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In A Too-Violent City, Fertile Ground For Hope

Susan Campbell

August 13, 2008

Even after rains soaked the ground last week, Johnally Feliciano was intent on working in her garden.

The 6-year-old helped plant the urban plot on the grounds of Hartford's Charter Oak Cultural Center, and she was eager to see the fruits (and vegetables) of her labors.

So on a day that threatened more rain, she dragged her brother Jacob, 8, and mother Jasmin to the garden again. Johnally, a sprightly little girl with a shy smile, has found a place among the raised beds that took Susan Dorfman several hours and a few fingernails to dig.

That's the challenge of growing anything in the city. It's never easy. The center's courtyard is heavy on clay and sand. The plot was more than Dorfman bargained for, but she, along with Ramona Courtman, called on others, including Urban Oaks Organics Farms in New Britain, for donations and expertise, and the garden's coming along nicely, thanks.

It's tempting to look at this weekend's shootings and say, "This is Hartford," but that's only partly true. Johnally gleefully harvesting cucumbers is Hartford, too. It's not all bullets. Sometimes, it's butterflies, and while we tsk-tsk from the city limits, we would do well to remember that coaxing anything out of the city's hard ground safe streets or a radish takes attention and patience.

At the center's garden, the children made small hand-lettered signs, and rains soaked them through. They planted radishes, and small animals took huge bites. Drainage plugs stick, and water drowns plants in the containment gardens. Sometimes you just want to give up and let the weeds and trash take over.

But then there are those few radishes the animals leave alone, little orbs so red, they're nearly purple. And there's a sense of ownership that only dirt can give. When the gardens were new, Johnally asked for gloves and an apron, but her mother said, "O.K., Miss Martha Stewart, let's wait to see what you really need." Now, Johnally doesn't bother with gloves, much less an apron. One recent weekday morning, she wiped her muddy hands on her shirt with a big smile.

"She's a real gardener," said Dorfman.

Dorfman, an artist and therapist, grew up around people who sank their hands in garden dirt, but this is her first urban landscape. She should have spent this year preparing the soil, but then what would the children have to show for their work?

Sometimes, teachers say, the kids from Betances School come over at a dead run. They want to check the progress of their garden a pizza garden with tomatoes, basil and oregano. A few Indian women whose families live across the parking lot also visit with their children. It's the kind of thing you see on Hartford's rough ground a woman of Russian Jewish stock on her knees pulling weeds next to a young mother from New Delhi next to a Puerto Rican woman sampling the mint leaves.

Jasmin points to the garden and tells her children: This is why you don't throw trash. Johnally even has a tomato plant growing in a cup at home, and when she lines up her handful of a harvest on a picnic table, her brother Jacob stands over her, thoughtfully. Quietly, he says he has seen this pattern before, bite-size yellow tomatoes, cool green cucumbers, nearly purple radishes. He saw them in a dream, he says, his eyes wide.

This Saturday, Kultura Borikua will perform traditional Puerto Rican music at 6 p.m. at the center, at 21 Charter Oak Blvd. Admission is free. A community dinner featuring food from Johnally's garden will be served. That's free, too.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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