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Growing food in the blood of Albany’s Gardner

Edna Gardner stays busy tending to her winter-greens garden at her east Albany home which includes cabbage collards, Chinese cabbage, purple-top turnips and curly mustard greens.

Edna Gardner stays busy tending to her winter-greens garden at her east Albany home which includes cabbage collards, Chinese cabbage, purple-top turnips and curly mustard greens.

ALBANY — Wonzie Gardner teases his wife with the affection that only comes with spending a lifetime together.

“Yeah, you can take the girl out of the country,” he says, a devious twinkle in his eye, “but you can’t take the country out of the girl.”

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Edna Gardner gardens enough winter-greens cabbage collards, Chinese cabbage, purple-top turnips and curly mustard greens to feed her family and usually has some left over to give to neighbors. She doesn’t buy vegetables from the grocery store.

Wonzie is talking about the love of his life, his wife Edna, as she shows off her garden of uncommonly healthy winter greens to a visitor. She tries not to smile too broadly as the visitor expresses his amazement over the size of the greens — especially the collards — grown in the backyard of the Gardners’ East Albany home. But it’s easy to see she’s proud.

“Oh, this is my hobby,” she says humbly. “I grew up on a farm in North Carolina, and I’ve been doing this all my life. Everything I know (about gardening) I was taught by my mama and daddy.”

The Gardners settled into their lovely home — that they’ve added on to twice — in 1972 at the tail end of Wonzie’s 23-year career in the U.S. Air Force. He worked another 30 years as a security officer with the Dougherty County School System before retiring in 2006, while Edna worked in sales before taking a position 10 years ago as a student support specialist with the local school system.

The couple — asked their ages, Wonzie says only, “2-13-30,” while Edna notes demurely, “He’s a little older than me” — raised their seven children in the home that fits them like a glove. It’s along the back corner of their lot that Edna grows greens in the winter and garden vegetables in the summer in a roughly “8 yards by 30 yards” plot that they prepare together each year.

“I break up the land and bring in lots of topsoil,” Edna says. “I find the right mix of garden lime and fertilizer and water it as much as I can. It’s done pretty good.

“I usually have enough to feed us, to take some to our kids and to give to the neighbors. I don’t buy vegetables at the grocery store.”

Edna offers a complete inventory of her current garden, including purple-top turnip greens, curly-top mustard greens, Morris-head cabbage collards and Chinese cabbage. In the summer, she grows tomatoes, bell pepper, cayenne pepper, okra, squash, onions, cabbage and cucumbers.

“I’d recommend that anyone who wanted to grow a garden start with something simple like tomatoes and cucumbers,” she said. “Maybe grow a little squash ... things that are pretty easy.”

While Edna calls gardening her hobby, it’s clear this daughter of North Carolina farmers has growing in her blood.

“It’s important to pass these skills on,” she said. “I think young people today need to know how to grow and eat organic food rather than buying everything at the grocery store. It’s also pretty satisfying to eat what you’ve grown yourself.”

Asked if any of their seven offspring inherited mom’s green thumb, Edna notes that one son gave it a shot but deer always beat him to the harvest.

“Yeah, I took my baby boy when he was about 13 years old out to get some corn off my aunt’s big farm,” Wonzie says, and the Gardners laugh at the memory. “We were going to get a truckload of corn to feed some hogs I had, but Rodney had never been in a cornfield. We got going, and it wasn’t long before he’d started sweating. I had a six-pack of Cokes in the truck, and he opened one.

“I got a Coke and sat down with him. He looked at me and said, ‘Daddy, you couldn’t find nothing better to do?’ I laughed and told him about what it’s like working on a farm. He said, ‘I’ll help you get this truckload today, but please don’t ever ask me to help you do this again.’ ”

The telling of that story rekindles memories of Edna’s childhood on her parents’ tobacco farm, starting days at three in the morning and working until dark six days a week.

“Some of my comrades now ask me why I get up so early,” she laughs. “I tell them, ‘Shoot, 5 or 6 o’clock in the morning’s nothing to me.’ I remember all those days of getting up at 3 a.m.”

Not that the experience didn’t leave its mark.

“Well, I’ve been growing food here now since about 1985,” Edna says. “And as long as I am able, you’ll find me out there in the backyard, out in my little garden.”

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