In the midst of a hot, miserable summer that will no doubt go down as a low point in Wichita gardening history, a new community garden has seemingly been singularly blessed.
It was the idea of erstwhile garden volunteer Kathy Huschka as she prepared to retire as a teacher from Northwest High. She approached the Arc of Sedgwick County — home of the Lights on St. Paul in the cold season — and asked if there might be room there at Second Street and St. Paul to turn over some earth.
The Arc is a nonprofit agency that serves people with developmental disabilities, and Kathy thought some of them might be interested in learning about gardening and gleaning some of their own healthy food.
Arc program director Marty Rothwell thought Kathy was crazy — but that's kind of how he rolls.
"That's kind of what we've done at the Arc is give support to let people dream," Marty told me last week.
So he gave Kathy some space in which to dream — the Bermuda-grass yard behind the bus barn where some of the frames for the holiday Lights on St. Paul were stored.
The simplicity and straightforwardness with which this garden developed blows over me like a cool breeze.
Children who have been served by the Arc often stay involved in it as adults, giving back and continuing to learn and grow. The Arc calls them self-advocates, and several of them, as Kathy hoped, gravitated to the garden.
"About 10 of them have jumped on it," Marty said.
One of the self-advocates was adamant about not using chemical pesticides, so the gardeners formed garden beds by putting down newspaper and shading out the Bermuda grass.
They didn't have any compost to put in the raised beds that they and other volunteers built, so they mixed up topsoil with whole leaves. They gathered bags of leaves from the curbs of houses in the neighborhood.
(For those of us without shredders and tillers, whole leaves have always stood as an obstacle to compost. Shredded leaves break down more quickly. But that doesn't mean whole leaves don't break down. I feel newly justified.)
"The advocates love to water," Kathy said. And when a hose sprung a leak, they put a plastic Rubbermaid bin under the leak to catch the water and return it to the garden.
Kathy knew that the garden had rooted into people when some of the men started bringing their own equipment from home. One recent evening, self-advocate Marvin Patterson swiped back encroaching Bermuda with his own string trimmer.
Terri Thomas is the self-advocate who has probably jumped in the most. She's always there with Kathy for the twice-weekly evenings in the garden — none of which was missed even during the high heat of summer.
"We couldn't miss," Kathy said. The garden would go if they did.
Most of the self-advocates have jobs, and some have children, and adding in volunteer time in the garden can be tricky.
"I never know" how many are going to be there on any given gardening night, Kathy said. "Sometimes I might have nine, 15, four."
When the okra harvest started coming in, curiosity built. Most of the self-advocates had never tasted it before. So one night, the group cooked it up instead of working in the garden.
When they tasted the fruits of their labor, "the expression on their face was as valuable as anything I've ever seen," Marty said.
And the gardeners are growing in confidence — knowing enough to jump in and try something new. One garden bed is full of whatever they want to experiment with, including corn, peppers, melons and sweet potatoes.
Even Kathy hadn't grown corn or melons before, and she's learning some things.
"Look at all those sweet potatoes," Kathy said to Terri. "That's going to be fun in October."
The garden was producing tomatoes when most of us were heading to the farmers market in search of them, because they weren't in our backyards.
"I don't think the bugs have found us yet. There's never been a garden here before," Kathy said.
Master gardeners also have jumped in to help, and some of them have built a beautiful three-compartment compost bin for the garden. Last week, Terri arrived at the garden lugging two bags of leaves she'd found on a curb, along with a bag of kitchen refuse that she'd saved for the compost bin.
The garden is very restful, with flower beds and what has become the trademark plant of the garden — rose of Sharon. When Kathy was tossing ideas about a name for the garden over in her head one night, a play on words entered in — rows of sharin'.
Name of garden found.
There was a reason the garden needed a name. New garden beds have been mapped out with newspaper, and they'll be open to neighbors who are interested in a plot next spring.
"In years to come as they open it up to the neighborhood and they're donating what they grow to food banks, I think they're really going to grow in appreciation," Marty said.
In a year when gardeners are counting their losses, it's nice to remember that Mother Earth still responds with blessings.