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A Giving Garden

Delaney Cullen started ‘The Little Garden that Grew’ at her library

A couple of years ago, there was not a good place for fairies at the Mountains Branch Library. There were some flowering trees and a few bushes behind the library, in Rutherford County, east of Lake Lure. But, the ground used to be pretty bare, says seven-year-old Delaney Cullen.

“I didn’t like that it was just red clay,” she says. She thought there could be something better there—a garden. They would grow food for people. There would be stepping stones and tunnels. Birds, bees, and butterflies would come. Lizards could live among the rocks. There would be hidden gnomes for people to find. And a fairy garden.

At the time, she was just five. How was a little kid going to do all that?

The Little Garden That Grew

Our 6 yr old in front of the camera sure made for an interesting day. Delaney was a trooper and she kept herself (and us) entertained. Watch some of her antics towards the end! This video is her promoting her idea The Pollination Project gave her a grant for. #TheLittleGardenThatGrew #ReadingRoots #GrowLifeRoots #SeedTheChange

Posted by The Little Garden That Grew on Sunday, June 18, 2017

In this video from 2017, five-year-old Delaney talks about her vision for the garden.

Too Young

The branch manager of the library, Joy Sharp, said in a 2017 video,  “I’ve always admired so much the way Delaney and her family live their lives. It’s the kind of life I would love to see all children be able to have. They’re very immersed in books. They’re very immersed in reading, science, growing healthy foods, eating healthy foods. So, Delaney had a great idea to have a garden outside the library.”

Delaney’s mom, Cathleen, is an early childhood educator and her dad, John, is an environmental educator. Together, they founded Life Roots, LLC. Originally from Massachusetts, they had been living in Charleston, SC—but they wanted to move closer to the mountains. Four years ago, they bought five acres in Sunny View, in Polk County, where they pursue their interest in permaculture, raising chickens and a garden. “We have our own piece of heaven,” John says.

During the Party Rock fire, John wanted to go up the mountain to fight the blaze but he wasn’t trained for that, so he and Cathleen coordinated donations of supplies for evacuees and emergency workers instead. Afterward, John says “I wasn’t done giving to the community”— so, he joined the local volunteer fire and rescue squads. The family, with Delaney, also volunteered fostering shelter animals and supporting food plots in low income neighborhoods.   

Sitting at a picnic table at the library this March, John described how, when Delaney was four, she wanted to take part in a workshop with local cartoonist Steve Barr.

“And they said I couldn’t do it!” Delaney broke in. “They said I was too young.”

“Says them,” John answered.

Delaney was allowed to do the workshop after all. “And you stole the show, right?” John asked her. “They thought she was the light of the room.”

Meanwhile, the family frequently visited their local library. They talked with Joy about her vision for the library as a community hub that engages people with reading, nature, and art. John was leading environmental education programs at the library and thinking about how to enhance natural areas on the site. There was a steep mowed bank beside the parking lot—maybe they could plant an orchard there?

Delaney asked why they couldn’t grow a garden by the back door instead. “Well, why not?” John responded.  

So, when Steve let them know that the Pollination Project—which gives small grants every day to change-makers across the world—was looking for young people with positive ideas, they applied for a grant. At six, Delaney was the youngest person in the world to receive a Pollination Project grant.

The Little Garden That Grew

They called her idea “The Little Garden That Grew.” Delaney wanted to make a garden at her library, then a garden at her old school, then a garden at her new school. But to create even one garden, they’d need some support.

Two grants—from the Pollination Project and the the Hickory Nut Gorge Foundation—provided $1,800. But plans for the 1,400-square-foot library garden would take $8,000 in materials alone: wood for a pergola, plus gravel, pavers, benches, stones, weed control fabric, organic soil, plants, and more.

“We had to find a good bit of resources and ask our locals,” John said. “The word started to get out and more people wanted to help out—not necessarily monetarily but with resources and time.”

Businesses donated materials. People hand-painted pavers, illustrating concepts like shapes, numbers, butterfly life cycles, or phases of the moon. Volunteers helped build the pergola, make paths, and grow plants. Last summer, the garden was producing flowers, herbs, berries, watermelons, tomatoes, peas, squash and much more—even loofahs.

“It went from a library garden to more,” John said. He calls it an educational giving garden. “It’s a place to reconnect with nature and socialize with people. It’s a nice spot where people can go hang out, eat food from the garden, cut whatever they want from the garden, and just relax.”

The little garden might keep growing. Delaney still wants to start gardens at her schools. And the local health district is interested in creating more gardens like this one that offer people fresh produce for free.

Garden Magic

For now, the garden at the Mountains Branch Library is brightening lives. In a recent interview, Joy, the librarian, said, “I notice all ages enjoying it, which is really lovely.”

Life Roots holds program there. The garden has also been designated a “hot spot” by EcoExplore, the North Carolina Arboretum’s citizen science program for kids. This spring, Kelly Holland, an AmeriCorps Project Conserve member with Conserving Carolina will lead a workshop at the garden making “insect hotels.” (The idea grew out of a bat box workshop that Conserving Carolina held in the fall, which Delaney and her parents took part in.)   

Joy says, “We have storytime here every week and after it’s over, if the weather’s okay, the moms, the dads, the grandparents always take time to walk in the garden and see what’s happening there. Inevitably I’ll see a child find something, whether it’s a cool insect or a butterfly or a flower that’s blooming. And I just notice immediately the sense of wonder and amazement on their face, which was exactly what we were hoping for.”

Like when Delaney visited the garden in mid-March. Many plants were still dormant, but the onions had sent up bright green spikes. She squeezed one. “It’s full of air!” she exclaimed. “Squish it.”

A number of toy gnomes are hidden in the garden, but Delaney commented with disappointment that there was not a fairy garden.  

There were plenty of things you could make one with, though. There was a slanting rock that fairies could slide down. Specks of white quartz gravel, if you lined them up, made a path. The velvety leaves of lambs-ear were perfect for sofas and beds. Carefully placed moss in a tiny plug of dirt would help entice the fairies to this spot. If she was a fairy, Delaney said, she would come out at night. And her name would be Midnight.

Delaney has a way of passing on the magic that she finds in the garden. Joy says, “A lot of the time when she visits the garden, she’ll find something that’s blooming, whether it’s a strawberry or even a little weed that’s blooming. She’ll always bring it into me and it always makes my day.”

Delaney picks lambs ear for a fairy garden.
Delaney picks lambs ear for a fairy garden.

This article is by Rose Jenkins Lane, the communications director for Conserving Carolina. She writes the monthly Stories of the Land series which is published in the Hendersonville Times-News.

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Delaney at the Little Garden that GrewSeveral gnomes are hiding in the garden.Delaney picks lambs ear for a fairy garden.The Cullen family visits the garden.Delaney cuts the ribbon to open the Little Garden that Grew in May, 2018.The garden at the Mountains Branch Library opened in May, 2018.