Pasture and Present

The East 92nd Street farmers are strictly old school.

Disney's The Kid
Dorothy Brentson has four really long rows to hoe. - Walter  Novak
Dorothy Brentson has four really long rows to hoe.
In some circles, Walter Brentson might be regarded as a farming geek. The lanky 83-year-old, glasses in perpetual mid-slide down his nose, plowed his garden tract behind Miles Standish Elementary School four times before planting. He was worried about weeds springing up overnight, it's been so rainy.

Homemade surveying tool in shirt pocket, Brentson bandies about the farming slang. "We planted too late," he laments, "and now we've got a mother in the flat."

Translation: Plants have bloomed in raised beds, possibly resulting in a runty harvest. But once he gets those mothers in the ground, he'll plant a catch crop between the rows.

"Most of these dudes don't know nothing about the catch crop," he jabbers, leaning on the hatch of his pickup. "You plant a similar type of plant -- like tomatoes with squash -- around your main crop, so if the first crop fails, the secondary crop takes over, and you don't lose out."

Though hard-core (he studied agriculture at Texas A&M University), Walter's no anomaly at the community garden on East 92nd Street. For these green thumbs, urban gardening is scaled-down farming, more intense than a few winsome cornstalks.

Like Walter and much of Cleveland's older black population, the Miles gardeners mostly grew up in the rural South during the Depression. Serious about their mini-acreage, they rev up the rototillers in early March, planting broccoli and snap peas.

Unlike other city gardeners, they don't have to hook up to a fire hydrant to douse the crops. Once part of the Cleveland public schools' much-admired horticulture program, the Miles Standish tract has its own water supply, coursing through a built-in irrigation system. Walter and Leon Brown, another Type-A gardener, keep the pipes flowing.

"We're lucky, we've got such smart-headed men out here," marvels Dorothy Brentson, a great-grandmother with a dandelion puff of white hair. Walter's ex-wife of 30-some years, Dorothy, too, grew up on a Mississippi farm.

"When I left there, I was 19," she says from under a straw hat. "I didn't miss Mississippi at all. The work wasn't really hard, but what child wants to work? You chop corn, peas, pick cotton, grow watermelons, all kinds of vegetables. We were forever trying to hurry up and get out of school -- we were ready to go.

"We thought life was easier [up North]. It wasn't easier. But right away, I got a good job. We didn't know how to do the type of work they did at GM. But we knew how to work."

Dorothy returned to the land 15 years ago, when the Miles Standish garden was a dust bowl. A reminder of the Cleveland schools' slow, sad demise, the brown parcel hadn't been farmed since the 1970s, when the schools' hundred-year-old horticulture program finally fell to ruin. Once celebrated, the program had inspired A.B. Graham of Columbus -- a self-described "educational heretic" who preached hands-on learning -- to start 4-H Clubs in 1902.

During its 1950s heyday, nearly every Cleveland pupil tended a 10-by-15-foot plot, either at school or home. Several school gardens have been paved over, while Miles Standish and five others took root as community gardens.

Then the PTA president at Miles Standish, Dorothy would eyeball the tract when she picked up her granddaughter from school. It bothered her to see good soil go untilled.

"You know how you kind of get nosy?" asks Dorothy. "I said, "Let's go to the board of education and see if we can have it for a garden.' But the principal wouldn't tell us who to talk to. She had taught at that school for years, thought she owned it."

So Dorothy and her friend Betty Jefferson marched down to the board of education and found a receptive administrator who tugged the right strings. Then the gardeners "pulled right in, like they were hungry for the work," Dorothy says. "And we have enjoyed this land."

Since that score, half the 50,000-square-foot tract has been gardened by former members of the Miles Standish PTA and half by the Alabama Hometown, a loose group of natives of that state. Johnny-Appleseed-come-latelies usually have a Jurassic-length wait for a site. "There's only been three new people in 15 years," reports Dorothy. But if schoolchildren want a plot, "we move the fence back and give 'em more land."

"It's wonderful being with these people," adds Dorothy of her fellow planters. "They're very kind. We've never had any fights. They treat us right, we treat them right, and we discuss what should be."

As Dorothy talks, her ex -- whom she peacefully coexists with, but keeps a comfortable distance from -- is counting to himself as he measures his plot in paces. Frail and arthritic, he's brought their son, Walter Jr., to help. Not exactly the picture of health at age 60, Walter Jr. fell off a second-floor roof he was working on last year.

"He landed on the driveway and busted himself all up," says Dorothy, watching both men hobble on the horizon. A black mass of clouds looms, and Walter Sr. worries that he might not get his plants in today. Dorothy says that, last winter, she advised him to give up the garden.

"I said, "Things run out,'" she recalls. " "It's about your time out for farming.' He has so much arthritis, sometimes he really has a tough time trying to get along.

"We were young when we first started. We're not young anymore. I'm 79 years old. Every bit of it. I'm feeling every bit of it."

But Walter Sr. couldn't part with his dew-glistened Blue Max collard greens and his Lutz Boy Keeper beets, the size of cantaloupes. "He grows his own plants [in raised beds]," says Dorothy. "He grows beaucoups of them. He bought a vacant lot by his house that he farms, too."

And those beaucoups don't rot on the vine. "I give this stuff to people," Walter Sr. declares. "This is how it works. I give you some greens, and you say, "Brentson, come over, I'll get some of your greens, and I'll cook up a chicken steak.' I don't have time to cook it. I get home, I get a hot tub of water and a good rubdown, and I go to bed."

A woman hurries by, spade in glove. "Her husband started their garden," remarks Dorothy. "He passed away, and she picked up where he left off."

Considering the high median age at Miles Standish, the widow's a young old person. But really, "I think we're all old people out here," says Dorothy. "Well, one gardener we got this year, he's probably the youngest. He's white. This is a nondiscriminatory garden."

The thirtyish young man shot up several spaces on the dreaded waiting list by coming to all their meetings and looking forlorn.

"He's sitting there and looking so sincere, and he also looked like "I don't think they wanna give me a garden,'" Dorothy says with a little laugh, referring to racial differences. "I felt like I wanted to give him a garden, so I gave him a garden. It's really nice. This guy is really doing a good job with his garden!"

They also grew fond of the janitor, Bilal Abdul al-Amin, who unlocks the gates for them at 6 each morning. So they parceled out a plot for him.

"Last year was the first time I put anything in any garden," al-Amin says excitedly. "I'm in the arms of the masters."

But those ever-helpful old-timers can get bossy, remarks Allie Jamison, who's gardened in his yard for years and recently landed a coveted plot at Miles Standish. For instance, the garden police informed him that he planted his turnips too far apart, wasting precious space.

"I was told some of the beans were too far apart, too," he sighs. "And the peppers. But I had more peppers than I needed. I have 10 or 12 plants at home, and I didn't need much more."

Land is at a premium here, and Walter Sr.'s just the man to maximize it. Always looking for an opening, he even chopped down the trees that grew along the fence, so they'd have enough sun for a little fenceline plot.

"My desire is not to stop," Walter Sr. says, his brow beaded with sweat. "If you stop, you done had it."

When somebody takes ill, the others help out, but if they're gone too long, they forfeit their garden. Betty Jefferson, Dorothy's friend and a garden leader, surrendered her plot this year, so she sits in the shade on a battered folding chair, watching the blossoms unfold.

"You can't be a leader and be somewhere every day," Betty says, noting that she's passed the shovel to five assistant garden leaders, Dorothy among them. "You gotta keep 'em moving. They are a great team. If they have any type of problems, they get together and work them out."

Dorothy's always preferred adapting over quibbling, adopting and raising her granddaughter, who's 29, and now her great-grandson, Dinard.

"He was born while my granddaughter was still home," she says of Dinard, who's now 12. "That made me play the mother role all over again." When her granddaughter moved away, intending to take the boy with her, Dorothy intervened.

"I said, "You go and make your life, and leave your child here with me.' She might not take care of him. And I'm very proud to have him."

En route to Miles, Dorothy drops off Dinard at the bus stop for summer school. But there's usually someone holding down the homestead.

"My house stays full," she says. "They're that type of grandchildren. When they come to my house, they wanna stay. Up until a few years ago, I took them to the amusement parks every summer. Sometimes I get on the rapid and take them just to the airport, so they can watch the planes."

Considering the gardeners' problems with petty vandalism, other kids could use a grandma to keep them occupied.

"Last year, some teenagers went to the devil," says Dorothy. "When we got tomatoes, they came in and decided to have a tomato war. If they wanted tomatoes for their family, we would give them some if they asked. But now we have to plant enough for us and for them to tear up." Thank heaven for the catch crop.

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