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Community Garden Program Expands

(L-R) Joy Sylvester Johnson, Rod Nunez Thomas Chapman, Mark Powell and Frank Roupas.

by Gene Marrano

With the help of a five thousand dollar grant from Freedom First Credit Union, the Roanoke Community Garden Association plans to open its third plot to the public next spring.  The 30 x 170 patch of land on 4th Avenue SE is being leased by local landlord Frank Roupas for one dollar per year.  The RCGA had previously opened plots on 14th Street SE and in the northwest Roanoke City neighborhood of Hurt Park.

Local residents apply for space in the community garden plots, which are designed for those who do not have an opportunity to garden where they live – they may reside in an apartment, have rocky soil unsuitable for planning, etc. Community Garden Association Director Mark Powell, who got started when he and wife Sylvja were just thinking about doing their own gardening, said the new plot in Southeast will also be available to residents of the adjacent Roanoke Rescue Mission who are in recovery programs.

Some apply for and use gardens “for the pleasure of joining others,” said Powell, but most have no access to tillable soil. A number are refugees and immigrants from other countries where growing your own food for sustenance is a way of life. More than 1000 pounds of fruits and vegetables grown at the larger 14th Street community garden were given to several local food pantries last year.

“It’s a great community-building park,” said Powell, who has been involved with the Occupy Roanoke movement and dabbled in campaign management (Martin Jeffrey) in the past.

Some federal funding via HUD, grants and private donations have helped fund the RCGA, which must run water supplies to the garden plots, grade them where necessary, erect on-site tool sheds, etc. Two of three plots were leased for a dollar per year. “Having the land [virtually rent-free] is great,” noted Powell.  He envisions about thirty plots being available in the new community garden near the Rescue Mission.

The Foundation for Roanoke Valley has also awarded the RCGA a grant. Powell spoke to more than 300 people about community gardening at the Patrick Henry Hotel recently. “It really has been quite a leap,” he said about his own journey from a pilot project a few years ago to a growing network of community gardens. He is also working with others to open more community markets where people can buy or sell fresh local produce.

Powell, who drives a cab for a living when not promoting the association and is expecting his first child with Sylvja, estimates that about half of Roanoke City’s population – around 50,000 – does not have access to land where they could grow fruits and vegetables, for one reason or another. He envisions more community garden plots, in all quadrants of the city.

Hundreds of volunteers have helped prepare the garden plots; the Virginia Cooperative Extension office on Brambleton Avenue has provided expertise to those who haven’t quite figured out the green thumb thing. “We’ve really benefited greatly [from the Extension office]. They’ve been conducting workshops for us,” said Powell

Children from afterschool programs have visited and lent a hand as they also learn more about gardening and healthy foods. Roupas wasn’t a hard sell. “It wasn’t much of a stretch to ask for this 4th Avenue parcel,” said Powell, “I think he definitely sees the benefit of serving Rescue Mission Clients and building bridges [to] southeast residents.”

Powell is a southeast resident himself who has worked hard to promote the largely blue-collar quadrant of the city. “We’re seeing a lot of good things emerge.” A lowered crime rate, the greenway that runs through southeast and bike paths in the process of being designated are helping reshape the area’s image, according to Powell.

He didn’t have much of a green thumb himself until he first tried gardening about four years ago. His mother told him he might be amazed by what happens when you plant a seed or two. “It’s personally been very satisfying,” said Powell.

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