University City

An experience greater than growing vegetables

It's after 6 p.m., and still the temperature is in the 90s. But that doesn't stop the gardeners at Reedy Creek Park Community Garden.

Gardener Gail Fox is wearing a colorful cloth atop her head to keep the heat and sweat at bay, but she's smiling and holding a plump, green bean in her hand.

"Now, you want to see a green bean? Here's a green bean," said Fox, beaming with pride.

For Fox, a nurse originally from the Bronx, New York, this community garden offers a place to show off her gardening skills. She's the first with beans this season, and the crop is so heavy she says her sister hurt her back bending over to pick them.

Yet Fox only began as a novice vegetable grower four years ago, when she first joined the garden.

Fox is not alone on this sweltering afternoon. The paths and plots are a beehive of activity. There are 76 family plots here, plus shared projects such as flowerbeds and blueberries.

Fox is surrounded by friends and fellow gardeners, bonded by the shared experience of growing a garden. Gardeners swap growing ideas, help out and, of course, provide an audience for complaining about the weather and bragging about beans.

Pat Lyke, a master gardener with Mecklenburg County Cooperative Extension, has a plot at the front of the garden. Her fluffy white dog Dakota keeps a watchful eye on the gate, making sure everyone's entrance and exits are duly announced.

Lyke is an expert gardener, happy to pass along reliable, research-based advice to gardeners. Fortunately, she's got a strong environmental orientation, too, and lots of good options for avoiding toxic sprays and powders. Lyke's plot boasts a striking centerpiece, a gigantic artichoke plant.

A new gardener comes over to Fox, to show off a picture on her cell phone of her first pepper. There's a lot of diversity in this garden, whether you're talking vegetables or people. There's young and old, every kind of politics, different cultures and different tastes.

Yet everyone treats each another as neighbors.

It's a great place to learn things, too. There are vegetable growing classes here, but people learn just by observing. For instance, this season the Chens, originally from Taiwan, are trying a traditional way of trellising their cucumbers. If it works, the next thing you know everyone might be trying it.

Most of the food from the garden ends up on family tables, but the bounty is so great that gardeners regularly donate to Loaves and Fishes and other food pantries.

Aleatha Keiffer, one of the original gardeners here, has gathered three big baskets of fresh produce today for Loaves and Fishes.

"Look at this wonderful contribution," said Keiffer. The baskets overflow with a seasonal harvest of cabbage, lettuce, broccoli and more. Keiffer plans to pick up peas from another gardener on her way home.

You can't beat the crunch and flavor of Fox's homegrown Blue Lake string beans, but this community garden cultivates a lot more than fresh food.

In what was an abandoned weedy field six years ago, Reedy Creek Park Community Garden today nurtures friendships, inspires cooperation and grows community.