Cultivating community ties

Tuesday, June 14, 2005
Robert Harris, right, with some help from Alexis Allstun, 4, planted about 300 tomatoes plants at the Fountain street community garden. The plants were donated by the Southeast Missouri State University to the community garden. Harris and seven others take care of the garden about twice a week. The vegetables and flowers grown at the garden will be donated to certain families in the neighborhood. (Diane Wilson)

Robert Harris is growing vegetables for the needy on an empty flood-buyout lot.

Robert Harris and his mother, Bernice, of Cape Girardeau just want to do something nice for their neighbors. The city of Cape Girardeau and area master gardeners are helping them do that this summer.

For the last 10 years or so, Harris has planted a community garden, first on Ranney Avenue with a one-year grant from the East Missouri Action Agency, and since 2003 in a city-owned flood-buyout lot on Fountain Street at the corner of Elm Street.

"Robert is trying to improve the entire neighborhood," said Marge Bauerle, a master gardener.

Once Harris got permission from the city to plant his garden on the empty lot, he first had to pick up the trash on the lot. Until the master gardeners bought him a tiller last year from the proceeds of their spring plant sale, he tilled the garden plot himself by hand. Until this year, Harris also hauled five-gallon buckets of water on his pickup from his home on Benton Street. He, his mother and others who help him used cups to carry the water to the plants.

Bauerle approached Mayor Jay Knudtson to ask if the city could help Harris by putting in a water system. Because the lot is in a flood-buyout area and the water pipes at the lot were unusable, the city had to bring a water line in from Giboney Avenue behind the garden. The master gardeners organization paid for a third of the expenses, Bauerle said.

This year, all Harris has to do is stretch a garden hose from a spigot to water his garden. As the vegetables grow, Harris said, he will share them with the people who live in the south Cape Girardeau neighborhood.

"I put the garden in for the people in the community," he said. "There will be a table with a sign, and people can pick up their vegetables. It will be free to them."

'Wonderful, wonderful' act

The garden proves there can be new life and beauty on a street that once lacked a future.

"He's making that a pretty place, and he gives the vegetables to the needy," Bauerle said. "I think it's a wonderful, wonderful, unselfish act on his part and his mother's."

Once master gardeners go through the 10-week training period they are required to contribute 40 hours of community service their first year, and 30 hours after that. The community garden has been Harris' community service project ever since he earned his master gardener status in 1994.

At first, there were so few master gardeners that they had little time to help Harris, said master gardener Ann Foust. The other gardeners had their own projects -- major projects like a plant sale and an annual gardening seminar -- but helped Harris financially from the annual spring plant sale proceeds so he could buy plants and seeds.

This spring, Harris went to work planting green onions, red and green cabbage, green beans, tomatoes, squash, sweet corn and some flowers. A local nursery gives him flowering plants left over at the end of the season, and he frequently takes bouquets to the ill and elderly.

In years past, some of Harris' gardens suffered some vandalism, and growth in some years was better than others, but he remains undeterred.

"We had trials and tribulations," is all he will say about that.

Harris would prefer to look ahead to better growing than be discouraged by some setbacks. He prefers to say that every year his garden gets bigger.

"Last year his garden was gorgeous," Foust said. "Last year he had a bumper crop."

Knudtson said the city took note of Harris' commitment to help feed his neighbors when Bauerle approached him for help from the city. He said he could see the request "was something we need to do to recognize an individual for his tireless commitment to a garden project in south Cape."

Bauerle mentioned to the mayor that with the nearby River Campus being built and Fort D getting more attention, the city should encourage Harris' efforts. The community garden, she said, could well be the beginning of a series of improvements.

As a result of Harris' efforts, and with a little encouragement from the master gardeners, the city has hauled away the trash Harris picked up from the lot. Soon after, a nearby lot owned by the railroad between Fountain Street and the river was cleaned up and fresh gravel was laid down.

"It's a little bit of a domino effect," Bauerle said.

It's a lesson that sometimes small projects have big effects.

Looking toward the Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge looming over the garden, Knudtson recalled at the garden's dedication ceremony how he had been involved with the city in getting the bridge built. That, he said, was a huge project, "but something like this is not any less in value, in commitment, in importance to this neighborhood.

"This is one man's dream and commitment to the area."

lredeffer@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 160

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