Written by: Catherine Schrenker

My dad always had a garden, he grew up poor in the small Indiana town of Elwood. Both my parents were Depression Era, so mom canned and preserved what Dad grew in the yard. I stress “yard”, not “garden” because Dad planted his vegetables where he knew they would grow best. He and Mom even got into a fight once when he planted sweet potatoes up by the road. Many don’t see this as a problem, but when I continue to describe the upscale neighborhood we lived in and continue painting this picture of the only “lawn” with very little grass and a whole lot of fruit trees, grape vines, corn, beans, tomatoes, I can go on and on…

Tomatoes and weed barrier are added.

I never quite understood Dad’s obsession with gardening, and with making use of every inch of land until after my divorce. In 2004 I moved to Southwest Virginia to be closer to my younger brother, he lives in Bristol. Finding quality work was difficult because I was “overqualified” and owning/running my own business was exhausting and financially unpredictable.  The divorce made buying a home out of the question. My three children and I moved from one place to another and I was blessed that my last two landlords didn’t want rent, they just wanted someone they trusted keeping up the home, yard and fixing things as needed. 

That was a good thing, as I only made minimum wage -and you cannot raise a family on minimum wage. You cannot feed a family anything healthy or “organic” on minimum wage. You CAN afford canned beans, rice, and junk food…Ramen noodles, Box Mac n Cheese…there is a reason why many in poverty are obese. I understand that now, I didn’t quite get that before I moved here thirteen years ago.

One time a friend from Wytheville arranged a “pounding” which is basically a food drive for a family. The term came from a time when newlyweds would receive “a pound of butter” “a pound of flour” and so on to start their lives together. This pounding generated yet another revelation, a revelation I didn’t quite get before I moved here thirteen years ago…

This year, Robert brings in the “big guns” as the garden gets plowed and tilled.

I had returned home from Wytheville with the boxes and had filled up our empty cabinets then left to take a shower. I later walked into the kitchen; my youngest (he was 9 at the time) was sitting at the kitchen table with all the cabinet doors wide open, just soaking up the food filled cabinets. He sighed real heavy with his chin resting on folded arms and said, “gee Mom, aren’t people nice?” I left the room and had a good cry.

Full cupboards offer security, wow, who would have thought? I was constantly stressed about one meal at a time, one bill at a time, never realizing that empty cupboards were stressing out my kids. THAT is why we always had the canning cupboard full of canned goods growing up, Dad grew up poor and hungry…and I just took a full cupboard for granted.

Squash arrives!

My “dream job” opened in Marion, Virginia and with that came my dream home: a beautiful old farmhouse on 2.5 acres with a huge barn, artesian well (and pump house) a root cellar, a nice wood shed and eventually an art studio/guest house. Sounds great, but it was all in total disrepair, where there had once been a beautiful big garden, there was junk, logs, overgrown weeds galore…a complete overwhelming mess, the pump house needed a window and a door, not to mention a pump, as they had let it freeze and all pipes burst… and it is still a work in progress, but I love it.

Fence is up, dogs are on the OUTSIDE this year…check out my cucumber trellis! Leftover swing set parts and an old window frame…

The first summer was spent cleaning, clearing, and organizing basically because on my starting salary, that was all I could afford to do. I knew I wanted a garden, and my brother brought over his tiller, but it was too small to tackle even the smallest garden plot, so I gave up (I had enough to do anyway). Then last year late spring I heard about the “Grow Appalachia” program from the director of Sprouting Hope Community Garden so I applied for assistance and received it. I was excited.


Last year was a learning year, and it was not easy, we started later in the season and then there was a change in director’s with Sprouting Hope. At the same time, my two dogs ripped through the weed barriers and the weeds became relentless. The dogs also enjoyed tearing through my vegetables, I was worried about rabbits, bugs, and blight… I never considered the dogs.

Garden in full view, last quadrant is being weeded and will be the home for birdhouse gourds…pathways will all be covered with cardboard, a layer of dirt/small rocks to hold it down and then mulch on top. Paths are a work in progress, as you can see…

I began with little experience -cussing under my breath that I wished I had spent more time with Dad in the garden…learning his wisdom. I prayed that my frustration would turn into enthusiasm and not despair. Robert Kell with Sprouting Hope came to the rescue in between rainstorms this spring and the field was plowed and tilled, a fence went up to keep the dogs out and I started in again, determined to make this year better.

Improving upon what I learned last year, (which is a lot) this year has been a joy and I look forward to getting into the garden everyday. I didn’t understand why I have this “obsessive enthusiasm” until I was asked to write a little blog on my experience. Through this reflection I have come this conclusion: We all appreciate the obvious: healthy food, but a garden is about healing. It is not just about organic. It is not just about healthy. It is everything about home, permanence, perseverance and paying forward. My garden is all about “putting down roots” literally and figuratively. It provides me with security and predictability and it has changed my life in the most wonderful of ways.