Sue Matera didn't know anything about gardening five years ago when she offered to help clean up a neglected flower garden belonging to a neighbor whose wife had died.
Other neighbors in the Lake Walker community saw her working and joined in. Then someone suggested they create a vegetable garden on the plot and give the leftover produce to Moveable Feast, a Baltimore nonprofit agency that serves meals to people sick with HIV/AIDS, cancer and other serious illnesses.
Although most of the neighbors lost interest the project after the first year, Matera discovered a passion for gardening as a way to help others.
In a plot roughly 45 feet by 25 feet, Matera grows tomatoes, squash, eggplant, carrots, okra, beans, radishes and lettuce. Each week during the summer she takes the bounty to Moveable Feast, where it is turned into nutritious meals.
"There's so much enjoyment in doing something to help other people," Matera says. "I so much enjoy going down there with buckets and baskets and leaving them in the kitchen."
Last year, she donated 1,200 tomatoes and is expecting an even better crop this year. She already has delivered dozens of squash, some beans, cucumbers, eggplants and enough lettuce to fill a refrigerator.
"I try to grow things that will give them the most food," says Matera, who is retired from work in the electronics industry.
Laura Saunders, Moveable Feast's manager of nutrition services, says that while numerous people give their excess garden produce to the agency, Matera is the only one she knows who raises vegetables exclusively for the organization.
"We certainly appreciate it," she says. "And our clients appreciate it. She's amazing."
Matera grew up in Towson and says she never tried gardening until she volunteered to help out her neighbor.
"These days with Google you can figure out anything," she jokes.
She learned to plant varieties of tomatoes and squash that are resistant to blight and pests. She figured out how to use raised beds and containers to keep weeds in check. And she learned natural ways to protect her plants, such as planting mint around the lettuce to ward off rabbits.
Matera uses organic compost she buys from a company that employs veterans and she avoids using any chemicals on her plants.
"You're giving food to sick people so you don't want to go near that," she says.
Matera's gardening begins in March when she hauls long planting tables from her basement and erects them in her dining room. There she plants tomato, squash and lettuce seeds and nurses them under a grow light. When the weather warms, she transplants the seedlings to the outdoor plot. The work of weeding, watering and harvesting continues until late September.
Although she plants and tends to the garden herself, she credits the lot's owner, Paulesh Shah, with paying the water bill, and praises neighbors who help her transport the produce.
Shah says Matera deserves most of the credit. "She has a beautiful garden," he says. "I feel like she's done more for me than I've done for her."
Shah says he was grateful when Matera approached him with the suggestion of caring for the garden after his wife died.
"I thought it was a wonderful idea," he says. "I frankly was too busy to keep up with the yard work. I was more than happy to let her have a free hand."
He says Matera's garden has not only supplied food to those who need it, but also has helped the community. "It's brought everyone in the neighborhood a little closer together," he says.
Matera says she isn't sure she would be a gardener if she weren't donating what she grows.
"Part of the motivation is the organization," she says. "They feed a lot of AIDS victims and women with cancer. It's a very good cause. Combined with the fact I love to do it, it's a win-win."
Anyone wishing to donate vegetables to a Moveable Feast may contact Laura Saunders or Mellisa Colimore, at 410-327-3420.