Gaston & Catawba

Hope, inspiration, crops flourish at Belmont ‘Angel Garden'

The wonder garden is on a hill at Holy Angels in Belmont.

Standing there, you can hear breeze stirring in trees along with the hum of traffic on Wilkinson Boulevard.

With some imagination, you may even catch the sound of growing things.

Small and compact, the organically farmed plot has produced a bountiful crop of vegetables since the first seeds went in the ground a few months ago. Everything from tomatoes and squash to green beans and eggplants.

But more than vegetables come out of this garden at Holy Angels, the Sisters of Mercy-operated center for children and adults with disabilities.

Hope and inspiration also flourish here.

I expect that at Holy Angels, where the sisters are always coming up with creative ideas. The garden is their latest project.

Holy Angels president/CEO Regina Moody saw the garden as a way to cut rising food costs.

But saving money was just part of the plan. If all went well, the garden could produce healthier food for menus at Holy Angels and at Cherub's Café, a public restaurant in downtown Belmont that's a vocational training program for Holy Angels' residents.

More importantly, the garden would be a new therapeutic experience for residents who can't see or hear or get around easily.

Every day, professionals care for these residents. The wheelchair-accessible garden would give them something to care for in turn – something to take pride in.

They would be able to say: I planted a seed; I watered a plant; I looked after these vegetables I'm about to eat at the next meal.

The garden is an extension of Holy Angels' horticulture therapy program.

It will draw residents out of air-conditioned environments and put them outdoors. They'll get their hands in the dirt. They'll feel plants. And they'll take part in the wonder of growing things.

Flood of veggies

The garden project took root earlier this year thanks to Gaye Dimmick, Holy Angels' director of creative arts.

At the Charlotte Tailgate Market, she met Dan Rosenberg and heard about his instant organic garden concept. It was a turnkey operation centered on raised beds inside 2-by-8-foot bottomless frames filled with organic soil.

You pick the spot you want to put the frames, set them down and plant the seeds for multiple vegetables. The busy folks at Holy Angels had tried conventional gardens in the past. But it was time consuming. And they learned how much hard work was involved.

The raised beds promised a more practical approach with higher yields using less soil, water and maintenance. The raised beds hold water better, and only minimal digging in the soil is required. You have more garden in less space.

Moody decided to give it a try.

“It's an innovative concept,” she said. “And a different kind of learning experience.”

Holy Angels started with 12 raised-bed units, placed on a hill between a greenhouse and group home.

In went the first seeds.

And the work began. Along with Holy Angels staff, the residents took part in the project at whatever level they were able. Pulling weeds or watering plants – anything to make them feel connected.

It was a hot summer and the city of Belmont's water restrictions had to be taken into consideration.

“We hand-watered with a wand,” Dimmick said. “We were always excited when it rained.”

I wish I had been there when the first veggies were ready. A flood of cucumbers and peppers came out of the garden.

“Real stuff,” Moody said. “I almost didn't believe it.”

She told me about a 32-year-old woman with physical limitations who went in the garden whenever she could to pick cucumbers and eggplants. Bees and wasps and heat didn't matter.

The woman took great pride in how many vegetables she could take back to her group home.

Expectations surpassed

Moody expects the garden's first year of operation will cut raw food costs at Holy Angels by 10 percent, about $2,000.

The program's four plantings will keep the produce regularly rolling in year-round.

When I visited the garden, summer crops had been harvested and a new batch of seeds had just been planted – everything from lettuce and kale to beets and broccoli.

I saw photos of all the work that had gone on there during the summer. The tall corn looked especially impressive, but it had been planted as trellis for other crops, not for food.

The corn stalks were saved and will reappear as dried decorations at Holy Angels' Haunted Greenhouse Festival in late October.

The project has a name now – the “Angel Garden.”

“It has surpassed my expectations,” Moody said. “And it has potential for much more.”

Maybe they'll sell organic vegetables someday – on and off campus. Maybe they can package corn stalks and other things from the garden as decorative arts.

I know the folks at Holy Angels: They'll come up with fresh new ideas.

The seeds have been planted.