Mind the Gap

It takes a village, they say, and just one example of this put into practice is the garden at Pond Gap Elementary School where the quantity of hands, heart, and thought directed toward converting an unlikely hillside into an edible classroom and community space is impressive. The origins of this can be traced back to the localized food movement, the recognition of and vow to eliminate food deserts and to increase food security, and the importance of nutrition education, but the manifestation of these movements into the space of this Knoxville neighborhood school are credited to community service.

In 2014, the Pellissippi State Community College Service-Learning Program, which went on to be named to the President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll, began its Good Food For All initiative, which placed students, employees, and AmeriCorps VISTA members with local community gardens, food banks, and poverty alleviation organizations. Breaking ground at Pond Gap, named for a natural water feature now largely obscured from view by trees and overgrown brush, was veteran CAC AmeriCorps member Matt Callo, who had followed in his father’s footsteps by serving the previous year with Beardsley Community Farm and then followed up with an additional year as a VISTA member with Pellissippi State.

As explained by Matt in the formal 2014 ribbon cutting for the garden, its purpose was to demonstrate the viability of providing sustenance in an urban setting, to provide a learning space for all ages with an “edible curriculum” to “grow minds as we grow food”, to provide space for parents and other community members to grow and learn how to grow their own food, and to provide a service-learning space to hone skills in urban agriculture and addressing real issues of community food security.

As a community conceptualized and driven initiative, many individuals and organizations contributed, supplying tools, gathered leaves and wood chips, advice, and seeds. The heavy lifting began the fall before when Matt and a collection of hardy volunteers created the initial contours for planting and managing water flow through the garden. The elementary school students helped in planting, mulching, watering, and, of course, eating the produce, learning about nutrition, production, and cooking while also developing a taste for fresh vegetables.

The garden continued to grow, but, with the appointment of Andrew Linville by UT’s University Assisted Community Schools Program (UACS) as the Garden Manager, it moved forward in becoming a food forest, a functioning ecosystem with both edible and non-edible plants. As Andy explains it, it is human integration with, as opposed to human domination of, the landscape. Its components include fruit and nut trees with supporting, perennial vegetation growing in various layers of the understory providing ground cover and nutrient accumulation as well as sustainable yields of food. Such a system rejuvenates the landscape, and sustenance, education, and a developed sense of stewardship are its valued products. Daniel Stephenson joined with Andy part-time, and there was a focus on sheet mulching a lot more, building a couple bamboo outdoor classrooms, and adding as many plants as we possible to foster the aimed for complex diversity of a sustainable ecosystem.

The UACS collaborates with other schools, and in 2017 it placed a CAC AmeriCorps member with Inskip Elementary School to develop its garden. One member, Kalil White,  made considerable headway with enlarging the garden, creating curriculum-based activities, and bringing in resources and initiating activities to help the community, such as garden-to-table cooking classes. Nickolas Thompson continues the management of that garden, which is composed of annual and perennial plants and looks different each year. They recently won a garden grant from the Whole Kids Foundation for $3,000 and will be adding an outdoor classroom, fruit trees, interactive garden signs, and more community engagement and outdoor learning for the students. 

During this period of UACS focus on Inskip, the Pond Gap garden fell into some disrepair. But this year the UACS supported CAC AmeriCorps member, Alyssa Yoho, has been assigned to Pond Gap and has leapt into the role with enthusiasm, already having organized volunteer work parties, securing additional resources, and promoting the space to the community. As Alyssa writes …

The Pond Gap Elementary Food Forest is the largest school garden in the county, over ¼ acre! What makes our food forest so special is that it is the only one in this area that is available on public land for all to use and take part in. A food forest is far from a typical garden, as we use permaculture methods of growing and working collaboratively with the land instead of trying to dominate it. Andrew Linville, the former Pond Gap Garden Manager, would often refer to himself as a “liaison between what the land wants and what the humans need.” We have continued to maintain this philosophy throughout the years.

UACS works to address the basic needs of food, shelter, and clothing of the children they serve. Food access was an obvious challenge in the Pond Gap area, leading to the creation of the garden. Since then, the garden has evolved into the perennial food forest it is today with the goal of lower maintenance and cost over time.

Every year, the garden continues to grow. Due to the DOW Chemical Grant, we were able to add an Outdoor Kitchen and additional raised beds. In addition to the teachers using the kitchen for various projects, it will be a great resource for UACS’s Cooking Club, which works collaboratively with the garden to increase families’ access to healthy, naturally grown food. The students are so proud of their garden and they want to get out in it any chance they can, often choosing it over the playground during recess. If a student is not familiar with the garden, their classmates love leading them and picking various foods for them to try and pointing out the signs for them to read. The garden is a great place to walk and explore. The students love planting, harvesting, and watering, but sometimes just observing and asking questions brings the biggest smiles to their faces.

I started my AmeriCorps term at Pond Gap Elementary in September of this year. While the previous gardeners, Andrew Linville and Daniel Stephenson, have moved onto their own projects, they still found time in their schedules to give me a comprehensive tour of the ¼-acre garden. Their passion radiated off them and they piled me up with books to continue to educate myself when they may not be available. As I have been getting to know the garden, one thing has been on my mind: increasing the ADA-inclusivity. The food forest does have paths, but they are narrow and easily overgrown. I hope to find time in her 47-week term to at least make part of the forest more accessible for everyone to be able to explore it. I am also working with Beardsley Farms to create taller raised beds directly off a sidewalk to ensure individuals that may have difficulty bending down can still have access to planting and harvesting.

While times are abnormal right now, we continue to invite the community into the garden. We hold regular volunteer days on Saturday, so please contact pondgapgarden@gmail.com if you or your group are interested. We are currently planning a workday and will be posting about it in the future. The garden is open to the public every day after 6:00 and all weekend. Families are welcome to use the playground and explore the garden. The garden is for you, so harvest what you would like to take home!

This blog post is a collection of personal reflections and expressions. All opinions represented are those of the author and do not represent the official opinion or views of the Knoxville – Knox County Community Action Committee, CAC AmeriCorps or any other party referenced.