Community Gardens a source of healthy satisfaction

by BETH ALTENA

Ted Williams called it a “great mental enema.” Susan McMaster went on facebook and asked for bunny poop. No matter what your take on gardening, there is no doubt it adds a source of satisfaction and accomplishment to anyone’s life. A stroll through the Rockford Community Garden, in its ? year, shows a little bit of over commitment—some plots are in need of an hour or two of weeding—but a lot of hands-on care. The result is a bounty that can last clear through a long winter in some cases.

Susan McCaster, a retired kindergarten teacher, helps out the Rockford Lions with their double plot in the Rockford Community Gardens. The gardens are located behind the RPS Administrative Building on Main Street.
Susan McCaster, a retired kindergarten teacher, helps out the Rockford Lions with their double plot in the Rockford Community Gardens. The gardens are located behind the RPS Administrative Building on Main Street.

Ted and his friend Fred talked about taking a plot in the gardens a couple of years back. Now they grow eight here in downtown Rockford and more at the East Rockford Community Garden plots, which Ted says are underutilized, unlike the Rockford gardens.

McMaster, who talked about the gardens at 3:15 p.m. on Friday, July 3, had been at work weeding and tending since 8 a.m. And, it isn’t even her plot, she is helping out a friend. She said she loves looking over the progress of the many plots and see who is doing what to help their garden thrive. Her secret recipe is bunny poop, which she said gives the plants in her plot an extra zing.

In early July, she said the cool-weather plants are wrapping up. People have been enjoying harvests of lettuce, beet greens, bib lettuce and kale all spring and early summer. The spinach is about done for the season, but can be planted again in November and harvested in October. She offered a bag of fresh greens and suggested treating the kale salad to the following care. Rub with olive oil, wiping the white finish from the undersides of the leaves. This removes the bitter taste the plant sometimes has. Sprinkle with salt and lemon juice and drizzle with maple syrup. This dressing will endear kale and other veggies to even the most particular eater and they will beg for more. Be sure you rub every leaf with love or the success won’t be so evident.

Bitter greens are not necessarily bad, either however, McMaster explained. She said a healthy and varied diet includes bitter, sweet, salty and pungent ingredients. Growing your own garden allows an everyday cook to look as fancy as a sous chef in the finest establishment by providing a ready garnish of flowers. Blossoms of many plants, from day lilies to flowering kale, are edible and give dinner a look of haut cuisine.

McMaster said she loves the peacefulness of gardening and getting to know the other gardeners. She was putting the two plots in good order before heading out of the country to Peru where she and her son and his girlfriend will hike the Inca Trail to Machu Pichu.

Williams is an old hand at gardening. He said he formerly lived in Virginia where he had a huge garden. Ten years he moved here to Rockford and a neighbor (Fred Challa) talked to him about partnering up to grow vegetables for their extended families. They started modestly, but now tend eight plots here and four or five more in the East Rockford Middle School community garden plots, where Ted says plots are going empty. Williams said he doesn’t really have room at home to garden, although he had a small herb plot for his wife and a couple of tomato plants “for easy picking.”

Ted Williams, pictured, or his gardening partner Fred Chlla, are in the Gardens nearly every day. Williams was there on Friday, July 3, and again on Monday, July 6. "i just had to stop in and check on my babies," he said.
Ted Williams, pictured, or his gardening partner Fred Challa, are in the gardens nearly every day. Williams was there on Friday, July 3, and again on Monday, July 6. “I just had to stop in and check on my babies,” he said.

In the Rockford gardens he and Fred have three plots of potatoes, plots of cabbage and four handicapped plots. “We just picked the peas,” he noted. Also ending the season already are his (and Fred’s) strawberry plots. “It’s a good mental enema,” Ted says of gardening.

Williams has time to put in at the garden since he is retired from running his own company in Virginia and then working in the tech industry in sales. He and his wife now live as the third generation in her family’s home on Silver Lake. Her grandfather built the home in 1923, father of seven children. He and his wife met at Michigan State in 1960 when they both were students before leaving Michigan. Returning to the family home was one of the reasons they came back to Rockford after retiring, and their son living in Grand Ledge was another draw to coming back home.

“My wife grew up visiting there as a grandchild and we brought up our kids visiting there too,” Ted described. Between his family and Fred’s, there are plenty of people to enjoy the bounty of Ted and Fred’s hard work. For example, the cabbages come in many varieties, from the red cabbage to the flat head Dutch, which is a late cabbage that can last in storage all winter long. The stone head cabbage is a mid season variety that will be near harvest stage soon. Williams said there are a “gazillion” kinds of cabbages to choose from and enjoy.

Clearly there is a lot to learn in the garden, from the value of bunny poop to the past and future of your fellow gardeners. It is interesting to hear what motivates folks to spend hot days among leafy greens or tending yet unseen harvests underground. Another pleasant benefit is the explosion of color and texture even the most common garden foods offer as a bonus visual gift.