- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 26, 2015

STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP) - Not far from the hum of traffic on Starkville’s Highway 12 lies a quiet green space.

Most people never pass it in the course of their day, never know it’s there in the curve on Josey Avenue. But the Starkville Community Garden is getting a few more visitors these days. You might even say it’s enjoying a renaissance of sorts.

Part of the credit for that is being given to Lauren Crosby Williams, a recent transplant to the South. When Lauren and her husband, Justin, moved from New England to Starkville this past October for his job with the U.S. Forest Service, they brought their green thumbs with them.

“We were always used to having a garden of our own, and when we moved here our house doesn’t have much of a yard, so we googled ‘community gardens,’” Williams said.

That simple search took her to Starkville Parks and Recreation and its director, Herman Peters. It also led her to take up a new cause.

The Parks and Recreation Department oversees the community garden established with the innovative help of Pete Melby several years ago.

Peters said, “When I came on in 2011, the garden was there but not getting a lot of usage. One of our goals this year was taking everything out and redoing the beds - and we’ve got a new manager, Lauren, who has really been awesome.”

Of the 30 plots available, 21 are already filled this season, he said.

The revitalized interest is due largely to Williams’ outreach, said gardener Amy Crawford. The two met last fall when Williams offered to help with Emerson Family School’s Fresh Start program.

Crawford, an Emerson parent, volunteers with the farm-to-preschool initiative designed to inspire children to eat more vegetables and learn hands-on how plants grow, in plots near their playground.

When Williams sent out the rallying call for the community garden, Crawford signed up. She takes her young son with her to tend the bed, when she can, to instill lessons she hopes he will remember for a lifetime.

“It’s just our little piece of ground, because I live in an apartment,” said Crawford, a graduate teaching assistant at Mississippi State.

“I don’t have any dirt on the earth that I can call my own, so this allows me to grow something in the sun. I can’t believe everything Lauren’s done. She donates so much time and energy to things she cares about, and it’s from a sincere desire to better the world.”

Neetu Jain is a native of India who moved to Starkville about a year ago; her husband is pursuing a doctorate degree in chemistry. She has always had a fascination with gardening.

“But in my childhood, I never got a chance to go into the field,” she said. “This is my first experience and I’m very excited. It gives me pleasure to be growing something.”

Pulling stray weeds from her plot on a sunbathed day recently, Jain listed the vegetables she has in the ground: tomato and okra, green chilies, kale, spinach, peas, eggplant and bell peppers.

Crawford, Peters and Mary Frances Lolley worked nearby. The group - of varying ages, backgrounds and walks of life- shared friendly exchanges. That, for many, is a welcome side benefit.

“We want to use it as a garden, of course, but it’s also a chance to meet people,” said Williams.

Lolley agrees, telling of other plot-holders who have shared some of their early harvests with her already. Her enthusiasm for the community garden was evident, as she walked alongside her raised beds. She delighted in the maturing squash, tomato and watermelon plants.

“It’s so exciting to have things coming up from last year. I love gardening … it’s the joy of watching things grow,” she said.

The harvest is more than simply good things to eat or flowers to enjoy - it’s also the “community” in “community garden.”

“I’m really proud because this year we have people from 20 years old to 80 at the garden,” said Peters. “We’re looking for people of all ages who are serious about having a garden.”

Starkville Community Garden has beds ranging in size from 2-by-8-feet to 2-by-12 feet. Cost is $20-$30 per year.

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Information from: The Commercial Dispatch, https://www.cdispatch.com

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