Right now the Wilshire Estates Community Garden might not be much to look at, but in a few months, this southside patch of grass will be bursting with okra, squash, peppers and other ripening veggies.
Creating a garden from scratch is going to take a lot of digging and even more attention, but coordinator Bonnie Harris and her neighbors are up for the task of filling the vacant lot with food and flowers.
"We'll start small and see what comes up," says Harris, who has lived in the Wilshire Estates neighborhood for 47 years and remembers when the tall trees ringing it were just saplings.
Now raised beds will be constructed in the footprint of the house that once stood here, demolished after a flood destroyed its foundation. The City of Savannah bought out the owner with funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) years ago, and the land has lain fallow ever since. That is, until the city granted it to the nearby neighborhood association under its new community garden program.
"There's not much you can do with a piece of property once FEMA declares it a disaster site," explains Carol Moon, director of the city's Real Property Services Department. "You can't build on it. But you can grow on it."
Moon helped identify 400 city-owned lots that for one reason or another aren't much use to contractors but hold much potential as gardening spots. Encouraging gardening on a vacant lot is an inexpensive way to reduce blight and foster community, two objectives high on the city's list of priorities.
A gardener herself, Moon also developed the program that allows any organization or group — including neighborhood associations, schools and churches — to apply for stewardship of a property and possible funding.
"We looked at community garden policies from across the country and came up with what worked for Savannah," says Moon.
The program garnered avid support from Alderman Tony Thomas, who lobbied for its approval from City Council. Thomas also announced he has donated $250 to the Wilshire Estate Community Garden at its groundbreaking last Monday.
"Creating a community garden both beautifies the neighborhood and contributes to the health of the residents," said Alderman Thomas, who represents the Wilshire neighborhood. "Our hope is that other associations across the city will step up and take similar action across the community."
While any group is eligible to garden on one of the city's approved lots, it takes more than a trowel and a dream. Applicants must first send a letter of intent, then proof of neighborhood support and a proposed layout. A garden takes commitment and patience, and the city wants to make sure that folks have plenty of both: the user agreement for each property is two years.
Once a garden plan passes the application process, there will be plenty of support. Joining the city in this endeavor the Savannah Urban Gardening Alliance (SUGA) and other master gardeners, who will consult with groups on their plans and how to implement planting, watering and upkeep.
"In order for this to succeed you have to bring in people who have done this before and know how to sustain it," says Moon, adding that "the coolest part is that there are so many different entities coming together under one partnership.
"It goes beyond the fresh vegetables and fruits, which is huge. This is really a community building opportunity."
Already the Wilshire Community Garden is bringing together different generations. Students from nearby Windsor Forest High School are joining forces with neighbors as part of their agriculture class, taught by Elise Zador.
Harris is delighted for the help.
"They get our insight, we get their strength," says Harris.
"We're all just going to get out there and play in the dirt."