Darcel Eddins reaches up into the sun-speckled branch of a low-hanging tree and plucks off two ripened, juicy yellow fruits. “These are called shiro plums,” she explains. “Would you like to try one?”
It’s an offer that’s hard to refuse, and one that Eddins, the co-founder of local nonprofit the Bountiful Cities Project, is intent on extending to as many Asheville communities as possible — even, and especially, the most urban of them.
The plums weren’t grown in an orchard or backyard, but rather in the George Washington Carver Edible Park, located on city-owned property just behind Stephens-Lee Recreation Center close to downtown. Open to the public for strolling and grazing, the park has a walkway that winds through fig, peach, plum, apple and mulberry trees. Started nearly eight years ago by the now-defunct local group City Seeds, it’s one of six urban-agriculture projects tended by Bountiful Cities, a 5-year-old, all-volunteer community-gardening organization.
“I do this because I’m interested in providing safety nets and solutions,” says Eddins, adding that most of the communities in which the group has set down roots are low-income. “And just so you know, we are not privileged people. Most of us [in Bountiful Cities] are impoverished ourselves.”
And while the volunteers may have little in the way of financial resources, she says, they’ve harvested a rich bounty of fruits, vegetables and herbs, fertilizing communities with homegrown hope along the way.
In its efforts to revitalize urban landscapes and foster neighborhood sustainability, Bountiful Cities is hardly alone. As part of a growing international movement, city residents are picking up shovels and breaking new ground in their communities. The American Community Gardening Association estimates that there are currently 18,000 such gardens in the United States and Canada.
Some urban gardens provide hundreds of families with fresh-grown vegetables, according to a 2002 report by the Community Food Security Coalition, a national association of community gardeners based in Venice, Calif. In Milwaukee, for example, one plot helps 350 low-income families offset their food costs by between $100 and $300 annually. In Philadelphia, one group of community gardeners reported an annual savings of $700 per family.
Asheville, meanwhile, has not only a number of presently flourishing urban gardens, but a fertile history of the same kind of agricultural activism, to boot. (See sidebar, “The MAGIC of Yesteryear”).
Don’t call it a fad
Eddins says that community gardens are about more than just urban beautification or activists digging around in the dirt for some cause of the moment. She ticks off a list of the gardens’ potential benefits: They can provide food security and fresh organic vegetables, build bridges in high-crime communities, and teach young people about food systems and nutrition — helping to alleviate child obesity along the way.
But this isn’t garden-variety social work, Eddins says. Bountiful Cities doesn’t simply go into a community and set up a garden as an outsider’s solution to neighborhood problems. “We are invited into every community we garden in,” she notes. “We want each garden to have its own autonomy and make its own decisions, because each garden belongs to its own community.”
To cite a recent example, South Asheville’s Shiloh neighborhood — one of Western North Carolina’s oldest continuously inhabited African-American communities — recently formed a partnership with Bountiful Cities. The idea was hatched a little over two years ago, when the Shiloh Community Association began discussing how to turn a then-empty lot into a local resource.
Eventually, the association decided to grow food there. At that point, the Shiloh organizers waded through the process of becoming an official nonprofit so that the property, which had been donated by a neighborhood resident, could be signed over to them. They also had to clear the lot of overgrown brambles. By the time they attained their nonprofit status and closed on the property in January 2006, their fruit-and-vegetable patch was already taking shape.
“It’s a beautiful garden,” says Norma Baynes, the neighborhood association’s liaison, who was born and raised in Shiloh. “And it’s teaching the children the importance of proper nutrition.” Neighborhood youth, Bountiful Cities volunteers and other area residents held a youth-volunteer day in April to plant tomatoes, cultivate five varieties of peppers and set up a worm-composting system. “What we would like next is to see a pavilion go in so people can come and sit under it on a picnic,” Baynes says, “just to sit and enjoy the Shiloh community.”
Of course, not everything at the site is coming up roses, and certain challenges remain. For example, the volunteers say, a lot of effort goes into cleaning up garbage that gets strewn upon the property.
Building the roots
The Shiloh garden is part of Bountiful Cities’ “Strong Roots Initiative,” an effort to develop youth-driven urban agriculture and increase food self-reliance in three locations: the Shiloh community and West Asheville’s Vance Elementary School and Burton Street neighborhood. “These communities are faced with lack of access to high quality fresh food, health problems, insecure employment and nonaffordable development,” Eddins says in explanation of why those areas were chosen.
Bridget O’Hara, co-president of the parent/teacher association at Vance Elementary, has excitement in her voice when she discusses the educational possibilities stemming from the school’s agriculture project — from snacking on popcorn that will be ready for harvest when the students return to school, to carving jack-o-lanterns from the yield of the pumpkin patch, to using gourds to make musical instruments.
“Our goal is for everything that we grow to be brought in for snacks and lunches,” O’Hara says. “And if we got to the point where we were producing so much that we couldn’t use it all, we could sell it back to the community as a fund-raiser.” The latter idea, she comments, would be a welcome (and healthy) change from the traditional peddling of candy bars to raise funds.
While many of the plans for Vance Elementary are still germinating, the school and Bountiful Cities have jointly applied for a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that could help bolster the program and integrate the garden plot with the students’ curriculum on a more permanent basis.
And while the Vance Elementary and Shiloh gardening projects are already underway, the foundation is just being laid for another one at the Burton Street Community Center.
“The kids are way, way excited,” says Laurie Newman, a volunteer at the center. She’s already taking the young people over to a nearby “peace garden” started by neighborhood residents, where they sample vegetables and learn that some bugs are good for the garden. “When they go out and pick veggies themselves, they get excited about eating healthy foods that they otherwise might never try,” she notes.
The vision at that space is to utilize an unused basketball court for growing squash, potatoes, berries and the like. The building that houses the Community Center was once an African-American high school, Newman points out, and she likes the idea of acknowledging that history by infusing the old court with something green and growing. Decision-making on what exactly will happen there is in the hands of the Burton Street Community Center advisory board.
“Holding the space”
The flagship Bountiful Cities garden is on Pearson Drive in Asheville’s Montford neighborhood. It’s the longest-standing community garden in town, pre-dating the organization itself. Originally maintained by MAGIC (Mountain Area Gardeners in Communities), a community-gardening program that began in 1982, the roughly two-acre property was purchased by Bountiful Cities in 2003. The space, which is mainly used for educational purposes, is farmed using the principles of permaculture, an approach to agriculture that emphasizes sustainability by reducing outside inputs and recycling onsite resources — for example by composting food leftovers to be returned to the soil.
Unconventional-looking structures line the property. There’s a composting toilet with earthen walls and a sod roof, a cob shelter with a fire-heated bread oven inside, and a shed that houses the organization’s tiny office. The gardeners also have beehives, a compost system and sprawling plans for terraced grapes.
Bountiful Cities maintains a volunteer list of about 200 interested people, but mostly a core of about 20 turn out on a regular basis to tend the various plots and programs, with the most time and attention being devoted to the Pearson garden.
“It’s hard at times — most of us have fulltime jobs and other commitments,” says Terri Norwood, one of Bountiful Cities’ five board members. For now, the group’s main funding sources are an annual birdhouse auction and a letter-writing campaign, which together yield just enough money to pay the mortgage on the Montford garden. The rest of the resources are donated along the way, and all of the work is done on a volunteer basis.
According to Norwood, the lack of a few key resources stands in the way of Bountiful Cities producing enough to begin offseting communities’ food costs in a significant way. Namely, what’s needed is more time, more money and a truck. “But we’re holding the vision, and we’re holding the space,” she says. “And so the potential is enormous.”
Holding the space, it turns out, is one of the main challenges faced by community gardeners. The largest urban-community garden in the United States, located in South Central Los Angeles, was recently flattened by bulldozers because the farmers didn’t own the land they worked. In mid-June, the 14-acre, decade-old agricultural plot was cleared after the property owner evicted the farmers in order to erect a warehouse. Situated in the heart of a multicultural neighborhood where most windows are barred and a decent wage is hard to come by, the garden had provided food for more than 300 families. Local activists and celebrity agitators like Willie Nelson, Darryl Hannah, Joan Baez and Julia “Butterfly” Hill came to the garden’s defense, but after a showdown between the LAPD and the South Central Farmers, arrests were made and the gardeners were evicted.
The news hit home for Bountiful Cities organizers. “We make sure the property is secured for that very reason,” Eddins says of the L.A. incident. “Even if you’ve just put two years of work, that’s two years of love and attention that you’ve invested there. And these gardens can really provide a safety net for families.”
The Bountiful Cities Project holds work days at the Pearson garden on Friday mornings and Wednesday afternoons. To find out how to get involved, visit www.bountifulcitiesproject.org.