Relationships grow in local community gardens

Barbara Hootman

A lot of people just can't wait to dig in the dirt at the first hint of spring. There is no better place than the local community garden to exercise a rite of spring -gardening. Today more people want to grow their own fresh food than ever before.

Diana McCall has managed the Dr. John Wilson Community Garden in Black Mountain since 2005. Wilson, a retired pediatrician approaching his 100th birthday, has a passion for gardening. He started the community garden in 2004 when he requested from the town a place for people to grow food for themselves and for those in need. The town gave him 1.25 acres, and 12 people rented land from the town's Recreation and Parks Department.

Wilson had enough land not rented in the first garden to allow him to grow produce to donate to those in need of food. Volunteers from Warren Wilson College, the Learning Community School, and the community helped him as he dedicated 40-50 hours of his own time each week. The first garden produced almost 1,000 pounds of fresh produce, all donated to local food centers. The garden is at 99 White Pine Drive, off Blue Ridge Road.

"The community garden has developed, with Diana McCall's guidance and hard work, into what I envisioned when it started," he said. "Most of my gardening now is done with the help of Yoni Klein, a neighbor."

"Dr. Wilson's original mission of providing land for folks to grow their own food, to educate them about gardening and food production, and to share the harvest, is still the same one we manage the garden by today," McCall said. She called the garden "the leading garden of its type in the area" and said it serves as a model for others interested in establishing similar gardens.

"We donated between 3,000-4,000 pounds of produce last year," she said. Volunteers put in about 2,000 hours yearly, she said. Currently, seven members of Warren Wilson College's cycling team are putting the early spring garden in the ground. The community garden concentrates on growing greens because they are loaded with nutrients and supplied by few other sources.

"MANNA FoodBank provides plenty of root vegetables, but the greens deteriorate too rapidly for MANNA to handle them," McCall said, an assertion that MANNA verified. "We donate to Bounty & Soul locally (each gardener donates 10 percent of their harvest), and it distributes to area people in need of food," McCall said. "People are more receptive to eating greens than in the past, because through food preparation education they have learned how nutrient-rich they are."

The garden started this season on Feb. 19 when McCall picked up plant starts grown and donated to the community garden by a commercial grower in the Mills River area. The greens should be ready to harvest the first week of April.

"One volunteer helped me plant two 400-square-foot beds. It didn't take as long as you might think. Of course, we cover the beds at night, and uncover them the next morning, until the weather warms. We will have a second session of spring garden and will plant during the last two weeks of April. It will be ready to harvest just before we plant the summer garden between May 15-June 1."

The summer garden includes beans, eggplant, squash, potatoes tomatoes and other good foods.

The Dr. John Wilson Community Garden is a multipurpose resource for the Black Mountain community. It focuses on educating people of all ages about growing food, preparing and preserving it. But there's more than that.

"One of my favorite memories is of E.V. Gouge, who is now in his 80s, working in the garden," McCall said. "He no longer gardens and says what he misses most is the sense of community that he had with others in the garden."

The community garden receives donated mulch, horse manure for fertilizer and has a large composting program. It also collects rain, because there is a large area to water. Organic gardening practices are used. The plots are not tilled.

"Tilling causes the dirt to compact and create a hard pan," McCall said. "We turn the earth including the weeds and add compost. Our philosophy is to disturb the earth as little as possible."

There are 70 gardening plots, with only three remaining for rent as of last week. Full plots - 400 square feet - are $35 , and half plots are $20. McCall recommends people new to gardening start with half a plot. People who don't want a plot can still volunteer.

Other Valley community gardens

Carver Community Garden; call 669-2052.

Swannanoa Community Garden, call 318-5685.