Merry Bradley, in a dirt-streaked sweatshirt, jeans, and work boots, looks every bit the part of a master gardener. When she went out to the garden this morning, the sun was shining, but that wasn’t the reason Bradley headed out to the garden today. Gardening has been a big part of Bradley’s life since childhood, and she will always head outside to work, rain or shine.
Her love of gardening is what brought her to the Master Gardeners program 10 years ago, and what has in turn led her to become the coordinator at GrassRoots Garden, a community garden off Coburg Rd. in Eugene. What she is doing now though is much bigger than gardening or providing food, she is building a community.
Employees like Bradley, along with a number of volunteers, work at GrassRoots year-round to grow fresh produce used at Food For Lane County, a local food shelf and soup kitchen. The produce is used to make fresh, warm, locally grown meals for those who may be having difficulty providing food for themselves and their families.
GrassRoots Garden offers Bradley a place to give back to the community, not just through its ties to Food For Lane County, but also through working with volunteers and community members who come in. ”There is a nice sense of family and connection here,” Bradley says. She has seen the number of community members involved in the garden grow from about five regular volunteers to 2,900 volunteers during the last year.
Bradley strives to use her expertise in gardening and her love of helping and teaching those around her to create a warm and positive experience for anyone who walks into the garden. Despite the large number of volunteers, Bradley is able to greet many of them by name and makes a point to get to know them on a personal level, even if they only come to volunteer once. ”The garden is– there are very warm moments here very often,” she says.
For Bradley, who grew up in a turbulent home with 11 siblings, the garden was always a place to go. She now offers that chance for positive place for others to go and enjoy time. The garden’s volunteers include people of all backgrounds, but their commonality lies in the enjoyment that they get out of spending an afternoon in the garden. “It is a gift to work here… to get to live my passion, which used to be gardening and now it’s community,” she says.
To Bradley, the best part of the time that she spends in the garden is that she and the people she works with get to spend time connecting to one another. In her eyes, they just happen to be harvesting thousands of pounds of food per day along the way. She is able to teach people the joys not just of gardening, but of cooking as well. She remembers teaching one young volunteer to cook and handing him an onion to slice. His family had never cooked, and she remembers him asking her, “To cut the onion, you just push down on the knife?” Getting to know people’s personal experiences helps guide her focus on what is important in the garden and reminds her that it is the people, not the plants, who make the difference.
“Since I’ve been doing the garden, I pretty much do the garden” Bradley says with a smile in regard to her free time. She does find the time to spend with her husband on Sundays though, when the two of them sit down to watch box TV shows like Smallville and Battlestar Galactica and just spend time together on her day off.
She and her husband may not spend as much time together as Bradley believes he would like because of the time that she devotes to GrassRoots. However, she says he understands why she does what she does and the important place that the garden holds in her heart.
Looking back over the decade she has spent working at GrassRoots, she sees the impact that the garden has made in a series of singular memories. “Some are moments of clarity and growth, like why are we here? We are here eating lunch… because I once had two students volunteering here, and one was trying to explain to the other what cauliflower was” she says.
Impromptu feedback from volunteers about their experiences with fresh food and moments like these remind Bradley of the importance of her work, and despite the time commitment, keep her involved.
By mid-afternoon when Bradley sits down with her fellow workers and volunteers for lunch, the rain is falling fast and hard. Once the warm meal and break is over though, Bradley will head back out to her work in the garden.