When the Piedmont Environmental Council kicked off a contest to seek out and recognize the best community gardens in central Virginia last spring, its members weren’t quite sure what to expect. By year’s end, they were holding 22 applications: big plots, small plots, old ones, new ones.
The diversity and strong showing, especially from Charlottesville and Albemarle, made it hard to pick winners, said PEC staffer Jessica Palmer. But ultimately, they selected six standouts, including two thriving urban gardens from the city—the City Schoolyard Garden at Buford Middle School and The Haven’s PATCH Community Garden.
Both the Charlottesville winners are exemplary for a number of reasons, Palmer said. They’re active and food-focused, she said, growing herbs and veggies that eventually make it to tables, and those tending them also make an effort to provide pollinator habitat with flowers and other plants.
But most importantly, they’re designed to be much more than a place to grow veggies.
The Buford City Schoolyard Garden, which won a $500 award from PEC, was started in 2010 with financial help from the Local Food Hub and has since become a much-loved outdoor classroom where middle schoolers can get their hands dirty learning about the science of gardening and tasting the fruits of their labors.
Teachers there “really do a great job of incorporating it into their lesson plans,” Palmer said.
Less than a mile away is the 2-year-old PATCH Community Garden run by The Haven, the Downtown day center for the homeless, which won one of PEC’s $300 awards. Lee Johnson has been The Haven’s “garden guru” for a year, and has helped turn the two-acre plot into an integral part of The Haven’s mission.
On donated land adjacent to the Oakwood Cemetery near the intersection of Ridge Street and Elliott Avenue, Haven guests, staff, and volunteers work together to grow vegetables and berries and tend a beehive. Nearby residents have pitched in by redirecting their rainwater to two cisterns that are tapped for irrigation—one way the urban setting has worked in the gardeners’ favor, said Johnson.
The 60′x100′ garden offers a supply of fresh, local food to The Haven’s kitchen, and has been remarkably productive. More than 400 pounds of potatoes were harvested this year, Johnson said—“a real truckload.”
But their toil in the soil is about more than growing food, he said. “The really wonderful part of it is the community that’s built, and the sense of pride and ownership it brings.” Giving people the chance to take responsibility for their lives is a big part of what The Haven does, said Johnson, and the garden is a natural extension. “It’s been a really empowering and ennobling thing for some of the guests to be able to grow their own food and support themselves in a tangible way. When people are sitting down for breakfast in the morning and eating their hash browns, it’s cool for them to say, ‘Yeah, I grew these, I watered them, I harvested them, I cut them up.’”
There’s still room to expand, Johnson said, and the award money may go to more fencing and tools to turn over more ground. The spirit of the garden is growing along with its footprint. Some of the neighbors supplying rainwater have been inspired to start their own plots, Johnson said—more evidence that, as PEC found, the city and surrounding areas are fertile ground for the backyard garden.