Holy grounds connect neighbors through gardens




The day College Park United Methodist Church started its community garden is forever etched in Rev. Merrill Frailey’s memory—and for good reason. It was the fall of 2016, and a small group of volunteers who shared Frailey’s dream of sharing home-grown vegetables with the Orlando community was ready to get their hands dirty.

A truckload of mushroom compost left a lasting impression on members of College Park UMC. Despite the lingering odors, a community garden at the church has planted new connections with Orlando neighborhoods.

“We had this huge truckload of mushroom compost delivered,” Frailey recalled with a laugh. “It smelled so bad. It was worse than poop!” Even after the dedicated bunch had braved the stench and planted the five-row garden, the unfortunate odor lingered in the air as folks arrived for Sunday services the next morning.

“Church members were like, ‘What is that smell?’” Frailey added. “It was horrible.”

But the assault on the senses soon proved worth all the trouble. Within weeks, they were seeing everything from eggplant and carrots to collard greens and potatoes sprouting up through the well-fertilized soil. “We watered dirt for a little while…but it started growing,” said Frailey, who has served at College Park just over a year.

“It had to be that mushroom compost—and God, of course.”

Meeting the neighbors

College Park is one of many churches across the Florida Conference discovering the beauty and power of community gardening as the practice enjoys a resurgence nationwide.

In Orlando alone, city officials have officially recognized 16 community gardens including the Lake Eola Heights Community Garden at Broadway UMC on East Amelia Street. There’s also Shores UMC in St. Augustine, which is preparing its Garden for God for a fifth season. Farther south, FUMC of Bonita Springs eagerly awaits the completion of its community garden, which has become a local teenager’s Eagle Scout project.

Though each garden is unique—with churches using different management styles and growing produce for different purposes—a common thread of community outreach runs through every project.

“A community garden connects you to your neighbors,” Frailey said. “We grow food, and we share food.”

Located on West Princeton Street in a busy commercial district of Orlando, the College Park property is a popular cut-through for people making their way to the bus stop, Publix and several other retail shops.

“When they started to see the garden growth, the neighbors would stop by to talk,” she said. “When I go to Publix, I tell the cashiers, ‘Hey, we’ve got this garden—come pick!’” Many do, some even showing up on work days to help out.

So far, Frailey said, church members have donated the cash and supplies needed to support the garden, which is located in the backyard of “The Little Red House,” a church-owned home adjacent to the sanctuary. She especially likes that there’s no lock on the garden gate. “It just brings the neighbors in,” she added. “I think you have to be open. You can’t let it be too controlled or too tight.”

It's garden build day for Broadway UMC in Lake Eola Heights. A committee of local residents successfully applied for a $5,000 grant from the city. They have annual dues and a group described as "upwardly mobile" with "a lot of energy and drive."

At the other end of the spectrum, there’s Broadway UMC, which took the more formal committee-and-bylaws approach to starting a garden and has also forged strong relationships with the surrounding neighborhood of Lake Eola Heights.

“It’s the focal point of the neighborhood,” said Val Mobley, a Broadway member who got the garden started in September 2016. “There are always people there, and you go and talk. When everything is blooming, it’s astounding to see.”

All of the gardeners are residents of Lake Eola Heights, but none are actually members at Broadway, and that’s fine with Mobley. “They’re an amazing group of people,” she said. “They’re mostly a younger set, upwardly mobile, with a lot of energy and drive and determination.”

A committee comprised of many of those residents helped Mobley successfully apply for a $5,000 grant from the city, draw up a detailed budget, determine annual dues—which are $30 and go back into the garden—and plan for ongoing expenses. They also established a set of common-sense rules such as no dogs, no smoking and always maintain your plot.

“It takes a lot of planning,” Mobley added. “I was amazed. They were really good at Excel spread sheets!”

Today the garden of 36 4-by-8 raised beds is thriving, and a “share box” attached to the fence often overflows with collards or tomatoes or squash for other gardeners to take as they need. On Saturday mornings, a yoga class meets in the garden, and on work days the church opens its doors to provide refreshments.

“It’s really brought the neighborhood together,” Mobley said. “The neighborhood appreciates the church being here—always has—but now we’re closer.”

‘Bushels and bushels’

For many churches, a community garden is a practical and relatively inexpensive way to get food to the hungry and the organizations that serve them. “I’ve been pretty pleased,” said Jeff Strait, who started Shores UMC’s community garden with a $2,500 grant from The United Methodist Church.

The Shores UMC garden in the St. Augustine area includes freshly grown collards and turnips and five 10-by-20 raised beds.

“We have donated bushels and bushels and bushels!”

The garden consists of five 10-by-20 raised beds, and one of the gardeners, a community member, has dedicated the produce from one entire plot to St. Francis House, a local shelter and soup kitchen in St. Augustine. Strait also takes his collards and turnips to the soup kitchen, earning him the nickname “Mr. Greens.”

Sharing from the garden is commonplace, and that’s how it should be, he said. “I always grow more than I can use, so I share it with the little old ladies in the congregation,” Strait added. “They love it when I come walking in with these big radishes.”

That’s exactly the kind of community impact Rev. C.J. Hill hopes to make with FUMC Bonita Springs’ new garden.

“I fully expect it to be a fresh expression, a ministry, whatever we want to call it,” said Hill, who aims to have five raised containers planted by November. “There’s people here who need food. Within three miles of this church, there are million dollar homes and trailer parks where migrant workers live, so we have quite an income disparity.”  

Back at College Park UMC, the garden behind The Little Red House is down to okra and a few sunflowers doing their best to survive the scorching heat of late summer in Orlando. But Frailey isn’t worried. The seeds have been planted, and the bounty will come. 

“It’s not even about growing a garden; it’s about letting people in and showing them love,” she said. “This is holy ground. God is doing amazing things here.”

--Kari C. Barlow is a freelance writer based in Pensacola.


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