The rewards of gardening

June 16, 2022

Sandra Millon Underwood, RN, PhD, FAAN
Professor Emerita UWM – College of Nursing

Many of our relatives living in the South grew and preserved food out of necessity, so perhaps they were on to something. With ongoing food chain supply issues and skyrocketing grocery prices, this might be a great time to get back to basics and ‘grow’ a “green thumb” (pun intended). Not only is gardening a great way to decrease your grocery bill, but it also has some mental and physical benefits. Gardening can be done in small spaces as well as large, open spaces, and there are many community gardening programs that are available to get you started.

Curtisthene Montgomery learned to garden growing up in the South. She continues to use her “green thumb” by maintaining gardens in two locations—a community garden at Shorewood High School and in a private backyard of neighbors, Bill and Kay Beck.

“I love getting my hands in the soil and watching my garden grow. I still have more planting to do this year, but I have already completed my garden at Shorewood High School. I planted tomatoes, peppers, collard greens and strawberries. Growing up in the South, we always had gardens and shared the vegetables with neighbors and friends. I continue to do that. I love it. It is part of me.

“Gardening can also help you save on your grocery bill. I preserve much of what I grow. Everyone has a different way of preserving their food. I pick, wash, and put my collard greens in the freezer without blanching them. They turn out well. I also believe that when you garden, the food is healthier. You know what type of soil and fertilizer are used and you have more control over what you are eating,” said Montgomery.

Vevette Hill-Nwagbaraocha, Manager of McGovern Park Senior Center, oversees a senior-led community garden in McGovern Park that currently has 17 garden beds. She echoes Montgomery’s comments about the merits of gardening, including access to nutritious food. McGovern Park’s program recently became park of Groundwork Milwaukee, a nonprofit initiative whose mission is “to bring about the sustained regeneration, improvement and management of the physical environment by developing communitybased partnerships that empower people, businesses and organizations to promote environmental, economic and social well-being.”

“We are trying to recreate the community garden. The last few years have been challenging for everyone so one of our goals is to address the health equity issue and gardening is a big part of that. Being outdoors and growing healthy foods that the community can access is also important. And, while our main focus is on our seniors, they have a great deal to share with the larger community and vice versa,” said Hill- Nwagbaraocha.

According to Hill- Nwagbaraocha, many people do not know that McGovern Park is one of the few Milwaukee County parks that has an apple orchard. In partnership with Milwaukee County Parks, and under the guidance of the park’s supervisor, Alonzo Jones, McGovern Park’s Senior Program is committed to not only engaging with the community but welcomes volunteers who want to get involved with gardening and helping with the apple orchard.

“We want folks to experience the joys of gardening. We also want people to come to the park and enjoy the lagoon. We welcome fishing, bird watchers, and residents to use the walking and running trails in the park. It is a small park, but it is right in the heart of the city,” said Hill-Nwagbaraocha.

For more information or to volunteer, residents can call (414) 527-0990.

Andre Lee Ellis is a long-time community activist and avid gardener. The founder and former director of “We Got This,” Ellis now spearheads another community gardening initiative called “Andre Lee Ellis & Company Gardening Program,” featuring “CAGE – Community Agricultural Gardening Experiences.” Located at 1313 W. Reservoir, Ellis is not only teaching youth how to grow gardens but provides the bounty from the garden free to community residents.

“We work with neighbors to maintain the garden, but we are particularly engaged with youth to show them ways to use their idle time to do some good in the community,” said Ellis.

Starting on June 18th, Ellis will host Saturday morning programs for youth from 8 a.m. to noon. Youth interested in participating must arrive by 8 a.m. and they will be paid $10 an hour. No preregistration is required, but Ellis is adamant that youth show up ON TIME.

“If they (youth) arrive after 8 a.m., they must come back the next week. One of the things we are doing is combining agriculture and job readiness to get youth ready for the employment world. They must learn to be on time for work. We will grow food, mentor youth, and engage them in community clean-up, while promoting peace in the community. We already have some plants in raised boxes, including collard greens, tomatoes, green peppers,” said Ellis.

Ellis also uses his theatrical background to engage with youth.

“I use theatrics to help them see themselves through a program called “See Yourself. Be a Better Self” in a module called “Acting Out to Keep From Acting Up,” said Ellis.

Chef Marvin Jones is always out and about in the community, demonstrating how to prepare nutritious and healthy meals. He also enjoys gardening in small spaces. While Chef Jones admits to being somewhat of a novice gardener, he manages to grow some exotic herbs.

“It’s all about location, location, location. No matter where you live, if you can catch sunlight for at least four to five hours, you can plant a garden. The trick is to start with good soil and adequate sunlight. In Wisconsin, so much of the soil is contaminated. Many people use raised gardens, but you can certainly plant directly into the soil if you choose. I have a small balcony space, so I grow herbs such as orange mint for tea, Salem rosemary, which I primarily use for fish, and Moroccan oregano. I start by purchasing the seedlings for these plants. I soak the plants using a spray bottle every other day and they respond well. I also have hibiscus blooming indoors, after I was told they wouldn’t grow indoors,” said Jones.

Chef Jones is also philosophical about gardening,

“In almost every available space where gardens are planted, the spiritual attribute of faith is on full display. We joyfully put in the work needed to prepare the soil to receive our seeds and we tend to our garden throughout the season because we have faith that what we’ve planted will not only grow but produce nutritious food for ourselves, or our families, and friends; talk about the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen. Faith’s primary function is to lift our level of expectation. We sow expecting to reap. We do our part and our Creator does the rest. We discover that this simple truth can be applied to any area of our life,” said Chef Jones.