William Clayton is a strong believer in community gardens. The former Johnston County 4-H agent began establishing gardens in local schools when he retired about 20 years ago.
The Clayton resident hopes his latest project, at the First Missionary Baptist Church in Smithfield, will reach the rest of the community, both old and young.
The garden is open to community members who want to pick their own vegetables, but Clayton said he also wants more volunteers. He’s always seen gardening as a relaxing activity, and he wants to share it with other people.
“It’s kind of a therapy-type thing,” he said. “You have a chance to watch that seed germinate and plants grow. And no two days are alike.”
Rev. Sterling Freeman said the garden is also a way to bring people together. Neighbors come out to pick the garden’s squash, tomatoes, broccoli and cauliflower, then stay to socialize and keep each other company.
“People come by now just to talk,” he said. “It’s a barrier breaker.”
Clayton and Freeman began talking about the garden about two years ago, but Clayton couldn’t get it off the ground until last year. It began with about 150 plants on a plot across the street from the church. This year, the church sponsored the garden and was able to double the number of plants. Freeman said he sees it as a “multidimensional asset” – a source of healthy food and a center of the community.
Clayton has been working with a core group of volunteers, most of whom are veterans. He wasn’t looking for veterans specifically, but he said it has been a good match.
When he worked with kids, Clayton used gardens as a way to instill patience and discipline – two qualities many former military members have. That makes them good volunteers, he said.
“Agriculture is good for discipline,” he said. “Things don’t just happen overnight. You have to wait.”
The four of them – Clayton, Clemmon Harris of Selma, Paul Ingram of Smithfield and Vertis Richardson – served in different eras, but they share a bond common to all veterans. The garden gives them a shared purpose and provides an opportunity to strengthen that bond.
“We have a chance to get together,” Clayton said. “There’s a relationship veterans have that you don’t have among most people.”
Like a lot of older county residents, Clayton and Richardson grew up working outside, so the garden gives them a way to reconnect with their childhood.
“I was raised on a farm, so it was natural for me to get out there in the soil again,” Richardson said.
Clayton wants to expand the garden, but he’s not sure he’ll be able to rent the nearby land needed for an expansion. Ultimately, the group hopes the community project will inspire neighbors to start their own gardens. Clayton is talking with the others about the possibility of workshops that would teach residents to grow their own vegetables.
Freeman said he hopes to see five or six more gardens pop up around the neighborhood, which is less than a mile from downtown Smithfield.
“It would be kind of a dream if people duplicated this,” he said. “The vision would be to feed everybody.”