At first glance, the corner of Watkins and East Main streets seems to be just another abandoned lot — stacks of discarded tires, concrete blocks, glass bottles sticking out at all angles, piles of dirt, wood chips strewn everywhere.
But look closer and it's an amazing feat -- a community garden growing on an asphalt parking lot.
Those tire stacks are potato towers. Tires laid in rows, which bring to mind football players "running the tires," are filled with soil and planted with greens and flowers. A circle of concrete blocks outlines an herb garden. The glass bottles are improvised suncatchers.
This garden has everything ... including the kitchen sink. It's planted with strawberries and zinnias.
"A neighbor who lives nearby collects scrap metal. He gave the metal sink to us ... and obviously it drains well," jokes Joel Tippens, founding director of Fair Share Urban Growers, which started the East Lake Community Garden last year.
With the garden's second season well under way, it has really taken root in the community. Tippens says that already beets, carrots, spinach, potatoes, herbs, blueberries, cabbages, kale and a variety of flowers are planted in the 100-by-200-foot lot. As the weather warms, okra, corn and tomatoes will be added.
"Our mission is to address securing food in food desserts," says Brenda Trigg, also employed with Fair Share.
She points out that the Ridgedale neighborhood, in which the garden is located, has no nearby supermarket. The closest grocery, she thinks, is a Bi-Lo at the corner of Brainerd Road and Belvoir Avenue on the opposite side of Missionary Ridge, about 3 miles away.
While some urban community gardens stress the unification of neighbors, Trigg says this one is more about providing food and encouraging people to grow their own. Though it's an unusual form of container gardening, the gardeners are showing neighborhood residents that growing your own food doesn't have to be an expensive proposition.
Tippens says that, when Fair Share was looking for vacant lots last year to begin the project, a mutual friend introduced him to Gary Ball, the owner of Tower Construction and a former president of the Ridgedale Community Association.
"Gary's been real generous, and gave us a $1-a-year lease on the lot," says Tippens.
He says he's seen urban garden projects in worse conditions than growing on an asphalt parking lot, so he thought this was doable.
"I was really challenged by the site. I also thought it was perfect to model to people that you can grow food anywhere -- even on a parking lot," he says.
First, 24 cubic yards of wood chips, used for proper drainage, were trucked in on two large dump trucks. The wood chips, obtained from the city of Chattanooga, were spread over the asphalt last year in a layer about 10 inches thick and they've since decomposed to the current layer about 4 inches thick, Tippens says.
But, of course, plants need soil to grow.
Trigg says a Step 1 grant from the Hamilton County Health Department funded their purchase of soil, which was formed into rows -- or raised beds -- about 4 feet wide and 1 foot deep. Each bed is about 16 feet long, with space between them to walk or roll a wheelbarrow.
Trigg points out that most gardeners shape their raised beds with some form of wooden boxes, commonly outlining them with cedar planks or railroad ties. Not here.
"We found that when we shaped these raised beds, we didn't need the boxes. We liked that we were demonstrating a less-expensive way to garden," she says.
Tippens says any neighborhood resident who helps tend the garden is welcome to its bounty, but folks who stop by out of curiosity won't leave empty-handed.
"I force them to walk away with something," explains Tippens. "Even folks sitting at the bus stop can have a snack," he says, referring to nearby peach and pear trees that have been planted to start an orchard.
An additional beauty of the garden is that it has harvested an outpouring of community goodwill, say Trigg and Tippens, noting that its diverse containers are all discarded items that have been put to use instead of becoming neighborhood eyesores.
"We're utilizing tires from a vacant lot where they had been illegally dumped and the owner was about to be fined," says Tippens.
Potatoes have been planted in the tires, Trigg says, which work well with the plants' normal growth pattern.
"Normally, you plant potatoes in the ground and they grow down into the soil," she says. "If you put them a tire, the foliage grows up. As it gets taller, you add another tire and compost until, when it's time to harvest, you just pull the tires off and take the potatoes out instead of digging."
A local landscaper offered concrete blocks left over from a residential job if the gardeners would come get them. The herbs were donated by the Jewish Community Center, which had a surplus of young plants after last summer's children's camp.
Trigg says local garden centers have donated unsold seeds.
"They can't sell last year's seeds, so they donate them, which reduces our costs. It would be a shame to throw them out, so we plant them with the understanding they may not all come up," she says.
"We grow almost everything from seed at one of the Chattanooga Area Food Bank's greenhouses," adds Tippens. "We grow for our own garden and for the food bank's garden."
Trigg says there are two other Fair Share community gardens going into other Chattanooga neighborhoods. One will be in the Westside neighborhood while the other will land in Avondale on Roanoke Avenue in partnership with Hope for the Inner City. The latter is intended to be a youth garden, she says, to teach young people how to garden.
"We're just hoping to model creative ways to access fresh local food, to repurpose and reuse things most people would call trash," says Tippens.
"A lot of people have the mindset that starting a garden is going to be expensive, whereas if they just cruise their neighborhood and pick up some old tires, they can grow anything," he jokes.
Contact staff writer Susan Pierce at email@example.com or 423-757-6284.
Susan Palmer Pierce is a reporter and columnist in the Life department. She began her journalism career as a summer employee 1972 for the News Free Press, typing bridal announcements and photo captions. She became a full-time employee in 1980, working her way up to feature writer, then special sections editor, then Lifestyle editor in 1995 until the merge of the NFP and Times in 1999. She was honored with the 2007 Chattanooga Woman of ...