In December 2017, as an extra stressful year wound down, Courtney Clark, a single mom of high-functioning 13-year-old twins with autism, was blindsided by a diabetes diagnosis. Her response? To dig deep.
She dug deep not only within herself, but also into the soil in pots perched on her New Orleans front porch, yielding homegrown fruit and vegetables. She dug even deeper into the acreage she oversees as program coordinator for the Backyard Gardeners Network, which teaches residents of that city’s historically black Ninth Ward how to plant, harvest and healthily prepare what they sow. And now, by personally practicing her grow-your-own gospel of good eating, Clark says her A1C levels are slowly inching out of high-blood sugar danger zones and back to normal.
“I’m going to get this diabetes under control,” says Clark, who talks to her plantings not only to help them grow but also to soothe her soul. “People with big fabulous farms or wonderful neighborhood gardens, I guarantee you they talk to those plants: ‘Good morning, cucumbers and tomatoes, I see your flowers budding.’ It’s like having your own psychiatrist.”
Whether it comes from therapy, prayer or meditation, a peaceful mind does lower stress, which can worsen disease. And gardening, whether on a small or large scale, can help stave off sickness. Something as simple as digging in dirt can boost your mood; reduce depression and anxiety; lessen the risks of dementia among the aging; and, for children who garden, raise the chances that they’ll still be eating vegetables in college.
“I make sure my 8-year-old daughter comes out here barefoot,” says Tawonna Pullen, 37, owner and “grower-in-chief” of Sow and Sow Gardens in Arkansas. As she traipses barefoot through her 4,000-square-foot backyard-turned-growing field in North Little Rock, she explains why: “It’s called ‘earthing,’ walking and letting the dirt get under your toes. Studies have said it totally changes your brainwaves.”
Sweat pours down her face and into tiny pools along her collarbone as Pullen douses six-foot tomato plants with homemade, nontoxic pesticide. “My dream is to someday have a food forest. Pear trees, apple trees, persimmons, all that … and people can just come and get it.”
Pullen, a health insurance analyst by day, started farming after a job layoff in 2013, aiming to cut the grocery bills that her computer-techie husband was then shouldering for their family of three. These days, promoting good food as a path to good health to relatives, friends and customers at local farmers markets is her primary goal. Fellow market vendors sometimes nudge her to raise the prices for her bounty, which includes heirloom tomatoes, chard, carrots, zucchini, cucumbers, multicolored Chinese Five peppers, herbs and eggs from her six hens. But Pullen resists.
“Nowadays, if you want good food, it seems like it can cost an arm and a leg. But I want people to be able to afford to buy,” she says. “What I’m doing excites people, especially black folks: ‘Girl, I want some collards and some mustards and some turnips!’ I love hearing those things. And I’m glad to be providing food from my own backyard.”
Watching seeds you’ve poked into the ground become an edible actuality is, in several ways, miraculous, say Clark and Pullen. “We describe what we do as a community gathering around food,” Clark says, referencing the network’s Food as Medicine project, which teaches gardening and cooking. Its Super Saturdays include activities for kids and tables for playing cards — and for serving up dishes such as Clark’s vegetarian red beans.
“People say, ‘My mama used to put this, this and this in her beans; you know, that salt pork, that pig? I use that smoked turkey instead.’ But that [processed turkey] can be just as unhealthy for some of us,” says Clark, who has modified her diet and lost weight since her diabetes diagnosis.
“Then people try my beans, made with three different types of onions — red onion, Vidalia onion and the whites of green onion — and four different type of bell peppers and smoked paprika. I’m not saying I have a special touch,” she adds. “But I did grow those vegetables.”