Five years ago, a large lot at the dead end of Romney Street was overgrown, poorly lit and susceptible to illegal dumping.
That was when six teenagers at the nearby New Israel Reformed Episcopal Church, which owned the lot, decided to give back to the community and embarked on the creation of an urban garden.
“They wanted a place to bring the community together and a place to simply relax,” recalls Edelle Gailliard, who worked closely with the youths, five of whom are now in college.
At the same time, the Historic Charleston Foundation, which had recently completed rehabilitations of two historic freedman’s cottages at 159 and 218 Romney, also had noticed the state of the nearby lot and had asked city officials about it. The city connected the nonprofit, which provided the “seed money” for the project, with Gaillard.
The resulting collaboration between the foundation and New Israel has resulted in a complete transformation of the property into a cheerful oasis of nature — the Romney Urban Garden, or RUG — with garden beds, blackberry vines, a beehive, cob oven, colorful picnic tables, tool shed and compost pile.
On Sunday, from 5-8 p.m., the groups, along with the California-based Southern Sampler Artists Colony, will celebrate the transformation with a Community Jubilee, with live music, poetry, story-telling, free pizza, hot dogs, s’mores and soft drinks at the garden, 222 Romney.
The event also will feature the addition of a new “bottle tree” and a heart-pine bench carved into the shape of a butterfly.
The public is invited to attend, but urged to find parking at nearby lots along Upper King Street or ride bikes to the event.
Historic Charleston Foundation President Winslow Hastie says the project exceeded expectations.
“It was our initial hope that the Romney Urban Garden would become a beautiful and inspiring gathering space, enjoyed by neighbors and community members,” says Hastie. “That it has taken a life of its own and is attracting the attention of people outside of the community who want to support the garden and its purpose is incredibly rewarding.”
Prior to the Jubilee, Susan McAdoo of the Music Café in Charleston will perform “Songs of Life,” a classical music concert from 4-5 p.m. Sunday at New Israel. While the concert is free, donations will be accepted to help restore the church’s Steinway D piano and raise money for music events at the church.
The celebration is just the latest layer of love visited upon the site.
April Wood, the foundation’s manager of easements and technical outreach, says before any work got started, designs were drawn up.
Wood said the foundation hired Elizabeth Beak, who at the time had a local consulting business, to guide the design and creation of the garden, which took “countless Saturdays and evenings" clearing the lot and setting up the elements.
Among the early collaborators was Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, which donated perimeter plants and picnic tables.
Since that early work, some of the notable additions, which many urban gardens and farms don’t have, is a cob pizza oven that was built during a workshop led by local architect April McGill.
Also, the nonprofit Enough Pie, which focuses on the upper peninsula, connected the project with mosaic artist Meryl Weber, who turned a plain cinderblock wall into a massive mosaic featuring the sprawling arms of a live oak tree. Weber also created a mosaic on the base of the oven and a mosaic hopscotch grid.
Neighbor Tracey Pickard designed and, with the help of Eric Doran, built an arched gateway using recycled garden implements, such as trowels, clippers and shovel heads.
More recently, The Bee Cause provided a grant to establish an observation bee hive with Susan McAdoo serving as the “bee advocate.” And Julia Martin of Julia Martin Architect donated design services for a bee enclosure.
“The relationship between the foundation, the church and the neighborhood has been rewarding and I expect that we will all be working together many years to come to make RUG even more part of the community, for which it is intended,” Wood says.