Volunteers Build A Neighborhood Garden

In the spring of 2014, as part of our work at Neighborhood Preservation, Inc., we began Carnes Garden on a vacant lot at 916 J.W. Williams where a dilapidated county- owned house had recently been demolished.  

Carnes Garden includes Carnes Garden and Carnes Garden East, which are community gardens located on J.W. Williams Lane across from the recently closed Carnes Elementary School. These gardens are complete transformations of two formerly vacant and abandoned lots. They are now beautiful and productive gardens set off by art that reflects themes of gardening and nature.

We built these gardens to fulfill basic needs in the neighborhood by replacing starkly blighted environments with landscapes of beauty and life. We wanted them to be an inspiration to residents and a message to visitors that this neighborhood can and will get better, and to show that vacant lots should be viewed as an asset and not a liability.  

We were so encouraged by our early results that in November 2016 we started Carnes Garden East at 956 J.W. Williams, five lots east from Carnes Garden.

Part of our mission was to use Carnes Garden as an outdoor classroom for students, parents and teachers at Carnes Elementary School.  

However with the end of the 2017 school year, Carnes Elementary School was closed by the Shelby County School Board. After it closed we continued to build Carnes Garden for residents and others in the neighborhood who are inspired by it. We also continued for the growing number of volunteers who love to come to our gardening events. We believe that Carnes Garden has grown into a symbol that this is an improving neighborhood. 

Neighbor James Alsobrook joined our team early in this journey. He helped us build raised beds and plant native trees and shrubs at both gardens. He quickly became the caretaker of the gardens. James is a natural teacher and is eager to share his knowledge of native plants, butterflies and growing a vegetable garden.  He has started his own gardens, too, growing watermelon and cantaloupe in the back yard of his property. In his front yard he has a butterfly garden that includes milkweeds for the monarch butterfly and sunflowers.

As we have continued to expand and improve Carnes Garden and Carnes Garden East, we have gained more support from neighborhood residents, and momentum seems to be building. We are proud to say that we also have a growing list of volunteers who want to participate in our clean-ups and gardening events. Mr. Payne, another nearby neighborhood resident, is also planting his own gardens. He has corn and cantaloupe growing in his front yard garden. He works daily on expanding his garden by digging new beds. On two nearby properties, new owners are completely renovating formerly vacant apartment buildings – all in close proximity to Carnes Garden. The apartments look better than ever. 

This has been a broad collaborative effort over years, with partners too numerous to name, but includes the residents and property owners along J.W. Williams Lane, St. Jude, Methodist LeBonheur, the Memphis Medical District Collaborative, Clean Memphis, Memphis City Beautiful and Bridges USA. 

From here we will continue to build relationships and support in the neighborhood – and expand our partnership and collaborative circle.  We will encourage and support the re-purposing of the shuttered Carnes Elementary School and work towards positive uses of every single vacant property near Carnes Garden. We are convinced that Carnes Garden is a model for transforming abandoned properties from a source of blight into an asset for the neighborhood where it is located – and for the city as a whole.

Mary Baker is Planning and Gardening Coordinator for NPI.  

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