On gardening as social practice.
By Kevin McKelvey
I spent the first summer of my life, and every summer until I was eighteen, working and playing in my grandma Margaret’s garden, on a rise in the till plains of central Indiana. It took up about a third of her two-acre barn lot in southwest Tipton County, the first place she and my granddaddy Lee ever owned after a lifetime farming others land. The northeastern corner started along the edge of the road, a few paces south of the driveway, and continued a hundred feet or so across to the old chicken coop. On the western edge, a strawberry patch thrived for years, and on the east side of the garden, her rows of sweet corn began, eight across, and ran south and then turned west, expanding to twenty-four, along the property line. The chicken coop marked the border between vegetable garden and sweet corn, and the corn rows curved around the tool shed to end at the neighbor’s field, more than three hundred feet from their beginning.
There in the main garden—framed by sweet corn and strawberries—we grew zucchini, green beans, tomatoes, potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, beets, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and peppers. When my young consciousness sparked to memory and awareness, what I remember is that exquisite dirt, the strawberry patch, and the asparagus, rhubarb, struggling peach, and ancient apple tree by the house. All created tastes of wonder for eight-year-old me. I felt free, in control, at peace.
We planted on weekends in May after her neighbor, Don, disked the garden and planted her sweet corn. My grandma took care of hoeing and watering and more planting when we weren’t there. My parents, Bob and Sue, my sister, Lee Anne, and I weeded and hoed and roto-tilled all summer, then picked and picked and picked, in awe of a fresh green bean or newly dug potato or a bright cherry tomato, eating as many strawberries as we picked, letting nothing go to waste. In that soil as good as any on the planet, I experienced gardening as a social practice, undertaken in coordination and collaboration with family and neighbors.
My grandma’s devotion to sweet corn inspired our own, and the fact that almost every year in Tipton County is a good year for corn. When it came on, when all the kernels filled out and were still soft, we filled every container we had—old seed bags, little red wagons, garden carts, vegetable hampers, bushel baskets—in the morning before the heat. Under the shade of a silver maple, while the humidity rose and the wind picked up, we shucked ears and stacked them upright in plastic tubs. During and after lunch, my mom and grandma tonged corn into boiling water in big aluminum pots, which we called stirrers, to cook for a few minutes. They removed the ears and dropped them into an ice bath in the sink to stop the cooking. Once cooled, my grandmother ran each ear over a corn cutter a few times to remove the kernels, then we spooned the corn into bags to freeze.
This private family tradition was public in two ways. The first was the corn we froze by the quart in August and took to every pitch-in and potluck and family gathering and holiday from September to July. We put up enough to sustain us the year, usually more than fifty quarts; one year we froze just over a hundred. If there was any constant in my life, this was it, as reliable and regular as the sun. We thawed it out, then heated it in the microwave with a stick of butter or margarine and some salt. I ate at least two servings every time I could, a sugary reward.
And every bountiful August, when we grew more than we could eat or preserve ourselves, we filled the truck after supper with the extra ears and vegetables. We always made a delivery to Mrs. Wainwright, the retired principal who first gave my dad a teaching job, and made other stops on the way from my grandma’s house, between Tipton and Sheridan, to our house near Lebanon. In the dark, we pulled up to friends’ houses, and gave away corn and other vegetables under the limited truck bed light. We doubled or tripled the number they asked for, in case the ears were small or bug-eaten or not filled out, and because we had so much. If they weren’t home, we left a bag or two on their doorstep.
But this commerce was not sold. When I wanted to sell extra ears and tomatoes, my grandma rebuffed it with talk of insurance and liability. We grew what we needed and gave away the rest.
Grandma Margaret’s death, the year I turned eighteen, shattered this idyll. We planted a garden at her house for a couple seasons, but it wasn’t the same. In the twenty-three years since her death, I have been untethered from that profound experience—social and familial, collaborative and judicious, public and private—and I have been trying to recreate it.
Seven years after my grandma’s death, and five years after we let her garden return to grass and rented out her house and helped various friends with their gardens so we could have vegetables, my mom died. Any sort of knowledge, remembrance, intuition, know-how, this-is-how-we-did-it-this-one-year about the garden vanished. She knew how long to blanche the corn, simmer the green beans, stew the tomatoes. We were left to look for recipe cards she had memorized and find canning instructions on the internet.
My dad, sister, and I cemented our gardening with our neighbors, Lester and Joyce, about half a mile down the road from our house near Lebanon. They had retired from farming, sold most of their land, and built a modular house on a small triangle of land that had previously been their sweet corn patch and pig pasture. The new garden, with a rectangle of vegetables and a square of sweet corn, was a collaboration: they supplied the land, we supplied some labor, and we all had fresh food. During this time, I lived in Carbondale, Illinois, for graduate school, commuting back and forth on occasion.
Lester and Joyce had been farming and gardening this land for decades. Joyce always grew okra and orange tomatoes. Lester was a savant with corn, and he planted it to sell it. My dad fell into this commerce, and I helped when I could. They had a little under an acre of sweet corn near Lebanon, and sometimes one or two acres of sweet corn at their farm in Big Springs to the northeast. Every year, we filled truck beds with corn, selling it from Lester and Joyce’s house along the road, dropping off orders of dozens of ears so people could boil and freeze it. One year, early on, I filled my car trunk with corn and drove it back to Carbondale to give away to friends and teachers.
When I moved back to Indiana and anchored myself in my old triangle—bordered by Indianapolis, Kokomo, and Lafayette—I created new routes for delivering extra vegetables to college friends, and to new friends in Indianapolis. I enrolled in Purdue Extension’s Master Gardener course, to begin to relearn what I never knew in the first place. Later, I took my wife, Lakshmi, and my young children to pick and fill our minivan with corn, giving them the experience of the endless rows, the scratchy leaves, a preponderance of ears and good eating. When Lester died, his wisdom around timing the fertilizer and atrazine was lost, and my dad and I have never quite figured it out.
Three and Four
At the first house my wife and I shared in Indianapolis, a small cottage built after the Civil War, I carved out a small garden in the landscaping—enough room for a few tomato plants, mostly harvested by the possums and rats. At our next house, a couple blocks south in the neighborhood, I was more ambitious, planning a raised bed by the house, three other raised beds along the fence, and plots of strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries. I shoveled out and hauled away the old dirt, full of lead and trash, tired from a century of use, and replaced it with new soil, compost, and peat. I built the raised beds out of cedar, and planted berries of all sorts outside the beds.
For all that work, we didn’t have enough space to really produce and grow. But my children could eat berries directly from the plant, filling their mouths, rarely bringing any indoors to eat later.
In late 2010, Jim Walker, my friend and collaborator at Big Car Collaborative, found a vacant tire center near Indianapolis’s Lafayette Square Mall—a dying mall I went to a lot as a kid. The building sat along Lafayette Road, one of the busiest in the city. Jim’s vision was to activate it as an arts and culture community center with some kind of garden or greenspace on the parking lot. Over the course of that first winter, I worked with Jim and other artists, including Zach Shields, Nathan Monk, and Tom Streit, to plan the garden. We wanted bright and colorful fruits and vegetables, thinking of them more like sculptures than food. We found models in other cities, figured out how to adapt them to our lot, and then ordered a trailer of hay bales, multiple loads of wood chips, and dump truck loads of mushroom compost.
We learned a lot about managing a public garden as we figured out how to grow on a parking lot along a busy, six-lane street. In the second year, Tom Streit and LaShawnda Crowe Storm did all kinds of work to increase the garden’s impact. We gave away the food. We surprised visitors with black cherry tomatoes, got some chickens, started canning the food in glass jars. Some folks were picking their weekly vegetables for their family in the garden, and we were doing a little bit for food security in the neighborhood. The garden became an educational tool, and spawned an additional garden space, north of the mall, run by an immigrant group.
This is where I started to realize the differences between a public garden and a private one. The Service Center garden was available to anyone twenty-four hours a day—hell, maybe people stopped by after the strip club across the street closed at three in the morning. The small beds in my backyard were only available to my family, and we had a measure of control. But a public garden can’t be managed as easily—volunteers pull up flowers or rows, harvest too much, step on plants, which leads to a certain amount of chaos. I like the chaos more than the control. The tinkering, the variables, the testing of new ideas, just to see what will work.
After three years, our free lease at Service Center ended because a tenant wanted to pay full price for the building. Our soil was just getting productive, and we were finally beginning to understand it. I had again lost something I had helped build and create, something bigger than myself. Most of the soil went to Indy Urban Acres on the eastside, a market garden and a city park run by Tyler Gough and the Indianapolis Parks Foundation. Indy Urban Acres gives away one hundred percent of its vegetables, and funds itself through flower production and plant sales, so I get to visit my organic matter from time to time.
When Service Center ended in 2014, my home beds and berries were entering their best production, though the robins liked to take one bite out of each ripe strawberry, and the neighbor’s tree was shading out my beds along the fence. That same year, while my grandma’s house in Tipton County was between renters, my family and I drove up there so my kids could run around and see the place as I remember it. I led Lakshmi to the southeast corner, where grandma Margaret’s garden had been. I held out my arms at right angles and said, “This is what I mean when I say garden.”
“Oh,” she said. “I see now.”
We had always had the vague idea of moving out to the country around Indianapolis, or the woods north of Bloomington. But we had three children and jobs in Indianapolis. So, in 2017, we bought an acre and a half on the north side of Indianapolis with an old growth forest in the front yard. I am working to take out some landscaping and add the garden I’ve always wanted. I just planted pecans and shagbark hickories in the front yard, and I will add pawpaws and persimmons in the fall, maybe some blueberries then or next year, to create my own food forest.
Last year, with part of a Creative Renewal grant from the Arts Council of Indianapolis, I ordered every seed I ever wanted. I spent $230 on a broadfork and $60 on a stirrup hoe. I bought fluorescent lights and grow trays so I could grow starts in the basement on the wire shelf the previous owner had left. In the front yard, I built a permaculture bed of asparagus and strawberries. The strawberries grew and sent out shoots, and the asparagus flowered on their alien-looking stalks. I weeded a couple times, but the weeds did not grow like in the backyard garden, and I harvested nothing in anticipation of this year.
Now, my asparagus and strawberry patch is thriving, a little shrine to my grandma Margaret. I’m getting so much asparagus this year we can’t possibly eat it all. I posted on social media to see if anyone wanted some, and more than twenty people responded. I may not get to them all this year, but I’ve begun to figure out a distribution plan. I remember our old vegetable and corn route, from my grandma’s house to ours. My grandma kept her list of neighbors and friends in her head. I have my own list now.
Last year, I convinced my dad to roto-till the plot the renters gardened in on my grandma Margaret’s property and plant pumpkins and melons. We used to call the place grandma’s house, but the house itself caught fire in 2017, and we had to demolish it—now the property is just the two acres with a gambrel barn and other outbuildings in need of repair. The weeds overtook the melons in the plot, but the pumpkins grew well enough for us to take home dozens.
Even if there isn’t a house there, I still see that birth patch as a place to engage friends and neighbors in the public practice of gardening. I always wanted to keep the house as a writing studio and a place for visiting writers and artists. And now melons and pumpkins can be our public practice. Last year, my dad and his girlfriend brought her grandkids up for hot dogs and s’mores and pumpkin picking. My family and I went another day and had enough to take home to share. This year, we can share with neighbors there. Maybe we can invite some friends up to pick pumpkins as well.
I have never understood how to make money gardening and farming, although I know many market farmers in Indianapolis who do it. I have worked and learned on the farms of Amy Matthews and Matthew Jose of Mad Farmers Collective. Danial Garcia of Garcia’s Gardens will tell me anything I want to know.
But I guess I still don’t know enough, and the work interests me not as business, but as art and creative practice. I remember my grandma’s labor and knowledge, having enough of everything to share, and the process that can sustain a place and its people.
I teach writing and social practice art at the University of Indianapolis. My work and teaching have always been inspired by places, by the dirt of that rise in Tipton County. Service-learning is integral to many of my courses, including my Urban Food and Farming Spring Term course. Last time I taught it, we served and learned on four farms around Indianapolis. This time, after years of asking, we were given two university-owned lots on which to build a garden and farm in partnership with Community Health Hospital South.
For three weeks this May, instead of working on this essay, I built a garden at University of Indianapolis with students in my course. We met three days a week, and spent half of our time turning two vacant lots into three large garden beds by moving two, large dump truck loads of soil and compost into rows, forming foot-wide walkways between rows, and planting two of the three beds. The project was a shared experience, both public and social. But there is also an element of the unknown: we know what we planted, but we don’t know what it will do in new soil. The soil’s pH is alkaline in the low eights, terrible for garden plants. A family of groundhogs lives under the shed next door, and, as far as they’re concerned, we just planted a buffet.
This first year or two will be a fight against the soil, weather, and varmints. We’ll talk with the neighbors and find ways to make the garden theirs, too. I don’t know exactly what will happen, but I am fairly certain someone will do donuts in the beds with their car or truck, which we will repair. Then we will build a fence. At some point, in three or four years, it will achieve a sort of balance and stability, where we understand all of its variables and know what to plant where, a knowledge of this place closer to my grandma’s knowledge of hers.
Like all gardeners—and artists—I have some vague vision of perfection. But mostly, there’s nothing better than deciding what to plant and then planting it, nothing more fulfilling than harvesting a fresh purple bean or eating cherry tomatoes right off the vine—the closest way to taste the sun, something approaching tranquility. ■
This story was produced in partnership with Indiana Humanities’ INseparable project. Read more stories in the series here.
Kevin McKelvey is a place-based poet, writer, designer, and social practice artist in Indiana. He teaches at University of Indianapolis and directs the MA in Social Practice Art. Dream Wilderness Poems was published last year, and he can be found online at kevinmckelvey.org.
Cover image courtesy Big Car Collective.
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