Written by Jessie Palatucci
A rich vegetable garden is being cultivated on the lawn surrounding the Hendersonville First Congregational Church (United Church of Christ) in Hendersonville, NC. The congregation banded together to till the rocky soil and create a rich garden to feed their friends and neighbors.
Since the garden has come to "fruit" the church has donated in excess of 300 pounds of vegetables to the food pantries at Interfaith Assistance Ministries, and to the kitchen at the Hendersonville Rescue Mission, and the work continues.
Growing a garden and a community
church members fruitful, find fellowship in project
By Beth Beasley, Times-News correspondent
May 3, 2011
One outcome of digging in the dirt and growing food is the benefit of growing community, as the fellowship of a local church devotes time, muscle, and careful planning to a new garden project.
On what last year was a big expanse of lawn on the grounds, a rich vegetable garden is being cultivated at the Hendersonville First Congregational Church (United Church of Christ) on Fifth Avenue West.
“To think that this was barren and is now fruitful,” says the Rev. E. Richard Weidler, pastor at FCC. “We are being good stewards of the earth, and we’ll be sharing with our neighbors — something we’re called to do.”
Fortunately, the church’s fellowship includes a healthy collection of gardeners with green thumbs, including Milton Stewart.
Stewart is in the church garden every morning from 9 a.m. to noon, getting the half-acre wedge of land at the back of the church ready for more planting.
“We have a ton of garlic, onions and even some ramps,” says Stewart, who lives in Flat Rock.
So far, cabbage, collards and corn are also growing from small starts on the site, with plans to soon plant rows of sweet potatoes, Yukon gold potatoes, watermelon, cantaloupe, lettuce and broccoli.
To prepare the church grounds — rich bottomland near a stream — Stewart fetched his “big yellow tractor” on a day’s drive to Florida, where the tractor had been stored.
He and fellow church member Carl Popanz built a wooden shed for the tractor.
Popanz and Stewart forged ahead with getting the garden ready after planning meetings formed an idea of the congregation’s vision for the garden.
“The pH was okay — at 7.0,” Stewart says. “It’s lacking a little in nitrogen, but we’re fixing that with a little peat moss.”
The stones littering the soil were so prevalent that “stone removal” work parties were formed in early spring.
“It’s just a great group of people,” says Stewart’s wife, Jeannie. “There’s a lot of enthusiasm for” the garden.
Jeannie Stewart says she and her husband grew vegetables on their five acres in Florida but haven’t had a regular home garden since moving to Henderson County about six years ago.
Around 16 to two dozen church and community members have turned out at each work party to remove brush and stones, Jeannie says.
During one of the stone removal work parties, an old spring covered with a stone grotto was revealed.
As crews clipped back multiflora rose and other invasive plants and vines near the disused railroad tracks, the spring came into view — the date “1933” was inscribed on the man-made arch.
Clear water still flows from the forgotten spring, likely once used for a now demolished home.
Naturally, the spring water will come in handy for growing crops, and a small containment area for water collection has been constructed.
“We have a good friendship garden,” Milton Stewart says.
A mature willow oak stands in the middle of sections of land, plowed in long rows, wedged between White Pine Drive and the old railroad.
Raised beds were considered, but planting with the tractor’s assistance made rows of vegetables seem more feasible.
The idea to grow a garden was considered by the congregation last year but was dismissed after considering the amount of rocks in the soil, Weidler says.
But when First Congregational Church member Diane Rhoades proposed the idea of a community garden earlier this year, her request generated the requisite enthusiasm.
“This church is most receptive to the community’s needs,” Rhoades says.
Spoils from the garden will go to church members as well as organizations in town.
“We want to share,” Jeannie Stewart says. “Places like the Rescue Mission, Interfaith Assistance Ministry — for those who are hungry in the community.”
While the garden is not “completely organic,” Rhoades says they are moving in that direction.
As far as crews working in the garden, Rhoades — in denim overalls stained with dirt at the knees — agrees with Jeannie Stewart that they’re a fun-loving group.
“Singing is mandatory,” Rhoades says with a smile.
Rhoades adds that a raised garden for handicapped members has been talked about in garden planning sessions, perhaps using “an attractive bathtub.”
A gazebo with some chairs is also part of the vision for the garden, according to Jeannie Stewart.
As the growing season gets in full swing, opportunities for more of the congregation to get involved will begin, now that the hard work of clearing has been completed.
“We’re an older congregation,” Jeannie Stewart says. “We will probably have a schedule for weeding and watering soon, which will be easier for most people.”
The Stewarts and other families are growing plants from seed, Jeannie Stewart adds.
The fruits of the garden project are just another way First Congregational members are giving back, she says.
The many who volunteer at area organizations will hopefully see the benefits that fresh, local produce — grown with care and love — will have on the community at large.