Madeleine Henner plants seeds at a recent Wylde Center workshop in Decatur. (Photos by Isadora Pennington)

Composed of seven acres of land split between five different gardens, the Wylde Center is an invaluable resource for the communities which they serve.

Oakhurst Garden, the first Wylde Center garden, was created by Sally Wylde in 1997. This first foray into community gardens was a result of Louise Jackson’s response to neighborhood children trampling her yard back in 1996. Instead of finding ways to prevent the children from walking through her garden, Wylde and Jackson partnered with neighbors and invited the children to become caretakers of the greenspace. 

In time, Jackson’s yard was transformed into a lush garden full of vibrant, happy plants and lined with a colorful rainbow fence. The children were able to see their efforts pay off as plants grew and flourished.

The group then decided to create a garden in the median strip in front of Jackson’s home. When an undeveloped half-acre lot which had been used as a commercial basil farm came up for sale, Wylde and her husband, Britt Dean, acquired it and thus the Oakhurst Community Garden Project was born. This would pave the way for what later became an extensive network of greenspaces spread throughout the eastern communities of Atlanta and Decatur. 

Wylde Center Executive Director Stephane Van Parys.

Today, Wylde Center Gardens include the Oakhurst Garden, Sugar Creek Garden also in Oakhurst, Hawk Hollow in Kirkwood, Edgewood Community Learning Garden, and the Mulberry Fields Garden in Candler Park.

I recently spoke with Wylde’s executive director Stephanie Van Parys and development and events coordinator Ferrin Tinter to learn about their current projects and programs.

Parys has been at the helm of Wylde Center for the past 17 years after a stint at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens. With a degree in horticulture, experience serving on the board of two nonprofits, and living in the neighborhood near the Oakhurst Garden, it was a natural fit for Parys to get involved with the Wylde Center. She first was recruited to the board by Sally Wylde herself, and after a year, Parys was asked to take over when Wylde retired. 

In her youth, Parys was surrounded by a love for nature. Both of her grandparents – one set here in the states and another in Germany – were gardeners, as was her mother.

“We lived in Germany for several years and I spent a lot of my childhood in a rural setting,” said Parys. “It wasn’t just about gardening, it was about being in the landscape, being in nature, and using that to live.”

From left, Mark and Ellison Ethun, Kenya Mann Faulkner, Shannon Earley, and Jessica Murphy at a Wylde Center workshop.

She recalls eating a lot of salads that they sourced directly from her family’s garden and fond memories of playing around and under her grandfather’s cherry tree. “It was my favorite thing in the world,” she said, wistfully. 

So, what exactly is it that makes the Wylde gardens so unique? Yes, we have parks and nature preserves, but what the Wylde Center offers is an immersive gateway to nature. These greenspaces are essential to the health of our local ecosystem. By planting and maintaining native, pollinator-friendly plants, the Wylde Center team can provide support to these often overlooked insects and animals that in turn keep flowers and plants growing in our communities.

“The Wylde Center is unique in that we do community programs, education programs, and actual physical gardens,” explained Parys. “The mission of the organization is to connect people to nature, and we really do use all of those facets to connect people to nature.”

These community gardens are open to the public, maintained by a combination of staff members and community volunteers, and offer resources such as composting, raised bed plots, event rentals, classes, and even opportunities for little ones to meet and interact with farm animals such as the resident chickens and goats at Mulberry Fields Garden.

“It is such a waterfall effect, pun intended, for nature,” said Tinter. “Because our education program does help kids learn how to eat healthier, and we have a lot of young kids come to our garden. They want to touch things and eat things. The Wylde Center does a really beautiful job of showing you how to use the resources of nature without destroying it.”

During the pandemic, the Wylde Center gardens offered a much needed resource for people to connect with nature to relieve anxiety and provide a safe outlet away from the isolation of their homes. “It was very obvious that people needed to get out of their houses,” said Parys. “We had so many visitors to our gardens. People turned to gardens because it relieved their stress and anxiety.”

Mark Ethun and daughter Ellison learn about planting at the Wylde Center.

Beyond the healing properties of getting your hands dirty, breathing fresh air, and being surrounded by nature, the gardens also encourage community members to learn about environmental stewardship through their education program.

By attending workshops, both virtually and in person, visitors can learn how to start a garden, when to plant their summer plants – not only flowers, but also tips for growing fruits and vegetables. The Wylde Center offers one of the largest youth environmental and science education programs in metro-Atlanta. Their programming includes the Decatur Farm to School program, Atlanta Farm to School, Healthy Living by Healthy Growing at the Decatur Housing Authority, and science programs and field trips linked to Common Core standards.

It’s also not only the wildlife that benefits from these greenspaces scattered throughout residential neighborhoods in Atlanta; their very existence has become a sort of “absorbant” to the city. The effects of climate change paired with the increased density of development in residential communities has made Wylde gardens much wetter. When it rains these open spaces tend to flood. Three of the five gardens are technically located in flood plains, but all of them have seen an increase in rainwater accumulation following storms. This eases the strain on sewer systems and prevents flooding in nearby homes and businesses. 

The Wylde Center organization itself is a nonprofit, and the structure is composed of about 16 full time staff members, as well as education, greenspace, development, public programs, and event rentals departments. Guided by a board of 18 engaged and talented community members, the team handles maintenance and programs at all five gardens year-round.

This year, in celebration of its 25th anniversary, the Wylde Center team is hosting some celebratory parties and initiatives to garner involvement within their community. They recently launched an all-ages scavenger hunt with 25 things to find at their greenspaces, complete with prizes such as t-shirts, bags, and gift cards. In June, an official Beer Garden party will commemorate the anniversary with live music, food, drinks, and plenty of good vibes. 

Also, over the next 18-24 months, the Wylde Center is set to embark on a capital campaign that will see site improvement to all of their gardens which will include additional structures at the gardens, bathrooms, and a renovated main office at the Oakhurst Garden.

“Basically, what we are doing is making site improvements that will enhance our ability to educate children on site, adjusting to accommodate changes in climate, and make the gardens more accessible to the communities in which they exist,” Tinter said. 

Making container gardens at the Wylde Center.

In Kirkwood, visitors will see the Hawk Hollow garden double in size with the acquisition of two additional adjacent lots. 

When asked how people can get more involved with the Wylde Center and its initiatives, Parys suggested that interested parties consider becoming a donor, take beginnger gardening classes, become a plot holder at one of their gardens, or participate in the plant sale which is taking place from now through June at the Oakhurst Garden and online.

Family programs offer another great way to breed a love and understanding for the importance of nature with our youngest community members. Whether it be through organizing field trips with local schools, family programs, or merely by bringing them to these garden spaces to experience nature firsthand, there are some wonderful ways to instill environmental stewardship in our children’s lives.

“Just come visit us!” said Parys, with a trademark enthusiasm that she brings to all of her efforts at the Wylde Center. “One of the best ways to get involved with us is to come visit us.”

Learn more visiting WyldeCenter.org

Isadora Pennington

Isadora Pennington is a writer and photographer based in Atlanta.