For his 66th birthday last month, Larry Williams gave himself a gift that linked his future with his past: a vegetable garden.
Williams, who has lived in Madisonville since 1994, wants to grow food sustainably like his family before him. "When I grew up, my daddy and granddaddy grew all sorts of vegetables," Williams says. "My job was to collect horse manure so I could fertilize the garden."
Williams now has his own food-producing plot — a raised bed filled with manure, compost and topsoil built by the Madisonville 500 Gardens program.
Launched by local nonprofit Sidestreams Foundation, 500 Gardens aims to put a food-producing garden in every Madisonville household that wants one. To date, more than 150 families have signed up.
Food production has long been a part of Madisonville's history, says Steve Rock, volunteer director at the Lighthouse Community School in Madisonville. "At one point, there were big agricultural swaths in this region," he says.
Several years ago, Rock started teaching students to raise vegetables. When he saw how much food neighbors harvested from the school gardens each night, he realized how valuable fresh, ripe vegetables were.
"This is a community that knew what to do with good produce," Rock says. "They knew how to cook and use vegetables."
What also was clear, Rock says, was that they did not have easy access to fresh food.
Rock looked at old gardens in Madisonville covered in weeds. He studied productive patches and failed plots and talked to residents. He concluded they needed simple solutions: a small vegetable garden in their yard, a little education and some guidance to help them succeed.
Each resident who participates in the 500 Gardens program pays $50 and agrees to attend a one-hour course about planting, fertilizing and protecting crops. About a week later, Rock and a crew of volunteers arrive.
"We build a 4-by-8-foot raised bed in each yard and fill it with about 35 cubic feet of good soil, " Rock says. "We then match each resident with a mentor who offers coaching and support during the growing season."
Every Saturday and Sunday, Rock and his crew meet at Ward and Chandler, a corner embedded in Madisonville's history. It's here that the Joseph Ward family, Madisonville's first settlers, built three log cabins in 1797 along a Native American trail. Today, volunteers pile dirt and lumber into pickup trucks and move through the streets of Madisonville, building as many as 20 raised beds in a day.
500 Gardens is about more than building beds, Rock says. It's about building community resilience and giving multiple generations of Madisonville residents the skills to grow food.
"We want people to connect with their neighbors, to talk over the fence about their tomatoes, to share meals and swap vegetables," he says.
It's also about making lasting changes in the local landscape. Madisonville has about 5,000 houses. To Rock, 500 food-producing plots are significant. "If one family in 10 participates," he says, "that's a cultural shift."
On the City Roots calendar:
May 8: Farmland
A new documentary by James Moll features five farmers in their twenties: a rancher, chicken farmer, pig farmer, organic crop grower and a CSA vegetable farmer. Since the average age of farmers is nearing 60, Farmland focuses on the renewed attention in the U.S. on young farmers. The movie will be shown at one time only — Thursday, May 8 at 7:30 pm — at the Esquire Theatre. A panel discussion with young local farmers follows the show. esquiretheatre.com
May 10: Shiitake Madness
This hands-on workshop with mycologist Romaine Picasso demonstrates how to grow and harvest abundant mushroom crops on logs. Students will prepare a log for mushroom cultivation and take it home. Saturday, May 10, 2-4 pm at the Civic Garden Center, 2715 Reading Road, $30. civicgardencenter.org.
May 10-June 27: Growing Value
Everyone can have a food forest in his or her backyard, says local permaculture nonprofit This-Land. For a few weekends each year, This-Land sells more than 100 edible perennials — herbs, fruit trees, berry bushes and nut trees — in its Growing Value Nursery in Northside. The pop-up nursery, located next to the Building Value parking lot on Spring Grove Avenue, is open Saturdays only from May 10 to June 27, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., or by appointment. this-land.org
May 22: Fabulous Containers: Edible and Ornamental
If you don't have a yard, you still can have a garden — on your rooftop, porch, balcony or even in your driveway. Horticulturalists Bennett Dowling and Ali Burns teach how to grow fresh food and flowers in containers. Jointly sponsored by Park + Vine and the Civic Garden Center, the class will be at Park + Vine, 1202 Main St. on Thursday, May 22 from 6-8 p.m. Cost is $10; free to CGC volunteers. parkandvine.com.
CITY ROOTS is a recurring monthly blog about local urban agriculture issues.