Augustine Cordero, 94, holding a green pepper in his East Camden garden. (Photo courtesy: Steven Rodas)

CAMDEN, NJ — A four-day streak of nonstop sun, racking up 100 degrees Monday, led to what Augustine Cordero, 94, was holding in his hand right now. 

Half of a green pepper — the appropriate color up top but a moldering brown where he held with his palm. Flakes of dried pepper whisked away by a sudden, and rare, gust of wind. 

“Only a couple look like this,” Cordero said, pointing to over a dozen bright green peppers still attached to their stalks. “We’ve been lucky.”

Augustine Cordero provides a tour of his East Camden garden. (Photo courtesy: Steven Rodas)

Born in Puerto Rico, Cordero first came to the United States when he was in his 30s. After a brief stint in Florida and then another in New York, he says he settled on South Jersey — and East Camden specifically — more than 50 years ago over job opportunities in construction. 

“Esta es la salud mía. This is my health. If I don’t plant and grow I can’t live.”

Augustine Cordero, Urban Gardener

Twenty years later, two houses were demolished down the street from his home. He saw an opportunity to coordinate with the city’s Adopt-A-Lot program to create a garden where he could grow mostly vegetables.

“We eat beans all winter long,” joked Angel Cordero, the 58-year-old son of Augustine Cordero. “But first we get together as a family, get in a circle, and have to work through getting them out.” Angel has six siblings.

The process, Angel explained, is part of the ritual of owning a garden. Maintaining the land, watering the plants and — in the case of the beans — gathering to remove them from their pods.”

(Photo courtesy: Steven Rodas)

“We also give food to neighbors,” Augustine chimed in. “We don’t sell any of this.”

But there’s no need to make that disclaimer if you’re from the block.

“Como esta papa!” a passerby abruptly shouted as Augustine made his way through the neat green rows. “How are you, friend!” 

Seeds shipped from Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, make it possible for Augustine to also grow “gandules”— pigeon peas that make for the country’s national dish if paired with rice and pork in a pot with sofrito. He’s also made progress with watermelon, corn and other greens – although he says plantains are impossible to grow due to the climate. 

Augustine Cordero and his son, Angel in their East Camden garden. (Photo courtesy: Steven Rodas)

Angel says his father — who turned 94 in April — is as active as ever, despite his age. 

“He’s here every morning,” Angel said. “Turning the soil and doing everything else to take care of the garden. It’s a ton of work. But that’s why he’s my role model. This man has worked all his life for his family. Sometimes I wonder where I get it from and where he does, and it’s this…it keeps him going.”

Augustine says he’s been blessed to not have had to face medical hardships as a result of the pandemic.

“Esta es la salud mía,” he said. “This is my health.”

“If I don’t plant and grow I can’t live,” he continued. 

Angel Cordero in his family’s garden in East Camden. (Photo courtesy: Steven Rodas)

The New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station (NJAES), an initiative within Rutgers University, is helping to make that brand of tranquility available to anyone across the Garden State who is interested in taking a run at gardening themselves. 

The NJAES conducts research on agriculture, horticulture and turfgrass science, as well as provides assistance to farmers, landscapers and residents across 21 New Jersey counties.

In a recently-released fact sheet on “Planning a Vegetable Garden,” the organization harkened back to an old adage: location, location, location. 

“Especially for older city and urban areas, we recommend a soil test to check for levels of lead. Right away it’s important to be safe and make sure there are no other potential contaminants that might get into the food,” Peter Nitzsche, Agriculture and Natural Resources Agent with Morris County and co-author of the sheet, said over the phone.

When starting out, a common misstep is size. 

“A lot of people bite off more than they can chew,” Nitzsche added. “There’s no minimal size for this sort of thing, even something that’s 5’x5′ is fine for some herbs or lettuce. I’d tend to encourage you to start smaller and then expand after some time. If you start a big garden in the spring, then the heat comes on. It can be overwhelming for some to deal with.”

For those particularly interested in getting in the weeds over what they should and shouldn’t grow, the NJAES provided the following guide:

Vegetable Planting Guide

Vegetable Spacing (in.)
In Rows
Between Rows
Transplants or Seeds Planting Dates* Avg. Yield per 10 ft. of Row
Asparagus 18 60 crowns Perennial 5 lb.  
Beans, Lima, bush 4 24 seeds May, June, July 6 lb.  
Beans, Lima, pole 36 36 seeds May, June, July 7 lb.  
Beans, Snap, bush 4 24 seeds May, June, July 7 lb.  
Beans, Snap, pole 36 24 seeds May, June, July 7 lb.  
Beets 3 15 seeds April, May, June, July 14 lb.  
Broccoli 15 30 transplants April, May, July, August 8 heads  
Brussels Sprouts 18 30 transplants July 5 lb.  
Cabbage 18 24 transplant April, July 7 heads  
Cabbage, Chinese 12 18 seeds or transplants April, July 10 heads  
Carrots 3 15 seeds April, May, June, July 10 lb.  
Cauliflower 24 30 transplants July 5 heads  
Celery 6 18 transplants May, June 20 stalks  
Chard, Swiss 6 24 seeds April, May, July, August 20 plants  
Collards 18 24 seeds April, May, July 10 lb.  
Corn, Sweet 12 24 seeds May, June 10 ears  
Cucumbers 36 30 seeds or transplants June, July 8 lb.  
Eggplant 30 30 transplants May, June 20 fruit  
Endive 12 18 seeds or transplants April, May, July, August 10 plants  
Kale 15 18 seeds July, August 24 lb.  
Kohlrabi 4 15 seeds or transplants April, May, July, August 20 bulb.  
Leeks 3 15 transplants April, May, August 40 plants  
Lettuce,Leaf,Romaine 8 15 seeds or transplants April, May, August, September 15 heads  
Lettuce, Bibb 6 15 seeds or transplants April, May, August, September 20 heads  
Muskmelons 36 72 seeds or transplants June 8 melons  
Mustard Greens 12 15 seeds August 10 lb.  
Okra 24 36 seeds May, June 100 pods  
Onions, Dry 4 15 seeds, transplant sets April 10 lb.  
Parsley 6 15 seeds April, May, June 20 bunches  
Parsnips 3 18 seeds April 10 lb.  
Peas 2 18 seeds March, April 3 lb.  
Peppers 15 15 transplants June 12 lb.  
Pumpkins 48 96 seeds June 4 fruit  
Radishes 1 12 seeds April, May, June, July, August, September 60 roots  
Rhubarb 36 48 crowns Perennial 20 stalks  
Rutabagas 4 18 seeds April, July 15 lb.  
Spinach 4 18 seeds April, September 7 lb.  
Squash, bush 24 48 seeds or transplants July, July 25 fruit  
Squash, vine 36 72 seeds or transplants June 20 fruits  
Sweet Potatoes 12 36 transplants June 12 lb.  
Tomatoes 24 36 transplants May, June 50 lb.  
Turnips 3 18 seeds April, July 7 lb.  
Watermelons 36 96 seeds June 3 melons  
White Potatoes 12 24 tubers April 18 lb.  
(Chart courtesy: NJAES)


This story was produced in collaboration with CivicStory and the New Jersey Sustainability Reporting project. It was originally reported by Steven Rodas for TAPinto Camden, and may be re-distributed through the Creative Commons License, with attribution.

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