Two short years ago, the backyard of Waynesville’s Grace Church in the Mountains was basically just grass, save for a single container bed at the top of the hill.
These days, the view is quite different. Six long container beds stretch out along the slope from the road to the church’s back door. A scaffolding that held a tent of beans during the warmer months stands to the side, and at the bottom of the hill is yet another group of raised beds, built high at the end of a flat walkway so that people with mobility issues can still access and enjoy them. There’s a toolshed, a gaggle of scarecrows and two in-ground beds dug directly into the land.
Two years have passed since developers first got approval to build a student housing complex along South Painter Road in Cullowhee, though not a shovel of earth was ever turned. But the stalled project could move forward this summer if a handful of Jackson County boards give approval.
Adam Bigelow bears down on the gas pedal of his biodiesel-fueled Jetta, urging it up the steep contours of the Blue Ridge Parkway in search of higher ground. It’s a gardener’s car, through-and-through, the dash covered with dried plant parts, the floorboards papered with garden-related fliers and catalogues.
The only thing that’s missing is a live plant, and even that’s not too far-flung a reality. It wasn’t that long ago, Bigelow recalls, that he looked down from his seat to see a little pea plant growing up, apparently having received just the right amount of water from some mysterious source to take root in the car.
While sunlight, water and good soil may seem a simple enough equation for getting a plant from seed to fruit, like anything it becomes a lot more complicated when people are involved.
During the past decade, community gardens have been sprouting up across Western North Carolina — from Canton to Cherokee to Sylva. Churches and charity organizations use them as a supply of produce to feed the needy; schools use them as places to teach kids about agriculture and plants; and gardeners use them as social gathering spots and as a source of healthy food.
In Sylva, the buy local mantra is being reinterpreted as grow your own.
Volunteers at the Community Table, a nonprofit that provides free, nutritious meals to anyone who needs them, helped to create the Sylva Community Garden six years ago as a way to supplement the kitchen’s supply of food.
The demand for free meals has increased dramatically over the 10 years the Community Table has been in existence, and consequently, so has the need for fresh vegetables. Last year, the Community Table provided an average of 40 meals per night. This year, the number is closer to 120.
For Kevin Hughes, kitchen manager and volunteer coordinator, ramping up the effort to feed more hungry bellies is all in a day’s work.
“It means getting here earlier in the morning to prepare, a lot more food, and a lot more volunteer hours,” said Hughes.
The mission of the Sylva Community Garden is community service. Using a 1/3-acre plot owned by Dr. Gwang Han, the garden provides a common space for local organic gardeners to ply their trade and at the same time provide food for local families that need it.
Over the past three months, 71 volunteers have worked the 20 plots that make up the garden. The individuals that maintain the plots put in countless hours cultivating food. Half of what they grow must be donated to the Community Table or other organizations that feed hungry people.
For Ann Tiner, who helps coordinate volunteers in the garden and serves on the Community Table steering committee, the result of the two organizations working together is amazing.
“I think it’s a magic show to watch these guys come into this tiny little kitchen and provide this delicious food,” Tiner said. “It’s fresh and it’s like you’re in a restaurant and you can just choose what sounds good to you.”
There is nothing institutional about the Community Table. People who come are given a choice of food and sit at common tables in a cozy room that feels like a tavern.
Likewise, there is nothing institutional about the Sylva Community Garden. It’s a loose collective of volunteers who grow what they want to eat. As the demand for fresh produce at the Community Table has grown, Tiner and Hughes have had to work harder to coordinate the harvesting, processing, and storage of the food the garden produces.
“A little sack of lettuce doesn’t really help,” said Tiner.
In addition, farmers and gardeners from the surrounding area make frequent contributions to the Community Table.
Hughes came in one day last August and found 500 pounds of fresh produce waiting for him on the doorstep. To him, dealing with the fresh produce may be challenging, but it’s also the point of his job.
“Seasonally, you come to expect things, but there’s always the surprise aspect of what’s coming in from local farmers and gardens,” Hughes said.
This year, St. John’s Episcopal Church and First Citizen’s Bank have collaborated to plant a vegetable garden in a plot behind the church. Tiner, a parishioner, and Patty Curtis, the pastor, are working hard in the garden to produce food that will end up at the Community Table.
Hughes loves working with local, organically grown food.
“It’s fantastic because our mission statement is to provide a nutritious meal,” Hughes said. “The fresh produce we are getting doesn’t have any pesticides, it’s not genetically modified, and it’s just that much better.”
Tiner said finding a way to bring the food from the community’s garden to its table is about more than having fresh produce. It’s about communicating the message that we are all responsible for our land and for each other.
“As much as the growth of the food is important, it is also about education and making people aware,” Tiner said. “I still fight the notion that this is a luxury. This is how it’s supposed to be. It goes back to the way things used to be.”