Green Corn Project: Toni Rockwell

By Suzanne Hurley

Toni Rockwell believes in eating locally, and she walks the walk. The vegetables she grows commute 15 feet from her garden to her kitchen. For breakfast, she might harvest spinach, sauté it with olive oil and garlic, and scramble some eggs to put on top. She snacks on beans or cherry tomatoes right off the vine, and boils beets—her favorite vegetable—before tossing them with olive oil and garlic. And her son Carlos really looks forward to curly kale.

Two years ago, a bicycle/car accident left Carlos near death. He recovered from most of his other injuries, but healing from a traumatic brain injury is a long and difficult process. Taking care of her 29-year-old son is Toni’s around-the-clock job.

Looking for a way to add fresh vegetables to Carlos’s diet after months of medications and hospital food, Toni thought of starting a garden, but hadn’t had a plot to call her own since 2005.

So when she heard about Green Corn Project (GCP), a local nonprofit that installs organic food gardens for people in need, she applied immediately and was accepted. GCP’s bio-intensive method, which creates beds that need minimal maintenance while producing great yield, was particularly appealing to Toni. According to executive director Amy Crowell, “Toni was a good candidate because she was committed to learning and growing as a gardener with us. At GCP, we don’t just build a garden for someone and then go away. We follow up with our gardeners for several seasons.”

On a drizzly fall morning in 2006, volunteers from Green Corn Project double dug a 4-by-12-foot bed in the small side yard outside Toni’s south Austin apartment. Double digging loosens and aerates the soil to a depth of more than 12 inches and provides a great growing environment for seeds and starter plants. Working with Toni and Carlos, the volunteers also amended the soil with compost before planting fall vegetables. Toni had an impressive harvest, even in a smaller space and a more difficult climate than her native Costa Rica. “The digging makes a big difference,” according to Toni. “The garden grows on its own. I don’t even have to weed.”

There’s even more to her new garden, she says, than the flavor and nutritional value of her organic vegetables—and the way sharing her harvest makes her feel part of a larger community.

“Gardening is something spiritual, something healing,” she says. Being a full-time caregiver is beyond draining, but Toni rarely complains. And she credits her garden with helping her cope because it gives her so much more than food. It feeds her soul.