Tuesday, February 22, 2011

What is an Urban Garden?

Ama Shambulia and R.G. Lyons
Before we came to the West End Urban Garden in Birmingham, AL, we thought an urban garden was simply a garden in an urban location. However, this garden is very much more. As garden program manager Ama Shambulia told us, “People in this community are hungry for much more than food. … Our garden will revitalize the West End community’s life blood, body, mind, and spirit.”

Five years ago, R.G. Lyons, fresh out of Seminary, bought a house and moved to the West End of Birmingham, where 97% of the residents are African American and 47% live below the poverty line. R.G. had been appointed to start a United Methodist church there. He began with programs for youth twice per week, and expanded from there to bible study classes for their parents and others. Now, the Community Church without Walls meets in small groups in one member’s home and in the rooms of Urban Ministry, a mission of the United Methodist Church, with which R.G. works closely.

R.G. buried the parents of three kids, due to complications from diseases such as diabetes and congestive heart failure, which brought home to him the consequences of the diet that many in the neighborhood eat. Non-nutritious food is cheap, but fruits and vegetables are expensive and not readily available. (Only one in four people in this neighborhood have a car, the public transportation system is one of the worst in the nation, and the small local grocery stores carry little produce.) R.G. said, “We always ask, what is the need in this community? And how can we empower people to fulfill that need?” There was an obvious need for more fresh produce and more knowledge of how to prepare it to provide healthy, tasty meals.
West End Urban Garden

So, R.G. and volunteers from the community started a garden near the Urban Ministry building on a couple of vacant lots that previously held burned-out houses. We helped in the garden one Saturday in mid-February. Even at this time of year, there are quite a few things growing in the gardens -- pansies, herbs, onions, and collard greens that had over-wintered.

The garden plots include two large ground-level beds, one very large raised bed, and about 18 smaller raised beds, some of which people in the neighborhood can rent. We also saw fruit trees (4 apple and 1 pear, espaliered to grow flat along wires), a row of blueberry bushes, and a row of blackberry canes. There’s a tidy garden shed to hold the tools, compost piles, and a greenhouse frame.

Myron Pierre
Ama keeps everything orderly and well-planned. She’s a master chef and master gardener. She runs the garden program, helps children in the Urban Kids program (run by Urban Ministry) to garden, holds informal classes at the garden to help people learn gardening skills, and shows gardeners how they can prepare what they produce in wholesome, tasty ways. Ama put us to work weeding, rejuvenating the pansies, fertilizing, and planting onions, beets and carrots. Many more vegetables will be added as the season progresses.

The garden manager, Myron Pierre, also was working hard in the garden, turning soil, mixing the compost, and planting. Another volunteer, Lindsay Whiteaker, is a junior at University of Alabama Birmingham. Last year she made a great film about the garden and still comes back often to help out.

While we were working, we saw a glimpse of what the garden means to some of those in the neighborhood. Olivia and her daughter April stopped by. April wanted to help, so she was put to work watering the collard greens and onions, while her mom talked to Ama. Later, another neighbor stopped by to see how things were growing. He was sent home with onion starts to add to his own garden. There’s a neighbor across the street who tells people not to pick the produce, and generally keeps an eye on the garden.

What happens to the produce? Some is given to the elderly and those truly in need, served at the Urban Ministry lunch program, or given to those who volunteer in the garden. But the goal is not for the produce to be free, because, in Ama’s words, “It’s not a free-for-all. That would create an unhealthy imbalance, and that’s not a very dignified way of interacting with people.” Therefore, much of the produce is sold to a local restaurant or offered at a small produce stand to the neighborhood residents.

Similarly, Ama and R.G. think it’s very important that those who work hard in the garden are paid for their efforts. Both Ama and Myron are paid staff. This summer, they will be hiring two high-school interns to help with the gardening.

April waters collards and onions

And what difference has the garden made in the community? You’ll notice from these pictures that there is no fence around the West End garden. This encourages community members to experience the growing process. And they do! Many members of the community stop and give encouragement to those working in the garden. They may find out a bit about gardening and get a taste of the foods growing there, but more importantly, they see the garden as their own community center. There are summer and harvest celebrations at the garden. On Easter, Community Church without Walls holds their service in the garden, surrounded by the beautiful sight of growing plants.

As R.G. says, the garden meets community needs “in a very holistic way. It’s a place to work and get exercise, to meditate, and to spend time together.” In other words, the West End garden is building community, not just growing food.


  1. where are you located? I want to come visit. I am a dance educator and I started my own garden in the background.

  2. The West End Urban Garden is located near Urban Ministry, 1229 Cotton Ave. SW, Birmingham, AL. Contact garden manager Ama Shambulia there for a visit.

  3. WE Gardens is located at the corner of 12th Street SW and McMillon Avenue SW. We are one block behind Urban Ministry, which faces Cotton Avenue directly across the street from Hemphill Elementary School.