By Timothy Wombles
Ronald Jones’ backyard bursts with life.
Cherry, fig, mulberry and plum trees stand among the grapevines. There are blackberries and raspberries, peaches and paw paws. Flowers bloom, attracting tiny visitors that, in turn, pollinate the fruit trees.
“I work hand in hand with the bumblebees and the hummingbirds,” Jones says.
Jones’ backyard and business, called Blackberry Landscaping LLC, is part pollinator garden, fruit orchard and educational center. Located in the heart of Jeff-Vander-Lou in North St. Louis, it’s always open to the residents of the neighborhood. He traces its roots back to childhood summers in Walnut Park spent in “Fruit Alley,” which he and friends named for the tantalizing array of fruit dropping from overhanging trees planted in the backyards of neighborhood elders.
Jones started gardening in his free time in 2008. The hobby became a passion that’s grown into a dedication to help rebuild St. Louis neighborhoods, to nurture its people and plants and create a city of gardens.
Jones’ knack for cultivation led him through one of his hardest challenges, becoming a certified Master Gardener through the Missouri Botanical Garden. He used skills acquired at the University of Missouri–St. Louis to learn the Latin names of hundreds of plants.
“UMSL taught me how to really study,” he says. “I’ve applied that to everything since.”
Jones also credits many people at UMSL, especially College of Arts and Sciences Assistant Director of Academic Advising and Student Services Sylvia Harris, for helping him acclimate to the classroom in his 30s after a while away.
He earned his BS in media studies in 2020. Jones also picked up UMSL Chancellor’s Certificates in Fundamentals of Economic Development, Planning and Zoning, and Community Partnership and Coalition Leadership.
That education speaks to how much Jones cares about rebuilding the St. Louis community. Growing up in Walnut Park and Hyde Park, he saw firsthand the city’s housing issues. Since 2019, he’s joined AmeriCorps VISTA, the STL Vacancy Collaborative and the Community Builders Network of Metro St. Louis, serving as a Community Engagement Specialist.
Through Creating Whole Communities – a collaborative among UMSL, the University of Missouri Extension and St. Louis neighborhoods focused on strengthening communities – Jones became a Neighborhood Leadership Fellow, meeting policymakers and civic leaders.
“We have a lot of great people doing some great things on the ground right now,” Jones says, rattling off names of those working hard in neighborhoods and organizations across the city. “I want to change the narrative by being an advocate of change about St. Louis.”
In September, Jones joined the 2021 cohort of the Coro Fellows, an emerging leadership program housed in the UMSL Community Innovation and Action Center. He also started his master’s in urban planning and development at Saint Louis University, but not before stopping by the Missouri State Fair in Sedalia to pick up the 2020-2021 Urban Garden of the Year Award for the City of St. Louis.
Jones thinks every neighborhood should have a community garden, a place for kids to pick fresh fruits and vegetables.
“I tell everyone looking to start a community garden to reach out to me, and I’ll teach them how for free,” Jones says. “Blackberry Landscaping will continue to do common things in gardening in an uncommon way.”