Companion Gardening

Now entering its second decade, Oxford’s only community garden is growing up.

Written by Sarah Ligon | Photographed by Joe Worthem

Tucked behind the Old Armory Pavilion, in what was once a little-used baseball field, the Oxford Community Garden has grown over the past decade from a scratchy patch of compacted red soil and Bermuda grass into a half acre of lush flowers, vegetables and fruiting shrubs, thanks to the work of dedicated volunteer gardeners.

On a recent spring day — before the COVID-19 pandemic changed the nature of social gatherings — the garden was bustling with people during its monthly work day. New gardeners were being assigned plots. The old hands weeded a dense row of communal blueberry bushes. Meanwhile, garden member Andrew Gordon sat beneath a honeysuckle arbor plucking a harp for the workers’ enjoyment.

This is a far cry from the garden’s earliest days. The seeds of the idea to start a garden anyone in the community could join began with Oxford resident Susie Adams. On a trip to Finland for work, Adams saw her first community garden.

“People had their chairs out there and their kids out there and they were hanging out and they had art in the garden,” Adams said. “It seemed like such a neat community place. I thought, ‘We have to do this in Oxford!’”

In 2009, she formed a task force with a handful of interested gardeners, applied for $5,000 in grants, and approached then-mayor Pat Patterson about finding a suitable plot of land.

The plot that was settled on was not Adams’ first choice. The soil was poor and deer were a problem. The first season was given over to trucking in suitable soil and building raised beds and an 8-foot-tall fence. But the central location at University and Bramlett was ideal, and it has only improved with time. The city has since added a bus stop and skate park, and the Oxford Community Market meets on Tuesdays in the refurbished pavilion space.

Today the garden is a popular place, and there is often a waiting list for its 50 available plots. Plots range in size from 4-by-8 to 16-by-16 and cost between $15 and $35 per year. There are also several 3-by-3 children’s plots available at no cost. The $10 membership dues pay for tools, compost and mulch. Most say that’s a pretty good deal: All they need to bring is enthusiasm and some seeds. But that’s not why they joined or why they stay. It’s about community.

“I personally love the community aspect of gardening. That’s one of the reasons I’ve been garden manager for so long,” said garden manager Tiffany Benson, who, for the past seven years has volunteered to organize the garden’s group work days and plot assignments, arrange for deliveries of compost and mulch, and help gardeners troubleshoot problems from invasive weeds to fire ants. “I enjoy seeing people on work days. I know everyone in the garden. It’s a privilege.”

Other gardeners see an educational opportunity. “We started the garden because we wanted to show our children where food comes from and so that they can grow their own food wherever they go,” said David Ray.

He and his wife Meaghan Gallagher have turned their large plot into a learning lab for their four children, who range in age from 4 to 11. Last summer the children experimented with growing a “Three Sisters” garden, interplanting corn, squash and beans, which provide support for one another while replenishing the soil.

“We had read that it’s what Native Americans grew, and we wanted to see if it would work for us,” Ray said. “And it worked.” Their Seminole pumpkins, an heirloom variety from Florida, flourished.

Whatever the draw, all the gardeners believe in the joy of getting their hands into the rich, black soil and growing food they can eat.

“There is something very satisfying about getting dirt under your fingernails, smelling the green smell on your hands after pulling weeds, and then occasionally, when you are lucky, eating — and sharing — the fruits of your labors,” said Sam Lisi, who joined the garden immediately after moving to Oxford six years ago.

One of the early tenets of the garden was sharing with the wider community. Since the inaugural season, four of the garden’s largest plots have been dedicated as “Community Harvest” and are grown exclusively for The Pantry, Oxford’s emergency food donation station. Spearheading this effort are Beckett and Mary Hartwell Howorth, who donated hundreds of pounds of produce to The Pantry last year.

Last summer, health concerns kept the Howorths away from the garden, but other members stepped in to help. Shirley Gray rallied volunteers to come out and weed, water and harvest at the height of the hot Mississippi summer.

“Oxford has a fabulous food pantry, and it is filled with good food for people that need that help,” said Gray. “However, we all know everybody needs more access to fresh vegetables, and that’s what the garden is able to provide.”

Of course the COVID-19 outbreak put the brakes on the “community” aspect of community gardening. For a time, gardeners staggered their visits, coming individually or in family groups to tackle communal jobs such as mowing and weeding. Now they can visit with each other again, from a safe “social distance” and look forward to the day when they can resume their festive work days.

In one respect the pandemic seeded a new opportunity: floral deliveries. This past June, Lesley Walkington began taking colorful bouquets of purple coneflower, blue Bachelor’s buttons, yellow lilies and zinnias of every hue to Oxonions in communal living centers, such as the Mississippi State Veterans Home, who remain on lockdown because they are especially vulnerable to the virus.

“We wanted to let the veterans know they are not forgotten, so we shared flowers we have grown in our plot, knowing that flowers bring instant happiness to all,” said Walkington, who also belongs to the Oxford Garden Club and helps maintain the club’s plot of cutting flowers at one of the entrances to the community garden.

More of this outreach is what garden president Junaid Rehman wants to see in the garden’s second decade: more plots, bigger plots, and bigger contributions to the community through donations.

“I’m also trying to bring a multi-national community to the garden so that we can learn from each other,” said Rehman, who has introduced his garden neighbors to growing the sugar cane and loofah of his native Pakistan and has learned from them how to overwinter onions and garlic.

Garden members are from Canada, Poland, Nepal, Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan and across the U.S. Rehman believes this diversity is central to the garden’s success. Like in a three sister’s garden, each member plays a supporting role to help the garden thrive.

As the final pre-pandemic work day drew to a close, the scene in the garden was much like the one that had inspired Adams all those years ago: three generations of Oxonians spread out across the garden, planting and dreaming of the season to come.

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