A green thumb

Published 8:43 pm Friday, July 23, 2010

In an area of Iraq that was once Saddam Hussein’s primary air base, a garden grows.

Or it did.

Lt. Col. Donal Dunbar is back home in San Antonio, Texas, and many of the 14 members of the Soldiers’ Garden Club have rotated back home, so Dunbar’s guess is that with no one to tend it, the garden has probably given in to the harsh growing conditions in Iraq.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Dunbar, a former Troy resident, has served two six-month tours in Iraq. During his first tour in 2008, he toyed with the idea of planting a garden in the sandy soil that turns to peanut butter as soon as water hits it.

“The soil over there is very unusual,” Dunbar said. “It’s not like any soil I have ever seen. When it’s wet it clumps and is as sticky as peanut butter, so it’s hard to work with. And, then there’s no humidity and the wind will beat a plant to death. The environment is very harsh ,and not the best place for a garden.”

However, Dunbar started gardening when he was only nine years old and almost everything he knew, he learned from his dad, Donal Dunbar Sr. of Troy.

With years of experience behind him, Dunbar decided try to grow a few onions in the Iraqi soil.

“I planted a few starts in a ditch, which was a protected place and also held water,” he said. “The onions grew so I knew that it was possible to have a garden in Iraq.”

On his second tour of duty, Dunbar was the director of operations at the Air Force Theater Hospital at Joint Base Balad, which is 42 miles north of Baghdad. He was also the top gardener.

His small success with growing onions in a ditch was all the encouragement he needed to try gardening on a larger scale.

Because the area was once Hussein’s primary air base, there were lingering reminders of its former beauty.

“Eucalyptus plants, small palm trees, palmettos, rhododendron and jujube trees are still growing,” Dunbar said. “So, that indicates that the area was once alive with vegetation.”

Although, Dunbar had no thoughts of grandeur, he did have an idea that a small garden could be productive.

“Balad lies near the Tigris River and is more suited for agriculture than other parts of Iraq,” he said. “It rains in the winter season which starts in January and then it stops completely. So, during the growing season, you have to deal with high temperatures, high winds and no humidity.”

But none of those obstacles deterred Dunbar. He purchased seeds and gave them a head start in Styrofoam cups before transplanting them to larger beds.

The idea of a garden seemed to appeal to other soldiers who missed home and homegrown produce. They offered to help and Dunbar was grateful to have a few “hands” on the farm.

The soldiers built a couple of raised beds there in the “oasis,” which was actually the courtyard of the hospital. Those beds were used for the more delicate plants, such as herbs.

The soldiers then expanded the vegetable garden using shovels and pickaxes to lay out three 40-foot rows.

The rows were two- to three-inch trenches that directed water to the roots of the young plants and also protected them from the wind.

“We found that weeds protected the plants from the wind but, once the plants were established, we pulled the weeds to keep them from robbing the crops of nutrition,” Dunbar said.

The soldiers’ garden included summer squash, cantaloupe, peppers, tomatoes, lima beans, snap beans, okra and red potatoes.

The Clemson Spineless okra was almost a no-show.

“It didn’t make,” Dunbar said. “It just wilted away in the heat. But later, we planted a local variety of okra and it did fine. Of course, the plants didn’t get but about three or four inches high, but they produced. We called it miniature okra.”

On the other hand, the snap beans and lima beans were making in the harsh environment.

“The legumes were thriving so we decided to plant a row of peas,” Dunbar said. “And they did well. The red potatoes were shipped over to us and they did extremely well until a rabbit found them. I knew the danger the rabbit would pose when the weeds and grass started to dry out and our patch was the only juicy green spot on his dinner menu.”

A few rows of beans, peas, miniature okra and red potatoes might not seem like much but it was plenty for a bunch of soldiers who longed for a taste of home.

“Oh, it was enough for all of us,” Dunbar said. “We had a high yield from the string beans and we made a stew with potatoes and onions and beef we bought at a local market.”

All 14 members of the Soldiers’ Garden Club enjoyed the fruits of their labor but, perhaps, it was not the end product of the garden that provided as much “nourishment” to the soldiers, as it was the means to the end.

“The garden was definitely a morale booster,” Dunbar said.

“Working the garden gave us something out of the ordinary to do and it was very relaxing. The club members said it was like therapy. I think it was for all of us.”

Dunbar is now back in San Antonio with his wife and two daughters. They welcomed him home with lots of love and a few tomato and pepper plants.

“The plants are struggling a little but, then I wasn’t home to prepare the soil,” Dunbar said. “I like to turn the soil and add some cow manure and that makes a difference. But we’ll get busy and get a garden going for the fall.”

And, Dunbar will be thankful that he doesn’t have to carry water in a bucket to water his home garden and that, when the rain comes, the dirt doesn’t get gummy and stick to his feet like peanut butter.

But he also likes to think that somewhere north of Baghdad, a rabbit is still enjoying the fruits of the labor of the Soldiers’ Garden Club and wondering, “What will they plant next?”