The Greater Topsail Area Community Garden plants the seeds of community collaboration and provides a bountiful harvest for Share the Table.
Just off Highway 210 in Hampstead, an acre has been transformed into the Greater Topsail Area Community Garden, a center of agricultural and community activity. High school students are digging in the dirt and planting vegetables in raised beds built by other high school students. Youth groups, scout troops and retirement community residents stop by to check for weeds and pests. Members of the Kiwanis Club of Topsail Island Area oversee it all.
The story of the Greater Topsail Area Community Garden began in the fall of 2022.
“The idea came from our Kiwanis of Topsail Island Area Club President Nicki Swafford’s comment to our Treasurer Kimberly Patrizi and me during the 2022 Kiwanis Internal conference in Indy,” Cathi Lichter says. “We walked to the next session, and she casually said, ‘What if we started a Community Garden and harvested the fresh produce for Share the Table?’ Kimberly and I looked at each other and responded, ‘Sure.’”
Lichter has been the spearhead for the project. She and her husband, Jade, donated the land for the use of the community garden, and she has been actively pursuing funding as well as volunteers since that day in Indianapolis. Although it is Lichter’s legwork and persistence that has made the garden what it is today, she credits Jade with the idea of using their land for the project.
Jade, a local contractor, has big plans for what he and others can do with the garden space going forward. Those plans may include a chicken coop, a greenhouse and a gazebo where educational programs for kids and families can be held one day.
The primary focus of the garden’s harvest is to be able to provide fresh produce to Share the Table, a food pantry in Hampstead, so they can expand their offerings to individuals in need in the community.
Dawn Ellis, Share the Table’s founder and executive director, says, “We are honored to be the recipients of the produce from this community garden.”
That produce includes broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, carrots and collard greens as well as fruits such as blackberries and strawberries. Herbs, including chives, oregano, rosemary and lavender, are also part of the garden, serving two purposes. They, of course, add to the flavor of any meal, and they are pest deterrents, which helps all the plants grow more productively.
Lichter has worked with Share the Table to secure grants from numerous generous sources, including Kiwanis International, Carolinas District of Kiwanis, Kiwanis of Topsail, the Pender County Extension Master Gardener Volunteer Association, Surf City Rotary and the Stone Foundation. Share the Table also secured a grant from the Bank of America Foundation for the Learning Center planned for their new facility, which includes funding for the Community Garden that will feed into their cooking and nutrition classes.
Staff members at Topsail High School have also been instrumental in turning the idea of a community garden into a plant-filled reality.
Siobhan Fargo, career development coordinator for the school’s Career and Technical Education programs, has worked with Lichter to establish a grant-funded internship and to get students to volunteer to help throughout the year. Future Farmers of America (FFA) students have been eager to participate, as have students in other clubs, including the National Honor Society and the Key Club.
Students in the school’s carpentry and horticulture classes have helped from the beginning. Carpentry teacher Vann English has involved his students in building the raised beds, picnic tables and benches for the garden. Horticulture students use their expertise to determine which plants will do well during each season. They will also be using the school’s greenhouse to get seeds started before transplanting the growing plants to the community garden.
Topsail Island Kiwanis members will be donating dwarf fruit trees to be placed in the garden, to honor members of the club who have passed away. Each tree will be accompanied by a plaque recognizing the member. Lichter says this is just one example of the “concept of giving heart, giving forever” that is so important to them.
The Garden Guardians, volunteers who will help oversee the garden, come from all walks of life and interests.
Scout troops, members of other community organizations and individuals have volunteered to check on the plants every other day, to ensure they have the best chance of growing strong and healthy.
“Our interns that started the program are invested in it,” Fargo says. “We have students in the classroom and in FFA that are helping.”
While some clubs at Topsail High have volunteer hour requirements and students can use their work in the garden to fulfill those, Fargo adds that not all students are working toward those requirements. She explains that they have students who will continue to help with the garden.
Students can participate in a garden workday during the day as part of a class field trip. The school has an “inside out challenge,” in which they “take students into the world to get real-world experience.” In addition, Fargo emphasizes that it is important to her and to the school to give back to the community.
Adding that the connection with Share the Table is important to her and to the school as well, Fargo says, “Share the Table is a great program. They provide food for our students in need through their backpack program. They also keep a snack pantry at the high school. Students learn better if they’re not hungry.”
Ellis says of the garden and the community involvement, “I see it as harvesting togetherness in many ways. This garden will bring together many different types of people to replenish hearts and plates!”
Lichter is excited about the future of the community garden, as it will provide much-needed fresh produce for the community. The work to build and harvest the garden, she says, “shows the collaboration, the community support for neighbors feeding neighbors.”