She planted a garden at Fort Mill’s greenway to feed the hungry. Now she’s retiring

Courtesy of Terry Plumb

Editors note: Terry Plumb is a former Herald executive editor

Betsy’s hanging up her hoe

That’s bad news for hundreds of master gardeners, Anne Springs Close Greenway volunteers and senior citizens who have almost literally enjoyed the fruits of her labor for nearly 20 years.

Betsy McLean, 64, recently announced that she is retiring from the PAR Garden she founded near the Greenway Dairy Barn in 2001. She wants to spend more time with her first grandchild.

No one begrudges Betsy her grandma time, but finding a replacement will not be easy. Consensus seems to be that several volunteers will be needed to replace her.

Until last year, when a fire at Unity Presbyterian Church destroyed their gathering space, the garden’s produce was donated to the Fort Mill Senior Citizens Nutrition Center. Since then, the Community Café, a nonprofit that serves 1,500 meals a week across three York County churches and a food truck, has received the bounty.

Don Murfin, founder of the Community Café, said. “We always prefer fresh vegetables,” and called the PAR donations a “godsend.”

McLean, a native of Hickory, N.C., completed master gardener training in 2001 when she first heard about PAR gardens.

PAR stands for Plant a Row for the Hungry.

In 1995, the Gardeners Writers of America (since renamed Garden.Comm) began encouraging home gardeners and farmers to plant a little extra and donate the excess to the hungry. Since its inception, the PAR movement has raised more than 20 million pounds of fresh food, according to Garden.Comm.

McLean, who moved to Fort Mill with her husband, Byron in 1979, already was a Greenway volunteer. She approached Bill Steele, then director of the Greenway about creating a PAR garden.

He agreed to provide a plot behind the Greenway office, and the Greenway installed a spigot and tilled the ground.

The Greenway also publicizes PAR garden activities and arranges schedules for volunteers.

Just how much McLean and her volunteer helpers have produced over the years is a guess. The garden has been expanded since 2001 but in recent years has produced 1, 500-3,000 pounds of food annually. Several years ago, McLean calculated a month’s output during the peak growing season to be worth more than $1,000, at supermarket prices.

The PAR garden was constructed in stages, largely with donated or repurposed materials.

McLean and long-time PAR garden volunteer Ed Jeffcoat were riding in a car one day when she spotted a pile of used shingles at a construction site and decided they would make a good weed barrier at the PAR garden. On another occasion, she used salvaged timbers from a Greenway bridge to build a new shed.

Among recent projects is a rusty cable reel she bought at an Asheville, N.C., scrapyard. When finished, it will look like a miniature Ferris wheel, with green planter boxes serving as seats. The boxes are being made and painted by a special needs class from Indian Land High School.

That project illustrates how McLean has endeared herself to so many.

She can attract volunteers and to serve as mentors to novices. McLean has recruited Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, churches and corporations. Honeywell, Wells Fargo, LPL Financial and Duke Energy are among companies that send teams of employees and donate materials for the garden.

Clemson Extension Agent Thompson said the best way to learn gardening is by doing.

“That’s what’s great about Betsy,” said Glena Davies, president of the Master Gardeners of York County, which supports the garden with grants and encourages members to volunteer. “Not everyone had the good fortune to have a grandmother to pass on know-how. Betsy fills that gap.”

Davies said she learned about hands-on gardening during her first visit to the PAR garden.

“Betsy doesn’t say, ‘Do this. Don’t do that.’ She will watch how you stake a tomato plant, then say, ‘You might want to try this way.’”

“No one can replace Betsy,” said Kaleb Langmeyer, Greenway community engagement coordinator. “I don’t know of any individual who has the drive and commitment she does.”

Langmeyer, along with McLean, Davies and several longtime volunteers, recently formed a committee to oversee the PAR garden. The Greenway will continue to coordinate volunteers, and the Master Gardeners of York County will provide experienced gardeners to help teach newcomers.

Want to help?

To volunteer at the PAR garden, visit ascgreenway.org/support/volunteer-1.

No experience is needed.