“I believe in the healing power of gardens.” Trice Booker of Living Green Garden
Trice sees gardening as offering simple tools of our past, like time in nature, heirloom varieties, and community connection as solutions to modern problems like food deserts, declining mental health, and urban infrastructure loss.
On September 5th I got out the old notebook and pen, hat and sunglasses, and drove to a local organic farm, something that I used to love doing in Costa Rica as part of my job in sustainable study abroad, or my master’s degree in Rural Development. Only this time I was driving to Portage, Indiana, to talk with the woman who is the Dean of the Library at Indiana University Northwest, and also the founder of Living Green Garden. Trice Booker welcomed me into her home and yard, and opened back up the world of local, organic, permaculture agriculture to me.
Before sitting down to hear more about the origins and goals of the project, I got to dive into my favorite part – touring the garden and even sampling some produce I had never eaten before – in this case, cucamelons, one of Trice’s favorite snacks. It was a bright, crunchy, mini-cucumber. If you’ve never tasted a new fruit or vegetable in the field, right off the plant, I highly recommend it – that bit of produce will forever maintain a magical quality for your life.
It reminds of the time the heart-of-palm melted in my mouth moments after being harvested (by machete, by an expert) out of the small palm tree at the family farm called Finca Pasiflora in the Southern Zone of Costa Rica. Or the miracle fruit that turns any sour thing you eat into a sweet treat. Or the dried bananas harvested from the 37 varieties located on that farm (did you know that there is a banana that tastes just like an apple?). You get the idea.
I am thrilled to know that that kind of magic doesn’t just exist in the humid forests of tropical Costa Rica. It is alive and well in a backyard in Portage, Indiana. As Trice and I sat down to chat about her project, a hummingbird even visited the yard, flitting amongst her pollinator plants and eventually settling to rest for a moment in her maple tree. Mesoamericans would be impressed, like the Aztecs who see hummingbirds as fierce and beautiful warriors for good, and symbols “of strength in life’s struggle to elevate consciousness—to follow your dreams.”
Trice’s garden is a fierce and beautiful warrior for good, too. Latrice says that her gardening practice is something that invokes a great sense of love, and brings benefits far beyond the food that she harvests, food that lasts her through much of the year and reduces her dependency on fickle and expensive grocery stores. And her dream is to share that magic and force for good through expanding her project and teaching others to grow food, too.
“You give to the garden and it gives back to you,” she says. “There is something about nurturing the garden, and giving yourself to nature. I get so many lessons out of my garden.”
Gardening that goes beyond the provision of food, gardening that is knowledge-intensive (rather than resource-intensive), that is intentionally and strategically planted and carried out without chemical inputs, but rather maximizing natural and organic potential, is known as permaculture. The founders of this now global movement, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, talk about permaculture having twelve principles. You can read more about these principles here, and look up resources by these permaculture proponents on your own.
Trice Booker and her Living Green Garden unveiled so many principles of their own to me as I witnessed the beauty of the garden, tasted the food, and talked with Trice about her experience working in her garden. Here are just a few:
This was the first year that Trice had grown okra (and it was the first time I got to see okra growing). She planted it in June, and the plant grew slowly and sprouted leaves, but it took a long time for her to see the okra pods themselves break out and offer their nutritious little spears to the world. I was personally amazed to see all of the stages of the okra, in her one garden bed! From the flower to the beginnings of the pod, until finally the spear was ready to be harvested.
Not all of the plants in the garden are slow and steady. Some of them just don’t work out at all. Trice explained to me that she had tried growing carrots a number of times, but they would always dry and wither in their sunny spot. This season her carrots are thriving, planted in a re-used TV stand in the partial sun, the dirt nice and damp.
Using what you have:
Speaking of the re-used TV stand, Trice follows an age-old principle of using what she has. The old folks would say “waste not want not;” that’s the idea. But there’s more to it than that – it’s the seeing the potential of something that you don’t use anymore, but could use. Not in the hoarder sense. In the real, let’s-get-‘er-done sense. Trice uses all of her kitchen scraps as well as raked leaves to create her compost pile (this is also part of the permaculture principle of closing the system and using outputs as inputs). She also has a dream to construct a chicken coop on site, and she has the perfect structure already in place that she can convert! As we were standing there I witnessed her realize that the chickens might even like to roost on the old swing.
Knowledge and observations are powerful:
I remember when I did a summer internship in Washington, D.C., my colleague, the former governor of the Afro-Colombian state of Chocó, told me that in order to achieve our goals of more human foreign policy toward Colombia we needed to use our intelligence and good timing, because our organization didn’t have a lot of money. I saw this same principle applied in Trice’s garden: she is conducting an informal experiment with her tomato plants, pruning some plants and leaving another one to grow as it would. She discovered that the non-pruned plant gave many more tomatoes than her pruned plant, though it was also quite unruly and tipped over her tomato stand. This knowledge, along with all of the other observations Trice makes from season to season, garden bed to garden bed, allows her to improve her garden and increase her yields without spending money or buying inputs.
Life finds a way:
I know, I know, this is a phrase from Jurassic Park. But as Trice and I wandered around her garden, we were both struck by the evidence of this idea, all around us. Butternut squash that had spread all over the garden in spite of itself. Volunteer tomatoes that had shown up from previous years. A mystery squash hanging in the compost pile, insisting on living even in the scrap heap.
Trice said, “If you just provide a few conditions and let it happen, life finds a way.” This statement feels full of grace to me, as in, it’s not my responsibility, or within my ability, to make this miracle happen. My role is small (and therefore doable, possible): contribute to favorable conditions for growth, and then, let go. As you can see, I’m already taking lessons from Trice’s garden and applying them to my own life. Her educational garden is already working!
OK, so there are a lot of abstract things to be gained from a garden, but the first goal remains so basic and yet elusive in many places: getting healthy food. This is more of a problem in Northwest Indiana than we would like to admit. According to the NWI Food Council, 15% of people in our region are food insecure, including 23% of children. The Purdue Local Food Program finds that in Lake County, 28% of the population has low access to food.
Trice points out that if people can get food from a community garden, or their own backyard gardens, they will be less dependent on low quality food from inaccessible markets, and will be able to enjoy healthier and tastier food. In addition to teaching about growing food, the Living Green Garden project already works with people on cooking and preserving food, making gardening both a sustainable and yummy solution to the problem of food deserts.
And local food can contribute to local economies. The NWI Food Council estimates that of the $2.3 billion a year that is spent on food each year in our region, only two percent is directed toward local farmers and food producers. “If we increased that number to 10%, we would generate $230 million in revenue for our regional economy” (https://www.nwifoodcouncil.org/stats).
Personal and social healing: everyone is welcome in a garden
As Trice shares her dreams for Living Green Garden, she imagines a community farm where everyone can participate in all of these benefits and life lessons. She says, “gardens are for everyone: unemployed people, people who have gotten out of prison, artists, kids, people of all talents. Every talent has a place on a farm and in a community, and we can just enjoy life and build relationships on a farm.” As each individual lives the healing power of the garden, the community as a whole benefits, too.
Trice plans to expand Living Green Garden into an empty lot in Gary, Indiana, and involve the community in her project to grow food and heal souls and societies. She believes strongly in the power of gardening, and when you spend time with her you get the idea that she knows that the whole project will behave like her garden: as she tends and nurtures it, it will give back not only to her, but to any that come into contact with it. With patience, knowledge, observation, using what is available, Living Green Garden will grow like her garden, and healing and life will find a way.
Living Green Garden feels like an embodiment of the idea of the combination of old and new that I am trying to explore with this blog. This combination exists in dirt and vegetables in a yard in Portage, but Trice also broadcasts her techniques, learning, and thoughts to the world via her social media feeds. She connects to other gardeners through YouTube, while also insisting that the physical book called The Vegetable Gardner’s Bible is the best authority and most useful tool for such a project. Trice sees gardening as offering simple tools of our past, like time in nature, heirloom varieties, and community connection as solutions to modern problems like food deserts, declining mental health, and urban infrastructure loss. Her dream of having an educational garden has already sprouted, and as we learn and practice with her, we can all make it grow.