Each plot takes you to a different place at the Alief Community Garden.
A dozen cactus plants reach upward of 4 feet on a 25-foot-long bed belonging to Gus Munoz. Up close, against blues skies, the fleshy paddles transport you to arid central Mexico or, in Munoz’s case, the Rio Grande Valley, where he grew up helping his father grow nopales for restaurants around Harlingen and McAllen.
Nearby are plots belonging to several Burmese families who own the largest parcels in the community garden that volunteer Barbara Quattro helped start in 2011. Six-foot-tall wooden square frames perch over two plots, and herbaceous vines weave in and out of trellises. Eventually, the climbing vines will form a leafy canopy with goldcup flowers that will mature into warty-looking gourds used in Burmese clear broth soups and stir-fries. Adjacent to the Burmese plots, a Pakistani gardener grows onions and winter melons for use in curries.
Several Vietnamese gardeners carpet their plots with Thai basil, purple perilla, lemongrass, dandelion, and sweet mint. A Nigerian grower is cultivating various peppers, tomatoes, green callaloo, or amaranth. Cabbage, squash, sweet potatoes, and peas sprout from a patch belonging to a barefoot Congolese woman.
Munoz was among the first gardeners to till the soil on the six-and-a-half acres on the corner of Beechnut and Dairy View. He pays $5 a month, along with 15 hours of community service, to plant his grapevines, cactus, banana peppers, tomatoes, jalapenos, habaneros, and okra, which he shares with relatives and friends.
The medical technologist considers the planting fee a steal, considering that he already has reaped 75 pounds of nopales, with more harvesting in the months to come. But more importantly, the nonprofit garden brings him closer to his community, as he enjoys the camaraderie with other gardeners, swapping seeds and exchanging ideas.
All 85 of the garden’s 5’-by-25’ beds, each surrounded by concrete blocks, are taken, and “I have 10 people on the waiting list,” Quattro said.
The retired business analyst will need to raise funds for additional plots.
“Each bed costs $200 to build,” said the West Virginia native, but Quattro isn’t shy about asking for financial help. The worst they can do is say no, she theorizes, and she always can ask elsewhere or try again soon. Still, the garden is already heavily subsidized. The water bill alone costs about $11,000, so she relies on volunteers to keep up the garden.
Quattro has three passions: family; fostering puppies; and leaving this world better than she found it.
The energetic, white-haired Alief resident, who started to gray at age 16, and is now 77, walked a greener path back in the early 2000s when she convinced Brown & Root Industrial Services to donate $10,000 to plant hardwood trees along Bellaire Boulevard and Wilcrest.
“I had no strategy,” she says. “It was just plain dumb luck.”
Quattro grew up surrounded by plants and trees in West Virginia, so Houston presented a stark contrast.
For five years, starting in 2003, she and her fellow volunteers planted more than 5,000 trees throughout the International Management District. Once barren, esplanades and four parks are now verdant with trees.
“That is what I thought a healthy environment looked like,” she said. “Trees are multipurpose. They clean the air. They house wildlife. They give you shade.
“There’s a saying,” she added. “ ‘The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.’ But my grandchildren will be able to.”
As Quattro drifted toward two plots at the front of Alief Community Garden, she said, “These belong to the students at Youngblood Intermediate School across the street. They come out here and learn about plants.”
Further down from the orchard of recently planted Meyer lemon trees, the grandmother admires four plots brimming with passion flowers, cosmos, squash, and a profusion of tomato plants with flourishing yellow buds.
“This is Marilyn’s garden,” Quatro said. “Look at these flowers. Look at these plants. It is such a refuge.”
Marilyn Svoboda doesn’t consider gardening work. The retired nurse finds solace in the garden, as well as satisfaction. With every visit, she can see the cycle of life: How she planted seeds that are now flowers or fruits.
“It’s life. You’re born, you grow, and you die,” the 65-year-old said, adding that the magic starts again next season.
The community garden also brings people with diverse background together.
“I may not know the plants they’re growing, but I get to know them,” Svoboda said, “and I’ve learned that we’re alike, basically, in the garden.”
Donations to the garden may be sent to the non-profit Alief Super Neighborhood Council, PO Box 1098, Alief, TX 77411
— By Dai Huynh