Lucille Nelson says her job is equal parts teacher and student.
“It feels more like a community management position,” says the manager of the Dr. John Wilson Community Garden in Black Mountain. “I’m learning so much about gardening as I’m doing this job. A lot of what I do is teaching people who have never gardened before how to hold a shovel, how to touch the soil and how to discern one plant from the other plant. And also creating events and connections with people and community partners.”
The Dr. John Wilson Community Garden began in 2004 when the town of Black Mountain allocated space in recognition of Wilson’s community gardening efforts. Starting with 12 gardeners working on 30 plots, the garden itself has expanded to an acre with over 100 plot renters, a sizable garden specifically to grow produce to give away and 85 volunteers. Overall, the grounds sprawl over 6 acres. Last year, more than 5,000 pounds of produce was donated to Bounty and Soul, a local nonprofit that provides fresh produce and wellness education.
Maggie Schlubach, a volunteer for the past 15 years, visits each Monday to tend to the dedicated donation plots. She says, “It’s my happy place.”
Nelson took over the manager position this year after Diana McCall stepped down after 18 years. She interned with McCall in 2018. “Working with Diana seeded my love for the plants, working in the soil, getting outside and gardening,” she says. Nelson took a couple of agriculture classes and worked at Gaining Ground Farm in Leicester in 2019 and ’20.
Xpress joined Nelson in the spring sunshine to discuss biodiversity, the food donation system and what makes this garden a community.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
Xpress: How does this community garden promote biodiversity?
The simplest piece is that we’re an organic garden, so we’re not using any harmful pesticides that kill off life. We have pollinator gardens. We try to promote native plants. We have multiple projects where we’re removing invasive species so they don’t take over and become a monospecies area. We have bluebird boxes and native beehives.
There’s also a cultural layer that I feel is very important in this garden, where we’re teaching people how to recognize biodiversity and how to connect with it. We’re teaching volunteers who have never gardened before how to discern one plant from the other plant. So many people have never had somebody sit down with them and say, “Look how this leaf grows differently than that leaf.” When you get people in here to see beyond the wall of green, they see this plant is an individual. And next to it is another individual. And they grow and react differently. Helping spread that consciousness into the community is a really big piece of promoting biodiversity. When more people connect with that, they care more. There’s an energetic communion. The more people understand and see the plants, biodiversity and the world around them that we’ve been so disconnected from, that will encourage biodiversity to grow.
Tell me about the food donation system.
These donation beds [29 beds, most of which measure 4 feet by 50 feet] are grown exclusively for Bounty and Soul using volunteer labor. This is where I spend most of my time. The rest of the garden is rented by individual community members. Everybody starts with half a plot. And then if they want to upgrade [the next year] to a full plot, they can. Each of those full plots has 10%, or the last 5 feet of the bed, grown for donation. We provide the seeds and the starts, and then we harvest. In between, the gardeners care for the plants. For the last two years, we have grown over 5,000 pounds of food for Bounty and Soul. And a lot of that, it’s not heavy stuff. It’s lettuce, kale, stinging nettles, sochan, arugula and herbs. We try to focus on fresh greens, fresh herbs and things that might not otherwise get donated.
How does this garden enhance a sense of community?
I think the simplest thing is when you’re growing food in your backyard, you’re not interacting with anybody besides yourself. Maybe you have a friendly neighbor who’s into gardening and might want to help you out. But other than that, you’re basically by yourself. And here, you have at least two people who are 2 feet away growing next to you. And then we have about 100 gardeners growing here, so there are 100 other people who are interested in gardening who are experimenting in this specific area, who you can learn from, who can water your plants when you’re away, who might want to buy a flat of starts with you. I think that proximity really helps folks.
The other piece is our community partnerships. We have strong partnerships with other community organizations. I don’t know that we would get half as much done here at the garden if we didn’t have our partnership with Warren Wilson College [which brings student groups to volunteer in the garden]. Bounty and Soul brings many volunteers. And we have partnerships with local businesses like arborists who bring wood chips, and we use them for our pathways. Now we’re reducing waste and using the assets that are already in our community. Same thing with our big pile of leaf mold. Folks bag up their leaves, and we mulch our beds with them. We’re keeping the nutrients in our region, working them back into the soil.
What have the people who tend the garden taught you?
A lot. There are so many volunteers and gardeners who have so many more years of experience than me. I come to this space with humility and try to ask, “What’s your experience? Do you know this plant? Do you have another perspective on how to do this?” I see my role as sometimes I’m teaching people who don’t know anything. And sometimes I’m more of a facilitator and just guiding the space. Like, this volunteer who has been working with fruit trees for a long time knows way more than me, so he’s actually telling us how to prune the tree.
Any tips for gardeners for their own home gardens?
Start to pay attention to what weeds are growing in your garden. We use a number of different weeding techniques. To most people, weeding means yanking the plant out of the ground, roots and all. But every time you’re pulling roots out, you’re disrupting soil, and you are disrupting the ecosystem within the soil. With some weeds, you can chop them at the surface and lay them down and they’re not going to grow back or they’re not going to grow back fast, or they don’t grow very tall so they’re not going to shade anything out. You just need to keep them from overrunning your plants until they get big enough. So, pay attention to the weeds and what kind of habitat they’re growing in and ask, “Can I just chop and drop this plant and keep the nutrients? Or do I actually have to pull this whole plant out?”