As the sun climbed above the trees, bringing warmth to Indiana State University’s Community Garden, Mary Howard-Hamilton used a few quick back-and-forth swipes of a weed rake to dispatch some unwanted growth.
“I come out to my plots every day. I have two favorite times of the day – very early in the morning … (and) around sunset,” she said. “Some people may call it gardening; I call it communing with God. It’s one of the most meditative times of the day that you can come out and just play in the dirt, be a kid again and watch the sun set.”
A professor of educational leadership in the Bayh College of Education, Howard-Hamilton doesn’t even mind working her garden plots in a light rain.
“It feels good and you know that you’re not only reviving yourself but you’re also reviving a plant,” she said on an unseasonably mild July morning.
Howard-Hamilton is among dozens of faculty, staff and students who maintain plots within the two-square block garden on Terre Haute’s Central East side. She is also one of about a half dozen volunteers who distribute tools and facilitate activities at the garden, located on university-owned property a few blocks east of campus.
A master gardener, she frequently answera questions about insects and disease and the best time to pick certain crops.
She learned many of the answers to those questions during her master gardening training through the Purdue University Extension Service, but some come from her memories of working alongside her father in her family’s garden while growing up in Alton, Ill.
“ It’s a great stress relief for me when I’m out of the office and I just feel that we’re doing something useful – sharing the produce we have with our friends and some of the students that are hungry for fresh produce.” — Freda Luers
“The tape still continues to play in the back of my mind and I think about him quite often when I’m out here,” she said. “For example, some of the gardening fables are never put your crops in the ground in a month that has an R in it and pick crops early in the morning when they are the most vibrant and fresh. They will maintain that look throughout the remainder of the day. Vegetables are at their peak early in the morning. The best time to pick is right after the dew has hit them and you see how alert and green they are.”
While Howard-Hamilton has maintained at least one plot at the Community Garden since it was launched six years ago, she learned one secret to a bumper crop just this year.
“Horse manure,” she said. “I spread it really deep this year and it worked very well. I compare some of my vegetables to my neighbors who planted at the same time and theirs are not nearly as big.”
As Howard-Hamilton turned her attention to picking some produce at the peak of morning freshness, Freda Luers, associate director of student activities and organizations, worked a nearby plot she shares with colleagues from the Division of Student Affairs, the Indiana State University Foundation and the Vigo County School Corporation.
“It’s a great stress relief for me when I’m out of the office and I just feel that we’re doing something useful – sharing the produce we have with our friends and some of the students that are hungry for fresh produce,” Luers said.
Sharing produce from garden plots with the community, whether via a food bank or other methods, is one of the requirements for having a free plot at the Community Garden.
“I have been truly blessed to be able to help people who need food and want free vegetables,” Howard-Hamilton said. “It makes you feel like you’ve helped a whole family survive. Nutrition is extremely important, particularly when you get pure organic vegetables. It’s probably one of the best things you can do for a person.”
Luers said she and her colleagues also freeze some vegetables, such as zucchini, and serve them during football tailgate parties in the fall.
Howard-Hamilton splits her two plots, each 20 feet by 20 feet, into fall crops such as cabbage, onions, lettuce and peppers and summer crops, including several varieties of tomatoes and “the best sweet potatoes in the world. They taste like somebody just poured sugar on them.”
Gardeners praised the work of student garden coordinator Eli Kofi Aba for helping ensure the success of the garden. Aba, an international graduate student in technology management since 2008, worked at the garden for the past four and one-half years.
“This has probably been one of the best ideas Indiana State has ever had.” — Mary Howard-Hamilton
Aba said the job came naturally to him. His mother is a peasant farmer in Ghana and he lived with his uncle in Accra, serving as garden boy.
“I knew a lot about gardening before I came here,” he said. “But I derived a lot of benefits from working in the Community Garden.”
Aba said he loves teaching and helping people and his job at the garden allowed him to serve as a teacher by helping inform gardeners about various pests and diseases and show them how to use the garden’s well connectors to water their plots, among other things.
Other benefits included providing an opportunity to stay physically fit – “I don’t have time to go to the gym so while I’m there, I’m exercising,” he said – and to earn money to support himself and to send money to his mother.
He also benefits from having his own garden plot.
“I save a lot of money,” he said. “I don’t have to buy vegetables for myself. I blanch and freeze vegetables and that helps me to save money. I share with charities and friends and, as a student coordinator, I get some money to pay my bills and send my mother some money.”
His work at the garden also helped Aba master the English language, he said, explaining that Great Britain imposed the language on his ancestors during colonization but that many Ghanaians speak with an accent.
“Almost all of the gardeners are American and if they are able to understand me I am happy that we can communicate,” he said. “We are now a family. They invite me to their homes. They always ask, ‘Eli, how are you doing? How is your mom?’ They want to know more about you. I will miss them a lot.”
But Aba isn’t going far just yet. After completing his Ph.D. this summer, he is serving as an instructor in the department of applied engineering and technology management. His fiancé, Mary Dzakpasu, a former journalist in Ghana, is a master’s student in communication at Indiana State.
Indiana State started its Community Garden when the concept was in its infancy nationwide, Howard-Hamilton said, but such gardens are now much more plentiful around the country.
“This has probably been one of the best ideas Indiana State has ever had,” she said. “Community gardens are now a national thrust. Michelle Obama, with her gardening efforts and her nutrition efforts, has launched this effort into a whole new realm.”
The garden, which includes more than 140 plots maintained by about 80 separate gardeners, is becoming widely known throughout Indiana and the Midwest, said Stephanie Krull, landscape and grounds manager at Indiana State, whose crew did much of the initial work in making the site available.
The university has space at the garden for another 12 to 24 plots, depending on size, Krull said, adding that she expects that space to be sufficient to accommodate new gardeners for spring 2014, based on historical growth.
Garden plots are available at no charge to members of the university community and the general public. In return, gardeners promise to tend to their plots, plant only annuals and refrain from using pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. Participants are encouraged to donate a portion of the produce raised to the food pantry of their choice.
“I have had several visitors to campus recently who were most impressed with the garden, saying that they had seen lots of community gardens and this was by far the nicest they had ever seen,” Krull said. “I believe the ISU staff gardeners are a big part of this success.”
Dave Taylor is the director of media relations at Indiana State.