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Extension office promoting community gardens

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Ellenwood resident, Piper Williams, is already visualizing herself, her children, and her neighbors planting vegetables, side-by-side, in a community garden that is right now just a patch of dirt, sitting on a hillside behind the Carl Rhodenizer Recreation Center, in Rex.

Williams said she sees her daughter, Chelsea, 14, and her son Richard, 1, learning about planting in the garden. She plans to grow tomatoes and watermelons on her plot. If her vision comes to fruition, she and her neighbors will take up a corner of the community garden, socializing with each other and doing something as a group.

Williams is one of a dozen people who recently attended an interest meeting for a 30-plot community garden the Clayton County Cooperative Extension Service Office is starting at the recreation center. "I'm hoping to get several neighbors together, and, maybe, have three to four plots, and each of us can grow different vegetables, and then, we can share with each other," Williams said. "I think it will be a good opportunity for this community to come together."

The garden at the Rhodenizer recreation center is one of at least seven community gardens the extension service is going to create in Clayton County, said extension service Agriculture and Natural Resources Agent Winston Eason. "Our role is to help improve the quality of life in the county," he said. "A community garden can be used to add cohesion to a community. It can help neighbors build a rapport with each other. It brings people together."

Eason said the goal is for the extension service to help communities start these gardens, by sharing the knowledge and resources of the extension service and its agents, and then, oversight for the gardens will be handed off to community members -- after the first year.

There will be no cost in the first year to be a part of an extension service garden, Eason said, but as it moves to community control, there may be a small membership fee. That is determined by the group of community members who are put into place to run the garden, he said.

"With community gardens, there is usually a small membership fee, and most of the time, that membership fee is used to buy compost," Eason said.

In addition to the Rhodenizer recreation center, he said other gardens will be located at the J. Charlie Griswell Senior Center, in Jonesboro; Charles R. Drew High School, in Riverdale; the Calvin Center, in Hampton; the Clayton County Board of Health office, in Jonesboro; Southside Seventh-Day Adventist Church, in Jonesboro, and the YouthBuild U.S.A. youth program, in Forest Park.

Eason also said the Clayton County Master Gardeners demonstration garden, located at the William H. Reynolds Memorial Nature Preserve, in Morrow, will be expanded so community members can plant vegetables there as well.

The use of pesticides will be restricted in the gardens, giving the vegetables grown in them more of a true organic feel. "The trend is toward a more sustainable garden -- a more environmentally friendly garden," Eason said. In the spring months, produce, such as squash, jalapenos, tomatoes and watermelons can be grown, while leafy vegetables, such as turnips and cabbage, are better suited for the colder, winter months, according to Eason.

"There's a renewed interest in going back to growing your own vegetables," he said. "There are a couple of reasons for this. First, some people are concerned about the pesticides used to grow foods, so they want to produce a healthier food source. Also, with the economic downturn, it has created a renewed interest in going your own fruits and vegetables. Fresh fruits and vegetables are expensive to buy."

At this point, Eason said, the garden planned for the Rhodenizer recreation center is the farthest along in terms of planning. He plans to hold a "How-To" class on gardening next week for people interested in a plot in the garden. There will be 30 plots at the Rhodenizer recreation center, he said, and anyone living in the county can have a plot there.

One of the people spearheading the garden at the Rhodenizer recreation center is Clayton County Commissioner Sonna Singleton, who represents that part of the county. Singleton hosted the interest meeting that was held this week. "I'm just excited about this community garden," she said. "It's an activity to bring neighbors together to do something good for the community."

Singleton said she will have a plot as part of the community garden, but she has not yet decided what she will grow on her plot.