Heavenly Garden's Twyla Varnado gives tour. Photo credit: Duane Reed/ Black Farmers Index

Military veteran Clarence Prevo turns overrun backyard into Heavenly Gardens, an urban paradise in San Antonio

6 mins read

A lifelong gardener answers the call to build an Eden to educate a community and return them to a farm-to-table, healthier lifestyle.

On this particularly sunny day, I was riding in a Mustang through the Lone Star State. Cruising down the wide streets of San Antonio in a sporty coupe was quite apropos as I passed the historic Alamo with hidden stories of resistance and Black cowboys. However, the most important part of my afternoon was the final destination—Heavenly Gardens, a micro-farm.  

Located behind Redeeming Grace Church, this urban sanctuary was started in October 2017 by Clarence Prevo. As the story goes, the church had just been built, but had an additional 1.2 acres in the back. Just to maintain cutting the grass was too costly, so a member came up with another idea.

Upon the bishop’s agreement, the church offered one of their clergymen, who was Prevo, access to the land. The requirements were simple: he could grow whatever he pleased. And so he did. They just didn’t know how much the garden would blossom.

An elder in the community and church, Prevo, who is known as “Papa Prevo” or “Papa,” was a transplant from Alabama. Growing up just outside of Selma, his family worked the land as sharecroppers. When he moved to San Antonio, which is known as a popular area for military enlistees and veterans, he transported those rich agrarian roots with him. 

Carrying decades of growing knowledge, Papa Prevo turned the undeveloped patch at Redeeming Grace into a church-community organic oasis that annually produces thousands of pounds of over 50 varieties of vegetables, herbs and fruits such as broccoli, kale, Chinese lettuce, green onions, beets, collards, swiss chard, celery, mustard, banana, cayenne, serrano peppers and jalapeno peppers and loose-leaf lettuce. In the community, some of the food is donated, but much of it is sold to the public at discounted prices.

What was most important was that the garden was a space to “pass on . . .  information to the next generation,” said the elder green thumb. “Kids get excited especially when they get involved [in gardening] and they see where this food comes from other than the market,” explained Papa Prevo in a video about his work.

Now at 82, Papa Prevo is a retired military sergeant major after serving for 30-plus years. In fact, while stationed at Fort Sam Houston in Houston during his time in the Army, he established a garden. Also, he plotted another small garden by his home when he worked at Walter Reed Army Medical center in Washington, DC. Still, as you can see at Heavenly Gardens, he holds his duty to be a caretaker of the land seriously.

Heavenly Garden founder Clarence “Papa” Prevo tends to one of his 50 crop varieties in his San Antonio community microfarm. Photo credit: Heavenly Gardens

A place of community, a place of healing 

Twyla Varnado, the public relations liaison for Heavenly Gardens, opened up the growing center to Black Famers Index for a tour in late January.  It was several weeks after a severe frost damaged most crops, other than their collard greens, but the peaceful energy resonated across the garden that is as big as a football field.

Like Papa Prevo, Varnado moved to San Antonio, but is from West Virginia. Also like Prevo, Varnado, who is called “Tweety Bird” by her mentor, is an Army veteran and grew up with a garden that had apple and peach trees where they “ate off of the land.” Moreover, she is a member of Redeeming Grace Church. The place of worship, as I learned, had a strong representation of military veterans as members.

During the garden’s exploration, Varnado explained how Papa Prevo pretty much built everything himself. From time to time, he received help from young people in the area, but much of it is from his hands. While the work was laborious, plant by plant, his garden grew fast. 

Papa started with one plot then added more soon after.  When the space became too small, he expanded his operations after his produce outgrew its containers. In his transition away from containers, Papa constructed raised beds out of materials from the church’s discarded fence. “It’s pretty much a recycled garden,” Varnado told Black Farmers Index. 

Every corner of the urban Eden practices sustainability. Local black ranchers donate horse manure for fertilizer while the city donates wood chips. Also, Papa Prevo swapped trash cans for water bins and found  25 cent containers when a nursery was going out of business. In fact, the staff uses as much recycled material as possible. So much so, they even grow out of an old washer machine bin.

In seven years of its first tilling, Heavenly Gardens sprouted so quickly that Papa Prevo had to implement eco-smart solutions that complemented his organic growing philosophy, while addressing the fast expansion. “We do the organic growing method,” Papa Prevo said in a talk breaking down his reasons for using non-toxic methods. 

What is more, Papa Prevo wanted to teach the value of harvesting what goes onto your dinner plate, and the huge health benefits it brings. “When you can grow out of your backyard and pick your food, you know exactly the process,” he commented.

As we strolled down the rows of Heavenly Gardens, Varnado revealed the backyard greenspace is a therapeutic site for the community. For the founder-clergyman, it gives him a “peace in seeing nature work” when he looks over the field. But for Varnado, it was the green juice Papa Prevo made when she finished chemotherapy from stage four colon and liver cancer, that played an important part of healing for her. 

To emphasize healing, Heavenly Gardens maintains an impressive herb patch; hence its 23 Moringa trees that are part of a grove they’re expanding. Varnado incorporates the moringa herbs in some of her food daily. Overall, it’s about “getting the kids to grow something of their own . . . and getting their parents back to eating healthier leafy green vegetables,” she said.

Left photo: Twyla Varnado gives tour of Heavenly Gardens. Shows freshly planted greens. Top right: Duane Reed visits Heavenly Gardens in San Antonio, Texas, January 31, 2024. Bottom right: Collard greens peaking after January winter frost.

“Those who control your food control you.”

Anyone who has experience in the deep south like my grandfather and Papa Prevo, have memories where self-sufficiency is baked into the DNA. Varnado recounted, “One thing Papa says is that those who control your food, control you. But if you have a way to control your own food that takes [some power] back.”

Heavenly Gardens shows that ancestral knowledge mixed with creativity then remixed and filtered through a community, can result in monumental achievements. Over the years, Papa and staff have come up with ways to get more San Antonians to employ more of a garden-to-table food system. An upcoming event they’re co-holding shows how. 

On Friday and Saturday, February 24 and 25, Heavenly Gardens will host the inaugural Texas Black Growers & Farmers Jubilee. An event mobilizing Black growers in the city to share resources and information, Varnado said, “We’re trying to get all the Black farmers together . . . because you may know something that I don’t know, or I can help you with this and [you] can help me with that.”

The Jubilee is part of San Antonio’s Black Restaurant Week and caps off Black history month. Sponsored by Mrs. Aline’s Community Garden and Sustainable Gs, the event is scheduled to have workshops on hydroponics, asset management, seed-to-Soil, Black farmer oral history, rain water preservation, community development and sustainability, land management, herb gardening and the under-told story of Black cowboys and ranchers. 

Throughout the year, Heavenly Gardens opens its space to as many who want to come. The popular urban micro-farm has programs where high schoolers come and participate in the growing process as part of their community service. Also, there is a charter preparatory school across the street that used to dedicate every Wednesday as part of their Physical Education class. They even partnered with a homeschoolers to use the land for agricultural activities such as a competition to grow the largest cabbage. 

Since planting the first seeds, Heavenly Gardens has become an important site for under-represented communities to access food, and it is also a place where Papa Prevo mentors aspiring growers throughout the city. Evidenced in being voted as community garden of the year by San Antonians for the third year, the master gardener has poured into his community both his passion and knowledge. Volunteer days at the garden are on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Monday.

This story is an ongoing series featuring Black growers and farmers in a partnership with sister-organization Black Farmers Index. The Index is the largest public listing of Black U.S. farmers and started as a media project on Ark Republic. To continue our commitment in featuring an underrepresented, but viable sector in agriculture, our reporters and storytellers highlight their work.

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