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Daniel Neman is a food writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Rosie Willis

Rosie Willis. Photo by Dan Neman

It was an empty lot like so many others on the North Side, overgrown with weeds and despair.

But Rosie Willis, who lived across the street from that corner of Dayton Street and Glasgow Avenue in the JeffVanderLou neighborhood looked at that lot and saw something else. She saw potential.

Willis was on her way to Gateway Greening’s Demonstration Garden on Bell Avenue to see if they had an empty plot for her to use, when she had an epiphany.

“I stopped and thought, ‘Why should I go to some other neighborhood’s garden when our own neighborhood is going to You Know Where?’” she said.

That was 10 years ago. Today, the community garden that she started on that overgrown lot, Fresh Starts Community Garden, is thriving — with tomato plants and lettuce and spinach and collard greens and turnips and watermelons (“We had so many watermelons last year I couldn’t give them all away,” Willis said) and squash and leeks and onions in season. One plot grows nothing but herbs.

There is also a pear tree (“it produced wonderful pears last year; I’m looking forward to this year”), a peach tree that is still maturing and a wild plum tree.

“Until the gazebo blew down, we had wonderful grape vines. One of our gardeners made grape jam and grape jelly,” Willis said. The gazebo was destroyed in November’s storms; the surviving vines are still growing nearby.

The journey to get to where the Fresh Starts Garden is now has not been easy, Willis said. The land belonged to the city comptroller’s office, which agreed to lease it to her for $1 per year. (Willis has actually never paid the money, she said. “I just thought that was a formality. Right now I owe them about $10.”)

Willis asked her alderwoman at the time, Marlene Davis, if there was any money available to start the community garden. She told her there was nothing that could be done.

“Whenever anyone wants to do anything on the North Side, there’s never any money for that,” she said.

But Willis is not a woman easily dissuaded. She was on a mission.

“The main thing about a community garden is: You plant a garden, but you grow a community,” she said.

Eventually, the alderwoman, Davis, found money in her block grant funds for some of the necessities to start a garden: sidewalks, a fence, even the gazebo. But water had to be piped into the garden from Willis’ house through a commercial-grade water hose.

“We tore up a lot of commercial water hoses, and those things are expensive,” she said.

After some years, the alderwoman arranged for a plumber to hook up to the city water main. But before that happened, Willis needed raised beds for the plots, and that meant lumber.

“My son and I started calling around to lumber places around town to ask if they had any lumber they weren’t going to sell. A lot of places said nope,” she said.

Fehlig Brothers agreed to give them a steep discount, selling them lumber that would ordinarily cost more than $400 for just $135.

“He said, ‘When do you want me to bring the lumber out to you?’ and I said, ‘Yesterday.’”

She didn’t have the money at the time, but she paid the $135 a month later out of her own savings account.

The garden has now expanded to 54 beds on six full lots. The gardeners come from as far away as South City and North County, and one even lives in West County, Willis said. Only Willis and two other of the gardeners live in the JeffVanderLou neighborhood.

“That is the most frustrating thing for me, that a lot of the neighborhood (is) not gardening,” she said.

But the neighborhood still benefits.

“We eat a lot of our vegetables, and we give away a lot of our vegetables. We give it to food pantries and senior citizen homes, and there’s still some surplus left over. I would like to see some of the homeless shelters get involved with the garden,” she said.

A lot of the food goes to the MetroMarket bus, and more goes to a couple of kiosks at MetroLink stations, where Willis said it is sold “very reasonably.”

“If you buy a green tomato at any store, you might get two of them for $3. But when he sells our tomatoes, they’re like 50 cents apiece. It’s much cheaper,” she said.

At the end of each August, the garden is host to a candlelight dinner. It’s kind of a celebration, a recognition of all the hard work over the past season. The dinner is held in the garden with produce that was grown there. The first year, 30 people came. Last year, it was around 200.

“It’s about people coming together and learning from each other,” Willis said.