Benavidez Community Garden
History of the Benavidez Community Garden
Persistence and perseverance in the face of adversity are, to some degree, fundamental to gardening in general, but, in the case of the Benavidez Community Garden in Houston, Texas, they have been there in spades...no gardening pun intended! :-)
In 1996, the owner of a Ford dealership close to Benavidez Elementary School approached the principal of the school and proposed that a small portion of the dealership’s property be made available to the school for a community garden. The school was, of course, thrilled at the idea, since the property is only a short block from the school and Benavidez serves an area with very little green space. In fact, the school’s enrollment zone is 100% apartments, with no single-family dwellings, so the kids have virtually no exposure to the wonders of a garden. Informal arrangements were made for the loan of the property and the dealership even agreed to pay the water bills. Urban Harvest and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department, along with Benavidez teachers and Jacobs Engineering volunteers helped design the garden, with raised beds for vegetable, herb, and flower gardens, a butterfly garden, and a wildscape, with native Texas trees, vines, and shrubs. This was the largest school community garden in Houston at the time, with 15 raised beds, each approximately 3’ x 18’ or larger. It even has a small pond for observing and learning about water-based plant and animal life.
The first work day was in September of 1996 and approximately 100 volunteers from the school, the community, Jacobs, Urban Harvest, and the Fish & Wildlife Service spent a full, brutal day building the raised beds, hand-digging trenches for the water lines, and planting trees, shrubs, and vines. A small pond was dug at a later time and a follow-up work day was spent building a deck over part of the pond and planting more trees.
Various Benavidez teachers have adopted the beds over the years and their classes have planted, weeded, watered, harvested, and learned. Some of the teachers had volunteers from the community or from Jacobs to help them with the beds. Semi-annual work days were held on Saturdays, usually just prior to the Spring and Fall planting periods, for sprucing up the garden, adding compost, etc.. Gardeners know that it’s a labor of love, with the emphasis on LABOR. Gardening is a lot of hard work, but very rewarding. Benavidez students who worked in the garden with their teachers loved the experience and the teachers incorporated garden activities into their lessons. The Benavidez Community Garden has been well-used and well-loved for almost 16 years and has become an important part of the Benavidez culture.
Despite the fact that the garden is in an area with a very high crime rate, we have only experienced occasional vandalism. Many years ago, our wheelbarrows ended up with bullet holes in them after a weekend of presumed gang target practice. We have never installed a sign identifying the garden because, with all the gang activity in the area, we didn't want to provide a canvas for tagging with gang grafiti. Mostly, though, the vandalism has consisted of leaving the water faucets on full blast, running through the beds, or throwing tools in the pond. We faced our greatest challenge, however, when in March, 2005, the third dealership to own the property informed us that they would be taking the property back and paving it for truck parking. After so many years of working the garden, that news was really devastating! Jim Wilson (coordinator of the 20 year business/school partnership between Jacobs Engineering and Benavidez), the principal, and an Urban Harvest Representative went into negotiations with the owner of the Ford dealership. We had many discouraging meetings, but after 3 months of intensive negotiations, along with a little exposure from the print and broadcast media, plus lots of e-mails from very angry folks, he relented and allowed us to keep the portion of the garden with the raised beds and the pond. We lost the wildscape portion, but that had never really reached its full potential anyway and we were thrilled to keep the beds and pond.
Each school year, classrooms adopt beds at the garden. The students, teachers, and volunteers help weed, plant, water, and harvest vegetables and herbs. It has proven to be a great teaching resource. All of the students at Benavidez live in apartments and their exposure to produce is limited to the produce aisles at the grocery stores, so they have no idea that carrots grow underground or that broccoli can taste so good. The pond is also an endless source of wonder for the kiddos, with a rich array of water life. We never seem to have enough teachers adopting beds, so keeping the beds active and free of weeds can often be a challenge, especially during our brutal summers, when school is out. In the past few years, we have been very fortunate to have a super group of community volunteers who have adopted beds of their own and also help in the preparation and watering of teacher beds.
Demographic of Benavidez Elementary
Roy P. Benavidez Elementary School has an enrollment that varies between 860 and 1,000 students. Almost all the students are from immigrant families, most from various parts of Latin America, but also including regugees from the current trouble spots of the world (Bosnia & Kosovo years ago, Somalia, Sudan & Tanzania, more recently). Over 30 languages are spoken at Benavidez and virtually all the students are considered at risk of dropping out and are eligible for free breakfast and free lunch, due to poverty level family incomes.