Drew Harrison of the Green Heart Project, flanked by Michael Cain (left) and Russ Seamon of SeamonWhiteside civil engineering firm, did an initial walk-through in planning an urban farm at William Enston Homes downtown on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2017. Wade Spees/Staff
The elementary school kids who participate in the Green Heart Project’s urban farming program seem to grow up almost as quickly as the fruits and veggies they plant every school year.
That’s why the nonprofit’s founder, Drew Harrison, is looking forward to partnering with the Charleston Housing Authority this year to start a new urban farm at the William Enston Home, an affordable housing complex at King and Huger streets.
The authority is negotiating to lease the quarter-acre property to the Green Heart Project starting in August. If all goes as planned, the garden will allow downtown students — especially those who have aged out of the elementary schools’ programs — to continue cultivating their green thumbs and learning the value of healthy, locally sourced foods.
“Building this urban farm at the Enston Home gives us close proximity to all the students we’ve been working with on the peninsula,” Harrison said.
Don Cameron, chief executive officer of the authority, said the property is perfectly situated to serve the lower-income community in the area.
“It’s not on the East Side or the West Side. It’s smack in the middle," he said. "And it’s easy to find, easy to get to.”
The Green Heart Project began in 2009 at Mitchell Elementary School on Charleston’s West Side with a garden that has served as an outdoor classroom for students to learn about every aspect of growing their own food. Since then, it has expanded to four more Charleston County schools, including Meeting Street Academy and Sanders Clyde Elementary School.
Many of the 1,200 students in the program live in public housing projects owned by the authority, so the Enston Home garden is a natural expansion of the Green Heart Project, Harrison said.
Leaders of the organization visited the site for the first time last week with engineers from the SeamonWhiteside firm to begin surveying the land — a necessary step before they can begin the design phase.
Harrison said he plans to get input from community members and Enston Home residents over the next few months to help develop the program.
One idea he’s discussed is adding a business training component for older students, who could help with administrative tasks to run the farm. There’s also talk of starting a regular produce stand on the site, a move that would help address the void created last fall when the Meeting Street Bi-Lo closed its doors.
“We’re aware that some of the people we’re working with in our program live in an area where they lack access to healthy food,” he said.
Cameron said the urban farm will fulfill a vision Enston laid out in his will more than a century ago, when the wealthy furniture maker left behind part of his fortune to construct group housing for elderly residents.
He specified that the layout should involve garden plots, but it’s unclear if they were ever built. Cameron said the authority hasn’t been able to find any evidence of a garden since it took over the property in 1995.
While senior residents of the homes might not be able to work in the garden, having it on the site still could improve their quality of life, Cameron said.
“Getting them out of the house, and getting them engaged and interested in conversation with young people, I think can be stimulating," he said. "And that’s good for seniors.”
Meanwhile, the Green Heart Project isn’t the only local group that’s creating community gardens. The Charleston Parks Conservancy has established three popular community gardens downtown and in West Ashley, said Harry Lesesne, the conservancy’s director.
Unlike Green Heart, which focuses on students and young people, the conservancy’s gardens are meant for those of all ages.
Its 140 plots all are spoken for, and it has a waiting list of those hoping to get one.
“The great thing about these gardens is they create community,” Lesesne said. “The gardening is great, but the community is the cool thing.”
Lesesne said the conservancy would like to create other community gardens, “but the shortage of appropriate land is a challenge.”