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All ages reap benefits of community garden at the J

Maury Lipowich tends his plot at the Shay-Shay Community Garden at the Tucson Jewish Community Center. (Courtesy Maury Lipowich)

At the Shay-Shay Community Garden at the Tucson Jewish Community Center, enthusiastic amateur gardeners tend sunflowers, enormous squash, cherry tomatoes, spiky artichokes and other bounty.

The 23 plots opened for use in mid-March, says site coordinator Susanne Kaplan, who has served on the board of the nonprofit Community Gardens of Tucson since 2013 — and the crops are “going gangbusters.”

On Sept. 25, 2015, a fundraising celebration was held in the J’s Sculpture Garden to mark CGT’s 25th anniversary. In addition, an endowment fund administered by the Jewish Community Foundation offers the opportunity for people to make donations in their wills to CGT.

When someone suggested creating a CGT garden at the J, Kaplan volunteered. With a background in landscape architecture and plant ecology and evolution, and master gardener certification, she was a perfect fit. Rental for a 60-square-foot plot is $18 per month, which includes irrigation, education and use of a shed full of tools. The garden is located south of the pool area and east of the tennis courts. Three plots were still available at press time.

The garden was named in honor of Kaplan’s daughter, Shay Emma “Shay-Shay” Hammer, who died on March 1, 2011, at age 15. A genetic mutation caused seizures and impaired her development, making verbal communication difficult and eventually claiming her life. Shay had a heart full of love, and loved plants, water and digging in the dirt, says Kaplan. However, the commemorative aspect of the garden doesn’t predominate, she says. “Many of our gardeners aren’t aware what the name means.”

On the gate, small, decorative steel plaques, purchased by community members, commemorate loved ones or share inspiring thoughts.

Don Luria, former owner of Tucson’s Cafe Terra Cotta, has two plots and shares his produce with the children in the J’s Early Childhood Education program, for healthy snacks and cooking projects. The owners of Mesquite Growers Nursery have donated many plants to the J, including 100 tomato plants, which Luria planted with the children’s help. Now in his 80s, he began gardening at age 7, helping his parents in a “victory garden” during World War II.

For Luria, the garden’s memorial aspect is deeply meaningful. His second garden is dedicated to his granddaughter Kelsey Taylor Luria, who died of leukemia on April 18, 2015, at age 18. “She loved eggplant,” he says. “In both my gardens I have eggplant growing, as a reminder of her.” Recently, he was startled to find one of the purple plastic wristbands she wore, printed with: “BPositiveTeamKelsey,” lying beside the garden entrance, along with another, inscribed “sing, dance, play.”

“One of her friends must have dropped them,” Luria says. He keeps them in “Kelsey’s” garden, “where the eggplants grow.”

Other plots are personalized with unique décor, from a home-made tile depicting veggies to a windmill sculpture made from bottles. Tending a plot takes less time than many people think, says Kaplan. “There’s one big planting day for each season, and the plants do the rest. Gardens are soothing. People nurture their plants and their plants nurture them. It’s a reminder that we’re all part of a life cycle. It keeps everything in perspective.”

“For me it’s almost a form of meditation,” says Lee Surwit, who shares a plot with a friend. “I just like dealing with the plants – weeding, planting and watching the things grow. It’s wonderful to be able to pick the produce, and give it to friends and neighbors. I have a garden at home, but I’ve had less luck with it. Here, you have the irrigation, and other people are checking that it’s working. The point of the garden is community, and sharing equipment, ideas and produce. There’s always someone around to give you advice.”

The garden is a venue for people of all ages. “It’s one of our wellness components,” says Joline Riddle, co-director of the Early Childhood Education Program. “The children have started seeds in the classrooms and transplanted them. They plant, pull weeds, and add decorated rocks to their border. Helping produce grow gives them a good idea of where it comes from, and the healthy benefits.”

The J’s Taglit group, for adults with special needs, also uses the garden. Helped by aides, they tend onions, watermelon, pumpkins and flowers in a raised bed. Peter Ruiz, son of Bernadette and UA Dean of Science Joaquin Ruiz, has cerebral palsy. Like Shay, his communication is greatly impaired, but there’s no mistaking his pleasure in the garden.

“The plants grow into food,” he says haltingly. “It feels good to grow plants, because you can water them, and they grow bigger.” He pauses to ponder, then smiles hugely. “Guess what? I like being a farmer.”

To reserve a garden plot, or to find out how to purchase a plaque, contact CGT at 795-8823 or admin@communitygardensoftucson.org. The fee for a plot is $18 per month. Reduced-fee plots are available for low-income gardeners.

Kaye Patchett is a freelance writer and editor in Tucson.