Planting the Seeds for a Greener Future
For three decades, the Bruno Vegetable Garden has inspired visitors of all ages to choose, cook, and grow fresh produce. As it continues to fuel young minds and provide food for people in need, the garden is also cultivating an appreciation for the power of eco-friendly growing practices.
By Mindy Keyes Black
“Who knows what this is?” City of Birmingham Gardener Steven Knop asks his latest visitors, two dozen bubbly 4- to 7-year-olds touring the Bruno Vegetable Garden on day three of their weeklong Summer Garden Chefs camp.
“Eggplant!” the cheerful chorus sings out. “A giant eggplant!” one enthusiast adds.
“Eggplant is right—you are so smart!” Steven congratulates them. “Now this next one might be a little tricky: What is this?”
The kids pause, and a quiet voice asks, “Parsley?”
“I heard it—that’s it—it’s parsley! You can pass it around, touch it, and smell it if you like,” Steven says.
“We actually take all this food that we grow, and we donate it to people who don’t have enough food,” he continues. “So I come out here to work, and all these volunteers—do you see the people working in the garden behind you?—they help us to grow and harvest this food and to weed the garden. We’re trying to turn this garden into an organic garden, which means we want to grow it without pesticides. That’s the stuff you spray on plants to keep the bugs away, but a lot of it is dangerous to bees. That’s not good because every single veggie you see is here because a bee came and pollinated it.”
Since its creation in the late 1980s, the Bruno Vegetable Garden has served as an inspiration for gardeners and garden chefs of all ages, backgrounds, and skill levels. Designed by Mary Carolyn Cleveland, Jody H. Hamre, and Carolyn D. Tynes and funded by the Bruno family, which continues to provide support, the year-round garden showcases favorite seasonal crops from kale, cabbages, broccoli, and greens in winter; to sweet peas, lettuce, kohlrabi, and onions in spring; to tomatoes, peppers, squash, and eggplants in summer; to okra and pumpkins in fall. As a living classroom, the garden also has the potential to demonstrate the importance of sustainable farming to our collective future.
It’s the first harvest day of the summer—several weeks before the Summer Garden Chefs tour—and Steven is getting out buckets for members of the Vegetable volunteer group who will arrive soon to pick the season’s first crops. As he works, he talks about the planting plan that he and Horticulture District Supervisor Virgil Mathews update each year to make sure that the Gardens’ vegetables—from low-growing to roamers to climbers—have the space, time frame, and physical supports they need to thrive. To Steven, the vegetable garden is as much art as it is science.
“You’ll see we have cucumbers growing up along the trellis there with okra, which will grow as tall as me,” he says. “Then the beans will come cascading down. I’m trying to make it pretty and edible. The scarlet runner beans growing along the wall don’t taste that great, but they make really nice scarlet flowers.”
Steven stops at a partially empty bed where cowpeas are growing. “This bed used to have a problem with nematodes,” he says. “These are mini microscopic worms that can show up when a bed gets too much fertilizer or too much water. A lot of water can kill all the good things in the soil, so parasites come out. But the beans growing here now fix nitrogen in the soil, so this bed will be able to grow other vegetables after the soil nutrients are restored.”
Passionate about organic farming and sustainable gardening practices, Steven took a six-month leave of absence from the Gardens last year to accept an apprenticeship at UC Santa Cruz’s Center for Agro-ecology and Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS). The program, now in its 52nd year, researches best practices in sustainable agriculture, organic food production, and resource-conserving farming techniques.
“Basically, they use a 3-acre garden and a 30-acre production farm to teach gardeners how to manage small organic gardens,” explains Steven. As one of 40 apprentices accepted to the 2018 program, he studied organic gardening and farming; ecological interactions among plants, soils, climate, insects, and pathogens; and political, economic, and cultural facets of the American—and global—food system.
On Home Ground
The Bruno Vegetable Garden’s planting plan already incorporated a number of longtime best practices including crop rotation to prevent disease and balance soil nutrients while also keeping vegetables on display for visitors to see and learn from through the seasons. Steven came back from his apprenticeship with new guidelines for other sustainable techniques, such as cover cropping, the process of tilling crops back into the soil, where they release important nutrients as they decompose.
“For a garden to be truly organic and sustainable, you can’t just pick and choose pieces,” he says. “You have to implement a system. I’ve been trying to introduce more and more, but it’s a long process that requires resources. I would love, for instance, to get drip irrigation out here. We need that badly. And to have mini hoops [to support garden fabric] for the beds. A lot of our disease in the vegetable garden comes from too much water. Tomato plants, you don’t want to get wet at all, but the only way I can water ours right now is to put a sprinkler head at the corner of the bed. That drenches everything and promotes disease.
“Drip irrigation would prevent disease from spreading and would use a fraction of the water because it would go right where it’s needed instead of getting everything wet. And then hoops would be good because with a lot of insect pests, they could break the life cycle. They could also help shade plants that need to be shaded in the summer, and we could put frost cloth over the beds to extend the growing season. Those are next on my wish list.”
For longtime volunteer Hope Cooper, who leads the Friends’ Vegetable growing volunteer group, teaching earth-friendly gardening provides this and future generations with a powerful model that they can put into practice at home. “I think that sustainable gardening is important as a teaching tool and as an example,” she says. “Kids learn from it. Visitors come in and ask us questions while we’re out in the garden weeding and harvesting every Wednesday. It’s a great way to learn just by observing what’s going on.”
Central to the message of sustainability, Hope says, is the garden’s practice of delivering the harvest to those in need in the local community, which she volunteers to do regularly. “People need food to live, food can be expensive, and people sometimes get down on their luck,” she says. “You give a hand and maybe that hand gets given to somebody else in the future. In the same way, the young people who visit, they love learning about fresh vegetables, and hopefully they pass it on.”
“It’s wonderful to see the ways that this popular garden continues to plant the seeds not only for a love of gardening and fresh, locally sourced food but also for a deep respect for the earth,” says Tom Underwood, Executive Director of the Friends of Birmingham Botanical Gardens. “Sustainability is a timeless lesson of taking care of what we have and then paying it forward for those who come after us.”
Steven wraps up the Summer Garden Chefs tour by holding up the bucket of vegetables closest to him. “Now … who wants to try a green bean?”
“Me! I do! I want one!” sounds the reply.
“You’ve got it! We just picked these beans this morning—I’ll pass them around,” he says. “Break a piece off and give it to somebody else to try.”
“Look at what I’ve collected!” says one camper. “He gave me a green bean!”
“I want to keep this for my family!” another announces.
“I got a seed out, and I’m not eating it,” says a third. “I’m gonna plant it!”