By Alex Bridges - firstname.lastname@example.org
WINCHESTER -- Corn stalks and sunflowers tower above squash, okra, cabbage and other vegetables.
What sounds like a garden in a rural spot in the Shenandoah Valley actually grows among apartments and homes in the city's north end. Thanks to Wesley United Methodist Church and several people with a green thumb, Winchester has its own urban garden -- part of a growing trend across the country.
The church's pastor, Mike Mayton, recently showed off its community garden and plucked a fresh, yellow squash from one of the several plots.
"I don't even know what kind of squash they are but they're good to eat," Mayton said.
City officials could make it easier for people to turn otherwise undevelopable land into gardens. The Planning Commission on Tuesday backed a proposed change to Winchester's zoning ordinance which, if passed by City Council, would define and help regulate urban gardens. Such activities would be classified as community or market gardens and allowable, according to Zoning Administrator Vincent Diem.
Market gardens would require a certificate of occupancy, a business license and, in some cases, a conditional-use permit, Diem told the commission. Community gardens would face fewer restrictions.
Currently, the city does not permit gardens on residential property, Diem said. City ordinances that govern weeds, grass or other growth on properties could apply to gardens, Diem said.
"I think it's a great idea and I've read about this being done in other parts of the country," said commission member Stephen Slaughter Jr. "I'm very supportive of this."
The church's garden is in its second summer.
"The idea was that [the land] wasn't doing anything," Mayton said. "All these are houses here but two blocks over is Smithfield [Avenue] where it's mostly apartments and people who don't have gardens ... who are in tough economic situations can come over here [and] can grow their gardens."
The church can provide space, seeds and other supplies, the pastor said. If a person wants to start a plot but has little or no experience, master gardeners are usually available at the church on Wednesday nights to answer questions, Mayton added.
The gardeners also set up a rain barrel, connected to the roof drains, to collect stormwater that they can use to irrigate their crops. The group hopes in the future to install a large rain barrel to collect more water as the garden expands, Mayton said. The garden could nearly double in size and still leave the church with plenty of open space for its outdoor activities, according to the pastor.
Gardeners can keep the crops they harvest.
"It's your garden. You do whatever the heck you want to with it," Mayton said. "It's your first shot."
Much of the produce is given away, either to fellow worshippers or other groups. The church also works with the Salvation Army to help provide fresh fruit and vegetables to the shelter. They also set up a table in the church for the produce that people can take. As Mayton recalled, approximately 30 ears of corn were put out on the table.
"We made that word known, and by the time church was over the corn was gone and hungry people had something to eat," the pastor said.