Planting with Purpose: The Gardners' story

January 14, 2021 chris
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This article was featured in The Messenger’s Fall 2020 Etowah Living Magazine.

By Katie Bohannon, News Editor

Jonathan and Becca Gardner aren’t afraid of getting their hands dirty.

With four green thumbs and a passion for helping others, the Gardners create the perfect recipe for bettering their community, planting the foundation for healthy and sustainable lifestyles one seed at a time.

While the Gardners originally hail from Gadsden, the couple discovered their passion for gardening after moving to the Golden State. While in California, Jonathan and Becca lived an hour away from any town, which prompted them to investigate a more sustainable lifestyle. The duo began growing their own vegetables and raising goats and chickens – practices they carried with them to Tuscaloosa, where Becca’s passion for gardening herbs and brewing teas blossomed into a successful business.

Becca and Jonathan’s organic artisan tea company, Tea Town Alabama, provides its community with relaxing and delightful loose-leaf teas, all derived from locally grown herbs, fruits and homegrown ingredients. The Gardners’ teas are formulated to offer customers the purest products enriched with the most medicinal benefits.

But Tea Town Alabama isn’t the only way the Gardners are promoting health and happiness to their community.

After returning to Gadsden, the Gardners recognized a need in their hometown community for a greater source of education. When the couple established the Windy Van Hooten Teaching Garden in 2019, they developed a nonprofit with their neighbors in mind. Drawing from their own experiences with gardening and living sustainably, the Gardners gathered the wealth of knowledge they collected throughout the years to share its value with the city.

“Windy Van Hooten is an old circus term which meant ‘the perfect circus,’” said Jonathan. “The name is quirky and fun to say, plus a garden is like the perfect circus – with a balancing act of colorful plants, dancing critters, radiant sunlight and a gardener as the ring-leader trying to keep it all working together.”

The Windy Van Hooten Teaching Garden features gardens at various local schools that serve as outdoor classrooms where students learn on a regular basis. The Gardners visit the schools once a week throughout the year. Students grow produce and maintain farm stands on their campuses each semester, learning entrepreneurial skills as they harvest, package, market, sell (and cook) their produce.

The Gardners are currently teaching in Striplin Elementary School and Eura Brown Elementary School and will begin lessons at Adams Elementary during the spring semester. The couple offers classes geared towards kindergarten through fifth grade students, focusing on a vast range of gardening topics. While the Gardners’ classes discuss skills like planting seeds, harvesting and cooking, they also emphasize the importance of education, incorporating traditional subjects like math, science and reading into their lessons as well.

As a certified educator with math and science specialties, Becca developed a curriculum for the teaching garden to produce the most engaging and effective methods of learning for their students. Previous classes taught students lessons in seed saving, identifying the parts of a plant, vegetable planting and soil make-up.

Because the students themselves are instrumental in producing their food, they often express more excitement in trying new foods, sparking a healthy curiosity to implement nutritional meals into their diets. But while students acquire practical skills, they also develop as residents of their town and individuals, gaining confidence in themselves and becoming aware of their communities.   

“I enjoy being outside in nature and getting my hands dirty while doing something productive,” said Jonathan. “Seeing new life and giving people something they can use that is good for them [is so rewarding]. [The students] love being outside and exploring the garden.”

The Windy Van Hooten Teaching Garden spans further than local schools. Its influence filters into an additional project, the 21st Century Community Garden. Located at 515 South 12th Street in downtown Gadsden, the community garden emerges as a unifying effort to cultivate fresh, free produce for neighbors year-round. Since its inception, the community garden has resulted in several thousand pounds of produce, which was given away to local families and individuals.

Prior to COVID-19, the garden hosted Community Garden Days one Saturday per month, where gardeners planted, weeded, mulched, harvested and ate the fruits of their labor. The Gardners highlighted a different delicious recipe each month, featuring produce from the garden as ingredients for the meal.

Jonathan emphasized that the teaching and community gardens’ mission derives from the importance of preserving the positive skills gardening produces and the lessons gardeners learn as they plant, grow and harvest. He believes that taking care of oneself and possessing the knowledge to make beneficial decisions not only result in the best for peoples’ physical bodies – keeping them healthy, youthful and strong– but the earth as well.

Jonathan noted that the vast majority of people become too dependent on large chains for their resources and turn to cheap foods for convenience. He acknowledges that relying upon inexpensive, quick and nutritionally depleted foods may save people a dollar or two today. But the cost of an unhealthy lifestyle surmounts those poor choices in the end, and people often find themselves scrambling to pay the debt in health bills, medications or even years of their life.

“Simply getting outside every day and tending a garden can keep us physically active,” said Jonathan. “Being out in the fresh air [and tending a garden] provides healthy goods that will keep us out of the fast food lines and away from vending machines, and give us a hobby that we can teach our children and our children’s children. It doesn’t take a lot of space. You can grow things in a small box on the back stoop of an apartment balcony. But the joy and confidence you can gain from seeing a small seed turn into a meal for your family can do so much for the soul!”

As the Gardners promote healthy living and environmental awareness through their campus gardening and community outreach, they envision the growth the future holds for their community. While they share the enriching lessons they have learned with others, they hope to cultivate positive change in individuals and families, nurturing hearts that understand the true essence of gardening for purpose and fostering a community that flourishes with each new bloom.

“I’d love to see a large teaching garden in the heart of downtown, with the addition of adult classes, including cooking classes and a teaching kitchen,” said Jonathan. “We need to educate those who need it most. We need to care for and give hope to those who have been cast aside, left out or haven’t had the same opportunities as others. When all feel respected and have opportunities to grow, only then will our city be truly successful.”

If you are interested in participating in the community garden or donating to the Windy Van Hooten Teaching Garden, the nonprofit is currently seeking Garden Sponsors (both individuals and businesses), volunteers or donations. The garden is presently in need of an old truck and trailer, building materials, seeds, plants, gardening tools, gloves or eager gardeners who seek to join in the fun. The Gardners tend to the community garden on 12th Street on Thursdays from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. and welcome the public to visit. For more information, visit windyvanhooten.org or follow @windyvanhootenteachinggarden on Facebook and Instagram.