Wylde Center expands, to get more people in touch with growing things

The community green space hosts its first major fundraiser in 20 years.
Volunteers at Oakhurst Garden, including Emily Audino, Anne Marie Happe and Flavio Adamo, prepare to add pine cones, magnolia pods and other decorative items to wreaths as part of a fundraiser to help support the Wylde Center. The center and its five gardens are expanding. (Jenni Girtman for Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Volunteers at Oakhurst Garden, including Emily Audino, Anne Marie Happe and Flavio Adamo, prepare to add pine cones, magnolia pods and other decorative items to wreaths as part of a fundraiser to help support the Wylde Center. The center and its five gardens are expanding. (Jenni Girtman for Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

The women of Kristy Bible’s Oakhurst Garden Book Club were gathered inside the garden’s somewhat down-at-the-heels office space recently, making wreaths out of wisteria vines and magnolia pods and even a wild form of hops.

“If you want your wreath to smell like beer, you put these hops in it,” said Bible, then held up one of the least popular agricultural commodities in Atlanta: a handful of sweetgum balls.

“We like to put these in our wreaths too,” she said of the spiky little land mines. “When we collect them from people’s yards, they don’t call the cops. They give us money instead.”

Attacking, then reusing the hated wisteria, incorporating the annoying sweet gum balls, this is the MO of the necklace of green spaces around Decatur collected under the name the Wylde Center.

The Wylde Center’s volunteers have taken flood plain land and empty lots and turned them into something beautiful. Today the Wylde Center introduces 22,000 children a year to growing and eating food. It gives adults beds to plant vegetables and an oasis of calm, a place to walk or just sit, surrounded by the soothing spirit of green.

The Oakhurst Garden in Decatur was founded in 1997. It was the first of five community gardens managed by a non-profit called the Wylde Center. (Jenni Girtman for Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

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Credit: Jenni Girtman

But change is coming to the Oakhurst Garden and the Wylde Center. Under the last 18 years of Stephanie Van Parys’ leadership, the center has grown from one green space to five. The pandemic, which crushed so many nonprofits, sent a bumper crop of visitors to the gardens, and to their yearly plant sales, as Atlantans, bereft of anything else to do, ventured out in their back yards and began sticking plants in the ground.

Now the Wylde Center is pursuing its first major fund drive in 20 years to accommodate this growth in demand, seeking $2.89 million. They will use it to renovate the Oakhurst Garden building, build a new greenhouse there, build an education pavilion at Hawk Hollow, expand into some adjacent parcels and deal with stormwater management problems.

In the meantime Van Parys, who has led the garden through this slow but steady rise, will step down and the board will name a new executive director.

This upward trajectory is probably far beyond what Oakhurst resident Sally Wylde expected when she bought a vacant lot on Decatur’s Oakview Road in the mid-1990s, and began furiously digging in the dirt.

Elise “Sally” Sweet Wylde was a New Englander who came South after her first husband died of a heart attack in 1987. She married Britt Dean, who she met at church, where he sang in the choir.

In the mid-1990s two parcels along Oakview became available, one of which was open land, and the other held a duplex. Wylde and Dean bought them both. Wylde was pursuing a degree from the Candler School of Theology and she believed that loving the natural world and growing your own food was not only an effective protest against factory farms and negligent environmental policies, but that it was critical for one’s spiritual well-being.

“She wanted to nurture that sense of a respect for the land and growing things,” said Dean, “particularly growing food.” The couple donated one parcel and sold the other to the organization she eventually founded.

In 2005 Sally Wylde, co-founder the Oakhurst Garden, turned the management of the organization over to a new leader. (RENEE HANNANS HENRY/AJC staff).

Credit: AJC

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Credit: AJC

The garden was also a way to create community solidarity in a time when the neighborhood was rapidly changing.

In the early 1990s Oakhurst wasn’t the bustling village that it is now. “There were gunshots heard all the time, especially on the weekends,” said jeweler and artist Judy Parady, who moved into the neighborhood in 1991 and was the garden’s first board chair. “It was probably more celebratory gunfire than anything else, but nonetheless.”

In 2005 Stephanie Van Parys became executive director at the Wylde Center. During the pandemic plant sales at the gardens more than doubled, growing from $90,000 to $215,000, as more people began digging in their yards. Van Parys has helped the gardens expand to accommodate that growing demand. (Jenni Girtman for Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

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Credit: Jenni Girtman

Photographer Matthew Berberich has printed hundreds of his photos of fthe garden's flowers and plants which he sells to raise money for the organization. (Jenni Girtman for Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

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Credit: Jenni Girtman

The Saturday after Thanksgiving Berberich was planning to sell mounted enlargements of those photos, along with his notecards, at a cooperative art show at the Solarium in Oakhurst.

All proceeds would benefit the garden, he said. (He covers the cost of processing and printing the images.) During a recent visit to the Oakhurst Garden to hang photos, he said he’s received more from his experiences in the garden than he could repay. Walking among the plants and taking photographs have helped him deal with the loss of a close friend to cancer. “This is my therapy,” he said.

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