Pine Belt Master Gardeners Get Longtime Gardener "back in the dirt"
Eight years ago, Hattiesburg pharmacist Jim Murray gave up gardening because his knees gave out and doctors told him his days of keeping flower beds and cultivating his home garden were over. However, he has returned to gardening thanks to the Pine Belt Master Gardeners’ salad table project.
The Pine Belt Master Gardeners include residents from Lamar and Forrest counties. They are part of a network of Mississippians who have attended horticulture training offered by the Mississippi State University Extension Service and earned their Master Gardener certification.
“I had always gardened before my knees gave way,” Murray explains. “I always had fresh flower gardens and fresh vegetables growing in my yard, but I had to stop all of that—even mowing my own yard—and all the other outdoor things I had enjoyed doing for so many years.”
Murray, a Purvis resident, first began having problems with his knees in 2007 after he fell in a parking lot on his way to a Mississippi State University football tailgate.
“I was coming through the band hall parking lot, and my legs just gave way. Then I fell again. It took me 45 minutes to pass through the lot and get to the tailgate,” he explains. “After I got home and went to the doctor, he asked me, ‘Where’s your wheelchair? Where’s your cane? What meds are you taking?’”
Murray wasn’t using anything at all to assist his walking, but the doctor explained that Murray’s knee bones were rubbing bare against each other. His doctors recommended pain relief, a series of surgeries, and continued rehabilitation, and Murray thought his days of gardening and digging were over.
However, once Murray discovered the Pine Belt Master Gardeners’ salad tables, he realized that they could allow him to garden without disobeying doctors’ orders. The shallow, raised beds enable people with wheelchairs, walkers, or other mobility challenges to grow vegetables and herbs without having to bend over.
Murray’s cousin, Master Gardener volunteer Vickie Foster, happened to have a salad table at her home, and Murray immediately noticed it when he visited her in 2014. She told her cousin that the Master Gardeners were building and distributing the tables to serve the community.
Murray decided he needed his own table soon after his cousin asked him to help harvest her table while she was out of town.
“She had her lettuce started and said, ‘Come by and pick some because I’m going to be gone on a trip,’” Murray remembers. “So I came back and picked lettuce and helped take care of it while she was gone. It was so easy for me, I knew I had to have my own table.”
He contacted Pine Belt Master Gardener Paul Cavanaugh, active member and recent organization president, to request a table, and the rest is history.
“For anybody with any kind of limited mobility, these tables are an advantage,” Murray says. “The doctor told me not to get down on my knees again, but now I’m able to get out, plant plants, work in the dirt, pick my vegetables, and enjoy the meal. These tables have given me back something that had been taken away.”
Not only are the salad tables basically weed-free, but they are also functional in full sun, shade, or any combination of the two. Murray planted several types of lettuce, summer squash, and a variety of herbs in his salad table garden. After the summer harvests of fresh foods, he immediately started thinking about what to plant in the winter garden.
While the Master Gardeners donate some of the salad tables to local organizations and businesses, the group also builds the tables for a small fee. When Murray bought his two salad tables, the price funded two additional tables.
“Mr. Cavanaugh told me, when you buy a salad table, the Master Gardeners are able to make two, one of which goes to a wounded warrior,” Murray says. “With the table, the wounded warriors can do something outside with their hands in the dirt. They can get out there and garden.”
The salad table project is so popular that it drew the attention of the International Master Gardeners. At its September conference in Council Bluffs, Iowa, the Pine Belt Master Gardeners accepted the international second place award in the Search for Excellence Program. The Mississippi group was selected for its dedication to constructing, donating, and teaching clients with special needs to use the tables.
“The Pine Belt Master Gardeners greatly appreciate this formal recognition of the salad table project,” Cavanaugh emphasizes. “But the smiles and thanks from those who have benefited from the tables have been our inspiration.”