April 10, 2008

“A lot of people say they are green or support the environment, but they don’t get out and sweat and get their hands dirty,” Tony Dagher says.

Dagher is sweating, his hands are dirty. And gleaming eyes betray that he’s loving it.

“When you get closer to nature, you cultivate more than plants,” Dagher continues in an almost reverential whisper. “When you touch the soil, you cultivate diversity. Cultivate understanding and tolerance. For me, gardening is horticultural therapy.”

Dagher, who calls himself Tony the Gardener, is an urban farmer. He toils over quarter- to half-acre lots tucked away in some of the toughest neighborhoods in Palm Beach County’s most urban areas.

Talk plants with Dagher, and he becomes a poet. A preacher. The Minister of Gardens.

“Jesus was in the garden when he was taken to be crucified,” Tony says. “Do you think that was by accident? Man’s first home was in a garden – the Garden of Eden. And our last home will be in the garden – six feet under.”

Tony is jealously guarded about the location of his two plots – community gardens that have been largely abandoned by others. His first was 10-by-10 feet. He now works most of the half-acre site.

“Why are community gardens empty?” he asks, quickly answering his own question. “Because people have to work two and three jobs.”

It may also be because of the locations. Tony said he was mugged one day at the location we’re checking out.

“There was a shooting right over there,” he says, pointing down the street.

The West Palm Beach resident once worked three sites. But one became so dangerous he gave it up.

Our day had started at The Caring Kitchen, a soup kitchen in Delray Beach because, well, that’s where Tony the Gardener took root.

Tony worked for a telecommunications company until 2001 when he was laid off. Just as well. He believed that the job had been harmful to his health, filling him with toxins.

“I was sick all the time,” he says.

On a visit to the soup kitchen, a place he’d learned about while doing community-service with the telecommunications company, he met a woman who worked a community garden and urged him to begin gardening for the soup kitchen.

It changed his life. He not only found a vocation, but a philosophy, a way of living life.

“In 2005, I went to a Chinese restaurant with a friend,” he recounts, “and when the fortune cookie came, mine said, ‘Gardening is going to bring you fortunes.’ Well, the fortune wasn’t money. It was my health.”

Tony, a slight, spry man who seems to bound over barriers and between plants, attributes his well-being to his relationship with the earth.

“I am from Mother Earth,” he says when I ask about his ethnicity and his origins as we tour one of his plots. He reached down and touched the earth. “I don’t call it dirt. I call it soil. This is a blessing.”

And he continues to share his blessings with the soup kitchen where it all started. On this day, his contribution to Caring Kitchen is a basket of collard greens, spinach and bok choy, along with handfuls of beautiful flowers that are drawing raves from all the volunteers.

“When I bring something green, I always bring the flowers, too, because they bring good energy,” he explains.

Tony’s gardens are not neat. They’re marvelously cluttered. Plants grow where seeds happened to take hold. There are seven compost piles spread around the quarter-acre we’re visiting.

No pesticides or chemical fertilizers here. Not after what he went through with his health.

“My methods are old and time-tested,” he says proudly. “I use compost – horse manure, the things people throw out of their kitchens, seaweed from the sea and newspapers. I recycle.”

We walk, we gaze, we graze.

“Do you know what this is?” he asks, bending to gently pluck a leaf from a plant not much larger than a tennis ball.

I give him my “Are-you-kidding-me?” look.

“Well, taste it, taste it.” He demands.


“Lettuce?” I guess.

“Romaine,” he smiles. “See how small it is? That’s because I don’t use fertilizers.”

We munch our way through sweet, tasty green beans – “Good for diabetics,” he says. And mini cherry tomatoes that we pick off vines and pop into our mouths like tomato candy. There are cabbages and bok choy the size of beach balls.

He gives me a pretty yellow flower called Nasturtium, followed by sunflowers and marigolds.

Everything seems to be edible.

“There’s energy in the earth,” he says. “You don’t get energy from a can. You get it here.”

Thanks for the nourishment, Tony.