Everyone’s invited to meet some pretty amazing vegetables and the unique stories behind them at the Beloit Gardeners first-ever free Backyard Vegetable Garden walk/tour set for 9 a.m.—noon Aug. 28.
Visitors will begin at the garden of Felipe and Fran Zamora, 2324 S. Dewey Ave., north of Cranston Road. They will proceed to Zuomin Zhang’s garden in Beloit, Danielle Clifton’s raised beds in South Beloit, and Charles and Gudrun Haynes’ garden in Beloit, according to organizer Rick McGrath. The garden addresses for the second through fourth gardens are being withheld to entice people onto the tour without peeking.
The group will spend 30 minutes at each garden before driving or bicycling to the next stop. There could be cruciferous sharing.
“Smart, experienced gardeners will share their own experiences and answer questions. It will also build relationships and introduce people to each other,” McGrath said.
Here are a couple of the people and the story of how their bountiful produce sprung forth.
Zuomin Zhang, 72, didn’t know he would be launching a new garden stateside. He and his wife, Ruifan Li, who live near the Yellow River in China, were in Beloit visiting son, Gavin Zhang, his wife Jingjing Lou and grandson Kai Zhang. However, when COVID-19 struck, it became difficult to get tickets back home to China and Zuomin didn’t want to risk the health of his wife who is a cancer survivor. Zuomin hunkered down and started transforming his son and daughter-in-law’s back yard dog run into a vegetable oasis.
Today the garden is about 1,300 square feet and features more than 30 vegetables including kale, cucumbers, purple beans, watermelon, squash, and much more. To conserve space, tomatoes, beans and cucumbers are tied and staked vertically with pumpkins supported and trained to grow along the garden’s chain link fence. The chicken coop helps prop up some pumpkins and beholds the protein-producers and egg layers therein.
“There is a whole ecosystem,” Jingjing Lou said.
Zuomin’s calabash squash have grown so long he is digging holes to give them more room to lengthen.
Zuomin is a constant pruner to give plants the strength to produce. He learned gardening when he was in his 20s as part of a political movement in China to have city young people learn country life by volunteering. Although he went on to become a principal in a performing arts school, upon retirement he bought a pig farm in China to further his interest in agriculture although he later sold it to take care of his wife when she had cancer. These days his garden is just right, feeding the family and neighborhood.
Fran and Felipe Zamora are originally from Guanajuato, Mexico. They moved to their home in Beloit in 2008 which had a tiny yard. When the land behind them came up for sale four years ago, they purchased it and began a massive project to transform what was old trees, rocks and a sandy mess into a 0.75 acre backyard full of vegetation.
“It took a full year to clean,” Fran said.
The center of the yard is home to fruit trees while the entire perimeter is raised beds beholding vegetables including tomatillos, asparagus, blueberries, garbanzo beans, nuts and exotics such as cranberry beans. Fran does all the cooking, including making her own tortillas, and Felipe tends the garden for hours each night after work.
“We aren’t experts, we just we enjoy it. It’s a stress reliever,” Fran said.”You can get your vitamin D and eat your own food. It’s amazing.”
The couple uses sunlight from a home window to start their seeds which later get transported.
“I have to give up the living room for a couple of months,” Fran said.
Many of the plants, such as tomatillos, are prolific. The Zamoras collect seeds from many of the plants. They have their own compost area and if something grows well, they let it spread a bit.
“We let nature take its course,” Fran said.
Fran said being part of the garden tour is an honor and she can’t wait to inspire others to learn the joy, taste and health associated with growing one’s own food locally.