Vegetable gardens help bring Macon neighbors together

Tucked away in a vacant lot behind Centenary United Methodist Church on College Street sits a humble plot where pole beans, tomatoes, eggplant and okra grow.

"But what we're really growing is hope," said Mark Vanderhoek, founder of the Beall's Hill Community Garden.

Volunteers broke ground for the garden in May as a joint project of the church and the Beall's Hill Neighborhood Association.

The people who tend the garden share the food among themselves, and they donate much of the produce to the elderly and disabled in the community.

"The idea is to bring people in Beall's Hill neighborhood together through the garden. Everyone is the same when they have dirt on their hands," Vanderhoek said.

Vanderhoek got the idea for the garden last fall after hearing about a similar community garden in the Pleasant Hill neighborhood.

Inspired by what the Pleasant Hill garden had accomplished, Vanderhoek, a Mercer University employee, pushed for a garden in the Beall's Hill neighborhood near his workplace.

In February, he brought the idea before a meeting of the Beall's Hill Neighborhood Association, where it met across-the-board approval from residents.

Ellen Byron, the neighborhood association's president, then secured a $1,000 grant from the Knight Foundation in March to fund the project.

Since it opened May 2, volunteers have planted seven different vegetables and four different herbs.

"We're going to be making food baskets soon to take out to the people in the neighborhood who need to eat," Byron said.

She said she's excited at how the garden has given the neighborhood a sense of unity.

"A lot of different people live in Beall's Hill. This has given them all a common purpose," she said. "The first day we came out to work the garden, people who had never come out for anything in the community before showed up."

Mary Anne Richardson, who heads up the outreach ministry at Centenary, said she hopes students from Mercer University, which is across the street from the garden, will get involved.

David Davis is a professor of English at Mercer whose class volunteered at the Pleasant Hill community garden this spring.

He plans to have his freshman seminar class work at the new Beall's Hill garden in the fall.

"The class will have an environmental focus, and I think it'd be great for us to work in the garden," he said.

Naomi Johnson and Peter Gizens, owners of the Pleasant Hill garden, have been tending a patch of land on Craft Street since 2004.

Over the years, they've recruited about 30 steady volunteers to help them work the garden and have produced more than 1,000 pounds of vegetables to donate to people in need.

"All of our vegetables that aren't picked by our volunteers are given free of charge to seniors and physically challenged people in the Pleasant Hill neighborhood," Johnson said.

Johnson said that community gardens like the ones in Pleasant Hill and Beall's Hill not only help revitalize the area around them, but they also help people develop better eating habits.

"I had to tell the people helping us not to fry the tomatoes. I don't recommend eating fried green tomatoes. They're not very good for you at all," she said.

But perhaps the best part about neighborhood gardens, in Johnson's opinion, is that they bring people together.

"In the dirt, everybody's kin. And that's just something that money can't put a price tag on," she said.