When Toni Sunseri moved to her new neighborhood near the Brooklyn Arts District at the end of May 2016, she found she had moved into a food desert. The closest grocery store to buy fresh fruit and vegetables was Food Lion on Dawson Street, on the other side of downtown, or off Castle Hayne Road. One day last summer she was walking her dog in front of an empty lot near her home when suddenly she saw it: a vision of an urban garden, a Garden (of Eatin’) on Walnut Street.
“I saw it as a space not just for me, but for the whole neighborhood,” she explains, concerned that her 97-year-old neighbor doesn’t get enough fresh veggies.
She describes her neighborhood as “transitional,” sandwiched between “what people consider to be ‘scary land’ and gentrified downtown,” at Walnut and McRae streets. Sirens wail nearby, as low-flying planes, in their final approach to ILM, roar overhead and drown conversations. Young, desperate men drive by in battered Suburbans with low sub-woofer rumbles of bass bouncing off the rows of shuttered homes. Upon my walk over to interview Sunseri, I stepped over used needles and condoms, broken glass in unkempt grass. Though not the serene and green landscape expected of a garden, it makes growing one in this land all the more necessary.
A sculptor by trade and training, Sunseri, a short and strong woman with intense brown eyes under radial tendrils of blonde hair, moved back here five years ago on New Years Day, to write a book. Her career in art and design is serving her well; she takes the whole vision and breaks it apart into pieces for the garden.
“It’s really no different than how I would design a house,” she notes, “or a piece of sculpture. How do I find the materials I need in order to create what I’m envisioning? It’s all the same process—creatively manifesting something physical.”
Sunseri’s vision consists of having a garden of raised beds built from old pallets, either on the ground or tiered three high, arranged to make the most of the light. The stacks allow people who aren’t able to bend or stoop to the ground still retain the ability to work on it. Thinking of a paraplegic friend or her aforementioned elderly neighbor, Sunseri imagines maximum accessibility. The garden will be roughly square, 19 feet on each side, which gives a 10-foot perimeter in the lot to walk around. Up front, near the sidewalk, will be the “free” plot.
“If you’re hungry,” Sunseri says, “pick it.” She sees the garden becoming a grocery store, a meeting place. There will be a free library—also a free pantry where people can drop off and pick up canned goods. She wants to have a place to sit in peace, and include a butterfly garden, worm beds in the back and rain barrels. A “medicinal” bed, off to the right side, has already begun, with tender green shoots of mullein and the lively spray of yarrow rising from the cool dirt.
Right now, the garden is one long pallet-built bed, a few tools leaned against the fence and most importantly a dream. She planted the first bed with vegetables she likes: “five rows of radishes, red leafy salad, bowl lettuce, arugula.” They have survived the plummeting frost of early last week and have already proven themselves hardy. “We planted the seeds in this bed four days before Hurricane Matthew,” Sunseri tells. Perhaps it’s a sign that the garden was spared from the rains, which drowned much of the coastal plain. Sunseri says she’s a good elemental witch.
As we walk to the back, a shriveled stalk tied to a green stake reveals Confederate Rose Hibiscus mutabilis. It was given to Sunseri in a 2-gallon pot by David Brenner of Wilmington Green. When it blooms, she says, it has these big pink rough-leaved flowers, “like Chinese peony.” As a perennial, it comes back every year. She bends down to collect seed pods from the wilted stems. She’s been blessed with a deluge of donations and words of advice from area master gardeners, like Brenner, who also brought her a shovel and hoe. Doug and Diane of Wilmington Water Tours gave her a big grey compost turner, which lurks in the back corner of the lot. Dustin Grimsley of ILM Wellness helped her plan out what to plant where, as a strategic and holistic form of pesticide. Her friend, Michael Jenkins, helped her get the first bed together—and Alexa Williams, who lives nearby, helped her plant it. Her neighbor down the street is a master cabinet maker, who has helped her find pallets out of heat-treated oak. She can’t use pressure-treated pallets from overseas because of the chemicals they use in them. “Everyone likes this idea and wants it to be successful,” she notes, “which is really cool.”
Naturally, the garden always benefits from donations. Sunseri puts out calls on what it needs on the group’s public Facebook page. That’s the best way to reach out and help, she says. Or visitors can just walk on over to the intersection of Walnut and McRae.
Next year, she says, her goal is to have the first farm-to-table block party, catered and grown by the community, for the community. When she looks at her single pallet bed on this once-blighted plot, the beginning—dare I say—seeds something great. Sunseri’s technique for bringing it to life is more visionary than methodical. The end result is a living, breathing work of art in a place which needs it very much. Art is a gift and food is a necessity; at the Garden (of Eatin’) on Walnut, the two come together, like Adam and Eve, to create a new space for life.