The plants go in Monday afternoon.
At the downtown YWCA, a crew of residents, staff and volunteers will be on their hands and knees, digging holes and patting dirt around new tomato plants. They'll be planting beans, putting in squash, staking up a couple of miniature apple trees.
The organization has coordinated with the Tarrant Area Food Bank and Tarrant County Public Health to put together a community garden on the west side of downtown Fort Worth's YWCA, the stately brick building at West Fourth and Burnett streets.
The work started in February, when volunteers spent a weekend clearing the land.
In mid-March, the workers came back to build raised beds and line the space with heavy stones. And now, finally, after months of planning and weeks of hard labor, this garden is really going to be a garden.
It's a small space, flush against the 1920s building, and it'll have to withstand a lot of heat and direct sun. But it's being planted with big plans. If all goes well, this small vegetable and herb garden will feed, educate, soothe and inspire the women and children the YWCA serves.
The matriarch's legacy
It will be called the Willa Lister Memorial Garden.
Lister, who died in September at age 70, was a longtime member and past president of the organization's board of directors, and she remains a YWCA legend.
"She was just remarkable," says Executive Director Carol Klocek.
Lister taught in Fort Worth schools for many years, then went to work for the city, working her way up in the community services department. A frequent volunteer who was always eager to help somebody, Lister supported the YWCA for years -- teaching dance classes, working with teen groups, volunteering at the organization's resale shop. And she made an annual donation with the help of her own vegetable garden.
She and her husband, Venice Lister, lived on 3 acres in southeast Fort Worth's Garden Acres, and year after year they planted a garden full of red beans, okra, black-eyed peas, mustard and turnip greens, squash, and more. There was plenty of food -- more than the two of them could ever eat, Venice Lister says. But most ample, and most appealing, were the purple-hull peas, which grew in abundance.
Several years ago, Lister realized that she could increase her donation to the YWCA if she sold those peas from her garden.
"We'd go out and pick the peas -- two or three bushels -- and we'd sell them," Venice Lister says. Willa Lister would snap them, bag them up and sell them to her friends at the YWCA, city offices, anywhere she could think of. "I think she knew everybody in town," her husband says.
When Lister died last fall, the YWCA wanted to find some way to honor her memory.
"We wanted to have some way of having her legacy live on," Klocek says, "so [a garden] seemed the best and most appropriate thing."
The YWCA has big plans for the garden: an arbor gate with grapes, an herb spiral, a small sitting area. And as a tribute to Lister, there will be purple-hull peas.
Garden as teacher
The garden will be tended by volunteers and the YWCA residents. And it will be a teaching tool for the young children enrolled in early childhood programs.
Many of the preschool children who spend their days at the downtown YWCA are from low-income families; some are from local shelters. They usually haven't had the opportunity to harvest fresh veggies in their own back yards. With apple trees and containers full of growing vegetables, the kids can learn about how food gets from the ground to the table. They can watch as the plants grow, maybe pull a carrot or potato out of the earth. They'll also learn about good nutrition and the importance of fruits and veggies.
Upstairs, the YWCA has 36 rooms that house residents in two programs -- women in the Supportive Living Program, who want to get on their feet and build independent lives, and young women (18 to 21) in My Own Place, many of whom have aged out of the foster-care system and need a little more support to become self-sufficient adults.
The garden is for these women, too. The small space will provide a safe, cozy space for rest and reflection. The YWCA has provided nutrition classes already, and eventually the garden's veggies may be used in resident cooking classes. And, of course, residents can volunteer to tend the garden, weeding and watering as often as they can.
That sort of work is therapeutic, says Amy Phillips, a YWCA resident who, on a mid-March Friday afternoon, joined the volunteers in laying the garden's groundwork. On her hands and knees, she moved stones and spread out sand and topsoil, stopping occasionally to douse herself with cool water from a watering can.
"I like sweating and getting dirty and really putting in good work, labor," Phillips says. "It's just fun for me. And gardens, they always give back."
Phillips already has learned the lessons of a garden. When she was a kid, she helped out in the small garden her grandmother kept in her Arlington back yard, growing green beans, spinach and squash. Later, Phillips studied permaculture, eco-friendly living and off-grid housing -- and when she moved to Weatherford several years ago, she planted a big garden. A friend across the street kept rabbits, chickens and African pygmy goats, and before long, Phillips and a group of neighbors were sharing veggies, eggs and milk.
Phillips moved into the YWCA in January after leaving an abusive relationship. She's interviewing for jobs, but, in her spare time, she wants to work on the garden.
"They posted a flier that said they needed volunteers for the garden," Phillips says. "It was like, I must be a part of this."
She wants to help teach her fellow residents about gardening. And later, she has bigger plans that involve gardening: She wants to help apartment complexes build community gardens and teach people about growing and sharing food on common property.
"Prices are going up and up, and salaries and hourly wages are just stagnant," Phillips says. "And healthy eating, especially in children and low-income people, is absolutely necessary."
That's exactly what the community garden is all about. It will help teach kids to love pulling veggies from the dirt, to learn that food doesn't have to come from a box or a bag. And it will offer a measure of constancy, self-sufficiency and good health to residents whose lives are in transition.
A gardening project, Klocek says -- built by volunteers, tended by residents, used to educate children -- seemed like "a remarkable way to bring community and residents and children together."
And it seemed like the best way to honor and remember Willa Lister.
"She loved the YWCA," Klocek says, "but she really loved the women and the children we serve."
Venice Lister says his wife would be proud to have her name attached to a garden that serves the women and children of the YWCA.
"She would be so happy for that," he says.
A work in progress
The garden will add a bit of green space to the pavement and parking lots of downtown, too. But it won't look perfect immediately -- or maybe ever.
"Vegetable gardens are tricky beasts, especially in Texas," says Mary Ann Kleuser, a YWCA board member and former Master Gardener who has helped with the project. "The first year you put a garden in, it is the greatest disappointment," she says. But in a couple of years, with enough care and a little luck, it might become an established garden that reliably produces vegetables.
"It's a bit of a shift," says Klocek, the YWCA's executive director. People are used to seeing landscaping plants outside of businesses, prettying up the property with ready-made blooms and bright colors. A garden full of vegetables and herbs may be less perfect and a little unexpected -- more functional than decorative. And that's fine with the YWCA.
"I just see that as one more way to express community," Klocek says. "It's not just about the aesthetics -- it's about who's there and participating in our community life."
Alyson Ward, 817-390-7988