A parking lot becomes an heirloom garden to benefit abused women

Heirloom tomatoes

Karen Dohrn bops around the chipped and buckled parking lot at Ninth Street and Fourth Avenue in Rock Island. She wears a brown tank top, khaki shorts, and flip-flops. Her gardener's tan glows.

Here in this arid lot that she rents from the city for $1, Ms. Dohrn is growing tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, herbs, edible flowers, and more in raised beds. She is using the square-foot gardening method, growing as many plants as she can in a small space.

These aren't just any plants: They're heirlooms — those old-fashioned favorites bred for flavor and nutrition, rather than for their ability to survive long-distance transport.

Once harvest time comes, she plans to sell the produce and use the money to help women who, like herself, have escaped from verbally and emotionally abusive relationships. Her nonprofit project is called 3E Heirlooms, and the E's stand for environment, ecology, and economics.

Right now she is working the gardens alone, paying for the project mostly with her own money.

"This has been me," she says, pointing to the beds. She hasn't applied for any grants to fund the project.

She has had a few volunteers, and several businesses have chipped in. A second planting site is located outside Stern Beverage Inc., in Milan, Ill., which donated the space.

Other donors have included Country Spring Water Company, the Davenport Compost Facility, Miller's Trucking and Excavating, Quad City Rain Barrels, Royal Neighbors of America, Bonnie Plants, and Standard Forwarding.

Last year Dohrn moved back to the Quad-Cities from Des Moines, Iowa, where she was a civil engineer. "I was working 90-hour weeks," she says,  "and I just thought, 'I can't do this anymore.' "

She also left behind an abusive relationship, she says. That experience, in part, encouraged her to start 3E Heirlooms. She hopes to help women who are living in shelters to get on their feet.

"I wouldn't want my grandchildren living in a shelter," she says.

So far, she says, Augustana College has shown interest in purchasing some of her vegetables. In the future, she would like to open a store, where patrons could buy heirloom vegetables and fresh foods made from them, such as salads. Her vision also includes planting five heirloom gardens in each of the Quad-Cities next year.

Dohrn says she never has lost anything more than a garden hose. "I have no security, no fencing, but nothing has even been touched."

Of greater worry, she says, are garden pests. To deter hungry animals, she crushes homegrown cayenne pepper with a mortar and pestle, then mixes it into a solution that she sprays on the plants.

"All of this is natural," Dohrn says of the garden, noting that she doesn't use commercial pesticides or herbicides.

At the end of the season, she will collect seeds from some plants to sow next spring.

"I wanted to venture out and do something new to the Quad-Cities," she says of the project. "I'm falling in love with this."

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