PLEASANTVILLE — Joan Manning-Hill and other volunteers at the St. Mary’s Episcopal Church community garden were bending over and getting their hands dirty Friday as they pulled weeds out of areas they did not belong.

The community garden, which started as Manning-Hill’s idea six years ago behind the church on West Bayview Avenue, has grown and is still growing.

“A lot of people see things that need to be done and they do it,” said Manning-Hill about her team of about 10 regular volunteers.

The garden was smaller when it first began, but now, it produces fruits and vegetables that include eggplant, squash, lettuce, cucumber, kale and hot peppers.

Even though the garden is behind a church, it is for the community.

Anyone who comes during a Saturday morning and is willing to do a little weed-pulling is free to take what the garden produces, Manning-Hill said.

They volunteers have taken fliers to the nearby Community FoodBank of New Jersey, Southern Branch, in Egg Harbor Township, so they could take advantage of it.

The garden has produced lettuce. Squash, tomatoes, zucchini, okra, string beans, watermelon, corn, peppers and other produce should be ready for harvest this month and next month, Manning-Hill said.

“It’s a small church. We can’t have a food bank where people come and eat because we don’t have that large of a congregation, but this is something that we can do on a small scale. We can do something for a lot of people,” Manning-Hill said.

Some of the plants now in the ground started from seeds in February inside an Atlantic County Utilities Authority greenhouse in Egg Harbor Township.

“They are non-GMO. They are organic seeds. There are no pesticides used,” Manning-Hill said. “It’s a natural garden.”

During the academic year, the church would host both homework help and English as a second language classes. The children would learn about gardening, which is a hobby they could be involved in for the rest of their lives, Manning-Hill said.

Manning-Hill grew up here and has attended St. Mary’s for all her life, even though she now lives in Egg Harbor Township.

Both of her parents, Maxwell and Dorothy Manning, were teachers in the city school district.

A former Negro League baseball player, Maxwell Manning learned gardening from his father. He maintained a garden in the summer behind his home, and he passed the gardening bug to his daughter.

Manning-Hill got the idea of a community garden from Cookie Till’s efforts in Atlantic City.

Besides Till, the garden was started with the help of Stockton University, AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center and ACUA.

Till, owner of Steve and Cookie’s Restaurant in Margate, founded a nonprofit organization called A Work In Progress dedicated to the charitable and educational purpose of developing and maintaining urban gardens.

“I’m so impressed by what they are doing. … They are doing great,” said Till, who called them the poster children for a community garden organization. “They have a good crew over there. They are workers. They are doing it right. They didn’t bite off more than they could chew in the beginning.”

The newest project on the community garden’s grounds is a wooden high tunnel greenhouse, which will extend the growing season. Manning-Hill estimates it will be finished by the middle of next month.

As with everything else in the garden, it took a community of people to make this happen, including Pinelands United Methodist Church in Hammonton, Church of St. Mark & All Saints in Galloway Township and 84 Lumber.

Nancy Perfect, of Ocean City, grew up in Pleasantville and has known Manning-Hill since childhood. Perfect, who is a master gardener, started her involvement with the garden because of her friendship with Manning-Hill.

“There is always people in need, not just in Pleasantville, but anywhere you go,” Perfect said. “I am very fortunate that I am able to help. … If I have something to give, I want to do it.”

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Twenty years as a staff writer in the features department, specializing in entertainment and the arts at The Press of Atlantic City.

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