Gardens in good — but dirty — hands

Published 9:46 pm Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Shelley Butler Barlow always has her hands in a lot of things, and this year that list includes the dirt of several more gardens.

Barlow and her husband annually raise cotton, soybeans, wheat and corn on their Chuckatuck-area Cotton Plains Farm.

But in her new part-time job as garden coordinator with the Suffolk Partnership for a Healthy Community, Barlow will be assisting with community and school gardens throughout the city, as well as directing five new part-time garden assistants.

Email newsletter signup

Together, they also will help the winners of a backyard garden contest set up their gardens for the first time.

Barlow said she has been looking for a way to get more involved in the partnership’s work when she came across the job listing.

“I always had the urge to be more involved in it, but never really could figure out how to fit in,” Barlow said.

The garden coordinator job felt like the right move for her, she said. In addition to her large-scale farming operation, Barlow also has kept a community-supported agriculture garden for the last 10 years, offering shares of it to customers in return for a basket of fresh produce every week.

She won’t be keeping one this year, however.

“It’s going to be a different year and different focus,” she said. “I think the availability of locally grown products has increased greatly in the last 10 years.”

Barlow said it was time to expand her efforts and help more people get started gardening for themselves.

“My most favorite thing would be for a customer to call me up in March and say, ‘I’m not going to participate this year because I’m going to have my own garden,’” she said in reference to the CSA. “I feel very strongly about people having access to healthy food.”

Barlow said her new job will be “an opportunity and a challenge at the same time,” in part because it’s a new position. But her duty, essentially, is to get more people gardening — and that starts with teaching them how to do so.

“You don’t just drop seeds in the ground and have success,” she said. “It’s much more complicated than that.”

Applications for the backyard garden contest are due April 30, an extension from the original due date at the end of February. Winners will get starter garden kits and support to give their gardens good roots. They must agree to maintain the garden at least seven months out of the year for the next two years and agree to garden by partnership rules, which include doing so organically.

With the backyard gardens as well as the community and school gardens — a total of 19 of those are on the roster — it might seem like Barlow has her hands full of dirt already. But she’s also on the state cotton board, the state board for the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency county committee and more.

She’s also participating this year in Virginia Agricultural Leaders Obtaining Results, a leadership-training program for people in agriculture through Virginia Tech.

For more information on the gardens or to get an application for a backyard garden, call 539-1525 or visit