WILMINGTON — Joni Mitchell famously wrote: “We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.” Wilmington College’s Cassi L. DeHart, a senior agriculture student, literally took those words from the classic 1969 tune, “Woodstock,” to heart.
Ten years ago, the College partnered with AmeriCorps/VISTA in hosting 40 4×12-foot raised garden plots in a program known as Grow Food, Grow Hope. The wide-ranging activities were designed to enhance food security among residents with low/moderate and fixed incomes in a recession-ravaged community reeling from the 2008 pullout of DHL, its largest employer.
The College kept the summer gardening project going long after the federal grant money ran its course, but by spring 2018 half of the plots had been removed and the wooden frames encasing the raised beds were quickly deteriorating.
It was then DeHart saw an opportunity that turned into a passion, as she worked with Chip Murdock, director of service and civic engagement, in reviving the community outreach under the auspices of Wilmington College Community Gardens.
“There were broken boxes and small trees growing in the garden plots, so we replaced the wooden frames and added new topsoil,” said DeHart, who, as garden manager for the third summer, is both an herbalist and horticulturalist.
She and Murdock promoted the opportunity for WC faculty and staff to join qualifying members of the community interested in growing their own summer vegetable garden.
“We’re living in a food insecure region, so any way we can help is important,” she added, noting the 26 small plot gardens are loaded with an assortment of tomatoes, squash, zucchini, strawberries, asparagus, eggplant, corn, collard greens , cabbage, dill, basil and even such unique items Egyptian Walking Onions and Scarlet Runners Green Beans. The installation of arbors this year facilitates the growth of additional vine-ripened veggies.
“Participants planted whatever they liked — the boxes are as individual as the gardeners themselves,” DeHart said, noting that each plot produces as much as 100 pounds of vegetables a summer. “This has been my dream job I love so much!”
DeHart mentioned they’ve had a number of special visitors throughout the summer when youth in the juvenile court system have stopped by the gardens to volunteer and pick up some pointers from local Master Gardeners.
“They got to taste some freshly picked vegetables they might not have had before,” she said. “There’s so much education to be had here. What’s exciting for me is teaching every gardener, no matter their level of expertise. I love it out here — it’s beautiful!”