Karen Yamashita is a dedicated gardener. At least once a day she walks over to Hartford's Center Church at 60 Gold St. and sings to the vegetables in the two large pots she is tending on the grounds of the historic church.
"My plants are strong and healthy," says Yamashita, who is one of the gardeners from the homeless community who is part of the BOTS Pots program, run by Charter Oak Cultural Center.
The fresh vegetables are free for the taking for those in need. The program began in 2012 when a summer intern suggested the idea to Rabbi Donna Berman, executive director of Charter Oak. BOTS stands for Beat of the Street, a monthly newspaper, written, edited and circulated by homeless and formerly homeless people.
The pots are decorated by local artists, who donate their skills for free. The gardeners are paid in gift cards and must water, weed and tend to the 16 pots and two gardens at churches and libraries around Hartford.
Yamashita and the other gardeners have taken instruction from Dave Murray, a master gardener. "I learned to let water stand overnight," Yamashita says. "I fill up two gallon jugs, let them stand, and then mix them with fresh water." Her healthy vegetables sit in two pots designed and painted by Hartford artist Margaux Hayes, which include the phrases "Golden Mind" and "Read Me." Cheryl Cianci, who teaches art classes at Charter Oak, chose Zentangle designs for her pot on the center's grounds.
"We're using organic vegetables, so I thought it would be an organic design," Cianci says about the black-and-white Sharpie pen drawings. The Zentangle method uses repetitive shapes in organized design patterns to create intricate line drawings.
Other pots can be seen around town: Anita Balkun's cheery giraffe and sunflower design at South Church, 227 Main St.; Linda Lee's tiger lilies near Charter Oak; Penny Micca's butterflies at First Presbyterian Church, 136 Capitol Ave.; Elizabeth Carner's forest animals at the Goodwin branch of the Hartford Public Library, 460 New Britain Ave.; Louisa Barton's turtles at Grace Lutheran Church, 46 Woodland St.; and Linda Lee's ballerinas and hydrangeas at SS Cyrily & Methodius, 55 Charter Oak Ave.
The pots carry a sign inviting people to take the ripe produce. They are attracting attention, but that worries Yamashita.
"Sometimes people take the produce too soon," Yamashita says about her crop of lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers. "I wish they would wait until things are really ripe."
Donations to the BOTS Pots program can be made to: Linda Prout, BOTS Director, Charter Oak Cultural Center, 21 Charter Oak Ave., Hartford, CT 06106 or at http://www.charteroakcenter.org. Support for this year's pots, which cost between $1,200 to $1,600 per season, comes from The Harnisch Foundation, The Hartford, Friends and Family of Frankie G., Knox Parks Foundation, and The First Church of Christ in Hartford. Plants were donated by: Comstock, Ferre & Co. and Urban Oaks Organic Farm.