(This story is part of a two-part cover feature. Click here to read the other part, Food Share.)
It's a chilly overcast Saturday morning in March. In a little-known area of Shelby Farms, just off a worn road, a dozen people huddle around a small gray shack.
Eleanor Griffin, the Farms' community gardens volunteer coordinator, is handing sign-up forms to all sorts of people: middle-aged women in sweatshirts, families, bearded young men in overalls. As they write down their names and addresses, Griffin flips through a worn spiral notebook, looking for open plot numbers.
"Okay, you're number 249. Here are your rules and the sticker for your windshield," she says to one of the group.
Griffin has been divvying up Shelby Farms' free community garden plots since the 1990s when a volunteer board took over for the county's Office on Aging and changed the name from Senior Gardens to Community Gardens. She calls these most recent Saturdays "beehive days."
"In the past, I dealt with people one on one. You'd call me, and I'd meet you out there and show you the plot. We'd talk about it, and I'd give it to you," she says. "This year, there's been a tremendous crunch."
Because of all the calls she received during the winter, she decided to tell prospective gardeners to show up on Saturday mornings.
"One morning, I saw 30 people," Griffin says. "The economy probably plays a part. Plus, it seems cool this year to grow your own vegetables. Everywhere you look people are talking about it."
Early last month, with a phalanx of elementary school children at her feet, first lady Michelle Obama started the first victory garden at the White House since Eleanor Roosevelt lived there. But the national attention to vegetable gardening was already under way.
Seed companies are flourishing, with the nation's largest — W. Atlee Burpee — reporting a 25 to 30 percent spike in seed sales this year. The National Gardening Association says 19 percent more Americans plan to grow their own fruits and vegetables this year. Even the University of Memphis is getting in on the act, starting a pilot project to grow organic vegetables on its main campus.
The reasons are as varied as the seeds people plan to plant: the taste of fresh produce, the exercise, the fresh air, and the joy of seeing something grow.
Pam Simpson is one of the newest gardeners at Shelby Farms. After her husband died last year, she decided she wanted to be healthier and eat more fresh fruits and vegetables. But her husband's death also put a strain on family finances.
"When I heard about the gardens, I jumped on it," she says. "I was the first one out there one Saturday morning."
Her grandparents had a farm where she would help out, but Simpson, a nurse and Sunday-school teacher, has never had her own garden.
"My grandkids are going to help out," she says. "I want them to see a cantaloupe grow. It's important that they see how food is grown."
In addition to cantaloupe, Simpson plans on planting all the fruit she can, as well as corn and purple hull peas. ("I love to eat 'em; I love to shell 'em," she says.)
Since signing up, Simpson's been at Shelby Farms every single day, waiting for the county to put up the flags that denote where each plot is located.
But Simpson's not the only one.
Pediatrician Beth Andrew had been gardening at Shelby Farms for about a decade and has one of the few year-round plots, located near the gardeners' shack. ("I got lucky," she says.)
The gardens are part of what's known as Area 10 and are still managed by Shelby County, though at some point they will come under the management of the Shelby Farms Park Conservancy. Because of the rainy weather, the county hasn't plowed and staked the garden plots, and it's getting late in the season. But Andrew has been out there almost every day, watching people stop by the gardens.
"I see everyone walking around and asking, 'Where's my plot? When do you think they'll plow it up?' They can't wait to get out here," she says.
Andrew grows most of the vegetables she eats, except for in the dead of winter when she buys produce for salads.
"It's great exercise. I love to be outside," she says. "It's a major creative outlet. The vegetables are like my children."
Griffin says this year's bumper crop of community gardeners differs from past years.
"They're younger, and they want to share the garden with someone else," she says. "They just want space to put out six tomato plants."
But Shelby Farms isn't the only place to garden. In collaboration with the surrounding communities, the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center's GrowMemphis operates five community gardens. And, in a pilot project, the U of M is planting eight organic vegetable gardens on its main campus this spring.
Karyl Buddington, director of animal care at the university, plants a vegetable garden in her yard every spring. Earlier this year, she proposed doing the same thing at the university.
"I think everybody is a little uncertain about the future because the economy hasn't been so great," she says. "I do a lot of walking on campus. I thought, What if we put vegetables and herbs in place of all of the flowers we put in and take out each season?
"The more people I talked to, the more interest there was," she continues. "All of a sudden, we had a core group that was terribly excited about putting these plants in."
The core group of 12 organizers hopes to get about 50 community volunteers to help plant, but they also asked for funds from student green fees — a fee students pay each semester to help make the campus more environmentally friendly — to pay for students to work the gardens during the summer.
"We have so many kids on campus who don't know where food comes from," Buddington says. "Students need work, and it's harder and harder to find these days."
She hopes to work closely with health and science students, especially those in programs such as dietary science. If the pilot project is successful, the gardens could become part of the department's curriculum.
Calvin Strong, the university's director of building and landscape services, says they are going to do eight raised-bed gardens because "we're trying to avoid people walking through them."
The plots will be located throughout the campus, with one near the administration building, three near Clement Hall, and one near Jones Hall. Each will be about 10 by 15 feet.
"The day [the administration] said go to it, we started running with it," Buddington says. "I'm 54 years old, and I've asked a lot of questions in my life and heard a lot of 'you can't do that.' With this, no one has said no. Everybody has been excited and enthusiastic."
She says the project is a way to get people working together and giving back. But it's also a learning experience.
"We want to stress that these are things people can do in their yards. They might not have a big yard, but there are things you can do to raise edible food," she says.
Though they don't know what exactly they will do with the produce they grow, Buddington says there are a number of possibilities.
"The most important thing behind this is, if somebody walks by and they need that produce and they pick it, it's okay," she says. "This is not one group's or another group's. Whoever needs it, they'll have an opportunity to pick it. ... This is about sharing."
Buddington says they plan on planting the beds in the next week or so and are still looking for volunteers. Interested parties can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 678-2359.
For people just looking to get their hands dirty, the U of M gardeners may be the best way to do it. Potential gardeners can also call Shelby Farms, but they might be a little late.
In the past, Griffin has never assigned all the garden's 600 plots before May 1st, but she says she's getting close.
"We usually offer extra open plots each year because people want extra space for watermelons or peas. So we started calling them 'pea patches,' and they're usually available in May," Griffin says.
"But this year? I don't think there will be any."