Gifts from the Garden: Food as Medicine

Over the last couple of weeks, you’ve met some of the folks in the Gardens Project network whose work has ‘the Pollinator Effect’. This week, meet a busy bee who sows health and wellbeing next to her tomatoes and chiles in the garden.

Susana Aguilar has been the manager of the Washington Street Community Garden in Ukiah since it opened its gates over seven years ago. “One thing that is very important to me is to come to the garden and stay busy here,” she says. Susana can often be found weeding pathways, caring for the community herb garden, fixing the compost, or attending to the miscellaneous garden tasks that always seem to spring up. “I don’t just do my plot,” she says, “wherever I see it has something to be done, I do it.”

Susana’s dedication is part of what makes her a good manager, but she also brings exceptional generosity and a lifetime of learning to the community garden. “My father used to plant corn and beans on the mountains,” Susana remembers, “I used to go with my father and help him, pulling weeds from the garden.” After moving to the United States from Mexico, Susana worked on a crew with her husband in the vineyards. Now, she brings her years of knowledge to the community garden. “I just want people to learn from my skills,” says Susana. "I don’t want to tell people what to do… I just want to teach them, share whatever I can do, and if people want to try what I know, they can.”

Sharing is one of the defining elements of Susana’s character. Before moving to Ukiah, Susana started growing things as a way to give to others. “Everywhere we go, I planted cactus; that was my thing. The best thing that I plant. Everywhere I lived, I left the cactus there for people.”

Susana is especially passionate about sharing food that heals. “Whoever asks me for cactus, I give them,” she says. "Especially people who are diabetic. Cactus is very good for diabetic people.” Susana plants medicinal teas in the community section of the garden in the hopes that her fellow gardeners can find wellbeing through plants instead of pills. “I think it’s the best thing to do,” she says, “so, I’ve been learning lots of herbs and flowers and edible plants that we can eat.”

Now that she has a place to plant at home and in the Washington Street Community Garden, Susana’s generous spirit has really had space to take root.

“Susana has donated 597.8 pounds of produce to the Caring Kitchen this year,” says Izabelle Lawston, AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer with the Caring Kitchen Project. “That’s over $1,000 worth of produce!” The Caring Kitchen Project is a program of North Coast Opportunities that engages teen volunteers and adult mentors to cook and deliver healthy, convenient meals to people facing cancer. The fresh, local, and organic produce donated by people like Susana go into beautiful meals that serve as a gesture of compassion when people need it most.

“It’s always so heartwarming to see Susana come in with her basket of tomatoes, knowing that we will be able to preserve them and use them for delicious meals all winter long,” says Tarney Sheldon, project manager of the Caring Kitchen. Week after week, Susana donates her excess produce, from colorful tomatoes to gorgeous Meyer lemons. "They’re doing very well. I’m making people happy,” Susana laughs. “And I’m happy too, because I always want to give, share with people.”

Just like a honeybee’s gentle touch helps everything in the garden grow, a little bit of healing comes to each person who shares Susana's food, giving them sustenance to give back in their own ways. Invest in places for your community to grow by donating to the Gardens Project on our Facebook page this Giving Tuesday. Your donation will have triple the impact on Giving Tuesday this year thanks to matching donations from Facebook and our wonderful local sponsors, Sparetime Supply Distribution and FoxFarm Soil & Fertilizer Company!

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