On a pleasant August evening, just after the threat of a thunderstorm had passed, people began to gather at one of the trendiest spots in Roanoke for sampling locally grown food.
Until this summer, the Morningside neighborhood wasn’t known for its variety of fresh fruits and vegetables. But that is changing now that Carilion Clinic planted an educational urban farm, and its partner Roanoke Community Garden Association opened up 25 new garden plots.
The project’s roots formed during meetings Carilion hosted during its biennial assessment of the health needs of the communities it serves.
“We asked residents, ‘What is preventing you from having good health?’ ” said community health educator Edie Naughton. “One of the things they said is, ‘We don’t have access to food. There’s nothing within a mile. To get fresh food, really, forget it.’ ”
Then some residents remarked that years ago their families had gardens, but they had lost the art of growing their own food.
Carilion’s foundation chipped in the seed money for an urban farm. The city offered land to till in Morningside Park, and the community garden association agreed to plant its newest garden there.
The farm and garden are along Morgan Avenue and just off Ninth Street.
On the farm side, urban farmer Cam Terry of Garden Variety Harvests tends plots that on this evening boasted a healthy crop of beets, eggplant and corn. He turns the small fields over three times a season, getting a mix of produce throughout the growing season. Roanoke’s season is so long, Terry said it can support three to four coordinated crops.
On the evening of the Love It Local Corn Festival, Terry brought his smoothie bike, which has a blender on the rear fender. He loaded locally grown blueberries and peaches, along with a splash of almond milk, and neighbors took turns pedaling the fruit into quick, nutritious drinks. He had a second recipe with cucumbers, mint and watermelon. The goal was to demonstrate the ease of using fresh produce to make good-tasting meals.
Naughton said they found many of the neighbors wanted to eat better but weren’t sure how to prepare fresh foods. Carilion has partnered with the LEAP Farm Share on a number of projects, including bringing its mobile food market to family practices and sharing recipes and tips.
LEAP was at the corn festival with a colorful variety of produce it offers at half price to people paying with a SNAP benefit. One basket was prepared with the ingredients and recipe for a peach salsa that was one of several dishes Local Roots spread out for people to sample.
Sunni Purviance picked up a recipe for pickles. It looked easy enough, she said, but she’s so pressed for time lately with her I Heart Southeast campaign that she hasn’t had much time to cook. Purviance is president of the Southeast Action Forum and said the urban farm and community garden have been a welcome and welcoming addition to the neighborhood. Much of her time is spent spreading the word.
“There is so much. Good people and activities and partnerships are forming,” she said. “Just coming out to meet your neighbors, I think is important.”
Construction on the farm started last year, and Naughton said a couple of neighbors worried at first about parking. Now they come to events.
The community garden has space for 25 plots. Some are tended by people living nearby, and there’s a waiting list. The plots rent for $30 a season.
“We often waive that fee if there is a family or individual who can’t pay. We don’t exclude anyone from gardening with us. If someone is willing to do the work of a garden, come on in,” said Anna Copplestone, executive director of the association. The gardeners can grow whatever they want, except for weeds. Most choose vegetables, but some opt for flowers.
Terry holds regular farmer’s hours on Monday mornings so people in the neighborhood can drop by to ask questions about gardening, and he can offer advice and encouragement to the 25 gardeners who have rented spaces in the adjacent community garden.
Two years ago Terry was living in Colorado with a dream to be an urban farmer. He had gone to film school and had worked for a small fine arts company, where he learned much about running a business. His girlfriend’s parents moved to Roanoke.
“I told them my idea about farming people’s yards. The offered to let me start my business in their yard,” he said.
When he moved to Virginia, he gained 45 more frost-free days, but also 45 more days to battle bugs and other pests. He said the business has flourished, and he’s had great mentors and enjoys sharing what he’s learned with others.
The farm offers field trips for children to learn about plants and bugs, and a number of private and public events, such as sunset yoga and art classes.
Lucas Birdlebaugh, 14, of Salem said he plans soon to start on his Eagle Scout project by building a 12-by-12-foot outdoor classroom with a removable roof to let the light in. During the corn festival, he tended a bonfire. Teens from Richmond had just finished up their last day as volunteers with REACH, the nonprofit that revitalizes houses in the neighborhood. They rested from their labors around the fire.
Others wandered in, sampled roasted corn and caught up with friends, a mixture of neighbors and people from other parts of Roanoke finding their way to Morningside.
A listing of public events can be found on Carilion’s website. They will continue through fall and will culminate with the Harvest Festival on Oct. 17.