November 13, 2015 | By: Carol Lea Spence
LEXINGTON, Ky., -

Everything changed once the garden went in.

A number of folks at St. James Place echo that refrain when talking about all they had accomplished during the past growing season—things like building a community, strengthening their confidence and pride in themselves, and learning to eat healthy food.

First came nutrition classes, taught by Jacqui Denegri, University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Nutrition Education Program assistant in Fayette County. Then, in the spring, someone in the group planted the seed of an idea for a garden. Denegri turned to horticulture extension agent Jamie Dockery, who helped the residents establish a garden—something that turned out to be rather challenging.

“When I went over to visit with them, of course what I thought would be a simple, find-a-plot-of-ground-turn-it-over-and-plant-a-garden was nothing of the sort, because they had no ground,” Dockery said. “There was nothing but little strips of median between parking lots. There were a couple of places with soil, but it was your usual concrete, rock and backfill.”

It took some innovative solutions to make it work.

“That’s how we ended up gardening in livestock troughs and straw bales,” he said.

As the garden grew, so did residents’ enthusiasm. With fresh produce available for the picking, Denegri led cooking classes every Wednesday, and the residents gathered to prepare and eat a communal meal.

“They take such pride, because a lot of them had never seen it go from the farm to the table,” Denegri said.

St. James Place, a nonprofit outreach program of Central Christian Church, provides affordable housing for working homeless and recovering homeless veterans. Located on Elm Tree Lane in the heart of downtown Lexington, one might not think that a garden of any worth could be established among the buildings and paved parking lots. It’s not exactly the Garden of Eden.

Or it wasn’t, anyway. Residents, such as David Thacker, a Rockcastle County native, U.S. Army veteran and long-time farmer, see it differently.

“We’re kind of proud of this,” he said. “We’ve had to work with what we’ve got, with the help of UK and some of the people here. Everybody is kind of proud of the little garden here. Everybody likes to grow things.”

Ty Sterling’s voice overflows with his enthusiasm for the garden and what it has spawned. Sterling, an Army veteran, admits to having had some bumps in the road, like all the men and women who live at St. James Place.

“Big bumps. Some of them really big bumps, you know?” he said. “But to get the opportunity to rebuild your life. And a garden means something to you. It’s amazing how a little garden and a little food brought us all together.”

At one of the Wednesday night group dinners, spirits ran high in the kitchen. Retired firefighter, Jerry Houghton, U.S. Navy Reserves, was in his element directing other residents on preparing the evening meal.

“What I try to do is get everybody involved, regardless of what it is, whether it’s cutting something or mixing something together,” he said, as he chopped herbs for a cream cheese spread. “And then we talk through the good the food has to offer them, from the garden to the table. I try to enlighten everybody of the fresh choices that are healthy for them. Make yourself healthy with food, and then make medicine second.”

Denegri said it was funny how things took off from her original 12-week nutrition class. She focused on health issues because many of the residents are older or have diabetes or other health concerns. That first crop of lettuce the residents grew quickly expanded to a three-season garden, with crops rotating in and out. Squash, peppers, tomatoes, basil, parsley, cabbage, carrots, potatoes and even watermelons all found their way out of the hay bales and horse troughs and onto the residents’ plates for their weekly dinner.

“It snowballed. After my third or fourth visit, they had taken ownership. Toward the end, a bigger challenge was to get them to leave anything in the ground long enough to mature,” Dockery said, laughing. “They harvested the entire carrot crop when they were like an inch and a half long. They couldn’t wait.”

When hard work is finally realized, it can be hard to wait. Susan Camacho, one of several cooks happily at work in the kitchen on a Wednesday night, said she has gone from feeling like “I can’t” to knowing “I can.”

The garden is going to sleep for the winter, but plans are already brewing for next season’s crops. James Jones, standing outside on a late summer’s evening grilling fish for dinner, summed it up for everyone.

“We’ve put a lot of time into it,” he said, waving his spatula toward the garden. “There’s a lot of love in it.”

Contact: 

Jacqui Denegri and Jamie Dockery, 859-257-5582