Ms. Susan M. Collins-Smith, MSU Extension Service
Members of the Jackson chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority turned to Extension agent Kyle Lewis for advice and assistance to help get their community garden project back on track. Lewis (left) and Mississippi State Representative De’Keither Stamps (second from left) joined sorority members Lena Jones (third from left), Bobbie Brantley, Rosie Payton and Catherine Walker in the effort to provide people fresh produce and teach them basic gardening skills. (Photo by MSU Extension Service/Michaela Parker)
RAYMOND, Miss. -- When members of the Jackson chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority brainstormed ways to serve their community, they decided to start a gardening project. With funds from a grant through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the servant-leadership group’s local Women’s Health Committee planted an in-ground community garden at Fresh Start Church in north Jackson in spring 2020.
“We wanted a sustainable project, and we wanted to be good stewards of the funds we have,” said project leader Rosie Payton.
Their plan was twofold: grow fresh produce for members of the community who could not get to the grocery store on a regular basis; and get community members involved and teach them how to grow produce. But they soon discovered they were going to need some guidance.
“Once we got started, we realized we had no idea what we were doing,” Payton said. “We also ran into problems with the weather and equipment availability, and interest and involvement began to go down.”
That’s when Payton contacted Kyle Lewis, an MSU Extension Service agent in Hinds County. She knew Lewis because he’d done other distance-education meetings for Fresh Start Church.
Although Extension offices were closed under the governor’s shelter-in-place order at the time, Lewis conducted classes through Zoom, shared several Extension gardening publications with them, and communicated with them over the phone and through email during the shutdown. They also attended a series of distance-education classes on gardening offered by Keith Whitehead, an Extension agent in Franklin County.
At Lewis’ suggestion, the group decided to plant the garden in raised beds. Lewis also helped them install an irrigation system. The group of about 10 volunteers moved the garden to property in south Jackson owned by De’Keither Stamps, a former Jackson city councilman and current Mississippi legislator. Stamps has used the property for about four years to facilitate gardening education in the community.
“Part of their issue with the in-ground garden was keeping it weeded and watered,” Lewis said. “Raised beds reduce weeding, and the irrigation system waters with a timer.”
The group installed about 20 raised beds inside an existing high tunnel on the property. They grew several types of greens, Chinese cabbage, bok choy and a few other fall vegetables.
“What Kyle has taught us helped us so much,” Payton said. “Using raised beds is much easier than in-ground gardening, and that makes it easier to get community members to participate. We’re also thankful to Mr. Stamps for allowing us to put our garden on his property. The high tunnel allows us to work out here even if it is raining.”
Stamps said he is looking forward to what the group will contribute to the community. “I’m excited about this project, and I’m happy to provide a place where they can carry out a large part of the project,” Stamps said.
As part of the educational aspect of the project, the group helped some community members who installed raised beds at their homes learn how to grow some of their own food. The group plans to continue teaching others what they’ve learned.
“What we are most excited about is the opportunity to educate other community members of all ages,” Payton said.