Growing carrots in wading pools

by Sharon Abercrombie

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Job Ebenezer, a retired engineer living in Columbus, Ohio, has words of empowerment and comfort for folks who worry about famines, food shortages and overpopulation.

Recycle those worries.

Compost them.

Begin growing vegetables.

Lots of them.

Grow them in kiddie wading pools, plastic grocery bags, and milk containers. See them thriving in abandoned playground sites, apartment rooftops, unused portions of parking lots, balconies and even on concrete sidewalks.

Churches and parishes serve as prominent figures in Ebenezer's gardening plan. They are, after all, the primary places for keeping two Scriptural reminders alive -- till the earth and keep it fertile for generations to come (Genesis 2:15) and "For I was hungry and you fed me" (Matthew 25:35).

With a gentle twinkle in his eye, the soft-spoken gardener offers a particular challenge to the Catholic church.

"I see such potential here since it is the largest landowner in the West," he said. "Just imagine what could happen if every parish had a garden. I would hope the Holy Father would say something about this."

He offers the math from his own church garden as a living lesson. Ascension Lutheran's garden, located in the Northland area of Columbus, is nearly four years old. Its annual harvest yields between 1,600 and 2,000 pounds of nutritious food. Multiply those figures by 100 churches, and you have 200,000 pounds available for feeding the hungry, "and providing hope," he said.

Ascension's bounty of green beans, carrots, peppers, okra, tomatoes, corn, basil and purple yard long beans, flourish on the grounds of a former playground in little blue wading pools, plastic grocery bags, milk containers, on vertical A-frame wooden pallets and, yes, in the ground as well -- "to improve the soil," he explained.

This food reaches many hungry people. It is available to church members after Sunday services. ("We used to have some left over but not anymore because of the bad economy," he said.)

It goes to a free medical clinic operated by the church, as well as two Columbus area food pantries. Local immigrants from Nepal and Bhutan cultivate a special section of the garden for themselves and their families.

On his Web site,, Ebenezer talks about the advantages of urban container gardens.

"They enable us to utilize limited space, make use of vacant lots, brown fields, unused parking lots and roof tops, and provide meaningful employment for persons with limited skills and formal education," he said. "It is inexpensive to establish and maintain an urban garden, and is easy to practice intercropping -- planting a variety of plants in one container."

These are creative ways to recycle old tires and other containers that would otherwise end up in landfills, he said.

He considers churches and social service organizations as ideal places to use urban gardening to "rehabilitate, create income generation projects and provide therapy."

Ebenezer told Eco-Catholic that he wishes President Obama could consider these possibilities as well and "put people into food production jobs. You know, something like what President Roosevelt did during the 1930s to provide work."

Ebenezer is a native of Madras, India, and the son of a Protestant minister. He has divided much of his time between teaching engineering in Lutheran colleges and helping to improve the lives of poor people both here and abroad. He has brought container gardening to Costa Rica and Tanzania. He helped widows and orphans of AIDS victims start a container garden in that African country.

In the late 1970s, after returning to India and seeing how much hardship there was, he "decided to devote my time to teaching simple technology." He developed a bicycled-powered water pump that would make it easier for people to do rice threshing.

In 1993, he started his first container enterprise in Chicago. He had taken time away from teaching to direct an environmental stewardship and education program for the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. Searching for startup ideas, he checked out a gardening education center in Ft. Myers, Fla., and liked what he saw. The center, the Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization (ECHO), brings container garden techniques to impoverished countries such as Haiti.

He saw similar possibilities for feeding Chicago's urban poor and convinced his bosses to let him turn the roof of the church organization's parking garage into a model container garden.

He hoped the garden would serve as a prototype for creative use of urban space in many areas of the city, and beyond. That first year, urban gardeners harvested nearly 1,000 pounds of vegetables from nearly 40 wading pools and dozens of used tires and feed sacks. It is still flourishing, he said.

Ebenezer originally hoped for more rooftop container gardens throughout the city, but ran into roadblocks when he approached City Hall. "One of the Mayor's staff members told me, 'Job, you aren't a politician.'" To have put his ideas into operation would have threatened local supermarket chains. It couldn't be done.

But churches don't have to follow those kinds of rules, Ebenezer said, so they are the perfect places for growing food. Ebenezer stayed in Chicago for a few years, but then went back to teaching.

Although he wrote his doctoral dissertation on solid rocket propellants, Ebenezer did not pursue the direction this topic would have taken him to -- the military industrial complex.

"I'm kind of a pacifist," he said.

After his retirement from Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania, in 2006 Ebenezer and his wife, Marjorie, a public health physician, moved to Columbus to be near two of their five children.

Next month at UNICEF's invitation, he will be going to Ghana to teach people how to build pedal power water pumps and low-cost housing from earth.

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