Home & Garden

Sharing a garden, growing friendship

Julie Nofsinger works in the Dilworth community garden Sunday morning July 5, 2015. The unused piece of land at 1300 Ordermore Ave. was just a patch of weeds -- an eyesore. Julie Nofsinger pitched the idea to Duke to lease her group the land (for basically nothing) and to let her create a community garden.
Julie Nofsinger works in the Dilworth community garden Sunday morning July 5, 2015. The unused piece of land at 1300 Ordermore Ave. was just a patch of weeds -- an eyesore. Julie Nofsinger pitched the idea to Duke to lease her group the land (for basically nothing) and to let her create a community garden. dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

Julie and Bruce Nofsinger had been composting at their Dilworth home for 18 years, but had little to do with all that rich fertilizer.

Like many Dilworth homeowners, the Nofsingers find sunlight a scarce commodity. Dilworth’s stately oaks keep getting taller, and so do its homes. People who used to live next to a one-story bungalow suddenly live next to a two-story Tudor. Home values increase; the daily dose of sunlight for backyards decreases.

Dilworthians became, out of necessity, good at container gardening. Suzi Rosen calls herself a “light grabber.” She moves her containers from one spot in her yard to another.

But she doesn’t have to chase the sun anymore.

And the Nofsingers have found a use for their compost. They were walking their two dogs one day when Julie noticed a vacant, overgrown lot. A search revealed that Duke Energy owned the land at 1300 Ordermore Ave. There’s a substation there, but part of that property is unused.

Julie sent an email inquiry to a general mailbox at Duke in May 2013. Later that week, Keith McGuinness, Duke Energy’s senior land strategist, called. He liked Nofsinger’s idea of taking the parcel – just two-tenths of an acre Duke didn’t need – and allowing Dilworth neighbors to convert it into an urban community garden. But Duke needed a plan and a budget from Nofsinger.

She enlisted the help of Dilworth Community Association.

The association helped figure out finances, taxes, zoning and logistics. Duke licensed the land – for free – to the neighborhood association, but Dilworth neighbors had to clear and prep it themselves – and that costs money.

Duke’s McGuinness said he was “impressed with Julie’s ambition.”

Kristofer Vogel, a senior land representative with Duke who lives near Dilworth, said he drives by the site several times a week. “I’m proud of Duke and of this neighborhood,” he said. “This was a tricky piece of property, but Julie had a vision, and she’s made it work.”

Neighbors enthusiastically joined the cause. And Andrew Thiessen, a professional landscaper, consulted with the group about fencing, mulching and composting. And he knew where to hire a Bobcat and driver to clear out what Nofsinger called a “jungle of kudzu, weeds and poison ivy.”

The group did all the clearing on the 150-by-50-foot site in one weekend. Among the trash they found was a purse stolen five years ago – with the ID still intact. Many pitched in and “People were driving by and honking. One older neighbor stopped by and gave us a $20 bill,” Nofsinger said. The Bike Gallery in Dilworth donated a bike rack for the garden.

No insecticides

The garden belongs to everyone, but not everyone who wanted a patch of soil was able to get one of the 35 10-by-12-foot patches. There’s a waiting list for plots, which rent for $50 a year.

The gardeners are about equally divided between novices and experts – and all are volunteers. Two garden managers – Angela Henderson and Paul Tillman – are pros and can help guide the newer gardeners.

The association has laid down a few rules. Everything must be done sustainably. No insecticides are allowed; all weeding must be done by hand or with a natural insecticide such as neem oil or insecticidal soap, which garden managers have taught some neighbors how to make.

The garden, which now has water on site, was only recently planted. Basil and bok choy, tomatoes, cucumbers and squash, marigolds and zinnias are all coming along.

Friendships have sprouted, too. Neighbors who knew each other only in passing have now bonded over broccoli. Suzi Rosen and Angela Henderson have lived a few houses down from each other since 1986 and have recently become friends thanks to the garden.

When harvest time comes, gardeners plan to share the surplus with neighbors, including the Dilworth Soup Kitchen and Hospitality House.

Once the harvest is in, they plan to hire a local chef to prepare a feast with what the garden’s given them at an al fresco harvest dinner. “It will be under twinkling lights,” Nofsinger said.

The Dilworth garden is feeding more than the families who bought plots. It’s nourishing an entire neighborhood.

Tips from community gardeners

Start with good soil. The Dilworth community gardeners had good topsoil, and they improved it by adding compost – 40 cubic yards on their first day.

Use what you have. The mulch in the Dilworth Community Garden came from the trees, brush and vines the group cut down.

Save what you can. The crew saved every hardwood tree except one diseased black walnut. They offered the wood to Reuben Hufham, an accomplished local wood turner.

Know the vocabulary. “Organic can be a charged word,” said Angela Henderson, one of the garden’s co-managers. “Organic can have bone meal or blood meal in it, and those are slaughterhouse byproducts. I prefer veganic products.” (Veganic agriculture is animal-friendly; organic isn’t necessarily.) The Dilworth Community gardeners are mostly using the term “sustainable.”

Follow the group at facebook.com/dilworthcommunitygarden.

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