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A garden grows in this Manteca couples heart
Anita and Tom Columbus sit on the bench under a trellis covered by blooming perennial morning glories. The bird bath and bird feeder on the left are surrounded by stones with scripture passages written on them. - photo by ROSE ALBANO RISSO

When Anita Columbus says, “It’s amazing what a little love can do,” she is talking from personal experience.

She is a care giver by profession. But her personal brand of TLC is not just limited to the people who rely on her help, no matter how small or big those needs may be.

She is also an avid gardener who is just as happy seeing her healthy plants grow as rescuing “dead plants” from local garden centers and nurseries such as Orchard Supply Hardware, Walmart, and Lowe’s.

“I nurture them until they come back to life and then give them as gifts,” she said.

But for the last few months, Columbus has been giving away not just resurrected “dead plants” but literally the fresh fruits of her labor to countless individuals who otherwise would not have the nutritious vegetables on their dining table. She is one of the several people who have taken advantage of Crossroads Grace Community Church’s garden ministry program. For $25 a year, anyone can have a 10-foot-square plot in the open field behind the church on Moffat Boulevard in Manteca for planting vegetables, flowers, or herbs. Several of the participating gardeners are raising vegetables, and some flowers, for their families. Others share the fruits of their labor with others, or donate them to area food banks and to outreach programs and church ministries that help the needy in the community such as Second Harvest, the Bread of Life, and the St. Paul’s Food Pantry.

Columbus and her gardening partner, Tom, whom she lovingly calls “my better half,” donates the entire produce from their two plots – and from the two other plots that were “gifted” to them by a friend – to the Food Pantry ministry of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Manteca. The church distributes food, including the fresh vegetables, every Friday afternoon to anyone who needs the help.

“Tom and I started the garden because we wanted to contribute something to the Food Pantry, and we figured, since this was our calling, we could do it,” Columbus explained.

When they “purchased” the two plots in February, they started out by planting corn, watermelon, cantaloupe, eggplant, okra, cucumber, bell pepper, green beans, tomatoes, potatoes and four varieties of hot peppers.

“We have harvested and donated everything to the Food Pantry,” Columbus said.

One of the two “gift plots” was planted entirely with potatoes. The other one had tomatoes. They just planted pumpkins for fall.

The gift plots were “purchased” by the friend who paid the $25 annual fee, with Anita and Tom doing all the weeding, mulching, rototilling, planting, watering – the entire gardening maintenance plus harvesting. Each gardener has to do all that sweat investment, plus provide themselves with their own garden tools.

“Since we don’t have a rototiller, everything is done by hand with forks, shovels, rakes, etc. It’s a lot of work at first, preparing for the actual planting,” Columbus admitted.

“We also have to buy our own plants, seeds, extra potting mix, netting, and whatever else we may need,” she added.

“Tom and I spend at least an hour each six days per week weeding, watering, and harvesting. In the beginning, there were so many gophers and they were destroying everyone’s garden, which was very discouraging. I have a friend who offered me gopher-purge plants – these keep gophers away – and I offered it to all the gardeners. Some didn’t care to plant it but most others did. Now, the gopher population is really under control,” said a smiling Columbus.

From back-yard garden to the church garden

When they started volunteering at the St. Paul’s Food Pantry, Anita and Tom would bring vegetables from their home garden and donate it to the church’s outreach program. Some of the volunteers who are also involved in the Food Pantry and are members of Crossroads Grace Church told them about the garden program.

“They suggested that we get a plot at Crossroads and have a garden there for the Food Pantry,” recalled Columbus who also “loves to go and work in my friends’ gardeners and do my own creative thing,” as she puts it.

“We are not members of Crossroads Church but we approached (garden leader) Donna La Crosse and asked her if we could buy a plot. We were so ecstatic when she said yes, so we purchased two plots.”

Even with the time and effort they put into their four garden plots at Crossroads, Anita and Tom still manage to maintain their garden at home where they grow grapes, strawberries, tomatoes, squash, beans, “and yes, more peppers,” the two said smiling.

“Yes, it is a lot of work, but the end result is so rewarding to both us,” Columbus said.