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Growing Good Food at Home (and Beyond)

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Growing Good Food at Home (and Beyond)

Tamara Elmore's introduction into gardening came from a bit of badgering.

She and her husband moved from Raleigh to Richmond’s Highland Park neighborhood to assist in caring for Elmore’s sick grandmother in 2006. The neighborhood and its residents were familiar to Elmore because she visited often as a child.

After returning to Richmond, Elmore would often sit on her house’s stoop to enjoy summer days.

The neighbor across the street, Mr. Dean, began teasing Elmore about the state of her yard.

“He would say: ‘Your grandmother kept her yard better than that. You keep your grass cut, but you don’t do anything with the flowers. She liked flowers in her yard. He would pick and pick every time I would come outside,” Elmore remembered.

Mr. Dean wore Elmore down and flowers were planted.

“He trash-talked me into growing flowers,” joked Elmore.

But it didn’t stop at flowers. More and more plant-filled containers landed in her backyard, and she started to see the benefits of gardening. Elmore was hooked.

To learn more about her newfound passion, Elmore attended a gardening class hosted by the city of Richmond featuring a presentation by Shalom Farms executive director Dominic Barrett. As part of its mission to work with communities to ensure access to healthy food, the organization planned to help start a community garden behind the Hotchkiss Community Center in Elmore's neighborhood. A while later Elmore met other volunteers, built and prepped beds and planted seedlings, and the Hotchkiss Community Garden was born.

Volunteers build raised beds to launch the Hotchkiss Community Garden. Photo courtesy: Tamara Elmore

Volunteers build raised beds to launch the Hotchkiss Community Garden. Photo courtesy: Tamara Elmore

The Hotchkiss Community Garden in spring. Photo courtesy: Tamara Elmore

The Hotchkiss Community Garden in spring. Photo courtesy: Tamara Elmore

Now five years old, the Hotchkiss Community Garden brims with a huge variety of plants. An herb garden boasts sage, rosemary, purslane and thyme. The chives steal the show with their pointy, energetic blooms. Bunches of bold pink zinnias generously self-seeded throughout the garden, attracting butterflies, bees and other pollinators. The garden, stretching just 20 feet wide and 50 feet long behind the Hotchkiss Community Center, churned out tons of tomatoes, squash, onions and more this season.  

“We had an awesome onion harvest,” said Elmore. “There were huge bulbs, it was the most successful onions we’ve had.”

Elmore beside the abundant zinnias at the Hotchkiss Community Garden.

Elmore beside the abundant zinnias at the Hotchkiss Community Garden.

Elmore, aided by her volunteer sidekicks and neighbors Cherilyn and Ms. Ida, run the garden. They each spend about one day a week, weeding, watering, planting and harvesting.

“We share everything here. Everything belongs to this community,” said Elmore. “Anybody who walks up to the gate and asks us if they can have something, we would share with them.”

All three women distribute produce from the garden to people in the neighborhood. Ms. Ida regularly brings bags of fresh tomatoes, squash and other vegetables to seniors on her street and her co-workers.

“They love it. When people see me coming it’s pretty awesome. They really enjoy the food. I get a lot of feedback about how good the food is, how fresh it is,” said Elmore. “When someone brings you something they picked that morning, you taste the difference. I think a big thing that goes into it is the love and consideration. They know we care enough and thought enough of them to bring something to them we labored over. People are very thankful.”

The ladies recently planted a crop of broccoli, cauliflower, collards, kale and cabbage that will be harvested in the fall. Peanut plants spill out along the garden’s perimeter waiting to be harvested before Virginia’s first frost.

The garden – supported by the love and attention the group puts into it – also serves an important need for the community. There are no quality grocery stores in Highland Park.  

“I can’t shop in my neighborhood and I don’t want to pay a lot for something I can grow myself. And I enjoy my own fruits and vegetables better,” said Elmore. “I moved into a neighborhood that couldn’t provide what I wanted to eat so I had to make it happen for myself. To be able to share that with other people, it feels good to be able to do that.”

Elmore is committed to making the community garden financially sustainable and is excited about the birdhouse gourds currently creeping up the garden’s fences. After picking them off the vine, she’ll dry out the gourds for six months and turn them into colorful birdhouses for a garden fundraiser.

A birdhouse gourd.

A birdhouse gourd.

Experiences from the community garden spill over into Elmore's personal garden, which has expanded rapidly over recent years. In addition to heirloom tomatoes, she grows green, purple and white peppers, green beans and this summer, a test crop of corn. That’s in addition to okra, squash, pumpkins, cucumbers, a variety of brassicas, root vegetables and numerous flowers. Hummingbirds, goldfinches, robins and blue birds visit often.

Elmore actively shares her gardening journey on her Instagram account @taminthegarden. With wit and wisdom, she offers tips to followers on gardening best practices through pictures and videos. It’s also a refreshing take on gardening: Elmore shares beautiful and bountiful harvests, but she doesn’t shy away from highlighting the pests and challenges that accompany every garden.

“A lot of the people I’ve met through community gardening, come to the community garden because they don’t have a space or the knowledge to grow food where they live,” said Elmore. “They come to the community garden looking for information. My goal in sharing my experience, is to encourage other people to grow good food at home.”

She also uses Instagram to promote “Growing Good Food at Home” a concept that encompasses her passion for inspiring others to garden – and the importance of the community garden movement.

“I want you to actively participate in growing your own food, or your own personal food experience. We are all eating. Some of us better than others. But we could all be eating good food if we just gained a little bit of knowledge,” said Elmore. “The biggest thing that helped me in growing a better home garden was being a part of this community garden. ‘Growing Good Food at Home’ ties back to the community experience.”

Elmore created a t-shirt with the “Growing Good Food at Home” moniker as a fundraiser for the community garden efforts she supports.

“Everyone likes talking about food. Especially gardeners, gardeners love talking about what they’re growing,” said Elmore. “When you have that t-shirt on, it’s a way to spark a conversation with someone that’s doing the same thing. So many people have asked me questions about their gardens because they saw me wearing the t-shirt. It’s been a way for me to share my experience, and meet other gardeners.”

Elmore is thankful for the journey that led her to the garden, including the Richmond move and her teasing neighbor Mr. Dean, who passed away soon after the flowers appeared in her front yard. Today, she couldn’t imagine herself without gardening.

“I go out every morning and just sit out there and take it all in,” said Elmore. “It’s hard to explain. With gardening, I thought I was just going to be growing food and getting food from it. But it brings me so much peace. If you haven’t really experienced it, it’s magnetizing, I literally cannot do anything without being in the space for a little bit. I experience nature in such a heightened way and that’s because of growing food.”

The herb raised bed at the Hotchkiss Community Garden.

The herb raised bed at the Hotchkiss Community Garden.

The Hotchkiss Community Garden in September. 

The Hotchkiss Community Garden in September. 

Interviewing gardeners has its perks: I went home with a package full of beautiful and fresh heirloom tomatoes, peppers and squash.

Interviewing gardeners has its perks: I went home with a package full of beautiful and fresh heirloom tomatoes, peppers and squash.