A former elementary school teacher said when he built a community garden five years ago in Austin he did so to inspire and encourage residents to care about their community and one another.

Terry Barnes, 69, said he moved in with his 77-year-old sister several years ago to look after her as she gets older. He lives at 4839 W. Ferdinand Ave., and his nearly 1-acre garden is located in an empty lot next door. The “Washarthur” garden is a portmanteau comprising the last names of his deceased father and his sister’s deceased father-in-law — Wash and Arthur.

“The purpose of this garden is to empower my people and to show them what a garden can be,” explained Barnes. “I remember being in the basement cleaning up four years ago when my daddy came to me and said I should build something to let kids know where they came from. That’s when bells starting going off in my head.”

The garden, which is open to the public, is filled not only with vegetables like greens, tomatoes and corn, but also features wooden signs scrawled with biblical scriptures, poetry, quotes from famous people and quotes from Barnes himself — what he calls his “food for thought” phrases.

One garden display is a toilet seat stapled to a tree and it reads, “Shit happens!” Another toilet seat reads, “Put a lid on it.”

Every day Barnes spends time working in the garden and said it is an ongoing project that will never end.

“This is the Lord’s garden and the things in the garden is what he told me to put here,” said Barnes as he walks through the garden. “I am only doing as the Lord sees fit. My job is to wake up every day and do whatever I am instructed to do by my Lord and savior Jesus Christ.”

For too long Austin has been plagued by violence and unsolved murders of young people, Barnes said.

“I’ve lost many family members to gun violence. It is an epidemic that’s killing our race one by one,” added Barnes.

And with so much attention on violence, Barnes said he wants to give children something positive and educational to focus on.

“Education is the key to the future. When I was growing up you didn’t need an education to get a job, but that is no longer the case,” recalled Barnes, who graduated from Richard Crane High School. “I remember when picking cotton was one of the best paying jobs for black folks.”

Neighborhood children sometimes come to the garden to observe and occasionally volunteer, according to Barnes, who moved to Chicago from Indianola, Mississippi in 1957. A father of 12 children and 80 grandchildren, Barnes, who said he grew up with 15 siblings (12 brothers and three sisters), is one of only two of his parents’ children who are still alive. An older sister is also living. 

And if a picture is worth a thousand words, Barnes said his unique garden could probably be summarized with 100,000 words.

“It’s hard to describe something beautiful and inspiring in words but let’s just say this garden speaks for itself,” said Barnes. “And my goal is to let the garden do all the talking while I shut up and listen.”