Thanks to the vision of David Brenner, thriving community gardens are popping up all over town
By Barbara J. Sullivan • Photographs by Mark Steelman
Sometime within the last decade, the pundits began talking about silos, those grain storage facilities which the vast majority of Americans only glimpse while speeding by on a stretch of rural highway. Silos have become the new metaphor to describe what’s happened to our country — groups and subgroups living apart in their own realities, unable to understand or communicate effectively with one another.
The current wisdom is that our silos are constructed on political beliefs, economic status, religion, race, gender, age, ethnicity — and maybe even who you were rooting for on Game of Thrones. Possibly it’s as bad as they say. Maybe the nation has always suffered gaping divides which are just now getting more attention. But the truth is, a person with an open mind, a positive outlook and a lot of determination can have friends from every part of town and across every border of class, race, socioeconomic status, age or belief system. In Wilmington, North Carolina, David Brenner is just such a person.
It’s fitting that Brenner’s particular obsession, and the thing that’s led him to connect with all and sundry people, is community gardening. Yes, he creates impressive numbers of vegetable plots in neighborhoods all around town, but in the other sense of the phrase “community gardener” he’s also a cultivator of people and of communities. Without hesitation he rushes headlong to meet the next person who will become his friend, his collaborator, his partner in this vivid vision he has. It might be a sheriff’s deputy working with at-risk youth, the pastor of a church or a group of self-described free-thinkers, agnostics and atheists. It might be a leading local banker, real estate agent, architect or a longtime community activist who hosts a daylong block party every year for her neighbors struggling to make ends meet.
Brenner is as comfortable with the mayor as he is with a gaggle of sixth-graders. He careens between non-English-speaking Burmese refugees and hospital surgeons, the very young, the very old, those who live in wealthy neighborhoods and those who cultivate their plots in public housing common areas. He literally shuttles all over town meeting with folks who have come to love him and what he does. He’s been described as “the Mr. Rogers of gardening,” possibly because of his unrelentingly positive attitude or that slightly mischievous smile in his eyes inviting you to join him in his next adventure.
DEVON PARK GARDENS
“I was always a workaholic and never did anything for the community,” he says. After retirement, he began volunteering for the Master Gardener program at the New Hanover County Arboretum and from there was smitten by the idea of creating sustainable community gardens. Back in 2014, when he got started, the idea wasn’t new. Volunteers from various nonprofits and churches had planted gardens around town but, sadly, most had withered from lack of water, or exploded into a jumble of chickweed, fescue grass and vetch from lack of attention.
As Brenner embarked on his mission, he was sobered by the thought that school gardens might peter out in the summer months, when students and teachers were not there to administer TLC; gardens without a permanent water source might well suffer from drought; and if the one devoted curator of a particular neighborhood garden were to die or move away, the once luxuriant plot would revert to a weed patch within months.
FIRST CHRISTIAN CHURCH GARDENS
Before retiring, Brenner had worked as a mechanical engineer. His first gardening inspiration came from his mother, one of seven children raised on a farm in South Carolina during the Depression who at age 11 took over most of the job of running the family household. She stood on a chair to cook and raised a windowsill-full of peppers and tomatoes in Dixie cups. From the bounty of her 20-by-50-foot garden, she canned beets, tomatoes, beans and more.
Brenner, who has an apparently inexhaustible supply of energy —“I go to bed at 11 and get up at 4,” he says — seems to be made of the same stuff as his mother. The word undaunted comes to mind.
Brenner had read about Philadelphia Green, a long-established and highly successful citywide gardening program with deep community support. “I said, ‘If they can make it work in the inner city of Philadelphia, we can certainly make it work here.’” Similar movements had succeeded in Detroit and Wilmington, Delaware, their antecedents reaching back at least as far as 19th-century English allotment gardens — half-acre plots rented out by landlords to provide a critical food source for marginalized rural laborers.
JAMES AVERY GARDENS
In the U.S., before the advent of Social Security and food stamps, urban community gardens filled a need for food supplements and were widely seen as beneficial to the overall health, education and morale of the population. Civic-minded citizens rallied around the Vacant Lot movement, the School Garden Army, wartime Victory Gardens and Liberty Gardens, as well as the Garden City and City Beautiful movements, all of which sought to leaven the cement and granite bleakness of urban neighborhoods with refreshing green spaces and, if possible, health-giving food.
Brenner’s initial spark of enthusiasm, combined with an unusually high friendliness quotient, propelled him into a five-year spate of community garden-making. To date, with the help of hundreds of good-hearted collaborators, he’s put in or renovated 10 gardens and is developing a 2-acre urban farm. To make his efforts official, he created an organization called Wilmington Green. Basically it consisted of himself and anyone who was willing to help.
New Hanover Regional Medical Center Gardens
The first garden materialized in 2015, after a friend told him about a group of Burmese refugees with farming skills who were learning English at Devon Park United Methodist Church. They were living in nearby apartments and had no access to gardening plots of their own. The minister, Bill Adams, happily granted Brenner the use of the church’s large backyard. Brenner lassoed the New Hanover County Farm Bureau, Downtown Rotary Club, Wilmington Regional Association of Realtors, Sea Coast Advantage Realty and New Hanover County Extension Service into his corral, all of them donating funds. Farmers Supply donated a toolshed, and the Realtors’ group helped him install the beds.
Through the Interfaith Refugee Ministry, with some language interpretation, Brenner met with the Burmese neighbors and handed out the seeds, transplants and tools, organizing an overall planting scheme. Before long, the 18 raised beds, each 8-by-20 feet, were teeming with vegetables familiar to the Burmese: Bangkok hot peppers, Japanese eggplants, bitter melons and loofahs — the commonly eaten green stage of the vegetable that, when dried out, turns into a nifty shower accessory. By fall, lush green sorrel plants 5 feet tall and equally wide dominated the once barren churchyard.
In that same year, Brenner heard about a small space behind the Shaw Speaks Community Center at Third and Wooster Street, home to the Elements program, where New Hanover County sheriff’s deputies mentored neighborhood youth. “Man, I’m going to go find this,” he said. He immediately drove over, knocked on the door and introduced himself. After a tour of the overgrown backyard, choked with trees and weeds, he and the Elements team decided to work together on making a garden. He leveraged this newly formed partnership into a community-wide endeavor, rounding up help from Work on Wilmington — the volunteer corps sponsored by the chamber of commerce and local companies, a squad of teen volunteers from a drug rehab program and what he calls “neighbor mentors.” These are individuals in the neighborhood who help with the initial clearing and building stages and, more importantly, agree to help tend the garden once all the hoopla has died down. One neighbor mentor, Queen Bell — the woman who for years has sponsored an annual community day involving free food and clothing for her neighbors on 7th Street — enjoyed working in the Elements garden so much that she went on to get her Master Gardener certificate.
After the Elements garden, Brenner took on the Annie Nixon Community Garden at Dock and 9th Street, a small space that had been planted a decade earlier by a church group and had since fallen on hard times, mostly due to lack of water. Brenner heard about the garden from Delores Williams, his friend, colleague and adviser and one of the most energetic supporters of Wilmington Green. In 2016, with the help of a gift from Live Oak Bank and the Cape Fear Garden Club, Brenner got a tap hooked up to the city water line, cleared and replanted the garden, and drafted a neighbor mentor, a nearby retired schoolteacher, to oversee the upkeep.
In that same year, Brenner met Tom Barnett, then rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church, who had the idea of creating a “bridge of love to the community” by planting gardens in the backyard. Brenner, of course, was all for it. The Wilmington Regional Association of Realtors and Sea Coast Advantage Realty once again contributed funds. Under Brenner’s supervision, church members and community volunteers installed 12 raised beds, all of which have been officially blessed and are now enjoyed with celebratory neighborhood get-togethers. Half of the harvest goes to the Good Shepherd homeless shelter.
Brenner gives a great deal of credit to the Realtors association for helping to make his community garden vision a reality. They have funded five of his 10 gardens as well as provided the sweat equity and muscle power to clear the lots and build the beds. For the fifth community garden, installed behind the First Christian Church, they worked side by side with Mayor Bill Saffo, who lifted shovelfuls of manure in support of the cause.
In 2017, at a fellowship luncheon, Brenner sat next to an oncologist from New Hanover Regional Medical Center who had always thought the hospital needed a working garden. Within no time Brenner had made a new set of friends among the hospital staff, including the volunteer coordinator, nutritionist, dietitians, the hospital outreach coordinator, doctors and nurses. Together they settled on what Brenner describes as “a beautiful spot with full sun and water already there for irrigation,” located behind the four story Heart Center rehab building. The Realtors group, whose name was now Cape Fear Realtors, together with the Cape Fear Garden Club, put up the money for the garden and helped install 12 raised beds, each 4-by-16 feet. Unfortunately, a horde of hungry Canadian geese found the location irresistible and ate the vegetables in seven of the 12 beds down to the nubbins, sparing only the collards.
After the goose catastrophe, Brenner wondered what to do next. Former New Hanover County Extension Director Al Hight suggested using floating row covers. “We planted carrots and spinach and lettuce the first week in December,” says Brenner. “We didn’t touch it until February. Went out there and lifted the row covers, and to my amazement I had beautiful beds full of lettuce. And the best spinach I’ve ever raised.”
After that, the hospital added a goose-proof fence. The following year, again with the help of Cape Fear Realtors, Brenner and NHRMC embarked on phase two of the gardens, adding 12 more vegetable beds plus a set of eight herb beds, four flower beds and two benches built by a young Eagle Scout named Darryl Chin, whose father worked at the hospital.
For a year Brenner tended the hospital gardens by himself, but eventually one of the hospital administrators whose office overlooked the gardens took pity on him and organized some of the surgeons, nurses and other staff to come out and help. The NHRMC garden is thriving. The hospital staff harvests the vegetables and sets them out in the lobby a couple of times a week for the heart patients to take home. The NHRMC nutritionist conducts cooking classes with produce from the garden. According to Brenner, there’s even talk about giving patients “prescriptions” for vegetables.
Once a month Brenner meets at the hospital gardens with a group of volunteers from nCino, a tech company formerly affiliated with Live Oak Bank. “I’ll have seeds, soil or plants so we can do the heavy work,” he says. “Four people and me, we do the weeding and we get a whole trailer full of weeds.”
At the urging once more of Delores Williams, Brenner laid out his seventh community garden at Hillcrest, a Wilmington Housing Authority complex off Dawson Street. Williams was friends with Hattie McIver, WHA’s community liaison coordinator. The project brought in area teens from the nonprofit Kids Making It to help create the garden beds, as well as support from Feast Down East, a program promoting local food production. By this time, hundreds of Wilmingtonians had participated one way or another in Brenner’s community garden vision.
When funding didn’t come through, as happened with his eighth community garden, Brenner footed the bill himself. At Glover Plaza, a WHA residence for the elderly and disabled, he rehabilitated six failing beds and added two more plus a toolshed. Once a month he visits with the residents, works in the gardens and shares in some fresh-picked food sampling.
The ninth community garden — this one at Castle and Fourth Street — was originally started by a man named Gordon Cole with the idea of engaging neighborhood youth in a small food production enterprise that would earn them income and make itself sustainable. Last year, when it became clear that the idea hadn’t worked out, Cole asked Brenner if he’d like to take over the garden.
“I said I’d love to,” Brenner recalls. Much of the work in the garden up until then had been done by a neighbor mentor named James Avery, a resident of Solomon Towers, the nearby WHA apartment building for the elderly and handicapped. Avery was a skilled and dedicated gardener who, according to those who knew him, had a sixth sense for creating rich, productive soil. When Avery died of a heart attack working in the garden, the space was renamed in his honor. Produce from the James Avery Garden is made available to residents of Solomon Towers and to Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard, a local food pantry.
The Cape Fear Humanists, a group already volunteering time at Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard, asked Brenner if they could take over the work on the garden. Because they don’t have quite enough volunteers to keep up with the weeds, Brenner still goes over periodically to help out. A local architectural firm, LS3P, designed and donated a small prototype hurricane shelter on the property, now used for storage and for meetings of the garden volunteers.
Finally, garden number 10 came about when the Sportsman Club at 11th and Castle Street reached out to Brenner to see about putting in a “Diversity Community Garden” on two lots they owned. The Cape Fear Realtors stepped up to the plate once again to make the garden a reality. It is maintained by club members and neighbors working along with sixth-graders from Williston Middle School, located a few blocks away. The harvest gets divided up among neighbors, middle schoolers and the Good Shepherd Center.
Brenner’s biggest dream, one that is currently unfolding in an impressive way, is the creation of an “urban farm.” As it happened, Pastor Paul Evans of the First Pentecostal Holiness Church had his own dream of using the church’s 2-acre plot to bring together the youth and the church elders and grow food for the community. “Holy mackerel,” said Brenner on hearing about this. As of now, the farm boasts two substantial 60-by-80-foot beds capable of growing everything from arugula to zucchini. Plans have been drawn up to add an outdoor pizza oven, a meditation garden, an outdoor kitchen, picnic area, fire pit and greenhouse.
With so much experience under his belt, Brenner now has a formula. If there’s room, he puts in an 8-by-12-foot shed for the tools. He sets up a composting area. He buys a combination of half topsoil-half compost when he first installs the beds, and then comes back every two years or so to top them off with a couple more inches of the mixture. Whether it’s the planting depth for cucumber seeds (one inch), the average time it will take before a pumpkin can be harvested (115-120 days), the vegetables with the highest and lowest nutritional ratings (kale and onion, respectively), or how many pieces of pressure treated lumber, in varying widths and lengths, will be needed to create the urban garden (170), Brenner has figured it out. For each starter plant he adds Espoma Bio Tone and a tablespoon of nitrogen fertilizer. The plants seem to love it. “They take off like a shot,” he says. He reapplies the nitrogen fertilizer with a balanced fertilizer later during the growing season.
None of this seems to be coming to an end anytime soon. Brenner is too concerned with food insecurity, the inequity in access to healthy, nutritious food and the food desert in the middle of the city to slow down his efforts. He’s as geared up as ever about providing gardens for people in underserved communities.
“It’s important,” he says, “to be in touch with the land and where your food comes from and what food tastes like when you grow it yourself.” Recently Wilmington Green merged with Community Enrichment Initiatives (CEI) to work together on the urban farm project and on a plan to build a commercial kitchen and garden at the MLK Center. Eventually food from the gardens could be processed in the kitchen and sold or distributed to the community; the group would have a presence at local farmers markets; they could create an income-producing CSA and add a strong educational component to their program.
In the meantime, David Brenner lives wholly outside the world of silos and arbitrary labels. He sees only potential new colleagues, friends and collaborators in the all-important enterprise of growing gorgeous gardens. Field peas, watermelons, lima beans, okra — old, young, rich, poor — they all mingle into a glorious amalgam. And with enough care, the land is brought back to health by all of the people working together. b
Barbara Sullivan is a regular Salt contributor and the author of Garden Perennials for the Coastal South.