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Wednesday, October 21, 2015

One man's story of gardening an abandoned lot

A Nebraska man converts abandoned property into training grounds for garden ideas -- and bestows his community with the harvest.

Dave Bentz raises tomatoes, onions, corn, pumpkins, peppers, green beans, watermelons and cucumbers on an Omaha parcel of land he calls Terra Nova Gardens. The plot is 168 feet by 160 feet which includes parking and storage areas. He raises a garden 64 feet by 64 feet; his friend tends one that is 30 feet by 60 feet on the same site. The rest of the plot is a steep bank of trees, which provides a welcome wind break. Terra Nova boasts two feet of rich black topsoil. Neighbors say the garden sits on the former bottom of the Missouri River 100 years ago, before Corps of Engineers changed its course for flood control.

Courtesy of Dave Bentz, http://www.grit.com/blogs/adventures-of-old-nebraska-dave.aspx

Courtesy of Dave Bentz, http://olddavesgarden.blogspot.com

Terra Nova Gardens is where Bentz -- who goes by Nebraska Dave -- experiments with garden methods on a larger scale than the four raised beds for vegetables in his backyard. He loves to nibble on the summer harvest, sure, but his real motive in gardening is simply the joy of growing things, and then getting better at it! He gives most of his produce away, even polling neighbors for crop requests at the start of the season. He also shares the harvest with an area shelter.

Dave pinpointed why he likes to garden. "Is it to save money? Is it to become more self sufficient? Is it to have more healthy food?" he wrote. "Any one of these would be a good reason to garden but after some soul-searching none of these came to the surface. What then drives me to keep expanding my gardens? I just have this deep-rooted desire to till the soil and grow things. It has nothing to do with the harvest or the preserving but the growing and finding better ways to accomplish that. It surprised me to come to that conclusion."

Dave retired six years ago from a 41-year electronics career at the telephone company, and found he wanted to fill his time with more gardening endeavors. About Terra Nova Gardens specifically he said, "Helping others is my main goal in life with gardening as a way to bring a positive presence into a neighborhood eyesore."

He follows this maxim from Lou Erickson: "Gardening takes a lot of water. Most of it in the form of perspiration."

This is certainly the case at Terra Nova Gardens. Before he could wage the war with weeds, Dave first had to remove trees, vines, concrete slabs, even tires and other car parts. After a large initial outlay of time with big projects, Dave now works in the garden about six hours a week. Early spring he starts seeds under fluorescent lights in his basement. He regularly repairs fences, tries to outsmart critters, refines water delivery methods and installs new and improved garden structures. He does nearly all of the work himself, with occasional visits from interested passersby, including an elderly man who brought over his heavy machinery just for the fun of it.

When looking for property for his garden reclamation project, Dave learned his city is willing to let anyone garden on vacant lots without having to purchase the land. However, in such instances the city can decide to take back plots for development at any time. Because he didn't want to lose a garden mid-season, Dave decided to buy the lot. He owns another property, 40 feet by 60 feet, that has been undeveloped for 25 years. This has been site to a wedding and other neighborhood events. He plans to continue this use and add flowers around the edges. This property is about 15 minutes away from his home.

Dave recommends those interested in gardening on vacant areas consult their cities for lists of foreclosed properties.

Below is a Backyard Farming interview with Nebraska Dave:
(The name Nebraska Dave came from when he joined disaster-relief trips with a Baptist group of men who used chainsaws to clear damaged trees after a hurricane. The group also did electrical and dry wall repairs. The other guys were from Kansas; as the lone man from Nebraska the handle stuck.) 

BF: What motivated you to turn abandoned areas into gardens? 

ND: I didn't really start with vacant lot gardening in mind.  I remember being in the garden with Mom at an early prior to school years age but never remember helping her with it. Later in life I had a desire to garden but never had the time or the family interest to make much happen. After retirement six years ago I started gardening in the back yard with one raised bed then two then four.  I went on trips to help with disaster cleanup after tornadoes or hurricanes so I would be gone for a week to ten days at a time.  To keep the garden watered an  automatic watering system was built to keep the garden from drying out. My original garden was in my backyard and consisted of four raised beds. An old 400-gallon horse tank was used to catch rain water to supply my automatic irrigation system.  The watering system has been tweaked every year and has finally come to a place where it just works without intervention all summer long. The garden experience for me is as much about engineering and building as it is about the gardening. 

BF: What is the reaction of neighbors to these gardens?

ND: Ha, neighbors, yeah.  I am always experimenting with brainstorm ideas. So when I dumped a foot deep leaf/grass mixture on the soil by sleuthing through the night before yard waste pickup and carrying away almost 1,000 bags over the month of October, encouragements came like, "If you put that too deep it will catch on fire, don't you know?" or "That will kill the soil by putting that much
on the ground." But when I started covering the pathways between the beds with old apartment tear-out carpet and putting down wood chips .... Well they didn't have any comment on that except for the rolling of the eyes. After four years of gardening now they ask what I'm going to do next. Since I live 
nine miles away the neighborhood has taken up the responsibility of watching over the property and has run off those that aren't supposed to be there.

BF: Tell us about your own garden story, how you learned to love the land. Did your family growing up raise a vegetable garden? If so, what gardening changes have you observed over the years?

ND: Mom always had a garden but I was more interested in the row crop farming side of the farm.  As I moved away from country living and became a city dweller with a career, I dabbled in gardening but just never had the time or family interest in helping or eating any of the produce.  I'd say it was just in my DNA from the beginning to want to grow things.  I can't say that I had a green thumb or any thing like that but I just enjoyed growing things.

Early 70s I discovered "Organic Gardening" and "Mother Earth News" magazines.  I had always been taught to till the soil, plant in rows, hoe out the weeds in gardens.  I started learning about mulch, compost, raised beds, square-foot gardening, no-till gardening and  all sorts of new ideas about gardening.  Terra Nova Gardens has all those ideas rolled up into one garden. It's more experimental than any other garden I've ever tried to have.

BF: What do you see as the benefits of gardening?

ND: The benefits of gardening are as I see it three-fold. There's the obvious of completely natural fresh food.  Then there's the exercise that keeps the body in shape. All the lifting, raking, weed pulling, hoeing, and other activities are better than a fitness center workout. And then there's watching the world wake up as the sun comes up over the horizon in the early morning.  For me there's just nothing more calming than to be in the garden as the birds sing to me.

BF: What is your favorite blunder? (After all, I think the blunders teach more than the successes. Certainly, they're more memorable!)

ND: Ha, yeah, my biggest blunder.  A couple come to mind.  The first was in my 20s and I was taught by my Dad that animal manure was good fertilizer and to spread it on the land in the fall and plow it under in the spring.  So I thought it should work for a garden as well.  If it was good for the garden why not the yard as well.  It so happened in the town I lived at  the time there was a stockyard that had a huge pile of .... well .... stuff they cleaned out of the pens free for the taking. I couldn't believe my great fortune.  I won't say what my wife at that time thought of the idea but she did let me bring some home and spread it on the yard and garden area.  It was well into the cold fall weather so it didn't smell much.  I'm not sure what kind of animals the stuff came from but I do know what they ate before coming to the stockyards. The next spring my yard and garden area was covered with thousands of sprouting tomato plants.

About 10 years after that experience I made another attempt to have a garden. I really liked
those cherry tomatoes so I planted 20 plants. By mid August, I was harvesting five-gallon buckets full of full tomatoes.  

BF: If you could give just one piece of advice to a new gardener, what would it be?

ND: My advice for new gardeners is first to find a good gardener that you like and help him/her for a year or two. Then when a new garden is started make it a small one that can be taken care of very easily. The most important thing about gardening is grow what you like to eat. There's no point in growing something that the gardener or the gardener's family don't like or none of the friends or neighbors like. I have intentionally asked neighbors and friends what they like so I can grow it for them.

Read more about Dave's adventures and tips at blogs in Grit magazine and Old Dave's Garden. (This article, for instance, highlights an interesting project watering with rain gutters.)

These blogs paint Dave as a hard-working, open, practical man who respects the land, but who also doesn't take himself too seriously. Hey, when raccoons ransack his corn he takes pride that it must have been tasty but also dreams of sending those masked diners to a "happy raccoon heaven."

Consider this garden wish from Nebraska Dave:
"May every single seed you plant grow to an abundance of harvest. May the pests get indigestion from your plants and any form of disease or fungus spore die when it crosses your property line." 

That's Dave!

Thanks for sharing your story, Nebraska Dave, and for helping us have a great garden inspiration day.


daisy g said...

It's great to read about Dave. He is such a generous soul. I only know him from his comments on mine and other blogs, but he really seems like such a kind spirit. Great interview about an interesting man!

David said...

Jennifer, thanks for all the kind words. It encourages me to do better. I'm already thinking about next year and what I can build, grow, and give away.

You are really good at email interviews. I hope you can do others as well. Some time you should tell us how you came to be in control of this blog. Two or three years ago I remember that some one else was writing for this blog. Then the blog went dark for a time and suddenly it was resurrected by you.

Have a great blog interviewing day.