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Ever tasted a tomato sun-warmed and sweet, straight off the vine? Or savored a carrot plucked right from the earth? Food is a mighty motivator, with the power to not only fuel our bodies but also draw us together. “People have a hunger for connecting with each other and to something that’s green and alive,” says Elizabeth Beak, urban green space guru and owner of Crop Up consulting firm. “No matter their race, language, age, or socioeconomic situation, people gather around food.” And in the face of a wilted economy and health blight, Lowcountry residents of all backgrounds are establishing strong roots together in shared gardens of eatin’, hidden among city blocks and tucked onto school campuses. Here, meet four green-thumbed groups who are giving a whole new meaning to the term “community-supported agriculture”
Elliotborough Park & Community Garden
A devoted gardener tends his plot with care, encouraging strong roots with healthy soil, ensuring plenty of sunlight and warmth, preventing weeds from encroaching, and nurturing lively growth where mere dirt once lay. A community, it seems, can be cultivated with much the same dedication. And for the past five years in Elliotborough, a group of green thumbs has toiled to make both the earth and their neighborhood thrive.
In 2006, amid a wave of revitalization just below the Crosstown, residents began urging the city to reserve a small green space in which to establish a park, playground, and outdoor gathering spot. “This neighborhood has lots of single homes with small yards converted for parking, as well as apartment units and city housing,” says volunteer garden manager Claire Xidis, who grew up relishing her grandparents’ backyard vegetable patch. “Most people don’t have private space to plant anything.” So with blessings from Mayor Riley and the City’s Department of Parks, the team dug up a Palmetto Pride grant to transform the abandoned “Old City Garage” that once housed garbage trucks into their own little public promised land.
By October 2008, the Elliotborough Park & Community Garden had taken root, providing a shared environment for locals to grow together, both literally and figuratively. These two urban acres along Line Street now boast 16 bed boxes where, for $25 a year, renters can raise whatever’s to their liking (within legal limits, of course); they produce collards,
eggplants, spinach, peas, perennial wildflowers, and bunches more. A full rosemary bush anchors the interactive children’s garden, where little hands happily dig into the dirt. Preschoolers from Calvary Episcopal Day School and Mitchell Elementary second graders even enjoy class outings to develop their own plots. And in three donation beds, volunteers raise extra fruit and vegetable seedlings for nearby homeless shelter Crisis Ministries.
There’s more to this garden than just crops, though. “Sure, there’s the tangible benefit of fresh produce,” says Xidis. “But it’s the intangibles that have taken this project from good to great.” Who could have guessed that on a lot once dominated by tires and rubbish, a veritable village could sprout? That an older gentleman might discover common ground with a college student over tomato seeds and a smile? Or a young family would fill a basket of radishes for the widow on the corner when they discovered how much she enjoys their peppery bite? The residents of Elliotborough did. Like that devoted gardener, these visionaries understand just how much life can be found right below the surface.
Volunteer: Group, corporate, and individual volunteers are always welcome to help with the children’s garden and donation beds. For more information,
To become a Park Angel with the Charleston Parks Conservancy, visit charlestonparksconservancy.org.
The Green Heart Project
Tiny holes and split vines said it all. The pumpkins had fallen victim to a pesky pest. Their patch had been attacked. But in the Green Heart garden, the ruined gourds didn’t end with defeat. “Even though some of the kids wanted to smash each bug to bits, they respected the grub,” says program director Drew Harrison, who regarded the humbling outcome as positive when he saw participants applying the lessons of the land. “There are three rules that The Green Heart Project discusses: respect yourself, respect the Earth, and respect your buddies.” Posted on a hand-painted sign at the entrance to the Mitchell Elementary schoolyard, alongside messages like “Please Smile More” and “Grow Your Mind; Think Positive,” that mantra directs this budding nonprofit’s weekly agenda.
Since 2009, Green Heart Project founders Karalee Nielsen and Chauncey Jordan have been cultivating a relationship with the staff and students at Mitchell, nurturing a seed of an idea for a small inner-city farm focused on both learning and fresh produce. And like a mint plant let loose, the program has spread to include the entire third and fourth grades.
Each Thursday and Friday, Harrison, Jordan, Nielsen, and a crew of volunteers join some 125 students for exploring, sharing, and growing on a small corner of the school grounds. “We have all become detached from the sources of our food,” says Harrison. So he illustrates that a chip comes from a potato that’s rooted in the ground and ketchup is made from tomatoes, which grow on a vine. One rainy day, leaders demonstrated how to make pickles with cucumbers from the raised beds and dill and garlic plucked from the new herb spiral. Every class concludes with a tasting, explains Harrison, “hopefully of something they’ve never tried before.” After sampling peas, radishes, lettuce, and the like, students are asked to offer a descriptive word about the flavor or texture. From once refusing to eat kale because the leaves held a bit of dirt to now chomping carrots yanked straight from the soil, “we’ve seen a major improvement in terms of what the kids will eat,” he continues. (Yes, everything in the garden has been organically grown.)
And thanks to Nielsen, who’s also a co-owner of Revolutionary Eating Ventures, Taco Boy recently stepped up as a Green Heart Project corporate sponsor. On the menu, diners will discover the Tempura Avocado Taco marked with a green heart, since the cabbage for the citrus slaw came directly from the students’ plot and a portion of the proceeds go right back to the organization. These mini farmers even raise Scotch bonnets and hot peppers for the restaurant’s famous Danger Sauce. Now that’s grub you can really respect.
Volunteer: If you’re interested in mentoring classes on Thursday and Friday mornings, chaperoning a farm field trip, or helping during a weekend work day, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mark Your Calendars: On May 24, The Green Heart Project will host an outdoor harvest dinner featuring some of the produce grown by the students. For details, visit The Green Heart Project on Facebook.
Charleston Area Children's Garden Project
You might be surprised to hear the director of the Charleston Area Children’s Garden Project (CACGP) say that the 12-year-old organization is not a gardening program. That, in fact, the integrative school model is more concerned with weeding out bad behaviors than pulling out weeds (though they do that, too).
For Darlena Goodwin, teaching students how to grow their own food is secondary to helping children grow up to be responsible adults—the instruction does come at an important time, however, given the current statistics surrounding childhood obesity and diabetes. “We use the basic lessons of working with the earth and raising one’s food to teach short- and long-term goal planning, teamwork, perseverance, and problem solving,” explains Goodwin, who came on board in 2007 when CACGP founder Fred Phillips retired.
“Disproportionate numbers of Lowcountry youth grow up in environments marked by poor education, extreme poverty, high crime, and early exposure to sex and drugs,” she continues. And so this former fifth-grade teacher and her team of role models dig into five Title 1 schools each year, bringing to more than 700 kids a weekly program of living lessons. She takes care to support learning standards with activities in the garden, such as illustrating the water cycle by pointing out that rain the children harvest is the same water dinosaurs once drank. Or making the connection between students splitting into “family” units to share a fall feast and Native Americans dividing their harvest for the winter.
The school selects one grade level, often third, to care for every aspect of the garden with a bit of guidance from volunteer professionals. During the CACGP’s three-year program, that responsibility—from building the infrastructure to farming the land—gets handed down to each new class of third graders. And when the crops are ripe, the harvest gets distributed among students, either cooked on-site or sent home to their families.
Helping to spread the program’s educational reach, this spring, the school system and CACGP launched a cafeteria composting initiative utilizing fresh food scraps left over on lunch trays. Goodwin has also planted seeds with participating administrators to establish mini farmers markets at which to sell the students’ fresh produce to their families at a minimal cost. Down the road, she talks of cultivating relationships with the College of Charleston business department, Marion Square farmers market, Culinary Institute of Charleston, and local farmers to create a student-run organic urban farm business at a local high school. As the CACGP continues to blossom, so too do the small sprouts in its care. No, this is not a gardening program, says Goodwin. “We grow children.”
Volunteer: The Charleston Area Children’s Garden Project needs good role models to volunteer with the children during 90-minute garden learning sessions. If you would like to help individually or as part of a group, visit childrensgardenproject.org for the school garden Winter/Spring schedule, or e-mail the volunteer coordinator at email@example.com.
Harvest to Health
MUSC Community Garden
As the father of Western medicine, Hippocrates knew a little something about wellness. So when he’s quoted as saying, “Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food,” health professionals would do right to listen. In an age when obesity-related diseases cost Americans billions of dollars annually and children have an unprecedented shorter life expectancy than their parents, proper diet is being prescribed as an
essential element of well-being. And as one of the country’s leading research institutions, the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) is embracing a proactive approach to health with a groundbreaking project—literally.
This spring, in place of a concrete field on the corner of Bee and President streets, the institution began to sow a half-acre urban demonstration farm, complete with row crops, a pollinator bed, and herbs. Part of the new North Garden lawn installation adjacent to the campus’ Drug Discovery Building, the MUSC Community Garden will provide a place where faculty, staff, students, patients, and the public can cultivate a healthy understanding of urban agriculture and sustainable planting methods. Farms and gardens have been rooted in the hospital culture since before the Middle Ages, explains Crop Up consulting firm founder and planning committee member Elizabeth Beak. She goes on to say that MUSC president Dr. Ray Greenberg “is passionate that the next generation of health professionals learn about food and how to relay that knowledge to their patients.”
Beak calls the garden a “living library,” a place where harvest-to-health practices can flourish. From workshops on growing and eating fresh food to farm tours and yoga gatherings, the committee plans to offer an abundance of pilot classes and partnerships this year. For example, the hospital’s STAR program, which cares for teens with severe behavioral disturbances, can utilize the serene space for therapy sessions. And there’s talk of the school’s dietetic interns completing one of their rotations in the garden.
With its central location, the garden has the potential to annually inspire thousands to dig into fresh, local, healthy food choices. But designer Bill Eubanks, a landscape architect with Urban Edge Studio, points out that on the MUSC master plan, which depicts the far-future campus landscape, two buildings appear where the North Garden now stands. “It is, in theory, a temporary installation,” he says. So is this pop-up garden more futile than fertile? The green space gurus behind the project don’t believe so. “To be able to place this garden where it will have a real impact, even if just for a few years, is worth it,” stresses Beak. “We’re excited to be turning a parking space into a green space, because it’s usually the other way around.”
MUSC Community Garden
Corner of Bee and President sts.
Volunteer: While the university plans to care for much of the garden, regular volunteer days are on the horizon. For information on how to help and a schedule of programs and workshops, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
There’s lots germinating in the Lowcountry’s
urban gardening landscape:
Park & Garden
The James Island retirement community recently broke ground on a green space, featuring 40 planting beds to be maintained by residents, an herb garden for the dining program, a greenhouse, and plots of flowering trees. If gardeners can grow a surplus, Bishop Gadsden hopes to sell produce to the public at the facility’s monthly James Island Community Market, with proceeds benefitting the resident assistance fund.
James Island Community Market, 1 Bishop Gadsden Way, James Island. April 16, May 21, June 18, July 16, August 20, September 17, & October 15, 3:30-6 p.m. For more information, call (843) 762-3300 or visit bishopgadsden.org.
Charleston Parks Conservancy
On 3.7 acres at Magnolia Road and Sycamore Avenue in West Ashley’s Avondale neighborhood, the Charleston Parks Conservancy plans to establish a vegetable garden and eventually an urban horticultural center. Community members held a preliminary design meeting in March. The conservancy is also rallying interest in gardens at Medway Park in Riverland Terrace and in Byrnes Down.
For information, contact executive director Jim Martin at email@example.com or (843) 724-5003.
Eat Local Month & Other Lowcountry
Local First Initiatives
Kick-off the spring eating season with events surrounding Eat Local Month (April 1-30). This inaugural effort encourages residents to purchase Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares, shop at an area farmers market, buy a seafood and/or meat share, and support local restaurants that are sourcing their ingredients from family farms and fishermen. Funds raised go directly toward Lowcountry Local First’s (LLF) Sustainable Agriculture programs and classes, including Growing New Farmers and the new farm incubator and training center, the first of its kind in the state.
For more information on CSAs, upcoming events, and classes, visit
“Statistics tell us that the food in a typical meal has traveled 1,500 miles to get to you. Think of the environmental impact rendered just to get that tomato on your plate.”
—Bill Eubanks, Urban Edge Studio