Thanks to a federal grant, a new community garden at the Penn Center on St. Helena Island may have an impact beyond its first growing season.

While work on the “Poised to Grow” community garden, as it is being called, started in mid-February, plants in tidy narrow rows have already begun shooting up and taking shape.

It won’t be long before the garden begins yielding tomatoes, squash, okra and a variety of other summer vegetables, said Penn Center Administrator Charlene Spearen who is one of the garden project’s coordinator.

As Spearen explained, the project started when Board of Trustees member Laura Morris spotted a grant program through the S.C. Association for Community Economic Development and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The grant was specifically for community gardens so Morris and Spearen thought the Penn Center – which already had an unused, large field-like area would be a natural fit for such a program.

“We knew we had the site for it, but it was nothing but weeds,” she said.

So the center went through the application process and was notified that it had won the grant in February.

Work to clear the spot, just behind the red-roofed shed and historic Darrah Hall on the Penn Center grounds also began in February with volunteers from local girl scout troops, youth groups and other organizations as well pitching in and working well into the spring.

“It’s been intergenerational support from the community,” said Spearen.

While the volunteers helped de-weed and plant the soil, the grant covered the work to bush hog the area and till and trench the soil. It also covered such costs as fertilizer, plants and seeds, Spearen said.

The center also partnered with Marshview Community Organic Farm, Inc., Morning Glory Farms, Barefoot Farms and the Gullah Farmers’ Cooperative Association which provided much needed expertise and, of course, plants.

A number of the area’s master gardeners also pitched in providing expertise and consultation, Spearen said.

The garden’s primary purpose is to donate what it grows to the community, especially in its first year, as stipulated in the grant, but the project also strives to promote food access and agricultural training for new generations of farmers, Spearen explained.

By providing an opportunity to be involved with the production of local and sustainably produced food, the project will try and address just some of the area’s needs and lack of opportunities for youth.

This mission is in keeping with the spirit of the Penn Center’s history, explained Spearen.

The center has long been a powerful catalyst for community evolution, she said, and has been involved in agriculture since its founding and early beginnings.

As the first school founded in the Southern United States specifically for the education of African-Americans, the center was largely self-sufficient and operated a large farm and dairy.

Prior to the pandemic, the center also had a robust farmers market featuring fruits and vegetables. The center has plans to bring back the farmers market this season, but doesn’t have an opening date as of yet.

And when the community garden’s harvest is ready, volunteers and those affiliated with the Penn Center will return to celebrate it’s first crop, she said.

“Oh absolutely,” she said, standing on the edge of the garden looking out over the new crops.

It’s a project that residents and members of the community are sure to be reaping the benefits of for years to come.

Photos courtesy of Penn Center