Welcome to the Dr. John Wilson Community Garden
By Roberta Binder
In the Beginning
Thanks to the long-range vision of Dr. John Wilson, a retired pediatrician who settled with his wife and family in Black Mountain in 1976, community gardening continues to thrive. His gardening passion, beginning as a child of Korean missionaries, lead to a community garden in his backyard. Dr. Wilson set a mission that has never changed:
To educate people with a lifelong skill
To give people a place to grow food for themselves
To grow food for people in need
Dr. Wilson’s commitment expanded from a backyard gathering of a few gardeners growing food for themselves and others into the largest Community Garden in Western North Carolina! The Dr. John Wilson Community Garden on White Pine Drive, down the hill from Grey Eagle Arena, is his proud legacy serving the entire community.
When the Wilsons sold their family home and half of their land to build a smaller retirement home, Dr. Wilson asked the town for land so he could move the garden. They gave him 1.25 acres of bottomland along the Swannanoa River, formerly farmland fallow for many years. During 2004, the first year, 12 people rented land from the Parks and Recreation Department; on the 20 remaining plots, Dr. Wilson grew produce to donate. Volunteers from Warren Wilson College, the Learning School, and the community assisted Dr. Wilson who dedicated 40 to 50 hours weekly, sometimes more. In those early years – growing beautiful vegetables among weeds still untamed – the garden already donated almost 1,000 pounds of fresh produce to local food centers.
Diana McCall, in 2005, wandered into the garden and quickly volunteered. Already a talented chef and lifelong gardener, she continued to learn and thrive under Dr. Wilson’s gentle wisdom. Diana remembers the grant she applied for: “Initially the Black Mountain Community Garden was one of eight programs funded by the state to receive a two-year grant with support through Active Living by Design which targeted childhood obesity.” With this goal, she set out to make the garden thrive while serving the community through education.
Diana started gardening education programs with the help of a school educator; both positions continue and remain part time. The educational programs easily dovetailed with the goals of the community garden. Eat Smart Black Mountain became the slogan that birthed nutritional education in the schools through cooking programs at the Black Mountain food distribution site, cooking classes in the schools, and school garden education. A cookbook developed by Diana and her partner gave the children simple, healthy, and nutritious recipes. Today, the primary and elementary schools have gardens maintained by active school garden clubs. Every first and fourth grader enjoys a field trip to the community garden; many students had no idea that vegetables had a source other than the local grocery! Slowly, the gardening community increased from the original 12 gardeners to 30 on the 1.25 acres divided into 70 plots and each year there is a waiting list. Each plot measures 8’ x 50’. Since gardeners keep the same plot each year, many have dedicated portions of their land to perennial crops. This is in addition to 6,000 square feet dedicated to donation.
That’s a Lot of Land to Water!
When Diana heard that the town was planning a new roof for the Grey Eagle Arena, she asked for a food-grade roof. The town researched and discovered that the proof was possible so, in 2009, they installed a water catchment system. The facility, on a hill directly above the garden, now has six 1,100-gallon barrels providing water for the western side of the garden. Diana notes, “Public Services provided the labor for the installation and continues to maintain the system. Not only did the food-grade roof provide irrigation water, but also brought greater town ownership to the garden. This was one of our first collaborations with the town on a project at the garden.”
The Swannanoa River also provides irrigation water to the lower side of the garden. Recently, Public Services installed a new electric pump for the system. Constantly running electricity enabled the installation of drip irrigation for donation plots, in addition to the hose watering system available to the individual eastern garden plots.
How does the garden grow?
Initially, grant money provided funding for part time garden coordinator Diana McCall and a part time garden educator. The two worked creatively and stretched their initial funding to last beyond the initial timeframe. With grant money for marketing, they printed aprons, T-shirts, and shopping bags publicizing the Eat Smart Black Mountain program. The program spread like a web over the community, increasing awareness of the garden.
To continue community awareness, Diana provides cooking demonstrations at the local tailgate market once a month. She has created liaisons with local farmers and, by highlighting the products in season, educates the community to shop the market for nutritious meals throughout the week.
Although Dr. Wilson stepped back from his active presence in the garden – he is celebrating 96 happy, healthy years – his mission remains strong. He was a leader who developed followers and a movement that continually grows stronger and stronger.
Black Mountain residents Koriander and David Waterman, who follow a vegetarian diet, have farmed a plot for three years. “Most of the summer, we hardly buy veggies as we eat what we’ve grown. Through fall and winter, I’d say we provide about a third to a half of our total veggie intake with what we’ve frozen and fresh kale, broccoli, and cabbage from our third plantings. This spring, we had so much lettuce that we asked Diana and her volunteers to pick as much as they wanted after giving as much as we could to friends! We are happy, not only to grow and share 10% of our plot, but to provide additional veggies beyond that [whenever possible].”
The 10% plot was instituted two years ago with starts and seeds provided through the Parks and Recreation Department. The gardeners care for the space as they care for their own plot. “Each year we can count on 1,000 pounds of donation produce from the 10% plots alone,” notes Diana.
The garden grows beyond the Black Mountain Community: “Through the WNC Alliance for Gardens That Give, which brings together 15 or more gardens growing for donation, we are supporting each other and have become teaching examples for others who want to start a donation garden,” Diana explains. “Communities come to Alliance with their garden plans and then we provide suggestions and direct them to the appropriate garden initiative for fulfilling their vision.” The donation plot grows increasingly more productive through a large base of volunteer hours. Warren Wilson College provides workers through weekly service trips from their Service Learning Program. Diana partners with them to teach culture-life seminars at the college. Summer interns volunteer through the College’s Environmental Leadership Center. First Inc. of Blue Ridge sends three to four volunteers every Monday; they also volunteer at St. James Episcopal Welcome Table where they witness the entire food production circle.
During the summer months, the garden is in partnership with Ridgecrest campers from their summer camp program. University of Louisville Kentucky has worked in the garden for five years, during spring break, through their Bonner Scholarship Program. They work non-stop for three very full days. Three springs ago, they planted the apple trees growing and thriving in the developing orchard. “For me, there is this wonderful connection with volunteers through the longevity of the garden and their help in creating a garden legacy,” Diana shares with a sentimental smile. “Now we have a split rail fence bordering the eastern edge of the garden which abuts the Garden Greenway. I love to think about the work experience these kids had in building the fence bordering our medicinal species garden.”
Hoses, wheelbarrows, shovels: where do they come from?
Many tools have been donated or purchased through grants. Finding grants for gardening needs such as tools, sheds, and hoses is easier. “One of my favorite tools is the grape hoe from EasyDigging.com that is super affordable, long lasting, and does tons of work. It is one of our most used tools.” (Sounds like a great holiday gift for your favorite garden or gardener! To buy LOCAL, check with Jesse Israel & Sons at the Asheville Farmers’ Market.)
Diana continues, “I also have several garden members who are amazing volunteers and are great at repairing broken tools. They provide upkeep for tool handles and wheelbarrows and refitting hoses.”
Looking to the Future
Last May, the Black Mountain Greenway system expanded to include the garden. In conjunction with the Garden Greenway, the previously mentioned fence protects the three-hundred-foot long medicinal plant trail, highlighting plant species from our mountain slopes. The western boundary is developing as a permaculture garden – a food forest of fruit and nut trees, berry bushes, fruiting vines and perennial edibles through initial funding from several grants including North Carolina Blue Cross & Blue Shield and North Carolina Parks Recreation. The apple trees are on the north side and on the south side is a 15-bin cold composting system. Community members, not necessarily plot holders, often donate their compost. Artisan Gourmet Foods, a local business, donates their coffee grounds and vegetable pulp and trimmings. The neighboring horse farm installed a gate to provide access to their horse manure for the compost system and for garden use. Wagner Tree keeps the garden supplied with wood chips.
Beyond the garden is the back nine for the community disk golf course. To increase the game’s difficulty level, another grant provides funding for blinds that increase the challenge and create another food source for the community through fruit trees. “We’re creating a legacy for the future of our community. We’re looking 40-50 years down the road and answering: What is our intention for our community – not just for now but in the future.”
Returning to additional gifts that the garden provides to plot owners, “Tending the garden slows us down,” Koriander notes. “Garden tasks don’t lend themselves to rushing. David likes turning the soil, making sure it’s rich with manure. You can see that he enjoys being a good steward. I enjoy the vivid colors of the vegetables and their aromas.” I have frequently caught David when he’s weeding, and I can vouch for finding him in a blissful, meditative space of peace and happiness.”
This year, each plot and the donation section produced three crop rotations. Combining the 10% donation plots and the larger section, approximately 4,000 pounds of beautiful, fresh produce went into the community. What a great model and it provides community ownership in giving back.
What Gifts can the Reader bring to this Table?
Readers may give to the garden through their tree and shrub sponsorship program. Information on the Grow the Garden Program can be found at: www.bmrecreation.com; Additionally, in the spring, the garden needs seeds and starts which you can provide through financial donations to the Parks and Recreation Department by specifying that the gift is a donation to the Community Garden or by contacting Diana McCall through Black Mountain Recreation and Parks: Diana.McCall@TownOfBlackMountain.org or 828-669-2052
Koriander best wraps up the concept: “I enjoy watching the entire community garden transform through the seasons, from little shoots peering above the soil to the rampant abundance of summer, and then becoming more hushed and sparse as fall sets in. As we’ve nurtured our garden, our garden nurtures us. It’s a relationship; part of our life.” Visitors are always welcome at the Dr. John Wilson Community Garden in Black Mountain. They request that you remain on the clearly marked paths throughout and that you pick none of the produce—you can easily take the memories home with your camera! To volunteer yourself or a group, please contact Diana McCall (information listed above).
Roberta Binder, Facilitating Clarity through Mindful Editing at RobertaEdits.com. She is also a writer and photo-journalist who enjoys all her writing adventures with WNC Woman – Women Nurturing Change!