This story is produced in collaboration with the 901 Save The Food campaign and Clean Memphis to highlight the food heroes in Memphis who work to support a more sustainable, local food system.
On her North Memphis land, Miss Monica builds health and community
Every neighborhood contains secrets that require one to get out of the car, walk, and engage all five senses. This can be hard to do in an unfamiliar neighborhood in a city like Memphis, but treasures await those who do.
In the Hyde Park neighborhood of North Memphis, Miss Monica’s garden is a hidden gem. Amid abandoned properties and illegal dumping sites, Miss Monica’s place is a haven for all kinds of thriving life. In the summer, her yard is filled with an eye-popping sea of hot peppers, hidden corners of herbs, and a row of corn plants more than 10 feet high. Miss Monica’s yard is alive. It smells greenly fresh, and the buzz of insects fills the trees. The plants are extraordinary, brought to life by an extraordinary gardener.
“I want to grow fruits and veggies. That’s what I know,” says Monica Ibie, a native of West Africa and Memphis transplant.
While Miss Monica works nights for FedEx, her garden is her daytime passion. Monica tends plants from her native region: a breed of especially starchy corn for making corn fufu, a bitter leaf plant known for its ability to regulate blood sugar, and okra, to name just a few. As we walk, she points out echinacea and white sweet potatoes (only the greens are showing) and “Nigerian garden eggs.” The deeper we look, the more secrets we find.
I came here at the behest of Homeland CDC founder Steffy Smith Richmond, who seeks to build more food security in this area. But other Memphians have slowed down to take in the garden on Britton Street. Mayor Jim Strickland is one of them. Miss Monica proudly displays a certificate of merit he gave her in 2018 for her service to her neighborhood through cultivating her garden.
It’s hard to explain a place that puts one’s soul at ease, but that is what Miss Monica’s garden does. It pulls me out of my head and into my body. I try to identify plants by their leaves, smell herbs, and find a shady spot to just breathe for a minute. Pulling out a phone to snap pictures feels a little like desecration, but I reluctantly do so as a memory aid for writing later. I snap a few pictures of the plants and turn the camera toward Miss Monica, asking permission to photograph her.
“Do I look cute?” Monica jokes after she agrees. Of course she does, her eyes sparkling with laughter and a leafy vegetable halo swaying in the breeze behind her.
Miss Monica has created a sanctuary, but not a private one. Her goal is to grow affordable, healthy food for every neighbor who needs it.
She already shares what she grows with people who stop by.
“At Thanksgiving, everyone who comes here gets some sweet potatoes,” she laughs.
I cannot escape without a bounty either.
“I know you lack nothing, but it will make my heart glad to share with you,” she says.And so she packs a bag full of okra, jalapeños, banana peppers, lemongrass, and basil gone to seed that I can plant in my own garden.
This garden space is already buzzing with life, but Miss Monica has even greater ambitions. Miss Monica has been dreaming of a bigger garden and working to make it a reality. She bought the lot next to her house and cut down the gnarled trees in the center. (There are still trees around the outside, providing shade and shelter.) Before planting spring seeds, she put in compost, animal manure, and topsoil. Ahead of the intense heat of summer, a layer of mulch will add protection and retain moisture.
This land is treated with love, resulting in a garden that sustains life.
Miss Monica’s vegetable plants are more than aesthetically beautiful. Miss Monica credits them for her own good health. She used to weigh over 300 pounds, and other markers of health like blood pressure and blood sugar were out of whack. At her last physical, her doctor shared her excellent blood numbers and asked how she maintained such good health.
“I’m a gardener,” she responded. “Fruits and veggies and herbs help you.”
To non-gardeners, the work of cultivating healthy plants may seem a mysterious or ethereal art. Monica’s connection to the land and the plants is tangible. She listens, observes, experiments, and achieves results in the form of delicious food. Monica’s garden connects her with neighbors too.
One of her community goals is to partner with neighbors like Chief Yanesh, who tends his own plot of land on Warford Avenue, to teach the next generation how to eat healthier and grow their own food.
They both want to create food security in their neighborhood and build relationships around that food.
Miss Monica’s imminent garden needs are simple and practical. She needs a shed to store the equipment currently housed in her living room. A fence is required to keep some folks from driving through her new lot. She needs more topsoil and a greenhouse. She hopes to gather community support and create a business that will sustain this project.
Monica Ibie has not only transformed herself; she is transforming Memphis.
She is literally growing medicine, nourishment, and relationships with her neighbors.
Heidi Rupke finds pleasure in maintaining the practical skills her grandmothers loved: quilting, gardening, keeping chickens, and cooking from scratch. She enjoys biking around Midtown with her family and will drop everything for a good plate of Japanese-style pickled vegetables. @rupkeheidi
Ashley Weaver is a visual storyteller who specializes in portrait photography. Her published work is a collection of various celebrations, local business features, and non profit events. She enjoys lifting up individuals and her city through her work. @ashleyweaverphotos