Growing gardeners: Community plots teach how to plant, tend, harvest
Everyone who has turned a little earth starts thinking about fresh vegetables now.
The farmers markets are about to rev up, and that means it's time for warm weather vegetables to go in -- tomatoes, cucumbers, squash and corn.
That starts me thinking about what a garden means, and how important those community gardens are as we linger in this recession.
A community garden is no more than a small plot of land where people share responsibility for raising their own food and is a great way to bring a community together. Pulling weeds with your next-door neighbor can bring out a grimace and a smile. Kids learn that you don't have to go to the grocery store to buy a tomato, and maybe even a lesson or two about the life cycle of the earth and how it relates to our community.
So it's no wonder that it was thrilling to learn about some projects that are going strong, and a new one in the works.
One project that is doing great work is the Charleston Children's Garden Project, which has year-round gardens in at-risk schools. Executive Director Darlena Goodwin says that she has worked with community gardens and was a schoolteacher. She realized that she could teach kids about life and extend their classroom lessons through the planting, tending and harvesting of a garden. Her project works with teachers weekly to see how, for instance, a lesson about tribal life translates into dividing up the harvest so everyone in the small community of the classroom gets a fair reward for the work.
Last week, the students at Stono Park Elementary School harvested the last of the cool season greens. They talked about dirt after one child complained about not wanting to get her fingers messy. Goodwin explained that farmers wash dirt off the vegetables before they get to the store, which is why vegetables are cleaner there, but then were taught about how to wash the greens in their kitchen sink.
Goodwin's project has created a booklet drawn by second-graders at Sanders-Clyde Elementary School about chronicling how their garden was put together and the fun they learned from it.
A new ambitious project is in West Ashley with the Charleston Parks Conservancy. The conservancy wants to build not only a community garden but eventually a full-fledged urban horticultural center on 2.7 acres at Sycamore and Magnolia roads.
While the center may be years away, Jim Martin, executive director of the conservancy, said there were plenty of ideas at a recent meeting. They wanted raised beds, vegetable gardens, composting bins, irrigation and a place for gardeners to teach those who are unfamiliar with the whole process. They also wanted a place where children with special needs could come and enjoy the activity.
A design firm will lay out the area, and plans are for a fall garden if the funds can be raised, Martin said.
"We want to show people what it takes to get food to your table. It's a long process, and it helps to show people how important that process is to us."
Martin has traveled extensively and has seen what other cities are doing with their gardens, and he hopes to translate those ideas here.
He already has helped with Elliottborough Park, which went vertical last year with the help of Clemson architecture students. They figured out how to screen the garden from the traffic and add more gardening space to a small plot of land. So far, the new garden has been planted, although it's not at the stage yet where it needs daily effort.
Another type of community garden is the educational one at St. James-Santee Family Health Center in McClellanville. Doctors there spend a lot of time telling patients that they need to eat healthier, but the nearest grocery store is 30 miles away. So last year, the clinic started a community garden behind the facility, and they are planting again this year. It took about $300 in seed money to get it going, a modest expense when it showed patients that they could raise good produce in their own backyards. Good vegetables are the building blocks of a healthy diet.
Myra Pinckney, the nurse case manager, said they gave away about 60 care bags of food to families that had a diabetes issue, hoping that the fresh food would inspire them to eat better.
It also brought patients to the clinic just to see how the garden was going.
"As the patients came in, they just helped themselves. We loved it."
And in North Charleston, the community gardens that were started last fall are waiting for their spring seedlings to get started, and volunteers plan to plant them soon. These gardens are being planted in areas of town called "food deserts" where there is no major grocery store.
The idea is that anyone in the neighborhood who needs a vegetable for supper can just go down to the garden and pick something.
While the different gardens take work and commitment to start, they are sustained by lots of helping hands.
Martin says he usually expects that a garden will serve people who live within a 10-minute walk.
Goodwin says she serves schools for three years to create a self-sustaining program that is much bigger than a garden.
Both of these programs operate on grants and donors, so there's more than one way help your neighbors.
Also, the Charleston Parks Conservancy will offer help to anyone who wants to start a community garden.