Long dreamed, an urban farm sprouts at Garinger High

Where there once were weeds, there is now a farm field, planted in potatoes, broccoli and greens. Where there once was a defunct greenhouse, there are now floating trays bursting with lettuce, fed by water circulating through a tank of tilapia.

A year has passed since Friendship Gardens’ Henry Owen and his team of enthusiastic gardening partners took over a neglected corner of Garinger High School’s back lot in Charlotte. On Saturday, April 26, the team welcomed the neighborhood, the school and the tight-knit world of Charlotte’s locavore movement to celebrate the grand opening of the Friendship Gardens Urban Farm. The event – complete with fish tacos, face painting and an acoustic band – marked a milestone for a project that not long ago was a mostly a dream (See more photos below). 

“I’m very pleased with the progress we have made,” said Owen, program director for Friendship Gardens, a network of gardens that grow produce for Friendship Trays, Charlotte’s meals-on-wheels program. The Garinger farm is meant to grow food – but also do a lot more. Backers envision it as a place that will draw together the east Charlotte neighborhood around the school, bring healthy produce to a hungry community and teach job skills to students.

“I think there’s going to be a lot of job opportunities in urban settings doing horticulture and agriculture,” said Katherine Metzo, Friendship Gardens development director. “This program, I think, has the ability to really get kids passionate about learning, get them passionate about moving to the next stage beyond high school.”

The farm, tucked behind Garinger athletic fields, sports colorful signs made from wooden pallets marking out all that’s growing: collards, lettuce, cabbage, carrots. Next to the first field – Owen plans soon to plow up another 1,000-square-foot plot – stands a produce washing station built by Boy Scouts and a large toolshed made from a repurposed Hyundai shipping container. One side of the container is marked out in grids; Garinger art students each will take a panel to paint to form a giant mural. In the distance clustered a future orchard awaiting planting: pots of pomegranate, apple, persimmon, fig and plum trees.

Owen, who said he’s usually more focused on his long list of jobs yet to do, took time at the event to summarize the urban farm’s achievements so far.

It has already delivered spring produce to Friendship Trays. The farm now has grant-funded paid interns from Garinger High School working after school and it soon will add interns from Davidson College and UNC Charlotte. The summer crops are in the ground, and the aquaponic system soon will get additional, bound-for-the-table tilapia to move it past its set-up phase.

On the farm’s upper level are row upon row of raised beds, built by students.  Those are the particular pride of Bobbie Mabe, the community advocate for Garinger and head of the school gardens, which are part of the farm. She creates curriculum so students can use the gardens to learn about the world. Those raised-bed boxes? They were part of a lesson on the Industrial Revolution for a world history class. Mabe had one group of kids constructing boxes with hand tools, another with power tools.

“We talked about how agriculture and the Industrial Revolution went hand in hand and work together,” Mabe said. She has a school engineering class building her a kitchen cart so she and students can cook the produce and sample it minutes after harvest.

Students will help in the greenhouse, where the nonprofit, 100 Gardens, has four sky-blue tanks that will eventually hold 75 tilapia each. Water from the tilapia bubbles through tubes to tables where trays of lettuce float. The plants clean the water, which then flows back to the fish. At Saturday’s opening, one tank of starter fish was operating, but Jacob Huffman, a UNC Charlotte intern with 100 Gardens, said the system is ready for more. Growing crops with water from fish, Huffman said, “is highly productive.”

“You can grow vegetables with 10 percent of the water you would if they were in the ground,” Huffman said. The fish take eight months to grow to eating size, and will be raised for a staggered harvest for Friendship Trays clients.

Neighbors from the surrounding streets strolled around, learning about the demonstration chickens – borrowed from Owen’s backyard, but he would like to add poultry to the farm eventually – and other facets of the project. Donnel Stines-Jones, a former Garinger teacher who came to the event with her family, was enthusiastic.

“This is really fabulous and such a boost for the east side,” she said. “They’re doing a phenomenal job with a healthy, sustainable, community effort.”

See more photos below. 

More photos of Garinger's Urban Farm:

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