Even through winter, as the ground chills over with frost and the plants slowly die, the Cullowhee Community Garden remains hard at work. To avoid the ever-growing cold season, the garden utilizes a greenhouse that cuts through the path of the garden.
Through the greenhouse, David Claxon, the garden manager, and five other gardeners can grow kale, lettuce, rosemary, cilantro, parsnips and other produce. The greenhouse does not have power but still retains enough heat for the tough plants to thrive.
For Claxton and the gardeners, 2023 was a successful year. All the plots combined to donate over 850 pounds of food fresh from the Cullowhee Community Garden.
“I was stunned. This is the first year that I’ve been garden manager and so I was not aware of how much we’ve given away…I was really happy when I saw that final number,” Claxon said.
Of the final number, over 200 pounds of the food donated came from two fruit trees in the garden.
“Last year was the first year that we started really paying attention to our fruit trees,” Claxton said.
Minda Daughtry has played a large part in optimizing the fruit trees production, especially through pruning.
“I learned this from Minda: a good fruit tree, you can tell if it’s been well maintained… you should be able to look into it and see how a bird could fly right through the crown of that tree and not crash into a branch,” Claxon said.
According to Daughtry, you should not prune more than 30% of a tree in one year. The trees will not be fully pruned by the end of 2024, but the process has begun. Claxton says that i
f the trees are pruned correctly, they will grow to produce more and more fruit.
Claxon takes deep pride in providing the freshest produce some will ever eat. He recalled a student coming to the garden and eating a pear, telling him it was the first fresh pear she had ever eaten.
“I don’t know if that’s [very] unusual. Across the United States, we have food deserts where some people have a hard time even getting to a grocery store in their neighborhood, much less a store that has fresh fruits and vegetables,” Claxon said.
“The more we can get fresh fruit and vegetables in front of the kids in Jackson County, the healthier they’re going to be,” Claxon said.
Claxon is excited to be able to produce more food through four additional plots that were cleared over the summer. The plots were cleared by WCU students who volunteered through Engage.
The garden saw over 360 students from WCU volunteer in 2023. As the weather gets warmer, students will be able to volunteer again. This summer, Claxon will have to be more selective with volunteers to avoid being overwhelmed. To be selected, students must fill out the google survey on the Engage page.
Volunteers are offered multiple responsibilities, including path maintenance, fence maintenance, helping gardeners weed or harvest their plots and helping fill water tanks.
Previously, the water tanks were operated by solar batteries given to the garden by the Engineering Department at WCU. Unfortunately, they were stolen from the shed over the summer, so the tanks now must be filled by hand.
Claxon is working with WCU engineering professor Hayrettin Bora Karayaka in hopes of getting new solar batteries to replace the old ones. Until then, multiple volunteers will be needed to fill water tanks with water from the Cullowhee Creek behind the garden.
The garden is also in the process of installing a new shed. The money for the shed came from a recent grant the garden received. Claxon will utilize this shed as additional storage for tools and food.
Claxon’s biggest goal for the garden is to develop a waitlist for plot adoption in case a plot is abandoned. He is very close to achieving that goal, however he must ask previous gardeners if they plan to adopt again before confirming a waitlist. Claxon is currently working on applications. You can apply to adopt a garden plot by emailing Claxon at firstname.lastname@example.org.