The Marigolds that Grew from Concrete

"I wouldn't want to be in that neighborhood alone... but don't worry. We'll have some protection." The Troy-Bilt area rep beside me said something ominous to that effect as we snatched up stone crab claws from a bed of glowing shaved ice at a swanky South Beach restaurant. We were all having a blast, but I couldn't help wondering why we were planting a garden for a neighborhood that we would need protection from in the first place. I had a lot to learn.

We were eating dinner there because Troy-Bilt had flown us in the #Saturday6 out to Miami for a couple of days to see the sights and plant a community garden. The first trip I took with them was to Scottsdale, Arizona last year, and my subsequent blog posts revolved around the novel sensation of making real flesh-and-blood friends (I have always been a very shy person) and the experience of revisiting my childhood memories of the desert. I was a kid in a candy factory, and eager to share that joy with you, my readers and virtual friends. That trip was a vacation, but at the risk of sounding cliche, this one was a journey.

The Vizcaya mansion and gardens
Me posing next to an Alocasia at the Vizcaya
"So, you visit Miami before?" asked the cab driver. My wife and I have been to Miami, but mostly we've just scratched the surface in search of nature, either along the city's margins or in its established and well-to-do neighborhood of Coral Gables. I've marveled at the vibrant street art (this is what pretentious people like myself call grafitti) along the interstate on the way to Fairchild Botanical Gardens or the Fruit and Spice Park. After five minutes of answering the question that the driver undoubtedly asks every other patron, I could tell that he wasn't really interested at all... yet I continued rationalizing to myself that I had in fact really visited Miami before.

Built up and urban areas are typically something I try to avoid in general, but I'm especially careful to steer clear of bad neighborhoods, at least since I met my wife. Even when I'm flipping past the evening news and its ever-present headlines of shootings in the Jacksonville Westside, I give it some thought and just move on, because to dwell on the child hit by a stray bullet for too long is guaranteed misery. By the time I realized that I have never really visited Miami for more than a bathroom break, the disinterested driver dropped me off at a high-rise hotel in the upscale and booming neighborhood that he described as Brickell.

After a day spent at one of America's 10 most beautiful mansions, there I was, at a South Beach restaurant discussing the security situation in the ghetto where we would be planting a community garden the next day. Under the circumstances, it was hard not to feel a little silly indulging in my crab claws, grouper and key lime pie.

I was quickly snapped out of my little reverie by the hearty laughter of friends and camera flashes bouncing off the plates, flatly illuminating our lavish dinners to be shown off on Instagram and Twitter. While we waited for a ride back to our hotel, most of us giddily made a dash across the street through the chilly drizzle to the beach to end another day in paradise. While some of the girls gleefully posed for photos barefoot in the waves, I fell into my usual solitary beachcombing mode and followed the wrack line in search of... something, just as I have always done when presented with a beach beneath my toes.

Maybe I'd spot a beautiful nugget of sea glass lit up by the cool glow of high rises, or possibly nothing more than a condom or a syringe. In any case, I was electrified by the brisk air and its unique fusion of salt spray and rain, and the world at that moment was pure perfection. It occurred to me that the last time I walked the beach on a rainy day and felt so alive, I was mourning my mother's passing two years ago. Though the circumstances were vastly different this time, that singular emotion I experienced both nights was identical and strangely joyous.

On the way back, someone in our group announced that she just loved the way the ocean smelled. Without missing a beat, I happily explained what we're really smelling is death, and that the wonderful fragrance is actually the result of decaying matter like fish, bacteria and plankton. While everyone saw the explanation as a buzzkill, I saw it as an absolute miracle and a perfect example of how beauty can always be found in the unlikeliest of places.

The grass seems to be a little greener on the other side of the tracks - courtesy Google Maps
We all had high hopes for our garden, and before our trip we were asked for our ideas and suggestions for the its design and plantings. We had tons of ideas to offer and even more questions, but we were having difficulty seeing how we could possibly design a garden together at the last minute and put it all together in a matter of hours. Where would we put the succulents and bromeliads that I had envisioned? By the next morning we were all briefed on the details of our garden-to-be, and compared  to the curved beds of groundcovers and tropical fruit trees that I had been daydreaming about all month, it was going to be a brutally spartan lineup of cement block raised beds atop nothing more than limestone and a light dressing of sand and grass.

My eyes fell to the vegetables lined up against the fence, which included a basic selection of both warm and cool-season vegetables, and I noticed that it was too late in the season for a handful of them to grow in South Florida. I smugly thought to myself 'No, no, no! It's too hot for them to grow lettuce and onions now... they need sweet potatoes, peppers and okra to survive the heat!' But by the time I saw a 79 year-old neighborhood resident by the name of Ms. Townsend stooping down and excitedly reading off the names on the labels, I felt like a total heel. She didn't care that the lettuce would bolt before long, and she surely didn't mind that the garden beds wouldn't look like the creative work of a talented landscape designer. She wanted the children in the area to eat healthy food and feel the sense of accomplishment and pride that comes with growing it themselves.

Ms Townsend and I looked over the plants - Image courtesy of Noelle Johnson
I can't remember all of the details from my chats with Ms. Townsend, because she led the conversations with such gusto and passion that I could scarcely keep up. The topics effortlessly morphed from the secrets to being a good father to what it truly means to love your neighbor (humility helps a lot) and her childhood growing up in Hastings Fl, which was coincidentally not far from Gainesville where my parents grew up and married.

Though she is nearly 80 years old, every week Ms. Townsend fills up the trunk of her car with donations of bread and pastries, which she then distributes to the 40 churches throughout Perrine. When she isn't delivering donations, she's helping out at the senior center or the local elementary school. Normally I like to break out my notebook to gather quotes, names and impressions when talking to someone this interesting, but something about her put me so at ease that I lost track of time and realized that everyone had started on the garden without me. As tears welled up in my eyes, I figured it out. Talking to Ms. Townsend was just like talking to my own mother, and knowing that others like her exist in this world made me very hopeful.

But it was time to start work on the raised beds, and fellow #Saturday6 member Matt Mattus had already begun plotting out where the beds would be placed. I was going to describe all of the steps we took in building these beds, but since my friends Noelle Johnson, Dave Townsend (no relation to Ms. Townsend), Amy AndrychowiczMatt Mattus and Helen Yoest have already done such a great job of photographing and describing the steps we took to make these concrete raised beds, I highly recommend checking out their posts by clicking on their names.

Noelle Johnson, filling in the gaps of the concrete blocks with topsoil and manure
When it came time to actually add plants to the beds that we made, Ms. Townsend suddenly had the urge to show Matt and I the local Senior center. Though Matt himself was pretty integral to the garden by that point and needed to stick around, for some reason I felt compelled to see more of Perrine and the people we were making the gardens for in the first place. It would feel strange indeed for us to be airlifted to plant gardens for people I've never met, so I was eager for the opportunity to actually meet those who would be enjoying the gardens after we left... well, apart from the ten or so men loitering outside the convenience store across the street and the cop positioned between us and them. Mostly though, I wanted to get to know the people who would continue to work towards Perrine's future long after we bloggers returned to our daily lives. Troy-Bilt and the Saturday6 were planting the gardens to be sure, but as any experienced gardener knows, merely planting a garden isn't the hard part.

Hansel Robinson discussing the garden with Troybilt's Barbara Hastings Roueche
The man who kindly let me tag along introduced himself as Hansel Robinson, and though he made it a point to thank Ms. Townsend for making the garden possible, it really couldn't have happened without him either. Hansel is the community liaison for Keep Miami Dade Beautiful and orchestrates a variety of impressive projects in South Miami; from reclaiming natural areas to working with inmates and planting community gardens like the one we were putting together that day. I can't possibly imagine how he manages to work with so many individual parties with their own interests in mind without losing his focus or throwing in the towel - but luckily for Miami, he's too passionate to do anything else but try.

While Hansel and the guys from Troy-Bilt took care of a few things of their own, Ms. Townsend led me to the senior center to deliver some leftover vegetable plants and more importantly, marigolds. All of the staff members were upbeat and cheerful in her presence, and having myself frequented similar places towards the end of my mother's life, I felt profoundly grateful for their service. Ms. Townsend mentioned in passing that a church just down the street was actually built by Joel Osteen - well, people working on his behalf anyways.

At the start of the day, our little garden and Osteen's church seemed like nothing more than airlifted supplies dumped into a neighborhood of disinterested loiterers with no intention of maintaining a vegetable garden or reaping its harvests. If you think I'm exaggerating, consider this. While writing this blog post, I decided to take a look at the Google Street View of the intersection, just out of curiosity. The scene resembled our visit so closely that I could still count at least ten men leaning against the convenience store, probably regarding the odd little Google street view car with the same mildly perplexed looks that we received ourselves. I'm not judging them in the least, as I know that times are tough and jobs are harder than ever to find, but the crime rate in the area did make police protection necessary. I felt a little guilty thinking this, but if our presence there required police protection in the first place, who's to say that the garden itself would be protected for classrooms and seniors after we left?

By the time Hansel dropped me off at the finished community garden, I saw my friends laughing and chatting with other members of the community who would make this garden thrive long after we were gone. Troy-Bilt and Keep America Beautiful provided the tools, soil, concrete blocks, plants and most of the necessary ingredients for a healthy garden, but it would have all been pointless without the vested interest and involvement of the community itself. The owners of the adjacent barbershop provided the land, and a local master gardener by the name of Sheila Martinez will lend her expertise and teach would-be gardeners how to grow their own food. Hansel Robinson of Keep Miami Dade Beautiful will be essential to this and his other projects for his focus, inexplicable drive and the kind of pragmatism that's so essential with so many different cooks in the kitchen. Ms. Townsend on the other hand, is the spirit of her community. From our conversations I've been able to gather that she's a tireless advocate whose passion for people of all stripes will motivate others in her neighborhood to follow suit and pick up where she leaves off.

The cinderblock garden isn't as pretty as the ones we toured at the Vizcaya in the previous day, but thanks to the concrete walls and rich soil that we built atop a limestone foundation, this garden was built to last. I could have stuck around to finish the garden with the rest of my friends, but without learning about the community and the people who would actually be doing the gardening in the first place, the garden itself felt like nothing more than seeds planted blindly in a foreign land and abandoned. After meeting some of the devoted advocates who will now tend to that garden and champion its cause, I no longer have any doubts that the garden is now in very capable and caring hands.

The Saturday 6!
I've received compensation from Troy-Bilt® for my trip to Miami, and the products that I've tested for Troy-Bilt® have been provided to me free of charge. Over the next year I will continue to provide content for Troy-Bilt® in the form of articles, social media and instructional videos, and I will be trying out and giving away a product on my blog. The Saturday 6 partnership that I have with Troy-Bilt® includes monetary compensation, but any opinions expressed by me regarding Troy-Bilt® products or events are my own.


  1. What a wonderful endeavor. And how great of Troy-Bilt to enable you and the other 5 to help this community. I felt like I was there with you. I love your descriptive writing.

  2. Hi there, just stopping by to say how delightful your blog is. Thanks so much for sharing. I have recently found your blog and am now following you, and will visit often. Please stop by my blog and perhaps you would like to follow me also. Have a wonderful day. Hugs, Chris

  3. What a wonderful thing to do. I think just a few inspired people will keep this community garden growing. I have cinder blocks on the edges of my veggie garden and they are useful for planting marigolds and parsely in.

  4. You are such a real human, thank you for sharing that side of yourself with us.

  5. A beautiful post about how gardening can bring people together in so many ways. Great job!

  6. I love your heartfelt honest approach to writing. So much of what you say resonates with me. I too have recently lost my mom & have found myself slowing down to appreciate my surroundings like she would have. I look foward to each and every new post.

  7. It is a informative post , thanks for sharing


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