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Stay Apart, Grow Together—Teresa Speight Tells How

Teresa will be putting out starts of tomatoes, basil, and peppers to share with her community

People who grow things are hopeful. This month, I’m talking with Teresa Speight, who describes herself as a “garden visionary.” Teresa consults, teaches, gives garden talks, and delightful podcasts, but her greatest interest goes beyond growing plants. She wants to, as she puts it, “mindfully grow our community.”

Teresa’s community is a black middle/working class suburban neighborhood in central Prince George’s County, MD, although, she notes, “Different ethnicities are moving in all the time.”

Teresa says that sharing brings the neighborhood together.

Suburbs have a tendency to foster disconnection. Because of everyone’s busy schedules—seniors usually walk the streets during daylight hours; workers and children return home in the evenings—Teresa says, “We were missing each other in passing.” That describes neighborhoods all across the country.

But today, when so many are home, change is happening. Teresa observes her neighbors out walking at all times—with social distancing—and speaking to each other. She tells me even a notoriously grumpy person now answers her greeting with a “Hi, how are you?”

Food security is on the minds of many. Plots in community gardens are filled, with long waiting lists. So, Teresa is organizing in her neighborhood. As a Master Gardener, she has the knowledge to help people get plants going. “We want people to grow something, anything,” she says.

Tiny first leaves of lettuce will grow big fast– easy starts for sharing.

Right now, she’s planting starts of all the warm-season vegetables—peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, squash, and flowers for fun. When the soil temperatures are warm enough, she’ll make a list of what’s available, and on certain dates and times, she’ll put those small plants out on her driveway. “It’ll be free for all,” she says.

You could do this kind of organizing where you live. Teresa’s work inspires me to think about what I’ve dubbed “potluck gardens.” What if specific crops could be nurtured in various back yards with the right conditions and then shared with the rest of the street? A few smaller yards might produce lettuces and greens for the whole block. In larger gardens, tomatoes or corn could be grown for all. Those with a greenhouse could push the season and help get seedlings started for others—or even overwinter vegetables. And for those who cannot grow anything? Well, potlucks are known for having more than enough for everybody. That’s a changing picture of a suburban neighborhood.

And change is what Teresa wants. “We can come through this in a positive way,” she says.  “Communities help you become rooted to the earth. If we can do it in the bad times, then it will be easier to come together in the good times.”