Calvin Bryant never graduated from high school. He never studied for the various specialized skill exams he’s passed with flying colors. He’s self-taught in all he does – from opening a Caribbean-American restaurant, operating a contracting business and gardening a stretch of land he calls the Garden of Eden.
Employees working for his contracting company sometimes pass him while he’s in the garden – stationed right outside the company warehouse – and they tell him, “you are out of your mind.” They say this because Calvin talks to his plants. With frequency.
“That’s what makes it work,” he says. “I do it, and I’m very serious, I talk to it every day. I tell ‘em how much I love ‘em and they just love it – I mean, you can almost see a little leaf waving around, you know.”
The garden grows year round and it’s booming in any given season. Right now, winter crops are at their peak in the Garden of Eden. These are mostly greens like collard, turnip, mustard, cabbage, broccoli, onions, rutabagas, tomatoes and okra.
Calvin sells greens by the bunch for three or four dollars, the same price as a head of lettuce, a few turnips or onions, and so on. A lot of his harvest is given free of charge to church events and dinners, which he helps cooks for (he can make a mean pot of greens).
“I give away a lot to elders, I sell some,” Calvin said. “Thanksgiving coming up, I will sell out, I will sell everything I got. But it’s not that important that I profit. The part that I love the most is seeing people eat it, enjoy it and come back and tell me how good it is. It makes me feel good that they love it.”
Calvin gave me a tour of the garden – a privilege I’d been building anticipation for throughout our interview. It was worth the wait. I had to hop over rows of crops growing up to my knees. The bottoms of my jeans soaked up the morning’s watering session and my feet sank slightly into the soil with each step.
“Try this,” he said, handing me a folded piece of mustard greens he ripped off from a dinosaur-age-sized plant that glowed neon green in the sunlight. The bite was refreshing at first, light and crisp. Then the mustard spice hit the fan. I tried to smile and coughed instead. Calvin assured me that the flavor simmers down when cooked.
Next he showed me rutabaga – a root vegetable I hadn’t heard of before. When fresh, rutabaga has a tender texture but the vegetable hardens up by the time it reaches the store. Calvin’s rutabaga was ripe and ready to harvest. “You can’t get it any better than that.”
The Garden of Eden grows all organically, a feature that Calvin says draws people in from all over who’re looking to get a taste of nature’s magic. He shared some of his organic methods with me (he grows onion and garlic between rows to repel pests and composts with horse or cow manure) but, mostly, he attributes his green thumb to the grace of God.
“If you look at what I really do, I actually work on the negative side of things,” he said. “I go out there and I till up all the ground, I kill all the grass and I take these dead seeds and I bury them.”
I asked why he called the seeds “dead.” Botany class didn’t leave room in my head for much imagination.
“They’re all dried out and when I put ‘em in the ground and they get moist, God brings ‘em back alive,” Calvin explained. “Actually, I can’t do that. I can’t make anything grow but I’m committed to it, It’s a part of me.”
Calvin was brought up on a farm in Georgia, where he developed his love for Mother Nature and learned how to reap the benefits of nurturing earth. He says it’s in his blood. Calvin owns that farm in Georgia now. He bought it 35 years ago and manages it from down here.
“I’m an earth boy. I love farming, I love tilling the ground. I think you get new life, new energy from it. You get a real good spiritual blessing because mother nature produces all this positive stuff.”
Calvin came to Sarasota – to Newtown – in 1957. In 1969 he built the home he lives in now. His contracting company has built several houses in Newtown, as well as the Goodwill off Martin Luther King Way and the Community Bible Church.
Calvin has always had a vegetable garden going at home but the Garden of Eden did not receive its first seeds until the 80s, when Calvin kickstarted his contracting business and purchased the land where the warehouse and the garden sit today.
His warehouse has an office but you’ll never find him there. He prefers to be sitting just inside the large garage entrance, where anyone can find him to buy a bunch of greens and cars going down Myrtle can honk hello or friends can drop by to say hi.
Walking into the garage, there’s an old jeep stripped to it’s frame and hand welded in several spots – Calvin taught welding classes for 14 years. His makeshift office is a few chairs and a table piled up with blueprint rolls, miscellaneous tools, smushed papers and a few crushed soda cans. It is a mechanic’s cave inside, but outside is a gardeners’ paradise.
“I tell people, I don’t know what the garden of Eden looked like but I believe Eden’s got competition because this garden is really lookin’ good,” he told me, smiling a wide smile.