Cars whiz by the large garden along the access road to US 121, but they’re hardly noticed by Rohan Fernando and his Great Dane, Rover. It’s midmorning, and Fernando is feverishly watering his vegetable plants and those of his neighbors adjacent to his plot. In a few hours he’ll have to go to work, and the summer sun is already causing the leafy plants to wilt.

Rohan Fernando picking

Fernando picks some of his morning crop of black-eyed peas. Even without fertilizers and pesticides, he produces high yields of fresh produce.

Photo Credit: David L. Morgan

Garden rows

From his backyard fence to the highway, Fernando plants his vegetable crops in straight, well-cultivated rows.

Photo Credit: David L. Morgan

Morning harvest

Because there’s often far more than what Fernando can eat, he gives much of his produce away.

Photo Credit: David L. Morgan

Pulling weeds

Weed control in Fernando’s garden is done the old-fashioned way: by hand and hoe.

Photo Credit: David L. Morgan

Fernando is used to the traffic. For four years he’s had his quarter-acre garden here, just a few feet from the busy north Texas road.

“You’re the second person this morning,” he tells me as I walk over to meet him. “Here, I will give you some vegetables.”

Lots of people stop by, he says. The entire community garden (which includes his section, as well as his neighbors’) measures about half an acre, and it’s conspicuous – and unexpected – to motorists scooting along the section of the highway. After all, it’s in an urbanized area between Dallas and Fort Worth. The garden is unfenced, so I was able to drive up to it easily. If Fernando and his neighbors lose vegetables to opportunistic poachers, he doesn’t even notice. Or maybe he does but doesn’t care – he gives away much of what he grows anyway.

Fernando has had a good crop this season, considering he uses no fertilizers or pesticides. The zucchini and yellow squash he gave me, as well as the tiny salad tomatoes, black-eyed peas, carrots and cucumbers, had no signs of insect blemishes – nor did the onions and potatoes he picked a couple of months earlier that he was storing in his house.

“This is all organic,” Fernando proclaims. “No chemicals are used here.” He grows his crops in spring and summer and puts the land to fallow in fall and winter, covered with tree leaves he collects from his neighborhood. He tills the leaves into the soil and then waits again for planting time, letting nature take care of the land for him.

Why waste these leaves?” he asks. “They are full of nutrients all the vegetables need.”

Fernando says he doesn’t eat out because he grows more than enough vegetables to feed himself. He’s also generous with neighbors, friends and passersby, like me.

“I gave some to the postman this morning,” he adds.

For Fernando, gardening is a natural pastime. In his native Sri Lanka, his father managed a 1,500-acre tea plantation where the family of six grew a cornucopia of produce. There was always plenty to feed themselves, plus enough left over to sell in a local market. But it was by accident that Fernando became a vegetable gardener in Texas. When he was negotiating the purchase of his house, he learned that his property would extend beyond his backyard fence to the highway. His neighbors were using their adjoining land to garden, so he joined the community enterprise.

It’s now really a love story with the land. Fernando’s finely tilled soil has a nice feel to it, deep with good tilth. The rows are straight, and he handpicks the weeds as he irrigates with his garden hose. In midsummer, Fernando has a bountiful harvest every day. In September, he sets out garlic, his last crop of the season. Then he plows it all under for winter to let the soil “relax” until planting time.

Of course, Fernando isn’t alone in community gardening – or the only one producing produce for others. Many charitable organizations, churches and individuals commonly provide food from their gardens to feed the hungry. The Garden Writers Association, for example, has its “Plant a Row for the Hungry” campaign, in which it encourages members to establish local volunteers and committees to grow vegetables and herbs for the needy. In 2004, they grew more than 8 million pounds of produce available to food banks, soup kitchens and service organizations.

With the spirit of giving in the air, maybe it’s time to start thinking about the amount of food that comes out of your garden. If you’ve got extras, chances are that you’ve got food banks that accept fresh produce in your community.

How can you learn or do more? Here are some ideas:

  • Contact your local Cooperative Extension office. These nationwide services train Master Gardeners who work closely with the local community. They understand what the food needs are and how to reach out to help.
  • Check with local garden clubs. They frequently provide food for the needy, as well as help them start and maintain their own gardens.
  • Watch the community calendar of your local newspaper for volunteer opportunities, or call the paper’s garden editor for tips.
  • Contact homeless shelters in your area. They can advise you of their produce needs, as well as the needs of others. Some shelters have their own gardens as well, and they’re looking for volunteers who know their way around vegetables.
  • Check with churches and synagogues – they’re rich sources of information on the needy, and they always have names of people to contact.
  • Visit farmers’ markets and ask about other vegetable gardens and sources that may need assistance.

No matter where you live, there’s likely an organization – or a family – in your community for whom you can provide a healthy meal of fresh vegetables during the growing season. Just like in Fernando’s garden, the land is rich and can produce all we need – and much more.