It’s 9 a.m. on a Saturday and conversations are flowing at a half-empty city lot in Thomas Square.
Albert Strickland talks about the philosophy of gardening to a handful of volunteers. Across the way, Frank Bessinger explains hands-on methods he learned from watching YouTube videos, and another group talks about nothing in particular. Pepper plants and lettuce boxes peer out from between the pockets of people; two bicycles lounge on a pile of mulch.
Work will be done today, but not yet. Conversations always come first.
“First and foremost, it’s about the community, bringing people together,” Strickland said. “People can work together if you allow them to. There is no need for us to dictate.”
And that’s exactly the idea Strickland stressed when he and Laurel Shadley first talked about the idea for Occugardens. Their motto was simple “Growing Community — One Seed at a Time,” and the idea differs from your everyday community gardens.
First, there are no personal plots, you can’t rent space or grow your own crops and no one is in charge. Instead, everyone works together to plant seeds, tend to the gardens and share in the wealth.
“When we starting talking about this, we looked at other community gardens as a base and we wanted it to be different,” Strickland said. “A lot of other gardens emphasized ownership, but that’s not what we’re about.”
As the name would suggest, the concept is based on a food revolution — occupying empty spaces within the city to teach the community how to grow its own food.
For Bessinger, that idea is more necessity than luxury.
“This is the kind of project that’s really needed in cities like Savannah, where people have limited opportunities to go and buy local, organic, healthy food,” he said. “I would love to see all of the vacant properties turned into community gardens. There is a market for it and it comes with so many opportunities to teach and learn.
“Young people need to know vegetables can easily be grown without chemicals.”
The Thomas Square Edible Park is the first big enterprise for the organization, and it’s been a slow but profitable one. It took Strickland two years to acquire the empty lot on 39th Street, nestled between Abercorn and Drayton, a few more months to obtain permits and water, and more time, effort and community support to build planter boxes for the first round of crops.
The first seeds were planted in April and in a few short months, various types of lettuce, tomatoes, peppers and herbs are sprouting generously.
Both Strickland and Bessinger admitted they don’t necessarily have green thumbs, but the reason the garden works is one person happens to have a special skill that works seamlessly with the next.
Bessinger is the “seed guy.” He knows the difference between heirloom, organic and hybrid seeds and what works best when and where. Strickland is the “community guy,” who knows how to reach out and inspire people, garner support and bring neighbors together. Shadley calls herself the “herb girl,” and there is also a “compost guy,” a “construction guy” an “equipment guy” and a “resource guy.”
It’s a ragtag team, but it works. And besides, Strickland said you really don’t need to be a gardener to plant a successful garden.
“We have faith that the seed knows just what to do,” he said. “All we do is plant it.”
For more information on the Thomas Square Edible Park, follow Occugardens on Facebook or volunteer from 9 a.m. to noon most Saturdays at 114 E. 39th St.
You can also visit the gardens during the Savannah Urban Garden Alliance meet-up and community potluck at 4 p.m. June 20.