GASTONIA, N.C. (AP) — Gastonia's Highland community has seen its share of struggles with growth over the last 30 years.
But Frances Hoyle even seems to get a little taller when she talks about what's sprouting there these days.
"We've got a little something coming up," she said of the rows at the Highland Community Garden. "Some flowers are growing and some people's green beans have started to come up, too."
The city-owned patch at the corner of North York Street and West Granite Avenue represents another recent effort to revitalize Highland. After two old homes were torn down there years ago, only an empty, littered 2-acre lot was left. So in 2011, Keep Gastonia Beautiful began working to establish a community garden that could benefit the surrounding neighborhoods.
More than $8,000 in grants and donations were raised prior to construction beginning, and this marks the first planting season.
"Our program money is all raised, but this isn't something we could've afforded to do without the city's involvement," said Jerod Shuford, a coordinator for Keep Gastonia Beautiful. "They have been a huge supporter."
The garden consists of three long and two short parallel planting beds, with space for 26 plots — each measuring about 100 square feet. Eighteen amateur gardeners had reserved space as of last week, meaning a few plots are still available.
Two of the spaces are being used by Food Corps, a national nonprofit that strives to teach children and adults about the values of eating right, particularly in low-income communities.
Participants pay $20 to use a plot for an entire year. For that, they may work in the garden during the day, and they have access to shared, community garden tools in a shed on-site. Each person who rents space gets a key to the shed.
The key also provides access to a locked water pump at the garden, which hooks up to a sprinkler system.
"The $20 membership fee mostly covers the cost of the water," said Shuford. "Everything else is donated or provided by us."
Gardeners can mostly plant whatever they like, as long as it doesn't grow higher than 4 feet. That eliminates crops like corn, because the height can shade neighboring fruits and vegetables from getting sunlight.
Gardeners also take turns maintaining the site.
Hoyle was one of the first to plant in April, putting in tomatoes, green beans, squash, cucumbers, watermelon and cantaloupe.
"Some of the others have planted flowers and various vegetables," she said. Cucumbers and eggplant have also turned up.
Hoyle doesn't live in Highland, but attends church there and has other ties to the area. One of the garden's big benefits is providing users a way to grow free, healthy food that would otherwise inflate their grocery bills, she said.
A new farmers market at the nearby Highland Health Center is also promoting the benefits of fresh, homegrown fruits and vegetables.
"It's helping us come up with ideas about what we should do to eat healthier," Hoyle said.
Hoyle and others are meeting at the garden once a month to go through "Gardening 101," Shuford said. It's an opportunity to learn tips such as how to compost, and how often to water different fruits and vegetables.
Future plans include adding more flowers and a butterfly garden to the landscaping at the site, to go along with the trees and bushes there now.
"Part of the goal of this is to get neighbors meeting neighbors, organizing and building a stronger sense of community," said Shuford. "It's still a work in progress, but we're very pleased with it so far."
Information from: The Gaston Gazette, http://www.gastongazette.com