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A growing trend 

by Jessica Wells, NCLM Communications Specialist

Community gardening isn’t a new idea. In fact, its history spans three centuries, but today’s gardens are serving new purposes and making use of idle spaces.

The North Carolina Community Garden Partners started in 2008 to build a network for community gardens in the state. Diane Beth, a chair person and founding member of the organization, said having connections to others makes planning for a garden much easier.

Children participate in a work day at Keely Community Garden in Greensboro. Photo credit: City of Greensboro
“That’s what the organization is all about – pulling and sharing what’s working -- and even what’s not working -- in North Carolina to help support and grow community gardens,” Beth said.

One of the organization’s main goals was to compile a database of gardens in the state. Right now, the directory has about 200 gardens, but Beth said she believes there could be twice as many community gardens out there. Individuals make up the largest percentage of gardeners which makes it hard to track single-plot gardens with fewer volunteers and less output. However, gardens on municipal lands make up a large percentage of North Carolina’s community gardens

“Community gardens can develop organically, but for long-term sustainability, they need to ensure that the land they’re putting so much precious energy in is there for them to use for as long as the garden is,” Beth said.

The following are examples of innovative partnerships resulting in gardens that serve their communities in new ways.

New Bern

After a 20-year career as a U.S. Navy air traffic controller, Lovay Singleton is on a mission to help homeless veterans in New Bern with a new community garden.

Singleton planned for 2 and 1/2 years to make the Veterans Employment Base Camp and Organic Garden a reality. She researched resourceful gardening techniques and formed relationships with community leaders at the City of New Bern, Craven Community College and North Carolina Coastal Land Trust to guarantee a successful program.

 Lovay Singleton started a New Bern community garden to benefit fellow disabled veterans and help put homeless veterans back on track. Photo credit: New Bern Veterans Organic Garden. 
The City of New Bern is providing the 1.2-acre site that was previously underutilized as a football field and tennis court. The low-lying ground retained a lot of water causing the football field to be too mushy, but it’s just right for irrigating a garden, and the old, cracked tennis court was perfect for handicap accessible raised beds.

In addition to the 2-foot-tall wheelchair accessible beds, there are hugelkultur beds, which save water, vermicomposting bins, which use worms to produce rich soil, and 4-foot-tall raised beds. She encourages cities to think outside of the box when it comes to small, underutilized pieces of land because you don’t need much space or equipment for several types of gardening.

“We’ve been able to take an area that wasn’t really in use and make it useful,” Singleton said.

New Bern Parks and Recreation Director Thurman Hardison said it’s the end result of the garden that really sold the city on its value.

When complete, homeless veterans will have the opportunity to sell produce to earn an hourly wage and take classes through the community college with a goal of being job ready in 5 months. Other veterans and gardeners will reap social, physical and mental benefits as well.

“When you’re growing something, you have to project on what it will look like, so that means you have to plan for tomorrow,” Singleton said. “A lot of veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or depression issues are solely focused on how they feel today, so this gives them a chance to look at what is going to happen tomorrow.”

Greensboro

 
Gardeners snack on their harvest at Greensboro's largest community garden. Photo credit: City of Greensboro.
Brooks Mullane, City of Greensboro outdoor adventure and environmental education unit manager, helped create all four of Greensboro’s city-operated gardens. The first garden, Steelman Park Community Garden, was built by the city in partnership with the county’s health department and the North Carolina Agriculture Extension Service in 2006. The Glenwood neighborhood, where Steelman is located, is historic, but was in need of revitalization.

“The gardens really help bring in whole families who can learn from each other,” Mullane said. “Gardens make the park safer by keeping more eyes on it.”

The largest Greensboro garden has 44 plots available to rent, storage area and a greenhouse that any gardener can use to start seeds, while the smallest garden only has four raised beds and is used for children’s gardening.

Because community garden was new to Greensboro, Mullane had to work with the city to amend its zoning ordinance to allow gardens and greenhouses. She said it’s common that ordinances don’t include actual language permitting community gardens, but it’s an easy fix.

Greensboro’s ordinance states what’s allowed in a garden addressing lighting, fencing, storage structures and size.

The community garden properties are owned by the city and managed by a part-time garden manager. Individuals rent the plots and take their crops but the city asks that gardeners donate 10 percent of their crops to a local food bank. Last year, gardeners from the largest garden donated 400 pounds of food.

Get involved

The North Carolina Community Garden Partners has upcoming training available for gardeners of all levels.

Gardeners Recreating Our World (GROW) Workshops

The GROW Workshops are intended for those already involved in gardens who are looking for ways to improve, but new gardeners are welcome, too. There will be four regional Saturday workshops -- three in October and one in December with informational sessions, hands-on training, networking time, lunch and a community garden tour.

NCCGP Annual Conference and Members Meeting

For those interested in starting a garden, the annual conference in Asheville is a great way to network with experienced gardeners. Topics range from funding to compost and how to create garden friendly zoning ordinances in your city.

To register for either event, visit http://www.nccgp.org.