Many things are growing at Aleatha Kieffer's rented garden plot at Reedy Creek Park in University City.
Some are vegetables.
She also tends to friendships there. Sunday mornings are a special time for her and maybe a dozen others who rent plots at the 4-year-old garden.
They set the garden table with coffee and baked goods. They learn about plants and about each other. They shop for or leave behind gifts in the sharing basket.
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When summer gardens are in full production, they have filled Kieffer's trunk with fresh produce for Loaves & Fishes, a pantry for people with an urgent need for food.
“I don't belong to a gym,” the retiree said. “This is my exercise. I love going there. I see so many interesting things and meet wonderful people.
“We talk about religion, we talk about books – anything … men. It's something I really look forward to every Sunday morning.”
Mecklenburg County's community gardens create common ground for residents in several neighborhoods.
Rentals are available at Frazier, Hoskins, Huntingtowne Farms, McAlpine Creek and Thomas McAllister Winget parks as well as Reedy Creek. (The Belmont Community Garden, on Little Sugar Creek Greenway, is inactive.)
Rentals start at $10 a year for one of the 114 plots. Most are about 10 by 10 feet.
Establishing a garden costs Mecklenburg County $6,000 to $10,000, mostly for fencing, said Scott Ewers, county Cooperative Extension Service agent.
The Reedy Creek garden, at 8801 Grier Road, was among the county's first and has grown from 24 to 52 beds. Azivia Little has been involved there since the beginning.
Little, a recreation coordinator, figured a garden could help build a community amid urban sprawl. She hoped for an intergenerational program where children could learn from elders.
“It's important to pass that knowledge on,” Little said. “Our older citizens can teach us so much.”
The oldest gardener is a woman in her 80s, and the youngest is a girl of about 9, Little said.
The garden is also a multicultural exchange. Members have included gardeners from Africa, China, Korea and the Virgin Islands.
Together, they have filled the beds with corn, tomatoes, blackberries and all kinds of herbs. They've seen vegetables from the reaches of the earth and shared seeds and plant varieties that give them a new appreciation for nature's imagination.
“When I go back to buying vegetables (during winter), it's going to be a shock, especially with the increased cost of vegetables,” Kieffer said.
Residents near Hoskins Park are caught up in first-year excitement. Their 16-bed garden, off N.C. 16 in west Charlotte, opened in spring where a rundown house once stood. Now there's a waiting list to get onto the property.
“I didn't know how the neighbors would take to it, but they did,” said Eva Barber, an advocate for the garden. “The people who have gardens down there now have gotten several bags of vegetables to put in their freezers: tomatoes, peas and okra. Now they've put out collard greens and turnip greens, all those things.”