Men’s basketball coach wins local gardening award with his family

Media Credit: Dan Rich | Senior Staff Photographer

Men's basketball assistant coach Hajj Turner and his wife, Vivian,– along with their three kids Cairo, 7; Samir, 5 and Zayd-Ellis, 3 (center) – started their award-winning garden behind their Capitol Hill home this summer.

Before taking the court in the upcoming basketball season, men’s basketball assistant coach Hajj Turner spent the summer focusing on what was in season – his garden.

Turner and his wife, Vivian, took home the judges’ choice award for best home chef garden at the first annual Edible D.C. Awards last week. The couple – along with their three kids Cairo, 7; Samir, 5 and Zayd-Ellis, 3 – started their award winning garden, selected out of hundreds of submissions, behind their Capitol Hill home this summer.

“It’s not like we made this garden to enter it into a contest, but it just made it more fun,” Hajj Turner said. “The kids were excited when they found out.”

Hajj Turner said he was inspired to start the garden by a program called FoodPrints, put on by local farmers market group Freshfarm, that brings chefs to schools around the District to teach kids about gardening, cooking and healthy eating. After volunteering with the program and seeing his kids learning in the kitchen and garden, Hajj Turner decided to rip up his family’s overgrown backyard and put in a 30-foot by 3-foot raised bed garden filled with as many vegetables as they could fit.

“I’m just trying to mimic positive habits at home,” he said. “It’s not for show, we eat everything from the garden.”

“This garden actually changed our family in ways that I never foresaw when we installed it.”

The men’s basketball assistant coach has worked with GW’s program for the last seven years — previously serving as an associate head coach. When he steps on the court Nov. 10 at the Smith Center for the team’s opening game, he’ll begin his 13th season coaching – between his time at GW and other programs.

He said this summer he brought about half of the team over to “brag about the garden.” Gardening has become a second passion for him, but he said it’s good that gardening season will slow down just in time for basketball season, which is filled with travel games and packed practice schedules.

“It’s important to have a passion outside of your job that’s something totally disconnected from what you do everyday but something you still like to do,” Hajj Turner said.

The father of three said his kids can often be found out in the backyard tossing cherry tomatoes into their mouths when they return from school. The garden produces herbs, like mint and parsley, and vegetables, like cucumbers and beets.

“As much as I like it, my kids like it even more,” he said. “They literally put their hands in the dirt and put something in and watch it grow, and I think that is really important.”

Cairo, Samir and Zayd-Ellis Turner sat in the test kitchen at the School Without Walls at Francis Stevens rattling off their favorite vegetables that grow in their garden, including bok choy, cilantro and arugula. Even the youngest son, who isn’t even in kindergarten yet, can name obscure vegetables and says his favorite part of the garden are the beans that grow inside it.

Vivian Turner, who works as a lawyer in the District, said the kids were the “driving force” behind entering their garden in the Edible D.C. contest. She submitted their application in early September because the garden had become such a big part of their family life, changing the way they interact and the way they eat.

“We wanted to shed light on meaningful areas of the culinary community that maybe don’t necessarily get attention.”

“This garden actually changed our family in ways that I never foresaw when we installed it,” Vivian Turner said.

AJ Dronkers, the associate publisher of Edible D.C., said the magazine assembled a panel of nine judges from all areas of the food industry to choose the winners across 15 categories. Dronkers said although many restaurant and food awards take place across the District every year, Edible D.C. wanted to create a sustainability-focused competition with contests like best school garden and best use of excess food.

“We wanted to shed light on meaningful areas of the culinary community that maybe don’t necessarily get attention,” Dronkers said.

Dronkers said the magazine plans to continue the awards as an annual event.

Vivian Turner said she started planning meals for her family based on the vegetables in the garden. She said she felt like she was “on ‘Top Chef’ every week” when her husband and kids would come in with handfuls of zucchini and other vegetables she doesn’t typically cook with.

The mother of three said she is glad the garden became a “focal point” for her family this summer and that her kids learned important lessons about making healthy choices.

“They have a greater understanding of where food comes from and appreciation of the hard work that goes into it,” she said.

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