When Gene "Mac' McComas, 76, a former steelworker, saw his neighbor Denise Thompson, 48, a consultant, trying to grow tomatoes in her small yard, he invited her to the garden, saying, "I'm gonna make a farmer out of you yet!" In 2011 McComas retired from growing to care for his ailing wife and handed down his plot to Thompson; she now drops beets, garlic, and potatoes on her "adopted parents'" doorstep. McComas, meanwhile, "comes by the garden to tell me what to do!" says Thompson.
When Robin Stevens, 43, was briefly homeless in 2006, she parked her car in the garden at night, and McComas loaned her gas money to keep the heat on. Now she grows a thriving peach tree: "Anyone can pick it, as long as you don't step on my dahlias," she says.
Michael Mishaga, 51, a graphic artist, leads the charge against cucumber beetles ("Denise and I introduced beneficial nematodes [i.e., microscopic roundworms]; that season I had a bumper crop of pickles!"), and, after hours, to a local brewery.
John Yokie, 62, a refugee from Liberia, was delighted to find a place where Burmese, Italians, and Africans swap soil secrets ("It's like the United Nations!"). When he planted too early, Mishaga swooped in to help him navigate Cleveland's climate.
Kauser Razvi, 39, a strategic planner with two kids, learned to garden from Mishaga, who now attends her alfresco "family" dinners, at which salad is picked right from the vine. "The garden is a magical place for us," she says.