Garden Founder Teaches New Generation of City Growers
When I left on another excursion to the city’s community gardens, I never expected to return with a bag of blackberries, a cucumber and sprigs of rosemary and sage. But Abu Talib, 74, wouldn’t have had it any other way. He’s the city farmer I met at Taqwa Community Garden, a one-acre site in the Bronx, the largest in the borough.
Talib, the director of the garden, showed me around the green oasis, an incredibly fertile piece of land that’s home to 40 fruit trees – plums, peaches, pears, figs, apples, cherries – and a crazy array of crops, tended by some 30 to 35 gardeners. The garden also produced strawberries, raspberries and blackberries and all kinds of herbs, including lemon thyme, which you guessed it, smelled like lemon.
On top of that, the garden had a bee hive, which last year produced 60 pounds of honey, and would soon house 18 chickens in a coop Talib was building.
Talib, guardian of the garden for 16 years and one of its five founders, keeps Taqwa open every day from 6 a.m. to as late as 9 p.m. – 10 p.m., making it accessible to gardeners and visitors who work 9 to 5 jobs. He would stay overnight if he had to.
“I love doing it,” said Talib of his gardening and garden stewardship. “What else can I do better than this? Play cards? Dominoes? Watch TV?”
Talib is as much an advocate for city gardeners as he is for farms and food. When asked about encroaching development, he framed the issue as one of “shelter versus food.” “Somebody,” he said, “has to stand up for food. People have to eat.”
Small community gardens, such as Taqwa, produce great bounties that can feed many people, particularly those on tight budgets. According to Talib, a small 4 foot x 8 foot plot, the standard size plot for most gardeners, can feed five people for a year, using canning and other storing techniques. His claim jibes with a comment from a visitor to this blog who describes a vegetable farming system that makes it possible for people to farm – and earn money—on very small plots of land.
Few people know farming as well as Talib, a former sharecropper from South Carolina. He wants to make sure that his farming skills and knowledge are passed on to others.
“If all farming dies,” he said, “we all die.”
Talib and his son work with four youths in the neighborhood, teaching them the basics of farming. On weekends, he and the youngsters typically sell between 1,500 – 2,000 pounds of produce from the garden. They make enough in sales to cover the paychecks of the youths.
“I wanted to do something to get kids off the street and create some jobs in the community,” said Talib.
When he was approached to start the garden 16 years ago, the neighborhood – Highbridge – was going through rough times, with shootings in the street and people lacking a “sense of direction.” Talib and the other founders slowly converted what was then a junkyard and gradually taught people to garden and grow food. Talib would often entice gardeners by offering them prime spots in the garden.
“I wanted something to contribute back to society,” he said. “I tell people, ‘come and stay a while, and you’re guaranteed to feel better’.”
For me, it sure did.