Briggs Avenue Community Garden continues to nourish minds and bodies after 10 successful years.
Photography by John Michael Simpson
Travel three miles south of downtown and you’ll find the flourishing Briggs Avenue Community Garden tucked among a mix of trees and industrial buildings. “The garden has a score of different vegetables, an apiary and a fruit tree orchard,” says Christa Gibson, community outreach coordinator for the Durham County Cooperative Extension. Every county in North Carolina has a similar office – designed in partnership with N.C. State University and N.C. A&T State University – to extend agricultural and nutritional education as well as 4-H youth programs that improve economic and social well-being throughout the state. “[Briggs] serves as a place for community members to learn about gardening, to grow their own produce and to grow produce for those in need,” Christa says. Durham County Cooperative Extension’s office and a small army of master gardeners, donors and volunteers maintain Briggs’ 45-acre lot. “I like to say a community garden is 80% community and 20% garden,” says Cheralyn Berry, family and consumer sciences agent for Briggs.
“You can teach anybody to grow food, but in a community garden like ours, what you do affects everyone around you.” Each member or family is a plot owner, responsible for their garden bed. “A family can come in and say, ‘We’ve never put a seed in the ground before,’ and we provide the education, soil conditioners, pesticides, compost and my support, all for $50 a year,” Cheralyn explains. Some folks pay an adjusted rate, depending on their individual circumstances, and the season normally runs from March to Thanksgiving. Last year, the pandemic changed that schedule. “We brought in all the new gardeners in 2020, and then we were shut down the second week of the season,” Cheralyn says. “But a lot of community members came forward to help grow food for others, and we were able to start delivering to those who need it most. So now we are year-round, because there are people really depending on us.” Briggs volunteers stepped up to meet a need that’s grown since the start of the pandemic: delivering fresh produce to elderly and sick community members who are unable to leave their homes. “Last year we donated 1,300 pounds of produce to the Durham Technical Community College Campus Harvest Food Pantry,” Christa says. Durham Tech students, apiarists and Girl Scouts earning their gardening badge are among Briggs’ volunteers. “I was a Girl Scout, so it’s a fun, full circle experience for me when they come out,” says Cheralyn. Anyone interested in volunteering is always welcome.
FARM TO TABLE
Briggs began in 2010 with just a handful of plots and a goal to provide agricultural education and reduce social disparities for Durhamites. “Access to fresh produce is one of the benchmarks for students’ success,” Cheralyn explains. After working in a similar role in Tucson, Arizona, she joined the Briggs team at the end of the 2015 season and focused on expanding the garden’s educational offerings for children and families.Another key factor to the food equity equation is knowing how to prepare and eat what is harvested. Cheralyn normally leads a farm-to-fork youth camp, which is one of the program’s most popular offerings. “In addition to teaching folks to grow food, we’re teaching them how to prepare it, too.” At the start of the pandemic, “We had to reimagine what our summer programming was going to look like,” says Mac Hulbert, Briggs’ 4-H extension agent. “The kids are taken to multiple community gardens and farms, and get to gather produce and then learn to make meals from it. Unfortunately, we can’t do that right now, but we knew there had to be a way to give them the experience of working with fresh produce while keeping everyone safe from the virus.” The master gardener team brainstormed and, inspired by WWII-era waves of enthusiasm for home gardening, came up with the idea of “victory garden” kits for kids to pick up plants to grow at home. Instructional videos and a master gardener hotline were included with the kits. “We distributed 90 kits of tomato, basil and peppers over the summer, and were able to continue that in the fall with 110 kits of broccoli, kale and lettuce,” Mac says. “A lot of those kits were also offered for free, because we wanted to make sure that the families impacted by COVID-19 who had lost jobs or income had an additional source of fresh food.” The program was funded in large part by a community grant through Duke University.
Today there are 53 active plot owners, including Kathryn Hamilton, who moved to Durham in 2014 and became an Extension Master Gardener Volunteer (EMGV ) in 2015. “Part of being a master gardener is a requirement to ‘give back’ a certain number of volunteer hours every year,” Kathryn explains. “My very first volunteer effort was to weed one of Briggs’ larger beds that had become overgrown, and I immediately became a Briggs fan.” Kathryn says the benefit of Briggs reaches beyond food; it serves as a research resource for both the Durham County Cooperative Extension and Durham County Master Gardeners. For example, Kathryn participated in an EMGV tomato grafting project last summer. “This was a four-month experiment designed to find ways for Durham residents to more successfully grow tomatoes,” she says. The program had the added advantage of donating 275 pounds of tomatoes to those in need; Kathryn and her fellow master gardeners are now preparing to share their findings with the community. Information on better gardening and nutrition practices reaches the community through other special events, such as the victory garden program initiated in 2020 and the Bull City Gardener Workshops taking place this year at Briggs.
“The garden also serves as a resource for groups who want to start their own community garden and as an educational resource where unusual varieties [of plants] are grown to demonstrate them to avid gardeners and school kids alike,” Christa says. Those “unusual varieties” include native plants that people might never have heard of before. Cheralyn’s long-term goals include transforming the uncleared green space adjacent to the garden plots into a natural “food forest.” “It will be a public park full of fruit trees where you can eat everything,” she says. Think papaws and persimmons, which are low maintenance, perennial and can be grown in any backyard. “I’m voraciously consuming information about fruit trees in the Piedmont region,” Cheralyn says. “I want to be known as the urban fruit tree lady.”Regular volunteers have inspired many new projects, too. “One person recently came to us about wanting to grow oyster mushrooms on straw culture,” Cheralyn says. “Volunteers keep coming back because they aren’t just helping us, they’re learning, too. Ultimately, it’s all about getting people to work together to maintain the land and lift one another up.”