Take a walk around Chicora Place Community Garden with self-described “vegetable librarian” Germaine Jenkins and you’ll get a quick lesson on plants that fertilize soil, attract pollinators and other beneficial insects and methods of permaculture.

In fact, ladybugs are scouring fresh growth of young plants in the greening garden, located on a former mobile home park site on a bend of Spruill Avenue.

Upon sitting down in a donated gazebo, the certified Master Gardener and owner of Urban Veggucation talks about monthly work gatherings, cookouts, people harvesting food on their own and even someone asking to hold a wedding in the garden.

Despite the fact that the garden is providing fresh, free produce to people living in what many call a “food desert,” far from sources of fresh produce, the 43-year-old wife and mother of two explains its reach goes even beyond food.

“I’m in this for relationship-building as much as growing vegetables. I think this is an anchor for positive change for the neighborhood,” says Jenkins. “This is not my garden. This is a garden which is here for anyone who lives, works or plays in this area of North Charleston to come and harvest what they will.”

“Besides food, it has energized folks. We’ll have volunteer groups come to help. The neighborhood holds cookouts during the work days,” she says. “That’s powerful because it’s more about the community as a whole and not having your own preferences influence the space.”

The garden, started in July 2011 on land purchased and provided by the city of North Charleston, is just the beginning of more green development of the land. In November, SelectHealth of South Carolina and AmeriHealth Mercy Foundation are putting a playground next to the garden.

Bill Stanfield, chief executive officer of the Metanoia Community Development Corp., knows Jenkins well, first through the organization helping her buy a home, then as a volunteer and now as a growing leader in the organization and North Charleston community.

“She’s already given back tenfold what she received from Metanoia. She’s got a deep commitment to the community and will be an asset for years to come,” says Stanfield.

Early influences

Born in Hartsville, Jenkins’ family moved to Cleveland when she was 3. And it was shortly thereafter that Jenkins traces the seeds of her love for food gardening.

“I think it started when I was 5. We lived in the city and we went out to the country to harvest all of the ingredients in a salad that we usually bought in bags. A light bulb went off way back then. I still remember standing on a chair and washing those greens, poorly washing those greens,” says Jenkins.

That seed for hands-on food gardening, as well social interaction, germinated when as a reserved 17-year-old the Rotary Club sent her to Brazil for an exchange program for 10 months.

“It had a major effect on me long-term. I was super-duper shy back then and almost didn’t get the opportunity. They didn’t think I would do well, but I got to go.”

“I went to Brazil and was on my own and immersed in the Brazilian culture, which I love. I got to know how it felt to be a stranger. Everyone was nice, but there’s a slight disconnect when you’re the new person. So now I always look for the person in a crowd who is alone or not represented.”

She noted, too, that in Brazil the trees provided free fruit for people to eat, a stark contrast to the United States, where often-planted ornamental trees “don’t work that way.”

“Exposure to Brazil opened up my taste buds and I really got into cooking as a result of that experience. Now I use that garden-to-kitchen experience in my house every day. ... We eat Brazilian and Indian food and sing Spanish songs.”

Growing pains

Learning came so easy for Jenkins that she didn’t have a discipline for studying when she went to Kenyon College, a small liberal arts college in central Ohio. She left college and went to work at Case Western Reserve Law School and had her first of two children.

By her mid-20s, all of her family had relocated to South Carolina. Initially, she didn’t follow them because she worried about the lack of job opportunities, but with a young daughter, Anika Hall, she eventually moved to Florence and started following her culinary interest.

That led to a move to Charleston to attend Johnson & Wales University, a culinary school that has since closed here. She earned degrees in baking and pastry, as well as food service management.

Because she had another child, Adrian Mack, caring for them and attending college led her to seek public housing, which she never envisioned as a long-term situation.

“I told my kids we’re going to move to a house and that house is going to have a garden in it. Fast forward and eight years it came true,” says Jenkins, who married Anthony Jenkins in 2007 — the same year she became a Master Gardener through Clemson Extension.

Paths converge

Those backgrounds in food preparation and gardening converged when she started working at the Lowcountry Food Bank and connecting with Metanoia.

“I would be working in the garden and so many adults would stop and talk to me. Many recalled talking about their experiences growing food as children,” she says, adding that work with Metanoia opened up the concept of “asset-based community development.”

That led to a school garden at the old Chicora Elementary School and eventually to a Metanoia grant to help start the Chicora Place Community Garden. Metanoia approached the city of North Charleston to put it on a portion of a former mobile home park site at Spruill and North Carolina avenues. The city had purchased it as a recreational space with “green belt” sales tax funds.

“We got the go-ahead to use a portion of it for a garden. That leads us up to today,” says Jenkins.

Amy Dabbs, urban horticulture extension agent at Clemson, knows Jenkins well through her years of working with Clemson Extension. Dabbs says Jenkins is employing a series of skills to help with the garden and to develop her own business, helping others to install home gardens.

Dabbs says Jenkins is a perfect example of someone “following their bliss.”

“She is showing people that they don’t have to drop a whole paycheck at (a supermarket) on fresh, organic food. You really can grow it on your own,” says Dabbs, noting Jenkins’ knowledge of permaculture, which optimizes natural systems for capturing elements needed for sustainable growing.

While Dabbs says that teaching people to grow food in their yards or community is “the ultimate in local food,” it serves another purpose.

“There’s a lot of healing that can take place in a garden,” says Dabbs. “What Germaine is doing is getting people involved in something positive instead of dwelling on their problems.”