The first of Tom Toliver’s gardens is in what looks like an unlikely place—there’s a lumber mill across the street, a busy road without sidewalks, and the garden itself is nudged in between a pawn shop and a DeWalt tool center. Along 6th street, a mom and her two kids walk by carrying groceries from the nearby Family Dollar. Toliver also lives down the street. He believes that putting gardens in urban areas, like Charleston’s West Side, helps reduce crime and revitalize the neighborhood.
“When you bring in the good, the bad will eventually creep out because they cannot survive together. That’s another advantage of a community garden,” says Toliver.
For about twenty years, Toliver has been a mentor for children whose parents are in prison. Five years ago, he had one of the children over for dinner, and they were serving green beans as one of their sides.
“So my wife said, ‘you know where this food comes from?’ And they said, ‘Kroger.’ They had no idea or concept how food grew.”
That’s what planted the seed in Tom’s mind to create gardens throughout his neighborhood in Charleston’s West Side. Toliver doesn’t sell any of the food he grows— in fact, he gives most of it to neighbors or to nearby shelters. So when Sarah Halstead, with the West Virginia State University Economic Development Center, heard about Toliver's project, she connected him with volunteers from around Charleston who began helping him this season.
One of those volunteers is Stephanie Hysmith. Hysmith is a Master Gardener, which means participated in a series of workshops offered by West Virginia University Extension Service.
And Das Menon, an industrial designer, was also excited to help Toliver with his gardens when he found out about the project earlier this year.
“I grew up in India. I’m at the later part of my life, and I want to do something good for people. You want to feel like you have done something that will help people, and that will carry on for the next generation," says Menon.
This year, Menon is putting design skills to work and is helping the group create a gazebo for Toliver's second garden, just down the street on 6th and Orchard. This garden is a partnership between the West Side Community Gardens and Sustainable Agriculture Entrepreneurs, also known as SAGE. Here, vegetables are not separated by rectangular beds. This is an organically imagined garden with plots arranged in a kind of swirling, starburst design—with sunflowers and other bee-enticing flowers at the center.
One of the neighbors, Sharon Bills enters the garden, walking her dog up the grassy hill. “We walk the dog up here and come check it out. And we all say that it was so neatly done, the way that it waters itself and everything,” Bills explains, pointing to the sunflowers which are in full bloom.
Toliver says their project would like to eventually allow neighbors like Sharon to have their own garden plots so they will be invested in helping raise food for themselves and for people in need. “My philosophy is: begin to help people to grow their own food, eat healthy, it will cause a healthy community," Toliver explains.
"Nothing hurts me any more than to go into countries, even in America, and see kids eating out of garbage cans, when it’s so simple to grow food. It’s so simple.”
A follow up story about Tom Toliver's gardens and a group of 22 YMCA children who recently volunteered to help him bring vegetables to a local shelter, can be found here.
This story from West Virginia Public Radio is featured in The Charleston Gazette. Click here to view the article.