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Growing a Healthy Future

Tony Martinez and Susan Johnke captured the hearts of Grow Local staff with their passion for cultivating gardening knowledge. After attending Citizen Gardener classes, a seed saving workshop, and stakeholder meetings, the couple’s inspiration became abundantly clear: their quest for healthy living and home gardening is stimulated by their sweet daughter, Mia. Their motivation, although in a small and adorable form, has made their lives full of healthy eating habits and homegrown veggies.

Ready to start your spring garden? Working in the garden can be an exhilarating, stress-relieving experience, and a great way to get more physical activity. Studies have also shown that gardeners tend to eat more fruits and vegetables than non-gardeners. If you want to start your own garden or improve your gardening skills, SFC has classes to help! The Citizen Gardener course empowers individuals to grow their own food and inspires them to share this knowledge with others. Participants gain essential knowledge for growing food in Central Texas, including the basics of constructing raised beds, composting, and rainwater collection. Click here for a schedule of upcoming Citizen Gardener classes for the spring and read on to share Tony & Susan’s journey from locavores to home gardeners.

Tell us about your gardening experience before coming to SFC.

When we moved to Austin a few years ago, we decided that we wanted to know how to grow our own foods. We bought planting soils, planting pots, seeds, and transplants. This started our experience with home gardening, growing out of large pots on our apartment balcony. We did very well with tomatoes, green onions, spinach, kales, and some lettuces.

What brought you to Sustainable Food Center?

Our little family grew by one member: Mia. We want Mia to understand the importance of keeping up with our surroundings and doing things for others, just for kindness sake. We decided that we wanted to volunteer like we used to do in Maryland. When we found SFC, since we were about to purchase our first home and we wanted to continue trying to grow our own food and find some volunteering opportunities, we felt SFC was that place to get us going!

What was your experience with the Citizen Gardener class like?

After receiving a newsletter from SFC concerning the Citizen Gardener class, we jumped at the chance to learn as much as we can about growing here in Austin. The class was a treasure trove of awesome information! Everything we learned at these classes has become part of our repertoire in gardening. We have collected and kept in a binder all the information that we have attained from SFC, Citizen Gardener, and Green Corn Project. After the last day of class, we shot over to Lowe’s and picked up everything we would need to put our raised garden together and got to work! The information was so great that we have been passing it along to our neighbors and encouraging as many people as we can to attend a C.G. class. Thanks to Wendy, Matti, and Dave!

What is your home garden like?

Our home garden unfortunately is still in a process of development. I make that statement because of our particular terrain. The developers who created our neighborhood used “Dead Dirt” to create the landscape, therefore after ten years we only have about 4” of actual earth. Our raised garden is in our backyard and because of how our home is positioned and the direction of the sun, it seems to us now that the raised garden will have to be a Spring and Summer garden. On our front plot, we’ve decided to redouble-dig further down than we previously did, because the amendments we’ve put down are not adequate enough to allow plants to go all the way to flowering and fruiting. Once we get these gardens under control, then we will boast of the plentiful growth.

Why did you take the seed saving workshop? What did you find to be the most interesting/important?

We decided to take the workshop to further develop our knowledge for this particular portion of gardening. The point of discussion that we most felt helped us was the development of seeds to suit our particular area. Another portion we felt would help us is the fact that plants have different types of pollinating. The storage, understanding the different traits, germination testing, and learning the verbiage and classification were also very important. We especially loved the idea that we will be able to pass this along to Mia.

What do you find the most challenging about growing your own food?

Our home garden is still being developed, and in our part of Austin we have dead dirt and stones to contend with. We have a raised garden in our backyard that we now have come to believe will be our spring garden. In our front yard though, because we live in a development where useless rather than practical was the idea, we removed some useless shrubs and started amending the soil, which has been hard work. Knowing now what we have learned, we have decided to use the double dig method and go deeper than we did previously. We are learning about our particular part of Austin the hard way. Thanks to everything we have learned, I’m sure that in the near future we will be growing in abundance!

What advice would you have for any home gardener?

For any new home gardener, first we would say, learn the exact terrain of the area that they plan to grow in. Next learn about the ecology needed to support the type of garden to be grown. We would try and convince them to take as many gardening classes as they can. If possible take one of the Citizen Gardener classes. Susan and I will be signing up again for the one that is in the teaching gardens of SFC. Ask as many questions as possible. Learn the direction of your home both in winter and summer. Don’t get discouraged when seeds don’t sprout or when seedlings die, and especially don’t be afraid to thin out if all the seeds sprout.

How does your interest in gardens and sustainable food connect to your daughter, Mia? What do you hope for her as she grows up?

Long ago Susan and I made a decision to only buy and ingest foods that were grown locally and not so much organically, though it’s ok. The decision was solidified when we knew that we wanted to bring another life into this world. We wanted to be as responsible as we could, so of course that meant being more conscious of what we were putting in our bodies. Because at the time we were unable to grow ourselves, we utilized the farmers markets in our area. When we became certain it was time for us to start really trying for a child, we made the move to Austin, since my family is all here in Texas. All the research and books we have read, and the classes we have taken, and having people in our families that have food related diseases, drives us to try to create a better environment for Mia. We are doing this for her and passing everything we learn to her. This is why we bring her on volunteering days, dig-ins, and we walk around our community picking up trash and aluminum cans, so that she learns that taking care of your community and doing for others is what’s going to create a better world. We are always asked, “Why do you do these things and take Mia with you; it’s not going to change anything.” We reply, “That’s not so. It has changed us!”