December 2013
Homeplace & Community

Cultivating Community by Gardening and Giving

Members of the Verily, Verily Vegetable Team are (from left, back row) Joe Thornton, Tom Wilcox, Jimmy Hicks, Phil Craddock, Hank Sheffield, (front row) Bonnie Hicks and Linda Sheffield. They worked long hours in the garden.

by Ashley Smith

Okra stalks grew straight and tall, ever reaching upwards toward their Heavenly goal. Leafy squash and zucchini plants blossomed bright yellow flowers. Green beans, new potatoes and sweet corn flourished in abundance. Cucumber vines wove their way across the rows, their leaves sheltering crisp green fruit. Sweet potatoes nestled beneath the soil, awaiting the long summer’s heat. Shiny green and red tomatoes promised tasty BLT sandwiches. Snippets of conversation carried across the churchyard. "The okra grew two feet since last Sunday!" declared one. Another exclaimed, "Look how healthy those tomato plants are!" Someone else stated, "Isn’t it gorgeous – not a weed in sight!" Everyone who passed the vegetable garden marveled at its beauty and productivity. As church members walked to and from Sunday services, nearly everyone passed by way of the garden.

Once the idea of a church garden became planted in the minds of the members at Headland United Methodist Church, the possibilities for the garden grew.

  Bush Cooper, left, and Bob Rudder take a break from garden preparation.

"Our church congregation seeks ways to reach out to others in our community, extending the hand of Jesus," said Brother Phil Craddock, pastor at Headland UMC. "There was a lot of interest in our church planting the garden. We knew the results could directly help others."

Initially, the fruits of the garden labors would supplement food delivered through the Brown Bags for Seniors program created to supplement food needs of senior citizens in the Wiregrass area. From planning through production, picking to delivery, the 2013 Verily, Verily Vegetables Garden far exceeded expectations.

The idea of the garden grew to reality as plans formulated. The vision for the garden first began with a conversation between Bonnie Hicks, the church secretary, and Brother Craddock.

"We knew we would need a number of members involved to make the project successful," Brother Craddock recalled. "We wanted to plan the garden from the beginning stages all the way through to delivering vegetables to those who needed them the most."

Thirty-four volunteers provided willing hands to pick, wash, bag and deliver the produce.

Once a core team of volunteers committed to the effort, garden planning began. Church member Dallas Hartzog, a retired Auburn University agronomist, shared his love of the land and knowledge of agriculture as he applied years of conservation to the garden.

Harvest time!   From left, Nora Beth Grayson, Cora Faison, Stella Kate Grayson and Josie Faison are all smiles about the plethora of vegetables from the garden.

"I told Brother Phil I would love to be involved," Hartzog said. "My only request was that we take the time and care on the front end to ensure agricultural successes."

The empty lot adjacent to the church proved to be the ideal spot for the Headland UMC garden. By taking a scientific approach, proper steps were taken on the planning and preparation side of gardening. Soil samples were collected so volunteers would know how to best amend the soil with proper nutrients. Other basic groundwork on the area included bed preparation, plastic covering for the beds, and drip-tape irrigation.

Word about the church garden extended beyond the church. Billy Davis donated a water source for irrigation. When Jay Jones, manager at Headland Peanut Warehouse Co-op, heard about it, he knew the project was one in which the Co-op would want to be involved.

From left, Mike Murray, Joe Thornton and Bush Cooper wash and prepare potatoes after digging.  

"A garden where the vegetables are grown and given to those who need them most – what a worthy project!" Jones exclaimed. "We strive to be involved in all aspects of the communities where we operate."

Through connections at the Co-op, all of the seed, fertilizer and most of the plants were donated to the project. The Co-op was 100 percent behind the idea. Among others who agree, Jones hopes the church plants again in the spring.

A variety of plants were grown in the garden, producing an abundance appreciated by hundreds of people who received the garden goodness. Church member Betty McGriff shared how she was blessed.

"I am a city girl and don’t know a thing about gardening," McGriff exclaimed. "Wanting to help, I volunteered to deliver vegetables. Other church members picked, some washed, while still others prepared and bagged vegetables for delivery. So many people in our church came together to make it all happen!"

The garden produced an abundance of food all summer long, ripe for sharing with those in the community in need. When one plant stopped producing, another began. Joe Thornton and Tom Wilcox were in the garden every day, leading the team of volunteers in harvesting vegetables. Okra, the last vegetable in the summer garden, continued to grow well into September. One garden picker, who shall remain anonymous, shared.

"God truly blessed this garden, and with the way this okra keeps producing, I’m thinking we should pray for an early frost!"

McGriff added delivering vegetables provided her the opportunity of experiencing gratitude and seeing the joyous expressions of the recipients. One recipient opened her bag of vegetables and said, "Oh! Real food!" Another asked, "Do you know how much this would have cost in the grocery store?" Everyone was so pleased to receive fresh produce as most of their vegetables are canned. For McGriff and others on the delivery route, the garden proved to be a great blessing.

"Truly the garden was God-blessed," McGriff continued. "It was serendipity! There was a profusion of vegetables!"

The church expanded beyond the Brown Bag program, delivering to Headland and Newville senior centers as well as to Overflowing Ministries in Abbeville, a program assisting families with children through the Judson Baptist Association. Produce traveled south to Dothan’s Harbor Church and was delivered as an outreach for the homeless community in that area. With still more vegetables to distribute, the Headland UMC garden shared food with Hospice patients, senior adults, and the homebound in their congregation and community. Everyone knew someone who needed a fresh blessing from God so the church tried to cover as many bases as possible.

"Many people in our area need food," McGriff explained. "This wonderful fellowship project, concocted by Brother Phil and others in our church, grew to become a beautiful blessing in our community for all who were involved."

All who saw the garden proclaimed it lovely.

"Of course our Lord would have a pretty garden!" Hartzog said.

With the garden’s bounty – the handiwork of God – Headland UMC’s church garden cultivated the spirit of love in their community by gardening and giving.

Ashley Smith is a freelance writer from Russell County.