A Little Garden Fosters Big Community
by Charron Andrews with Nancy Corson Carter
As is often the case, projects begin with one particular dreamer. There’d been a few who tossed around ideas for a community garden for the (PCUSA) in Chapel Hill, NC, but in 2018 Charron Andrews dreamed one into reality. The fact that she’d had little previous gardening experience didn’t matter. She received a grant from the Orange County Extension Service to community gardens, and CREW, or Church of Reconciliation Elliott Woods Community Garden, was born. That led to gathering people at the church (fondly known as “the Rec”) and neighboring Elliott Woods Apartments (linked to the church by land-sharing) to figure out where the garden would be located, how it would get built, and what its purpose and goals would be.
Simple goals were established: to provide an opportunity to grow food, to show people how amazing that process could be, and to provide fresh produce for folks in the community. A basic rule was to show kindness to the living world around it (probably a fence, but no toxic weed control) and hospitality to whoever came to visit.
The only reliable and available water source was at the church near the courtyard quadrangle, so the plots began there. The garden’s first real shaping came when ten to twelve people came out for a work day to build four raised boxes. These were made from boards milled by Craig DeBussey, a skilled Rec carpenter, from trees taken down to build the church’s fellowship hall. Soil and compost were added. In fall and winter of 2019 and 2020 more helpers constructed a fence from bamboo poles and donated fencing. Bit by bit plants, compost, a wheelbarrow, and other garden supplies came from sources like church members’ home gardens and the Briggs Avenue Community garden in Durham. A church neighbor, Vanessa Wood, supplied drip irrigation. A thrown-away composter in decent shape was pressed into service.
Then in March of 2020 the Coronavirus hit and most everything closed down. Charron remembers that the garden began to really come together during that summer when she, Marty Probst, and Chris Lunsford from Elliott Woods worked when most people were staying home, and the church property was very quiet. Within the fenced area they tried out lots of different vegetables and grew herbs and flowers needing protection from deer. They made a storage cabinet for the nearby porch on the side of our parish house. Best of all for community purposes, they set out garden furniture donated by friends. With indoor restrictions due to COVID, the porch was well-used in 2020-21. If you walked by on any given day, you might see a woman reading with some students from Elliott Woods, a small committee meeting in progress, or our pastor meeting with a member of the congregation.
In winter of 2020-21 seeds were started in mini greenhouses of plastic milk jugs. (Such improvisational creativity flourishes in this garden!) In spring 2021 these and other plants were placed in the soil, and we expanded the fenced-in area to grow melons and cantaloupes at the request of some Elliott Woods residents. That led to applying for and receiving two more small grants (about $300 each) from the Orange County Extension Office to replace fences needing repair.
While the garden has grown to fill much of the once all-grass quadrangle, there was still enough green space for the Brassissimo! group to play for Easter Sunrise service, and for various other events in that area. The Earth Care Committee met there for a Summer Solstice gathering to tell Native American and Celtic stories, and to dance the grieving-gladdening Elm Dance that Joanna Macy brought back from the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl. A Carolina Garden Coaching leader, Tionniaya Liske, came to talk about gardening with young people; her visit gave valuable information and prompted attendees to tell their own garden stories. One small group came in the summer to listen to live music.
At the same time workers grew food. There were huge okra plants and a bounty of green peppers that Chris Lunsford planted. Other vegetables included Malabar spinach, tomatoes, eggplant, ground cherries, squash, and more flowers and herbs. Basil was a favorite that congregation members were encouraged to gather for themselves. There was even a little free produce stand placed next to the Little Free Library on Elliott Woods Road (on the other side of the parish house) where vegetables were offered to passersby.
Charron says that the garden “certainly has been a source of God’s love and care for me,” and others seem to have that same sense. Working there during late warm afternoons, she might meet school children taking a short cut to the apartments behind the church property. One middle-school boy liked to stop to observe the bees and the flowers growing, more than once announcing, “I love this garden!” Noting a woman who frequently came to sit on the porch and read with one of the children from the apartments, Charron asked if they’d like to plant something. They chose a baby watermelon that grew plump with sweetness, and a moonflower vine that later decorated the fence with its exotic evening blooms.
When another woman learned of the small community garden at the church and what it meant for Charron during the pandemic, she came over to see it and fell in love. It reminded her of her own growing-up story that included living on a small farm. She wanted to get her hands in the soil but had trouble reaching down to the raised beds. Charron constructed a small waist-high box from supplies at hand and labeled it “Joyce’s Garden.” She was delighted to be able to plant her own lettuce and greens. Now, in wintertime, Joyce reports that she often dreams about the garden.
In this winter of 2021-22 a variety of plants are readying for spring. The coming of a new pastor, Rev. Allen Brimer, who is also a farmer, is an encouraging sign for new and continuing uses of the garden and its surroundings at the Church of Reconciliation. We may repeat our 2017 celebration of the Jewish “Birthday [or New Year] of the Trees,” Tu B’Shevat, by planting another fig tree. Possibilities of working with a property-wide planting plan are in the wind.
One of the highlights in the garden’s life has been in celebrating rituals of blessing. Most recently we used Interfaith Power & Light’s Garden Blessing materials from their week-long program “Sacred Ground: Cultivating Connections: Food, Faith, and Climate,” April 16-25, 2021l. Words (lightly edited) from the opening of this IPL blessing give a sense of what it means when A Little Garden and Its Communities Help Grow Each Other:
Holy God: Gathered to bless our gardens, we ask that their fruits nourish their communities and restore justice to all…. Bless the workers of our gardens, that they may enjoy community amongst themselves and the plants—and with all their neighbors—and find spiritual sustenance in those connections…. We give our most heartfelt thanks for the blessings we receive from our gardens.”
Charron Andrews is an artist and physical therapist.
Nancy Corson Carter is a writer and professor emerita of humanities at Eckerd College. Her most recent book is A GREEN BOUGH: POEMS FOR RENEWAL (2019).