Growing strong: Urban gardening offers much more than produce

Though perhaps better known for its spot atop lists of America’s fattest cities, Memphis is gaining traction as a whole-hog participant in a healthier trend: community gardening.  Every garden has a story. Meet some of the folks getting their hands dirty. 
Doubters made it known early on: They didn’t expect the Washington Bottoms Garden to amount to much. After all, many of the project’s roughly 10 founders were homeless.

“They didn’t think we’d follow through, or (they thought) we just wouldn’t succeed, or that we’d be run off or get bulldozed,” recalled one founding volunteer. People who have experienced homelessness often face stereotyping and low expectations, she said, asking to be identified in this article only as J.

But this group was too excited by the idea of a garden to be daunted.

So in the summer of 2013 – on the abandoned, rubble-laden site of a demolished nursing home at Court Avenue and Watkins Street - they started planting.

Their story is one of many that lie behind a recent surge in community gardens. Schools, churches, neighborhoods and nonprofits across Memphis praise the trend for encouraging better nutrition. But the benefits don’t stop there.
Just ask the folks out there getting their hands dirty.

The prospect of a garden in Washington Bottoms first came up during a meeting of a group called HOPE, or Homeless Organizing for Power & Equality. What began as a conversation about how hard it was to find affordable, healthy food led to an invigorating plan of action.

At first, the group had only makeshift tools. They used broken chunks of plastic tied to sticks for digging, and lugged in water with whatever containers they could find.

Bit by bit, as their flowers and herbs and fruits and vegetables grew, so did support for the effort.
Less than two years ago, the lot at Court Avenue and Watkins Street was full of shoulder-high weeds and the rubble of a demolished nursing home. Today it’s the Washington Bottoms Garden, a thriving source of sustenance and pride for a group of homele
Neighbors around the lot, which spans about an acre and a half, started shouting encouragement when they walked by. Some asked to add their own plots. One even let the group start running hoses to the garden from a household water line.
Another boost came in the form of a grant from GrowMemphis to pay for better supplies and training. An anonymous donor added a gift of $2,000. And inspired volunteers have come from as far away as Purdue University in Indiana to pitch in with the core group.

It hasn’t been easy.

Picking countless squash bugs off plants has stained garden members’ skin with what they took to calling “Garden Stank Henna.” Thieving birds threatened berry crops, until the team learned to tie old CDs to the bushes and scare the birds away with their own reflection.

Ongoing challenges include figuring out a way to make the garden fully accessible to members who use a wheelchair.

But the garden has succeeded in becoming a source of sustenance and pride, as well as a site for community gatherings. And along the way, J. said, all but two of the original 10 founders have transitioned into housing.

“I think that we've come so far with so much space in such a short amount of time that, without even meaning to, we've sort of commanded this second opinion about homelessness,” she said.

“We're your neighbors. We're people just like you. We realize the interconnectivity of all life. We may not have a place to stay at the moment but we want a better world for all and we're not afraid to get our hands dirty and sweat making it happen. In fact, we enjoy it and would love for you to join us.”

The need for affordable, nutritious food is great in Memphis, where many areas – particularly low-income areas – qualify as "food deserts." That means residents lack a full-service supermarket within walking distance and, in many cases, don’t have a car. The void is seen as a driver of obesity and disease.

But what many today see as an obvious answer took time to catch on.  

Alcine Arnett, a board member of the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center, is hailed as the figure who got things started. In 2001, she proposed a community garden as a project that could bring together youths and senior citizens in her neighborhood of Orange Mound.

In 2007, the Center built on Arnett’s idea, launching a program called GrowMemphis to support the Orange Mound Community Garden’s continued success, and to help two gardens in other parts of Memphis to follow its example.

Like the Washington Bottoms Garden, GrowMemphis encountered its share of naysayers.

“I think at first there was just a lot of, ‘Oh, this is just a fad, and it will go away,’” said Ashley Atkins, GrowMemphis’ garden program manager.  “But the demand and desire to start gardens is only growing – at an extreme pace.”

GrowMemphis, which became an independent nonprofit in 2012, has built its network of gardens from three to 35, including eight gardens added in 2014 alone. That counts only the gardens that have received financial assistance. The organization is also an educational resource and advocate for anyone who gardens.

One of Memphis’ most enduring community gardens is in the Binghampton neighborhood. Aptly named McMerton Gardens, it sits at the corner of North Merton Street and McAdoo Avenue.

“I can’t think of a more efficient way to bring people together,” said Carl Awsumb, a retired architect who co-founded McMerton in 2007. 
McMerton Gardens’ organizers pay kids who volunteer there out of the income that comes from selling produce at Farmer’s Markets. As with any job, it tells the kids their work is worth something. But it’s not the best part.
Growing up with gardens made Awsumb a lifelong believer in the common good they can help to foster. His earliest childhood memory is of pulling what felt like an enormous carrot from the sandy soil of a victory garden in his family’s backyard as a toddler during World War II.

But it was a news article on violent crime that fired his belief into a passion. The article focused on how people in Memphis were responding to an alarming murder rate.

“It dealt strictly with people buying firearms and going out to the firing range and stuff like that,” Awsumb recalled. “I was just horrified.”

Part of the response, he felt, should be crime-preventing outreach – efforts to build hope, self-esteem and community pride in at-risk areas. He thought a garden would be ideal for that purpose. So he went on a hunt for available land and found it in Binghampton with help from co-founders Billy Vaughn and Jeff Irwin.

McMerton has a core group of adult volunteers who come from all over town to help maintain the garden, which spans about an acre of active beds over multiple lots, a couple of days a week. But the most fun happens on Saturdays, when kids from the neighborhood come to learn the difference between a weed and a carrot top, sample figs off the vine – and earn a little money.

Garden organizers pay the kids out of the income from selling produce at Farmer’s Markets. And the money matters, Awsumb noted. As with any job, it tells the kids their work is worth something.

But it’s not the best part.

“There’s something about putting your hands in the dirt with a lot of other people,” Awsumb said. “It slows things down, and you start to feel a sense of pride that you’re growing something together. There are comments like, ‘Gosh, that’s really beautiful,’ and ‘I bet that’s gonna taste good.’ I don’t care what race or age you are or how much money you have. You feel it."

When Dolores Briggs started the Eleanor Roosevelt Memorial Garden at Douglass High School in 2008, she knew only a tiny bit about the work ahead of her.

“My folks had a garden, but all I did was drop a seed when my daddy dug a hole,” Briggs said, laughing about how much she has had to learn.

Something she knew quite well, however, was Douglass.

The school, where Briggs graduated in the ’60s, had just reopened after being closed for 27 years. She returned to teach 12th-grade English.

While she was at it, she founded a garden club as an extracurricular activity – to teach a little history.

 “The school has a history, and I wanted to leave a legacy,” she said. “The kids coming up had no idea that Eleanor Roosevelt had visited the Douglass High School campus back in 1936.”

Those days were well before Briggs was born, but stories were handed down, and she had studied up.

What she learned is that the Douglass community, where her grandparents lived, was famous for its gardens. Out of about 800 residents, an estimated 700 gardened. They raised their food, canned it and gave one out of every six cans to the school to feed the children.

“Eleanor Roosevelt heard about this little – well, what were we called then? Colored? Negro? Or whatever. She heard about this community that was self-sufficient during the Depression.”

After the first lady’s visit, during which her photo was snapped outside what was then a one-room wooden schoolhouse, she wrote about the gardens in her daybook. By some accounts, Roosevelt’s positive impression of Douglass helped to inspire the victory gardens of World War II.

Briggs no longer teaches English at Douglass, but she’s there every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon with the garden club. Each year, the club attracts about five enthusiastic members, at least one of whom has gone on to study agricultural engineering in college.

“So we’re planting seeds,” Briggs said. “In more ways than one.”

Want to get Involved?
Start a Garden
GrowMemphis will accept applications for 2015 grants until Jan. 2 Learn more here.

Join a Garden
GrowMemphis’ new Food Landscape Map makes it easier than ever to find gardens and related organizations near you. The map is crowd-sourced, so you can also add information about groups that haven’t been listed yet.



Read more articles by Amy French.

Amy French is a Memphis-born freelance writer and communication consultant who got her start as an award-winning journalist for The Huntsville Times in Alabama and The Charlotte Observer in North Carolina.
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