Synergy volunteers2

Volunteers of all ages work together in the Synergy Garden in Fountain Inn.
Image Credit: Synergy Garden

FOUNTAIN INN — If you want to bring people together, one thing unites us all. No matter the language we speak or country we come from. Regardless of race, ethnicity, color or creed.

Everybody eats.

So if you’re trying to build the bonds of community, where better to start than a garden?

“Not only does it feed the physical body — good, solid organic food — but also that fellowship we build growing the garden together,” said Shawn Hevener, pastor of the Presbyterian Fellowship of Fountain Inn, which hosts the Synergy Garden that has been a fixture in Fountain Inn for nearly a decade. “We’ve had a lot of people that we would not have known, that may have never come in a church, they’ll come to the garden. You can’t sweat with somebody and not get to know them.”

The Presbyterian Fellowship adopted Synergy Garden when it lost its former site in 2015. The church bought a 22-acre tract just south of town and “we didn’t want to waste the property, we wanted to used it for the community,” Hevener said. “I told them that we had the land, we had the support. If they could bring some of the expertise and their volunteers we would get along great.”

The garden plot started with raised beds made of concrete blocks — 2,000 of them — filled with compost and topsoil.

“When I told them we were going to do raised beds this big, I think they thought I was crazy,” Hevener said. “To be honest with you, it was trial and error.”

That’s when Danny Howard entered the picture. The Greenville County Extension agent, who retired June 30 with 40 years of Clemson Extension Service work behind him, came to offer what the century-old organization was created for: independent, research-based information.

“Their soil was rocky. It had some challenges,” Howard said. “It hadn’t been a garden before. It was a horse facility and had all the structures here. When the church purchased the property they had to totally transform it.”

Shawn Hevener (left), pastor of the Presbyterian Fellowship of Fountain Inn, and Greenville County Clemson Extension agent Danny Howard inspect the raised beds at Synergy Garden.

Shawn Hevener (left), pastor of the Presbyterian Fellowship of Fountain Inn, and Greenville County Clemson Extension agent Danny Howard inspect the raised beds at Synergy Garden.
Image Credit: Clemson University Public Service and Agriculture

Now it has transformed into a veritable cornucopia of beans, lettuce, spinach, onions, peppers, potatoes, cucumbers, garlic and tomatoes. Over time the garden expanded beyond raised beds, adding 10,000 square feet of in-ground rows with squash, corn, peppers, sweet potatoes and tomatoes — newly irrigated to increase production.

To grow such a wide variety of crops requires trusted scientific knowledge, which has been the responsibility of Clemson Extension for more than a century.

“We give the planting dates, when is the best time to do it, the spacing of the plants, how to put the plants in, which ones are disease-resistant; since this is an organic garden, that’s a big concept,” Howard said. “Weeds are a special problem. Even if it weren’t an organic garden, you couldn’t use broadleaf herbicides that would kill your vegetable plants. So it’s a challenge. They use different things as weed covers — newspapers, old-fashioned hand-pulling, flaming the weeds.

“And insects: You’d be surprised how many insects you can kill just by picking them off and putting them in a bucket of soapy water. There’s nothing wrong with old technology. Just hoeing and picking off,” he said.

Growing right alongside the vegetables is a cadre of volunteers who maintain the garden and share in the harvest. Half a dozen local churches are represented as are a variety of cultures and their traditional foods.

“We reach not only across ethnic groups in this community but also across the world,” Hevener said. “We’ve had China and Japan and Brazil and Colombia and Mexico and Lithuania, so it’s been a multi-ethnic workout right here in the garden. Literally a workout.”

Synergy Garden produces multiple crops of fresh vegetables throughout the growing season for members of the community and local food banks.

Synergy Garden produces multiple crops of fresh vegetables throughout the growing season for members of the community and local food banks.
Image Credit: Synergy Garden

As many as 65 people work at the garden at any one time, especially during a harvest; a dozen or more regulars can be expected any given week.

Hevener says the garden also takes requests: They grow specific vegetables to meet the culinary needs of diverse groups — and ages.

“We had to learn to separate the mild and the hot peppers in the garden, because the children will try anything,” Hevener said. “It is wonderful to see the kids getting their hands in the dirt, putting rocks in the bucket — one putting them in, the other one taking them out. It is great for them to get to know where the food comes from, to see things grow, to see the look on their faces when we take the harvest to their house.

“One young lady — she’s about 5 — helped plant the carrots this year. After we harvested the carrots we went by her house and said, ‘These are the carrots you planted.’ And to see the look on her face, that she had helped produce this harvest, was wonderful,” he said. “Just to get to see them outside — working and sweating and touching God’s earth, what could be better than that?”

The benefits of the harvest reach well beyond the volunteers at Synergy Garden. Surplus vegetables — and there often are a lot of them — are shared with local food banks in the Fountain Inn area. A recent July harvest required two deliveries in a single day.

“The sweet potatoes they harvested last year — you could fill up the back of a pickup truck,” Howard said. “And also it feeds the hungry. You can’t learn anything about God or nature if your stomach’s hungry. So we feed that hunger so the brain and the spirit can be filled with the goodness of life.

Even the youngest members of the community can pitch in at Synergy Garden.

Even the youngest members of the community can pitch in at Synergy Garden.
Image Credit: Synergy Garden

“Just being together shows the fellowship, to spend time together and talk,” he said. “In the old days, they used to get together and sit on the front porch and talk. Now we do it at the garden. To catch up, to have the time to sit down and have the time talk with each other and be friends again. And to produce something that is good for the community and good for the young people and the folks — some good, fresh, home-grown vegetables.”

Synergy Garden has twice won awards from the American Farm Bureau Federation for its service. But its goal is much closer to home: “turning strangers into neighbors.”

“Our goal is to continue to build community. To build groups that will meet here, work in the garden, use the pavilion to eat together, come on the playground and play together. Just to get to know each other,” Hevener said. “We want them to take as much healthy food home with them as they can eat and the rest of it we’ll take to the food banks so that everyone can enjoy the produce in the community. That’s my hope, that we just continue to grow and see new people and new faces and just get to know people better.”

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