, similarly drive over from their apartment near WSU, happy to tend four plots full of beans, okra, chiles, tomatoes and cabbage.

The Roths made the plots available to the foreigners for free, knowing that students are sharing the produce with their friends. “We thought it was a way to show them the love of God,” Alan Roth says.

Albert is feeling the love.

“They gave us the farm for free,” he tells me, going so far as to thank me. When I demur, he says, “You guys are the country,” referring to the kindness of Americans.

Okra for a crowd

The presence of the foreigners and the friends who help them garden only adds to the richness that Vanessa Crawford, who lives in an apartment at Pawnee and Rock Road, had already found in the community garden. The church sits on 10 acres, half of it in grass, which gives the garden distance from the nearest neighborhood to the south and the Wal-Mart to the west.

“It’s just awesome if you don’t have any land,” Vanessa says. “It’s so relaxing and wonderful, and you learn so much from your neighbors.”

This year Vanessa bit off a bit too much, however; she took eight plots rather than the six she had last year.

“For me it's really funny: You can buy a package of okra seed for $1.49 or a whole plant for $1.49. It's more fun to plant the whole packet of seed and give the okra away.”

While Vanessa has found that keeping the weeds down on eight plots has been impossible, she has found people to share her okra – and watermelon, eggplant, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, broccoli, squash, zucchini, sugar-snap peas, cantaloupe, corn, green beans, kale, spinach, red potatoes, white potatoes, onions, carrots and honeydew melon – with.

“I'm weird. I went to IHOP after church this one Sunday and this beautiful family came in with their kids, and they were well-behaved, just a good-lookin’ family,” Vanessa says. She approached the mother of the family and found out that the couple had seven children under age 11. Vanessa offered to share her garden produce with them if the mother would give her a call. The mother did, a couple of weeks ago.

“It was just perfect,” Vanessa says. “Just as we started pulling stuff out of the garden.”

Gardening in groups

Because of a “really wild” work schedule, Vanessa can be found watering and weeding any time of the day. Or middle of the night. She feels safe in the lights of Wal-Mart when it’s dark.

But when she comes at more social parts of the day, talking with her fellow gardeners can take her focus off the weeding. The presence of the Kenyans and Sri Lankans this summer has only increased that.

“They say, ‘We want to learn how Americans do it.’ It's hysterical because they've been farming since they've been in the womb. The kids from Sri Lanka are having a blast. Foreigners always garden in groups. They plant a lot, and they have their friends coming and going, so it's never boring.

“It's fascinating: We hide our gardens in our backyards and get mad because we're doing it alone.”

One of the things Albert learned about soon after coming to the community garden was the tiller. After he and his friends worked half their plots with a broad-bladed hoe, they were told: You don’t need to do that! We have a tiller! But even after the rest of their plots were cultivated with the tiller, “we just wanted to go African on it,” Albert says. So they took the hoe to the soil as well. He points out that the doubly-worked soil is much more weed-free than that which was hoed only.

“Your farming is more machine-like and efficient,” Albert says, pointing to light-green hoses in between the garden plots. In Kenya, there’s a lot of rain; otherwise Kenyans fetch water in buckets to the farm, or better yet, plant the garden by the river.

A green harvest

“We eat a lot of leaves,” Albert tells me. Vanessa is growing pumpkins, and he’s growing African pumpkins, but guess what Albert plans to do with the plants? Harvest the leaves. The same thing with the pinto-bean plants in his plots. If he wants beans? “Here we know we’re going to get it from Wal-Mart,” he says.

On this particular evening, a fellow Kenyan and friend, Damaris Nyaega, arrives with her toddler daughter, one of several friends who help Albert tend his “farm.” With quick movements, Damaris swipes leaves off the upper stems of Cleome gynandra, a plant that Albert says has medicinal qualities but can be a bit bitter. Damaris seems to have a bottomless hand as she stuffs it with leaves before dropping them in a plastic Target bag at her side.

Kenyans grind corn into flour (what we refer to as cornmeal) and cook it with water to make a polenta-like dish that serves as a base for much of what they eat, including the greens and beans.

The leaves of the cleome will be boiled, Albert explains, and then fried with tomatoes, onions and oil to accompany the corn-flour dish.

Next is a plant with bigger leaves — managu, or Solanum psedocapsicum. I recognize pepper in the “capsicum,” and Albert confirms the heat.

“We need a lot of tomatoes for cooking that guy,” he says charmingly.

Do fence me in

Albert says that his grandmother set the tone for his work on the family farm when he was growing up. Her thought: “If we worked hard at the farm it would translate to school.” He’s now working on his master’s at Wichita State.

Bonnie Clough arrives at the garden next. She can’t stand hot weather, and usually comes early in the morning, as soon as it’s light enough to see. But she hadn’t been able to this morning.

“It’s not bad when the sun goes down,” she says, her hose peacefully pouring water over an unclaimed plot that she filled with cantaloupes that she plans to give away. She was one of the first gardeners to take plots when the garden opened three years ago. She was driving by the church and saw the garden advertised on the sign outside, and “I ran home and told my husband. I thought everyone would come and want to do it.” She showed up early when it came time to sign up for plots, but she hadn’t needed to. Only a few people were interested that first year.

“We had a garden dinner tonight,” Bonnie says, ticking off a menu of potatoes, corn, onions and peppers from the garden, along with zucchini muffins she had made in the morning.

Bonnie still can’t get over the difference that a split-rail fence surrounding the garden has made this year. “They just put up the fence this spring, and it’s so pretty,” she says. The bottom section of the fence is covered in chicken wire to keep the rabbits out. It’s also discouraged kids who used to cut across the garden, Alan Roth figures. The structure heightens the gardeners’ sense of place and belonging.

“The garden looks great this year,” Roth says. And it gives even better.

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