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    Green Thumb: Community gardening project selling seed plants to nurture mission

    By Christine Arpe Gang - The Commercial Appeal -

    If GrowMemphis were a tree, we would all want it in our gardens.

    Guided by the nurturing auspices of the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center, in 2007 it was like a small seedling growing along with three community gardens located in neighborhoods underserved by supermarkets.

    Today, it is big enough to offer support to a total of 28 thriving islands of edibles.

    Just as a tree refreshes a weary gardener with its cooling shade, the community gardens provide healthful sustenance to those who work in them.

    There are many more community gardens in Memphis, not all under the GrowMemphis umbrella and not all sharing its organic mandate. But the goal of all is to provide healthful and economical food close to where the gardeners live.

    "I think people would be surprised at how well community gardening has taken hold in this city," said Christopher Peterson, executive director of GrowMemphis, which is now an independent organization.

    "When I go to conferences, people from other cities are amazed at how vibrant community gardening is in Memphis."

    GrowMemphis focuses on planting tough, mostly heirloom, vegetable varieties grown from seeds sown in greenhouses maintained by Memphis Park Services in Overton Park.

    Excess edible plants will be sold to the public from 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday at Idlewild Presbyterian Church, 1750 Union. Proceeds will support the work of GrowMemphis.

    A group of church members grows the plants.

    "A dedicated crew of volunteers has been working three days a week getting the plants ready for the sale," Peterson said.

    Shoppers will find unusual varieties, some with names they probably won't recognize. All have been successful in GrowMemphis gardens.

    In addition to the more-familiar heirloom tomatoes, such as Brandywine and Cherokee purple, there are zarnitsas and black cherries, so named for their deep red color.

    Originally from an area 50 miles south of Moscow, zarnitsa translates from Russian as "summer lightning."

    Similar to Early Girl in color, size and ripening time (about 60 days), zarnitsa also has a strong, short central stem and fruit that resists cracking.

    The taste is described as 'well-balanced, sweet, buttery and smooth."

    These tomatoes are rare, even from Internet seed sources, so it's great to be able to purchase homegrown seedlings.

    In addition to tomatoes, eggplant, cucumber, squash and pepper seedlings will be sold in donated paper cups about the size of 4-inch nursery pots.

    Prices range from $2 to $5.

    Fayette Cares

    Another event for gardeners benefiting community projects is the annual Fayette Cares Plant Sale from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at First Citizens National Bank at 7285 U.S. 64 in Oakland.

    Now in its 20th year, the sale raises funds for Fayette Cares, a nonprofit agency that provides shelter for the homeless, safety for victims of domestic violence, and crisis intervention for families in financial distress (including food, clothing, rent/utility aid and training).

    The sale started with plant donations and pass-alongs from gardeners in the community.

    "We had friendship gardens sprouting up everywhere," said Alexandra Wardlow, executive director of Fayette Cares.

    But the demand for plants increased beyond the scope of what local gardeners could provide.

    "We got involved with professional growers like David Levy of Willow Oaks Flower Farm," Wardlow said. "His plants are still favorites at the sale."

    Several other nurseries and retailers will participate:

    Lucerne Farms in Somerville, which specializes in annuals such as lantanas, portulacas, angelonias, vincas and petunias.

    Country Gardens, with locations at the Agricenter and Arlington, selling tropicals such as ferns, hibiscus and shrimp plants.

    Stockyard nursery and Feed Store in Arlington with shrubs, trees and assorted perennials.

    Ace Hardware in Oakland offering mulch and other gardening supplies.

    Twigs and Things, a flower and gift shop in Oakland, selling products to help people get creative with plants.

    Those bargain-priced pass-along plants donated by local volunteers will be available too.

    Every child will get to decorate a small pot and plant a flower donated by Levy in it. And children can also play in a bounce house.

    Sounds like a fun event for the whole family.