Avant gardener

The rains have come, and in their wake shrubs, flowers, and cool-weather crops are strutting their stuff. As we lick our lips in anticipation of all those gifts from nature’s bounty, we might consider passing some along. Jim Quarles does.
The force and vision behind Albemarle County’s Harvest Shelter, a non-profit organization that teaches folks the rudiments of organic gardening, Quarles shares gardening skills for free. In payment, he requests only that people donate surplus food and flowers to food banks, homeless shelters, and to the elderly. His dream is that Harvest Shelters will sprout across the country.
The seed for this organization germinated 15 years ago when Quarles, now 50, was living in the San Juan Islands near Seattle as a hopeful and itinerant musician. Desire to play bluegrass outweighed practicality, and Quarles eventually found himself broke and hungry. The turning point came when he stole a cheese sandwich from a local family-run grocery store. Sitting munching outside on the curb, he knew he had hit bottom.
Eventually returning to his background in hydrology (the scientific study of the properties, distribution, and effects of water), he started an environmental company out of his apartment in San Francisco. Quarles and his company, Enviros, eventually relocated to Seattle and expanded exponentially.
An adventurous spirit coupled with a pragmatic drive has given Quarles much to be thankful for. His first job as a hydrologist took him to Panama where he remembers cruising sand dunes on his Indian motorcycle. In 1977, he quit his job and, accompanied by his dog, hiked the length of the Appalachian Trail. But the idea of becoming a musician never died. Although musical stardom has eluded him for the moment, he has found a way to combine all of his talents in a day job that makes him and many others very happy.
His reason for moving to Albemarle is simple: the Prism Coffeehouse. He offers his guesthouse to Prism performers who often include those same traveling musicians he lived with back in the San Juans. But it was the sale of his company, Enviros,  that enabled Quarles to put his money where his mouth is. “I just want to give back as much as I have received,” he explains.
Using local craftspeople, builders, and gardeners, he has created an organic wonderland outside his house in Free Union. There, a 7,000-square-foot, circular, raised bed garden bursts with the mysteries and beauty of the earth. He hires professional gardeners to teach anyone who wants to learn the fundamentals of growing organic produce.
The free workshops begin in June. Quarles, who appears on his harvestshelter.org website wearing a Santa hat, jokes that “studies” also can include a swim in the pond or a nap under an apple tree.