Shelby County’s gardens offer lots of room to grow

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Social distancing isn’t a problem for residents tending their plots at the Shelby County Community Gardens, where plots are 25 feet wide and 100 feet long.

The distances don’t impact the sense of community, either. Gardeners raise food and flowers, know when their neighbors are missing and use their collective resources to fight off and outsmart the wildlife.

The gardens are on Gardener Road near the sheriff’s office’s firing range.

It’s where Renee and Danny Shipman have made their four plots into an oasis of relaxation, with a table, chairs and an umbrella for shade.

They’ve been at it for nine years. Danny quickly says it’s Renee’s garden (as does a lovely little sign) and he’s just there to be the “muscle.”

When the weather is nice, she’s there most days, even though they have a small garden at their home in Bartlett.

“I grew up in the country. We grew a lot of food, so for me it’s a connection to my parents and grandparents. They grew Ripley tomatoes for markets and, of course, we had our own garden,” Renee said. “It’s great exercise. I don’t work. So instead of making the money to buy the food, I just grow the food.”

They’ve planted hundreds of plants and the harvest will be massive.

There are multiple varieties of cucumbers, dozens of tomato plants — cherries; heirlooms like Cherokee purple; beef steak, which she ties to bamboo poles and does not cage — an Israeli okra, various melons and peppers. There are also plots of canna and wide walkways where she allows grass to grow to keep down the mud.

“We’re not allowed to sell what we grow here, which is fine. I can understand that,” Danny said. “But we grow a lot more than we can use.”

They preserve a lot of what they grow and give a lot of it away to people they know are in need.

“Our garden feeds several families,” Renee said.

Everyone at the gardens get along, she said, although she did speak to a woman who was harvesting uninvited in another gardener’s plot. The woman said she thought everything was just free for the taking. It’s not. The plots are public land and are free to use, but the produce is owned by the gardeners.

Many gardeners give their bounty away to food banks, Renee said.

That includes the Shipmans’ garden neighbor, Wilson Knox, who retired as a Greyhound bus driver, came back to Memphis temporarily from Chicago to help his parents and started to garden with them in 2004. They died in 2007.

“And I said I was going to do it one more year. And here I am, still doing it,” Knox said.

“You name it, I plant it,” said Knox, reeling off a similar list of vegetables along with wildflowers to attract bees.

Knox and his friend, Wilanda Francisco, work the plot, harvest the vegetables and give most of it to food banks, senior citizens and others who need it.

“I give it all away,” he said, noting that last year alone, he gave away 3,000 ears of corn.

This year, like the Shipmans, Knox has put in a solar-powered electric fence to discourage the deer, who watched from the nearby woods as the gardeners worked.

It’s “unbelievable” that the county provides the garden plots for free, Knox said.

“It’s one of the things you hear about, but if somebody came and told you, you wouldn’t believe it was true,” he said. “I don’t know of any other organization that does it. It’s a wonderful thing.”

This is the second year Anna and Frank Davison, from East Memphis, have tended two plots. Years ago, they had one with Anna’s mother.

Anna is a retired teacher and when Frank, a security analyst, retired from the University of Tennessee Health Science Center last year, they had the time to manage two plots.

“And I just finished the master gardener program,” Frank said.

At home, they cultivated squash, zucchini, tomatoes, bell pepper, eggplant, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and kale from seeds and plan to plant corn, peas, cantaloupe and pumpkins.

The couple garden at home, but don’t have the space that the county’s garden provides.

“It’s good exercise for us. The harvest is wonderful and there’s so much satisfaction in putting something in the ground, watching it grow and then being able to harvest it,” Anna said.

“And the people out here are so friendly,” Frank said.

They preserve a lot of what they raise and like the others, give a lot of it away.

The deer and turkeys take whatever they want.

Their garden has a non-electric fence, with shiny silver mylar ribbons tied on to make sure the deer see that it’s there.

Officials couldn’t say exactly when the gardens were established but they are decades old and at one time were part of the county’s office on aging, said Angela Hill, administrator of parks and grounds maintenance with the county’s public works division.

“Around five months ago, we took it over,” Hill said.

The county has 400 plots and right now they’re all claimed, she said. The gardens are only for Shelby County residents.

The rainy April meant that some gardeners got a late start planting vegetables and flowers, Hill said.

But if the gardeners don’t plant something by late May or early June, they’ll be contacted and the lots will be given to people on the waiting list, she said.

Anyone interested can call (901)222-7800.

At the beginning of the season, the county tills the land and marks off the plots, Hill said.

Throughout the year, the county keeps the area outside of the gardens mowed and maintained.

There is no electricity, but the county does provide water, although gardeners must bring their own hose, Hill said.

The one thing the county can’t help with are the wildlife — turkeys, raccoons and deer, she said.

The county is working with Chris Cooper, an extension agent with the University of Tennessee Extension Service and with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.

“But right now, there’s not really much we can do about it. We’re looking for innovative options, trying to brain storm those options, but there’s nothing, really, we can put out there to deter (deer). We’re just hoping for the best,” she said.

Urban deer have been a problem across the nation and in Shelby County, where there is room to roam and no predators.

Sadly, Cooper said, those electric fences may not do the trick.

“Thing about electric fences, whether they’re run by batteries or solar, after a while deer get habituated to it. They get used to it and over it they go into your plot,” he said.

Fencing the entire garden is possible solution, although it would be pricey for the county, Cooper said.

In addition to the deer, Hill is working with Cooper to establish programming for the gardeners, like soil testing or workshops on what to grow and how to tend it.

He already visits the gardens regularly.

“This is something that I’ve been doing now for years. I venture over to the Shelby County Community Gardens on a biweekly basis, just to meet with some of the growers out there just to see if they have any questions,” he said. “I’ve gotten a chance to know some of the gardeners out there just by stopping by. I think we can manage to put some programs together for them.”

Across the nation, as people shelter in place, the coronavirus has given many people an incentive to try gardening.

“This time now of COVID-19 pandemic is the best time to get your fingers dirty,” Cooper said. “The opportunity is there now because of the times, the stay-at-home orders. This has been the perfect opportunity.”

Hill has worked in parks and recreation for more than 10 years and is thrilled to now oversee the gardens.

“Seeing people out in the gardens gives me joy. I see people gardening, smiling out in the sunlight getting fresh air,” she said. “It really gives me validation in what we’re doing in parks and recreation.”