Posts Tagged community gardens

Grateful for Plant-loving and Faith-filled Friends


I will admit to having an active imagination. When you combine that with a life-long obsession with the natural world and gardening, I occasionally am struck by big ideas – some might even say wild ideas – pun intended. I am currently deeply immersed in my biggest dream yet. My co-dreamers and I are calling it the Piedmont Patch Project.

If you’ve read my blog much – especially posts I do for Earth Day, you know that I worry about the future of native flora and fauna – world-wide and most definitely where I live in the Piedmont region of the southeastern US. Ecologists note increasing world-wide threats to biodiversity – the broad array of plant and animal species that comprise diverse ecosystems that feed our planet and impact our climate among other critical functions. To read more about my concerns, search my blog using the term “Earth Day.” However, today I don’t want to focus on my concerns; today I wish to thank my friends, both old and new.

Plant people are the driving forces behind most community gardens.

If you read my blog, you are likely a fellow plant-lover, and if you’ve been a member of that community for much time at all, I suspect you have already discovered the generosity of what I think of as Plant People – my people. We are easily identified. Our hands are rough and often dirty, our clothes are stained and perhaps punctured with holes made by brambles. We are known for stopping abruptly when we encounter a plant or animal we don’t immediately recognize. Many of us speak to each other in botanical Latin, because common names are too imprecise. Our hearts lighten and beat faster when we walk through a healthy ecosystem filled with bird song and blooms. Our cars are often dirty from hauling plants and tools. But above all these, one trait is universal among Plant People – their unfailing willingness to share their knowledge, their plants, and often, their help. Today as I dive into the Piedmont Patch Project, I am deeply grateful for these friends.

I have always considered Plant People to be people of deep faith. Whether they are members of an organized religion or not, they all possess an abiding faith in and love for the natural world. You don’t plant seeds in bare soil without faith. You don’t plant an oak sapling that won’t mature for 200 years without faith that that tree will serve diverse communities for future generations. Plant people are visionaries. I believe that this quality is responsible for the unanimous support I have received from everyone in this community who has heard about the Piedmont Patch Project. Like me, they can see the potential of this vision, this wild idea.

But without other people of faith, this vision might never have found a home. I am profoundly grateful for my friendship with the vicar of The Episcopal Church of the Advocate in Chapel Hill, NC. Without her enthusiasm and faith in this notion, the Piedmont Patch Project – which she named – would likely never have been conceptualized. Her faith and the faith of her congregation is even more impressive because I am not a member of this church, and, frankly, most of the members of this congregation are not Plant People – at least, not yet.

Episcopal Church of the Advocate’s historic chapel

I’m foggy on the details, but somehow The Episcopal Church of the Advocate ended up acquiring 15 acres in the northern edge of the rapidly urbanizing town of Chapel Hill. The land was a piece of an old farm. An older brick home where the farmer lived serves as their parish house. A 19th century historic chapel relocated from a piedmont town west of Chapel Hill serves as their church building. A small farm pond sits behind the buildings, and an even-aged pine forest towers behind the pond; furrowed ground between the pines confirms the land is former farmland.

When the vicar of this tiny parish realized my obsession and experience with the botanical world, she asked me to walk the land with her and help her identify and understand the plants growing on the grounds and around the pond, which is contained by an earthen dam about 100 yards long. I immediately began to see possibilities. As I described a growing vision for the front five acres beside the road, the vicar caught my enthusiasm. We began to devise a plan for restoring this land to native ecosystems typical of the area.

lake and dam looking north

A view of the pond and the earthen dam

I believe I was inspired by the church congregation’s vision for this land. They are working with Habitat for Humanity to build three tiny houses (called Pee Wee Homes) beside the pond that will provide homes for three older homeless men or women. Thus, they will soon provide sanctuary for homeless humans. It was a short leap from that notion to the idea that this church’s land could also serve as a sanctuary for native wildlife – a population being rapidly displaced and/or killed by the rapid urbanization occurring around the church.

The eradication of healthy native plant communities is making it difficult for wildlife to thrive.

In the North Carolina piedmont region, few large expanses of healthy native ecosystems (forests, fields, etc.) exist outside of conservation preserves due to the immense pressure of rampant urbanization. Even relatively small woodlots, which once bordered stretches of highways, are disappearing, replaced by strip malls, office complexes, and mile after mile of new suburbs. Most of these urbanized and suburbanized landscapes are denuded of their native ecosystems before the buildings go up. New “landscaping” is usually sparse, often non-native, and does not begin to support native wildlife (including especially insects).

In talking with the vicar of The Episcopal Church of the Advocate, I began to wonder: What if we could create patches of high-quality native vegetation in close enough proximity to each other to support native wildlife currently being threatened with displacement by urbanization? And what if we tried implementing this idea on the grounds of this church to serve as a demonstration of its viability?

Much to my delight, the vicar embraced this notion with enthusiasm, and Fortune smiled on us when we discovered that the National Episcopal Church was currently offering Stewardship of Creation grant funds to congregations with projects with positive environmental impacts and strong educational components. We wrote up our proposal and were overjoyed when we recently learned that this idea – the Piedmont Patch Project – was awarded funds!

The amount of planning and work to be done is, frankly, pretty overwhelming. That’s why I am so very grateful for all my Plant People friends who have stepped up already with advice, growing spaces, and plant materials. As word about this project continues to filter through this community, I continue to hear from more people. And I need the help of every one of them, especially with the acquisition of the many, many native plants we need to realize this vision. Most of the small grant award funds are designated for educational efforts. We hope to have the Web page up before the end of the year, and we are planning quarterly talks on relevant topics, work days, and the development of how-to videos and documents. The Web page will include a list of ways to help with the project, so if any of you blog readers out there are interested, check back here in a few weeks, when I should have a new post that includes the URL for the Piedmont Patch Project site.

Donated grasses that were planted on part of the earthen dam in July.

I am also profoundly grateful for the faith of the congregation of The Episcopal Church of the Advocate. They are small in number but mighty in impact. They are already showing up for work days and presentations eager to learn more about the native environment of the piedmont region. I think more than a few of these people of faith may well also become Plant People, and I think the world can always use more of those.

The ultimate goal of this project is for the Church of the Advocate to be Project #1. With faith and much help and the continuing smiling face of Fortune, we hope the Piedmont Patch Project will evolve into a small nonprofit organization devoted to educating folks on how to turn their urban and suburban landscapes into piedmont patches, sanctuaries for wildlife, cures for plant blindness and nature-deficit disorder, refuges for battered souls.

Episcopal Church of the Advocate volunteers planting donated grasses on a hot morning in late July.

Happy Thanksgiving!



Gardeners Feed the Hungry: Friends of CORA Garden

CORA garden and Carol We hear about it often these days — community food pantries in dire need of donations, due to increasing demand. In these United States, we have way too many hungry people — including an alarming number of children. That’s why I’m starting an occasional series on my blog: Gardeners Feed the Hungry. I’m hoping to feature gardeners across the southeastern Piedmont who are using their green thumbs to help fill hungry stomachs with fresh produce. The gardener walking through that immense (60′ x 60′), well-ordered garden in the photo above is Carol Newnam, the driving force behind a community garden about a mile from my home.

Most of one half of the garden.

Most of one half of the garden.

Carol was kind enough to allow me to visit this garden today and ask her about this project.  Like me, she’s been gardening for decades, but when her husband passed away, she found herself with a garden too large to manage by herself. She was already a volunteer at our county’s food pantry: Chatham Outreach Alliance (CORA). She noticed that although CORA received generous donations of slightly too old produce from local grocery stores and donations from local farms and a community garden, there was never as much fresh produce as there was demand for it. That’s why last year, Carol decided to dedicate half of her immense garden to growing food for CORA. Thus the Friends of CORA Garden was born.

Winter squashes

Winter squashes

Last year was the first year for this project; they donated over 800 pounds of fresh produce to the food pantry. That’s a lot of nutritious food for those in our community who may not have the funds to pay for many fresh vegetables. Carol even grows flowers she donates to the pantry, because she believes everyone should be able to brighten their homes with a little beauty — beauty they couldn’t afford on their own.

Carol at work.

Carol at work.

Carol’s garden is part of her five-acre spread, which is forested everywhere except where she’s growing food. She has fruit trees, an asparagus patch, grape arbors, giant blueberry bushes loaded with green fruit, patches of mint and other herbs and flowers — even a few chickens. I noticed that the dominant trees on her land are beautiful white oaks, which grow on hilltops in the Piedmont. As is usually the case, such land is rocky; I noticed large boulders on the edges of the cleared garden area. And Carol mentioned that when new areas are dug, rocks are always encountered.

Beautiful white oaks surround the garden space.

Beautiful white oaks surround the garden space.

Carol has been adding organic material — mostly leaves — to the garden beds for years, resulting in rich soil that clearly makes veggies very happy. This season, she’s growing lettuce (almost done now), beets, parsnips, tomatoes, peppers, pole beans, field peas, crowder peas, summer straight-neck squash, zucchini, winter squash, cucumbers, pumpkins, onions, garlic, okra, and gourds. Use of space is maximized by even growing vines on the fence that protects the garden from marauding deer. This year, they trained cucumbers onto the perimeter fence, only to discover that the deer were nibbling as much as they could from the outside. But Carol and her volunteers devised a clever solution.

Attaching spun garden cloth to the outside of the perimeter fence prevented deer from nibbling on the cucumbers.

Attaching spun garden cloth to the outside of the perimeter fence prevented deer from nibbling on the cucumbers.

Carol harvesting beets.

Carol harvesting beets.

Carol is a Master Gardener, which means she has gone through training provided by the NC Agricultural Extension Service. Her garden is not entirely organic, but the pesticides she uses are the least toxic options, and used only when hand-picking of problem insects is not sufficient.

Half-runner pole beans and assorted tomatoes.

Half-runner pole beans and assorted tomatoes.

Although you only see Carol in these photos, she was not alone when I visited. Two loyal volunteers were also there, inspecting squashes for squash bug eggs, weeding, and harvesting. Carol tells me she also has had the help of high school students fulfilling community service graduation requirements, and some of her fellow master gardeners also help out. I asked Carol what had surprised her most about this project. She replied that she’s been delighted by the reliable, loyal volunteers who keep returning week after week to help her fill the food pantry’s shelves — although, she says, she could use a few more helpers. Carol relies on proceeds from an annual plant sale and generous donations from the community to get the seeds and plants she needs for the garden. A local business gives her old seeds dated for the previous year. For most vegetables, year-old seed is still quite viable. You won’t get 100% germination, but you get enough to fill a garden — and the price is right.

Carol's tomato ties are pieces of cut-up fabric from old clothes.

Carol’s tomato ties are pieces of cut-up fabric from old clothes.

Community gardens such as the Friends of CORA Garden provide much-needed vegetables to food pantries, which in turn contribute to wider nutrition options for the hungry. They also provide opportunities for gardeners — some perhaps retired from maintaining their own gardens, but who still get the itch to dig in rich earth, to feel the sense of accomplishment from harvesting a well-formed zucchini, a fat purple beet, or a red, juicy tomato, knowing that a hungry soul will appreciate their efforts.

A row of summer squash

A row of summer squash

That’s the other thing that surprised Carol after she began this project — how often folks thank her — folks at CORA, and some of the hungry souls who rely on the food pantry to nourish their families. That appreciation helps fuel her resolve to keep the garden going.

If you’d like to volunteer

Carol not only oversees this impressive garden, she also writes a blog about it. If you’d like to help/volunteer at this garden, visit Friends of CORA Garden. Contact information can be found on the About the Garden link on her blog.

If you have a southeastern Piedmont community garden

If you are involved with a community garden that is feeding the hungry in your community, I’d love to hear from you. Please e-mail me at the address listed on the About page of my blog if you’d like me to feature your group’s efforts.

The Friends of CORA Garden Man

The Friends of CORA Garden Man

All gardeners who grow food know the satisfaction of feeding their families fresh, nutritious vegetables and fruits. Most of us have extras of something from time to time during the season. If you haven’t done so already, please make a call to your local food bank and ask them if they will accept donations from home gardeners. If the pantries have the facilities for storing fresh produce, they will almost certainly welcome any food donations you can offer. Given the rising numbers of hungry souls in this country, I encourage all my gardening brethren to share their bounty. Let’s all do our best to feed the hungry.

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Expanding Your Garden

Great Blue Heron about to take flight into the new year.

Great Blue Heron about to take flight into the new year.

The handsome creature above was kind enough to park itself on a large oak in our backyard on a cloudy New Year’s Day. Wonder Spouse grabbed my camera (it was closer) and managed to catch the Great Blue Heron just as it tensed before gliding down to the creek. As we can imagine the bird’s great wings expanding wide for flight, so can we imagine ways to expand our gardens.

Over the decades, I have become a more selective gardener. In early years, I planted any plant offered me, and rarely looked farther than my local stores for transplant possibilities. I am now much more selective, saving the diminishing choice spots in my yard for specimens like the Persian Ironwood (Parrotia persica) I’ve told you about before here.

In that post, I mentioned that I’d never seen my specimen bloom. Having read that the flowers are inconspicuous, I thought perhaps I’d overlooked them on my tree. But now I’m fairly certain that my tree had simply not bloomed for me — until now. Now all the upper branches are covered in fat flower buds just beginning to show hints of maroon petals within.

Those are all fat flower buds on the high branches.

Those are all fat flower buds on the high branches.

I finally found one bud within reach of my camera that was showing the color of the strappy petals.

Lower branches are still holding on to browned leaves, but the reddish tinge of flower petals is visible here.

Lower branches are still holding on to browned leaves, but the reddish tinge of flower petals is visible here.

The flowers are not showy, unlike the spectacular fall color display of the leaves. But their appearance expands the presence of this specimen tree, making it a magnificent year-round addition.

My garden expands as my transplants mature and prosper, but I have other ways to increase my garden’s presence in the world — by sharing it with others.

Like most gardeners, I’ve been giving away plants for many years. Some special plants just love to multiply, and it gives me great pleasure to share them. My shared wealth expands my garden’s reach to both ends of my home state and many points in between. I hear from the owners of those distant gardens when one of my garden babies blooms. It’s fun, for example, to hear whose daylily bloomed first and for how long.

It delights me to know that sometimes my garden expands itself by transferring the gardening bug to others. A housemate from graduate school — a city girl with no experience with the green world when we first met — told me years later that she plants a vegetable garden every year now. Working the garden with me — and tasting the results — persuaded her of the benefits of this pursuit. I am thrilled every time I manage to bring another soul over to the green side.

In recent years, I’ve expanded my garden in other ways. I grow extra vegetables each year, so that — weather and pests permitting — I can share them with friends and the local food bank. The Garden Writers Association sponsors a formal program to foster this idea. They call it Plant a Row for the Hungry.

You can do likewise in your garden. Or if you don’t have space for a food garden in your yard, consider helping with a community garden. The university in the town adjacent to mine runs a successful community garden program on campus. The bounty is shared with university staff and other community members who want to supplement their diets with fresh-grown produce.

And the land conservancy organization in my region supports what it calls the Local Farms and Food platform of their mission by allowing local food banks to operate community gardens on some of the arable lands being preserved by this organization. Arable land — an increasingly scarce commodity in my rapidly urbanizing area — is not just preserved, but put to its best use.

I’m sure my region isn’t the only place with such garden-expanding opportunities. If you are inclined to try expanding your garden in such ways, check with your local colleges, food banks, and land conservancy groups. If they aren’t already growing food to feed the hungry, maybe you can help get such a program started.

I also expand my garden by sharing it with friends who need a little extra beauty in their lives. Last year, I cleaned up and planted a tiny garden space at the home of a friend battling a major illness. Knowing she would be spending many days recuperating at home, I hoped that this small plot full of color would lift her spirits. Because she likes to cook, I also planted a pot full of culinary herbs that could sit on her patio, a few steps from her kitchen.

This year, another friend recovering from a major health challenge has a lovely empty garden space beside her new house. She is excited about planting this area with native flowers that will bloom enthusiastically and attract pollinators. I’ve begun potting up some of my garden multipliers for later spring transplanting to her new bed. And during yesterday’s absurdly mild weather here, I took cuttings of rosemary and Spanish lavender, placing them in a flat in my greenhouse. By the time spring arrives, they will be well-rooted and ready for new homes.

Rosemary and lavender cuttings will root easily in the greenhouse in a few weeks.

Rosemary and lavender cuttings will root easily in the greenhouse in a few weeks.

In my opinion, every southern Piedmont home should have a few rosemary shrubs growing nearby, for enhancing culinary masterpieces and inhaling their aromatically therapeutic properties.

As the years make my joints creakier, expanding my physical garden at home will likely become impractical. But I will always be able to expand my green world in these other ways.

As you readers of this blog plan your own spring and summer gardens this year, I encourage you to expand your thinking beyond your personal garden space. Whose life can you lighten by sharing your garden this year?


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