A steady rain fell on a Saturday morning in March, and from where Lucinda MacKethan sat inside Raleigh’s Wesley Memorial UMC, she could watch the rain water the community garden she manages. This is a small church, with a regular congregation of about 30, and the handful of raised beds that make up the PLOW (Planting On Whitaker) garden fit snugly between the building and Whitaker Mill Road.
Yet this garden seems to be just the right size. Any larger, MacKethan says, and it would be tough to get enough water to keep it growing through the summer’s dry spells. There are three rain barrels, plus the church’s water, but not much potential for irrigation here – not with PLOW immediately boxed in by sidewalks, parking lots and a busy road. Yet there is plentiful sun here, and traffic on Whitaker Mill keeps unwanted animals out of the planters, she says positively.
And last year – PLOW’s first – the church grew and donated 300 pounds of produce from this humble plot.
“It doesn’t matter how big your garden is, especially if you’re doing it as a service,” says MacKethan.
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PLOW is only one type of community garden. There are school gardens and neighborhood gardens, too, with mission statements that range from education to philanthropy to sustenance. Some are well-established, like the Carrboro Community Garden, while others, like PLOW, are just getting started.
The way seeds, soil, water and sunlight interact is no different, really, in a community garden than in a personal garden. It’s in organization and purpose – and in their cooperative nature – that they’re distinct.
“I don’t think there’s a huge difference,” says Wake County cooperative extension horticulture agent Jeana Myers. “I think people just have to figure out what it is they want out of it.”
So when someone comes to her saying they want to start a community garden, she walks them through the essential questions: what is your goal? How will the garden be organized? Who will be making decisions? Do you have a good site? Usually it’s one person who reaches out to her office, Myers says. This person has a strong idea and the drive to implement it, but may not know what it means, commitment-wise, to bring it to life.
Myers doesn’t want potential community garden leaders to feel overwhelmed; even if they have limited gardening experience, they can still learn and succeed. The extension office has drafted a number of handouts and handbooks, some specific to community gardening, while Myers and the North Carolina Extension Master Gardener Volunteers – that is, the local Master Gardeners – work directly with people starting community gardens.
Myers helped with the early stages of PLOW, for instance. On top of that, the Master Gardeners are teaching a series of vegetable gardening basics classes at Wake County libraries.
“We get so many requests from people wanting to grow community gardens, school gardens and church gardens that rather than try to figure out what their needs are and meet those, we figured we’d try to schedule these classes and put some effort into that,” Myers says.
Another way newcomers learn is by showing up to work at an established community garden.
Saturdays are workdays at the Carrboro Community Garden, with a second workday during the week added between April and October. When Jeanette O’Connor opens the gate on a mid-March weekday, though, it’s empty of people. Plants are another story. It’s still before the last frost, but already she can rattle a whole host of expected plants off the top of her head. Asparagus, a perennial that takes a few years to establish, will come up shortly in a few marked beds. Then there are the usual suspects – tomatoes, lettuce, radishes, herbs – and a number of fruit trees, all ready for spring. People who want to participate can come work the garden as much or as little as their schedule allows.
“We don’t require you come for any amount of time,” O’Connor says. Some workdays, she says, there are 15 or 20 people. Sometimes there are three. These workdays can be learning experiences, too. After a year of these, a person with no gardening experience can learn enough to lead a workday – to be a “queen bee,” in the Carrboro Community Garden’s lingo.
Yet the goal here is different from PLOW’s: whereas the church garden donates its produce to Logan’s Garden Shop’s Plant a Row for the Hungry program (Interfaith Food Shuttle takes the food to people in need), Carrboro is more of a neighborhood effort.
“If you go away for a week, someone else waters your garden,” O’Connor says. “Or someone else weeds your garden.”
Here, people grow things that wouldn’t fit in their own yards, including hops at one point. It’s a communal effort, too, and the people who work in this garden contribute according to their strengths. One person loves to weed, while another enjoys building. O’Connor, whose Lands and Waters South nonprofit plants rain gardens and living classrooms at schools, contributes by her strengths, too, by incorporating pollinator-friendly plants into the garden.
MacKethan is planting these flowers as well. “We would like to get more children involved,” she says. “We’ve registered to be part of the urban pollinator program that Raleigh has.”
Put simply, children tend to love butterflies, so pollinator plants have gone in between the raised beds and the road. MacKethan’s dream is to turn the church’s playground, which is outdated and gets no use anyway, into a space for a children’s garden. As PLOW begins its second year, MacKethan certainly has ideas for the space’s potential – and a clear understanding of the work involved.
“We were incredibly successful in our first try,” she says. “The second I’m more nervous about. When you have a great success story in your first year, then the pressure’s really on, because you’re not quite the novice anymore.”
Ready, Garden, Grow classes
These three-hour classes by the Wake County Cooperative Extension Service teach vegetable gardening basics. The classes are free, but registration is required. A book covering the materials will be for sale at the end of each class.
West Regional Library: 1-4 p.m. April 1
Southeast Regional Library: 1-4 p.m. April 8
Northeast Regional Library: 1-4 p.m. April 8
Info: wake.ces.ncsu.edu or 919-250-1100
More on community gardens
PLOW (Planting on Whitaker) Community Garden
714 E Whitaker Mill Road, Raleigh
Carrboro Community Garden Coalition
1120 Hillsborough Road, Carrboro (in the MLK Jr Park)
North Carolina Community Garden Partners
A network of gardeners and supporters who share support, information and experience with new gardens and with each other.
CompostNow.org has a list of some community gardens in the Triangle.