It was a warm, sunny Saturday on State Street, perfect for neighborhood children to be swarming the small playground behind Key Memorial United Methodist Church.
The swings swayed, empty.
Where were the children? Not inside, plugged in and tuned out, but only a few yards away, hauling water and pulling weeds — because they wanted to, not because they had to.
"I like growing things, and it helps the earth," said Audrey Ray, 11. It was her first time to help out in the Murfreesboro Community Gardening State Street project, but it won't be her last.
"I think this is cool," she said.
Audrey was one of many, young and old, who turned out Saturday for "Lunch in the Garden," a community event planned by Autumn Shultz, the brainchild behind the project.
Games were played and hotdogs were served, but mostly everyone gathered around the garden plot behind the church and admired the freshly planted, very freshly watered and soon-to-be-weeded square of earth. Basil and tomatoes are already coming along, and soon dragon's tongue beans and corn will appear.
Shultz came up with the idea of a community garden five years ago, when she moved to a condo in Murfreesboro and only had a small patio to work with.
"I just wanted a garden" she said. "I wanted other people who wanted to learn how to garden to have a place to do it."
Her idea was to offer garden space for any who wanted to work in it, and any who worked in it would be rewarded with the fruits — or vegetables — of their labor.
Last year, with the help of Murfreesboro City Schools Coordinator of Community Initiatives Greg Lyles, she found that place: Key Memorial UMC.
"I took it to the board and they approved it," said Adolphus "Al" Green, a trustee at the church who drops by occasionally when the volunteers are working, watering and weeding. "They're good people to have around."
The congregation was more than willing to offer a bit of the church's backyard for the State Street Community Garden — after all, it has its own garden there as well. The church will hold its planting and dedication day May 17 after church — wear work clothes to the service. Everyone is invited.
The members of the congregation offer the community gardeners even more than arable land.
"They come over and give advice," Schultz said. "They're very helpful."
The Lunch in the Garden event was Schultz's way of saying thank you, as well as a way to get more people interested and involved.
"We want the community to come out and meet the garden," she said with a laugh.
Members of the neighborhood are helping, including one neighbor who tills the soil and another who brings tips and tricks for growing eggplants and other crops. Four neighbors who watched with quiet curiosity last year have dived right in this year.
Zamayah Ali, 8; Ahmad Ali, 9; Dominique Bingham, 6; and Jaedarius Bingham, 4, went from bystanders to farmers this year.
"When they see her pull up, they go running to meet her," said Carlos Fitzgerald, who with Malicious Ivy, is raising Dominique and Jaedarrius.
"Last year, it was the biggest issue," Schultz said. "Their parents were concerned, telling them not to get into the garden. We want them to get into the garden."
"It's real good for them," Ivy said.
Schultz hopes it will be good for them — and others — in more ways than one. Her long-term plans include gardening and nutrition classes for children, similar to the one she already has in place at Franklin Heights. She helps the children with container gardens and, as with most things, it has been a learning experience.
"We changed some things this year to make it a little more successful, but that's one of the things we want to teach — it's all a lot of experimenting."
Like the State Street Garden, the plans are growing. This year saw new ideas take root and bear fruit, from the use of hay to hold in moisture and hold out weeds, to the rabbit fence.
"The state 4-H club donated that," Schultz said. "They bought the fence and put it up and everything."
Last year, neighbors and volunteers weren't the only ones to benefit from the bounty.
"Rabbits got all of the beans and half of the tomatoes," she said. "Not this year."
Even as she spoke, a pair of wild rabbits peered at the crowd through the wire mesh.
Excess produce ("Cucumbers," Schultz said with a laugh. "Lots of cucumbers") were given out to many in the neighborhood last year.
"She gave us some stuff here and there, and they helped out a lot," Ivy said.
Shultz also credits Farm Credit MidAmerica for the garden's success. The company donated the bulk of the project's operating budget this year.
The rules of the garden are simple, all based on kindness and common sense. If you work in the garden, you can take home produce. Protect yourself by wearing hats and sunscreen. Respect the other gardeners and their space and don't leave trash. Always close the gate when you are through.
Many of the gardeners come from outside the neighborhood and were all ages, including college students and Junior Leaguers. Nathan Zou, 13, a student at Central, was there as part of his school's community project. While he might have preferred being elsewhere, like playing tennis, he was good-natured about his plans for the afternoon.
"Mom just started a garden," he said, adding that he could learn how to help her from working in the State Street garden.
"We would like to find a place for him to do this for community service on a regular basis,"said his mother, Ying Ding. "I think this is a very good opportunity for us to learn gardening, too. It is a good way to come out and meet the community."
For anyone who is interested in joining, the requirements are easy. Show up.
"I'm here every Saturday from 3 to 5," Schultz said. "I have volunteers most of the time. More are always welcome."