Features and Occasionals

By the Grace of Gardening

By Adele Flail

When you first step through the gate, the rectangle of dead weeds and road base looks like any other leftover space in the city, a place where the tabs and slots of city planning never quite aligned during the tetrising of gas station and stockyard, store and coffee house—another blind-eye/eye-sore, an unintentional gap in the productive spaces of the city.

With the death-ray summer sun high over head, as when I first visited, each flip-flopped step over the uneven ground jabbed more seeds and stones through the shoe’s soles and into mine, (necessitating a lively rendition of the goathead shuffle when returning to the parking lot). Walking gingerly through the garden, you might wonder just who could bear to spend time out here, let alone put in the labor needed to convert sad neglect into blossoming life.

The plot is located next door to Grace Mary Manor, one of the “permanent supportive housing entities” serving the valley’s homeless population. As you might guess from the description, these organizations go beyond simply providing an occasional bed out of the elements to providing a permanent, apartment-style home to those who may have long gone without one. Grace Mary Manor’s garden is located on the plot that once served as the construction entrance for building (explaining the road base)—and its forsaken appearance is further highlighted by Grace Mary proper’s pert landscaping, air-conditioned common rooms, and neat-as-you-please apartments: the structure, built in 2008, has the fresh-start, row-of-sharpened-but-unused-pencils feeling of a girls’ dorm on the first day of boarding school. Given these gracious comforts, it seems strange that those very individuals transitioning from hard lives on the city streets or by the banks of the Jordan, would be willing to embrace the scanty charms of the urban outdoors. But this piece of land, which offers so little to the casual gaze, has been undergoing a slow transformation from abandoned lot to thriving garden under the hands of Grace Mary’s residents, a transformation that echoes—and supports—the transformation of its care-takers.grace mary manor 1

Grace Mary Manor was built as part of the Utah Division of Housing and Community Development’s 10-year Plan to End Chronic Homeless­ness by 2014. All of the residents of the Manor are chronically homeless —to qualify for the program individuals must have a disabling condition, have been homeless for a year or more, or suffered four episodes of homelessness in the past three years. But these by-the-numbers guidelines make homelessness seem a smaller —and more easily overcome— problem that it is: The residents of Grace Mary have, on average, experienced eight years of homelessness, while some residents, according to Kay Luther, Services Coordinator for Grace Mary, have been without a home for 15, 20, or even 25 years. And many, if not all, of the residents struggle to deal with the demons of their past, traumatic events suffered, and sometimes perpetrated, that contribute to their disconnect from the larger society. By the numbers: 90% of residents in Grace Mary Manor have serious mental health issues, while 75% struggle with substance abuse.

Grace Mary provides 84 units for single residents, and housing is not contingent on compliance with services. According to Luther, all that’s asked of residents is that they abide by their leases and be good neighbors to the other residents, but getting the homeless into housing puts them into close proximity to treatment and therapeutic services, in­cluding some of the more unorthodox venues that aid personal growth—such as the garden.

he grant received from Slow Food Utah earlier this year paid for the latest push in the garden’s transformation. For about three years, residents have been able to use the former construction entrance as a space to grow vegetables with the aid of raised beds. The first year, the beds were made of 2x4s; the next, an eagle scout rigged some beds using donated concrete blocks. The grant from Slow Food allowed Grace Mary to put in additional raised beds—and to outfit them with soil and plants, as well as the tools needed to tend the plots. The grant also eased the need for charity: In previous years, Carolyn Kenyon of Kenyon Organics donated plants to the project, but this year, the grant allowed the gardeners to give back to the local business by paying in part for the seedlings. Luther notes that these beds have finally allowed Grace Mary to grant a plot to everyone requesting one.

Residents are free to plant whatever they like in the boxes, and motivations for gardening differ, as some people focus on the fresh produce, while others will grow for the meditative benefits, in some cases giving away the nutritious by-products to other residents. The residents are also free to tend their reserved plot or not, as they please and as they have time for. Some of the beds lie fallow, unmade and rumpled with weeds, matching the unprepossessing demeanor of the unused portions of the lot. But most of the beds are bursting with the obvious effects of dedicated care: stands of corn enthusiastically waving tasseled heads like patriotic banners, strawberries sprawling languorously across an entire box, another that has an octopus-embrace of squash vines, tomatoes and peppers vying to soak up the heat. Luther points out one overflowing box whose previous owner rigged an elaborate watering system using pipes and two-liter bottles. Another plot, standing near the gate is especially eye-catching—in addition to rioting plants, it including decorations such as a light house, flags and butterflies. This lush plot would put any homeowner’s carefully tended yard to shame. One might assume that this bed is an example plot tended by the staff of Grace Mary; however, the bed belongs to resident Denise. And if the garden bed showcases her dedication to making something blossom out of the blasted urban desert, this verdancy only palely reflects the changes Denise has undergone within.

Less than a year ago, Denise was dying: The effects of life-long alcoholism landed the 49-year-old in the hospital. In and out of 12-step programs for years, living on the bleak banks of the Jordan River gave her little incentive or help in achieving sobriety. But even after gaining a place in the housing program, first at sister-organization Kelly Benson, then at Grace Mary Manor, Denise wasn’t yet ready to make a change:

“The first year—I don’t like to admit this, but it’s the truth—I took it for granted, like a lot of people do. I wasn’t thankful… you think I would be, but all I wanted to do was drink,” she says. But with cirrhosis of the liver yellowing her skin as her organs shut down, so emaciated that the nurses at LDS Hospital had to use a pediatric patient identification band, Denise realized that she was in a fight for her life: “I was sitting in bed and I looked in my mom’s eyes and I saw all the pain that I had caused, and I felt the pain for the first time because I couldn’t drink it away… and I said, God, don’t let me die like this. I don’t want to do this anymore. And I fought, with the hand of God upon me, I fought.”

Ready to make a change in her life Denise turned to her previously neglected garden plot as an outlet for her newfound determination. Her boyfriend Tony made a pact with Denise to join her in sobriety last fall (finding his own home as well, at Kelly Benson last Christmas). Caring for the bed has provided Denise with a powerful spiritual metaphor for her internal transformations: “Tony and I work together out there, and sometimes, we’ll just stare at the seeds we’ve planted… You gotta plant a seed in you, it’s the same thing. It’s the nature and the beauty of it all that brings it all to life, and when it comes to life, you come to life inside. This time it really sunk in, my eyes are wide open because I’m not drinking… You can lose your thoughts, throw them in the garden, get rid of all the ugly thoughts…”

For Denise, the role of care-taker is a positive change from the time spent on the banks of the Jordan River, when self-disgust and shame forced her into exile from society, as well as from her mother, daughters and granddaughter: “I figured I wasn’t worth nothing: I couldn’t give nothing, I couldn’t give to myself… I didn’t feel like I was worth anything.”

Now, she recognizes that the changes she creates in her garden bed are can be cultivated within as well: “It brings beauty into your mind and your heart, because you see the beauty that God created and you know you’re one of them… You planted that seed, and you’re a part of helping it grow, and it helps you grow inside. The garden’s coming alive because I’m coming alive,” concludes Denise.

One of the most remarkable things about Grace Mary Manor’s garden is the way it reflects the residents’ own intentions—those who are ready to pull weeds and water daily can see the conclusion of their expended effort writ large in the green cursive of flourishing twining tendrils. And although the staff is on hand to help, the garden hasn’t been given to the residents as a charity—the residents themselves are active agents, sowing what they’ll later reap, from assembling the boxes to planting the seeds, marshaling for daily watering duty and using their ingenuity to improve the garden with found materials—such as carpet remnants layered over the pathways to offer some respite from the goad of goatheads. With no pressure from the staff to tend the boxes (or to engage in any of the therapeutic services offered) each resident must reach for their own singular determination to make a positive change.

But once that determination is found, the variety of services, including the garden, stand by to nurture that impulse into a permanent positive change. The parallels should be obvious to any gardener: the seed’s own motive force propels it out of the dark, but without a hand to clear the weeds, to water and tend, that moment of growth can easily wither under the battery of the unkind elements.

In Denise’s story, the power of this philosophy is clear: “All it takes is one person to believe in you and you start believing in yourself… and more people start believing in you and give you more chances.”

Embracing the role of caretaker first discovered in the garden, Denise now aims to be a resource to others ready to embark on their own transformations: She works part-time as a receptionist at Grace Mary’s front desk, a welcoming position well-suited to her warm, bubbly personality. She also serves as a consumer advocate for the Salt Lake County Home­less Coordinating Council.

Perhaps most important to Denise, the garden has provided a way to help her reconnect with her family. Earlier this year she gave her daughter some plants, and, although those seedlings met an untimely end in the maw of a rambunctious dog, she is hoping to share with her daughters her growing knowledge as they pursue their own gardens. She’s also promised to send a picture of her plot to her mother, a long time gardener who lives in California. “She’s really proud,” says Denise.

Volunteers and donations for the garden—including material for boxes, plants, hand tools, and cages—are needed. Interested parties can contact Kay Luther at kayluther@hacsl.org

Regular readers of CATALYST are aware of the myriad benefits of eating locally, but if you haven’t been sure where to start beyond attending your weekly farmer’s market, we’ve got you covered: For the next year, in partnership with Slow Food Utah, CATALYST will be bringing you info about local resources for eating well. Slow Food Utah is a chapter of the national Slow Food USA organization, itself part of a global grassroots movement that aims at providing food that is, in all ways, better—for the people eating it, for the people growing it, and for the land base it comes from. Thanks to a micro-grant program sponsored by Slow Food Utah, locally focused projects that increase biodiversity, provide access to more healthful food, or contribute to our community’s knowledge base are springing up on farms, community gardens, and backyards all across Utah. Whether you’re looking to connect with local farmers, or are considering your own farming project, CATALYST will be bringing you profiles of the recent recipients of Slow Food Utah’s micro-grant program to help map out the local farming landscape.

This article was originally published on September 28, 2012.