Home National news TSU Community Gardens offer ‘Field of Dreams’ to cultivate fresh produce

TSU Community Gardens offer ‘Field of Dreams’ to cultivate fresh produce

by PRIDE Newsdesk

Biars Davis Jr., and his wife, Joan Clayton, have taken part in the community gardens at TSU the past three seasons.     photos: Rick DelaHaya, TSU Media Relations

Biars Davis Jr., and his wife, Joan Clayton, have taken part in the community gardens at TSU the past three seasons. photo: Rick DelaHaya, TSU Media Relations

Surveying her rows of vegetables that were recently planted, Joan Clayton carefully walks through the tender plants, stopping occasionally to comment on how well they are growing, or how slowly they are to emerge from the soil.

“Poor little lima beans,” she said to herself recently. “You just haven’t come up the way I thought you would.”

Looking one row over at her green peas and squash, the now retired health care communication specialist gets giddy with excitement. “Now these green peas and squash are just about perfect,” she said looking at the two-to-three-inch sprouts. “We’ll have more than we can handle.”

Two summers ago, Clayton and her husband, Biars Davis Jr., a retired police office, decided to try their hands at growing their own vegetables. Without much experience to fall back on, they purchased a single plot at the community gardens at Tennessee State University and planted everything from beans, tomatoes and squash. Now in their third year, they are back again, only this time purchasing three plots to grow what they say is basically their own ‘produce store.’

The husband and wife team join a number of urban farmers looking to grow their own produce as the seeds of the local food movement take root in community gardens across the city of Nashville and Davidson County. More than 45 community gardens have sprung up in private lots, church grounds, schoolyards and vacant lots, according to officials with the city of Nashville, as people look for ways to save money, eat healthy and get their hands back in the dirt.

At TSU, the College of Agriculture, Human and Natural Sciences is offering more than 50 large and 10 smaller plots for community members to rent to cultivate crops as well as gain a better understanding of nature and the environment.

Biars Davis

Biars Davis Jr. applies spot fertilizer to some of the vegetables he is growing in the Community Gardens at TSU. Davis and his wife, Joan Clayton, join a number of urban farmers looking to grow their own produce as the seeds of the local food movement take root in community gardens across the city of Nashville and Davidson County (photo by Rick DelaHaya, TSU Media Relations).

“We see more and more people wanting to reconnect to nature and grow their own food,” said Dr. Arvazena Clardy, assistant professor in ornamental horticulture and community garden coordinator. “But the gardens are about so much more than just growing food. It’s about getting back to the earth, being outside, and understanding where food comes from.”

The college started advertising the availability of plots in early March and already has an 85% occupancy rate. What started as a very small area three years ago as a community outreach program has blossomed into a thriving community garden tended by everyone from working professionals, faculty and staff members from the University, to area families, single parents and retirees.

The reasons for the growth and popularity is easy to recognize, said Dr. Clardy.

“More and more people want to save money, and to know where their food is coming from,” she said. “People are also eating healthier, so growing your own food is a cheaper alternative to store-bought produce.”

According to the American Garden Growers Association, community gardens provide access to fresh, traditional produce and nutritionally rich foods in low-income neighborhoods, where nutritious food is much less available than in other areas.

They also point to the fact that people who garden (or who live with someone who gardens) tend to eat more fruits and vegetables on a daily basis. In a survey in Flint, Mich., while only 17.8% of respondents from non-gardening households ate fruits and vegetables at least five times a day, that number rose to 32.4% in households with a gardener. The same study showed that gardeners also tend to eat one more serving of fruits or vegetables per day than non-gardeners.

“There is an obesity problem now in the U.S. and people are trying to focus on fresh fruits and vegetables,” said Dr. Latif Lighari, associate dean of Extension Services at TSU. “This is a way gardeners and their families have access to healthy foods that they grow themselves.”

Another aspect to the gardens is the cost savings. Studies indicate that gardeners save significant amounts of money on produce. One project estimated that community gardeners saved between $75 and $380 in food costs every season.

Just ask Clayton about the savings. For the past two years she has kept meticulous records of everything she has planted, the yield and how much she would have spent at the grocery store to buy the same produce that she and her husband grew themselves.

Opening a spreadsheet, she points to how much peas, squash, peppers or tomatoes she harvested each week and what the retired couple saved.

“In one summer I estimated that I saved more than $800 from what we grew,” she said as she ran her fingers across the columns in the spreadsheet. “It was a lot of work but it was well worth the effort.”

Clayton also boasts that she saves money on gifts, from holidays such as birthdays and Christmas, to special occasions such as a visit from an old friend.

“There is something special about being able to give someone a gift that you grew with your own two hands, worked the soil and then prepared. It is a lot more personable.”

Another benefit that nearly everyone points to is the social aspect of the community coming together—and working together.

Ben Mathis of Nashville is in his third year of tending his plot. Oddly enough, he doesn’t even eat what he grows but gives everything away to his neighbors in his high-rise apartment.

“I just enjoy coming out everyday and being part of this group,” said Mathis. “It’s a good mental thing. We spend a lot of time talking to one another and share tips. We are not only growing a garden, we are growing a community.”

Clayton and her husband regularly spend anywhere from 30 minutes to five hours everyday at their three plots. Bending over a row of peppers pulling weeds, Clayton echoes the sentiments of Mathis.

“You know it’s hard work,” she said. “It’s hot, it’s a lot of physical activity, but it’s something me and my husband can do together while enjoying the camaraderie and bond of others.”

After three years taking part in the gardens and successfully growing her own produce, Clayton has a few hints for those just starting.

“Plan what you want to grow, don’t over plant, manage your space and ‘grow up’ instead of out,” she said. “But the biggest thing is to just have fun.”

There are two size plots available in the gardens. There are 20’ x 25’ plots available for $40, and 15’ x 25’ for $20, and available first come, first served. For more information, contact the TSU Extension Program at 615-963-4887 or visit tsugardens.org

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