MUSCATINE — While putting down roots in Muscatine, Esther Deseh is also pulling a few out of the ground.
She and other Liberians in the community plant vegetable gardens near Mulford Church off Hershey Avenue. The space, plots and water supply are provided by the church. Many people garden in the early evening after work.
Deseh said gardening is important here because in Liberia, people were farmers. They had large farms and grew food crops including rice and cassava.
“We grow everything,” she said. “We can’t sell it. We just eat it.”
Deseh said cost of produce and food preference also factor in to her need to garden. She said Liberians like to cook their own food. Gardeners grow kale, peanuts, sweet potatoes, tomatoes and okra. Deseh just planted hot peppers, a common ingredient of West African meals. The food they grow will also go to those in the Liberian community who face hardship, Deseh said.
“We just try to do our best to do something for us to save a little money,” she said.
Deseh came to the United States with her family in 2004 after living as a refugee in Liberia in West Africa, following Liberia’s second civil war. She and some of her family landed in Minnesota but she said she couldn’t get comfortable there because there wasn’t a lot of help available to them, especially to teach them how to drive. Deseh said that they didn’t have individual cars in Africa, and not being able to drive in Minnesota was a problem.
Other family members went to Des Moines, Cedar Rapids and South Dakota. Deseh said her family knew some people in Muscatine and after her brother moved here, she followed in 2005.
Since then she has studied nursing and works third shift as a certified nursing assistant, which doesn’t leave her a lot of time to work on the garden. Better tools would help her get more work done in the time she has available, Deseh said.
Heather Harroun, garden coordinator for the Mulford Community Garden said the space was created as a donation garden that grew food for a free produce stand, managed by the church, and Muscatine Food Pantry. The garden has been around for 15 years, but only opens to the public for the last five years. Harroun said the church was blessed with the green space and thought it could bless the community by opening up the space to individual gardeners. The garden features about 30 plots, with one plot per household.
“We’re plumb full and people want more,” she said.
Harroun said garden plots are reserved primarily by people from the Liberian community in Muscatine and that she sees the community development every now and then when she visits the gardens.
“It seems to be something that there is more demand for,” she said. She said she’s not sure why there’s an increase in demand, but that there’s always more people from the Liberian community wanting to garden than space available.
The church provides some basic tools, Harroun said, but if people working in the gardens don’t have the equipment, they do what they can to turn the dirt over. And that has been an issue for Deseh, who used a hoe and shovel to till the soil before planting the peppers. She said if they could get a plow or something to till the soil, and some fertilizer, their gardens would be more productive.
The gardens and the community make Muscatine a place to live, Deseh said, and even when she tried to move somewhere else, she came back because Muscatine people are good.
“This is a happy home, Muscatine,” Deseh said.