Feeding body and soul

Leafy greens are collected by Fran Hummel.

Amid the close-set houses on Magnolia Road west of the Ashley comes a break just north of Sycamore Avenue. It’s a place that, if you drive slowly enough to notice, provides a moment of surprise and a reason to pause. It’s the Magnolia Community Garden, a series of orderly, rectangular garden boxes on a verdant property where people can grow their own vegetables and learn about good and sustainable horticultural practices.

One of a couple such places in the city, the community garden is part of a larger vision for a horticultural center that will unfold on the 3.7-acre piece of city property over the next few years.

Its purpose will be to teach sustainable horticulture in an urban setting. In the meantime, the community garden offers raised beds for individual rental and beds for group learning classes and activities.

Since its opening a year ago, the 60 beds available for public rental have nearly never been idle, and on a recent visit, the garden was nothing short of exuberant.

One could call it a growing success.

People come, they meet their neighbors, “and everyone feels the benefits of gardening,” said Leslie Wade, community garden coordinator for the Charleston Parks Conservancy, which manages the garden.

Her blue eyes caress the garden with pride, and with good reason. On a recent day it boasted herbs and kales, garlic and potatoes, cabbages and arugula. There were turnips, butter lettuces and squash, new tomato plants and eggplant, radishes, cauliflower and cucumber plants, strawberry plants and flowers. Some beds were overflowing with spring produce, others had budding new plants that will grow through summer.

Each garden bed, like paintings, seems to be the singular reflection of the individual gardener’s horticultural dream in the making: Missy’s full of stunning lettuces and more, Phillip’s replete with healthy spinach in need of picking, Katie’s with gargantuan parsley, and Ginny’s dominated by a gorgeous artichoke plant, like a sprawling spider, inherited from the plot’s previous lessor.

Some more adventurous, some showing greater expertise, some more lush and some less — each contributes to the footprint of beauty and harmonious endeavor that now distinguishes this property. Wade knows all the gardeners by name, and a bit of their life story, too.

“I love to answer their questions,” she said, “and to listen.”

Together with vegetables, the garden promotes sharing, a sense of community, amiability and a general sense of well-being. Wade said neighbors who had never met have gotten to know each other at the garden. People share tools and seeds; friendships are born, as well as healthier bodies and spirits.

“It gets people moving and stretching ... and little by little, their whole being feels better,” said Wade, who worked in therapeutic horticulture before joining the Charleston Parks Conservancy. The physical and mental health benefits of gardening are well known, and people from all walks of life seem to seek them out. Among the gardeners at Magnolia are parents of newborns and a chef who uses his produce in his restaurant. A man recently leased a garden bed as a gift for his fiancee. There are children, too.

“I love to see children in the garden,” said Wade, mentioning a child who generally refuses to eat his vegetables but will eat anything he grows in his garden box.

Gardening in a community setting inspires people to try new things, to reach beyond their presumed limits and to explore new possibilities, Wade said. Indeed, courage and increased self-confidence are among the benefits of gardening, as are the healing fresh air and the positive vibes.

Ida Spruill, a neighbor of the garden, watched it develop. She leased a raised bed at its opening, growing tomatoes, okra, bell peppers and herbs. She enjoys the walks to get there and the people she meets there over dirt and seeds.

“We just love to sit there and enjoy the whole ambiance of the garden,” said Spruill, who is on the faculty of the MUSC College of Nursing.

Then last October came a diagnosis of ovarian cancer, and the garden, though harder to tend to, became ever more important for her spiritual well-being.

“It’s therapeutic for me,” Spruill said. “On my good days, when I can, it’s good for me to go there. The sun, the birds — it’s calming. ... It contributes to the neighborhood and it helps me by giving me a project that I can do and see finished.”

She had harvested greens and kale that day. “I love to come back and cook things,” she said.

In addition to the raised beds available for lease for $50 a year, the garden features 16 larger community beds that Wade uses for teaching — anything from seeding, spacing, fertilizing and watering to plant cohabitation and controlling pests through companion planting. And, as often happens, gardens and things growing inspire creativity and a burgeoning of ideas.

On a recent day, Paul Wentz, the Parks Conservancy’s director of horticulture, was at the site erecting a greenhouse, 14 feet by 24 feet, that will be used to expand the garden’s community learning program. In addition, Wade has plans for walk-through trellises for vine vegetables and dreams of antique roses, blueberries, kiwis and blackberries growing on the fences surrounding the property. They are plants that will lure butterflies and bees. Soon she plans to incorporate classes on cooking and freezing produce. She said some people grow so much produce they don’t know what to do with it. With Charleston’s climate, they enjoy year-round gardening and several growing seasons, including tomatoes in summer and a second crop in the fall, too.

For now there is a waiting list for the beds and the first year has borne fruit: 1,100 pounds of vegetables that have gone to local shelters and food banks.

“I think the first year has accomplished what it was supposed to,” said Wade, smiling.