Retiree teaching kids the finer points of gardening
URBANA — For years, Melvin Smith has made a practice of including neighborhood kids when he works in his garden.
"It's a good thing for kids to plant stuff for themselves and know where food comes from," said Smith, a retired Illinois Department of Corrections employee who lives in north Urbana.
A year ago, Smith expanded his gardening venture to include not only his backyard on North Mathews Avenue, but also a quarter-acre plot about 4 miles northwest of Champaign.
When he drives there, he often brings kids along so they can learn the fine points of planting, weeding and harvesting produce.
There, they're exposed to tomatoes, butter beans, bell peppers, sweet corn, zucchini, cantaloupes, turnips, radishes, cucumbers, peas, watermelons and pumpkins.
This year, about 12 kids have gone to the site, Smith said. When the crops are ready for harvest, the kids will sell them at the farmers' market on North First Street in Champaign.
"I give them the cash box and make them count money," he said.
Working with Stacey Henry and Rochelle Minor, Smith has formed a not-for-profit group, Smith's Vegetables, to help support the garden project.
The group recently opened an account at Busey Bank's main branch in downtown Urbana.
Donations, as well as proceeds from vegetable sales, will help defray equipment expenses — and perhaps someday provide scholarships for kids, Smith said.
Smith, 68, said growing vegetables comes naturally to him.
"I grew up on a farm in Mississippi," he said, adding his family raised seed corn and cotton. "My daddy planted a half-acre truck patch every year. My mother canned food from the garden."
Smith said he learned a lot about gardening from his father and two other men. After moving to Illinois, he continued the gardening tradition.
"I just like to plant stuff, and I ended up planting more than I could use," he said.
On Thursday, Smith's gardening crew included 13-year-old Davon Minor and his 6-year-old brother, Donovan; and Cosey Coleman and Lorenz Lee, 10-year-old cousins from Rantoul.
Arriving at the rural Champaign plot, the boys immediately began to pull weeds in the peas.
"I've learned how to grow vegetables, how to sell vegetables, how to get weeds," Davon Minor said.
"Everyone has learned to get weeds," his little brother said.
The Minors said their family has a garden at home, with pumpkins, peppers, watermelons, tomatoes and kale in the mix. Their mother used to help Smith in the garden when she was young, Smith said.
It was Lorenz Lee's first visit to Smith's garden plot, and he said he was glad to come.
"I didn't have anything to do, and I was going to be bored," he said.
The garden should begin producing vegetables this month, Smith said.
"Rain made everything late," he said. "We'll probably go the farmers' market in about a week."
Smith said he expects a big crop of peas this year, and the corn and tomatoes look good.
"We'll have tomatoes in a week, peas in another week and maybe okra," he said. "The corn has already tasseled, and by the middle of the month, we'll be out here picking. The bell peppers are not doing too great."
Smith's ventures aren't limited to the garden. He recently took 16 boys fishing for the first time, at Walnut Point State Park near Oakland.
"Most did well," he said.