A bright, brisk autumn morning provided visitors to the Let’s Grow Garden Expo with a perfect day for a stroll through the TIGUrS Urban Garden on the east side of the University of Memphis campus.
The Nov. 2 event cosponsored by the Memphis Area Master Gardeners and the U of M promised gardening enthusiasts a day filled with informative lectures, demonstrations, exhibits, music, food, art and more.
Plenty of Master Gardeners were on hand to offer advice and answer questions about their organization.
Student Garden Coordinator Art Johnson revealed that Dina Martin, wife of interim University President Brad Martin, is a Master Gardener and provided impetus for organizing the event.
“She came and saw our garden and got some crazy ideas about how we could really get this thing in the public eye,” Johnson explained. “She talked to the rest of the Master Gardeners and they all got on board and agreed to partner with us to pull this Let’s Grow event together.”
He said that although the garden had been there for almost four years, the TIGUrS (Tigers Initiative for Gardens in Urban Settings) had never undertaken anything of this magnitude.
“We do an earth day every year in April, but we’ve always wanted to do something much broader and bigger than that,” said Johnson, who also served as emcee for the event. “They helped steer us so we could do this as effectively as possible, because they know how to do this kind of thing.”
Thomas Rieman, who serves as one of the organization’s directors, said they are associated with University of Tennessee extension office and that their primary mission is to educate the public in methods of urban horticulture.
“We have three demonstration gardens,” Rieman said. “We grow the food there to show people how to do it, give talks so people can come by and get involved in doing things for themselves, and all the produce from that is donated to organizations in town that provide food for the needy.”
He said they have a speakers program that will supply someone to present a program to any group interested in gardening, and that they provide landscaping services for Habitat for Humanity instructing new homeowners on how to maintain their landscape.
Most of the questions directed at Mary Wade, who sat at the Master Gardeners answer table, came from organic gardeners interested in non-chemical insect control.
“There is not a magic remedy for insect control,” she advised. “Sadly enough, the best thing we can advise them is to keep their gardens clean. Make sure the insects don’t have a place to hide over winter. They should check their gardens frequently – and that means every day. Look for those eggs, look for those insects and take them off.”
Steven Jordan is a professor of finance at the Fogelman College of Business and Economics, who questioned the gardeners about buying property to grow produce as a commercial venture.
“I’m thinking that I would like to get a small piece of land and farm it with my kids,” Jordan said. “What kind of job can a kid get? Well they can work on a farm. They could have their spending money and learn some good life skills at the same time. That’s just my crazy idea.”
Johnson bicycled to the event with his daughter Jennifer. They would return with the rest of the family in the afternoon for the sweet potato dig.
Master Gardeners spoke throughout the morning on a number of topics. Bob Hathaway lectured on raised garden beds and was followed by Ben Townsend whose topic was starting school gardens.
At 10:45 a.m. certified arborist Jim Volgas discussed winterizing trees, and then Kevin Coble demonstrated the fine art of making holiday wreaths.
But just before noon all eyes were directed to the long wall covered with black plastic that borders the garden’s north end behind the Elma Roane Fieldhouse. As Johnson led those gathered in a countdown, the covering was stripped away to reveal a huge, colorful mural painted by artist Vinodini Jayaraman.
“I left a good job to do this full time,” Jayaraman said of her art career. “I worked 27 days on the mural, but five of those it rained. Because the grains are very rough on the wall it is not easy. You want to draw an elephant and you end up drawing a tiger.”
The artist’s son, Sreedhar, a junior studying economics, was one of several students speaking and demonstrating gardening techniques at the expo. His topics included urban composting and do-it-yourself compact gardens.
Other student garden workers included Vanezia Hamilton, Mirella Silva, Hallie Rose and Gage Alexander. Their talks ranged from identifying good and bad insects to soil quality and plant nutrition.
Alexander, a fifth-year senior majoring in anthropology, said that most of his fellow garden volunteers weren’t studying horticulture or subjects related to agriculture.
“It’s all kinds of disciplines, he said. “It usually starts out as a general interest thing, but after a while it sort of rubs off on you and you have to take it home.”
From the stage, Johnson recognized volunteers and advisors that had played a role in supporting the event, including Dr. Karyl Buddington, director of the campus Animal Care Facilities and associate professor of life sciences, who first had the idea for the garden. He presented a bouquet of flowers to graduate student Marie Dennam and embraced Kim Wilson, assistant manager of Landscape Services, both of whom Johnson praised for their efforts with TIGUrS.
Music and food would follow the presentations, with Brister Street artists The Soul Thieves taking the stage a little past noon. According to Jack Simon who was there representing Brister Street Productions, the three piece band will release an album in the very near future.
Under a bright blue tent on the south end of the garden, Amy Abbott and Tyesha Williams with Tiger Dining Food Services dished up hot soup for the hungry crowd.
“It’s the perfect meal for a day like this,” Abbott said as she ladled hot corn bisque into a customer’s bowl. She acknowledged that the white bean chili soup was the most popular of the four varieties offered, with corn bisque running a close second.
Idling just a short distance from the soup tent was the Green Machine, a retrofitted MATA bus that has been transformed into a mobile produce market and nutrition education center.
“We offer a wide range of very affordable, fresh and culturally appropriate fruits and vegetables five days a week,” said Kenneth Reardon, who spoke to visitors aboard the bus. “We make 19 stops at community centers, affordable housing projects, senior citizens facilities and neighborhoods that are considered food deserts.”
He said that in 10 weeks, the Green Machine had served 4,500 customers, sold nearly $20,000 worth of fresh fruits and vegetables and distributed 9,000 pieces of literature that highlights the connection between good eating, good nutrition and good health.
The Green Machine is supported by a long list of community partners including Saint Patrick Church, the U of M and Easy Way Produce.
Garden visitors found no shortage of vendors and exhibitors anxious to sell their wares or share their message.
Rosalyn Gatewood represented Recycle Memphis. She explained to those gathered around her table the various materials accepted by the City of Memphis for recycling.
“Recycling has a lot to do with gardening,” she said. "We compost the leaves and the tree limbs that we pick up around the city. We don’t throw away the bags of leaves people leave out. That ends up becoming compost that is given away free to the community.”
David Vaughan, there on behalf of the Memphis Botanic Garden, called the event awesome and said it presented people with an alternative perspective on how to get things to grow.
“What’s going on in Memphis right now is unbelievable in terms of going green and trying to get people to grow their own food,” he said. “Gardens like this are really important.”
A number of artists exhibited paintings, sculpture, jewelry and creations in virtually every medium imaginable.
Britten Bailey utilizes organic materials to form her living wreaths.
“Primarily I use sedums and succulents and seasonal items such as cabbage,” she said pointing to the various creations hung beneath her tent. “I use a lot of sphagnum moss to keep moisture in.”
Bailey’s neighbor at the exhibition was Don Morgan, a 72-year-old art student who returned to the U of M six years ago to major in painting.
“The students treat me great and I love every minute of it,” said Morgan, who is currently doing sculpture and ceramics as well. “I’m here to today to support the garden because the school’s been so good to us seniors. I just wanted to give something back.”
The children in attendance learned that giving back to the earth could yield some tasty results. The sweet potato dig near the end of the day had families scratching in the rich black soil as if they were searching for buried treasure.
Robert and Jennifer Townsend crouched on their hands and knees with daughters Nora and Gwen. Finally the older daughter extracted the prize and displayed it proudly.
When it’s prepared and served at home, it will taste all the sweeter because of the effort involved in the harvest.