On the west corner of Burwell Avenue and McMillan Street in Knoxville, Tennessee, sat a vacant lot. To the north, Sharp’s Ridge rose in a sudden spine of hardwoods and undergrowth, brokering the notions of neighborhood loyalty between Oakwood-Lincoln Park and Inskip. A block away, running southeast, Central Avenue hummed with a calico array of colorful shops and businesses where North Knoxville’s varied yet distinct cadre of denizens spent it days. Yet for all this, the one lot stayed vacant. It once appeared to have been bushwhacked with some regularity, either by the city or by neighbors who had tired of the mosquitoes, but nobody bought it until the city acquired it and put it up for auction.
It was then that Colton and Tiffany Kirby, Benjamin and Molly Conaway, and John Human bought it and started Burwell Gardens. The idea was to kill two birds with one stone—pardoning the expression—and address both the issue of vacant lots (historically a potential attraction for crime, drug use, or a massive kudzu incursion) and the problem of fresh food shortages in the area. As of now, Burwell Gardens is officially part of the non-profit Cultivate Wholeness and is in the midst of raising funds for things like water lines and gardening materials.
Colton was kind enough to sit down and tell us a bit about the nature of what the Burwell folks are doing, the larger implications of community-oriented urban gardening, and the needs of the neighborhood.
FH: What’s the process your team underwent to get the land and work with the City of Knoxville?
Colton Kirby: We bought the property on auction, it was surplus real estate owned by the city. Acquiring it was pretty straightforward. We got a later start with it than what we wanted since we were at the mercy of the city regarding the closing date. However, once we closed, it was fairly smooth sailing. Since it is privately owned property, we can basically do whatever we want on there and since there are several laws in place that encourage gardening and small-scale urban farming, we’ve not hit any major snags yet.
FH: What previous experience does your team have in doing this sort of thing?
CK: As far as the gardening side, we’ve all had personal gardens going at different points with varying degrees of success. Ben and Molly Conaway have worked in the nonprofit sector before; this wasn’t their first rodeo in that regard. I think we’ve all had some experience in poverty relief efforts before, but nothing so long term as what we’ve envisioned here.
FH: What are the needs that you’re trying to meet in the Lincoln Park community, then?
CK: Food inequality and developing community, largely. Parts of our zip code are a food desert, and it’s home to lots of low- and fixed-income families. The garden teaches people to take an active role in their physical and spiritual wellness. We encourage the participants to share any excess they have.
FH: What are some personal experiences you and your fellow owners have had in seeing your neighborhood’s poverty that drove you to talk to each other about the possibility of the garden?
CK: It was a combination of things we observed rather than one defining moment, I feel. It was seeing the big “EBT Accepted Here” sign at the hilariously named Fresh Market around the corner. (Spoilers: Nothing is fresh there, not even the Mountain Dew.) It was seeing foreclosed houses being flipped and stripped of all of the character they had previously. It was seeing the lot that would become Burwell Gardens and fearing some property developer would snatch it up and perpetuate the cycle of poverty instead of adding to the community in a tangible way.
FH: What are you planning to grow?
CK: Well, that’s the cool part. The renters can grow whatever they want, more or less. For the section we personally are managing, we’ve got tomatoes, peppers, onions, standard salsa garden stuff. We’ve also got potatoes, okra, beans, and a few pollinator-friendly flowers.
FH: What has gardening taught you about the grace of God?
CK: Grace isn’t dependent on our own actions. I can water and prune and fertilize all I want and something can still die. Conversely, my wife and I have a lavender plant in our backyard which shouldn’t grow well in our climate, but it took off with us largely forgetting about it. It’s not about me and my hard work. That said, hard work is still worth doing.
FH: How does agriculture like this in the city echo the Kingdom of Christ for you?
CK: i think there’s the obvious metaphor of taking back the land and replacing steel and brick and buildings with fertile soil and life. Beyond that, our main goal is to bring equality and community—mountains made low, valleys filled—through the first means of civilization: a garden.