You may think the end of summer means a well-earned break from the fields and farms. But for community gardeners, both from Western North Carolina and across the state, autumn will be a time to share ideas, dream up innovations and prepare to do it all over again — which is why area growers will be assembling for the N.C. Community Garden Partners conference, taking place on Saturday, Oct. 25, at UNC Asheville.
NCCGP is a statewide organization, headquartered in Raleigh. It began in 2008 when agriculture specialists working with Cooperative Extension offices realized there was a need to coordinate efforts between community gardens, says Alison Duncan, community gardening coordinator with the extension office in Forsyth County.
“The gardens were generating a lot of interest and questions, so there was a need for an organization that would help them to network and have a stronger collective impact,” Duncan explains.
Duncan says the first NCCGP conference was a two-day workshop held in Forsyth County in 2012. But in 2013, the Cooperative Extension decided to turn the event into a full-fledged conference, which was held in Durham. Now the conference, as well as the meetings and workshops NCCGP holds throughout the year, moves across the state.
“We chose Asheville because we wanted to bring the conference to the western part of N.C.,” Duncan says. “But it’s also just a wonderful excuse for folks like me, in the flatlands, to go up to the mountains in autumn.”
Duncan says organizers are expecting the conference, called Growing Garden Connections, to be well-received in WNC, which she credits with having a strong interest in community gardening. This may not be surprising to those who know Asheville is home to active garden networks, such as Gardens That Give and Bountiful Cities, as well as numerous clubs, nonprofits and conferences focused on sustainable agriculture.
But Diana McCall, garden manager of the Dr. John Wilson Community Garden in Black Mountain and site coordinator for the NCCGP conference, says this event will be a unique experience, as it focuses less on horticulture and more on community-building.
“Here in Asheville we have the Organic Growers School and their conferences twice a year now — so if you want to know about homesteading projects and agriculture techniques, that’s a great place to go for it,” McCall explains. “But if you want to know how to community organize and learn from others, that’s the kind of thing that NCCGP is offering — how you can create partnerships, learn from each other and come together.”
McCall says the workshops and panels at the conference were coordinated by a committee that includes Lee Warren, executive director of the Organic Growers School, and Darcel Eddins, co-founder of Bountiful Cities. There will be a few classes focused on the “technical nuts and bolts of gardening” McCall says, but all other activities — including tours of local gardens — will emphasize approaches to organizing and engaging with the surrounding community. Slated speakers include organizers from local groups Asheville-Buncombe Food Policy Council, the Burton Street Community Peace Garden, Gardens that Give, Gardens United, Green Opportunities, Ujaama Freedom Market and several community gardens.
“You don’t necessarily have to be a community gardener to attend and get something out of these workshops,” McCall says. “You could be doing community organizing in another capacity and get something out of what these classes have to offer. Anyone interested in strengthening their ability to organize their community could benefit from hearing about and learning from these efforts.”
Duncan adds that community garden leaders from other parts of the state will also be speaking on issues such as urban farming, community engagement, creating inclusive and diverse membership for gardens and retaining volunteers.
“Obviously some gardening and horticulture issues aren’t going to be the same in climates in the mountains versus climates on the coastal plain,” Duncan says. “But community gardens are first and foremost about community-building, and the second piece is the gardening. At an event like this, you can learn about that process from other people who are leading similar efforts.”
The benefit of engaging with gardeners from throughout the state, Duncan says, is learning from people who may have new ideas for commonly encountered obstacles — from creating harmony among volunteers, to overcoming issues with ordinances that may prevent gardening in vacant lots or on-site composting, to finding better ways to get fresh produce to the people who need it.
“There’s a grassroots resurgence in bringing people together, building community and growing food,” Duncan adds. “When community gardens are united as one voice and can speak and advocate for themselves and each other, that’s when you can begin to see real change come about.”
NCCGP’s Growing Garden Connections conference will run from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 25, meeting in the Sherill Center at UNCA. Tickets are $15 for NCCGP members or $20 for non-members, and can be purchased through Eventbrite at avl.mx/0h6. For more information, visit nccgp.org or call 336-703-2859.