Island Community Gardens Now Open

To regenerate a sense of community and to raise interest in growing one’s own food, master gardeners and other volunteers have opened the Island Rat Community Gardens on Wheeling Island, an area once known as the garden spot of the city.

The community gardens, located at 45 Maryland St., behind Madison Elementary School, contain 18 raised beds where area residents can grow vegetables and herbs. Each bed measures 4 feet by 10 feet and is 8 inches deep. All but four of the beds have been claimed; participants include novices and experienced gardeners.

The Rt. Rev. W. Michie Klusmeyer, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of West Virginia, blessed the new gardens and the gardeners during grand-opening festivities Saturday, May 21. “I’m thrilled to be here,” he said before offering prayers for the new endeavor.

Several members of the Ohio County master gardeners group and members of the organizing committee were on hand to answer questions and offer advice to novice gardeners who are participating in the project.

“These beds are free for use by individuals. Children are encouraged to participate with parental permission,” said the Rev. Theresa Kelley, priest of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church on Wheeling Island. For more information, call 304-232-7549.

Frank McNeil, a master gardener and committee member, secured permission from property owner Joey Bishop of Bridgeport, W.Va., for the group to use the vacant lot as a garden plot. Bishop’s mother taught home economics at Madison School many years ago, and he indicated that she would be pleased to know that vegetable gardens were being established in the neighborhood.

D.K. Wright, committee member and vice president of the Ohio County master gardeners, said the committee has received invaluable assistance from Danny Swann, coordinator of the East Wheeling community gardens, and Terry Sheldon, gardener of the Garden of Seven Gates, a six-acre site where organic vegetables are grown in Marshall County.

“They (Swann and Sheldon) took us by the hand,” Wright said. “They know more about starting community gardens than anyone.

“We’ve been at this for more than a year,” Wright said regarding the committee’s efforts. “They (Swann and Sheldon) told us, ‘You need a sign (for the site), a logo, a mission statement, rules and a philosophy.”‘

Sheldon also is involved in the Small Farm Training Center, located near Wheeling. The center advocates organic farming, rural skills and environmental education. “He (Sheldon) knows how to do a garden. He took us under his wing,” Wright added.

Kelley said it was Wright’s idea to develop the community gardens on Wheeling Island. St. Luke’s has provided meeting space for the planning committee.

Admiring the garden site, Clare McDonald, president of the Ohio County master gardeners, commented, “I think this is just a wonderful addition to all the other efforts that are going on in the city. It brings a sense of community. People aren’t afraid to get involved and try gardening … It’s a good way of bringing all this neighborhood together.”

Noting that there are “pockets of desolation on the Island,” McDonald added, “But, at the same time, this (garden project) is a great way to bring the community together.”

Kelley said the planning committee has a vision of providing space and resources “to encourage folk in the community to learn about growing food, building community and encouraging fellowship.”

She observed, “The Island, once known as the ‘garden spot of Wheeling,’ has a long agrarian history. Centuries of flooding on the Ohio River have produced rich, sandy topsoil. Native Americans grew grain here; colonial settlers tended vineyards for winemaking; Victorian summer visitors planted magnificent flower beds which were eventually replaced by vegetables for post-war Islanders’ Victory Gardens.”

In an effort to reclaim the Appalachian heritage and reconnect with the land, Kelley said, “The vision is to provide space and resources while encouraging others to learn about the benefits of gardening and community. Several members of the planning committee are master gardeners who are willing to share their expertise with others.”

Kelley explained that the gardens’ unusual name comes from the nickname that Wheeling Island residents bestow upon their neighbors. “Becoming an official Islander is obtained in two ways, birthright or flood experience. Becoming an ‘Island Rat’ involves ingesting some of that mighty Ohio River water, usually obtained by swimming (not encouraged by parents) or accidental ingestion during flood clean-up,” she related.

Future plans for the committee include establishing a website, developing more garden sites as interest increases, offering workshops for children, networking with food banks for donating locally-grown food and perhaps cooking and canning classes, Kelley said.