Above: From left, Sheila Wilder and Ann Bone commune with colorful nature in the greenhouse at the Dunwoody Community Garden & Orchard at Brook Run Park. Bone is chairperson and Wilder is a longtime member of the garden. Photo by Phil Mosier.

Community gardeners

At least twice a week, weather permitting, Ann Rhea leaves her condo in downtown Decatur for a quick walk to her nirvana. That would be the Scott Park Garden, where she tends one of 32 plots that can be had for $25 a year through the city of Decatur’s Active Living Division.

Ann Rhea
Ann Rhea enjoys visiting the Scott Park Garden in downtown Decatur where she plans to grow arugula, mustard greens and other vegetables in her own raised plot this spring. SPECIAL

“I go there a lot,” she said, “because I can check off exercise by gardening and I enjoy seeing what’s coming up.”

Rhea, 88, said working in the organic community garden makes her happy and she feels “more like my old self.”

She plans to grow her usual spring flowers, but this time, in one of the six new raised plots, she will also plant arugula, mustard greens, lemongrass and lamb’s quarters — a wild plant that she said has the vitamins and taste of spinach.

Her garden neighbors have planted tomatoes, asparagus, sweet potatoes, a fig tree, cotton and sunflowers that grew to seven feet, among many other things, Rhea said.

“You see the butterflies and the bunny rabbits and you get to know the people who have a plot near you if you didn’t already know them,” Rhea said. “People swap produce and seeds. … It’s a joy.”

Plots for pantries

Community gardens provide a way for gardeners with no yards or whose yards have little sun to cultivate flowers and vegetables. These gardens typically include charity, or “pantry” rows where volunteers grow produce for donation to nearby charities or to the Atlanta Community Food Bank.

DCGO Ann Bone
From left, Jeff Leech, the board member in charge
of the garden at Dunwoody Garden & Orchard at Brook Run, checks out one of the garden’s 92 member plots along with DCGO Chairman Ann Bone and garden member Sheila Wilder. Photo by Phil Mosier.

The food bank offers everything from expertise to tools to volunteer support to about 150 community gardens across metro Atlanta in the course of a year, said Fred Conrad, community garden manager of the Food Well Alliance, a network of organizations founded and managed by the food bank.

“We do some of the heavy lifting at community gardens,” Conrad said, referring in particular to gardens at senior centers and residences. Gardening is a great activity for older adults because there’s exposure to sunlight, lots of bending and stretching, and because it promotes a healthy diet, he said.

“Community gardens offer that manageable-sized sunny plot to grow some veggies,” Conrad said. “And then there’s the whole social aspect. There’s a garden club you belong to.”

‘The time and the patience’

Atlanta Community Food Bank volunteers were set to help out at Dunwoody Community Garden & Orchard (DCGO) at Brook Run last month, by helping fill some of the garden’s 12 charity plots with compost delivered by DeKalb County. DCGO volunteers produce more than 3,000 pounds of food annually for donation to area food pantries.

The organization’s chairperson, Ann Bone, said most of DCGO’s members and its best volunteers are older adults. “They have the time and the patience,” said Bone, 66. “Gardening is only for the patient optimist.”

The DCGO garden includes 92 member plots, a fruit orchard, a bee colony and a pollinator garden on two acres of city park land. The garden provides compost, mulch and tools for members and offers gardening education for everyone.

Art Simon DCGO
From left, DCGO Greenhouse Manager Art Simon turns over some soil in the greenhouse with Sheila Wilder. Photo by Phil Mosier.

All of this is accomplished with no paid staff, except for two boys paid to mow in the orchard once a month. Members pay $60 a year for their plots and donate 12 hours a year on garden projects.

Bone, a retired real estate broker, bought her plot in 2014 after spotting DCGO during a walk at Brook Run Park.

“The first year, I planted radishes and carrots and they were beautiful … and I thought, ‘This was easy,’” Bone said. “The second year I expected the same results, and that didn’t happen.”

She didn’t fertilize, didn’t fluff the soil and “got a little lazy,” Bone said. “It was humbling.”

These days, she’s flexing a powerful green thumb with mustard greens, garlic, arugula and Tokyo bekana, a leafy Asian green.

Other DCGO gardeners are growing tomatoes, cabbages, radishes, arugula, herbs and much more — “anything that’s legal,” Bone said. Blueberries, plums, pears, figs and other fruits are produced in the orchard.

DCGO greenhouse

The garden is a short walk from DCGO’s greenhouse, the last structure standing of Brook Run Park’s past, when it was the sprawling campus of the Georgia Retardation Center. Bone said the greenhouse was used for vocational training and to produce food for the institution, which closed in 1997 and was later demolished. DCGO has used the greenhouse since 2009.

Bud Henderson DCGO
Volunteer Bud Henderson gives plants a good soaking in the DCGO greenhouse. Photo by Donna Williams Lewis.

Art Simon, 80, serves DCGO as the greenhouse manager. He’s a five-day-a-week fixture in the facility where flowers and a smorgasbord of vegetables flourish under his watchful eye.

A DCGO member since 2011, Simon buys the seeds and cultivates most everything grown in the greenhouse, selling the plants to garden members and to the public in the organization’s annual sale. About 4,000 to 5,000 plants are sold each year at that sale, which is scheduled for April 5-7 this year.

Plucking a piece of wild arugula to munch one day last month, Simon made a quick pitch for more volunteers to “come out and play in the garden” and help with some of the heavy lifting.

“You don’t have to be real knowledgeable,” he said. “We’ll train you on everything.”

Faithful volunteer Bud Henderson, 88, sat nearby in his own little oasis of peace, quietly potting tomatoes. He works in the greenhouse about once a week, Simon said.

Henderson’s explanation for his dedication was short and sweet. “I like to work in the dirt,” he said, his whole face a smile.

Done for the day, Henderson put up a hose and waved goodbye to Simon. Then he turned and walked out of the greenhouse and back into the world.

More info

Dunwoody Community Garden & Orchard at Brook Run

  • 4770 Georgia Way South, Dunwoody 30338
  • dcgo.org

Scott Park Garden

Gardening guidance

Free monthly education sessions are held on second Saturdays at Dunwoody Community Garden & Orchard’s greenhouse complex from 11 a.m. to 12noon. On April 13, Master Gardener Tielke Baker, the vice chairman of DCGO, will speak on principles of gardening. Details at dcgo.org.

Donna Williams Lewis a freelance writer based in Atlanta. She previously worked as an editor and journalist for the Atlanta Journal Constitution.