Thanks to a generous donation of lettuce seedlings from Dean Mullis at Laughing Owl Farms, we were able to get some veggies in this week. We’ll have to use row covers to nurse them through the cold snaps and keep the rabbits and other critters away, but we should have some good salad fixings. We had a good time putting them in, as you can see from Crystal’s joy watching Cleo work.

(Anybody who wants top quality locally grown organic produce, please check out Dean’s site. He sells at at the wonderful Charlotte Tailgate Market now moving to South Blvd, as well as the “big” State Ag Dept Farmers’ Market on Yorkmont Rd. He also has a CSA, with maybe a couple spots left (but going fast).
The first step before transplanting is prepping the soil, which Ray is doing here. It is a real joy to see folks that have been working with the garden for awhile using good soil techniques, even asking people not to walk on the beds. And the soil has responded to the care, composting and cover-cropping (that’s rye and clover on the bed in front of Crystal) by transforming from from lifeless rusty clay to sweet, dark and filled with life. Crystal, in this case, is making the work go faster by holding forth on the truth about the public library – not what you might think. She had just come back from a session, and reports there are all kinds of resources there – computers, information, you name it – to help a motivated person get back on their feet. If they are willing to work.
Pete Foster, who has graduated from the garden to becoming one of the key support workers inside the Center, still comes out to help (and check to make sure we are doing it right).
Once the lettuce was in, we covered with our ‘low cover’ of Reemay, tucking it in like a bedsheet. This is temporary, we’ll add higher tunnels later (you’ll see, just keep visiting – or come see us in person).
In this case, Cleo had encouragement from a neighbor with a funny story to tell. It was his first time in the garden, but he grew up on a farm and knew how to pack down the soil after transplanting. And how to spin a good yarn – when he was a child, he’s telling us, he just couldn’t figure out how the mule could walk around the field pulling the plow and not step on the baby plants. One day, he couldn’t stop himself and asked his mom. She gave him a look he still remembers and said “They are just plowing now – there’s no plants in the field yet. They haven’t even sowed anything!” Oh…
So, we have a story garden, every day, new folks and old. Here’s Cleo in front beside the medicine wheel – she and I plan to go over the the Story Corps booth this week and record one or two of her unlimited tales and wisdom, thanks to a timely nudge from Liz Clason.
As I’ve mentioned, a Russian painter has moved into our compost pile, and we relocated the compost making to a windrow. Microbes don’t care. Somehow, Americans have the notion you have to build a box to make compost and, even, to grow veggie gardens. I’ll rant stridently about that later. The compost is out of sight, just below the right side of the screen in this pic.
You can see it better on the right side of this picture, with the urban landscape stretching off into the distance toward the Men’s Shelter. Someday (not too far in the future, unless we slide from recession to depression) there will be a light rail line running up this way, and gentrification will follow. I wonder how long we’ll be able to offer services for the homeless here? For a long long time, let’s hope. For now, we garden.
Meanwhile, Tatiana paints in the shadow of the monstrous cell tower behind us, as people line up for soup and we sow our lettuce. There’s word that Maya Lin’s environmental sculpture “Topo” needs to be rescued. I’m going to ask for it for the Center. We’ll make it work here. We serve the homeless, including homeless artists and homeless art. Sometimes, that’s the most powerful and lasting kind. Bartok, who died a pauper in New York City. Mozart buried in an unmarked grave. Van Gogh, the failure who sold just one painting in his entire lifetime. The countless women and people of color who didn’t even get a chance to fail, much less succeed. So, we’ll see who is famous in 100 years.
Closing with a goodbye to Jennie Ann. A lot of good people come through Urban Ministry, and then go off to do more good work elsewhere. We will miss J.A., an artist herself who always understood and appreciated CommunityWorks and our open, transformational approach to working with homeless people, our invisible neighbors who are nothing more or less than our sisters and brothers. Good luck, JA, we’ll always welcome you in the garden.



We got a big donation of pansies weeks ago from Frankie Fanelli and Kevin Watts at Central Piedmont Community College, who couldn’t put them in because of the drought. We keep trying to get them all in, only slowly making progress sticking them in, here, there and everywhere. Pansies are the most inappropriately labeled plants I know. “Pansy” labels a person as weak and foppish, but these little guys are tough, blooming and growing through neglect, frost, snow and nasty winter rains.

As Pete and I were planting today, people kept drifting over to chat. I’d offer them a trowel, say “Hey, come join in – it’s fun…” and I’d get excuses. Ray jumped in and planted some, but others said stuff like “Oh, I was just going over to stand in line for lunch.” or “I have a meeting and don’t want to get my shoes dirty…” Too bad Crystal and Tatiana weren’t around, or Cleo, they would have helped out.


(On the other hand, it was Cleo’s birthday today, and she deserves some time just to enjoy life. She showed up later, grinning very broadly).

Even though they said they had to leave, most of the watchers would stick around at least a few more minutes, and we’d start talking. That’s really just as important as the planting – this garden and landscape are as much about listening and storytelling as they are about horticulture and growing food. We didn’t discuss much about the primary elections yesterday, but the Super Bowl was a hot topic. General feeling – the Dolphins are still the greatest, and that the scrambling Eli Manning did, and that leaping catch by David Tyree, made for one of the most memorable moments in recent American football. A metaphor for doing the impossible, like getting off crack and off the streets.

I’ve now started my counselor training at the Center – high time, since half of what I do in the garden is ‘counsel’ – and I don’t mean recommend what kind of lettuce to grow (though I get that too…). I’ll be shadowing an experienced person this coming week.

I’m going to blog more soon about Tatiana, a Russian artist who has appeared and made big changes in our compost pile. But in the meantime, so much has been going on that I figured I needed to just blog tonight.


Here are some shots of our modest medicine wheel which you’ve been watching develop, which is looking good right now, as well as a couple of shots of a medicine wheel that inspired me last summer, and a labyrinth that inspired me the fall before when I was out visiting Karen Zwicke and other old friends out in Santa Barbara. The medicine wheel is in Northern Wyoming in the Big Horn mountains; the labyrinth is at Saint Cecilia’s Monastery above Santa Barbara. Ours is made of urban rubble and filled with flowers, but it does show the directions NSEW. It’s easy to get lost in the city, and I rarely find people who can tell their directions.

First two pictures are of the initial work – it unfortunately doesn’t show the schoolkids from Trinity who helped move stones and plant bulbs and flowers. Cleo really helped with this part.



Here it a closer look at our medicine wheel today, and how it looks at night, with Charlotte’s banks in the background.



Here are two pictures of a real medicine wheel, this one 800 years old (or more), in Wyoming’s Big Horn mountains.



This is the “Western” variation, a labyrinth at Saint Cecelia’s, above Santa Barbara, California.



Also, a work day. Below is Sara Belk, planting pansies. She does a pretty good job planting, actually, a task I’ve learned from hard experience is not something most people can do! But we like to teach – if anybody else is inspired to join Sarah as a garden volunteer, just let me know.


And below is Crystal, a neighbor who has more or less moved in to the garden, making the top of the stairs her spot, with a couple of hard working volunteers who came in Sara and Kathy Izard’s group.



Word is that Raleigh is moving to another, deeper lever of water restrictions, in spite of the rain that’s been falling. No watering of anything, essentially. We might be headed in that direction, too, though it has been raining. We’re hoping for a rain harvesting grant from Organic Gardening magazine (where you capture rainwater and put it into a cistern). We’ll also be mulching, spacing more widely, using every technique we can. Without watering, our lone bed of collards and cabbage is poking along, nothing more. No way to grow veggies.


It killed me to miss the performance of Monteverdi’s Orfeo last week in Asheville. I hear it was lovely, from the reviews. It was carpool week, so I just couldn’t make it up there on a Wednesday. I did get to hear a very nicely done, imaginative interpretation of Les Arts Florissants by Charpentier at UNCC, however, on Saturday, led by music professor Anne Harley, who also sings like an angel. Some wonderful playing by friends of Anne’s, who came down from Boston and NYC – imagine ‘notes inegales’ expertly played on traverso. Highly creative sets by the UNCC architecture dept, too. Strange inclusion of Moliere in the middle, which kind-of worked in spite of pretty lame stage business.

Speaking of Orfeo and Baroque opera, has everyone seen this amazing staging of Orfeo, at a concrete factory in Amersfoort, Holland? Orfeo video


I’m terribly sorry, but my organic gardening class for spring at CPCC, beginning March 13, is full already. If you want them to offer another session, I’m happy to do it, but you have to talk CPCC into it – contact Melodee Rimland at Melodee.Rimland@cpcc.edu. There will be an early summer class, from May 15 to June 5, and I might offer an addition class through the Center (maybe in exchange for helping out with our garden…)

(To my delight, a dear old friend, Karin Walsh, just found me through this blog. So, technology does have some good points, no doubt about it. She shared some lovely pictures of a garden in Machu Picchu, truly inspiring. All the best to you, Karin, and to Michael).

DANA ROMANOFF - Observer Staff Photographer

An excellent article this morning by reporter Fred Kelly on the front page of the Charlotte Observer. Read it here: Impoverished newcomers struggle in Charlotte

The article explains how people coming to Charlotte seeking work may find nothing but a cold gutter to sleep in. At the top of our new Center building is a beacon of light, put up to symbolize our offer of food and support for neighbors in rough circumstances. Charlotte’s reputation as a modern, go-getter city, the quintessential “New South” metropolis, is like that beacon, attracting people seeking hope and a better life. Yet, when things go bad, what becomes of them? There’s no lack of good intentions in this town (except, maybe, for the Bill James of this world, more worried about money than compassion), but do those intentions translate into tangible help? For the many huddled on grates and under bridges, the answer seems to be “No”. Read Fred’s article, and decide for yourself. If you decide you don’t like the situation, volunteer and get involved to make a difference for the better.

Bill James, I’ve got a rake and wheelbarrow waiting for you. You are entitled to your opinion, but why don’t you come down to the Center and do something positive? Bring your friends, I’m an equal opportunity gardener, I accept all kinds of people to help in the garden. Even Republicans. I’ll make it worth your while, come help us grow some food, and I’ll teach you how to save money and help your health by using alternatives to chemical poisons.

(For visitors to the blog from outside the area, Mr. James, an accountant by trade, is a local county commissioner notorious for forcefully expressing his very conservative views on the world and how it ought to be. He is quoted in Fred Kelly’s story). [Photo by DANA ROMANOFF , Observer Staff Photographer. The caption reads: 1/18/08 – Abdul Alibay (center) and other men crowd the entrance to Rooms At the Inn in hopes of a bed and warm place to sleep at the shelter.]


A family at the Center

January usually means we mostly work inside, but this year it has been so pleasant that we have worked on the garden outdoors both last weekend and the weekend before. Nevertheless, it is really cold, so we get lots and lots of people needing services. These photos are an informal album of the two Saturday sessions, one with students from UNC Charlotte, another from a Hands-On Charlotte (which also included a sorority from UNCC).

A quick note about the first picture – this family was thrown out of their home in Gastonia on Thursday. They had no place to come except here to us – we fortunately got the kids hooked up with school, after the holiday. It really is hardest to see kids ending up homeless, though they handle the stress better than many adults do.


This picture captures a lot of the energy down here right now. It is so cold at night that people can’t sleep, so during the day, we try to find a place where they can be comfortable. It’s never impossible to find a place to contemplate art in the gallery and studio.


Our soup kitchen is in high demand, not only can you get a good bowl of soup but you also can sit down where it is warm. It’s really not enough, but at least it is tangible help. And we couldn’t do it without volunteer labor.


Hands-On Charlotte is a project that puts volunteers together with jobs needing doing. This quartet of stalwarts, including a banker new to Charlotte and Edna, our coordinator, whose day job is with CPCC Corporate Programs, not only helped clean up, they faced down a couple of big rats that had burrowed into our compost pile for heat (rats get cold, too).


Meanwhile, inside, this group of Sigma Kappa sisters were hard at work cleaning up indoors, and providing some monitoring and direction for the many folks who needed to get out of the cold. It’s a very good use for the old train station, and at least it provides shelter during the day. A trio did a great job helping to clean up the garden “shed” area, long overdue – like most gardeners, I suppose, I’d rather be outside. I’m missing one picture of another, fine volunteer from a Baptist church here in Charlotte, who was so busy that I never managed to get her on film!


The prior weekend, we were lucky to have another college group from UNCC come to help us out. They really pitched in to do all kinds of good stuff, especially clean up the area where our dream is to make a new kind of garden this coming year, right beside the back gate, where people can gather, and have small plots of their own. Here they all are in front of the soup kitchen garden, where they’ve just planted some bulbs (it still isn’t too late here…ah, the South…)


Here is one of the neighbors who helps most in the garden, Cleo, working with the volunteers. At one point, Cleo made an observation I find hard to disagree with – “You know, they tell folks they have to go on expensive drugs that are impossible to find, drugs from the doctor, but then tell us they’ll put us in jail if we use drugs we can get, right here, to ease the pain. You tell me if that’s right?” We do live in a world of odd, even random values, where we criminalize certain behaviors and create a whole industry based on not completely unrelated behaviors. Part of dealing with homelessness and poverty is taking responsibility for habits of thought that benefit some of us while leaving other of our sisters and brothers to suffer and die on street corners in the cold. We have to listen, with compassion and attention, not condemn and dismiss.


Our original bottle tree lives on, though after 5 years you can finally see the insect damage at the bottom. I’d like to see it become the center point for the new garden area, at least until it falls. My goodness, look at this lovely day, too! This is January!


Here the UNCC students are cleaning the back area. We’ll be using framed bed design, probably rubble, to create sitting places (I think – I plan to talk to people who hang out here and see what they want).


While we worked outside this particular Saturday, something wonderful was happening inside, a singing circle. The harmonies were out of the this world. It was a simple circle, with a sheet of lyrics to familiar songs. My favorite was “I’ll Fly Away”. Again, for at least a little while, people could be warm and lay their burden of surviving the winter down, just for a hour before soup.


This is the kind of gathering we get sometimes. Again, amazing it is January. Beyond the hairdressing is the space for the new garden area. Now, there is garden there now, but it is kind-of a mess. I think less is often more, especially in natural landscape design, but the urban core is so whupped ecologically that it can look ugly (except to rats and fireants, evidently, and Ailanthus trees). So, we need design that doesn’t strangle, but gives direction. We certainly don’t want to seek to restore Tara. Wouldn’t work, wouldn’t last and who’d want to (even if that’s what everybody has in the backs of their landscaping mind down here in Dixie, even those who know better – but it has to change. If it isn’t ‘gone with the wind’, it sure as heck will soon be ‘gone with the drought’).


Now this is a volunteer in action!


And another. Maybe there should be some Olympic events for garden tasks in Beijing this coming summer?


Our sweet potatoes have been curing for the past few weeks, and now we are washing them off and getting them ready to be turned into pies. These are all out of our garden.


This is our “coda” picture, as a musician might say. It leads to the coming months in another way – this are the third grade teacher/parent team meeting with Barbara, Rob and me from UNCC. Our project this year will be growing out our own heirloom tomatoes in the classroom.


Just a quick sounding to report that we have good news – it is raining! Well, it’s mixed really, since that means folks have to sleep in the wet, which stinks. But for the soil it is good.

Tomorrow, we’ve got a big group of students from UNCC coming to help clean up the garden debris that’s still around from fall. Our collards and cabbage have perked up, and the cover crops are growing well. I’ll try to snap some pics.

Another nice thing is receiving all these seed catalogs in the mail. My only disappointment is the lack of cartoony art on the cover of the Territorial Seed catalog. I liked that, in the past.

I spent much of the past week doing my final write up of  notes from an interview with David Bradshaw. His heirloom garden project at Clemson University in South Carolina is truly  inspiring. I’m hoping he’ll be happy with the profile and save us some Mahon sweet potatoes this season.

Before I go down to pick up some donated bicycles in the next county (hope our vintage pickup makes it – we got it free from a long-time volunteer), thought I’d share my joy about the rain that’s been falling here for the past week. This won’t be the driest year on record, after all. But all the same, forgetting about water conservation is the LAST thing we want to be doing as gardeners.

There was recently an interesting post about rain harvesting moderated by Susan on Garden Rant. Evidently, in Washington DC, she’s part of a group working on a fact sheet and guidelines for the best techniques for DC. Maybe we all should be thinking about taking similar steps in our own local areas. All gardening is local.

It’s an application of the “Pollan Principle”, Michael Pollan‘s idea that gardeners are the ideal bridge between environmental protection and practical, workable strategies for making a difference. As gardeners, we know the rainfall patterns in our areas and the plants that do well without much care (yeah, that means weeds, too…). By sharing our local knowledge, we can do much better than by, say, trying to simply adapt practices developed decades ago in such truly dry places as Colorado and Southern California.

I always get a chuckle when I see “xeriscaping”, the term for low-water-use gardening coined in Colorado, used as a name for what we need to be doing in Charlotte, which normally gets more rain annually than Seattle (not this year, granted).

Working with homeless folks has me in two minds about the rain falling outside. To my gardener’s ear, it sounds so sweet. But there’s no denying there are some sad wet souls out there on the street, with no place to go to get warm and dry. We have a program called Room In The Inn to provide emergency winter shelter – if you live near Charlotte, we could use your help and support.

Better go get those bikes, and I still have to band for cankerworms, my next blog. And talk about how gardeners end up tending websites – there’s a lot of similarities, weeding, invasives, complaints when things are too unconventional… Oh, and how many community garden and homelessness sites there are on YouTube! I’ve been amazed since posting that slideshow.

Happy New Year if I don’t sit down here for the next couple of days.

The song is “What child is this”, to the tune of Greensleeves. Images come from the Center over the past few days, along with creches from all over the world in the collection of the University of Dayton.

Though this is the season of darkness and cold, the days begin to imperceptibly lengthen and the sun lingers a tiny bit longer in the sky (did you all see the full moon last night!). As we begin the long journey toward spring, please remember the children and families who are homeless. Centuries ago, the Christmas story tells us, an unwed teenaged mom, who was hanging with a much older guy, couldn’t find a place to stay, even though she was expecting. She ended up having her baby in a stable and laying him in a manger, which rates about the same status as a dumpster. That qualifies these folks as homeless, in my book. Not only that, they were offenders – within weeks, the law came looking for them, sent by Governor Herod himself. The family had to load up everything at night and sneak across the border – that makes them illegal aliens, too. Yet, think a moment about how we still tell their story, and how this humble family who lived on the street transformed human history. That baby grew up to teach of love, compassion, forgiveness and hope. May all these and laughter too fill the coming year for you, your friends and your families, and may your gardens be beautiful, full of food and flowers, stories and song.

(Musicians are Greg Hill, guitar, and me, recorder, from a CD recorded for Christ Church Charlotte celebrating the music of Advent and Christmas. )