Shawnee resident Warren Messinger explains his organic gardening practices to a visitor. Messinger’s garden at 6131 Long Ave. is the only stop in Shawnee — and one of just three in Johnson County — on this weekend’s Kansas City Urban Farms & Gardens Tour.
When he is asked to talk to groups about gardening, Warren Messinger says he usually keeps things short and sweet.
“I tell people you stick a seed in the ground and say, ‘Go, baby, go!’” he said. “Talk to it, water it, and if it doesn’t grow, move on to the next one.”
But upon seeing the Shawnee resident’s garden in person, it’s quickly apparent there’s more going on than just verbal cajoling. At 76, Messinger almost single-handedly maintains close to an acre of vegetables, and he does it all organically.
Messinger’s “Natural Grown Farm” at 6131 Long Ave. is the only Shawnee stop — and one of just three in Johnson County — on this weekend’s Kansas City Urban Farms & Gardens Tour. The 38-farm tour includes seven sites in Kansas City, Kan., with most of the rest in Kansas City, Mo.
Messinger — a self-described “city boy” raised on Strawberry Hill — was reading a book on gardening when he bought his Long Avenue rental property and thought, “Well, I could do that.”
About five years later, row after row of raised beds behind the house yield everything from asparagus to zucchini, plus a few more unusual crops such as hard-to-find Asian winged beans. Across the street, behind another house Messinger owns, there’s more than 100 tomato plants, okra, beans, peppers and more.
Messinger relies almost exclusively on rainwater to water his primary beds. Rows of chin-high plastic tanks — with a capacity of almost 4,000 gallons in all — are rigged to capture rainwater running off the roof of the house and, at the turn of a lever, deliver it to the garden through an underground irrigation system Messinger fashioned himself.
Messinger’s compost piles are at the far end of the garden, flanked by a massive pile of what looks like dirt but is actually rotting leaves — a key ingredient in Messinger’s super-fluffy soil mix.
All Messinger’s fertilizers, insecticides and fungicides are organic, he said. His next goal is figuring out a way to make his own manure or compost tea — a fertilizing and pest-deterring liquid left over from steeping manure, worm castings or other compost in water.
Science lab-like gardening has even taken over the rental house’s basement apartment, where trays of baby-fine wheatgrass line shelves in the living room, a food dehydrator in the bedroom awaits the upcoming habanero crop and containers of peppery radish, bean and sunflower sprouts fill the refrigerator. Seedlings bask beneath simple fluorescent lights — which Messinger says work fine in lieu of so-called “grow lights.”
“I don’t want the cops knocking on my door and saying, ‘Are you growing some wacky weed?’” he jokes. “Nah, really they’re too expensive.”
When he’s not tending his garden, Messinger is likely at the Shawnee Hy-Vee, where he works part-time stocking shelves.
Asked how he has so much energy, Messinger answers staunchly: “I’m a full-blooded German.”
Garden tour organizers say people grow their own food for various reasons. Some want to save money on grocery store produce, others are concerned about the health and safety of food produced with chemicals in foreign lands. Others just say it tastes better.
Ami Freeberg, program assistant for Cultivate Kansas City, says the urban farming movement is most prevalent in the inner city, where many people don’t have cars, grocery stores selling fresh produce aren’t within walking distance, and there’s an abundance of empty lots.
In suburban areas like Johnson County, Freeberg said, straggly vegetable gardens don’t always jibe with perfectly manicured lawns many neighborhoods embrace.
“Growing food doesn’t fit into people’s idea of what a lawn should look like,” Freeberg said. Also, she said, “It’s easy for people to jump in their car and drive down the road to the grocery store.”
Messinger sells vegetables to neighbors and others who stop by the shed behind his house. But he said he doesn’t make enough money to garden for profit alone.
“This is something I really enjoy,” he said, adding that he’s more confident about the quality and safety of his crops than imported-from-who-knows-where vegetables on most grocery store shelves. “I can tell you what goes in my garden. Those people don’t have any rules, they don’t have any regulations.”
In a few more years Messinger would like to open his garden as a teaching center, maybe give each nearby daycare center a bed for children to plant vegetables and learn that lesson firsthand.
“Every kid can tell you where food comes from — it comes from the grocery store,” Messinger said. “But you ask ’em ‘Where’s the grocery store get it?’ and they have absolutely no clue.”