In the past year, the small vacant lot nestled between buildings saw a rebirth. Once the site of an old shoe building, it’s now a thriving community garden open to all.
I sat down with Ashlei Laing, co-director of Empyrean Research, to find out more. Our full conversation, lightly edited for clarity, appears below.
Why don’t we start with how you came to Fayetteville.
I’m a New Hampshire native, born and raised. I was in the Peace Corps in 2010 and 2012 in Bulgaria, which is Eastern Europe. That was in between about a nine-year stint of living in and out of Italy. While there, I was practicing ceramics and then learning about farming.
I came back to the US to be with my family and to finish up a master’s degree based in community-based conservation. I was really interested in looking at how permaculture is really effective in helping the livelihoods of family farms. So looking at agritourism models and land conservation models, and how that kind of all comes together.
Skip Bivens, who is a Fayetteville native, and I had the same kind of vision. I wanted to start developing a piece of land to bring these ideas together in the way of a university.
We decided to come back to Tennessee and start with a little bit of a community garden. That’s been a really awesome learning process for both Skip and I as well as local volunteers that have been involved in it.
It’s been really amazing. A little pocket park and micro-farm right in the downtown setting.
Since this has been one of the big projects you’ve both tackled, why start with something right here in town?
Just to get out in the in the town and meet people. I’m not from here. I really don’t know anybody. Skip’s from here but he’s kind of come back to the area. We thought it was a really prime prime location to kind of fill a personal need of meeting new people and also just get out there.
We also needed an apartment and this was one of the only ones that we really found. It was beautiful and very inspiring to us. And our landlord has been really great and supportive of our ideas.
This garden space – it was basically just a overgrown empty vacant lot here in town.
Yeah, it’s where a shoe shop was imploded and then put into the basement. They just bulldozed over it.
The story we’ve heard is that the woman that own this building gave it to the city. They found out that in the in the will or the deed or something that she wanted it to have a park, a garden in it.
Without knowing it, we’re kinda feeling that storyline and that’s been really interesting.
When I hear you talk about the garden, it’s always with a local-focus, a community-focus. Why is that so important?
The community involvement is definitely something that rings right through in my work as far as being a returned Peace Corps volunteer and having that third goal. It’s bringing home the knowledge, sharing the knowledge with your local community. Everything from environmental issues and justice to women’s empowerment to education and language sharing. Then opening it up for the most people we can, while building a model that allows the most people to be involved in really dynamic ways.
Over the past year, you’ve steered the community garden through the initial stages – clearing the space, building the beds, growing produce. You’ve also started training folks through the micro-farm workshops.
The first workshop was really great! I used a lot of skills that I have learned over practicing and observing and studying everything from backyard gardening all the way up to 600 acre farms in Nepal, India, Namibia, Africa, Morocco, Italy, Bulgaria, and and a few spots here in the U.S. There’s a lot of techniques that you can use. I’ve also been exposed to so many that you can mix and match depending on what your natural resources are, what your environmental factors are, and who your community is.
Through the workshop, I’ve been trying to hone in on the local community, look at what our environment and what the landscape offers, and what everyone wants to have as a resource.
We want healthy food. To protect our land and not just take from it. We want to be building soil and putting nutrients back in a regenerative process.
I’ve tried to make that as accessible, low cost, and easy access and kind of simple as I can.
We’re also adding an element of fun and community and camaraderie. Everybody loves fresh vegetables.
The first workshop was pretty successful so we’re planning a few more. We’re reaching out to some people at Sewanee University. There’s also a wonderful homesteading permaculture site called Spiral Ridge. They’ve been really wonderful and an open and accepting to to work on future workshops with us here. We might even offer some field trips. So a little bit of that crossing over plus inspiration as well as learning other methods and ways to do things.
What’s next for the garden?
We tucked in the beds for the winter. We’re having everything kind of composting back into the beds. The workshop was about kind of jump-starting that nutrients in there and composting, what other people would probably call waste. We put it all right back into the boxes in a way that is going to be super fertile soil for planting in the springtime.
Next up will be helping everyone understand indoor seeding, seeding plans, and planting plans for the season. That might be through a field trip group that goes over to Sewanee University. Then after that might be a partnership with Spiral Ridge on an introduction to permaculture.
We’d love to have anyone that’s interested join us. We’ve got a Facebook page set up here. And you can reach us through the Empyrean Research website here. Those are great places for inspiration, anecdotes, and resources.
It’s slow steady steps, but we’re not planning on going anywhere anytime soon.