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Area communities making good use of urban gardening opportunities

May. 23, 2010 @ 12:00 AM

HUNTINGTON -- About 50 feet from where cars whiz by on Hal Greer Boulevard, Alexandria Goswami peered out at the colorful wonderland of gardens at the Barnett Center, then up at another threatening gray sky and got planting broccoli with a purpose last Sunday afternoon.

Goswami, who found out about the Huntington Community Gardens in January, is one of hundreds of folks who've had hands in the dirt at the half dozen HCG plots that have sprouted up around the city within the past year.

Goswami, 27, who moved to Huntington from the urban-garden-rich city of Chicago when her husband began medical school at Marshall University, found out about the gardens when she ran into coordinator Jennifer Williams and her husband Casey at a Jamie Oliver meeting.

"Jen and Casey talked about the vegetables and the herbs and the flower gardens, and I got really excited about it," Goswami said. "Plus, she was willing to invite anyone along. I love gardening and the whole idea of revitalizing abandoned lots into sustainable food systems. It is pretty awesome that the space is here and that the community is going for it being transformed."

Yes, the community is going for it.

Eve Marcum-Atkinson, who helps Williams coordinate the program, can't hardly believe what has happened since last spring when they broke ground on the learning garden in the backyard of the former Barnett Childcare Center.

"This is an example of the power of community," Marcum-Atkinson said overlooking a collage of colorful gardens that include a raised bed stuffed full of ripe strawberries, a water fountain area, boxes of perennials such as the purple-spiked salvia along the chain-link fence by Hal Greer, raised beds of salad greens, plots of pumpkins, the ArtWorks tile sculpture, long shade beds of hostas, an angel-and-fairy-themed garden and graveled paths meandering to all of the various bursts of plants, art and beauty.

How does your garden grow?

While Huntington has been home to one of West Virginia's oldest community gardens with about 100 plots at Spring Hill Cemetery since the 1970s, and while Marcella Murphy started transforming abandoned lots in Fairfield West when she retired in 2001, this past year, the grassroots gardening effort has gotten a proverbial shot of Miracle-Gro thanks to some widespread community support.

Fertilized by the idea greenhouse that is the Create Huntington's Chat 'n' Chew program, the new group, led by the Williams family, found a home base when the city of Huntington got a $1 million grant over five years from the U.S. Department of Justice's Weed and Seed initiative.

Local director, Tim White, who had worked for years with the neighborhoods' troubled kids through the Youth Empowerment Program, gave the newly-formed community garden group room to meet, shed space and some garden tools, and his blessing to turn a tall grass and weed-covered back lot that was once a playground into garden spaces.

Early on the group also got armed with some homegrown, urban-gardening technical help from Melissa Stewart, a Lawrence County, Ohio, resident and extension agent for West Virginia State University, which has been creating community gardens at Charleston-Kanawha Housing projects since 2005.

In a rush to transform Weed and Seed's backyard for Earth Day 2009 in less than a month's time, Williams hustled up donations from Home Depot and Big Sandy Superstores, coordinated dozens of volunteers to get the garden at 1524 10th Ave., open by Earth Day (April 22, 2009) when Gov. Joe Manchin came to plant a tree with local Cub Scouts at the dedication.

Since then, the Barnett Center has hosted a myriad of events including Literature in the Garden, Trick-or-Treating, and in April another Earth Day event, as well as the National Symphony Orchestra's "Neighborhood Super Duper Outing" that drew some 600 folks to enjoy live music, a musical petting zoo and food in the beauty of the gardens.

Spreading seeds of love

The gardening fever hasn't just stayed within the chain link fence of the Barnett Center, it has spread like mint in May.

Just a few of the new gardens that sprouted up last year include resident-run vegetable and flower gardens at Carter G. Woodson, Northcott Court and Marcum Terrace, and a Children's Community Flower Garden at 1016 Minton St., last July. That garden has been joined by a host of other gardens along Minton Street, including one designed and created by Huntington Eagle Scouts, and another at 1126 Minton St., donated by May Johnson, and one of the original gardens created by the Fairfield Community Gardens under the direction of Murphy.

Williams said the support has been overwhelming. When applying for grants this winter, they had counted (by October 2009) more than 150 people who had come out to help plant and maintain the gardens.

That number is more like 250 now with everyone from day report (misdemeanor offenders in Cabell County) to several Marshall University classes that have completed projects helping the garden.

"It is phenomenal just looking at the list we have online of the community partnerships," Williams said. "People are coming to us and wanting to help us and saying they have something or know something or would like for us to speak to their group about what we are doing. I stand around many days with tears in my eyes because of some wonderful craziness that is going on. It is so beautiful how much people are behind it."

Movement on Minton Street

That hasn't always been the case.

Murphy, a 1968 graduate of Huntington High School, said when she moved back home from Columbus in 2001, she decided to start the gardens to try and improve the Fairfield West neighborhood that was in a free fall of decay.

"When I first got back from Ohio I was glad to be back home and thought I would sit on the porch and drink coffee and be happy, but it wasn't like that," Murphy said. There was always the drug people on the corner and prostitutes flagging down cars on the street, and I said, 'Lord, what it is that I can do?,' and I thought of gardens and it worked for a while."

Murphy said Williams and Marcum-Atkinson and the Huntington Community Gardens came along last year when they needed it most.

"We started with seniors, and seniors get older and seniors die, and that is what happened. We started losing people and we would lose a lot because no one was there to work it," Murphy said, "It really got down to Minton Street and two lots still hanging in there. When Jennifer and Eve came through, they came through with this super arm of support, and I started attending their meetings and joined their community gardens so we could stay alive."

Murphy, who has gotten four of her neighbors to plant vegetables at their homes this spring, said it has been a joy to watch such youth groups as Leon White's Cub Scout pack from Spring Hill Elementary planting those gardens on Minton Street.

"That is just a small portion of what they are going to do and what they are planning for the community," Murphy said. "They are doing another lot on Minton Street, and I think if they have their way, there will be flowers and vegetables all over this city."

The second season begins

Marcum-Atkinson said as people and institutions around the city have found out about the Community Gardens' ever-growing effort they have come on board.

Over the winter, Marshall University allowed the group space in the campus greenhouse behind the science building so it could grow more of its own plants from seed, rather than having to rely solely on plant donations.

In March, one of the Gardens' partners, The Huntington Area Revitalization Coalition, was awarded $2,000 to undertake a new after-school gardening program educating low income youth to grow, prepare and eat fresh produce. Through a partnership with the WVSU Agriculture Extension Service and Cabell County Master Gardeners, the program is using the Junior Master Gardeners program to help students learn hands-on about nutrition, basic gardening, biology, environmental sciences and culinary arts. Working in cooperation with the "Kids in the Kitchen" program through the Junior League of Huntington, students are learning how to make healthy dishes out of their harvest.

That grant money and a Create Huntington grant will allow HCG to run after-school gardening programs at A.D. Lewis, Barnett Center and Marcum Terrace.

Williams, who said they also just worked with a third grade class at Kellogg Elementary where they started a garden, said more gardens are on the way.

In fact, at 2:30 p.m. today, May 23, children are planting a pizza garden (tomatoes, onions, peppers and herbs) at Marcum Terrace. A Junior Master Gardener's event is May 27, and on June 23 the A.D. Lewis Kids Garden will be unveiled on a lot dedicated to community volunteer Maudella Taylor on her birthday.

"We have a big sunny lot behind A.D. Lewis Community Center that we are dedicating to her," Williams said. "She did a lot of community service, and we wanted to highlight her as a person, so we are dedicating that lot for her birthday."

That lot will have a big pumpkin patch, raised beds for the kids, as well as a variety of small fruit plantings such as blackberries and blueberries that will be available to the community.

Some of the harvest from the gardens is donated to needy and some is divided among those who work them.

Calling all gardeners

Williams said as the number of gardens grow, the HCG hope to become a driving force in helping folks set up gardens that are tilled up, then turned over to neighborhood members to maintain.

She said they're already seeing a real sense of ownership at the projects' gardens that just started the second growing season.

"The coolest part is that the residents are taking more of a role, and that is what we wanted to have happen," Williams said. "People now know about it, and the gardens have been there for a year and people are really taking responsibility. We want to get to where we can just be facilitators helping people getting community gardens going in the neighborhoods but not us maintaining them. It really has been amazing to watch."

Out weeding and planting with Goswami last Sunday by herself, Marcum-Atkinson said the essential ingredient is always people, especially if HCG grows in ways that she hopes, like area kids and adults growing fresh herbs and veggies to sell to perhaps local restaurants or at a farmer's market.

"The more people we have the more opportunities we have to do good," Marcum-Atkinson said. "We are limited only by how many people we can get involved. We've been successful so far in getting people, but if we are going to take it to this level of really making a substantial effort, we need more people to get out the door and to come and help us transform derelict spaces into gardens."

Get Your Community Green Thumb Growing:

Here's some more info about the Huntington Community Gardens and how to get involved.

WHAT IT IS: Huntington Community Gardens (HCG) is a collection of volunteers working together with area residents, in cooperation with local organizations, businesses and government, to transform derelict or vacant lots into community gardens all over the city of Huntington.

Since its inception in February 2009, Huntington Community Gardens has created six successful projects in partnership with Home Depot of Barboursville, Rose Hill Nurseries, Lavalette Nursery, the City of Huntington's Weed and Seed program, the Huntington Housing Authority and Habitat for Humanity.

The group has received more than $15,000 in donations, both physical and monetary, in addition to hundreds of hours of volunteer time, advisory support and pro bono professional services.

GOALS OF THE GARDEN: 1. Create safe places for neighbors to get to know one another; 2. Grow fruits and vegetables, donating a portion to the needy; 3. Create spaces of beauty by encouraging the creation of flower, desert and rock, art and butterfly gardens, as well as gardens that are accessible to all; 4. Engage and educate the public about nutrition and the environment 5. Promote civic responsibility; 6. Help attract new citizens and businesses to the area by making it a more beautiful place.


Sunday, May 23 -- 2:30 p.m. at Northcott Court Pizza Garden planting with the kids who live at Marcum Terrace.

Thursday, May 27-- 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. WVSU, JMG, Starlab program at A.D. Lewis, all kids are invited.

Friday, June 11 -- 10:30 a.m. to noon, Container Gardening Class at the Proctorville OH Briggs Library East Branch - first 12 to register may attend (includes a free plant).

Wednesday June 23 -- celebrate Maudella Taylor's birthday and unveil the A.D. Lewis Kids Garden on 1437 11th Ave. Time is still to be determined.

June -- Either the 2nd or 3rd Week of June, there will be a 2-day long Children's Garden Camp, dates soon to be set (most probably 9th and 10th of June). Contact Jennifer Williams to register (seedsoflove76@yahoo.com or 304-840-2500)

WEEKLY GARDENING: The HCG meets from 2:30 to about 4:30 p.m. every Sunday at the Barnett Weed and Seed building on Hal Greer Boulevard. The HCG always needs help with planting and garden maintenance (weeding and watering).

WHAT THEY NEED: The community gardens needs more volunteers, as well as donations of fresh food and water from local stores, and monetary donations for supplies such as a small rototiller, etc.

ON THE WEB: Go online at www.huntingtoncommunitygardens.com or you can e-mail project coordinator, Jennifer Williams at seedsoflove76@yahoo.com and Jen and Eve Marcum-Atkinson at communitygardenshunt@gmail.com.

The Gardens:

Here's a closer look at Huntington Community Gardens' plots throughout the city.

"Power Gardens" at Carter G. Woodson & Northcott Court Assisted Housing. These gardens reside within Public Housing complexes along Hal Greer Boulevard. They consist of vegetable and herb beds, with several locations filled with vibrant flowers.

"Children's Peace Garden" at 1016 Minton St. This "Cut-Flower" garden was designed to give children a safe beautiful place to meet, play and relax. Residents have an open invitation to perform "random acts of kindness" by cutting small bunches of flowers and sharing them with others.

"Blessed Senior Garden" at 1126 Minton St. This lot, the use of which was donated by May Johnson, hosts one of the original gardens created by the Fairfield Community Gardens under the direction of Marcella Murphy. As their new Garden Partners, the HCG will assist with coordinating maintenance and expansion, with the help of neighborhood seniors and residents.

"Eagle Scout Garden" at 1129 Minton St. This lot, the use of which was donated by May Johnson, will host a garden designed and created by Huntington Eagle Scouts.

"Beauty Garden" at Barnett Center, 1524 10th Ave. An experimental education garden designed to share gardening techniques with area residents of all ages. In partnership with the Huntington Weed & Seed program, the garden features perennial flower beds, vegetables beds, annual flower beds, raised beds of strawberries, pumpkins, a water feature, a public art display of tiles and more.

"Maudella Taylor Garden" at 1437 11th Ave. To be dedicated on her birthday, June 23. Located behind the A.D. Lewis Community Center and made available by May Johnson, this large, open, sunny lot will host a garden built by children for children with interested youth from A.D. Lewis, Springhill Elementary cub scouts and the surrounding neighborhoods will help to plan and design a "Food and Flower" garden

"Courage Garden" at Marcum Terrace Assisted Housing. It consists of three small vegetable and herb beds, accompanied by a few other plating areas filled with vibrant flowers and greenery.



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