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Master Gardener Marie Woodard used a cloth tape measure to measure the distance – about 24 inches – between the cabbage buds in a raised bed.

Nearby, master gardener Kanisha Haskins dug her hands in the fresh dirt, sharing the benefits of planting spring onions that, while ready for use, can be re-sown to produce more.

“The onion goes into the ground so the onion gets a little bigger,” said Haskins-Combs. “Instead, it would be just a small spring onion, maybe the size of a pearl onion or a small white onion. It’s an onion, so it keeps coming back. That saves money in the supermarket. “

These pro tips are some of what both gardeners shared with a group of seniors who participated in a community gardening activity this fall at Langley Village Apartments.

The North King Street Apartments are a senior public housing complex with priority housing for those 62 years of age and older.

Residents worked with volunteers from the Virginia Cooperative Extension in Newport News. The cooperative is part of the state’s land grant universities, including Virginia Tech and Virginia State University. The master gardeners are working with the management of Langley Village to provide nutritional education through the family feeding program so that the 146 residents of the complex have the opportunity to grow vegetables and herbs for a healthy diet and lifestyle. Family feeding programs are offered elsewhere on the peninsula.

“Our target audience is families who are in the SNAP-eligible counting area with limited income,” said Kelsey Kennedy, SNAP-Ed expansion agent for family and consumer services. Kennedy added that the cooperative received a federal grant for this program, which provided gardening supplies to the seniors.

The neighborhood where Langley Village is located has an estimated 1,063 people at or below 185% of the poverty line and approximately 264 households participating in the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program in 2019, according to the US Census American Community Survey. 13.8% of the population live in poverty and approximately 6,098 households receive SNAP benefits.

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Langley Community Garden has been rooted in the complex since 2014. This year a seventh raised bed and a few container gardens were added. The harvest is available to every resident on a first come, first served basis, but local property managers like Alice Batchelor ensure that the garden is weeded and watered.

“We always had a garden,” said Batchelor, who is 77, of her youth growing up in North Carolina. Batchelor’s mother had a small garden and flower bed and often left her children to look after them. “She would lock us out of the house.”

When the pandemic first hit last year and orders to stay indoors, outdoor gardening activities were suspended for a while, but Langley and the cooperative have teamed up to offer container gardens to seniors. The team hopes to expand efforts with a vegetable gardening class later this fall to build on knowledge and sustainability related to the garden, Kennedy said.

“I’m glad you came out today and did this,” said Michelle Beard, Langley property manager. “It is good for them to have this garden so they can come and eat healthy food and take part in activities.

Among those tenants was Elizabeth Burchell, who has a garden in front of her apartment. The 69-year-old resident said her old food choices nearly killed her.

About two years ago when Burchell was hanging out in the community garden, Burchell suddenly felt tired and went back to her apartment. The next time she remembered she was lying on the floor and later, when someone found her, she was told she was gray and ashen with a barely pulse.

It turned out that she had a heart attack and mostly because of her poor pork and salt diet, Burchell said, adding that she was quick to learn to leave out red meat and now only eat plant-based meals, fish, chicken or turkey.

But the most important thing Burchell believes everyone learned during Friday’s planting drive is that “they have no excuses for not eating right,” she said.

Woodard and Haskins also helped residents plant a pollinator bed that will have some mothers and cornflowers and other plants. The expected bounty includes beets, radishes, rosemary, chives, and other goodies.

“Over the winter this will be great because you will have great because you will have cabbage, kale, cabbage, onions … sweet potatoes,” said Woodard. “Collards, when they get some frost they are cuter.”

Lisa Vernon Sparks, 757-247-4832, [email protected]