Stephanie Van Parys

Hidden within the bustling streets of Atlanta are several luscious greenspaces that bring peace, beauty, education and a sense of community to locals—particularly during a year that has proven to be especially trying for all. The vast and varied places house scenic delights that range from flower and butterfly gardens to fruit trees, mulberry groves, and creative play structures. Daily from sunup to sundown, visitors can explore lush terrain and bursts of color amid meadows, woodlands, a creek, pond, mini-farm and more.

The sites are part of Wylde Center, a local nonprofit organization that maintains five greenspaces totaling seven acres in Atlanta and nearby Decatur. Over the past year, the Center’s mission of connecting people to nature and caring for the environment became particularly relevant, as locals sought a respite from the pandemic and flocked to the Center to find serenity in the scenery, purchase plants, and safely commune with family and friends.

Wylde Center, Stephanie Van Parys
Stephanie Van Parys looks over plants growing inside a greenhouse

The nonprofit, in turn, has seen its revenue from plant sales soar—rising to $200,000 in 2020 from $86,000 in 2019—thanks to more visitors and volume, a new online store and delivery system, and PayPal QR Codes, which helped make in-person purchases safer and easier with touch-free technology in a socially distanced world. Wylde Center’s revenue from its gardening classes also increased as it transitioned them online from in-person instruction. As many as 50 to 75 participants sign up for each online class, compared to 15 before the pandemic hit.

“We are a nonprofit, but we are also a business,” said Stephanie Van Parys, the executive director of Wylde Center. “Everybody was working together to make it so that we could get through this period.”

The Benefits of Gardening

While Stephanie is grateful the public has been drawn to Wylde Center’s offerings, she isn’t totally surprised. “When you come into a site like this, you just breathe a big sigh, like ‘Whoa, I feel so relaxed,’” she said. “That's why gardens are such a focus for people when they are seeking comfort or quiet.”

Stefanie, Wylde Center
The pandemic has seen an increase in interest in gardening and nature.

Indeed, Wylde’s Center’s greater appeal since spring of 2020 has been tied to a sprouting interest in plants and gardening at a time when being outdoors has felt like one the safest places other than home.  U.S. seed company W. Atlee Burpee & Co. sold more seed in March of 2020 than ever in its 144-year history, reported Reuters. The pandemic has brought about a greater love of the outdoors, too, with 60% of Americans reporting that time in quarantine gave them a newfound appreciation of nature.

The extra time some people have had available has been one factor, but there have been others too, said Stephanie. A passionate gardener with a degree in horticulture, Stephanie calls gardening therapeutic. “It's creative, it's an opportunity to be in control, and it gives you lots of satisfaction that you can do something, that you grew this,” she said. She added that some have felt like, “If everything falls apart, ‘I can still grow my own food. I can still have my own flowers. My children and I can do something together.’ It has just been a lot of need for stability, and a garden provides that for you.”

Cultivating Environmental Stewardship

Wylde Center, Stephanie Van Parys
Stephanie brings a lifelong passion for gardening to her role as executive director of Wylde Center.

Wylde Center has blossomed considerably since gardening enthusiast Sally Wylde bought a plot of land in 1997 known to be very fertile and turned it into the Oakhurst Community Garden Project.

“She grew up working in her grandmother’s garden, and when she moved to the community, she felt it lacked opportunities for kids to get their hands in the dirt,” said Stephanie, who has been with the organization for 15 years.

In Oakhurst’s early stages, Sally incorporated community plots and a garden education and nutrition program. She died in 2010, then two years later, after the organization had acquired additional property, the organization was named Wylde Center, and the original site became Oakhurst Garden.

Stefanie, Wylde Center
Sally Wylde started the Oakhurst Community Garden Project in 1997.

That site has remained the Center’s headquarters, where it has hosted and planned initiatives such as gardening workshops and compost drop-off sites where community members could bring scraps of vegetables and fruit.

Wylde Center has a long history of education in the community. It has offered environmental learning programs and field trips for schools, and internship and volunteer opportunities for a range of skill levels and interests. “You don’t have to be ‘outdoorsy’ to get involved,” Stephanie said.

Bringing the Gardens Online

To help fund its initiatives, Wylde Center has long hosted a yearlong self-serve plant sale at its headquarters. It has also held a spring plant sale festival that has featured local vendors, presentations from horticultural experts and more than 280 types of vegetables, herbs, trees and flowers. 

In March 2020, when word spread of the looming pandemic, Stephanie worried. “Everything was shutting down, I thought, ‘There's no way we're having a plant sale festival. What are we going to do with all of our plants?’" she said.

Wylde Center, Stephanie Van Parys
Emily Brabeck is the nursery manager for Wylde Center.

The spring plant sale festival was cancelled, but Stephanie and her colleagues had to find creative, pandemic-safe ways to maintain other sales and programming. Around the same time, local schools closed, and people started coming to Wylde Center and asking about planting herbs, flowers, and tomatoes. To help visitors feel safe on-site, the Center implemented social-distancing guidelines at the self-serve sale and heavily relied on an existing PayPal QR Code that they found was even more beneficial during the pandemic. “It’s all hands-free, [customers] can just pick up their phone, scan the QR code, grab their plant and go,” said Emily Brabeck, Wylde Center’s Nursery Manager.

To reach people remotely and expand its customer base, the team also built the online store and delivery system within days. Hundreds of orders poured in. “It blew our minds,” Stephanie said. “That’s a lot of hard work–and a lot of people buying plants.”

Patience in the Pandemic

Stephanie and her Wylde Center colleagues look forward to when things return to normal. They skipped the spring plant sale festival again this year but hope to resume in 2022.

Until then, Stephanie will rely on at least one thing she said every gardener must have: patience.

“When you plant a daffodil in the fall, it won't bloom for another three or four months. So there's something about that—you have to wait and are rewarded with beauty.”

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