Staff Photo: John Bohn Kathy Parent checks on a sunflower grown by gardener Patty Golden at the Lanier Community Garden. The garden plots are located at the Lanier Filter Plant and have been open for four years.
Before a community garden in Snellville was even a dream, Kurt and Gretchen Schulz visited the garden grand opening in Suwanee and became inspired.
"How could we do something like this in Snellville?" Gretchen Schulz recalled saying at the time.
It helped that the couple had a personal connection to the Suwanee garden, called Harvest Farm in White Street Park. Their daughter, Jessica Roth, a City of Suwanee employee, helped organize and develop the garden when it opened three years ago.
"She's our mentor in this project," said Gretchen, who along with her husband and about 80 other Snellville residents held a groundbreaking for a Snellville community garden last month.
"She certainly did provide a lot of inspiration," Kurt said of his daughter.
Roth said she shared the same information with her parents as she did with those in other communities looking to start a community garden.
"They got to pick my brain a little more on off hours and the weekend than other people do," said Roth, who has a degree in landscape architecture from the University of Georgia.
Four years ago, when 40 plots were given out at the Lanier Community Garden, a Gwinnett County green thumb boom was set in motion.
In three years, the number of plots more than doubled at the Lanier Filter Plant near Buford. What's more, cities around Gwinnett have added their own, from Suwanee, Sugar Hill and Norcross, to the newest garden in Snellville. The gardens have their own character, like raised beds in Suwanee, but mostly they've become popular because they foster a sense of community, volunteer passion and provide sunny space to gardeners drowning in shade at home.
"People enjoy gardening, and prices have gone sky high," said Kathy Parent, who works with community gardens for Gwinnett County's Cooperative Extension Service. "It's a way to offset what they buy in the store."
Sara Kleinfeld, the current chair of the board at Suwanee's Harvest Farm, agreed.
"People willing to get their hands dirty are a different breed," she said. "They blend together."
While each of the gardens have a common theme, the type of plots, costs and feel varies by city.
"Each garden has its own personality that reflects the community that it's in," said Daphne Anderson, the first president of the Sugar Hill garden, which is in its second year.
The current president of the Lanier Community Garden is Patty Golden, who is a master gardener. Golden was part of Lanier's start.
"There was some question as to how much response there might be from the community," Golden said in an email.
She said the diversity of the gardeners was a common theme, from novice to experienced, and several ethnicities and backgrounds.
The busy times at Lanier, like many other community gardens, are weekday mornings for retired folks, and evenings for younger, working people.
"One thing is for sure, and that is that gardeners are as diverse as any other little cross section of society," Golden said.
Rosalie Tubre, a master gardener and active volunteer at the gardens in Suwanee and Buford, was an early consultant to the garden in Sugar Hill. She said the popularity is traced to people who want better quality produce.
"People are wanting to get back to their roots and growing vegetables like their grandfathers did," Tubre said. "The taste and flavor of the vegetables, not like what you'd buy in the supermarkets."
Parent was at the first general information meeting in Buford, which had about 60 people attend, and said she couldn't have predicted the speed of the growth of community gardens around the county.
The original idea came from Neal Spivey, who retired in December from his job as Director of Water Production for Gwinnett County. Spivey saw that the unused land near Buford Dam Road was ideal for a community garden, Parent said.
So at the initial meeting, gardeners developed basic rules and parameters for plots and aisleways, and if it would be an organic or traditional garden.
As the trend gained traction, Parent said she encouraged community officials and volunteers to talk with each other and compare notes to help answer each other's questions.
In Suwanee, for example, the garden once had chickens, but volunteers soon learned they were too labor intensive. This year, though, the farm added a three-barrel compost system.
"Our first two years we were trying to figure out what the gardeners wanted the garden to be. So we threw lots of different things out to them," Roth said. "I think we understand better what our core gardeners want, so we're able to focus more on those specific things. Scale down to the things they're not really looking for the garden to be."
Roth has offered information, documents and advice for other gardeners, like her parents in Snellville. Roth said she tries to provide advice based on the involvement of each city, and said city officials around the county see why it's a success.
"We want it to be an opportunity for our community to engage," Roth said. "People are realizing the value of engaging your community."
In Norcross, the volunteers added a fence, walkway and two beds, which help the garden's mission to feed five local families. Providing produce to food banks or mission groups is common among all of the gardens. In Lanier's first year, two Girl Scout Troops donated more than 600 pounds of produce that they raised from their plots.
Each city's garden plots range in size and cost. The Lanier plots are 20 foot by 20 foot and are free. In Suwanee, they are four feet by four feet, four by 10 and four by 14, and the cost is $50, $75 and $100.
In Sugar Hill at Gary Pirkle Park, the plots range from five by five for $20, to 20 by 30 for $35.In Snellville, which is in its first phase of about 25 beds, the plots are four by eight feet and four by 12 for raised beds, and eight by eight for a non-raised bed. The garden will also have handicapped accessible plots.
Costs range from $35 to $80 depending on the size, and if a gardener is a Snellville resident.
The Snellville garden, located at the intersection of Marigold Road and Sawyer Parkway in Briscoe Park, broke ground on Earth Day in April. City officials have said the garden expects to host school groups and special events like weddings, receptions and private parties.
Ken and Gretchen Schulz said phase one of the Snellville garden hopes to be finished by fall in time to grow winter plants. Long-term plans include a greenhouse, pavilion, storage sheds and an amphitheater for education lessons.
"We have all kinds of big ideas," Ken Schulz said. "Surely it'll come together."
Virtually all volunteers and city officials believe this is just the beginning of community garden growth around the county and region. Roth said it helps that there are many types and sizes of gardens available.
"You can get this off the ground no matter your resources or volunteers," she said.