Barely three months ago, at the corner of Magnolia Road and Sycamore Avenue in West Ashley, sat a run-down piece of property in a neighborhood attempting a rebound. In a short amount of time, thanks to a mixture of rich topsoil and sweat, there are giant sunflowers and pound after pound of produce coming out of a newly created community vegetable garden.

The land was purchased by the Charleston Parks Conservancy and then donated to the city of Charleston. The 3.7 acres are now deeded to forever be a public park. But this place is far more than a place to sit on a bench or exercise the dog.

The conservancy's long-term vision is to create an urban horticulture center. For the moment, it's a vibrant green space that a couple of weeks ago produced 61 pounds of Red Thumb fingerling potatoes that were donated to the Lowcountry Food Bank.

This green space is attracting those with green thumbs but also many more who have never held a hoe.

The goal is to connect people with plants. If the right seeds are sown, people will connect with people. Judging just from the first couple of months, the idea is taking root.

Tomahto or tomato?

The community garden coordinator is Leslie Wade. A horticulturist by trade, she's worked in a prison, in a restaurant and on a farm teaching those who know little how to grow a lot.

Wade oversees both the Magnolia project, as well as the community garden downtown in Elliottborough.

The West Ashley experience has mushroomed, seemingly, overnight. Maybe the area was ripe for the picking, if you will? Maybe, though, it's just a good idea that allows people to make an investment in what they eat.

Here's how it works. There are 11 4-by-16-foot community garden beds. All that's gathered from these beds is donated to food banks, Jenkins Orphanage and other charities.

There are 60 4-by-8-foot leased beds that are purchased for $50/year. The produce and flowers in these beds belong to the gardener who leases it. They are responsible for the weeding, watering and gathering. The gardener also is free to do with its bounty what he or she desires.

Some of the leased beds belong to residents living nearby. Rhonda Kalil tried gardening in her Avondale home, but there was too much shade. On a recent morning, Kalil was gathering cherry tomatoes and okra and says she loves the whole community aspect of this project.

Meanwhile, Wade teaches free classes for any of the gardeners that want to learn about pesticides, compost or even the value of worms. For her, it's not the tomatoes or herbs or peppers that are flourishing, it's watching the plants bring the people together.

Thyme, opportunity

So far, very little vandalism has occurred. One day, Wade watched somebody cross the street and help themselves to some vegetables. She deftly explained the produce wasn't free, but if the person was willing to help her weed some of the boxes, she'd be willing to give her a few tomatoes.

A living fence will soon be erected and a small sign attached explaining for whom the garden grows.

Clemson's architectural class designed and built a garden pavilion on site. Inside this structure, there's a communal tool shed. The city also installed eight water spigots strategically placed near the various beds.

Giant sunflowers tower over the beans, onions and squash. But those giant flowers are there to attract bees, because every good garden needs pollen.

This is certainly a plan that has come together. The biggest windfall, though, is not a bountiful crop of colorful, nutritious vegetables. No, what makes this work most is watching these plants breathe life back into a community that's now talking and interacting with each other. That's fertile ground that figures to reap goodwill and understanding that, ideally, will never die on the vine.

Reach Warren Peper at 937-5577 or