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Natural Awakenings Charlotte

Community Gardens - Healthy Food, Service and Healing

By Lisa Moore

There’s more than carrots and cauliflower growing in community gardens across the Charlotte area. Social interaction, self-reliance and cross-cultural connections are flourishing.

At 76 years of age, Mae Bell Gordon doesn’t mind getting dirty pulling weeds or planting veggies in her community garden in the Belmont neighborhood. She believes it keeps her young. “It’s at least one thing I can leave home to do,” says the great grandmother.

Gordon heads up the team of gardeners for a bountiful garden that provides healthy food and unity for neighborhood residents. The garden is sponsored by Charlotte Green of Mecklenburg County, a non-profit group dedicated to working with inner-city residents to develop and sustain community gardens.

“This garden brought us together because we didn’t know one another,” says Gordon, who has been involved with the garden since 1992. “Everybody loves to work in it, even though it’s hard work sometimes. And the food tastes so much better than the food you buy.”

Sowing the Seeds of Unity

Community gardens can be placed anywhere there is unused land: vacant lots, between two buildings, at schools, churches and hospitals, on the side of the road. With a purpose to bring people together to get in touch with the source of their food and to break down isolation by creating a social community, urban agriculture has numerous benefits.

The gardens reduce the amount of unproductive and vacant land, improve the image of troubled neighborhoods, preserve green space, develop pride and self-sufficiency and reduce crime. They encourage a community’s food security and allow citizens to grow their own food or donate what they have grown.

Since 1991, Charlotte Green has worked in partnership with neighborhoods, city and county government, religious organizations, local businesses and interested individuals to develop vegetable and flower gardens on vacant lots.

With eight gardens and two outreach gardens, Charlotte Green has 89 gardeners and reaches approximately 400 people. The group obtains funding from an auxiliary membership program and a fundraiser at Christmas selling wreathes and garlands.

Executive Director Cissy Shull says the organization partners with inner city communities who want to better their neighborhoods.  After locating well-organized neighborhoods, representatives from Charlotte Green attend a neighborhood meeting to see if there is interest in a garden. 

“We find eight interested gardeners and then we contact the City of Charlotte and they help with identifying lots for gardening,” says Shull. “We contact the owner and get permission to use the land. Once the land has been obtained we meet the gardeners at the site to decide on the plots.” Over the next few weeks the soil is prepared, fencing is erected and a water source is secured for planting.

Through the program, Shull believes the community as a whole becomes better. “Our participants save money by producing their own food. Vacant lots are transformed into beautiful vegetable and flower gardens and the appearance of the neighborhood improves. Residents organize to become involved and concerned about the betterment of their neighborhoods.”

One of Charlotte Green’s outreach programs is with Presbyterian Hospital’s Hospice and Palliative Care that has a Giving Garden located at the McGill Rose Garden in the NoDa area. The garden produces rosemary (which symbolizes remembrance), tomatoes and flowers. Other Charlotte Green community gardens help supplement the hospice garden by providing extra produce from their gardens.

The purpose of the Giving Garden is in alignment with Presbyterian Hospice & Palliative Care’s treatment philosophy of providing physical, spiritual and emotional care for patients and their families at the end of life.

“Our Giving Gardens program helps us support our hospice patients and their families emotionally by creating special and shared moments,” says Lorri Bland, Director of Marketing and Development. “Volunteers deliver flower bouquets to our patients and their families so they can celebrate special occasions and they deliver fresh garden produce so they can have an opportunity to gather over a meal and create special memories.”

Growing Food and Compassion for Those in Need

Other local organizations have set up gardens to help those in need. At Myers Park United Methodist Church parishioners turned what was originally a builder’s yard during the construction of the church’s parish life building into a thriving organic garden. Sue Varga, who spearheaded the project, says they grow primarily heirloom varieties of vegetables mixed with some Asian varieties.

“Our primary recipients of the produce are the Montagnard community,” she says. “The Montagnards are farmers from the region of rural Viet Nam, Cambodia and Laos. Many were resettled in the United States after the Viet Nam war.”

The gardens at The Urban Ministry Center not only provide food for their soup kitchen that serves up to 400 free meals a day, but are also a source of therapy, with healing being just as important as the vegetables grown.

Those that face homelessness and poverty can become friends while working side by side weeding and planting. “People who have no place to live can take part in the garden,” says Community Gardening Program Director, Don Boekelheide. “No one will try and run them off here.” As the gardeners begin to talk, their stories emerge and they understand each other as human beings.

“Some people will sit on the side of the garden and watch for a couple of months,” Boekelheide states. “Then all of a sudden they will talk and unload about how they landed on the street. It all comes out.”

Boekelheide, who is a Master Gardener and has an MS in Agriculture, promotes good stewardship and mindful gardening practices. The entire landscape at Urban Ministry functions as a community garden. “We grow food everywhere,” he says.   The gardens are ecologically and sustainably managed with active participation by those who seek assistance at the center, along with community volunteers. A large cistern captures rainwater for use in the garden and stable habitats are provided to attract beneficial bugs that work as natural pesticides. Lots of flowers are planted to lift spirits and various types of art are displayed in the gardens.

Slow Food Charlotte, an organization that links the pleasure of food with a commitment to community and the environment, has several community gardens in town and focuses on bringing gardens to those who have the least access to healthy, fresh food. With an eye on the health of the planet, they consistently seek ways to be resourceful.

Earlier this year Slow Food set up a garden behind the Friendship Trays building. Friendship Trays delivers more than 600 meals daily to elderly, handicapped, and convalescing people, and the food from this garden goes towards those meals. Students from Community Culinary School of Charlotte tend the plants and expand their hands-on learning about food production.

Wooden pallets were used to create the raised bed gardens and compost bins. The plot has its own water harvesting system captured from warehouse downspouts and powered by gravity.

Rich Deming, who heads up Slow Food’s Community Garden Collaborative, notes that Portland, Oregon, has 41 community gardens with the full support of the local government. He says Slow Food would like to see Charlotte become the Portland of the Southeast and wants to let our elected representatives know that there are things that they can do to help promote this idea.

Deming suggests passing legislation to waive property taxes on land containing a community garden or giving absent land owners an incentive to let neighbors use their property as options to get a program going. If Deming’s dream comes true, a whole new way of feeding those in need would blossom.

“Ideally, every piece of vacant urban property would be growing food for the surrounding neighborhood--a micro-local food system--and Charlotte would be a national model,” concludes Deming.

For more information or to learn how you can volunteer visit:,, or

Want a garden, but don’t have the space or the sun?

The Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation Department offers local residents the opportunity to rent their own garden space. Grab your garden gloves and shovels and get outdoors to enjoy the harvest. Plant your flowers and vegetables at these local community garden spots: Reedy Creek Park, Fraizer Park, Hoskins Park, Huntingtowne Park, McAlpine Creek Park, and Winget Park.

For more information visit


Are you a “Gurerilla Gardener” dedicated to fighting filth with flowers in the Charlotte area? If so we’d like to hear of your adventures. Contact us at: [email protected]

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