McDonough Community Garden: Gardening Takes Root in Community

Community Storytelling: McDonough Community Garden

by Lauren Francis

A native of Richmond’s Southside, Duron Chavis is the community engagement manager at Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens. In his position, he coordinates dynamic initiatives like the twelve-week Ginter Urban Gardener program, which invites residents to help create and sustain public green spaces throughout the city. Each cohort focuses on a specific part of town. The fourth cohort turned its attention south of the James River, returning Duron to the first garden he ever started. 

“I honestly started feeling guilty,” he recalls, “These older men were bringing in food into the city to sell and I was like well if something happens to them, then what happens to the program? I was like yo, I should start getting into the production side of the thing.”

He had his eye on the small, grassy plot of land. Just off the main throughway and behind a few local businesses like Crossroads cafe and Laura Lee’s diner, it showed potential to be a social hub. As we walk through the garden he laughs noticing that one of the first signs he made remains in tact, posted up against the gate behind a pear tree: “Grow food, not lawns.” 

McDonough began with a community powered $700 grant that he and his family used to purchase wood and soil for the first twelve raised bed gardens. Today, dozens of gardeners maintain raised bed plots within the garden.

“So on a site like this,” Duron explains, “before we got it the city did a test on the soil and it showed that it had high particles of led inside of it. So instead of growing directly in the ground, we laid a barrier between the original ground and the soil that its being grown inside. So it’s almost six to eight inches of a barrier between the original soil and then boxes and then soil instead of the boxes. The raised beds help us keep the oil healthy so it’s not touching the original contaminated soil.”

On city land, Duron says, raised bed gardens are a matter of environmental justice. 

“We build raised beds on city land because city land more often than not has toxins in it. And when I say toxins, I mean things like heavy metals, things like arsenic, asbestos and cadmium. All of these things are extremely harmful and detrimental to human consumption. Led is a horrific neurotoxin. It causes mental delays. That has adversely impacted the African-American community because the areas that we live in often were built with houses that had led paint.”

People have gotten involved very organically, Duron says. 

“Our relationship with our neighbors doesn’t have to be that they come and purchase things from us,” says Laura Lee’s owner Kendra Flower. “Our relationship with our neighbors could just be that sometimes we lend a helping hand because we’re neighbors. as a business, we’re still neighbors.”

There are so many things to love about the garden, but he’s most excited about the fruit trees in the space.

“A lot of time people talk about access to fresh fruits and vegetables but they really don’t talk about the fruit,” Duron says. Walking alongside the garden, you can reach out and grab fruit. More still, the fruit trees provide shade over seats in the garden. 

McDonough Community Garden

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