The Plots Thicken: Community Gardens are Cropping Up All Over Town

As the seeds of the local food movement take root, urban farmers are repurposing the fallow land of schoolyards, vacant lots and industrial areas into fertile fields of sustainable agriculture. From Sylvan Park to Antioch, North Nashville to Belle Meade, Nashvillians are staking out unexpected tracts of land on which to cultivate crops, as well as an understanding of nature and the environment. Some urban gardens supply produce for people with limited access to healthy food, while others provide an educational curriculum or anchor community-building efforts.

“Gardening is about more than feeding the hungry,” says Jim Myers, director of Community Food Advocates (CFA), an organization whose mission is to end hunger and create a healthy, just and sustainable food system. “It’s about getting back to the earth, being outside and understanding where food comes from.” CFA recently hosted Homegrown Healthy, a tour of more than two-dozen community gardens around the city.

At Perk Farm in the Chestnut Hill neighborhood, a partnership between Trevecca Nazarene University and Hands on Nashville oversees a garden in fields adjacent to the Perk Products industrial plant. Josh Corlew and Carlson Swafford, along with a corps of volunteers and students, man rows of corn, cabbage, popcorn, beans, broccoli, greens, peanuts and basil in a verdant field just two miles from the downtown core. “We’re trying to reclaim unused space that was just being mowed,” says Corlew.

Perk Farm will sell its crops to the organization that runs Trevecca’s cafeteria and is working on an arrangement to provide vegetables to Mobile Loaves & Fishes. The latter nonprofit organization, which delivers healthy meals to residents of the James A. Cayce Homes in East Nashville, among other recipients, also sources produce from similar community gardens on Wedgewood Avenue and at Woodmont Christian Church on Hillsboro Road.

In the planting beds of Chestnut Hill Community Garden, on First Avenue South behind Johnson School, neighbors come together to grow a diverse bounty of herbs and vegetables. Gardeners contribute $10 to reserve their own plots, and the garden is open to anyone. Surveying her fluffy beds of cabbage, eggplant, kale, okra and squash, Chestnut Hill resident Cassandra Finch describes a slaw she recently served at a neighborhood cookout. She says this year’s addition of an irrigation system has helped neighbors maintain interest in the garden project, even when spring showers gave way to summer drought and watering became a critical chore.

Choose a Champion
In conversations with community gardeners, one consistent theme emerges: For a community garden to succeed, there must be a committed individual or crew to shepherd the project through an entire growing season, from the early excitement of spring planting through the sweltering labors of summer maintenance. “Nobody has any idea how much work is involved,” says Nancy Stetten, a volunteer who manages the colorful garden at the front doors of Park Avenue Elementary.

Stetten and Carolyn James blend vegetables and flowers to grow a curriculum for their outdoor classroom. Over the last seven years, as teachers have become more familiar with the garden project, they have invited Stetten and James into the school — or led students into the garden, as the case may be.

A former employee of the State Department of Education, Stetten is exuberant about the opportunity to trade textbooks for hands-on learning tools such as seedpods, flowers, vegetables and honeybees. With the help of towering sunflowers, she teaches students the basics of selective breeding. (Every fall, when she tells the class to pick one sunflower’s seeds to save, they always choose the biggest one. “Aha! That’s how they got big,” she explains triumphantly.)

With the help of squash, beans and corn — the so-called Three Sisters of the garden — Stetten introduces students to the symbiosis in which corn provides a climbing pole for beans, beans replenish soil with nitrogen, squash vines suppress weeds, and the triangular relationship provides longtime fertility for the soil.

Pointing to a stand of corn growing by the front walk, Stetten describes an exercise she does with first-graders called “The Corn is as High as an Elephant’s Eye,” in which she introduces the basics of standard measurements. “We need standard measurements,” she says with a twinkle in her eye and an infectious enthusiasm in her voice, “because you can’t always get an elephant’s eye.”
 
Pictured: Nancy Setten, hard at work at Park Avenue Elementary (Photo by Jude Ferrera).
 
To learn how to volunteer in a community garden, contact Sizwe Herring at Community Food Advocates, 385-2286 x222 or sizwe@communityfoodadvocates.org.

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