Welcome to the Garden

Rocks gathered at the entrance are painted with the names of groups and organizations that have volunteered at the Senior Nutrition Garden / MAREN CLARK


Every month in this county, hundreds of people over 60 open their doors or cars’ trunks to a box of food, and often there is a flower on top. These gifts are dahlias. It’s thanks to the head of the Senior Nutrition Garden at Ventura’s FOODShare location in Oxnard that they brighten so many doorsteps. The dahlia flower grows in summer and fall in a full spectrum of colors. There are at least 42 species of them and hundreds of diversely colored hybrids.

“Today we are harvesting turnips,” the man says, arriving at the end of a row of raised soil spiked with bunches of leaves. He bends over to the first light green plume. “Lift it out at the base of the leaves like this, dust the dirt off, then take the cutters and cut off the bottom of the root.” His gloved hand closes around the white top of the turnip root. Its leaves stand up between his fingers. Out of the crumbs of earth he lifts a slightly flattened ball that blushes down to the spindly tip of the root. After clipping the long root, he prunes two yellowing leaf stalks from the base, then sets the turnip in a wheelbarrow next to him. “Only take off what doesn’t look good. I leave the leaves on for the old people.” Soon, the wheelbarrow fills with bulbous red-purple turnips with bright green stalks standing like sentinels at their tops.

Bob Mancuso, Gardener for the Ventura County Area Agency on Aging’s (VCAAA) Senior Nutrition Garden, and grower of the dahlias, spends every weekday from seven in the morning to one in the afternoon here. These days he is a pair of silver-gray eyes between a baseball cap and a facemask. His work continues with the seasons, even as businesses shut down and people shelter in place. And there is plenty to do.

View from the path, with van door, Ethel, support and covering arches, and a sink. / MAREN CLARK

The week starts out focused on harvesting as much as possible on Monday, as well as doing regular maintenance. Throughout the week the crops are harvested as they become ready.

“Do you see these little things at the joints? Those are the buds. I keep the dragon fruit that are starting to bud in a separate place, to watch and harvest them. They’re going to look great. Have you ever seen one before? They curl out, kind of spiky. And they are very bright. Beautiful.”

What started as 6 plants when it was first introduced to the garden is now rows and rows of potted dragon fruit. Some buds are fist sized and will probably be ready by the end of the week. They bloom at night. Bob says you have to be there before 9:00 am to pick them.

Beyond growing and harvesting, the garden demands irrigation, weeding, turning soil, spreading compost and fertilizer. Also planting, washing crops, weighing them, and boxing them for delivery to meal-kit assembly locations. Finally watering, and protection from pests with specialized soil and catch-and-release cages.

All of this must be executed often enough to keep up with the garden. It relies on enough people signing up to volunteer when the time comes to do all the work required of the land.

The volunteers come from amateur backgrounds. They are people who care about community service and activism. Brian, a community college student with flopping curls under his baseball cap is studying environmental activism and law. Now that COVID-19 is hitting, he manages the Help Ventura County Facebook page.

The garden grows dragon fruit (at the bottom), tomatoes, citrus, asparagus, lettuce, kale, beets, and many more fruits and vegetables. Not everything pictured is listed. / MAREN CLARK

Many volunteers like the structure and fulfillment of giving their effort to the community regularly. Others love gardening. Ethel has been volunteering in the garden for over a decade and grows her own fruits and vegetables at home. She loves the progress Bob has made in his almost two years as gardener.

Bob smiles and raises his eyebrows in surprise. A young woman in athletic clothes walks down the slope of the garden towards the van, “Reilly! Good to see you back here.”

“Hi Bob!” she says, “yeah. I have remote classes now.”

A sophomore in college, Reilly has been volunteering every summer at the garden since she graduated high school. She has always loved to do it, and says her upbringing showed her the importance of giving back. “My mom would take me to do volunteering since I was little.”

As the day goes on, Reilly works her way around the garden. She cleans vegetables that newer volunteers harvest, and takes care of the weighing and recording of a crop of lettuce.

After being retired for about a year, Bob became the gardener for the Ventura County Area Agency on Aging. Barely two years later, his influence has bolstered growth all over the garden.

The garden took off with his care. It went from producing 3500 pounds in a year to 8800 pounds, and continues to grow.

“This year it’ll be even more,” he illustrates, “Last week we turned out 800. This one was 500.”

Tubs for washing the abundant lettuce heads. The water gets rid of the insects and refreshes the leaves. / MAREN CLARK

In 2016, the VCAAA recorded that the garden produced 2,732 pounds of produce. It has reached a rate nearly four times that.

Volunteers arrive around 8:00 am and walk down the slope at the end of the FOODShare parking lot into the garden. They grab green heavy-duty rubber gloves from the driver’s seat of a van on the wide path between the two sections of the garden, and walk into the rows of crops, piles of soil, stacks of rakes and shovels to Bob, so that he can tell them what needs to be done that day. Along the way, other volunteers catch those just arriving, “You looking for Bob? He’s over by the asparagus in a gray shirt.”

If volunteers just stopped coming one day, all that crop, and more, would be left to rotten. So, what happened when the world had to take precautions due to the coronavirus?

FOODShare workers confirm that volunteering is down throughout their network of locations and services. On March 20 Governor Newsom deployed the California national guard to help food banks, as an immediate assistance with hope that AmeriCorps and other organizations as well as individual volunteers will be able to replace them. For now, the reserves have left homeschooling, civilian jobs, and training to harvest, spread fertilizer and sort donations.

It has become normal to see people in combat boots and camouflage in the garden and around the neighboring FOODShare building.

Among the crops these emergency deployments will help harvest is yacón. “The newest crop is this root, a tuber. It’s got a special sugar that can’t be digested. So, it’s great for all the people we serve because a lot of them have high blood sugar,” says Bob.

High fiber content and sweetness that doesn’t spike blood sugar make yacón great for managing diabetes, reducing cholesterol, and improving digestion. A lot of the people for whom the garden provides have diabetes or high cholesterol.

Ethel looking over the garden / MAREN CLARK

Yacón has appeared in the science journal Nutrition and Diabetes for its special form of fructose that not only contributes zero starch and sugar to the body but also reduces glucose production in the liver. Bob knows people who have grown the plant at their homes, and seen it’s stalks reach over 10 feet. It’s strong. The water that was used earlier that day to soak and rinse each harvested head of lettuce is now used to water yacón. Reilly carries the watering can between the 30-gallon pots lined up along the wall separating the garden from the parking lot.

This garden and food bank are more integral in the community than many of us realize. FoodShare announced on their website in late March that 20 banks had been closed in COVID prevention measures. They began a series of pop-up pantries in the county to meet the growing need. At the pop-up pantries, boxes full of food are lifted with gloved hands into the backs of cars.

Food banks have lost volunteer power as many of their regular volunteers are seniors sheltering in place. An empty volunteer slot on FOODShare’s website for bread delivery truck assistant is annotated as temporarily open until the 65+ aged volunteer can return. Many food bank volunteers are older and at a higher risk of complications caused by coronavirus than others.

Weeding in organic soil. One of the heavy-duty rubber gloves. / MAREN CLARK

The garden is grateful for all the help it can get. “People are hurting,” attests a volunteer with the upper right corner of his facemask clinging to sweat on his cheek. “The need for food has grown 150% with the coronavirus shutdown,” he says.

Bob and Reilly record weights of boxes of lettuce in the shade of the van and talk about the coming months.

“The summer is more fun,”
“Oh, yeah! You get a lot more people.” Reilly agrees.
“I’m expecting it to be common to get a thousand pounds in one week.”

The dahlia flower is edible, but Bob says growing them “is not about their edibility, it’s to look pretty.”

They range widely in color. The varieties Bob has chosen for the garden will only be revealed once summer starts. “Then we put them in peoples’ food crates. They’re for the tops of the box deliveries.” •