ST. PETERSBURG — With the unusually hot November sun beating down upon him, McKinley Hayward expertly smoothed out the soil of the garden at John Hopkins Middle School on 16th Street South with his trusty rake. In neat rows all around him grow enough fruits and vegetables to fill two or three horse carts.
“We’re trying to teach the kids how food is grown, you know?” Hayward said, taking a break from his labors. “You ask them ‘where did these come from,’ and they say, ‘Publix.’”
Sofia Forte, a health and physical education teacher at John Hopkins, started the garden on the school grounds last fall. When the garden proved to be a bigger task to maintain than Forte had thought, her father Hayward stepped in to help.
“My daughter started the garden,” Hayward said, “just a little spot. She got busy and she couldn’t handle it, so I volunteered.”
The garden has since grown in size and is a valuable asset in helping Forte’s students learn about fresh produce and nutrition.
“When I have my nutrition unit,” Forte explained as she sat in the shade next to her father, “they come out here to the garden. They bring their journals and they have to list everything that is in the garden.”
For some produce and plants that they couldn’t identify, they’d turn to Hayward for help. And for the man who has planted so many seeds by his own hand, it is clear he knows the garden like a father knows his own children.
“We have collard greens, mustard greens, cabbage, sweet potatoes, yams—sweet potatoes and yams are two different things, yams are a little sweeter—okra, lettuce, cauliflower, broccoli, eggplant, Chinese cabbage, tomatoes and that’s just about it,” he said, pointing to each cluster and row of edible foliage as he listed them.
Now retired, Hayward worked for the City of St. Petersburg Water Department for 33 years. His strong grip and his sturdy frame belie his advanced age.
“I’m 78 years old,” he affirmed.
His daughter turned to him and narrowed her eyes. “Are you sure?” she asked.
“I’m sure,” he said firmly.
Every morning except Sunday from 7 a.m. till about noon, Hayward is raking and hoeing and watering and planting and making sure the garden receives all the love and care it needs. He was a student at 16th Street Junior High School in 1952, before it was named John Hopkins.
“When he came along to help,” Forte said of her father, “it brought a sense of community because this is the school that he started at.”
Before long, other people decided they too would start their own gardens, including some at area schools and even one in Jordan Park.
“Word got out and everybody’s doing it,” Hayward said. “One kid, he started a garden at his house, because he came to this garden every morning and he would pull weeds or something. And he started a garden at his house—he even brought me a watermelon out of his garden!”
Some of the students at John Hopkins take an active role, as Hayward shows them how to plant. “That’s the most important thing,” he attested.
For Forte, who is in her fourth year at the middle school, this was a way of introducing an alternate, inventive way for children to learn. Though she uses the garden directly for her Health class, it is open to other classes also, and Forte said it benefits the whole school.
“Even the kids who can’t come out through their classes have the opportunity to come in the mornings, and some do,” she explained. “I have 36 kids in each of my two Health classes. They can see it all from the beginning to the time of harvest.”
Forte and Hayward keep a photo album of the youngsters planting and even cooking some of the ripe treats. Along with the students, some staff and community members partake in the fresh produce. The fruits and vegetables are given away gratis, even though Hayward the gardener digs into his own pocket to fund the venture mostly by himself these days.
“They’ll give you a donation if they have it,” he said. “Then you fund it right back into the garden!”
Forte said that the school tries to help, but the funds are stretched. Initially, the St. Pete Garden Club came to provide assistance, along with the Edible Peace Patch Project. According to Forte and Hayward, though, the Peace Patch had its own ideas and techniques for the garden, and they didn’t work.
“Peace Patch came along and they wanted to take over the garden,” Forte said. “They had their idea of what to do, but this was already established without anybody’s help.”
Added Hayward: “They soon stopped coming.”
Forte averred that even the parents of students come to lend their aid with the garden, so it’s truly a community effort. And though she has known students to do many things, good and bad, in her time as a public school teacher, she has never seen anyone try to harm or destroy the plants.
“They never vandalize the garden,” she said. “They look out for it.”
This patch of edible plants has indeed become a source of pride for not just those who are involved directly with it, but for the school. And the teachers love it because the colorful patch provides a pleasant view in this urban corner of south St. Pete, Forte said.
The five hours that Hayward spends daily in the garden are necessary to its upkeep, he asserted. It can be overrun by weeds if you aren’t vigilant, he claims. But his daughter suspects that he just loves spending his days there.
“Sometimes I’ve seen him out here at three o’clock!” she exclaimed with a laugh. “I think he watches it grow!”
Hayward admitted that there are some late afternoons he spends out there sitting with friends.
“That’s when some of the guys come by and we sit and talk, have sodas and peanuts,” he said, smiling.
For Forte, one of the main incentives to start the garden was the stark lack of fresh produce available to the area’s residents.
“If you look at this neighborhood,” she said, “the stores that people have access to before Walmart came, the people didn’t have fresh produce or even thought about it. That’s what the kids know: the corners stores. And there’s no nutrition in the corner stores.”
Gesturing toward his field of bounty, Hayward added proudly: “And all of this is natural.” He underscored the amazement the children experience when they witness nature at work firsthand. “You actually let them plant the seeds and you bring them back, then the seeds have broken the ground and they think that’s amazing. They’ve never seen this before!”
Forte said that some students just assume this food comes from the store and that’s it.
“Broccoli?” she said. “They were amazed at the broccoli!”
Hayward not only gets a chance to entertain youngsters with stories of how the school, the neighborhood and even the city were back in his day, but gets to imprint his green thumb knowledge upon the fledgling gardeners. Like knowing that certain spot in the garden where his bell pepper plants grow better than any other spot. And putting fish guts around the mango tree to help it grow sturdy and strong. And his own special method of flipping up and packing the soil to grow healthy plants.
When the retiree is not putting in an honest day’s work at the middle school, Hayward spends time working on his own lawn, his daughter’s lawn and even lends his expertise to the neighbors for their own gardens—but only his expertise.
“I’ll give them pointers but I won’t help them,” he said stoutly. “They’ve got to do something themselves because if I help them, they stand back and watch me!”
Through the garden at John Hopkins, Hayward and Forte hope to provide the kids not only with a skill they wouldn’t normally learn at school, but to witness nature’s small but vital miracles.
“It’s not like we have masses of kids that want to come,” Forte admitted, “but there’s a few that really, really love it. And a lot didn’t know anything about it.”
Hayward put it simply: “You get one interested, you’ve done the job. You’ve done the job.”