Enlighten Me: How one woman's green thumb carried her through prison and beyond
Community gardens don’t only serve the purpose of providing nutritional value to one’s diet – they also provide a healthy extracurricular activity for the gardeners themselves.
For Wilmington resident Adrienne Spencer, gardening helped her pass the time while serving time in Baylor Women’s Correctional Institution.
Her green thumb not only gave her and other women there a sense of purpose, but it also set her up for her current career as urban farmer for the Delaware Center for Horticulture.
Adrienne Spencer grew up around gardeners – and often helping out with gardening.
As the granddaughter of a member of New York’s Shinnecock Native American tribe, she split her time between Wilmington and Long Island, New York as a young girl.
"I didn’t actually grow up on a farm, but I grew up in farming communities," Spencer said. "So by virtue of growing up in farming communities, it’s second nature – it was not something that was foreign to me. Our family always had a small patch in our yard where we grew, you know, radishes or beets or tomatoes or something like that."
While on Long Island, she said she was a country girl.
"We always had fresh vegetables on the table," Spencer said. "It was something that was part of your daily responsibilities, to go out and weed the garden or go out and pick some beans or tomatoes or whatever for dinner."
Spencer’s mother – an African American woman from Middletown, Delaware – was one of the first African Americans to graduate from the University of Delaware after Brown vs. Board of Education.
And Spencer herself attended Howard University in Washington, D.C.
But the 63-year-old Spencer’s life changed when she was sentenced to 31 months in the Baylor Women’s Correctional Institution - a sentence she completed less than five years ago.
She found herself with a lot of time on her hands and started researching gardening as part of 13-month culinary program for the women there.
"All these lessons from my childhood just kind of kept flooding back and it was second nature and a lot of the women who were there had never been in an ornamental garden much less a vegetable garden," Spencer said.
The woman in charge of the culinary program soon recognized Spencer’s gusto for gardening and gave her a lot of free reign.
"She recognized my dedication and the fact that I was committed to the program so she pretty much gave me carte blanche to spend a lot of time out there, so, it was blessing to me because it allowed my time to go by so much quicker because it gave me a sense of purpose everyday, something to do," Spencer said.
She spent a lot of time looking into the scientific side of gardening, and helped the garden expand.
"We cultivated just about everything you could think of – sweet potatoes, zucchini, squash, several varieties of tomatoes, peppers, hot and sweet," Spencer said.
And she still keeps in touch with some women she helped teach how to garden while at Baylor.
"I hope that just by setting the example with what I’m doing and how I live my life, I take very seriously how what I do reflects on other people and other young women especially," Spencer said. "I strongly believe anyone can do what they want if they have the desire and the desire is great enough."
After completing her time at Baylor, Spencer followed her own desire, reaching out to the Delaware Center for Horticulture to volunteer. And when a position for assistant urban farmer opened up, she jumped at it.
Now she’s DCH’s main urban farmer, tasked with maintaining their 12th and Brandywine Urban Farm.
"The beds were already here when I got here, the apple trees were already here, the blackberries were already here – everything was already here when I got here," Spencer said.
She says the garden has had its bad times – like when a Mexican bean beetle attacked an entire bed of lima beans recently.
"Gardening is a lot like raising children," Spencer said. "I always compare it to raising children because you put all this effort and tender loving care into raising these vegetables. And some of them turn out great and some of them turn out not so great."
But that beetle attack hasn’t dampened her spirits too much.
"Things never turn out like you want them to," Spencer said. "I had a lot of successes and a lot of failures, it’s just the nature of farming. The heat was great for some stuff and it was terrible for other things."
She’s also had to adjust her approach to the business the farm does through its Farmers Market table.
"We’d be over here at the crack of dawn setting up so that we could everything setting out looking all pretty and nice," Spencer said. "And you might make, what, 80 bucks on a really good day? On a really good day – generally you might make about 40 bucks. It just didn’t seem worth it to me."
So, she decided it was more effective to just keep the farm open to customers while she works there – providing greater flexibility to her largest percentage of clientele: low-income African American families.
Spencer said she also tries to plant things that are familiar to those families – like beans and potatoes. But she says it’s nice for them to get the chance to try something different on occasion, too.
"Things like Swiss chard, which are not really new to the general public – in the African American community most people have never eaten Swiss chard," Spencer said. "You’d be surprised how many people have never eaten turnips or even beets."
Eventually she wants to look into vertical farming as a means to increase the garden’s production – and plans to visit a vertical farm in Pennsylvania over the winter to get some ideas.
That could help the farm take another step forward - and grow enough to supply commercial buyers.
"That’s ultimately what my desire is – to put fresh fruits and vegetables on more tables," Spencer said.
She’s also extremely grateful that her colleagues at the Delaware Center for Horticulture have helped her put her past behind her – and don’t judge her for it.
"I consider myself more fortunate than most people," Spencer said. "A lot of times women who make mistakes or people make mistakes in their lives and they’re never able to rebound from that. Fortunately my having been fortunate enough to have had a great education and a supportive family, it made all the difference in the world."
While Spencer won’t be spending as much time at the urban farm this winter, there are a few beds open there for community members wanting to learn how to plant – and grow – their own produce.
There are also beds available in other community gardens across the First State. Contact the Delaware Center for Horticulture to learn more.