“Do you know what a green thumb is?”
Half a dozen children shook their heads “no” or stared blankly when Farmer Joe Carrington asked the question at Land of Goshen Community Market in Edwardsville.
“It means you can grow plants really well,” he said. “But the truth is, everybody can do this, so I give green thumbs away for free.”
Farmer Joe whipped out a green ink pad and invited the kids to press their thumbs into it, which they did, not knowing whether to be delighted or skeptical.
Either way, the tall man with denim overalls, a green T-shirt and straw hat had their attention. They watched him pull apart dried marigold flowers to get the seeds and took turns smelling envelopes full of seeds from other plants.
“This one is called horsemint, and to me it smells like pizza,” Farmer Joe said, prompting a round of giggles. “Here are some seeds for you to take home and plant. They will grow as tall as that building, and they will have big red flowers.”
Farmer Joe was smiling broadly and kneeling on one knee. He likes to be at eye level with his audiences.
On this morning, Auyana Thigpen, 4, and her twin sister, Arionna, seemed to hang on his every word, peering through braids with red, white and blue beads.
“He gave us some seeds, so we could grow ‘em, and he gave us a green thumb,” Arionna said, shyly.
The twins had come to the Saturday morning market with their mother, Shaqueta Thigpen, and brothers, Ameer, 3, and A.J., 16. Mom thought they all needed to learn about gardening.
“They were so cute,” she said. “They were going to pick some flowers for me, but I told them, ‘You can’t pick flowers here.’”
Shaquetta was referring to the Market Sprouts activity area in a vacant lot across the street from Madison County Courthouse. A hodgepodge of flowers and vegetables fill four 4-by-4-foot, wooden garden boxes.
“They were all planted by children’s hands,” Farmer Joe said. “Little sprouts put them into the ground.”
Man on a mission
Joe, 55, is a carpenter and former science teacher who has made it his mission in life to get people, especially kids, hooked on gardening.
He’s turning part of his one-acre yard in Edwardsville into an education center called Happy Joe’s Farm. He speaks at libraries and churches, organizes seed swaps and shows up at Land of Goshen twice a month for Market Sprouts.
“That’s our free children’s program every Saturday morning, and it’s to teach kids the importance of eating fresh, local produce,” said founder Candice Watson, who recently became market manager.
The program started with a federal grant in 2011. Each Saturday, a different farmer donates a crop that kids can learn about, see, touch and taste.
This is the first summer for the garden boxes and for Farmer Joe’s lessons on the first and third Saturdays. In past years, he was a vendor who sold his starter kits and other supplies.
“It’s been amazing what he has done,” Candice said. “Parents come up to me all the time and tell me how grateful they are.”
Sometimes Farmer Joe reads “When Cows Eat Flowers,” a book he self-published with his wife, Theresa Carrington. On July 15, he had a random drawing and gave away a starter kit.
Recent visitors included Jenna and Ryan Smith, of Glen Carbon, their son, Gavin, 7, daughter, Ava, 4, and Boxer, Zoe.
“Do you know what this is?” Farmer Joe asked the kids, pointing to a tiny yellow flower at the end of a long vine crossing a mulched path. “It’s a flower that’s going to be a pumpkin. It’s going to be twice the size of my head.”
Jenna noted that Gavin already had identified the vine, remembering his trip to a pumpkin patch last fall.
Farmer Joe slapped Gavin’s hand for a “farmer’s five” and gave him a small squash plant to put in a garden box, replacing something else that had succumbed to the heat.
“I had to dig a hole and take it out of the pot and put dirt all around it and pack it down,” Gavin said. “And then I had to water it.”
Farmer Joe is a proponent of organic, square-foot gardening, the practice of dividing garden boxes or raised beds into small sections instead of planting in long rows.
“In one foot, you can grow an incredible amount of food,” he said. “A tomato plant will take up one foot, and if you tower it up and sucker or pinch it, it will yield 20 pounds of tomatoes.”
Third career’s a charm
Joe grew up in Chicago and discovered gardening as a teenager. Somehow he got his hands on a packet of corn seeds and planted them in his backyard.
“The neighbor said, ‘Corn attracts rats,’” he recalls. “And I said, ‘Can we just grow it first before we worry about that?’ And (later as a teacher) I told the kids at school, ‘Don’t let someone tell you what you can and can’t do in gardening or becoming one with the earth.’”
Joe went on to earn a chemistry degree at North Central College in Naperville and worked for 16 years as a chemist and later a salesman for paint, soap and ink companies.
Joe then returned for a master’s in education at National Louis University in Chicago and taught science in Glendale Heights for six years.
“I wanted to do something more meaningful with my life,” he said. “So I quit a really well-paying job and became a teacher. I had a classroom full of plants and critters. I had 20 cages at one time. I was the nutty professor.”
Joe, who has two grown sons from a previous marriage, moved to Edwardsville in 2007. He began teaching science at Madison Junior High School, where he continued to sing the praises of gardening.
“The challenge was that my kids were living in poverty,” he said. “They lived in apartments. I told them to plant in containers or plant on someone else’s land. It’s called guerrilla gardening.”
In one foot, you can grow an incredible amount of food. A tomato plant will take up one foot, and if you tower it up and sucker or pinch it, it will yield 20 pounds of tomatoes.
Joe Carrington on square-foot gardening
Wife Theresa, who started out as his neighbor, is founding director of The Blessing Basket Project, a non-profit organization that lifts people in developing countries out of poverty by hiring them to weave baskets at fair wages.
Joe left teaching this year to rehab a historic house and do more carpentry, making garden boxes and compost bins. The main motivation for his gardening crusade is his belief that it can help protect the planet.
“When people are self-reliant, they’re not taking from others,” he said. “They’re not promoting war and violence.”
Nancy Decker, 80, of rural Edwardsville, bought one of Joe’s starter kits three years ago for practical reasons. Traditional gardening in the ground had become too difficult for her.
“I have rheumatoid arthritis, and I can’t get down for gardening,” she said. “(The box) is at a good level for me. And we’re on a well, so we don’t have a lot of water. By condensing it in a 4-by-4-foot box, it doesn’t waste much water.”
Joe’s starter kit includes the cedar box, 8 cubic feet of “super soil,” a planting grid, bamboo stakes and information on square-foot gardening for $135. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nancy liked her first box so much, her daughter bought her a second one. This summer, she’s growing herbs, tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers.
“I just got my first ripe tomato (July 13),” she said. “I only have four plants, but they’re big. I’m 4-foot-10, and they’re even with my head. They are just beautiful.”