University City

Learn about area community gardens

On May 5, when Charlotte shows off some of its best community gardens on the “Can You Dig It?” Community Garden Tour, UNC Charlotte senior Kristen Boatright will be in the thick of the action.

This year’s tour, sponsored by Mecklenburg County Health Department, is free and open to the public.

Judging from the popularity of the first “Can You Dig It?” in 2010, it’s going to get very busy when garden enthusiasts, local food lovers and friends and families out for a Saturday morning adventure descend on Atherton Mill Farmers’ Market at 8 a.m. Then they’ll head off on a self-guided tour of four different community gardens, each with a distinct identity.

Boatright and her colleagues are ready. A public health major who is graduating in May, Boatright has been working for months to help prepare for the tour, serving as an intern with Health Department nutritionist Megan Dean. Dean chairs the Mecklenburg County Fruit and Vegetable Coalition, which organizes the “Can You Dig It?” tour.

There will be a lot to see, Boatright said:

“When conducting garden site visits, I was surprised by how organized the garden layouts were and the diversity of the crops being grown. I was also surprised how some plots were just exploding with crops.”

Dean, Boatright and Health Department nutritionist Beth Mack began working on the tour in the cold of winter, when even the best community gardens are not much to look at.

They first had to winnow through a long list of excellent candidates to select the four gardens to be featured this year. According to the coalition’s community garden census, which will be available online the day of the tour, the Charlotte area now has 60 active community gardens, not including school and workplace gardens.

In University City, interest in community gardening continues to grow. Reedy Creek Park is home to the largest community garden in the Charlotte area, launched in 2005. UNCC now has a community garden for staff and students, and Carolinas Medical Center–University is planning a garden.

In addition, through faculty and student involvement such as Boatright’s internship, UNCC helps to support and start community gardens throughout the city.

Dean praised Boatright’s contributions: “Kristin is the first intern I’ve had while chairing the MCFVC. She has done an amazing job!”

Tour highlights

The four gardens on the 2012 tour range from one of Charlotte’s oldest community gardens to a brand new project featuring a close partnership between a neighborhood association, a community garden and a school.

• First on the tour is Wilmore Community Garden on West Boulevard, now almost 20 years old. It’s sponsored by Charlotte Green, Charlotte’s oldest community gardening program.

• The second garden, Country Club Heights garden on the Briar Creek Greenway, is a classic example of grassroots organizing. Here, neighborhood residents have taken the lead to create a project with strong resident involvement.

• The next stop is Central United Methodist Church’s garden on Albemarle Road, one of four church projects around the nation to win an Interfaith Power and Light Cool Congregation award. This garden includes international families, with unique styles of gardening, as well as church members. The church also pays special attention to accessibility for gardeners with physical challenges.

• The tour concludes at Winterfield Community Garden. The winner of a Blue Cross Blue Shield award, this garden brings together the Winterfield neighborhood with Winterfield Elementary, a CMS elementary school beside the garden. An area is specifically set aside where teachers and students can garden.

At each stop, visitors can tour the garden, join in with fun, view hands-on demonstrations of various gardening techniques, and learn how community gardens can help strengthen neighborhoods and organizations while they improve nutrition and provide healthy, relaxing exercise.

After the tour ends at noon, the Winterfield garden, neighborhood and school will host a garden gathering for tour participants, featuring The Tin Kitchen and Herban Legend food trucks, music from Winterfield’s Garden Buds, a cooking demonstration by Johnson and Wales University chef Megan Lambert, and speaker Henry Owen representing Charlotte’s newest community garden organization, Friendship Gardens.

Tour participants are welcome to bring their own picnics and chairs and join in the fun.

Gardens surprisingly plentiful

Boatright and Mack have been putting in long hours, visiting gardens as they researched the census and helped set up the tour. Mack, who served as a health department intern last year while working on her degree at Chapel Hill, has now joined the department as a nutritionist. She’s become a strong supporter of community gardening.

“One of the huge ways community and home gardens tie in to better nutrition and health is by providing access to fresh, inexpensive, delicious fruits and vegetables. Community gardens provide explosive taste and inexpensive price,” Mack said.

Mack is surprised by the number and diversity of community gardens in Charlotte, and was excited to learn how many gardens practice good conservation through composting and rain water harvesting. At the same time, she found that many residents do not know about community gardens nearby.

“A lot of people had no idea that a garden actually existed near them. Good signage that helps promote and celebrate gardens is something I would really like to see more of.”

The tour will begin between 8 and 9 a.m. at Atherton Mills Farmers’ Market, 2104 South Blvd., where participants can pick up maps. Although the event is free, Dean said, participants should register in advance. She also said participants may bring contributions of garden tools, which will then be shared with the community gardens and the gardeners who use them.