Springfield community garden provides lessons for amateur gardeners

As Labor Day arrives, the plots are not thickening at the Jefferson Street Oasis Garden.

They are thinning as gardeners reap their final harvests of beets, broccoli, cabbage and collard greens; cantaloupe, corn, cucumbers and green beans; kohlrabi and okra; and potatoes, tomatoes, watermelon and zucchini.

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And so the sixth season of the acre-and-a-quarter community garden behind the Gopher Dome at the former site of St. Mary’s Catholic Church on Springfield’s West Side will conclude like the first five.

That means it was yet another year of growth for the gardeners, who are allotted free plots to work, and their plants.

Adriel Jones, a 33-year-old whose run-in with cancer “made me choosy about what I put in my body,” was “all in” earlier this year when she heard about the free garden space from her sister Courtney, who works at the Clark County Public Library.

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“I’m all about being healthy,” said Jones. That goes not only for herself but for her three children, Anyah, 13, Cai, 3, and Cari, 2.

Having never gardened before, Jones at first felt a tug of hesitancy, “but from the start, my questions were being answered, and some questions didn’t have to be asked.”

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Although she found Pinterest to be a good source of information, the people on hand at the Oasis were providing the answers with their down-to-earth advice.

Mary Crabtree taught classes about the vegetables and their preservation.

Cheryl Fitzgerald offered encouragement and reminders.

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Terry Frederick, having been honored a year ago an unsung hero, went back to being unsung. He spent long Saturdays and Sundays hauling vegetables home so his wife could clean them – after Mondays through Fridays making a living at his landscaping business.

Jones said her little ones so like the garden, “they would rather come here than the park.”

Three-year old Cai knows how to identify ripe tomatoes and pick green beans, and all three children have learned to love eating what they’ve seen grown.

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“It’s second-nature,” their mother said.

Jones’ mother and two sisters also tagged along, sister Felicia Bates after a special introduction was made.

As Frederick put it, “We needed to introduce her to dirt.”

Although 74-year-old Jan Simpson and dirt met some time ago, the woman from Springfield’s East End shared Jones’ rookie status at the Jefferson Street Oasis.

Simpson has grown blackberries, strawberries and raspberries in raised beds in her backyard for years. But after her husband claimed other ground for parking spaces some years back, she was fresh out of room for vegetables and ended up buying a bushel of tomatoes and another of green beans each year for canning.

“I didn’t have to do that this year,” Simpson said, who “planted about everything I could think of,” then harvested it.

Simpson thought she was done in mid-August after putting up green beans, jalapenos, corn, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and more than 100 cans of tomato sauce and tomato paste.

She then returned and found another set of ripe tomatoes and canned “eight pints of awesome chili sauce,” which she speaks of in a tone that suggests the words might replace the reference to eight swans a swimming in her next rendition of “The 12 Days of Christmas.”

“I’ve got to say, it was fun and interesting, but it was really hard work,” Simpson said. “But the thing that makes it worth it is that it’s really organic. That’s what makes it worth it.”

Just as Jones’ family tagged along with her, Simpson said that her daughter, Melanie Bain, and a friend Margaret, got in on the fun with her and her son, “who has never gardened in his life,” may get himself dirty next spring.

Years ago, Fitzgerald, one of the garden’s mainstays, would have tried to talk him out of it.

“When I was a child I hated getting up at 3 o’clock in the morning to feed chickens, slop the hogs and use the outhouse,” she said.

That was her routine on the lot at Clay Street and Indiana Avenue, where her great-grandfather, Oscar Huffman, built a home of mud, brick and straw after relocating from Roanoke, Va., and bringing along his country ways.

“But all those things we had to do then, those things are the fabric of who I am now,” Fitzgerald said. “And I appreciate life, and I appreciate earth.”

That same fabric led her to meet Frederick after she sent what he remembers as a “very to the point” note about the amount of waste she saw in the garden when she passed by.

Frederick says “she was absolutely right,” after which Fitzgerald added “and we’ve been working at it ever since.”

The excess food gets donated to one or another food pantry or the non-profit Springfield Soup Kitchen, which has taken ownership of the Oasis land until the organization can establish its own non-profit status.

Meanwhile, Fitzgerald’s gardening filled the pantries of her family with 172 jars of jelly, bread-and-butter pickles they can’t get enough of, and greens of all sorts looked after during her twice-a-day visits to the gardens to move rocks and see if any participants needed reminders about watering or harvesting.

“I’ll call you 10, 12 times a day if I have to,” she said. “Terry and I are working toward perfection to eliminate waste altogether.”

As Labor Day arrives, there’s some labor yet to be done in the garden, and plans are already in the works for next year, when, for a seventh season, the land will be tilled, the seeds and plants will be put into the earth, and the plots will once again begin to thicken.

(Look for the Jefferson Street Community Oasis Garden on Facebook.)

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