Volunteers Revive The Gardens at Unity Village
When I get to The Gardens at Unity Village, I’m joined by Lily the barn cat for the tour. She has taken a break from her full-time job of catching mice so that she can follow me around as I get a peek inside Unity history. We’re in a four-story barn that was built in the 1920s and later became an icon of Unity Farm.
Even older than the Unity Tower or Silent Unity Building, the barn stored apples from the Unity Farm orchard through the winter. About a mile and a half east of the Unity campus, it’s now home to The Gardens at Unity Village, an all-volunteer not-for-profit group giving life back to the land.
If you’d visited Unity Village 75 years ago, you would have found a completely self-sustaining agrarian community. In addition to its some 10,000 orchard trees, the village had a canning department, chicken house, dairy, blacksmith, saw mill, and even its own rock quarry.
A Roadside Farm Stand
The barn was just one part of a vast farm that supported the community; people would come from hundreds of miles to buy the Unity celebrated apple cider—in addition to peaches, grapes, cucumbers, milk, butter, and eggs.
Unity Farm closed in the 1980s as the campus was transitioning to a more modern facility, but the gardens made a comeback in 2009. Drayton Riley, president of the gardens’ board, tells me that the decision to open the gardens rode two waves: one of nostalgia for Unity Farm and one of popularity for buying local and naturally grown produce.
While the group has made some investments in technology like a small tractor and a hoop house (similar to a greenhouse, it helps extend the growing season) with help from donations and grant funding, theirs is a manual labor of love. They strive to implement natural and organic processes, though it’s tough to do on a small scale without the equipment, workforce, or budgets that commercial producers have access to. But it’s hardly slowing them down.
Ten years after The Gardens at Unity Village reopened their roadside market stand, they see more than 100 visitors each Saturday through the summer and early fall. People come to buy food, get recipes or preparation tips, and to check out the barn. The volunteers imagine a bright future, toying with the possibilities of expanding the orchard or bringing chickens back.
New Life Blooming at the Gardens
As I walk around the grounds, a new season is just beginning. Seedlings are starting in the barn’s dedicated grow room, and the hoop house has warmed up to support recent transplants. Soon the gardens will flourish with tomatoes, elderberries, pumpkins, squash, and fruit trees.
New hives will be added for the bees; milkweed will attract monarch butterflies. There’s a fire pit to host gatherings of friends and a receiving dock that’s going to become a small stage for live music. The volunteers expect it to be their best year yet.
The Gardens at Unity Village is always happy to welcome guests for tours, in addition to scheduled workshops and the seasonal market stand. To learn more, visit gardensatunityvillage.org.