Jessie B. Denney Tower Residents Bond During Community Meals


Jessie B. Denney Tower, a 10-story, low-rise brick building that sits steps from downtown Athens, is an affordable housing community that houses some of the most in-need Athens residents. The building is designated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for the elderly and people above age 50 who have Social Security disability benefits. Denney Tower is also in a food insecure area, according to the USDA, which categorizes the area as “low income and low access” because the nearest grocery store is more than a mile away.

 Why It’s Newsworthy: “Food desert” and “food security” are buzzwords used to describe geographic accessibility to food, but the cost of healthy food is a bigger issue. One resident took matters into her own hands to prepare lunch for neighbors using donations. 

According to Marilyn Appleby, communications director and property manager at Athens Housing Authority, which owns Denney Tower, the majority of Denney residents have Social Security benefits on the low end. Before retiring and moving into Denney, “they worked physical plant jobs, textile mill jobs, things like that. They always worked, but they worked in lower-wage jobs.” Most residents receive about $650-$850 a month, and 30 percent goes toward rent, Appleby said. At Denney Tower, all utilities are covered, and cable is offered at a half-price discount.

Sometimes, local businesses, organizations or individuals provide donations and meals to the residents, such as the Northeast Georgia Food BankCampus Kitchen and American Lunch, a food truck operated by Five Bar Athens. Congregate meals are offered daily at local churches or at the Athens Community Council on Aging for $2-3 per meal. However, many Denney residents feel that a $3 meal every day is not financially feasible.

Prior to this past summer, Denney residents enjoyed socializing over Tuesday lunches of soup, bread, and tea from American Lunch. However, this past June, the truck stopped coming because it needed repairs and volunteers were scarce, Appleby said. Five Bar was unavailable for comment at the time of publication.

Although the truck was missed, its absence “created a social responsibility on the part of residents,” Appleby said. Barbara Morgan, a Denney resident of nine years, decided to informally pick up where the truck left off. Using donations from other residents, she cooks a weekly Tuesday meal to be shared with neighbors in the common area in the Denney Tower lobby.

“We look forward to Tuesdays,” Sherry Nesbitt said, a friend of Morgan’s.

A food insecure area is also commonly referred to as a food desert. “A food what?” Morgan said.

The CDC defines food deserts as: “areas that lack access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk, and other foods that make up the full range of a healthy diet.”

Many of the residents of Denney don’t realize that the building is in such an area or don’t find the physical distance to be a barrier to eating healthfully. Morgan has a car, and other residents go shopping with family or use the bus. A bigger barrier to healthy eating is cost. Appleby said Denney residents realize canned foods are less nutritious than fresh produce, but want to stretch their limited incomes as far as possible.

The bottom line is when you’re watching your money, you’re not going to be doing things like buying fresh vegetables,” Appleby said.

In the meantime, American Lunch has fixed the truck and plans to resume service at Denney Tower on Oct. 2.

Originally Published on Grady Newsource

Not a Garden Variety Alumnus


Brandon Coker puts new plant breeds through their paces at the UGA Trial Gardens

Among those who tend the Trial Gardens on the University of Georgia Athens campus are butterflies, bees, student workers and Brandon Coker (BSA – Agriscience and Environmental Systems, ’11).

The Trial Gardens are internationally renowned for ornamental plant research. The data collected during the hot, humid Georgia summers help the world’s top plant breeders determine what plants make it to market. The garden also serves as a living laboratory for students and a place of relaxation for the public.

“Much of the state’s economy is reliant on research conducted by UGA’s agriculture programs,” Coker said.

Ornamental horticulture in Georgia is valued at more than $843 million, according to the 2016 Georgia Farm Gate Value Report, produced by the UGA Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development. Coker sees his work as part of a larger push to keep interest in an important industry alive and well.

Coker grew up in nearby Lexington, Georgia, and has had a lifelong love of plants. He helped tend his family’s home garden as a child. He was inspired by his high school science teacher, Joe Conti, another UGA alumnus.

“I just hoped my students would walk away from my class with an appreciation for the natural world,” Conti said.

In high school and throughout college, Coker worked for Lexington-based Goodness Grows nursery under Rick Berry, who is also the mayor of Lexington. There, Coker realized his passion for plants could be a career.

While working on an associate’s degree in agricultural science from Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, Coker gained experience on the UGA Tifton campus, where he worked with researcher and Professor John Ruter as a student worker. Now the director of the Trial Gardens, Ruter remembers his first impression of Coker as a hard worker with a positive attitude who “always greeted me with a smile, looked me in the eye and had a firm handshake,” he said.

Coker began working on his bachelor’s degree at UGA in 2009, transferring to the main campus in Athens, Georgia. After graduating, he was hired to manage a crew and work commercial properties for The Brickman Group, a landscaping company. He then went on to be a store manager for Pike Nurseries for six years.

When the position of Trial Gardens manager opened in late 2016, Ruter knew Coker was the right person for the job.

“I also knew that working a regular schedule at UGA would be better for Brandon and his family, which means a satisfied employee,” Ruter said.

Coker began managing the gardens in 2017. He’s only the third manager the gardens have had since opening in 1982. His favorite part of the job is being able to support his wife, Heather, and two girls, Lynly and Sabrina, while doing something he loves.

“I come to work happy and leave happy; everything I do revolves around my family,” he said.

Coker’s future plans involve pursuing his master’s degree and continuing to manage and improve the garden. But, “at the end of the day, I just want to grow plants,” he said.

This article was published in the Fall 2018 edition of Southscapes magazine.

Originally Published

Plogging Takes Athens By Storm


Trash and runners are a common sight on the streets of Athens on a nice day. What’s a combination of the two? Plogging, a Swedish trend that groups like Keep America Beautiful have used in campaigns to promote trash pickup. The word is a mutt of the Swedish phrase “plocka upp,” meaning “to pick up”, and jogging.

On their Thursday evening group run on March 22, 2018, Athens Running Company hosted a “plogging” run that started at their store and wound throughout the neighborhoods of Five Points for three to five miles. My classmates Jeanne Davis, Ashley Buda, and I approached Athens Running about hosting the run and they were just as curious about the turnout as we were. We solidified plans and showed up to the shop early to talk to the runners and set up.

As I chatted with runners about what they expected on the plog, I realized that none had heard of the official term “plogging” before. Several runners, including the shop’s owner, Mark Schroeder, had picked up trash on their runs before. Schroeder also mentioned that trash pickup was common amongst trail runners, but was relatively unheard of in track running. Several runners were skeptical, and didn’t want the pickup process to slow their pace, while some thought that walking groups would be more interested. But personally, I’m not convinced that the combination of “walking” and “plocka upp” would be as catchy. Plalking? Wakking? It’s all in a name.

I imagined that the route would be either a two “slightly littered” to a three “littered” on the Litter Index found on the Athens-Clarke County Unified Government’s “Keep Athens-Clarke County Beautiful” website. With at least 10 participants to spread the work out, there couldn’t be that much trash, I thought.

Schroeder gave a brief spiel about plogging and we passed out empty grocery bags to collect trash in, and then we were off! In short, I underestimated the challenge that running in culmination with litter pickup posed. Almost immediately, my shoes came untied, and I was winded. To make matters worse, I was already at the tail end of the group.

I’d been using interval training (1 minute spent running, one minute and 30 seconds spent walking) during the weeks prior to the plog, but my jogs had been few-and-far-between due to Georgia’s unpredictable March weather. I was ill-prepared for a steady three-mile run. To avoid plogging panic, I took as deep a breath as I could without my inhaler, tied my shoes and took my time while remembering that apparently “slow and steady wins the race.”

There was no trash left for me to pick up as I trailed the group in a breathless amble. All I could manage to find was a smashed coke can. I was dismayed at my personal failure to successfully plog, but also thrilled that the runners before me had managed to grab almost all of the trash on the route.

Eventually, I found Davis, who gave me a look of concern but also found it hilarious that I was walking 10 minutes behind the group while carrying my single flattened coke can and laughing hysterically at myself. I was happy to see her and promptly decided to ride the rest of the route in her car, while acting as navigator.

I did run the last block, partially so that the serious runners wouldn’t see that I gave up and judge me negatively. Post-run, I caught up over a beer with Schroeder and the others. Schroeder heard only positive feedback about the run, and could easily see trash pickup becoming a regular part of the casual Thursday runs, but would probably skip the trendy moniker.

Once all of the runners came back to the shop (some had already done a second run along the route shortly after I got back), we took a look at the trash picked up. Most of the plastic grocery bags were nearly bursting with trash! Schroeder and I each picked up the box of trash and estimated the weight to be about 20 pounds. The consensus from the runners was that plogging would be a good addition to their casual runs. Some runners even found themselves competing with their friends to see who could grab a piece of litter first.

As for myself, I’m going to add trash pickup into the walking portion of my interval jogs, and hopefully will be able to keep up with the group runs in a few months. If you’d like to start plogging, grab an empty grocery bag next time you head out for a jog!

The Athens Running Company hosts free weekly runs every Thursday at 6:30 p.m. which begins at their store in Five PointsParking is limited, so arrive a few minutes ahead of time if you’re planning on driving. More information can be found on their website: or on Facebook: @athensrun.

If you’d like to anonymously report a littering incident in Athens, please note:

  • The perpetrating car’s tag number and description
  • The time and date of the incident, and
  • The location of the incident

You can leave a message on the litter hotline at 706-613-3506. The perpetrator will then receive an educational letter from the Sherriff’s department.

More information about litter in Athens can be found on:

Farm-to-vase flowers making a splash in Georgia this Mother’s Day


Harvesting cut flowers from your own garden can be a rewarding, cost-effective way to treat your mom for Mother’s Day. But don’t worry if you don’t have your own flowers to cut.

More and more Georgians can find locally grown flowers for their mothers without growing them in their own gardens.

Nationwide, Americans will spend about $2.6 billion on flowers this Mother’s Day, according to the National Retail Federation. That money helps fuel the nation’s $4.37 billion floriculture industry and Georgia’s $843 million ornamental horticulture industry.

While cut flowers are still a relatively small part of the state’s ornamental horticulture industry, more and more local farmers are adding cut flowers to their farmers market stalls and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) orders. Georgia Grown, the Georgia Department of Agriculture’s agricultural products marketing program, lists more than 90 Georgia businesses that grow or market Georgia-grown flowers to the public.

Flower farms dot the landscape from the mountains to the coast and supply flower lovers directly or through local boutiques or fresh markets.

“Cut flowers are a perfect fit for most sunny gardens, and they seem to be getting more popular. People seem to like them more than before because one generates their own fresh, beautiful flowers, and they make great, casual gifts for friends and family,” said Paul Thomas, a horticulture professor at the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

In Georgia, Mother’s Day and graduation season create the bulk of business for local flower farms.

Benefits of buying local

More consumers want to shrink their carbon footprints by buying what they need from local vendors and farmers.

Nearly 80 percent of cut flowers in the U.S. are imported and travel hundreds of miles in refrigerated planes, trains and trucks.

“It’s good to know that purchasing something like that comes with a huge environmental footprint,” said Steve O’Shea, who owns Comer, Georgia’s 3 Porch Farm with his wife, Mandy.

Rita Williams, who owns Candler County, Georgia’s WilMor Farms with her husband, Mike, explained that people purchase flowers from their farm because they can ask them questions about the chemicals used in the growing process, and they have the answers.

“We know what they (the flowers) haven’t been exposed to,” Rita Williams said.

Purchasing local flowers also supports the local economy and communities.

“It’s how we survive,” she added.

Rita Williams knows that the local flower market in Georgia is still in its early stages, but the market share for local flowers and community of flower producers across the state is growing.

She and Mike Williams started WilMor Farms in 2015 after they were inspired by 3 Porch Farm. They felt they could provide the same types of local, sustainable blooms to south Georgia as the O’Sheas provide in northeast Georgia. The Williamses also thought it would also be a great way to teach their four children about hard work and give them a closer connection the land.

Flowers in Georgia?

Blame it on the heat, the humidity or the insects, but Georgia has long had a reputation as inhospitable to cut flower production.

But that depends on what blooms you’re growing, said Jenna Moon, who started Winterville, Georgia’s Seeds and Stems Farm with her partner, Tom Bagby, in 2017.

You won’t see tulips and fist-size roses when you shop for locally grown flowers in Georgia. Farmers here offer a mix of classic, Southern garden flowers and native flowers, or blooms acclimated to Georgia’s heat and humidity.

Ranunculus, anemones and poppies are some of the star flowers cultivated here.

Native flowers and wildflowers also steal the show from time to time, Moon said. She brings native plants into the arrangements she sells at the West Broad Farmers Market in Athens, Georgia.

Not only are native flowers already acclimated to Georgia weather and provide a habitat for wildlife, they also “have a unique beauty that isn’t always found in cultivated varieties,” said Moon. In their Mother’s Day bouquets, they’ll use classic flowers, like daisies, interspersed with hellebores, black oats and nasturtium, which will also be in their salad mix.

Because they are operating on a farm-to-vase model, local flower farmers can only provide in-season blooms, but in Georgia, the season can stretch from late winter through the summer.

What do I look for now?

When it comes to trends, Rita Williams encouraged consumers to “use what they think is pretty” and not allow their creativity to be stifled or boxed in by trends seen on social media.

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” she added.

3 Porch Farm uses “whatever is relevant and beautiful,” said Steve O’Shea. This Mother’s Day, their arrangements will include species like bachelor’s button, campanula, snapdragons, poppies and peonies mixed with seed pods, native grasses, vines and tendrils.

“An emerging trend has been to get away from customers requesting specific flowers and moving more toward color palettes utilizing local and seasonal flowers,” said Steve O’Shea.

To spruce up a basic bunch, Steve O’Shea suggested gathering wild materials with a few friends.

“It’s a lot of fun to get a few friends together, buy a bunch of local flowers each, and then go forage for bits and tendrils and grasses, bring it all back to the house and create arrangements together,” he said.

More information about WilMor Farms, 3 Porch Farm, and Seeds and Stems Farm can be found on their Facebook pages. For more information about where to purchase local flowers in Georgia, visit

Story originally published by UGA CAES Newswire.

Data Visualization: Food Insecurity and SNAP Retailers in Athens-Clarke County

Design + Multimedia

I created this visualization as part of a larger group project about food security in Athens-Clarke County for Grady Newsource. I used Tableau to map the data and Photoshop to overlay the two maps.

The map illustrates SNAP retailers in Athens-Clarke County in both food secure and insecure area. (Data visualization by Christina Conner) Sources:

The Trial Gardens at UGA announces 2017 Classic City Awards


Summer’s end often means that spring’s colorful annuals have started to fade, but the end of Georgia’s growing season also means it’s time to debut the University of Georgia Trial Gardens’ annual Classic City Award winners. These awards represent plants that thrived during the punishing conditions of a Georgia summer.

In addition to being one of the most beautiful places on the university’s Athens campus, the gardens serve an important purpose in the research and development of new ornamental varieties.

The gardens provide variable, real-world conditions for testing new varieties developed by commercial nurseries and academic breeders. This testing provides third-party, verified data for consumers, retailers, breeders and many others.

Trial plants are planted every spring and are watched carefully throughout the summer to determine which plants will make the cut and be sold to Southeastern gardeners the following season.

The gardens face a unique set of challenges during Georgia’s unpredictable summers, which makes the facility an ideal proving ground for new plants.

“June was a wet month. We had rain almost every week. When it’s cloudy and wet, plants like petunias, ptilotus and geraniums struggle in different ways,” said Brandon Coker, manager of the gardens.

For example, the dry-loving ptilotus thrived in early summer, but when June brought frequent rains, the three varieties of ptilotus at the gardens completely rotted.

However, when plants like ptilotus thrive in the dry weather, other plants, like dahlias and chrysanthemums, need at least daily or twice daily watering to survive. To balance these needs, the gardens overcome rainfall challenges by keeping the plants on a watering schedule based on their individual needs.

Some of the plants that overcame individual challenges this summer earned the title of “Classic City Award winner.” With any luck, they’ll make it to local garden centers and gardens next spring.

Canna Toucan ‘Scarlet,’ Proven Winners

As the name implies, this canna is deep red, but the foliage is nearly black, which provides a beautiful contrast. The flower heads stand tall above the foliage line and when one bloom falls, another is ready to open. Don’t be discouraged if the plant starts off slow. At the gardens, the plants started off slow, then exploded in a continuous floral display in July that continued well into September.

Salvia Cathedral ‘Sky Blue,’ Green Fuse Botanicals

This light-blue salvia is a lower-growing variety and gets to be about 12 to 18 inches tall, according to the breeder’s website. ‘Sky Blue’ stayed in bloom from May to September, an impressive span of time for any flowering plant. It’s versatile in floral arrangements, containers, accent plantings, pollinator gardens and in a host of other settings.

Echinacea Sombrero ‘Granada Gold,’ Darwin Perennials

Of the three Sombrero varieties planted last spring, all of which were good performers, ‘Granada Gold’ was the best. The flawless, golden flowers bloomed profusely in a beautiful floral presentation and lasted longer than the other two varieties.

Coleus FlameThrower ‘Spiced Curry,’ Ball FloraPlant

“It’s not always about flowers,” Coker said. This colorful, leafy coleus looked stunning well into September and October. The leaves are serrated with purple outlines, and the underside and veins of the plant are also bright purple, which offers a beautiful contrast to the lime green leaves.


For a full list of the Classic City Award winners and more information about the gardens and next year’s trials, visit