A heart for missions, a passion for gardening, and a vacant lot across the street became the perfect storm for Jo Cooper as she caught a vision for connecting with people through a community garden.
Jo and her husband, Glen, have been members of First Baptist Church, Myrtle Beach, for 34 years. A few years ago, they relocated to a house behind the church, and the vacant sand lot owned by the church began to weigh on her mind. “I could almost hear God’s voice telling me to start a garden, but being the daughter of parents raised on farming, I knew nothing grew in sand,” she said.
However, she kept seeing an article about hay bale gardening on Facebook. After sharing her thoughts with her husband and her dad, the three bought 60 bales of hay and two bags of pure nitrogen. A cousin in North Carolina donated a shoebox full of seeds.
Her vision was to have a community garden where people in the neighborhood could come and get free vegetables. She saw it as part of the church’s Jerusalem. Her intent has been to build relationships, help people by providing healthy food, and share with them the love of God.
She says, “From the first week, it generated curiosity from onlookers, neighbors and tourists. People stopped at first because they had never seen a hay bale garden, and later they could not believe it was for them to use for free.” An old mailbox was installed in the garden and filled with bags that people could use as they picked the vegetables.
Associate pastor Larry Cashatt said the garden went over well. “Jo had the vision for it, and several volunteers from the church helped with it,” he said. “She is there every day, tending the garden.”
This past summer, they grew corn, bell peppers, banana peppers, assorted hot peppers, tomatoes, cantaloupes, watermelons, squash, snap beans and pumpkins. Church members also donated fig trees, blueberry bushes and muscadine vines. The garden is organic. “Once you plant, all you use is water,” she added.
“Our church is starting an after-school program this fall for neighborhood kids, and we are looking to expand the garden to include fruit trees, a worm farm, and bee boxes — all of this to teach inner-city children about growing, harvesting and healthy eating.”
The success of the garden has surprised even Jo. “Never in a million years did I think a garden would grow with any success this close to the beach [just three blocks away]. I don’t have the exact numbers, but we serve foreign students working here, shut-ins from our church, widows and widowers, and neighbors who are unchurched. We have the opportunity to pray with them and invite them to church. It is my prayer that God will allow us to reach more and more people for His kingdom.”
She said she plans on growing collards, cabbage, onions, radishes and beets this winter. “Then we will gear up for spring.”
According to Jo, “Long before our church became First Baptist Church of Myrtle Beach, it was known as Eden Baptist, so this has become known as our Garden of Eden. We are looking forward to God growing our Garden of Eden, our Jerusalem, and most of all [winning] souls for His kingdom.”