Basil picked by the fistful filled the air with the distinctive spicy green fragrance of herbs.
Adding a dice of garlic, cups of Parmesan and walnuts, a pinch of salt and a swirl of olive oil turns the basil into a pesto that helps put the taste of gardening into the workers who picked it.
“I’ve learned a lot and I love the taste tests,” Trevor Ward said as he and other members of a five-person crew turn out the pesto around a picnic table at Legacy GardenWorks just south of downtown.
Legacy is a very small urban farm – or very large urban garden, depending on how you want to measure it, its manager says – that puts at-risk youth to work in paying jobs, distributes the produce at a farm stand for donations, and spreads the joy through farm-to-table brunches once a month.
Jars of the emerald pesto go for $4 at the produce stand, situated under shade trees in front of the Legacy House at 945 S. Wichita, from 10 a.m. to noon Saturdays.
Legacy GardenWorks is an extension of Legacy Ministries, which has offered youth art classes and camps for years in Wichita, “from pottery to film-making and everything in between,” said Lauren Scislowski, program director for Legacy GardenWorks.
“We wanted to reach out to youth in our community who didn’t have a lot of other opportunities to connect to the earth and to where food comes from and to meaningful jobs,” Scislowski said.
“We were already passionate about gardening. It seemed like a good fit for opportunities and resources.”
Between 6,000 and 7,000 square feet of empty property in a residential neighborhood just a few blocks south of Century II are in garden production, spread between three different lots. One, on the west bank of the river, is owned by BG Products up the street. The practices are organic; the produce representing a little bit of everything, some of it exotic.
Teens and those a bit older – ages 15 to 22 – are hired seasonally, five to 10 at a time, to work in and for the garden. They start seeds in February, plant in the spring, harvest in the summer and make applesauce and apple butter in the fall.
“It’s something to do, so that makes me happy,” one of the summer workers, Michaela High, 18, said. “I learn something. It’s better than sitting around the house. And I get paid for it. I don’t really focus on that.”
Instead, High talked about how she likes to make the samples that go out on the produce stand to help people see how to use the fresh vegetables.
Three part-time staff members, including Scislowski, supervise the workers and mentor them along the way. Together, they discover the mysteries of the garden.
We tasted a Blue Beauty tomato, which turns less blue and more red as it ripens, and whose edges are only occasionally tinged blue when it’s sliced. We decided it’s good, less acidic than other tomatoes.
“I like learning how to harvest potatoes,” High said. “You don’t just pull them out of the ground; you have to dig around them, because there’s more potatoes. It’s super fun but it’s super dirty.”
Keosha Fletcher has liked picking beans, because she’d never seen them outside of a can before.
“There’s one called Dragon Tongue, and they’re white and purple,” and Fletcher sampled them right off the vine. “They were good.”
Once a month the garden puts on a farm-to-table brunch with as much produce as possible from the garden, rounded out by food from other area farms. The July brunch last week featured a variety of tomatoes in a tomato salad and beans from the garden, homemade bread, local fruit, a casserole made with Hutchinson dairy, and local duck eggs.
The next brunch will be Aug. 30, the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, in the garden. Anyone can attend. The cost is $15; registration is online at www.legacygardenworks.org. I saw a poster for the last one at the Douglas Avenue Chop Shop downtown.
The produce stand also is a handy stop for the neighborhood, which Scislowski considers to be close to if not officially a food desert.
“A lot of people around here go to QuikTrip,” she said.
Legacy sees its GardenWorks as “food empowerment, to educate people to think differently about food,” Scislowski said.
Money for all the Legacy operations comes from the produce stand and the brunches and donations. The Muse cafe at the Wichita Art Museum bought some of the garden’s greens in the spring.
As in any garden, it’s fun to watch what you plant grow – and it requires lots of weeding, which everyone likes to complain about, especially this prolific year. On one of those unusually cool July days we enjoyed earlier this week, Fletcher got into a groove with it and didn’t want to stop.
When I told her that some women who are veteran gardeners have told me that their favorite task in the garden is weeding, it suddenly makes sense.
“I’m a garden lady!” she exclaimed. “Whoo!”