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How Does This Garden Grow? Together, They Hope

Vickie McMillian has been coaxing vegetables from the earth off Mann Street for about 20 years now. Folks know it’s her garden. They’ll knock on the door of her red brick house near downtown and ask for a handful of okra or a few ears of sweet corn or a ripe, red tomato.

The bus driver’s done it. Police officers have done it. Her friends and neighbors ask, too. They always insist on paying for what they take, but McMillian will have none of it. She says the good Lord blesses her with the cucumbers and the melons and the butterbeans. She just passes on the blessings to others.

She can’t wait to have company in her garden. If all goes well, she won’t be waiting long.

The Fayetteville Community Garden will be built on five acres of green, grassy land, dotted with lush old trees, at the corner of Mann and Vanstory streets. It’s in the middle of the Old Wilmington Road area of Fayetteville, the city’s poorest neighborhood. The plans are drawn with at least half of the 100 garden plots reserved at $25 apiece.

Candace Williams, who planted the idea for the garden in the city’s collective consciousness in early 2006, believes it won’t be long. Williams, the Fayetteville coordinator for the Sandhills Area Land Trust, unveiled the garden’s design in April and promised the city that it would be open in time to grow collards this fall. Williams helped start community gardens in Boston years ago, and she believes that a garden here will bring the community together through the exercise and art of growing things.

The community is rallying behind the idea, too. The city donated $5,000 from its Community Development department. A Hope Mills architect, Jeff Blake, donated his time to design the garden because he saw it as a good way to give something back to his community. The Fayetteville Public Works Commission donated the water meter and hook-up, worth about $5,000. Some businesses and organizations, including Better Health of Cumberland County, have reserved plots for clients and supporters. And everywhere Williams goes, she is collecting names and phone numbers from people who want their own garden in the city’s garden.

“People want healthy food, and they want exercise,” Williams said. “They just want to better their lives. It will happen, but I just want it to happen now. We have waited so long, and finally it is on our doorstep, and the opportunity is there.”

The garden still needs the financial support of the community in order to build the necessary infrastructure: an irrigation system, road and gardening sheds. Once that is accomplished, Williams said, gardeners can start digging. Blake’s design includes a 42-foot pavilion that will serve as the garden’s main feature. Grants provided the start-up money for the garden. The first, for $12,000, came from the Lilly Legacy Fund of the Cumberland Community Foundation, a trust that was established in memory of Ashton W. Lilly. Another $4,000 came from the Waverly C. Broadwell Family Environmental Education Fund of the Cumberland Community Foundation. The Conservation Fund provided $8,500, and the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation gave $4,250. The Fayetteville-Cumberland County Parks & Recreation Department will provide labor to get the garden going.

Williams and other supporters hope the community will step up to offer gifts of not only cash but building materials and time needed to see the dream become an earthy reality that sprouts vegetables and flowers and community fellowship and goodwill.

Frances Bergman lives in Campbell Terrace, one of the public housing developments a couple of blocks from the garden. She and her family say they are looking forward to growing vegetables and flowers for cutting. Bergman and many other residents of Campbell Terrace will benefit from a $20 million federal Hope VI grant awarded to the city this year to redevelop the neighborhood. That will make her life better, she said, and so will the garden. She hopes to open a consignment store and floral shop. She wants to grow lilies and carnations, her favorite flowers.

The idea of community gardens is already a proven one, not only in large cities around the United States but right there on Mann Street. Vickie McMillian knows just how a garden brings people together.

“I think everybody down here will enjoy it,” she said. “And who doesn’t like fresh vegetables?”