Cullowhee Community Garden: the seeds of charity

Entrance sign to garden photo by Marrah Ste. Marie

Hidden between a wall of trees and Cullowhee Creek is the serene Cullowhee Community Garden. 

Compost pile at entrance photo by Marrah Ste. Marie

The Cullowhee Community Garden houses gardening plots for adoption as well as walking paths for anyone to wander at any time. Adopters only have two rules to follow for their plots: everything grown must be organic and half of what is harvested must be donated. 

The latter rule is what makes the garden vital to the Jackson County community. Food insecurity is a problem that heavily affects Jackson County every year. According to the Jackson County Community Health Assessment, in 2021, one-quarter of families did not know where their next meal would come from. 

Through organizations like Community Table and United Christian Ministry, the Cullowhee Community Garden has donated 676 pounds of organic food in 2023 so far, over 300 pounds of that food being donated in August alone. 

David Claxon, garden manager photo by Marrah Ste. Marie

The garden is managed by David Claxon, the former head of WCU’s Health, PE and Recreation Department. Claxon is proud of the contribution the garden makes to the local community.  

“If you wait until you can solve the whole problem, you’re never going to do anything. But if you do what you can, and enough people do that, then you can solve the problem,” Claxton said. 

The garden is also dedicated to improving environmental health. No gasoline-powered tools are allowed. All electricity used to charge equipment and run irrigation is powered by solar batteries.  

Food scraps are used to create compost piles, lowering the amount of food waste in landfills and promoting plant growth in the garden. 

To help with pollination, milkweeds are allowed to grow (if they don’t obstruct the pathways) to provide food for monarch butterflies. 

As the community relies on the garden, the garden also relies on the community. WCU’s Facilities Management often brings leaves that are vacuumed off campus to donate to the garden. 

Kale and tomatoes photo by Marrah Ste. Marie

The solar-powered batteries used to run electricity in the garden were provided by the engineering department of WCU, and the hoses, used to run water from the creeks to the tanks, were provided by the Jackson County Volunteer Fire Department.  

The garden is also dependent on volunteers. Students are highly encouraged to volunteer their time at the garden Wednesdays between 11 a.m.-5 p.m. or Saturdays 8 a.m.-12 p.m. with various activities including weeding, clearing trails, painting signs and continuing previous projects. Those who want to contribute but can’t volunteer are encouraged to bring their food scraps to the compost pile. 

Volunteers are provided tools and encouraged to work at their own pace. Watching volunteers grow their current friendships and foster new ones with other people who have come out to help is one of Claxon’s favorite parts of the garden. 

Claxon also encourages all volunteers, when onsite, to participate in 15 minutes of shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing”. Volunteers are told to find somewhere in the garden or near the creek and instructed to sit quietly for 15 minutes, focusing on the way the Earth interacts with their five senses. According to Claxon, it contributes greatly to mental health. 

In the past 11 years, the garden has evolved by expanding to fit more plots and fruit trees.

“Even the weeds are pretty in Cullowhee [Community] Garden” -David Claxon photo by Marrah Ste. Marie
Claxon’s future goals for the garden involve all plots being adopted and a waitlist for future plots, strengthening the bond between current adopters through events like potlucks and by incorporating more volunteers and interns. 

Cullowhee Creek photo by Marrah Ste. Marie

Madeline Gruhn, an English major at WCU, is the current intern at the garden. She began August 28 and has enjoyed her time. 

For Gruhn the garden has become a place to take a break from her busy schedule. “It’s very serene … it’s nice to come here to a quiet space and not be bothered. And if you’re frustrated you just pull weeds, it’s great.” 

Gruhn looks forward to developing a social media presence for the garden for students to follow. The garden can be found on Facebook and Instagram @CullowheeCommunityGarden. 

If you are interested in adopting a plot you can email and request an application and rule sheet for plot adoption. 

If you are interested in volunteering, fill out the Google form on the garden’s Engage page.