Doing Time in the Garden

By Spike Gillespie

It’s early afternoon on a gorgeous autumn day as Municipal Judge Ronald Jones drives around Smithville checking on four community gardens. There’s one by the Smithville Food Pantry, another across the street from Brown Primary School and two behind the Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church. Currently fallow, the plots will sprout and thicken soon enough, and be ready to receive those who’ve broken the law on Jones’s watch.

Hardly hardened criminals, the folks who will soon be doing hard hoe time on the daisy-chain gang will be offenders sentenced to community service hours by Jones. Best of all, Jones will be right out there with them in the dirt, working side-by-side, as they dig their way out of legal pickles.

The original seed for the gardens germinated during a conversation between Jones and retired Municipal Judge Clarence Culberson. Jones grew up in Smithville, then moved to Michigan for nearly three decades before moving back to the little town a few years ago to care for his aging mother. He and Culberson were brainstorming creative ways to give back to the community when genius struck. What if they created a community garden that could provide food for anyone who cared to come by and pick it? And what if, instead of sentencing people for misdemeanor charges to fines and drudge work, Jones put the defendants to work digging, planting, watering and weeding?

The plan grew bigger and brighter than either could have imagined—taking off across town like a tomato vine on the lam. First one plot was acquired by donation, and then another, and then two more. And while the adult offenders hopefully learn their lessons, and a few others, as they log community service hours tending the gardens, it’s the minors who show up in Jones’s court who, arguably, benefit the most.

“I want to teach the kids the importance of education,” says Jones—referring to the youth cases he presides over, which are mostly truancy issues and sometimes possession of alcohol or tobacco. He wasn’t interested in assigning book reports or research homework as their penance. He sought instead a more positive, inspirational approach that would find the kids outside, keeping busy with rewarded effort. He found it in the garden, with the near-instant gratification of watching seeds sprout and vegetables grow and, hopefully, a lifelong skill they could carry with them.

“I’m not here to punish,” says Jones. “I’m here to help. I treat them like they’re mine. I say, ‘I want to be proud of you.’”

Jones and his charges have learned together. “I’ve never been a gardener in my life,” he says. And as for the kids, many of them had no idea that vegetables came from the ground. “They thought food came from H-E-B . . . they didn’t know the process.

What got their attention? They saw this little green thing pop up like a hook from the ground. They had never seen that before. They couldn’t believe a bean would grow.” Jones’s plan has been so successful that several kids have continued to work in the gardens long after serving out their hours.

Not surprisingly, the community rallied behind Jones’s efforts. After the initial plot was donated by Smithvillian Inez Green, Mount Pilgrim Church donated $300 to purchase the first round of seeds. Fellow residents Molly Filbin and Katie Temby, sisters who own Grandma’s House Nursery, donated supplies. Neighbors plowed up the original garden, and the city kicked in with free water.

Come harvest time, signs pop up in the gardens that read, “Pick What You Need.” Neighbors are invited to take tomatoes, banana peppers, kale, cabbage, okra, squash, zucchini and more—if it’s ripe and ready, it’s yours. And housebound seniors need only call Jones, who arranges to have some fresh produce delivered. Jones estimates that in the first year, more than 60 young offenders worked the gardens, and 75 to 85 families—dare we say bounty hunters?—benefited from the abundant offerings.

Inspired by the success, resident MaryAnn Walborg suggested starting a gardening program for the 250 students at Brown Primary School. Walborg, who once owned an import business and is also a retired home economics teacher, says, “nutrition is a major concern of mine. I think if we’re going to start with changing nutritional habits, we’re going to have to start with the kids.”

The students planted tomatoes, lettuce and peppers, and when the crops came in they threw a salad party. The kids picked three leaves each and put them in a big bag, then Walborg took the greens home and washed them, and made each student a keepsake. “We sent a vinaigrette recipe home with them and a little container of salad dressing. The kids knew how to do it and they could let their families see what they did,” she says.

Jones has bigger dreams still for his project. The city recently donated two additional lots to the Smithville Community Gardens, and there are plans to erect a building to house the food pantry, a farmers market and a community center where residents can take part in events like cooking classes to learn the nutritional value of food.

“I just love working in the garden—I love it all,” says Jones. “The idea that you’re doing something to benefit everybody is great.” Those who disagree might just want to watch their speed going through Smithville.