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Seniors learn to grow crops in downtown community plots

When you drive through the Vegas Heights neighborhood northwest of the intersection of Revere Street and Lake Mead Boulevard, you may not expect to find peanuts, collard greens, rice and cotton growing.

The city of Las Vegas Doolittle Senior Community Garden is a few blocks from the senior center at 1950 J St. Every Wednesday morning, seniors tend their plants at the garden, 1200 Blankenship Ave. It has been producing crops for almost 20 years, rising from a vacant lot behind an old fire station in 1995.

“The seniors were asking for a garden,” said Jerlys Henderson, community program supervisor for the city of Las Vegas Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Services Department. “Councilman Frank Hawkins was instrumental in getting this land for us.”

Much has changed there over the years, but the sign on the shed that identifies the garden has been standing since Henderson founded the space.

The garden was a tough row to hoe the first year. Everything had to be built from the ground up. Volunteers designed and built raised beds, but there was no shade, and the seniors who did much of the gardening had a hard time dealing with the heat.

“The next year, the city built shade structures over parts of the garden,” Henderson said. “It was one of the first times they tried that here, and now you see them everywhere.”

The neighborhood is one of the valley’s oldest and least renovated. The simple homes and sparse yards are a sharp contrast to the terraced landscapes and high-walled yards of the valley’s newer neighborhoods, but despite the trappings, or perhaps because of them, there is a community there, and nowhere is that clearer than the garden, with its shared conversation.

“Gosh! I haven’t seen you in a long time. You OK, girl?” shouted 84-year-old Francell Morgan to an arriving friend. “We all have a good time out here. We all get to get out in the fresh air and spend time with our friends.”

Anyone who has tried to put a shovel in the ground in Southern Nevada knows it’s not the moist, soft, richly colored soil in which crops are usually grown. That’s why most gardeners in the valley used raised beds. The bed should be narrow enough that a gardener can reach everything in it without stepping into it.

The community garden has been steadily growing and is up to 48 beds. Most of the beds are subdivided and used by two or three gardeners, with names on large stones identifying each one’s territory. Some of the beds are earmarked for charity.

“We’re affiliated with Plant a Row for the Hungry,” said Master Gardener Donald Fabbi, who volunteers at four community gardens. “We grow food and give it to the homeless or kids who don’t have enough to eat.”

He said the garden gets a lot of help from the community, including volunteers from the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts and donations of materials from Lowe’s, Home Depot and Plant World Nursery.

Fabbi has been volunteering at the Doolittle garden since 1997. He said the garden reflects the community, which is mostly black or Asian.

“We have sorghum, mint, sweet potatoes, quinoa, and you name it out here,” he said. “We’ve got people who grow what they call tree collards out here. Usually, collards are an annual, but they let them grow and just cut off what they want to eat. We had one woman who grew one so tall she had to harvest it with a stepladder.”

Fabbi is also working on getting people interested in the community garden at the Las Vegas Senior Center, 451 E. Bonanza Road. The garden is in a tiny green space wedged between the complex of city buildings and an on-ramp to U.S. Highway 95.

A lesson in gardening Fabbi gave to seniors Feb. 26 was punctuated with pauses while waiting for trucks to pass, but the class of about a dozen seniors seemed to hang on his every word.

“It’s important to amend the soil,” he said. “When I’m transferring a plant from a container into the bed, I like to sprinkle a little bone meal in first. You don’t have to, but I like to, and it helps.”

Fabbi is a bit of a showman. Before the class arrived, he planted a stick in the bed with a doughnut seed pack he made affixed to it and half buried a few mini doughnuts in the loose soil. During the class, he plucked a doughnut out of the ground and took a bite.

“You didn’t even brush off the ants,” a class member said.

“Oh, they don’t bother me,” Fabbi said.

The trick managed to get the group’s undivided attention. When he was demonstrating how to transfer a plant and “forgot” to toss in the bone meal, many of the group members piped in to remind him.

Contact Paradise/Downtown View reporter F. Andrew Taylor at ataylor@viewnews.com or 702-380-4532.

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