Growing Together in Oxford

By Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal

eveloped next to the old National Guard Armory on University Avenue and Bramlett Boulevard, the garden offers plots of 4-by-8-foot for $10, with similar multiples based on available space, inside an 8-foot-high fence. Included in the price is access to city-collected leaves, woodchip mulch and donated cow manure.
“We have very few elite gardeners,” said Angela Manley, who manages the project. “We have a lot of people who want to meet other people, and they want to raise some healthy food and have fun doing it.”
Dr. Alice Cooper, a political science associate professor at the University of Mississippi, fits that bill precisely. She shares a tiny plot with a woman she had never before met but whom she is convinced will become a fast friend.
“I’ve grown tomatoes in containers for years,” Cooper said, noting that nearby trees are finally robbing too much of the sunlight. She has also shopped for natural foods wherever she could, including the Mid-Town Farmers’ Market.
Standing in the community garden and pointing to side-by-side rows of spinach, Swiss chard, kale and arugula seedlings, Cooper purred, “This is my first real garden.”
A quick look around the Community Garden in the first week of April, even with no gardeners at work, indicated a variety of theories, personalities, goals and levels of expertise at work.
Some plots were laboriously double-dug. Others, like Cooper’s, are mulched with newspaper to defeat weeds and then piled high with the nutrient-rich compost.
Some are as unadorned as soybean fields while others show their owners’ artistic whimsy. Some growers combine both art and agriculture, such as with steppingstones laid out in patterns or handmade bamboo trellises that lend a vertical visual element and provide a habitat for climbing beans.
All 40 individual adult plots are occupied, including many that are shared, and another four plots are being “farmed” collectively to donate badly needed fresh vegetables to Oxford’s food pantry.
The nine child plots – 4-foot squares marked off with cedar half-logs – are being claimed as well.
“It’s really important to help kids know where food comes from,” said garden manager Angela Manley.
Biologist Dr. Susie Adams spearheaded the effort to establish the garden.
“I was interested in exploring the possibility of doing it, and I knew some people at my church were,” she said. “They told some friends.”
After agreeing on the need for such a facility, the group approached city officials. Mayor Pat Patterson helped them scout possible locations on city property, and Oxford Park Commission was appointed to partner in the project. Oxford Garden Club donated $2,500, and Lafayette-Oxford Foundation for Tomorrow gave a $3,000 grant.
City workers, Cub Scouts, those hoping to secure a plot and other volunteers helped build the fence, lay off the grids and mulch the walkways and do other necessary work. Assorted experts are adding their efforts with workshops on topics such as weed prevention and composting.
Manley looked with satisfaction at the neat array of plots sporting everything from lettuce and snap peas to strawberries and the first overbold tomatoes. She could picture what the place will look like as fruits and vegetables mature in concert with friendships.
“This is a garden for raising healthy food,” she said, “but this is also a community-oriented space.”