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Celebrating women’s work with plants: Mary Foster

Jamie Lusch / Mail TribuneMary Foster, board president at the Masjid Al-Tawheed, works on a guard plant Thursday.

“Teaching kids how to feed themselves and how to live in a community responsibly is the center of education.”

— Alice Waters, founder of the Edible Schoolyard Project in Berkeley, California.

This week I’m beginning a series of columns called “Women’s Work with Plants,” featuring diverse local women who are working to increase access to gardens, gardening, locally grown plants and/or healthful, locally grown food. I was inspired by Jennifer Jewel’s book “The Earth in Her Hands: 75 Extraordinary Women Working in the World of Plants” (2020).

I added Jewel’s book to my “to-read” list for this year to celebrate our national milestone in electing the first woman, Kamala Harris, as vice president (she is also the first Black vice president and the first person of Indian descent to hold the office). As I was reading the book, I realized that the Rogue Valley also has many inspiring women leaders who are working in the garden and plant world, and now I am excited to share some of their stories.

Phoenix resident, gardener and educator Mary Foster is just the woman to kick off the series because she and her students at the former Jackson County Shelter Home in Phoenix built the Blue Heron Park Community Garden in 2004, even before work on the park began.

This month marked one year since the Almeda fire destroyed most of the garden, and yet I recently had the pleasure of visiting the newly rebuilt and improved Blue Heron Park Community Garden, a feat made possible through the efforts of garden manager Sandy Wine and the support of many people in the garden community.

As chairperson of the Jackson County Master Gardener Association’s Community Garden Grant Committee, Mary was thrilled to be able to award $1,600 to help rebuild the garden after the fire. How serendipitous that Mary would not only be instrumental in the birth of the garden, but also in its rebirth 20 years later.

Mary has also been involved in planning, designing and installing the Union Park Community Garden and the Fifth and Ivy Community Garden in Medford.

I asked Mary how her journey in creating community gardens came about. Inspired by Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard Project at Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, Mary thought horticultural therapy would benefit kids at the shelter home “who had not had much nurturing in their chaotic lives.”

Mary said, “We grew plants in a greenhouse and created an edible schoolyard at what was once the Jackson County Poor Farm in Talent. Lessons about other countries involved cooking feasts from the produce we had grown. We had a weekly soup kitchen, where employees of the [SO]ESD would bring bowls and a spoon and receive delicious soup and a muffin, which the kids had cooked. We even had a coffee shop, run by the kids, which we called “No Bucks.”

Recognizing what a positive impact the edible schoolyard had on her students, Mary wanted to broaden her efforts to build community through gardens and gardening. That opportunity came about when the city of Phoenix began building Blue Heron Park. Mary and her students went door to door, surveying people in apartment houses and trailer parks surrounding the park site to see if there was interest among the residents in growing a garden.

As it turned out, there was a lot of interest. Mary said many of the neighbors were excited about growing vegetables, particularly those that were hard to find in local stores. “One woman said, ‘I just want to grow flowers for my table.’ That was so special,” Mary said.

With help from the community, her students built 20 large raised beds, installed irrigation and erected a deer fence around the garden. People came from all over town to grow food, flowers and a community of gardeners.

Mary went on to become involved in other community gardens. She also helped establish the local Seed to Supper program, a beginning gardening course for adults on a budget developed by the Oregon Food Bank and the OSU Extension Service.

“It’s so important to place these gardens where the people living around them might not have access to fresh produce,” Mary said.

As the number of community gardens grew, she founded and continues to chair the Community Garden Network to support garden managers through educational programs, networking and sharing garden equipment. “That can be a pretty lonely job,” she said.

Although the pandemic has slowed down community garden gatherings, Mary hasn’t stopped creating gardens. Her latest project is designing and installing an Islamic garden at her mosque in Talent.

“We lost all of our landscape in the Almeda fire, and this has given me an opportunity to create a garden I’ve always wanted to do,” she said.

Mary is planting a variety of fruit and nut trees mentioned in the Quran and Sunnah, including pistachio, pomegranate, olive, date, apple, pear, almond and fig. Fragrant plants are also important: roses, star jasmine, basil and ginger. She’s also growing hibiscus and Nigella sativa (kin to the annual garden flower commonly called love-in-a-mist). N. sativa, or black cumin, is an important medicinal plant mentioned by the prophet Muhammed.

Again, Mary’s project is all about building community. Members of the mosque are donating the plants in honor of family members and loved ones. Each plant will be marked by a sign with the plant name, where it’s mentioned in the Quran or Sunnah, and the name of the plant donor.

Mary Foster has grown gardens and gardening communities all over the Rogue Valley, but she’s quick to point out that it hasn’t been a one-woman show. “There are a lot of people who are a part of this work,” she said.

Mary’s favorite landscape: “As much as I love wild, unruly gardens, I find myself more at ease and at home in formal gardens. Something about straight lines and balance appeals to me, such as the gardens one finds in Europe at huge estates.”

Women who have inspired Mary: “I am inspired locally by Joan Thorndike of La Mera Gardens. She grows organic flowers and partners with another one of my inspirational local women, Susie Fry, at Fry Family Farms.

I am also inspired by Marianne Binetti, a syndicated garden writer and presenter at the Northwest Flower and Garden Show, which I try to attend each year. Marianne is hilarious, and she gives great tips and shortcuts for gardening.

I also love Sharon Lovejoy, a gardening grandmother who has written many books on fun things to do with kids in the garden. She has edibles in her Cambria, California front yard and encourages folks passing by to sample fruits or nuts growing there. And I’ve been especially inspired by Alice Waters and her Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley.

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. For more about gardening, check out her podcasts and videos at https://mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-literary-gardener.