CANTON — A budding community garden in Canton is about far more than the vegetables, flowers and herbs that it will produce.

It’s about building community, said the Rev. Ray Shephard, as associate pastor at Canton First Baptist Church whose primary role is community engagement.

The garden that’s slowly taking shape gives the hundreds of people who pass the Canton Recreation Park each week where the garden is located a chance to learn more not only about the garden, but the community needs, Shepard said.

Plus, it’s about a new way for the church to meet people in the community where they are at as opposed to waiting for them to enter the church.

“A lot of churches are struggling with membership,” Shephard said. “We’re learning to pool our resources at neutral sites and meet people where they are. There are a lot of people who have been hurt by the church and turned off by a judgmental attitude. But the culture has changed.”

One of the best ways to demonstrate that, Shepard indicated, is to focus on community needs and help foster a new way of thinking when it comes to pulling together for the good of all.

Shepard is one of several who regularly works in the garden that’s located next to Riverview Farm and Garden in the Canton Recreation Park. The highly visible location has sparked a lot of interest, Shepard said, with passersby stopping to ask what’s going on and offer tips about what to grow.

“There’s not a time I’ve been down here that I haven’t talked to at least two people about what we’re doing,” he said. “I tell them what we’re doing and ask what they think what we ought to plant or whether they have any ideas we should consider.”

The topic has sparked a lot of interest, from a suggestion that the garden needs to be organic to comments about what types of herbs to plant.

So far, the investment has been minimal, Shepard said, with much of the needed items being donated and the remainder paid for through a church grant from the Cruso Endowment, funds provided by David and Irene Smathers that were earmarked to provide the eastern part of Haywood County with money for projects to help meet community needs.

In addition to putting in a hydrant to water the plants, there was about $125 spent to build raised beds, and a nominal amount for the lease. Soil, conditioner, transportation, and even some of the plants have been donated, Shepard said.

Future plans call for putting up a small shed where tools can be stored and expanding the garden beyond its initial footprint.

There will be a row for the “three sisters” the Native American reference to beans that are planted close to corn stalks that they can climbs with squash plants nearby to provide shade that retains the moisture. Another bed will be for herbs, while flowers will be in yet another of the raised beds. Tomatoes, potatoes and cucumbers will round out the garden for this year.

The garden is admittedly getting a late start this year, but Shepard indicated the journey toward allowing a place where the community can pull together and provide items for The Community Kitchen as well as flowers that can be delivered to shut-ins will serve its purpose.

The beginnings

The Rev. Court Greene of Canton First Baptist Church, had been thinking about the idea of starting a community garden for some time when a community member mentioned such a project would fit well with the goals of the Cruso Endowment.

“Our visions aligned,” he said. “It was one of those few times in life when the timing was perfect. The idea was planted and began to bloom.”

About a dozen church members have been active in working with the garden, Greene said, but others in the community are encouraged to join in.

“The bigger payout has been what it’s done for community relations,” Greene said. “I’ve seen random strangers talk to each other who maybe wouldn’t have otherwise. This is literally and figuratively open to anyone, and it’s in the perfect spot.”

Greene told a story about a man who started working with the garden, and later showed up at a church event to hang out with folks he met.

“It’s was beautiful,” he said.

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