Perspectives Online

Community gardens promote learning and sharing in Guilford County

The community gardens at Guilford County’s Cooperative Extension Center attract gardening enthusiasts (right), whether beginners or experienced, to try their hands at growing fresh produce.
The community gardens at Guilford County’s Cooperative Extension Center attract gardening enthusiasts, whether beginners or experienced, to try their hands at growing fresh produce.
(Photo By Becky Kirkland)
An effort by Guilford County’s Cooperative Extension Center to provide fresh produce for local hunger programs has grown to include providing space for community gardeners to learn as they grow their own food. This season alone, more than 17,000 pounds of produce from this effort have gone to feed Guilford’s hungry.

Guilford County’s Extension center is fortunate to have an abundance of land that has been put to many uses, said Brenda Morris, county Extension director. Four years ago, Extension Master Gardeners came up with the idea of using a half-acre of land to raise produce for the “Plant a Row for the Hungry” program, which provides fresh produce for local shelters, food pantries and hunger programs.

However, five Master Gardeners who worked in the garden, which grew to an acre, found the job daunting. And while the program had good intentions, it did not really meet Extension’s mission of education, said Karen Neill, Guilford County horticulture agent.

So this summer, Master Gardeners decided to share the land — and spread out the work — by creating community gardens. The arrangement has created a sense of community among gardeners, allowing them to learn from each other and from Master Gardener Volunteers.

Now, said Neill, “The community garden provides education and helps the community where we live.”

Thirty-five subplots – 4 x 50 feet – were awarded to gardeners on a first-come-first-served basis for a fee of $15. The money raised provided seed and plants for the now-half-acre garden for the hungry. In addition, the community gardeners agreed to provide 10 percent of their harvest to the hunger programs.

The program has attracted gardeners with a wide range of experience and from a diverse range of cultures, generations and experience.

Before planting, they participate in work days, so they can learn from each other and from Master Gardeners who provide advice. Most of them work in their plots on Saturday mornings.

In addition, Neill promoted Successful Gardener’s “Be Healthy — Grow What You Eat” program among the community gardeners. The program teaches gardeners the benefits of eating fresh produce they grow themselves.

Amanda Mueller of Greensboro decided to became a community gardener after moving in October and not having time to develop a garden plot of her own before growing season. She and her son Roland spent a great deal of time in the garden this summer, tending corn, beans, tomatoes, peppers, radishes, watermelons and sunflowers.

Once week, a volunteer comes to pick up the produce from the community garden. Produce grown at the center, along with produce donated by other gardeners, is delivered to a local food pantry and several group homes and churches that provide regular meals for the community.

Master Gardener Joe Brown has been involved with Plant a Row for the Hungry for 10 years, starting first with a garden in his backyard. He usually works in the garden three weekdays and comes on Saturday mornings, when many of the community gardeners work, to help answer their questions. A beekeeper, Brown also helps maintain hives to pollinate the community garden.

He says the program is valuable in providing fresh food to those who need it. “To see the expression on faces when we come up with a bushel of tomatoes – it’s more than just canned food,” he said.

The garden has had much volunteer help. All community gardeners participated in two workdays to spread mulch before the growing season. A Boy Scout volunteer built a root-cellar to provide a cool place to store fresh produce until it is picked up.

Neill said it was important to provide a source of water for the community garden as well, which meant drilling a well. In recent years, Guilford has wavered between drought and an overabundance of rain.

So County Commissioner Billy Yow of D&Y Well Drilling donated drilling for the project, and the county health department provided parts and equipment. Master Gardeners had to spend only about $600 for the cost of the well, which provides water by hose. Neill hopes next year they can offer a drip irrigation system as well.

The community gardens are an extension of the way Guilford County’s Cooperative Extension staff has made use of its land. The center also has a Legacy Demonstration Garden, containing a butterfly garden, shade garden, native and tropical plant collection, along with a horticulture therapy garden and small fruit display, all maintained by Master Gardeners.

“There’s very little money invested for what’s out there,” Neill said. The gardens are used for youth camps, gardening lectures, garden clubs tours and even weddings.

With the help of a certified landscape architect, commercial horticulture agent Gary Bradley is developing a once-neglected spot near the center’s building as a training area for his “certified plantsman” program. Several years ago, he had to drive students in the program to Raleigh’s JC Raulston Arboretum to learn to identify plants needed for certification.

Now, many of the same plants are available – and labeled – for training right outside the building, and the garden continues to grow. Heavy rainfall last year destroyed some plants that are being replanted.

Local residents also can use the site to determine plants that might be right for their own landscape.

At the front of the center, agricultural agent Wick Wickliffe planted a demonstration area of tobacco, cotton, soybeans, corn and sunflowers this summer. Morris says many visitors to the center comment that they have never really seen these agricultural commodities up close.

Next year, Neill hopes to add 10 more community garden plots to involve more citizens in the project. “Community gardens are a place where people come together with similar interests,” Neill said. “They come together to learn and to share.”

—Natalie Hampton