Unions of the Garden Variety
Mentoring program aims to spread county’s green revolution
The Forsyth Cooperative Extension is looking for local residents with green thumbs to help ensure the success of the area’s thriving community garden population.
With the help of a grant from the Winston-Salem Foundation, the Cooperative Extension is offering free training courses for community members who wish to take their leadership skills and their gardening expertise to the next level, through the Community Garden Mentoring Program. Mentors are required to attend monthly programs at the Extension offices and meet at least biweekly with garden leaders. The training program, which includes 18 hours of mentor training and classroom instruction, is designed to broaden the Extension’s reach in Forsyth County, which is home to an estimated 100 community gardens, said Mary Jac Brennan, Extension Agent for Community Gardens.
“These are people who know about gardening and then they get trained in community organizing. They are matched up with gardens that need some help with the
organization part of it,” Brennan explained. “…It’s a really good way for us to stay in touch with gardens and for gardens to have a direct pipeline to us.”
The mentoring program was launched in 2011 to serve the ever-growing demand of a burgeoning community garden population, which has more than doubled since Brennan came on the scene less than three years ago. Brennan said that food shortage in the area and First Lady Michelle Obama’s focus on community gardening and promoting healthy eating have both aided the Extension in its efforts to promote the gardens, which are tended by volunteers and provide free, healthy food to volunteers, nearby residents and virtually anyone who needs it. But the gardens meet far more than just a physical need, Brennan said.
“One of the things that really excites me about community gardening is it really does cut across racial lines, across gender lines, across socio-economic lines,” she remarked. “I think it’s something that we really ought to promote and be proud of for our community and use it as a unifying thing. It’s a way to come together and celebrate something really good.”
Longtime city resident Virginia Cooper serves as a mentor for both the Bethania community garden and the community garden at her church, Lloyd Presbyterian. The retired Salem College registrar has been working with the Lloyd garden since its inception in 2009 and completed the mentoring program last year.
“I couldn’t physically work in the garden anymore and I thought it was a way I could help,” said the great-grandmother of two, who suffers from back problems. “…It’s very satisfying. I get to meet a lot of people who are interested in gardening like I am.”
The historic church sports 11 beds in its grassy backyard, which last year yielded nearly 40 pounds of vegetables, which were donated to Samaritan Ministries, Crisis Control and members of the surrounding community. The garden at Lloyd has been tended by a parade of local volunteers, many of whom were residents at the church’s homeless shelter, and Greensboro native Rachel Jackson, who has faithfully toiled at Cooper’s side in the garden for the past four years. For Jackson, a retired library cataloguer, gardening is second nature. “My dad was a railroad man, but he was the kind of person that always thought you ought to grow something,” related Jackson, the fourth of 10 children. “He would go to work and come back every evening in the spring and plant this wonderful garden and we (children) would all be a part of it. He really thought nobody should even think about eating without planting something.”
Jackson’s childhood garden yielded a wide variety of crops and there was always food to spare. The garden at Lloyd is a cheerful place, just as her father’s garden was all those years ago, said the 74 year-old.
“It’s kind of a little oasis,” remarked the great-grandmother of one. “It’s a nice, peaceful place back there.”
Both Jackson and Cooper, a native of Memphis, Tenn., say the garden holds spiritual significance for them.
“I think the most important thing for me is to know that a human being can be a part of creation to the point where we can extend the reach of earth and sky and rain – we’re a part of that. I think it’s akin to being close to God himself,” she declared. “I just hope people will realize how important it is that we stay in touch with our environment and our earth. I just think as long as we do that, we are recreating and giving some value to life, in more ways than one.”
The Extension is currently recruiting for its upcoming daytime mentoring courses, which will be held February 6, 13 and 20 from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m. Lunch is provided. For more information, contact Brennan at 336-703-2850 or firstname.lastname@example.org. The Lloyd garden is in need of volunteers to help out during its spring growing season, which is slated to start in March. For more information, contact Rev. Laura Spangler at 336-784-1293.