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Gardening for and as a community

Nothing tastes like a still-warm from the sun, freshly picked beefsteak tomato. It’s juicy, red and taste like, well, a tomato.

It’s hard to get that deep flavor from fruit plucked off the vine while still hard and shipped across country or continents, and sold offseason in local grocery stores.

Many area residents plant tomatoes and other vegetables annually. Others grow vegetables and fruits with the intention of sharing the harvest with the community. Still others, those who lack room in their yards, set up in a community garden.

According to the American Community Gardening Association (ACGA) [], headquartered in College Park, Ga., community gardens provide catalysts for social interaction; beautifies neighborhoods; encourages self-reliance; conserves resources and sustainability; and reduces a family’s food budget.

The growing movement to create urban farms and community gardens is evident locally. In Porterdale, people come together to work plots in a community garden behind City Hall. In Covington, kids are learning where food comes from, how to prepare it and how to preserve it. And in nearby unincorporated Rockdale County, members of St. Pius Catholic Church have grown a ministry that gives the produce they grow to the local food pantry.

Learning about food

Last year, when Bill Hooson and Andrew Norman approached Bea Jackson Project Thrive’s proposal to build raised garden beds on the Washington Street Community Center’s [] grounds, the board and strategic planning committee members were thrilled.

“We thought it was neat because it encompassed the citizens in the area,” said Jackson, Executive Director of the center. “We reached out to the community to see who might be interested in this [project] teaching kids about food and healthy eating.”

Hooson, a retired YMCA executive, said the idea for Project Thrive came after he read an article about, Ceres [], a Northern California program that works with communities to raise healthy food for people dealing with illnesses such as cancer.

“All the food was organically grown, and they involved teenagers in the growing and preparation of it,” he said. “I thought let’s see what I can do to work with a pilot project [like that]. “W e believe there’s all kind of space right here in Newton County [and] we think it would be great to have community organizations, churches, homeowner associations to be able to put a community gardens.”

Hooson said he and Norman had the expertise to teach people how to build garden spaces, plant, tend and harvest plants, and prepare and preserve the bounty.

Over the next year, Project Thrive and Washington Street Community Center raised money to start the project. At the community center, Jackson said, the children were taught about biology and eco-systems, learning about photosynthesis and how plants grow.

Learning about growing food is important, Hooson said. “Kids don’t know where their food comes from. They can’t identify that eggs come from a chicken, bread comes from wheat, milk from cows.

f“It’s important that if we’re going to change this sense of buying everything in the stores to you can grow foods and prepare them yourself,” he said.

Once the center agreed to host the pilot project, the group spent a year raising money “to build eight four-foot-by-eight-foot raised beds at Washington Street,” Hooson said. “It cost around $1,500 to $2,000.”

Volunteers from the community and nearby businesses joined Hooson and Norman to clear out spaces and build the new beds. The following weekend, Jackson said, soil and manure filled the beds.

“The next step was to get the kids involved,” Jackson said. “The kids helped plant the beds. They learned about garden care and what it takes to grow food.”

Since planting the seeds, the children have tended, weeded, watered and checked for pests in the garden.
“Right now, the garden is looking lush and beautiful,” said Jackson. “We anticipate it won’t be long before we can harvest some of the crops.”

Norman will step in and teach the kids how to preserve and prepare the harvest. The culmination of the project will be feeding the community, Jackson said. The children and their families as well as people living in the community will be invited to a meal at the center. Produce that is leftover will be distributed to those in need in the neighborhood.

“It’s not [about just] cooking one big meal, though,” Norman said. “The food [from the garden] continues to come, so they’re going to learn how to pickle and can, to preserve these foods for future meals. Then, it will be given [to] people in the community that need a good solid meal.”

That, he says, is the mission of Project Thrive. Children will learn “they can made a difference in their community instead of feeling hopelessness,” he said. “There’s a skill set that comes from knowing how to plant and maintain a garden that will stay with them. It gives people a little bit of hope to have children come in and learn there is something they can do [to help]

“There’s no better feeling then walking into someone’s house with a meal,” he said.

The Washington Street Community Center is located at 4138 School Street in Covington. For information about the center and it’s work, visit its Facebook page

Gardening side-by-side

For a $30 deposit, any resident of Porterdale can rent a garden bed behind city hall. The deposit is returned when the garden is cleaned out and ready for the next gardener.

A collaboration of Newton County Cooperative Extension Service and Master Gardeners, Hands on Newton/NCCP, and the City of Porterdale, the Newton County Community Garden in Porterdale was established in 2010. Managed by resident Candace Hassen, the garden has 56 beds, most four-foot-by-eight-foot. Currently, there is space available for new gardeners.

While most of the gardeners are growing food for themselves, extra produce is donated to Council Member Linda Finger for CARE, a community organization that helps the less fortunate.

However, Hassen said, “Most of us are not expert gardeners. These are small plots and generally there’s not a lot excess. Most of the people who garden really are more interested in the better quality of produce, rather than save money.”
The community garden began because many of the yards in Porterdale are small or too shady. “I like having a shady yard,” said Hassen. “It keeps the temeprature down, but edibles like full sun. They don’t like shade or partial shade.”
Some of the gardeners come from the Loft condos and don’t have access to land. Others are people who just want to be involved in the community, she said.

“Gardens build relationships,” Hassen said. “It’s just another way to get to know people. We have one gardener who just moved here; several joined when they came to Porterdale as a way to get to know each other.

“It’s just a little bit of a community involvement, a way to get together and enjoy some nice produce you’ve grown yourself,” she said. “It’s fun to go to a community dinner and say, oh, those cucumbers I grew myself.”

There are other advantages of a community garden. Sometimes, she said, anyone with extra seeds will swap them with another gardener or, if they’ve purchased six packs of vegetables, they will give away the plants they haven’t used.
“If you’re going out of town, or going in vacation, you call another gardener and have them water your plot,” Hassen said. “We do have a few community plants, like sunflowers and a couple of berry bushes. we take turns watering.

When harvested, the sunflower seeds are salted and roasted, then packaged. They are then distributed during the annual Porterdale Christmas parade.

“I always get a big kick out of passing out the sunflower seeds,” Hassen said. “Just like anything else, it’s a good way to connect with other people.”

Twice a year, the gardeners gather for a community dinner. “We encourage people to bring things grown in the garden,” she said.

They also host an ice cream social in the summer.

“There’s a lot of pride in watching things grow, and knowing that what you’re planting, you’re eating,” Hassen said.
She said she’s also proud of being part of the larger community in Porterdale. Things like the community garden are an example of the city’s efforts “to make Porterdale a good place to live. We’re part of the group of positive things that are happening in Porterdale, part of the effort to improve the quality of life here.

“[The garden] is another way to get together with your neighbors,” Hassen said.

A ministry of growing and feeding

When Father John Keiran, formerly a horticulturalist in Ireland, came to St. Pius Catholic Church in Conyers, he brought with him a love of gardening. During his tenure serving the church, parishioners created meditation gardens and walking paths on the church property. Most of the plantings are flowers, shrubs and herbs mentioned in the Bible or symbolic of a biblical story.

But this year, a new garden was built, extending the church’s garden ministry []. Member Ray Supple, Jr., was inspired by the St. Brendan Community Garden in Cummings, Ga. Mimi Soileau, 85, who oversees the gardens at the church, agreed it was a great idea.

“Our purpose is to offer food to help the needy,” she told the church’s newsletter editor. “We will be supplying fresh product to our St. Vincent de Paul Food Pantry, Rockdale Emergency Relief Services, the Senior Senter, and possible the Monastery.”

The first step, she said, was to call for support, both financially and in volunteer help. The call was answered quickly, bringing in enough donations to build 15 raised 12-feet-by-3-feet beds. A irrigation system was also installed. Donations and volunteer will continue to keep the vegetable garden growing, Soileau said.

“This was a big investment, but it’s a long term investment,” she said. “We won’t have those big expenses any more, but year-to-year, we’ll provide soil, seeds and fertilizer.”

The garden beds are currently producing cucumbers, squash, three kinds of peppers, and tomatoes, she said. Over the last three or four weeks, cool weather crops like cauliflower, broccoli and kale have been harvested, but “most are finished now. We’ve replanted things like okra, green beans, Southern peas. It’s really productive.”

Because most food pantries don’t have a way to keep fresh food safely, food given out is usually nonperishable. But St. Vincent de Paul is able to give out fresh produce because volunteers show up at the St. Pius garden to harvest crops by 8:30 a.m., and delivering it to the pantry on the days its open.

Soileau said growing vegetables to be given to the hungry is an act of faith. “It’s one of the things we’re called to do—feed the hungry and take care of the poor.

“It’s growing very well and we’re proud of it,” she said.