Frost Illustrated Staff Report
FORT WAYNE—It’s likely that a good number of folks in this country have heard of extreme sports or even extreme makeovers. But, extreme gardening?
For decades, Ephraim Smiley has been the face of organic urban gardening in the area, starting with a small plot in the heart of the city on Hanna Street. He currently is working a 14-acre plot near Fellowship Missionary Church on Tillman Road with fellow devoted urban gardeners Bishop George McCowan and Melvin Cannon. Along the way, he spread his message of returning to the earth and healthy eating to scores of folks, including young people through the Garden Angels project he started at Maplewood Elementary School. Would it be fair to call Smiley an extreme gardener? You bet! And, all the time, one would think nobody, except perhaps the late, great community icon, Mr. Leo Underwood, could talk more gardening than Smiley. Now Smiley said he has met his match and wants to introduce another “extreme gardener” to the community.
Meet the Richardson family—wife Margaret Richardson,12-year-old daughter Monica Early and husband Willie Richardson. All three are devoted members of the Urban Garden project, starting with Margaret volunteering when Smiley had an urban garden site at Come As You Are Community Church followed a couple of years later by Monica, who started out as a Garden Angel at Maplewood Elementary about five years ago. Finally, Margaret brought her husband Willie on board and that’s when Smiley said he met a garden soul mate and second “extreme gardener.”
“I farmed most of my life. I grew up farming,” said Willie Richardson, a native of Uniontown, Ala. “We farmed for a living.”
He said his family specialized in growing okra and cucumbers as cash crops, while growing a host of other vegetables for home consumption.
Wife Margaret told Smiley, who also got his ties to the soil and producing food from his Alabama roots, about her husband’s farming background back home. She introduced the two men and, as they say, “it was on!”
“They have been ‘Alabama brothers’ ever since,” she said.
While Margaret and daughter Monica are very devoted urban gardeners, who put significant amounts of time and energy into the project Tillman Road plot, Margaret said her husband is at an entirely different level—like Smiley.
“My husband gets up early in the morning and goes to the garden and stays. I have to go out there and literally pull him out of the garden,” said Margaret Richardson.
She said he works so hard in the garden, before he leaves in the morning, she packs him a full lunch and a cooler with drinks to keep him hydrated.
“You’d think he was going on a long trip or something,” she said with a laugh.
She said her husband is a perfect partner for Smiley, whom she had watched as an “extreme gardener” for years.
“He (Smiley) finally met another gardener who is just like him,” said Margaret Richardson. “Willie would rather be out there doing anything. No matter how hot, he’s out there.”
She said her husband’s devotion to the growing craft doesn’t end with growing season.
“We almost got a divorce between garden seasons,” said Margaret Richardson, with a chuckle. “All he does is talk about the garden.”
She said he even checks weather forecasts year-round trying to anticipate what the upcoming growing season will be like—and checks the grounds, even during the winter.
“Sometimes we just drive out there,” said Margaret Richardson.
“I just like to garden,” explained Willie Richardson. “You meet a lot of people who try to garden. You meet a lot of good people in there.”
“Mr. Willie is an extreme gardener. No matter whether its snow, sleet, heat or hail, he’s going to be there,” said Smiley.
In addition to the camaraderie, Richardson added, he really enjoys being out in the garden growing things because it’s something he knows and knows well.
“I knew I was good at something. I’ll beat anybody gardening,” he said.
Smiley, however, takes a bit of good-natured exception to that. While noting that Willie Richardson’s presence has transformed the entire project, Smiley said he relishes a little friendly competition along with having an extreme gardener soul mate out there with him.
“I think I got him last year. He was in a low spot so the rain got him,” said Smiley with a sly grin. “Two years ago, he got me on the watermelon. I’ll tell you something–his watermelons were good.”
Actually, the two men said they love sharing their produce with each other and the rest of the folks working the garden, as well as he community. That’s a key part of the Urban Garden project.
Last year, the Urban Garden project donated 2,000 pounds of peas to Community Harvest Food Bank and supplied vegetables to a number of senior citizens. The project itself utilizes a lot of youth, teaching them not only gardening skills but value life lessons, members say.
“Our garden club, we also service the community,” said Margaret Richardson.
With Willie and his family onboard, Smiley said the Urban Garden project is set to do much more.
Last year, Richardson and his family alone grew 29 rows of vegetables—including watermelon, cantaloupe, mush melon, squash, eggplant, zucchini, cucumber, black eye peas, purple hull peas, green beans, lima beans and green and red cabbage. Still, the project did not use the entire site Fellowship Missionary Church granted them.
“All 14 acres are going to be planted for the first time,” said Smiley. “We’re going to have a spring crop, a summer crop, a fall crop.”
That, he said, can be accomplished with the help of his new-found partner.
“Willie and the family have a level of commitment beyond the norm,” explained Smiley. “Everything kicked up a gear when Willie came there. Willie’s enthusiasm is contagious. He’s an excellent farmer who forces everyone else to be on their ‘A’ game.
“I’m just so happy to have Willie onboard. You look up, and Willie is on his knees working that garden,” said Smiley with a true understanding of kinship. “We’re extreme gardeners. We should be on the Discovery Channel.”
Smiley invites others to show their support and even sign up for the Urban Garden project from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., Dec. 4, at the Southtown McDonald’s, 7640 S. Anthony Blvd., when the restaurant hosts a fundraiser for the organization. A percentage of receipts from sales during that time will be donated to the Urban Garden project.
For more information about the Urban Garden project, call Tony from Lafayette Bait & Tackle at (260) 456-1616 or Smiley at (260) 409-8010.