On a recent morning, in a weedy field at the Hunter Farm in Weddington, Denise Dresden picked three small tomatoes, each one about the size of a billiard ball.
She cradled them in her hands and practically vibrated with glee. Covered with mud, hair disheveled and hands smeared with dirt, she giggled so hard she could barely get the words out.
“My first tomato ever! Wanna see my hot peppers? Next year is going to be awesome.”
Dresden, 48, lives in Wesley Chapel and drives 4 miles from her house to her garden plot at the Hunter Farm on Providence Road. She’s one of the first gardeners in an experiment being conducted by farm owner Nancy Anderson and organic gardening consultant Billy Styles.
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It’s one more development in the movement toward eating locally grown food that has brought an increase in farmers markets, harvest subscriptions and community-wide gardening projects across the nation.
Last spring, Anderson offered community-garden plots for local people who want to grow fresh fruits and vegetables. And she included four Saturday morning classes, taught by Styles, on how to grow food.
“Having a garden is more than opening the dirt and putting in a plant,” Styles said.
Besides being the former mayor, Anderson is best known in Weddington for the pick-your-own strawberry field she operates on her family’s 1850s-era farm. But this year, with weeds and pests plaguing her, Anderson gave the strawberries a rest while she and Styles work to improve the soil.
While they work to bring the field back, Anderson decided to let people use it to try gardening. For $200, people get a 20-by-20-foot plot with irrigation, dug up and ready to plant, including four Saturday morning classes with Styles at the start of the season.
Anderson has done pick-your-own for years, she said. “So I thought, heck, let’s do grow-your-own.”
‘What did I learn?’
Many people in the suburbs around Weddington, about 15 miles south of Charlotte, can’t plant vegetables at their homes. Some housing associations have rules against it; others, like Dresden, have too much shade, too little lawn or too many deer.
Styles is an organic gardener with the zeal of a preacher. Besides making nontoxic gardening products, he’s a gardening consultant who believes that everyone can learn to grow food. He works with several community gardens in the area, and he volunteered to help Anderson with the Hunter Farm project.
“Gardening takes work, but not a lot of work if you can learn the tricks,” he said. “It’s not what you get to eat from your garden. It’s ‘What did I learn this year?’ ”
Anderson had space for 100 plots, but only got about 20 takers. She also donated a big double plot to Weddington Christian Academy, located next door, so the students could get a chance to grow things. Summer camp students are helping to weed and maintain things now, and Anderson hopes they’ll be able to pick food the school chef can cook in the fall.
Anderson and Styles got 14 to 16 people for their two-hour classes on Saturday mornings in May. Two months later, Styles can point out the plots being tended by the people who came to class. Despite the usual eruption of weeds in July and problems with things like squash borers, those plots are the ones with mostly thriving plants, where cucumbers are swelling under vines and tomatoes are turning red.
Next year, Anderson and Styles hope to move the plots over to another area of the farm, where they’re already working compost into the soil. Those will be permanent homesteading plots, where people will be able to garden year-round.
“Billy’s mission is organics,” Anderson said. “My mission is teaching where food comes from. We both take it very seriously.”
Coaxing the cucumbers
Dresden couldn’t make the classes at the beginning of the season; she works long hours for a data-information company. She always wanted a garden, though. So she took a plot and planted it with Styles’ advice.
On a recent Saturday morning, Styles stopped by for visit – Anderson calls it “making his rounds” – while Dresden was there to tend her plot. He advised her to get some of the mulch off of the rows. She was choking her plants, he said. He also showed her how to coax her cucumbers up the strings of a frame her husband built, and told her which plants needed feeding.
“I thought I was being organic by not adding anything,” she admitted. “Any errors down here are on me. He’s so into it, there’s nothing he doesn’t know.”
Dresden usually spends three to four hours a week at her plot, coming by on Saturday mornings and in the evenings with her husband. She has a concrete block sitting by the side of her rows, and sometimes she just sits on it and admires her garden.
“I just look and think, ‘yeah, this is me.’ ”