Grove Garden makes online debut despite threat of bullies

Facebook — it's a way to gain an audience, spread a message or spew vitriol from behind a digital barrier.

The cyber-bullying is why Rob Till, the life behind Grove Community Garden, resisted the social media platform for years. That lure of a wider reach is why he finally launched an online page this month.

"We launched the Facebook after three years of William and Mary students (volunteers) trying to get me to do it," Till said. "I didn't want negative comments of people saying things are brown. … This is such a precious garden, it touches so many souls and I just don't need negative stuff coming my way saying the fence is torn, and there's a bunch of pots stacked up."

James City County resident Cara Mandart ultimately convinced him.

Mandart has been in and out of the garden, located behind James River Elementary School, for the past year.

She said due to a bad back, the physical intensity of weeding and planting is hard for her, so building the garden's online presence was her way to give back.

"He would send me photos on a regular basis of anything — a newly grown pepper, a politician coming," Mandart said.

She told him, "'If I create a page, you can keep sending me the photos as you've been doing' and I just layer them with context. I told him it would get more people involved.

'There's a lot of people online, and they'll be able to see what you're doing.'"

In the two weeks since the page launched, Mandart has populated it with photos of newly blossoming sunflowers, freshly harvested eggplant and cucumbers and a furry garden resident — a bunny they named "Grove."

She's even kept up the posting while on a road trip to and from New York.

Mandart said Till was hesitant about social media because of the room for negativity, but she doesn't think Till has anything to worry about.

So far, response to the page has been wholly positive. As of Monday, the garden's Facebook had 38 followers and two five-star reviews.

"He feels vulnerable, feels the vulnerability of the people living in the food desert," Mandart said. "It's a garden, what could go wrong?"

Till's garden helps meet the need in the southern James City County community for fresh produce. With nearly six miles between the area and the nearest grocery store, it qualifies for the U.S. Department of Agriculture term "food desert."

Till created his own nonprofit for the garden, which he runs on donations and with help from volunteers and the James City County Parks and Recreation Department. Creating an online presence is important to reach an audience that might want to volunteer or donate, Mandart said.

Some of the food grown — it's currently bursting with cucumbers and tomatoes, Till said — goes home with Grove residents or into the James River Elementary cafeteria when school is in session.

Till welcomes volunteers and eager students of all ages, shapes, sizes and species into his garden to plant seedlings, harvest lettuce or just get their hands dirty.

As for the garden fence the internet might criticize him for?

In May, BB&T Bank awarded Till and the garden $1,000 through its Lighthouse Project grant initiative to be used for new fencing around the quarter-acre plot.

Grants and community support are what keeps the garden going, he said. While he's still hesitant, he said Facebook is a new way to reach those who might want to help.

"If you live here and you want to support your community, then like the page," Mandart said. "The more he grows and the more he can produce, the more he can donate."

Williams can be reached by phone at 757-345-2341.

Want to keep up with the garden?

Visit the Facebook page at facebook.com/GroveCommunityGardens

Call Till at 332-3361

Or stop by. The garden is behind James River Elementary school at 8901 Pocahontas Trail.

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