Inner City Garden

Heroes, Local Heroes
on May 1, 2009
Marne Duke

"Some people grow tomatoes and corn. We grow compost. Our crop is soil," says Sizwe Herring, executive director of Earthmatters Tennessee, with a broad smile. On a three-acre plot donated by the state, Herring and his team of volunteers dote on organic discards like coffee grounds and leaves that "don't belong in a land fill."

The George Washington Carver Food Park in Nashville is an oasis for learning about composting and for nourishing both the earth and the community.

Mounds of leaves and decomposing vegetables provide an opportunity to build what really makes a garden grow-rich compost. But it's the working together, the community spirit, that truly pulls the project all together.

Herring's garden students include master gardeners, neighborhood kids and a city councilwoman. The rich compost they sift and mix is available to community gardeners who are starting their plots and to the public. A $20 donation is rewarded with a 5-pound bag of compost, packaged in a recycled flour bag from a local bakery.

Growing up in inner-city Detroit, Herring learned about reusing and recycling from his father. "My dad was all about turning one man's trash into his own treasure. And that's literally what I do everyday." While attending the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama in the 1980s, Herring was struck by "a green bolt of lightening" while walking in the footsteps of Dr. George Washington Carver, the noted botanist and agriculturalist of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. "I got to talk to the trees that he talked to, learn about his life intimately, and was given his divine intervention," says Herring. "That's what still moves and inspires me."

At his inspiration's namesake garden, Herring passes on his passion while working in the 30 raised vegetable and herb beds and numerous compost piles. "We've created a place where someone can say 'this is my job' and they have something to be proud of," he explains. "We all have an intimate connection with food."

By Marne Duke, a food writer in Nashville, Tenn.

Found in: Heroes, Local Heroes