From left, James Alexander, Sarah Sanders and Jonathan Speegle check on progress in one of the plots in a community garden in north Columbus Tuesday. Several 4-by-12 1/2-foot beds are currently available to the public, by application. There is no charge. Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff
Keely McCurdy checks on beans she planted in one of her two plots at the community garden. McCurdy, who works at the commissary at Columbus Air Force Base, is a first-time grower.
Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff
Sarah Sanders goes after a weed she spotted in a bed of peppers. Alexander and Speegle, in the background, discuss the possibility of planting fruit trees near the meditation garden Alexander landscaped, next to the community garden beds.
Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff
July 12, 2014 10:58:07 PM
Invasive nutgrass can't hide from Sarah Sanders. Kneeling beside a wood-framed garden plot Tuesday, she eradicated stray intruders bold enough to show their green faces in a bed of peppers.
"Look how easy that came up. I grew up in the Delta, and you can't pull a weed up there -- you've got to dig it out!" she beamed. Sanders revels in growing things -- particularly okra -- and is delighted a community garden is gaining traction in Columbus.
The garden located behind Covenant United Methodist Church in north Columbus is largely the handiwork of James Alexander, a hard worker who listened closely to a Sunday sermon about using your talents 18 or so months ago.
"The Monday following I was just sitting at home and thinking about what the pastor said, and I thought, 'Well, my talent is dirt,'" recounted the experienced landscaper, pausing for a moment next to a bed of asparagus and bell peppers. He rested his hand on a rake. Sweat soaked his shirt. "Believe it or not, the word I use is 'epiphany' -- all of a sudden, a community garden came to me as a way to get people out of the four walls of the church ... "
Eying an expanse of unused ground at the rear of the church property not long after that sermon, Alexander set about researching community gardens and talking the idea up. Today, with the help of a $2,500 grant from the United Methodist Foundation and volunteer labor, 14 framed 50-square-foot garden plots are built, and many are planted. Plans are to add six more, bringing the total to 20.
The garden's proponents are clear: the plots are for the community to make use of. Although it was established by Covenant church members and several of the congregation have applied for beds, the garden's mission is to give back, to build a stronger sense of the community-at-large.
"It's to provide food for people who want to grow it to feed their families," said Alexander. It's also much more -- an opportunity for exercise, better nutrition, social interaction, self-reliance, recreation, therapy and education.
Individuals can apply for a plot (there is no fee) and grow what they like. Dirt is already provided, and garden regulars will even water, if needed.
Growers are encouraged to share surplus produce with neighbors and donate it to those in need.
Participants don't have to be veteran farmers to reap the benefits. Several are novices.
Feeding the family
"A bean! I saw one green bean, and I was so excited," said first-time gardener Keely McCurdy. The wife and mother from Annapolis, Maryland, ended up in Mississippi when her husband retired from the military; she's lived in Columbus for three years.
"I've always wanted to have a garden, so when they read an announcement about it at my church, St. James, I was so happy to hear it," she said. Her two plots hold an enthusiastic mix of bean, squash, tomato, cucumber, spinach, broccoli and cabbage plants. Her family consumes a lot of vegetables. "Anything to cut down on the grocery bills," she remarked.
McCurdy tries to drop by the garden about every other day. She is learning patience and life skills, and meeting some new people, like Sarah Sanders. Most of all, she is discovering the thrill of putting something in the ground and nurturing it to maturity with her own hands.
"My mom came down from Annapolis and was here with me when I started my garden," said McCurdy. "I've been sending her pictures on my cell phone! When she comes back, she'll be able to eat something I grew."
Not too late
Jonathan Speegle has two plots of vegetables growing in the community garden. He is senior pastor at Covenant Church.
"It's not too late to plant, if someone wants to," he pointed out. "You could still grow late tomatoes, cucumber, squash, carrots, radishes, cabbages and beans, among other things." Currently, four or five beds are available, he added.
Part of the garden's appeal is being able to grow-your-own without having to sacrifice a lawn to do it.
Sanders said, "I really got excited about having a place so I don't have to go dig up my yard to have a garden." And she relishes the idea of fresh okra. "I love okra, I dooo. I had a bed last summer at the garden, and I would go out every day (to harvest) and make a meal out of it."
As the garden continues to evolve, Alexander foresees a committee being formed to oversee it -- and give it a name. "A committee would lead it to where it's going to go, by getting other funding methods and getting people involved," he said.
He hopes the garden can, in its own way, score one against technology, or at least take it down a peg or two.
"Maybe it can help people realize where food comes from," he began. "It doesn't come out of an iPad or cell phone. It takes hard work and sweat." Yes, it's hot and humid in the South, he knows. But he's convinced new doors would open "if people could just get out of that comfort zone and take just a few weeks out of the year to do something they actually see benefits from."
How to apply
To learn more about the community garden or apply for a plot, call the Covenant Church office, 662-328-7895; leave a message with name and number.
"We'll welcome you," invited Speegle. "There's no pressure; just come out and farm."
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.