Little Local Joys: Friendship Grows In a Backyard Garden

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Alice Dreger for ELi

Greg Bonito (left) and Joe Natoli working the field. The oak tree in the background may be 300 years old now.

One started gardening alongside his grandpa in South Carolina. The other started when he was growing up Brooklyn. Both met as adults in East Lansing and merged their passion for growing fruits and vegetables in a shared backyard.

Greg Bonito and Joe Natoli live in East Lansing’s Oakwood Neighborhood, where they plant, tend, and harvest throughout the seasons. Natoli is seasoned farmer and teacher, having farmed for a living and subsistence in New Hampshire, North Carolina, California and West Virginia. Bonito is an assistant professor of mycology and plant-fungal interactions at MSU.

Together, they grow an abundance of crops within a 30’ x 50’ space, including greens, tomatoes, herbs, beans, peppers, and root vegetables like garlic and beets. Bonito even converted his swing set into an oyster mushroom fruiting house, drawing on his expertise in fungi.

“There are a good number of strengths in what you can grow here despite it being overcast and not getting a hot sun,” said Natoli. “I tend to grow what I have many ways to cook. But you can expand your cuisine erudition as you expand your gardening skills.”

Natoli began sharing his backyard gardening plot with Bonito in 2015, shortly after Bonito moved to town. Since 1987, the retired professor of American Studies at Michigan State University had been growing fruit and vegetables in his city lot, passing along perspectives to students and neighbors about gardening in “Michigan sweaty palm.”

After decades of growing, Natoli thought about dialing back, but found a highly-skilled partner in Bonito for the art of organic gardening.

“He said it was a lot of work, but I told him I’d help,” said Bonito. “It’s our little activity that we do as neighbors.”

Although amassing gardening supplies was made more challenging than usual this year with the public health crisis and state stay-at-home orders, Natoli and Bonito saw this spring as an ideal time to get a garden planted. And tilling soils, tending to emerging perennials, and redoing or envisioning garden designs are well-spent activities that yield dividends.

Bonito said the spring provided a great time to be “inspired by the promise of a garden and to be thinking about the layout and design.” He added, “It’s a time to be creative.”

Bonito said he does his best thinking with a shovel and hoe in his hand. Even during the cool spring within the confines of home, his thoughts turned to gardening and to tending the seeds he started in downstairs tray tables with his teenage son.

“It’s how we’re getting through this time,” said Bonito. “Things are still promising. It will be a good year for gardening.”

ELi’s “Little Local Joys” series is sharing small things that bring us joy and hope during the coronavirus outbreak. Do you have a little local story of joy or a tale of hope you would like to share? Click here for details. We would love to hear from you!

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