Veggie tales, Local students embrace Burmese staples, planting

This is an article published June 1, 2008 by Emma Downs. It was published in the Journal Gazette. To me it shows the underlying value of gardening

Cupped inside his calloused hand, Ephraim Smiley cradles a few dozen seeds. Pretty ordinary to look at, the seeds are large and small; some beige or gray, a few crimson. But all of them – a pile, wrapped carefully inside a couple of pieces of crumpled newspaper – have a story.

They were a gift. Carried thousands of miles inside the pocket of a refugee from Burma.

“These seeds have been entrusted to us,” Smiley says, taking a few seeds from his hand and placing them on the table in front of him.

“He brought them all the way from Burma – thinking he wouldn’t be able to find them here. And that demonstrates the power of plants.”

Surrounding Smiley are some of his fellow gardeners – Danielle Scheeringa, Marquz Jones, Terrence Caldwell and Amber Sims – all fifth-graders at Maplewood Elementary School and all members of the Garden Angels, Smiley’s community gardening group.

“What are they?” Danielle asks, pinching one seed between her fingers.

“I’ve eaten some of these Asian vegetables,” Marquz says. “They taste pretty good with ranch.”

Smiley has a vague idea what the seed will eventually turn out to be, he says. (One of the mystery seeds is an edible gourd.)

But it won’t be long before he and the other gardeners find out for sure.

This year, Smiley and the Garden Angels – a collaborative effort among Maplewood Elementary School, Health Visions Inc., Come As You Are Community Church, Anthony and Sandy Peyton, Fort Wayne Community Fishing Club and Friends of Bethany – are planting a variety of Asian vegetables.

Asparagus bean, bitter gourd, Chinese mustard; the addition of Asian vegetables is designed to help better serve Fort Wayne’s Burmese community. In return, several Burmese farmers are helping the Garden Angels plant vegetables in their 200-foot garden near Tillman and Hessen Cassel roads.

“We’ve got Burmese families struggling in this community,” Maplewood Elementary School Principal Frank Kline says. “It’s our responsibility to give them the opportunities to become self-sufficient. That’s the American Dream. And bringing the Burmese into this community gardening project makes them a part of the community and gives them a little piece of what many of the rest of us have been given.”

In the field, farmers (the majority of whom are women) crouch side by side with the children, planting broccoli, tomatoes, potatoes, okra, turnip greens, and several varieties of lettuce. Occasionally, they experiment with Smiley’s recycled gardening inventions – plows made from old bicycles; compost sifters formed out of old clothes dryers. The concept of recycling is nothing new to them, Smiley says.

“The Burmese farmers use what they have,” he says. “And in that way, they are very similar to us. Being recycling and organic gardeners, we believe in not letting anything go to waste. And you can see the care these farmers put into every seed they plant.”

The Asian vegetables and the more familiar organic vegetables the gardening group grows every year are given to local senior citizens and other families in need. But they will also be on sale to the general public on Saturday mornings from July to August in the parking lot at League for the Blind & Disabled, 5821 S. Anthony Blvd.

“It feels good to offer people healthy food,” Garden Angel Terrence Caldwell says. “So they don’t have to choose between paying for food and paying for medications.

And the Burmese have their own style, their own way of planting. Maybe the food will taste better if we use their techniques, too.”

The Garden Angels are hoping one day to expand their program – currently the largest community gardening program in northeast Indiana – to include a separate plot of land for local Burmese families, Smiley says.

“Working with the farmers has changed our outlook,” he says. “This is the tip of the iceberg. We want to help the local Burmese farmers find land they can farm commercially. Right now, some of these families are struggling. But, eventually, their farming will benefit everyone.”

This article hit home to me. I am a firm believer in Community Gardens, Victory Gardens and saving seeds. Gardening is also more than just raising healthy food. Its exercise, stress relief, time with family and friends and time to value our green earth.

There are many great programs for gardening. Take a little time and look into participating in a program in your community or better yet, help set one up.

Tags: community gardens, Victory Gardens, saving and sharing garden seeds, gardening as therapy

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