Why I grow: Growing community in the garden

Living a dream: The Cullowhee Community Garden was initially established through a grant from Eat Smart, Move More that provided resources including a solar-powered irrigation pump. Garden manager Adam Bigelow says the garden will continue to grow as a hub of outdoor-based education and cooperation for WCU and the surrounding community. Photo by Carrie Eidson

In our new feature, area growers introduce their gardens. This week Adam Bigelow tells us about the Cullowhee Community Garden in Jackson County.

Mountain Xpress: Tell us about your garden.
Adam Bigelow:
The Cullowhee Community Garden is an organic garden that gives. We use an allotment model where volunteers adopt a plot and donate half their produce into our local food relief systems.  We grow for the The Community Table in Sylva, United Christian Ministries, Vecinos (who provide food relief and other services to our Hispanic communities) and The Market (a discount food store in Cullowhee).

We are located in Jackson County on 1.2 acres near the Tuckaseegee River and Western Carolina University, along Cullowhee Creek. We have two federally designated wetlands on-site, a creek and beautiful native wildflowers, shrubs and trees all throughout the property.

The garden is a project of the Jackson County Department of Public Health and was started in 2013 through a community grant from Eat Smart, Move More. We are supported by Nourishing North Carolina, Jackson County Parks and Recreation, Western Carolina University and many local residents and businesses.

What do you grow?

Our garden members grow a great diversity of crops and rotations in their plots. We are also planting over 80 different fruit-bearing shrubs, trees and vines around the garden, in the style of a food forest. We have multiple varieties of apples, peaches, plums and pears — plus some less common plants like elderberry, persimmon, paw-paw, choke-berry (which is actually delicious) and wild raisin. I’m inspired by the idea of a grand European boulevard — but rows of edible crops lined with fruit-bearing trees.

We see you have many community partners. Can you tell us about the work you do with other organizations?

We are a member of Gardens That Give of WNC, a group of gardens that works across WNC to feed people and foster community development. We are also an educational garden, and we work with WCU’s Service Learning Department and HIGHTS, a nonprofit organization for area youth.

Last season, over 50 volunteers from HIGHTS, a local church and WCU worked together to construct our “ability garden,” a raised bed that allows people with different challenges, such as mobility and stamina, to garden without having to stoop all the way to the ground. We hope our partnerships will allow us to create garden areas that are fully ADA-accessible in the near future.

Our garden is also part of a planned shared-use park that will serve as the trailhead and facilities for the Jackson County Greenway. The trails will make the garden walking-accessible from WCU, to encourage student participation. Our vision is to be a garden-based, environmental education site for elementary though college students. We plan to have a children’s play area, outdoor class space and a bog garden with informational plaques about the plants of our native wetlands.

Why is community gardening your passion?

I first joined the Sylva Community Garden nine seasons ago, while I was a student of horticulture at Haywood Community College, and my life was transformed by the work and experience. I believe that community gardens can grow local resilience, friendships, connectivity and partnerships. Community gardens don’t just grow food — they also help to grow community.

I’ve been envisioning this garden for years. Every moment I’m here is like living a dream.

How can the public get involved with the Cullowhee garden and other community gardens?

Throughout the year, we have plot adoptions and volunteer workdays on Wednesday evenings and Saturday mornings. Special workdays can also be arranged. We also graciously accept donations of money, equipment and materials.

But if you aren’t near Cullowhee, no matter where you live you can look for a community garden near you — be it at a park, church, school or in a neighborhood. There is always a good chance that a garden is just waiting for your help! To find a community garden in your area you can contact Gardens That Give of WNC (at avl.mx/04y) and the North Carolina Community Garden Partners (at nccgp.org).

Adam Bigelow is a botanical consultant, a North Carolina Community Garden Partners board member and the garden manager at the Cullowhee Community Garden. For more information on the Cullowhee garden email thecullowheecommunitygarden@gmail.com, or call the Jackson County Department of Public Health at 586-8994.


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About Carrie Eidson
Multimedia journalist and Green Scene editor at Mountain Xpress. Part-time Twitterer @mxenv but also reachable at ceidson@mountainx.com. Follow me @carrieeidson

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