By Jeff Keeling
Nancy Shilling leaned into a still-producing okra plant and cut off a ready seed pod. The retired social worker, a master gardener since 2013, was at her home away from home – the Carver Community Garden.
Shilling, who planted her first plot at the large space on the Carver Recreation Center property in 2014, is helping the garden and its numerous gardeners – its family, really – through a difficult transition. Longtime coordinator Sam Jones died of cancer in August. To some extent, Jones seemed like the glue that held the garden together, a community activist who rallied people around her and inspired them to be their best.
But on a warm fall afternoon, as butterflies light on the garden’s pollinator plants and tomatoes on the vine still glistened in the bright sun, Shilling and fellow gardeners Robert Senn, Tonya Van Hook and Gwen Kirschke worked, smiled and reminisced together. Their cohesion seemed to reveal that the community garden won’t dissipate in the wake of Jones’s death, but that her desire to be part of something sustainable and community-building will be fulfilled.
“We have fun,” Shilling said. “We work together, help each other, share knowledge.”
Robert Senn dug into a pile of deep green leaves and pulled a massive sweet potato from the deep brown soil. Senn lives a couple miles west and needed more room to raise vegetables that he sells at area farmers markets. He learned about the garden and came to meet with Jones. “She hooked me up,” Senn said.
Senn said he learned more from Jones over several years than he had reading books on gardening over a period of many years. “She was just a great, knowledgeable person,” Senn said. “She was a master gardener.”
He said Jones deployed just the right combination of encouragement and prodding. “She’d say, ‘let’s get it done,’ or ‘your plot’s lookin’ kinda raggedy, we need to help you out a little bit.’ She was always helping somebody with their problems if they had any – especially with bugs.”
In addition to the rich soil and access to master gardeners Senn said he likes meeting new people among the half-acre or so of plots. Shilling said that’s part of the draw for her as well, and that the garden is a source of connection.
“These are people I have never known before and maybe would not have ever met had it not been for the community garden, and they’re people from all walks of life,” Shilling said.
“We’re creating a beautiful space of feeding our families nutritious food and working together to use sustainable methods of gardening in a place where your social status and your background isn’t real relevant. You’re just people.”
Van Hook and her daughter, Kirschke, started their first plot a half decade ago; the garden was still relatively new, and had just expanded into additional space, which Van Hook and Kirschke began working.
The experience has been influential for Kirschke, who plans to study environmental science or conservation biology when she starts college next year. She and a schoolmate, Rachel Loman, planned, established and planted a pollinator garden within the larger space at Carver.
“We’ve kept it up and maintained it, gotten donations for it. It’s partially an aesthetic thing and also for getting pollinators in.”
Like Senn, Kirschke counts Jones as a major influence. “She was an amazing person and a really cool role model. She taught me a lot.”
Kirschke said Jones was always at the garden ready to teach others, and that she also helped inspire her to be involved in her community.
“I’m thinking about how to arrange for somebody to take over the pollinator garden, because the girl I worked with on it and I are both graduating this year.”
Jones, her leadership and her role in bringing different people together through gardening in a shared space is a legacy that Senn, Shilling, Kirschke and Van Hook all hope to honor by helping the Carver Community Garden continue to thrive and grow. As they prepared to go their separate ways, they pointed to all the features that have been added in recent years. A shed, a fence and a greenhouse. Fruit trees, berry bushes, butterfly bushes and a grape arbor.
“Our garden is growing,” Van Hook said. “This one is truly ongoing, and Nancy has just jumped right in. She’s been a blessing to not skip a beat. As you can imagine, it’s always a matter of kind of pushing everybody else uphill, and Nancy was aware of that and stepped in.”
Another source of help has been Roger Blakely, Johnson City’s Parks and Recreation director who shares a plot with his wife. “Often we need a little something, and he’s been very gracious,” Van Hook said. “A hose broke and he provided a new hose. The tiller broke and he got it fixed for us. That’s what it really takes to be successful is some infrastructure that helps you out when you need it like we have with the city here.”
Shilling is a major advocate for the USDA-sanctioned master gardener program, but said she looks forward to learning more next year from people who don’t share that certification with her.
“I am learning things every year, so sometimes I have colossal failures,” she said. “I’m so into trying to figure out how to grow good peppers. There are some fantastic gardeners there that know so much, and you can learn a great deal from other people.”
To learn more, visit netmga.net, click on the Projects and Photo Gallery page, and search for Carver Peace Gardens.