Partnerships making Swannanoa ‘giving garden’ thrive

Margaret Hurt
Special to The Black Mountain News

Sandy Drake and Maureen Dillow have worked hard to plant seeds of growth at the Swannanoa Community Garden, a two-year-old “giving garden” on Clover Lane off Lake Eden Road.

Coordinators of the garden, one of several projects by FANS (Friends and Neighbors of Swannanoa), they are seeing the garden project grow. Also growing is the interest their family members have in the project that the two women started.

The mission of FANS ( is to strengthen the Swannanoa Valley community by engaging in activities that encourage participation and cooperation. Drake, newly retired, grew a plot in the first community garden that FANS established on Lanier Lane in the Grovemont area. She noticed that some plot owners didn’t harvest their produce, letting it go to waste. So she began looking for food banks and pantries willing take the food. Looking for a meaningful way to invest in her community, she explored the possibility of creating a “giving garden.”

After 14 months of planning, the Swannanoa Community Garden was established on Clover Lane on a piece of state-owned land managed by Buncombe County. Having grown up around gardens and farming, Drake and Dillow wanted to share their passion for gardening and pass it along to future generations like they had received it. Drake’s father was a master gardener and farmer; her family sold eggs and farmed cattle.

The garden she and Dillow established developed quickly. In 2014, gardeners grew 750 pounds of produce to give away. In 2015, they grew more than 800 pounds. The gardeners partnered with Swannanoa Welcome Table’s weekly food pantry and Bounty & Soul, a fresh-produce outreach program based in Black Mountain. The partnerships are helping ensure healthy food is available to residents across the Swannanoa Valley on a weekly basis.

One of the Drake and Dillow’s greatest joys has been sharing their passion for gardening with their grandchildren - seven kids between them, ranging in age from 9 years old to not yet in school.

“We each really want to pass this skill to the next generation and help them have a way to grow food for their own families as they get older,” Drake said. Throughout the year, the two women take the grandchildren to the garden to work, picnic, play and explore the grounds. Dillow is putting her many years as an elementary school teacher to use by teaching them about plants and their growth cycle. The two gardeners hope to expose more children from the community to the garden, inspiring them to start a garden at home.

The Swannanoa Community Garden is part of the WNC Gardens That Give Alliance. Representatives of the near two dozen “giving gardens” gather quarterly to exchange ideas and tour each others’ gardens (other member gardens in the area are the Dr. John Wilson Community Garden and the community garden at Black Mountain Home for Children).

In large part, the Swannanoa garden’s success has been because of partnerships with community groups. A steady flow of volunteers has come from Warren Wilson College, Ridgecrest Conference Center, Camp Rockmont for Boys, Owen High School and The Learning Community School. Volunteers prepare soil, plant, weed, harvest, compost and clean up, Drake said. They’ve built new beds. (Volunteer groups, usually one or two dozen in size, are invited to help - contact Drake at 581-9020 or sandyjean51@gmail. com; contact her also if your group needs fresh produce.)

During the heaviest part of the garden’s growing season (May-September), volunteers harvest and prepared food for donations daily. Primary crops include lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, beans, peas, potatoes, blackberries and orchard applies. Volunteer Jeff Dektor rebuilt and reinforced a donated hoop house that was damaged by recent high winds.