By Bonnie Newman Davis
Otesa Middleton Miles is as comfortable developing and delivering web-based communications training to corporate health employees for her day job as she is planting cucumbers, tomatoes and other vegetables in the backyard of her North Richmond home.
Miles recently coupled her technology skills with her affinity for gardening to create the RVA Black Garden Community Facebook group. The group launched on July 7 and has grown to 207 members and counting.
Well aware that gardening groups, including large, international forums, are firmly rooted in the digital space, Miles wanted this group to be different. She wanted to build a Richmond network of black gardeners to come together to swap seeds, cuttings, advice and encouragement! The group is open to anyone located in Richmond, Henrico, Hanover and Chesterfield counties, as well as Chester and Petersburg.
“Gardening is really specific to your locale,” says Miles. “For example, I saw a post in the international group that gave great advice on how to plant pineapples in your yard. That would not work here in Richmond because pineapples thrive in a hot climate year-round.”
Miles, a graduate of Howard University and Richmond’s John Marshall High School, also was seeking a way to connect with people amid continuing social distancing measures brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. And although she also belongs to several other online groups that focus on education, financial investments and sewing, she is particularly excited by the possibilities that RVA Black Garden Community offers. Miles, who is married to Michael Miles and is the mother of three sons, recently shared some of the gardening group’s goals with Urban Views Weekly.
UVW: Congratulations on the formation of RVA Black Garden Community. How would you describe the group?
Miles: We offer a safe space for Black gardeners who live in Richmond and the surrounding areas. We are hyper local, so that we can swap seeds and give advice specific to our area and share information on sales. I’ve already put on my mask and met up with member, John Dodson, to get seedlings. Several of us met at the RVA Black Farmer’s Market. The organizer is the daughter of our member, Benita Johnson. Cookie Lane RVA, owned by our member Lacey Fisher, sold out at the market even though it was during a rain storm.
UVW: Tell us about your members.
Miles: The first member was Antoinette Rogers, Ph.D., a Richmond educator. We discussed how much gardening gave us peace during a tumultuous time. She recently lost her father and my mother became very ill in the midst of the pandemic. Neither of us could pull on our usual support systems because of the pandemic. Organizing a local gardening group for Black gardeners gave us a safe space to connect with like-minded people while learning and supporting each other. Other active members are
Shauna Hooker, our second member, a notary public in Chesterfield County,
Todd Ajani Hobson, a Richmond resident owner and carpenter at ZARH Wood Worx,
Lacey Fisher, a stockbroker and owner of Cookie Lane RVA, John Dodson, an avid vegetable gardener in Richmond, Hollee Freeman, Ph.D., children’s book author, avid gardener and photographer who lives in Henrico County, Duron Chavis, Richmonder, founder of Happily Natural Day and the Resiliency Garden Project, and Harry E. Savage III, a horticulturist and self-proclaimed garden experimenter in Henrico County.
Next Sunday morning, we will wear our masks and meet as a group at Browntown Farms, a Black-owned farm in Warfield, Virginia. We will tour the farm and have a seed exchange.
UVW: How long have you been into gardening?
Miles: I have always enjoyed growing food. I had lettuce growing in my second-floor apartment window in the late 1990s. I dabbled in a backyard garden with a few tomato plants and some carrots when my 11-year-old was a toddler. Now Jace, a rising sixth grader, has really taken to gardening. He planned our current garden, chose the vegetables and herbs and encouraged the entire family to take it seriously.
UVW: What is behind the interest in gardening and gardening groups on social media?
Miles: Because people cannot gather physically in person, online platforms allow us to have a sense of community. We can ask each other questions, share information and connect with people we may not have normally met. It’s a wonderful way to build community during this international crisis.
UVW: Do you think that the pandemic sparked people’s interest in gardening and, if so, is it likely to continue?
Miles: Absolutely! More people are at home now and people are looking for healthy ways to spend their time. People are doing more outdoor activities and gardening, particularly vegetable gardening, is healthy. I am a vegetarian, so knowing exactly where my food comes from is important to me. My husband and I are teaching our children to be self-sufficient. Our three sons work in the garden. I do believe this will continue. We’re using this time now to set up as much as possible, so when it’s safe to attend events, school and travel – the garden will only require minimal maintenance and provide continuous harvests. We have a 8 foot by 12 foot raised garden bed in our backyard, plus herbs in containers on our deck. Next year, we will expand to a fenced space in our backyard that will triple our planting space.
UVW: Gardening can be expensive. What advice do you offer for people on a gardening budget?
Miles: Start small. You can grow herbs in small containers in your kitchen windowsill. Also, buy off-season. For example, right now some local nurseries have small herb plants on sale for $1. You’d pay more than that buying cut fresh basil and rosemary at the grocery store. If you were planting herbs outside you would do that early in the spring, however if you want to start small and have them inside, they will survive the winter. Now is a great time to take advantage of sales. Tools can be borrowed and pots can be purchased used. If you’re planting seeds, repurpose take out trays and egg cartons. For healthy soil, start composting—that way you don’t have to pay for bags of compost and manure to enrich your soil. Our compost is in a $20 food grade barrel that I drilled holes in eight years ago. We drop in raw fruit and vegetable scraps, newspaper, toilet paper rolls, shredded paper, paper bags and leaves. We push roll it around twice a week and the food breaks down to beautiful soil in a few weeks. Instead of fertilizing, some people compost in place and bury food scraps 8 inches deep in holes next to their plants.
Other ways to save money:
- Save seeds from the foods you eat. There are countless videos and tutorials available which will show you how to save and store seeds for each fruit and vegetable.
- Swap seeds with friends, family and RVA Black Garden Community members.
- Plant veggies and fruits that are appropriate for your climate and season. In Richmond, we are USDA hardiness zone 7a. When deciding what to plant and when, research what works well in this zone. Using this information, you’ll have fewer failures, more success and save money.
- If you’re planting in a raised bed, use plain cardboard from shipping boxes or newspaper as a base to block weeds.
- Small branches or pine cones can be used at the bottom containers to make them weigh less and use less soil.
- Use old water and milk jugs for watering cans.
My son, Jace says, “I love gardening because it improves your mood, gives you a healthy hobby, reduces global warming because it cuts down on packaging and shipping and it can also save you money on fresh foods. It’s also healthy for the local environment to have a variety of things to keep the soil healthy, retain water and feed pollinators.”
UVW: That is excellent advice! Thank you and Jace! Do you think that people benefit more from the physical, mental, emotional aspects of gardening rather than the end result (food, flowers, plants)? Or both? How and why?
Miles: Gardening is an activity that gives you many mental, physical and emotional benefits. Much like exercise. When you work out your body thanks you, your brain thanks you, your heart and lungs thank you. Gardening is a very similar. You get fresh vegetables, which increases the likelihood that you will eat healthy vegetables. You get exercise working in the garden, lifting pots if you’re doing container gardening, amending the soil if you’re planting in ground, and you get a workout building raised garden beds. I get far more sunlight now that I’m taking the garden seriously. Several studies have shown gardening also lowers anxiety and depression. Antoinette recently shared this article with the group: https://www.marthastewart.com/featured/StriveGardeningSupportsOverallWellBeing?sm_r=CJuYAK
So gardening is helpful and healthy during the entire process not only at harvest time.
UVW: That article is on point. Thanks for sharing it. What is your advice to gardeners or those in social media gardening groups?
Miles: Engage. The more you post and comment in a group, the more often you’ll see the group’s posts show up on your feed and the more people will recognize you and therefore comment on your posts. Social media algorithms reward frequent interactions—so post and comment! And pictures help. People are visual. Snap a quick photo of the bug you spotted, your latest harvest or the problem plant.
To learn more about RVA Black Garden Community, contact Otesa Middleton Miles at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Bonnie Newman Davis
Journalist, Journalism Educator, Media Consultant
Executive Director, BND Institute of Media and Culture Inc.