A gardener profile of John Monroe

Story and Photos by Nellie Neal

If you’re lucky enough to be invited, try not to gawk as you enter John Monroe’s backyard. It’s almost certain you’ve never seen a marvel quite like his innovative vegetable garden. This man grows food with great zest, tons of fresh produce that he donates and shares with his community. But his garden is not out in a field far from town. Instead, it could be a complicated video game where the win comes from the creation of adaptive technologies, rather like a real life Farm Town with food you can actually eat. 

Approximately 30 inches by 12 inches, each EarthBox holds up to six pepper plants or two tomato plants. Now that’s efficient use of space!

In this case, John makes modern adaptions to existing technology that coordinates plant needs with their care routine. The payoff is a highly productive and sustainable garden, as you might expect from a district administrator of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (USDA) in Lamar County. After all, the agency’s mission is to provide “Leadership in a partnership effort to help people conserve, maintain, and improve our natural resources and environment.”

Through John’s gate one finds a clever maze of sturdy benches that weave from his back door past the garage and shed, following the back fence. Then his benches continue around the property, neatly skirt the pine trees, and take advantage of every sunny inch to elevate his EarthBoxes. Scores of the patented gardening systems are raised for no-stoop tending, with reams of trellis and water line systems suspended overhead. These wood, wire, and rope uprights soar in bold contrast with the scallops and curves of squash and tomato plants loaded with fruit. Down one long row are boxes of tasseling corn that is, yes, as high as an elephant’s eye. Few gardens can outdo John’s for food per square foot, thanks to his way of making more of a good thing using adaptation. 

The genius of EarthBox lies in its casserole-like reservoir and wick design. Once you assemble it properly, care is minimal. Vegetable or herb plants sit atop plastic mulch over a soilless growing mix channeled with fertilizer and dolomite. Below that lies an aeration screen and water reservoir. As irrigation water is wicked into the nutrient-rich soil, roots absorb it and anything grows – as long as you fill the reservoir and support the plants. 

John Monroe grows boxes of corn for harvest in May and June.

The beauty of John’s way is that he accomplishes these last two important tasks with simple, elegant efficiency and takes little credit for his innovations. He shows the visitor around and plays down just how much he has done to make a better garden. John has taken each aspect of his garden – from design to build to harvest – and re-adapts the systems as the plants grow and bear. He even allows a look behind the curtain at his tools and offers a peek into his compost heap. Such access is a true sign of welcome from any gardener, as is the invitation to take home some produce. When the garden grows this well, there’s plenty to share and time to build harvest baskets to hold it all!

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