David Vaughan, 33, spends his days working among flowers, herbs, and fruit trees in a thriving educational farm that he helped to create in February 2013. The Urban Farm at New Hope Christian Academy is more than just a garden. It’s a beautiful green space with woodchip walking paths, seating areas, and bountiful educational opportunities. It continues to flourish and evolve year after year.
David only had about three months of gardening experience when he joined the Peace Corps and brought a community garden back to life at a psychiatric ward in West Africa. “It was in Senegal where I fell in love with horticulture and gardening,” he says. “Not only was it therapy for patients and their families, but it also became a therapy for me in that big jump from America to West Africa.”
When he returned to Memphis two years later, a family friend and long-time teacher at New Hope Christian Academy, Mary Leslie Ramsey, invited David to share in her vision of how an empty lot across the street from the school could be transformed.
“The school took a big gamble,” he says. “I was an idealistic former Peace Corps volunteer who had done some stuff, but had mostly just researched the techniques I was trying to implement, and they trusted me and put a lot of faith in me.”
With help from his mentor and fellow horticulturist, Chris Cosby, an elaborate and interactive gardening experience was designed. New Hope Christian Academy is 90% donation funded, which includes the operation of the Urban Farm. The Farm is a culmination of donors and volunteer support under David’s guidance and leadership.
Vegetable beds can be found on higher land, while a grove of Bald Cypress trees can be found down below where they’re ready and waiting to soak up draining water. “The Bald Cypress trees also provide shade, so we have a little shady nook with tree stumps where classes can come out,” David says. “There are enough seats for a whole class to use that space and a little table in the center of the Bald Cypress grove.”
During a regular year, the school hosts special events using the Farm and its produce to give students the chance to try new vegetables and recipes. There is an outdoor kitchen in the heart of it for older students who are interested in cooking classes. Even the youngest, smallest students are invited to participate.
“Kindergarteners put the seeds in the ground in May and by the time summer ends and school is back, the sunflowers are 10 to 12 feet tall. The students who planted get to come back and see how incredible the growth was in just those few months,” David explains.
While the educational opportunities in the Farm are endless, the space is about much more than just learning. It is geared toward inspiring students and generating excitement about nature and its beauty.
“Right now, you have a lot of people in the general area that don’t have access to green space around their house or apartment,” David says. “So that’s part of why this is so important to the school—having a safe, green space that students can interact with.”
While the students and the teachers are given a beautiful place to teach classes outside, the benefits of the Farm are also reaching parents and New Hope alumni—as well as bringing joy to the surrounding community.
David is proud to welcome New Hope graduates to return in the summer as paid interns. And you’d never know there is a chain-link fence surrounding the property. Covered in thornless blackberry vines, it blends in while inviting people passing by to enjoy a quick snack.
“We don’t harvest any of the blackberries on the outside of the fence,” David explains. “There are so many people who stop and pick berries. That’s one, small thing, but it goes a long way because it’s fresh healthy produce that people from all around can come pick and enjoy.”
The school’s cafeteria staff creates recipes using produce from the Farm, but there is often plenty leftover. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the school would host impromptu produce stands at dismissal. With no set prices and just a donation jar available, the students’ parents were able to pick out fresh produce to take home. Throughout the pandemic, the staff has been pre-packing produce bags to share with parents instead.
The students aren’t the only ones learning life lessons from the Farm. It has a certain allure for adults as well.
“When you have a beautiful space that’s really well designed, people gravitate toward it,” David says. “Every year, I continue to learn things out here and when you work with a space this long, the space teaches you more than any person could.”
David hopes the Farm continues to inspire students, teachers, their families, and those in the community who are able to share in it.
“I think it’s so important to realize that a garden space can be so much more and include things that aren’t necessarily ‘productive’ in the edible way to add beauty or create a sense of wonder and place,” he explains. “You walk into the space and you’re not just looking at plants, you’re looking at a space that has a story and you’re invited to participate in that.”
By Kelsey J. Lawrence
Photo by Tindall Stephens