October 25, 2005 | General


BioCycle October 2005, Vol. 46, No. 10, p. 63
Don Boekelheide

ON A CAROLINA summer afternoon too hot for much else but lies and iced tea, Ken and I sat in the shade beside the Urban Ministry Community Garden for the homeless – talking compost.
Ken was a big man, over 6 feet and 200 pounds, with a silver gray ponytail, a scraggly beard and a wry, scrunchy smile. He had the aura of a saint, disguised as a homeless man in old tattered clothes, a roll-your-own cigarette protruding from his lips. Before ending up on the streets, Ken had grown a garden at his suburban house in Michigan. Decades later, he was still proud of it: “100 percent organic, all kinds of bulbs and shrubs and roses. For my wife.”
In the heat, our compost discussion quickly decomposed:
“One year, I made a batch of compost from my Uncle Frank’s turkey litter. I grew these gigantic yams as long as your leg, just in time for Thanksgiving.”
“That right? Well, back in Michigan, we composted a bunch of cow crap from an Amish dairy, and I grew an 86-pound pumpkin.”
I launched into a Billy Graham-style sermon on C:N – the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio. Ken rolled his eyes, leaned over and poked me with his walking stick:
“Compost is great, man, but you’re too hung up on it. Have you considered a 12-step program? I’m afraid you might turn into the kind of guy who goes around sniffing other people’s compost piles.”
A couple of months later, at the American Community Gardening Association conference, I had a chance to visit another community garden for the homeless, up in Toronto. It was bigger and fancier than ours in Charlotte. Behind the garden beds. I spied some sturdy-looking wooden compost bins, nicer than what some of our homeless gardeners live in. I moseyed over to check out their technique.
My nose told me something was wrong. Good compost smells good (to me, anyway), not necessarily nice. This smelled gently perfumed, like Grandma’s attic. I peeked under a bin cover and gawked. It was piled to the top with woolen blankets, dry and very nondecomposed.
“What’s with the blankets in the compost bins?” I asked the garden manager. “I believe the moisture and the C:N ratio are off. It certainly isn’t heating up.”
Like Ken, she rolled her eyes: “No, we aren’t composting those blankets. We just use the compost bins to keep them dry and safely out of sight. They are for the homeless folks who garden over here. This is Canada – it gets cold. The blankets keep them warm at night.”
Ken never got to hear this story. Not long after I returned home, Ken suffered a fatal heart attack, in the middle of the day, in the middle of Charlotte’s fancy new bus station.
I miss him. I sure could use his help this year – we’ve got to move our garden (to make room for a new building). I wonder if it’s worth all the effort – what difference did the garden make, anyway? In spite of our organic herbs and talks worthy of the Athenian agora, Ken still died on the street. Yet the garden was Ken’s haven, where a homeless man could feel at home, and touch the soil, grow zinnias and feel whole.
Community gardens can’t prevent tragedies or eliminate injustice. They do bring heart to a sometimes heartless world – warm blankets, hot compost piles, lazy laughter.
A Community Garden Advisor with Piedmont Landscaping and Naturescaping Training in Charlotte, North Carolina. This essay originally appeared in the 2005 issue of The Community Greening Review, publication of the American Community Gardening Association. Visit

Sign up