Tom Weston learned at an early age the importance of helping those less fortunate.
When Weston was a boy, his father, John Weston, always kept a garden. Without fail, some of the fruits of the family’s labor would be given to those in the neighborhood who were going without.
“As a kid, I remember many times (my father) would take extra produce to families in the neighborhood,” Weston said. “He didn’t treat them as if they were needy; he just told them he had extra produce he wanted to give away.”
When John Weston died in 2004, his son and daughter-in-law, Denise, converted an acre of property on Home Avenue in Maryville into the John Weston Sr. Memorial Food Garden. The garden is beside what is now the Weston Paving property. They divided the acre into plots and offered the plots to anyone who wanted a garden for $50 per plot. If someone was unable to pay, scholarships were made available, Denise Weston said.
“When we started this garden, we requested that each (participant) give 20 percent of what is grown to the food bank, a needy family or a charity,” said Tom. “We don’t have an exact count, but we estimate about 100 to 150 bushels are given away each year.”
Denise said they take vegetables to Community Food Connection, Chilhowee Baptist Association, and Parkside and Maryville Towers.
This year the garden is almost full with 21 different growers. Those working the gardens range from individuals working small plots to the 8,000 square feet section Ruby Tuesday Corporate chefs are working to raise $10,000 for charity.
The process for opening up the garden each season starts in March.
“We give it a good first tilling, turn the water on and put out the (portable bathrooms),” Tom said.
They also get all the hand tools and other equipment placed in the covered work shed for the gardeners. “I do a soil sample every year to see what nutrients are needed in the soil,” he said.
Tom said there are some individuals who have been working the garden since it opened in spring of 2005. “We have some experienced gardeners who have been with us for years,” he said.
The garden has become a popular place, and there are only two plots left. Those two plots are raised garden beds accessible for disabled/handicapped gardeners. “It’s full this year,” Tom said. “We’ve got about 21 people with gardens.”
The Westons said the gardeners aren’t just weekend green thumbs who enjoy fresh vegetables. Ruby Tuesday chefs are growing both for local food banks and as a fundraiser for charity. Peter Glander, executive chef with Ruby Tuesday Corporate, said there are six chefs in the Culinary Department and they wanted to give something back to the community and wanted whatever they did to have a culinary perspective.
According to a mission statement from the Ruby Tuesday Culinary Department the produce grown on their 8,000 square-foot plot, the chefs aim to raise $10,000 to be given to a local charity through selling produce at the Maryville Farmer’s Market, as well as give away several hundred pounds of fresh vegetables to local food banks. Food will be grown all season, culminating in the fall with a pumpkin patch sell-off and a harvest dinner. All proceeds will be reserved until the harvest/holiday season and donated to a single charity.
Another group at the community garden are called the Special Growers, a group of five to six autistic young adults who grow produce in five to six gardens and sell it at the Farmer’s Market. “It provides them with a little income, and they learn a little responsibility,”
Kent Davis is executive director with Special Opps, a Maryville non-profit formed in 2009 to create business/employment opportunities for young adults with autistic disabilities. Special Growers started in 2009 and was the group’s first initiative, he said.
Davis said the Westons allowed them to build permanent above-ground beds on the property that give for better access so the workers spend less time weeding and more time planting and harvesting.
Davis said all of the building of the beds, planting, harvesting and selling is being conducted by Specials Growers members. “You see it on their faces - the sense of accomplishment when they are able to take their hard work to market and sell it and receive compensation,” he said.
Denise said the Special Growers members work hard. “They have to work it like a real job,” she said. “It gives them work experience, and they learn a good work ethic.”
Area residents took to the concept of a community garden well, said Tom. One grower who has had a garden almost every year is Nan Taylor, wife of Maryville Mayor Tom Taylor.
“I pretty much didn’t have to buy vegetables last summer because I raised what we ate,” said Nan. “The garden produced well.”
Taylor said she enjoys getting her hands dirty in the garden. “That’s my joy - working in the garden,” she said. “You get dirty and sweaty and your back hurts and then you get these wonderful flowers and vegetables. It is wonderful because I know I grew this myself.”
Denise said James McGhee is another avid gardener. “His garden is always perfect,” she said.
McGhee is 70 years old and lives in Regal Tower. He normally plants onions, okra, corn, tomatoes and squash on the 40-foot by 12-foot plot, he said.
“I enjoy working it. I am able to see it grow and know that God provides us a way of enjoying what He’s given us,” McGhee said. “The Westons furnish the tools and work it up in the spring so it’s not as much work because you don’t have to plow it. They’re super nice people.”
Tom said there is always a good variety of produce in the garden. “We’ve got just about everything you can grow locally,” he said. “Everyone plants tomatoes and most plant their onions early,” he said. “We’ve even got bees (for honey).”
Four honey bee hives are situated on the edge of the woods behind the garden to help with pollination. “That’s a win-win. The beekeeper makes some of his best honey here, and the bees are here to pollinate,” Tom said. “You can’t have a good garden with out bees.”
Tom said he and his wife started the garden in May of 2004 after the city of Maryville rezoned the one acre of property he bought from the Pflanze family in 1999 to allow for the garden.
“Originally it was a 6-foot hole where the city dumped leaves. APAC/Harrison hauled in loads of dirt. Vulcan Materials also hauled in gravel. Generation Trucking hauled in mushroom compost,” he said.
Community and business support has been good, Tom said. Over the years Blount Title has helped pay for the cost of maintenance and upkeep and Rule Construction donated the material used for the raised beds. William Knight Insurance also donated to help with expenses, he said.
Individuals have also donated their time and energy to upgrade the garden. “Luke Cox of Maryville built three raised bed for the handicapped-accessible area for his Eagle Scout project. For those plots, you don’t have to bend over or stoop,” Tom said.
Coulters Florist also have helped. “They have really gone above and beyond. The last two years, they donated 250 plants - everything from eggplant to zucchini,” Denise said.
Tom said Out of Eden Garden Center also provided assistance, as did Atmos Gas.” When you start to think about all the businesses that have donated, you start to think about community,” he said.
Even the “necessities” got some community help. A-1 Portables covered the cost for cleaning and maintenance on the portable bathrooms, said Denise.
The most recent purchase from the Weston’s was a garden tiller. “We try to make it as easy on the growers as possible,” said Tom. “Our big expense was buying the tiller.”
“We also have rakes, shovels - everything but the manpower,” Denise said.
And when additional manpower is needed, Tom said the employees of his family’s company often volunteer their time. “The Weston Paving employees do quite a bit of work in the garden because our company and our employees want to give back to the community,” he said.
Water for the garden has been made easily accessible as well. “There are 42 spigots and water hoses so everyone has easy accesses and can water easily,” Tom said.
Tom said they have made changes over the years to make it easier to manage the garden. “It’s a work in progress,” he said. That first year they installed the water spigots and landscape timbers along with gravel trails between gardens.
On average each plot is 32-feet by 24-feet. When initially built, they were outlined with landscape timbers, but the timbers made it difficult to cultivate each garden, so the Westons took them out. They also made the garden wheel-chair accessible by creating raised garden beds at the back of the garden property so it would be convenient to those gardeners who are wheelchair-bound.
The Westons and their growers have also created garden beds where specific vegetables are grown for different types of entrees. There’s a Snack Garden with celery, carrots, cucumbers; the Tex-Mex Garden with peppers, cilantro onions, tomatoes, onions and chives; and the Stir Fry Garden with eggplant, onions, peppers and broccoli.
Another popular concept is the “Square-foot Garden.”
“Supposedly, you can grow more than enough vegetables for two adults with a 4-foot by 8-foot garden,” explained Tom. “It takes less water and is easy to keep weeds out.” The garden beds that are segmented into multiple square-foot spaces. A variety of vegetables are grown in each space, he said.
The Westons have learned a lot about how to manage the garden and say they reap benefits beyond the edible ones.
“I think the most gratifying part is when you give produce away to an individual who really appreciates it,” said Tom. “You get a sense of what a community garden is.”
Denise said the garden is also a good educational tool for youngsters who have never grown anything. “I would like more kids to see that okra doesn’t come out of a bag,” she said.
For more information on the John Weston Sr. Memorial Food Garden, call 865-984-1690 or on the web visit www.johnwestonmemorialgarden.com.