Wills and Mader’s garden on 8th Street in Dardanelle. Spring 2012. Photo by Bryan Mader.
The Seed and the Story is a weekly column exploring folklife, oral history, and community in central Arkansas, particularly the Yell County area where the column originates. The column is published in the Post Dispatch and is syndicated in the Courier.
As part of our ongoing research via the McElroy House: Organization for Folklife, Oral History and Community Action, we’ve been meeting with area gardeners and small-scale growers (both young and old, experienced and those just starting out) to learn more about the stories behind the food and what sustains their interest and dedication to growing.
For the past two years Whitney Wills and his grandson Bryan Mader have been raising a garden in Will’s backyard on 8th Street in Dardanelle. This past year they raised well over two hundred pounds of food including tomatoes, okra, eggplants, sweet potatoes, onions, beans, lettuce, arugula, and a wide variety of peppers. On this small backyard plant they raise enough for their own meals as well as a small surplus to sell to the area farmer’s market. This year they were even able to donate produce to a local food bank and plan to continue this effort in the spring. “You’d be surprised,” explains Wills, how much you can grow in a small space.”
Images from the Wills/Mader garden. Photo by Bryan Mader.
Growing up in Paragould, Arkansas, Wills had a small garden but it wasn’t until he moved to Hoisington, Kansas to teach that he acquired large plot of land and began growing a sizeable garden. When Wills moved to Dardanelle he decided to start growing again, this time enlisting the help of his college-age grandson Bryan Mader who was growing increasingly interested in the hazards of an industrialized food system and the growing loss of small-scale agriculture and backyard gardening. “A lot of people don’t know where their food comes from,” Mader explained. “Let’s say for a tomato or something, you get to watch the plant come up…I think that’s something many people don’t even know about.”
Around the same time Mader began working with the Russellville Community Market, an online ordering market that supports small-scale local growers. He also attended area seed swaps where he acquired heirloom peppers and cherry tomato seeds passed down from area growers. This past year Mader and his grandfather began saving their own seed from the prolific okra plants and plan to save more seeds this coming year.
They spoke about the obvious benefits of gardening—delicious tasting, pesticide-free food and all the money saved. But they also touched on the less tangible benefits, including the cultivation of patience. Wills laughed about his own lack of patience and his desire to dig the sweet potatoes before they’re reading. It’s his grandson, he says, who reminds him the importance of waiting. “It’s a delayed gratification type of thing,” echoed Mader. “You do all this work and then months later you finally reap rewards.” Wills touched on the rewards of working in partnership with his grandson and the ways in which gardening teaches inter-dependence. “The camaraderie of doing it together,” added Wills, “is worth much more than the garden.”
Broccoli from the garden. Image by Bryan Mader.
Mader and Wills will continue their garden, enlarging the space and building trellises for some of the vining plants. When asked what advice they might have for those just getting starting, they suggested learning from a seasoned gardener in the area and not to be afraid to experiment. “Don’t be intimidated,” added Mader, or be too concerned about the workload. “Yes, it is some work up front, but once you learn . . . and once you understand kind of more what you’re doing and once you see that stuff is going to grow, really without a whole lot of maintenance, it’s definitely a rewarding process.”
Are you a backyard gardener or small-scale grower? We’d love to hear your story!
To see more photos from Mader and Wills’s garden and learn more about the ongoing work via the McElroy House Organization, visit www.mcelroyhouse.wordpress.com.
Here at the Boiled Down Juice we explore community action and living traditions around the United States and beyond. The McElroy House is our partner project, a regionally-based action organization in central Arkansas. Our goals are to develop partnerships and connect across generations, cultures, race and beyond. And we’d love to hear from you!