A healthy dose of Mother Earth

by Ed Reinmuth, of Volunteer Sarasota County

Marcy FreemanSitting in the shade overlooking her favorite place in all of Sarasota 80-year-old Marcia Freeman patiently recounts how she got from “there” to “here” with the help of broccoli, cauliflower, radishes, beets and a healthy dose of Mother Earth.

“Here” is the Culverhouse Community Garden, off McIntosh Road near Palmer Ranch, which Freeman and co-founders Catherine Dente and Leila Frangie finally brought to life in 2012 after years of planning, fundraising and get-their-hands-dirty labor, most of it provided it by themselves, aided by volunteers.

“There” was the tiny burg of Woodford, Vt., where Freeman grew up in a large but poor family that literally depended on the vegetables her mother grew in their garden to have enough food to eat. Back then, in the years before and during World War II, gardening wasn’t a hobby for Freeman. It was a necessity.

“We lived a very rural life,” says Freeman. “A very poor life. I grew up in a one-room house. A shack is what it was. I went to a one-room school. There was no indoor plumbing. And no electricity. But my mother was a super gardener and knew a lot about it. She really loved it and she gave us all a passion for taking care of the soil.”

Learning to take care of the soil was Freeman’s entrance pass to a pastime she kept up through her (free-tuition) years at Cornell, her marriage to husband Mike, and her career as the accomplished author of more than 70 illustrated science textbooks for teachers and grade schoolers plus three storybooks for children. Along the way she also had two life-changing bouts with cancer (metastatic breast in 2005, salivary gland in 2013) that impacted her in profound ways.

These days Freeman spends an average of four hours per day five days a week at the 80-plot Culverhouse garden that is shaped like a wheel and was built on land donated by Hugh and Eliza Culverhouse. She also is one of four garden managers who oversee a membership of 115, almost all of them active gardeners.

In the beginning, though, making their vegetable garden grow wasn’t that easy.

“When I came here (in 1986) it was disappointing because you really can’t garden in these (housing) developments because of the waste treatment water,” Freeman says. “It takes two years to figure out how to do it here because it’s three seasons and it goes on for 9-10 months. You have to have a lot of stamina to garden here. But we all said wouldn’t it be great if we could have a community garden?”

Fortunately, says Freeman, she and Katherine and Leila discovered they had the perfect mix of skills “to pull it off.”

“Catherine knew all the people in town and who was in charge of this and that,” says Freeman. “And I was the general contractor because I am very organized and had carpentry skills. And Leila was a Master Gardener so she knew what to grow and when to grow it and what we needed for the soil here.”

For Freeman, the community garden eventually became more than simply something fun to do. It also became her salvation.

These days she essentially gardens for the same reason she played in the garden as a young child. She does it for the food. And her health.

“The organic food,” she explains. “Having had cancer and then getting it again since I’ve been in this garden, I’m very keen on eating organic as much as I can. In 2005 I had surgery and chemotherapy and radiation. In 2013 I had 50 doses of radiation to the neck. And I seem to have survived.

“I feel great! I attribute a lot of that to being out in the fresh air. The outdoors is my gym. I work very hard out here. I was a marathoner and a track coach. I was a runner and I miss it. I can’t run now because I have neuropathy in my feet but out here I get lots of exercise because I turn most of the compost and haul stuff around. I work here without stopping and I think I get my heart beat up pretty good.

“You can tell I just l love to be here. This is my spot. When you have serious cancer you have to find a new life. You have to reinvent yourself. When this (garden) came along it was just perfect for me. I know it’s not altruistic. But I wanted a garden and now I have one.”