Greenville County launching community garden program

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Greenville County has announced the launch of its first community garden program, which aims to create a fresh crop of green thumbs.

“This city has grown a lot in recent years. So we wanted to start a program that could accommodate the residents lacking the land or space to grow food and flowers,” said Aerin Brownlee, coordinator for Greenville County’s Gardening Education program.

The new program will include two community gardens and educational courses focusing on sustainability. The community gardens will feature raised beds that measure 4 feet by 8 feet. The county plans to install a 48-bed garden at East Riverside Park in Greer and a 42-bed garden at The Pavilion Recreation Complex in Taylors.

County residents must pay $50 a year for a raised bed. Out-of-county residents must pay $60 a year for a raised bed. The gardens will open on April 1, 2017. Residents can purchase a bed here.

The county will provide water, a community compost bin and a mix of organic compost from Atlas Organics and organic topsoil from Southern Mulch. The two gardens will be open from dawn to dusk, seven days a week. Participants will be allowed to plant their beds year round but must cover it in the winter if left unplanted.

Participating residents can also attend periodic courses taught by Brownlee, who majored in plant science and horticulture at the University of Missouri and received a master gardener certification from Clemson University’s Extension Service.

The free courses will be based on the American Community Gardening Association’s Environmental Education in the Community Garden curriculum, which includes lessons about soil, beneficial insects, composting, fertilizing, pollinators and more.

“This program offers the perfect teaching opportunity. We’re going to discuss the many ways that participants can maintain these gardens without causing damage to the environment,” said Brownlee. “This is all a really big step for Greenville.”

Brownlee, a former coordinator with Greenville’s Gardening for Good program, was hired by the county earlier this year to start the community garden program. “I just kept receiving inquiries from people wanting to join a community garden,” she said. “And as it turned out, we just didn’t have many community gardens in the area open to the public. So they hired me.”

Multiple community gardens have sprung up throughout the county. In 2008, Greenville Organic Food Organization opened a community garden with 14 plots. Then Bon Secours St. Francis established a 16-bed community garden in 2009 to feed underserved neighborhoods. And Greer Memorial Hospital opened a 50-bed community garden in 2011.

In June, Brownlee visited Charleston and Charlotte, where she evaluated community garden programs. While there, she noted the best aspects of each program. Now, she plans to meld those aspects and incorporate them at the county’s gardens.

Greenville County is  launching a community garden program next spring that will promote sustainable practices.  Photo by Andrew Moore.
Greenville County is launching a community garden program next spring that will promote sustainable practices. Photo by Andrew Moore.

“I was able to speak with some of the gardeners. And I found that most of them wanted fences, because people had vandalized or stolen from their gardens,” said Brownlee. “If you’re paying for your garden, then protection should be provided. So we’ll be installing fences with combination locks around our gardens to prevent theft and vandalism.”

The county also plans to add tabletop beds designed to help residents in wheelchairs and residents who can’t kneel. The two gardens will also feature pathways built from “crush and run” gravel, which is easier for wheelchairs to access and travel.

“This is a great chance to build community. So we want everyone to get outside and garden together no matter their circumstances,” Brownlee said.

The county plans to construct the gardens this fall. The East Riverside Park garden will be built on Oct. 22 and The Pavilion garden will be built on Nov. 5. Interested residents can apply to help build the gardens. Construction begins at 9 a.m. and ends at noon.

The county is spending $18,000 from its general fund to construct the gardens. “We will have a full return on our financial investment in four years, and the investment in our community will last much longer,” Brownlee said.

Once established, the gardens could produce multiple health benefits for residents.

Gardening is considered a moderate to heavy intensity physical activity that has been linked to significant beneficial changes in total cholesterol and systolic blood pressure, according to study published in the scientific journal Health and Place.

Also, gardeners tend to eat more fruits and vegetables on a daily basis, according to a 2008 study conducted by Michigan State University and published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.

“When gardeners go to the grocery store, they know someone spent months growing that tomato. So they might be more inclined to buy the tomato and other healthy foods. But these gardens will also get people together and socializing,” Brownlee said.

Surrounding communities could also reap health benefits from the new gardens too. Brownlee plans to plant crops around the gardens that the public can harvest for free. Those crops will include blueberries, figs and more.

Community gardens can also create economic benefits. In Milwaukee, properties within 250 feet of community gardens experienced an increase of $24.77 with every foot, according to the University of Wisconsin’s Department of Urban Planning.

Also, Greenville County could earn $18,000 from the two gardens annually if it manages to receive a return on investment by 2020. Those funds would go toward up keeping the gardens as well as establishing new programs, according to Brownlee.

WATCH: Aerin Brownlee discusses the benefits of community gardens. 

 

But the community gardens could also benefit the environment. Brownlee plans to plant black-eyed susan, coneflowers, yarrow, parsley, sunflowers, Mexican torch sunflowers, milkweed and other flowering plants near the two gardens that will feed pollinators.

“Planting varieties that many consider ‘old-fashioned’ and native flowers is important, because these flowers offer ready access to nectar for our native pollinators and our non-native but also important honeybees,” Brownlee said.

“Humans and insects alike will benefit from these plantings,” she added.

About three-fourths of the world’s food crops depend on pollination, according to a report released by the United Nations Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPEBS). However, more than 40 percent of invertebrate pollinators – bees and butterflies – are “facing extinction.”

“Wild pollinators in certain regions are being threatened by a variety of factors. Their decline is primarily due to changes in land use, intensive agricultural practices, pesticide use, alien invasive species, diseases and pests and climate change,” said Robert Watson, vice-chair of IPEBS and former chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

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Brownlee plans to use the flowering plants to also “attract beneficial predators that will help control pest problems naturally, such as parasitoid wasps that feed on nectar as adults but lay their eggs inside of flowers and feed on caterpillars as larvae.”

The county plans to enforce “organic practices” and “sustainable methods” to protect pollinators species and the plants. Here are some of the guidelines:

  • Gardeners must use handpicking, row covers and organic pesticides.
  • Gardeners can’t plan shrubs or trees, which create expansive root systems.
  • Plants must be kept at heights that don’t block the sun from other gardener’s beds.
  • Plants must be kept away from pathways and other beds to prevent diseases.

The community garden program could expand in the near future.

“We originally thought about adding more than two gardens. But we decided to start small and see how things go. We’ll monitor these gardens and decide whether or not to plant more. If more gardens do happen, they’ll happen next year,” Brownlee said.

Greenville County is currently surveying residents to find out where community gardens are most needed. The online survey is open through next year.

For more information, please visit greenvillerec.com/community-gardens.

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