Mia McCaskill and her children, Max and Maria, work in the Nuleaf Community Garden.

By Sally Bethea

The only place in the yard that the sun shone brightly and continuously was a skinny strip of land between my rented Midtown duplex and the driveway.

It was the mid-1970s and I wanted a vegetable garden.

Undaunted by the tiny plot and my lack of gardening experience, I planted squash, tomatoes and peppers in the rocky, nutrient-poor soil. I remember the beautiful squash blossoms, but not so much the vegetables; I think that most of them were eaten by bugs and other critters.

In the decades that followed, I moved to houses with lovely shady yards full of ferns, hostas, and hydrangea, but no sun-loving plants or vegetable gardens.

Forty years later and now retired, I have finally found some sunshine and a community garden where I am happily pulling weeds.

My garden is in the historic Howell Station neighborhood: northwest of downtown Atlanta and just four miles from my home. The Western and Atlantic Railroad (now CSX) was extended here in 1843. Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1997, the area was developed specifically for blue-collar workers, employed by the railroad and light industry located along West Marietta Street.

I met Mia McCaskill on the grounds of the Northwest Baptist Church, one of four historic churches in Howell Station. Made of Stone Mountain granite, the structure was erected in 1927 to replace the tent where congregants had been meeting.

Mia and a neighbor started the Nuleaf Community Garden on the church grounds four years ago. Tall with a pleasant, soft voice and a growing family (husband David, daughter Maria, son Max and a baby on the way), Mia welcomed me to the first garden work day in early April.

David was turning over the soil with a small hand-held tiller that looked impossibly difficult to manage. I followed him with a heavy rake, doing my best to remove weeds, rocks and the occasional found object. A few volunteers pulled weeds from two raised beds and a small herb garden. Mia planted fruit trees.

Raised in Jacksonville, Florida, Mia remembers her grandmother’s garden, which always had greens, cabbages and fruit trees. At the age of ten, she helped her father with their small family plot. She says that she didn’t know much about how to plan her own garden, but she knew what she wanted: a way to meet more people, get her kids involved and help the church make connections in the community.

Her supportive husband said: “Well, do it!”

Mia says proudly that she’s making her city boy (David is from Detroit) into a country man.

Instead of establishing individual plots within a larger garden, Mia decided that everyone would work in the whole garden, making sure that it is well-tended and also serves as an attractive retreat, a place to “take a blanket and relax,” she says.

Garden volunteers can take home a bag of veggies and herbs. There is always plenty – enough to pass on to neighbors unable to volunteer and to donate to the Atlanta Community Food Bank, which provides everything from seeds and plants to tilling, tools and volunteers. In fact, it is thanks to the Food Bank that I am now a part of Atlanta’s flourishing community garden movement.

Mia’s favorite crop is tomatoes, but she says that she has learned to love fresh beets from her garden – noting that they are “a whole other experience” than canned beets. A lifelong beet-hater, I am looking forward to trying the beets that we grow this year.

But, even more than the prospect of growing my own vegetables, what I like most about my new volunteer job is the feeling of community that the garden creates – and digging in the dirt while the sun shines.

To volunteer for a community garden near you, visit acfb.org or parkpride.org. To help Nuleaf Community Garden in Howell Station as a volunteer or with donations, contact me at sbethea063@gmail.com.