At this Raleigh church's community garden, half of what is grown is donated

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RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- It's a Wednesday morning in October at Raleigh's Asbury Church community garden, which means a team of volunteers is hard at work, harvesting fresh, colorful produce from the dozens of garden beds lining what used to be the church's softball field.

Within an hour, everything ripe for picking -- collards, a variety of peppers, Sun Gold tomatoes, butternut squash and okra -- is weighed, bagged, and placed in the bed of Mike Richardson's pickup.

From the church in north Raleigh, Richardson hauls the food downtown to Logan's One Stop Garden Shop where it's immediately stored in a large, walk-in freezer.

Logan's Plant a Row program, which partners with the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle, has been working to provide hunger relief in the Triangle for the last decade.

So far this year, PAR has collected 22,656 pounds of food donated by the 46 community gardens and 70 individual families who participate.

The Asbury Church community garden is one of Plant A Row's top donors, according to PAR's coordinator, Joy Sweeney, second only to the Johnston Correctional Institution whose large garden is tended to by inmates.

At Asbury, anyone can rent a garden bed for $25 as long as you agree to donate half of what you grow.

Since starting the garden in 2011, when softball was dying and the church decided on a better way to use its open field, Asbury's garden coordinator Brenda Roy said they've donated 61,186.16 pounds of produce to organizations like Logan's Plant a Row and the Salvation Army.

"That's been the wonderful thing about this community garden," said Richardson. "You put effort into it, but you get stuff out of it."

Sweeney said there is no minimum for donating to Logan's Plant a Row program. The goal of the program is to get people talking about hunger and how it affects the community.

The Sodfather

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"Gardening is as close to real life as you can get," Richardson said. "You see a lot of dying. You see a lot of new birth. And you see a lot of processes in between where they're developing and growing and spreading."

For those who don't refer to Richardson as "Big Mike," they may know him as "the Sodfather;" the nickname, brought on of course by his passion for gardening and love for teaching others how to master the craft.

"Plants talk to me and I talk to them and we know each other and when they need water, they tell me," he said.

Every day, he tends to his own expansive garden at home from which he cans award-winning pepper jellies, jams, salsas and sauces.

"My haberno gold hot pepper jelly -- three blue ribbons in a row," Richardson said of his prized goods that win top honors at the N.C. State Fair.

When he doesn't have his hands in the dirt at home, he's maintaining the grounds at Asbury's community garden, offering advice to other gardeners, and delivering the donated produce.

"We've helped a lot of other churches in this community build community gardens just from...what we know," he said.

Richardson said only about half of those leasing beds at Asbury are members of the church, the rest are people from the community who just wanted to put their green thumbs to use. He hopes to see more people join their effort in the years to come.
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