The vegetable garden in Clara Collins Coleman’s backyard had lain dormant for more than 30 years.
Coleman’s mother, Ceola “Lola” Collins, lovingly tended a vegetable garden at the family’s University City home from the time they moved there in 1965. A native of Mississippi, Coleman said gardening was part of their life in the south. It was a way to grow fresh produce for their large family.
“We always had a garden — collards, tomatoes, peppers, greens and squash,” she said.
The space in her backyard has taken on a new life, thanks to the help of several neighbors at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in University City. Parishioners have been repairing homes and cleaning yards for neighbors, many of them older women, in University City for the past several years.
Our Lady of Lourdes parishioner Gerry Banet had heard a story about Pocketparks, a St. Louis nonprofit organization that redevelops unused plots of land into recreational areas. Banet took the idea one step further: What if they cleared out the large, fenced-in plot in Coleman’s backyard, which had become a tangle of weeds, and turned it into a community garden of sorts?
Coleman was enthusiastic about the idea. In April, Lourdes parishioners joined with students from Fontbonne University for a cleanup and planting day. Wood from a neighbor’s old porch was repurposed for several raised beds. Starter plants were donated through a volunteer who has a relationship with Ritter Greenhouse. By Memorial Day weekend, Coleman’s garden had produced its first harvest — collard greens. The space was named “Mother’s Garden” in memory of Ceola Collins. Several of Coleman’s family members came for a dedication in May, sharing their favorite stories about Collins’ garden.
Jean Monahan crouched over and plucked a bright green tomato from a plant.
“Boy, these tomatoes look wonderful!” she exclaimed, as Banet examined the find.
“Luscious! That’s a pretty good harvest,” he said, glancing at the basket full of tomatoes next to her.
Banet met Coleman about two years ago when volunteers offered to do some cleanup work in her front yard. Banet said maintaining friendships with neighbors has been an important part of their service in the community. “I like to continue the relationship, and not just make it a one-stop visit,” Banet said.
Volunteers have worked with about 60 neighbors in the past five years. Many referrals have come directly from University City, usually properties in need of some yard work. Banet said they have coordinated the installation of several new hot water heater tanks for neighbors affected by recent flooding in the area. (See related story, page 11.)
While Coleman’s garden was envisioned as a community garden, much of the produce is harvested by Coleman and Lourdes volunteers and shared with neighbors on Coleman’s street. Some extra produce also is shared with the St. Augustine-Wellston Center, where Banet and other Lourdes parishioners also volunteer.
Volunteer Jack Belford, who acquired the starter plants from Ritter Greenhouse for Mother’s Garden, said the effort is living out the Beatitudes. “You’re feeding people … making connections and getting it to them,” he said. “You find a need and fill it. It’s a good way to live the Beatitudes.”
Banet had been retired for about five years when he started feeling called to give back to his community through volunteer work. Many of the neighbors that volunteers have built relationships with live north of Delmar Boulevard.
“The Delmar Divide is just so real,” Banet said. “We do what we can. It’s relationships with God, with self, with family, with friends, with neighborhoods. You don’t have to go far to help out people.”