A dream takes shape in downtown Jackson


By Tharon Kirk
Member, Jackson First UMC

The vision for community gardens in Jackson, Tenn. began in our Christian Transformation Group at First United Methodist Church as we were sharing and holding each other accountable as disciples of Christ. 
Our church has been developing a relationship with the Hatton Street Neighborhood just west of Lambuth University over the past year. We’ve been looking for ways to be in ministry with that neighborhood. Grady Neely, whose college major was agronomy, is a member of our group.
“Grady, I think developing a community garden for that neighborhood would be a great way to work with and get to know some of the people,” I suggested. 
Grady replied, “Someone else said that to me.” Every summer Grady puts in a huge garden and shares the produce with people in our church. 
The next day, Grady was at church when someone else mentioned to him the possibility of a garden in the Hatton Street area. He took that as a sign that he needed to act, so he met with our pastor, Ted Leach, to talk it over.  
With Ted’s blessing, he set out to find an empty lot that might be used for a garden. 
The first area Grady considered turned out to be unsuitable for gardening, but the owner suggested he talk with the city. Johnny Byrd, a member of Jackson First, works for the City of Jackson and oversees the maintenance of parks and city property. Johnny thought the city might be interested, and he was right.
Contacting the mayor’s office resulted in an offer to let us use city-owned lots for community gardens all over town.  
When Grady shared with me what he had learned, we realized that lots of people could benefit from having a garden and that God had a bigger vision.
Community gardens bring people together
In this time of economic uncertainty, a garden is one way to reduce household costs. Gardening provides other benefits as well. In addition to providing nutritious produce, it is also excellent exercise and gets people outside. Gardening is good for the environment and helps us be good stewards of the earth.  
Community gardens bring together people from different parts of the city or from a neighborhood who, through working together, get to know and appreciate one another. 
God had a purpose
Most gardeners will tell you that gardening helps them connect with God and feel that they are sharing in the creative process. 
I had recently become a Master Gardener because of my interest in growing flowers, but I realized that God may have had a different purpose for my new expertise. 
Four key people from Jackson First joined the steering committee for the gardens. In addition to Grady Neely and myself, Frank Lawrence, an engineer, and Bobbie Mays, our communications staff person have been instrumental in helping us bring the gardens to reality.
Everyone wanted to help
From the beginning, community interest in the idea has been phenomenal. In addition to allowing use of city-owned lots, Mayor Jerry Gist offered city personnel and equipment to till the gardens. Jackson Energy Authority agreed to donate compost and our local co-op provided lime to amend the soil. 
We sought out the help of some persons with experience and expertise to help us: Bill Wyatt, the Madison County Extension Agent and a member of Forest Heights UMC; Kayo Mullins, another United Methodist and Master Gardener; and Dr. David Sams, retired UT Extension employee and a noted expert on home vegetable gardening.  
In addition, we enlisted the support of the Madison County Master Gardeners.  
Liberty High School, which has a green house, seeded and grew 2000+ plants for the community gardens – mostly tomatoes and peppers. Jason Reeves, at the UT Research and Education Center, also donated seeds and extra plants for the gardens.  
Several businesses and groups have donated money or offered gardening resources. We have even had a small tiller donated to Jackson First for use in the gardens. 
Six sites were selected
Our committee selected six sites from the 200+ city-owned properties available. One of the sites is large and is located just east of downtown where much of the tornado damage occurred in 2001. The sites are scattered around the central part of the city–including one in Bemis. 
Each garden site has a volunteer garden coordinator who oversees the garden, deals with issues, and helps with watering times. A Master Gardener is available to each garden to advise those who have never gardened before. 
In addition, Dr. Sams serves as a consultant to the whole project. He’s providing educational classes to the larger community related to vegetable gardening. During the first hour, the two-hour class focuses on basic gardening knowledge, then, in the second hour, covers the best warm weather vegetables to grow in this area. He’s willing to provide other classes as well.
Rain delayed the start-up of the gardens but we were finally able to begin tilling. Other difficulties have been related to getting the word out to those we are targeting with the gardens. The plots are available to anyone in Jackson, but we are particularly trying to target those who could benefit economically from having a vegetable garden to supply food for their family. 
Agencies excited about fresh vegetables for clients
Some exciting developments are already taking place. The Regional InterFaith Agency (RIFA) plans to have their volunteers man a garden plot. The vegetables will be used in the soup kitchen. This will provide wholesome fresh foods for those in our city who are homeless or struggling.  
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church offered the Community Gardens a lot just behind their church. This lot backs up to the Area Relief Ministries (ARM) Day Shelter for Homeless Men. The garden will be worked by the men who will then be allowed to gather and use the produce during the summer when Room at the Inn is not in operation.  
Tennessee Children’s Service is taking a garden plot to help provide vegetables for those who serve as families for foster children.
Jackson First is providing a community garden for the Hatton Street Neighborhood and volunteers who will work with that neighborhood.  
Joe Moore of Bemis UMC is coordinating a garden for that area. 
Other plots will be worked by individuals or families.
The possibilities are endless.  Those who work a garden agree not to sell any of the produce. If they produce more than they can use, then the excess must be given away.
Launching something new in a community usually involves some work. Anything worthwhile always involves some effort. We are excited to see our dream becoming a reality. 
The gardens have become a joint effort by Jackson First, City Government, State Government agencies, and private groups. We pray that God will be able to use the project to help individuals in our community meet physical, emotional, and spiritual needs; to help us build a broader community built on cooperation and respect; and to help us all to live transformed lives, offering ourselves and our gifts in the service of Christ. •