Desire for better food spurred garden project

Posted 5/11/23

Salvador Medina Nava stood among myriad planters and growing mounds in his front yard. “The key is the soil, it must be living soil,” he said.

That was an unfamiliar expression …

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Desire for better food spurred garden project


Salvador Medina Nava stood among myriad planters and growing mounds in his front yard. “The key is the soil, it must be living soil,” he said.

That was an unfamiliar expression – living soil – so Nava explained. “Soil is a living thing just like animals. The plants communicate with the soil by releasing sugars from their roots. Bacteria in the soil then carry the nutrients needed to the plant.”

What Nava described was a responsive exchange between the plants and the organisms which feed them. He continued to explain that when one factors in the decay of fallen foliage, the soil becomes self-sustaining.   

The gardens in the small front yard of his home in West Mineola almost fill the yard. Central to the garden are two rectangular growing frames for the 30 varieties of tomatoes Nava raises. 

The sturdy frames are indicators of commitment to his gardens. The frames are seven-feet tall and rigged with a system of releasable lines which stretch and support the plants vertically.

Nava used inexpensive lumber for the frame, but he scorched each 2x4 – using the ancient Japanese technique of ‘shou sugi ban.’ He then applied stain and oil to each before construction.

The frames serve several purposes. While supporting the vertical growth of the plant it also allows easy trimming of the plants’ suckers.

He commented, “Most plant diseases and destructive pests access the plant through those lower leaves and branches.”

This method of tending indeterminate tomato varieties is called the ‘lean and lower technique.’ It is the favored method for producing greenhouse tomatoes. Suspending the plants allow for a much more thorough and complete care of the plants. 

Also salted throughout the tomatoes were onions. Nava commented that many pests use a sense of smell to find their target. The onions, then, provide cover for the tomatoes and their distinctive scent.

At first blush, the front yard garden looks as if it was put in with a blueprint. When asked about having a construction plan for his garden, it was his wife, Calli, who called out from within earshot, “He did not have a plan!”   

Calli, who was tending to nine-month old Mateo, explained further, “When Salvador does something...well, he is a 0 to 100 kind of guy.” She admitted that last year – the year Salvador began putting in the garden – it was a lot of fun to come home from work and see what was new in the front yard.

“My role is to help him scale it back,” she said with a smile. 

It came to light that while Salvador has cognizance over the front garden for his vegetables, Calli would soon begin work on her flower garden out back. 

Having the vegetables in front does attract some attention. The Navas get a lot of folks who just drive by slowly or stop and chat about what is being grown and how. Some even want to purchase, especially the tomatoes.  

Tomatoes are not the only crop. They are joined by a whole variety of peppers, with Mexibelle peppers being the family favorite, figs, garlic and others. Soon they will be joined by squash and carrots. A wide variety of fruit trees are well on their way through adolescence, including a pink lemon tree.    

A unique blackberry bush which has no thorns, developed by the University of Arkansas, has taken hold in the southeast corner of the front garden. 

It is surprising that such a robust gardening effort is the product of a professional software engineer, Salvador, and an art teacher, Calli. Nava explained how his efforts began as a way to produce food for his family which is purer than that available in major food chains. 

“Fruits and vegetables available commercially are specifically grown for two traits: ease of transport and shelf-life,” he informed. Salvador disclosed that nutritional value and flavor are not the primary outcomes or intent of large quantities of imported fruits and vegetables.

The garden, he commented, began as his simple effort to provide better quality food for his family. 

Despite being an engineer, his recommendations for anyone looking to augment their dinner tables with self-grown product, indicate a man who has a connection with planting.

 “Observation is the first step,” he offered, “one must observe the land, the sun exposure, the drainage, and of course the soil.” He explained that it is likely the most important step in the process, especially if one has only a small area to work with. 

Once one understands the physical nature of the prospective garden plot, it is a matter of starting small and using a good quality compost. As Mineola sits astride a mixture of sand and clay soil, adjustments to the soil on hand is necessary.

He also offered a common-sense recommendation: starting with dwarf variety tomatoes.

“They grow only one third as fast as normal tomatoes but are very hearty and survive well.”

Nava laughed off the concept of having a green thumb. He related, “Gardening success is usually a matter of how much you care about it.”