Author/blogger wants gardens to build stronger communities

Chicago TribuneJune 20, 2013 

A few years ago, Shawna Coronado was approaching 40, working in a high-pressure sales position in downtown Chicago, taking a dozen prescriptions a day. This was not fun.

"I never saw the sun," Coronado says. "It was dark when I went to work and dark when I came home."

She also realized that her father had died at age 46, and she wondered if a similar fate awaited her.

"Then one day my boss called me in and asked if I could work extra hours. And we had a horrible argument, and I walked out."

Coronado, a gardener who also wrote a neighborhood newspaper column about her hobby, decided to go into landscape design. More important, she expanded her home gardening, starting one behind her fence.

"At the end of that summer I'd gotten to know my neighbors and every dog, every little old lady in the neighborhood," says Coronado, 46, who grew up on a farm in Kokomo, Ind. "It transformed my life. So I decided to do a book about the transformation. At the end, when the garden was finished, I had the book done. It had changed my life. I was taking two prescriptions a day. I had started a new life. Same husband, new life."

Today she has a blog (http://shawnacoronado.com), has 170 videos on YouTube and 65,000 followers on various social media outlets. She will soon be blogging for Better Homes & Gardens. Her Warrenville, Ill., home garden not only feeds her family - she has two daughters - but also provides 125 pounds of vegetables for local charities each year. She champions ecotourism and recycling. She discussed all that and more during a recent chat. Here is an edited transcript.

Q: When do you have time to weed your garden?

A: People ask me how many hours a week I work on it. I can't definitely say. I'm a weekend gardener. I'm a full-time writer and can't be out there all the time. So usually every Saturday and Sunday morning I'm locked into the garden. I go out there around 9 and start working; I forget everything else. I forget I'm working, I forget about breakfast. I'm out there enjoying myself. There's something about hard work that's good for the soul. It's so meditative. It's hard to explain; you just have to do it yourself. Before I know it, it's 2 o'clock. I'm covered with dirt, I smell, I'm tired. But I haven't ever felt better in my life.

Q: What do you do to relax, beyond gardening?

A: I love to read. I've always been a book addict. My favorite books are action adventures and fantasy novels, because I am easily bored and need an outlet for my imagination all the time. I do not sit well. In fact, I never nap and rarely sit; my body refuses to let me do that. An adventurous book allows my mind to keep up the adventure, even if my body is forced to slow down.

Q: Is your husband a gardener too?

A: He hates gardening with a passion. We are polar opposites. I'm a Type A, he's a Type B. I'm a gardener. He's not. Luis and I have been married for 14 years. He's an IT guy who owns his own local computer company, Alchemy Tech.

Q: You say a garden is more than a garden, more than plants.

A: A garden is about building community, fighting crime, feeding people, economic vitality. If you get all those things from working together, you have a better community.

Q: How can gardeners create that bond with other people?

A: The No. 1 thing to fostering community is to share plants. It's that simple. Give a pass-along plant to somebody, and they associate that plant with a memory of you. They put it in the ground and treat it better than what's already in the ground in their garden. Then they share. They break up the plant and give it to others. And it becomes not about plants but about people. You're creating community via plants. You're sharing plants, and pretty soon you're sharing beers. And when there's an argument in the neighborhood, you're more likely to work things out.

Q: Aside from getting fresh vegetables and creating beauty, what can a person gain from a garden?

A: Gardening teaches patience. Failure is imminent. I've killed more plants than I've ever grown. Failure is part of life. I understand this and I'll just try something new.

Q: Did you have a gardening mentor along the way?

A: My mentor is a local conservation expert, Jim Kleinwachter. He works for The Conservation Foundation and runs the Conservation(at)Home program (theconservationfoundation.org). He taught me a lot about outdoor sustainability. I called him nearly every day for two years when I was first learning. I am immensely grateful for his guidance and introduction into the green world.

Q: What's your earliest gardening memory?

A: I had a grandmother who lived nearby, in Bunker Hill, Ind., and she had these most amazing yellow cherry tomatoes. I remember picking them and eating them. That flavor burst, being out in nature. She lived near the Purdue (University) test gardens. And she visited one day and saw these yellow cherry tomatoes. She bent over to tie her shoe, and one of the tomatoes somehow found its way into her pocket. She started growing them - no one was doing yellow cherry tomatoes back then - and she had them in her garden for 25 years.

Q: You encourage people to send you questions. What do you hear the most?

A: No. 1 is always about soil. People are confused about what to add. "My garden isn't growing, but I don't know what to do." All good gardens start with good soil. You don't need some fancy-pants soil amendment. Go to a local farmer and get some rotted cow manure. It's not that complicated. Organic matter is the greatest ingredient.

Q: You share some pretty great suggestions on your blog and in appearances: newspapers under your mulch to stifle weeds, the full-shade vegetable garden. Any others?

A: I cut up old milk cartons into the shape of tags. When sharing perennials, I write on the tags the name of the plant. I save as many plant containers as I can. I use them the next year, or I put my garden tools in one and carry them out to the garden. If you have a bunch of old shovels or rakes, paint them and use them as yard art. You can use anything to line a path. Beer bottles, wine bottles. Look around the house. It doesn't have to be bricks or stone. Or you can use an upside-down wine bottle as a hose guide.

Q: That leap you took, when you walked away from the business world, were you scared?

A: No. I didn't even think about it. A switch clicked on inside my head, and that was that. I decided that to be a happier person I had to make a giant change. That change involved not being so centered on "things" and being far more centered on social good.

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