Briars to Bounty

“Growing is in my blood,” says Milton Stewart. Photo by Rimas Zailskas

Five years ago, the vacant lot beside First Congregational Church of Hendersonville looked like a lost cause. For starters, it was overgrown. Tenacious kudzu took great pleasure in crawling up a beastly conifer, while other invasive vines sprawled at its feet. Not to mention the parcel’s angular dimensions: though a little under an acre, the lot is awkwardly flanked by railroad tracks, White Pine Road, and the fellowship hall.

But churchgoer Milton Stewart saw potential.

“My grandfather owned a farm right outside Jacksonville, Florida. So I guess growing is in my blood,” Stewart says before stooping to pull suckers off a tomato plant. Where he’s standing used to be a briar patch teeming with poison sumac and thistle. Today, the once-fallow plot is a community garden in every sense. Come harvest season, a lion’s share of the produce is given to local Interfaith Assistance Ministry and the Rescue Mission. Last year, First Congregational donated 1,000 pounds of veggies.

Driving by, it’s hard to imagine the V-shaped lot churning out half a ton of sweet potatoes, tomatoes, and onions. But according to Nick Pence, there’s no secret “other than showing up,” he says. A retired banker, Pence tends to the crops each morning. Sitting on his haunches, he untangles squash vines. Starting in late June, the creepers bear flaxen blooms and the beginnings of fruit. “They’ll be ready in late summer,” says Pence, dusting soil from his hands.

He walks to the cucumbers and begins mounding dirt. Shaw Creek keeps things wet, so each row must be banked up to allow for drainage. Should it be a dry season, Stewart has rigged an irrigation system — pipes fed by an old spring house — to lessen some of the legwork. Stewart brought his John Deere tractor up from Florida and he and Pence built a small, maybe 50-square-foot greenhouse for seedlings.

It’s been a long time coming, but the garden is thriving — and Laurel Park is noticing. A while back, for instance, a community member heard that First Congregational couldn’t afford to install fencing to keep out animals. So the anonymous donor dropped off an envelope filled with $100 bills. Sadly, he passed away soon after, but the fence was built in his honor.

“Come by whenever you like,” Stewart says as volunteers pack up their tools. “The gate is always open.”

First Congregational United Church of Christ of Hendersonville is located at 1735 5th Avenue West. For more information, call 828-692-8630 or see

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