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Wineka column: Vision for ‘edible landscape’ comes together at Mount Vernon Community Garden

WOODLEAF — As she sat at a picnic table Friday morning and looked at all the people planting trees and flowers, Brenda Chunn was a satisfied woman.
“I’m real happy,” she said. “I am. I can’t explain it, but it’s good to see a vision come together.”
In 2011, the 25 acres around her were a blank landscape. Today, it’s the Mount Vernon Community Garden at Myers Park. The site is located at 3760 Woodleaf-Barber Road.
Chunn, project manager for the site along with her husband, Herbert, envisioned with others at Mount Vernon Presbyterian Church the community’s coming together to create an edible landscape.
At its core, the gardens on the property are meant to create a “free market for health and wellness,” and in doing so, reduce hunger and supplement the income of residents by putting free food on their tables.
Now in it third year, the community garden has muscadine grapes, blueberries and blackberries. Fig trees didn’t do so well, but they are expected to be part of “Jelly Jam row” once again.
In past seasons, volunteers also have planted and harvested tomatoes, okra, corn, onions, cabbage and mixed greens, and the produce has gone to “food insecure” students and their families, as well as the West Rowan Community Food Bank.
You can come here and plant your own garden, or pick some produce right from the community patches.
But beyond the food, organizers use the community garden has the laboratory for a MASOO (Mathematics, Agriculture Science Options and Opportunities) program, aimed at providing everything from grant-funded research to outreach programs for K-12 students and their parents.
It hopes to put some students on a scholastic and career path toward agricultural sciences, leading them to jobs with places such as the biotechnology research campus in Kannapolis.
The independent, nonprofit program’s structure has three modules: outreach, health and wellness and environment.
A 534-square-foot shed, with a porch and rocking chairs in front, serves as a dissemination center for healthful living materials, recipes, blood drives and outreach for Mount Vernon Presbyterian Church’s youth ministry, weekend backpack food program and bible study.
A covered shelter, donated by the Chunns, also allows for outdoor classrooms, church services, cookouts and other gatherings.
As the community garden has developed, some irrigation has been installed to allow planting on a larger scale. During the first year, Herbert Chunn was transporting water to the site in rain buckets on the back of his truck.
Jason Chester, Alex Silliman and other educators at West Rowan High are helping with the program, along with local garden centers, Rowan County Cooperative Extension, Soil and Water Conservation and the N.C. Conservation Trust Fund.
The vision really started with Ruth Myers’ bequeathing this 25 acres at 3760 Woodleaf-Barber Road to the church.
“She knew the land could be something special,” her granddaughter Arneda Harper said.
Harper returned to the Mount Vernon Presbyterian congregation about three years ago as part of fulfilling her grandmother’s aspirations for the land and the community.
“I felt God was just leading me back here,” Harper said.
Maggie Knox Phifer also donated two adjoining acres to the project.
When she was growing up in this community, Chunn said, Myers was all about education and etiquette. She routinely entertained young girls with an ice cream social and also taught them how to set a table, how to sit with a napkin, the order in which to use utensils and how to cleanse one’s palette.
Chunn hopes to bring back the ice cream social to the community garden.
Herbert Chunn and Charlie Rink look after the grounds, which include a donated playground. A split-rail fence marks the roadside entrance.
To celebrate Arbor Day Friday, volunteers from Mount Vernon Presbyterian, West Rowan High’s Future Farmers of America, Dadrian Cuthbertson’s AAU basketball team and Girl Scout Troop 670 helped to plant about 40 apple, peach and plum trees and a couple of beds of flowers near the entrance.
A Japanese maple was planted next to the well in memory of Nykia Johnson.
Chunn said the zinnias and other flowers being planted Friday will bloom and be cut later this year to provide flowers for local shut-ins.
The plant materials were donated by Godley’s Garden Center and Garden Greenhouses. Shaver Wood Products also has been contributing mulch.
Four raised beds will be increased to 12, and the site will have two vegetable gardens this summer. Onions, cabbage and cucumbers already have been planted.
“I just grab a rocking chair somewhere, and I feel like it’s going to work out,” Chunn said, laughing.
Chunn said most of the older members of the Mount Vernon congregation grew up on farms or out in the country when every family relied on food from their own vegetable gardens.
Those members represent home-grown knowledge and “inter-generational mentoring” for the younger kids, Chunn said. The community garden goes a long way in teaching kids sustainability and the value of work, science and agriculture.
“If you learn how to plant, you will always know how to eat,” Chunn said.
Catrelia Hunter, past president of Livingstone College and part of the Community Garden planning committee, said it focuses residents on wellness and nutrition.
“Most important, it will help feed the people,” added Joyce Smyre, whose family donated six trees to the Arbor Day planting.
Grant funding has come from the Creative Ministries Offering Committee of Presbyterian Women, Salem Presbytery Church Growth and Transformation Committee, the N.C. Conservation Trust Fund and the Charles A. Cannon Charitable Trust Foundation.
Chunn has faith there’s more activity to come. The overall plan calls for a pond, to be fed by natural springs on the property; horse and walking trails; a basketball court for teenagers; and possibly a gazebo.
This summer, the Mount Vernon Community Garden at Myers Park will have an intern from Livingstone College on site for 10 weeks.
China Ellington, who will soon graduate, is being furnished by the school’s Max Mukelabai Diversity Internship Program.
“That’s another blessing,” Chunn says. “… That new song, ‘Happy.’ That will be me. Oh, I feel so good.”

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@salisburypost.com.

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