As Bernard Singleton stood in his garden in the parking lot of Savona Mill in west Charlotte on one of the first days of spring, he looked around at the growth happening all around him.
Plants that would eventually become onions, cabbages, spring peas and cauliflower peaked through the dirt in one bed, built by neighborhood kids who were court-ordered to help Singleton with his garden — though many of them stayed well after their community service was over. In another bed, oregano, parsley and sage began to sprout. A few feet over, empty vines awaited the annual return of blackberries. Blueberries and raspberries would soon appear on the nearby bushes.
Later, the conversation turned to a different type of growth that’s been happening all around Singleton and the properties where he runs Bennu Gardens, an urban gardening project he launched in 2014 and has since expanded into three locations. Just over the fence from Savona Mill, Blue Blaze Brewing has been in operation since 2016. Enderly Coffee Co. opened last year just a short walk down the street.
Singleton isn’t upset about either business showing up in his neighborhood, but he knows what they signify: gentrification.
“You know when you get a brewery and coffee shop, it’s over,” Singleton said, laughing at my question about the ongoing change.
Savona Mill itself — once a paper mill that served as the beating heart of the Seversville neighborhood — may currently look abandoned, but it will eventually be renovated into a mixed-use district consisting of retail, office and residential space.
But Singleton isn’t interested in playing the victim or giving in to displacement. He sees the coming change as another opportunity to adapt.
“We know the community is changing, but we’re working to educate people to be a part of the change,” Singleton said. “If you can become a stakeholder in the community, you can be part of the change. Change is not always a bad thing. There’s not a level playing field, we all don’t get the same opportunities, but if you be creative and utilize some of those niches, we’ve been able to survive, and as this project developed, what we brought to the project, we will be here when this is developed.”
Over the last year, Singleton has been focused on developing Bennu Gardens’ new 11-acre Nebedaye Farms in Indian Trail, a property he leases from the Carolina Farm Trust. There he plans to build a processing plant and other infrastructure to help create jobs and turn Bennu Gardens into a profitable business by harvesting moringa, a superfood grown in Africa and Asia that Singleton has been learning to grow successfully in Charlotte over the last two years.
The Nebedaye Farms Moringa Project is just the latest example of Singleton’s resilience and adaptability in the face of tragedy, displacement and unforeseen change.
Singleton launched Bennu Gardens as a nonprofit four years after the unexpected passing of his son, Caesar Singleton. Caesar had already been enrolled in college, developing programs for at-risk youth and working on projects about how to grow food on Mars when he passed away at 15 years old.
According to Bernard, Caesar died of a freak accident called “dry drowning,” which was more than likely a delayed drowning, in which water gets into a person’s lungs but does not affect them until hours or even days later.
Bernard told a story about how his son had suddenly become very interested in meeting his ancestors before his passing. He took Caesar to the cemetery, which his family refers to as “the garden of our ancestors.”
“He went and introduced himself to everyone in the cemetery and he was like, ‘Dad, this is where I want to be,’ and two weeks later his ass was there,” Bernard said. “He just thought the power of his ancestors was so intriguing and so great that he laid down and he didn’t wake up.”
Bernard, whose family hails from Senegal, does not view his son’s passing as a death but as a transition.
“It’s almost like it was a spiritual calling, like in Africa,” Bernard said. “He comes here to start something and he’s only destined to be here for a short time. He was way ahead of his time. He knew physics, mathematics and science and growing and life. He was a powerful being. He’s even a more powerful ancestor right now, truly helping us out.”
Bernard learned everything he knew about gardening from Caesar, and said it was his son that eventually guided him to start Bennu Gardens. But it didn’t happen overnight.
After moving to Charlotte in 2011 with his daughter, Singleton struggled to find a home. After one potential apartment fell through, the two turned a unit at NoDa Storage into a studio apartment and lived there until they were able to find more appropriate housing. They eventually found themselves on the West End, where Singleton began to spread his knowledge of urban gardening. He started with two raised beds at the Carole Hoefner Center in Uptown, planted with seeds Singleton purchased with food stamps.
Later, Greg Jarrell at the Queen City Family Tree offered him a lot to use on Tuckaseegee Road in west Charlotte, which eventually led to acquiring a larger garden a few blocks down at Tuckaseegee and Glenwood Drive, which Singleton still runs along with the Savona Mill location.
Singleton and his team of volunteers plant year-round as the weather permits, and during the spring and summer host farmers markets for the community to pick food for themselves free of charge.
For Singleton, Bennu helps push back against the myth of food deserts, which he sees as a false narrative based on victimhood.
“We’re trying to use a different approach to food insecurity; we teach food sovereignty. You can grow anywhere. We never live in a food desert. We live in food forests if we learn how to grow food. You can grow food anywhere,” Singleton said, motioning to the mill parking lot he was standing in. “This was concrete and weeds. Does it look like concrete and weeds anymore? No. We create food forests. We don’t worry about the negative. We look at ways of seeing how we can turn it into a positive.”
Now Singleton has his eyes on growing an actual forest of moringa. The African-Asian plant known for its healing properties and countless culinary uses is usually farmed in more tropical climates. Singleton researched and experimented with moringa in Charlotte for two years. Last year, he was able to grow 25-foot-long moringa trees in just five months at his Savona location. He plans to make it the centerpiece of Nebedaye Farms.
Singleton, who has funded Bennu Gardens himself for five years, hopes moringa will be a turning point for the project.
“The thing about the Moringa Project is it’s a high-value, in-demand crop and it grew out of the west side of Charlotte,” Singleton said. “We’ve been able to grow here and create an industry around it at two levels; born, bred, researched and created from people in the community. It’s a multi-million-dollar-a-year business, so we plan to do very well with it this year. But this is a grassroots operation that came out of a so-called food desert.”
Moringa serves a larger purpose than sustenance and potential profit, as Singleton has learned. With its roots in countries that are homelands to countless Charlotte-area immigrants, moringa has brought a newfound diversity to Bennu Gardens markets.
“It’s such a powerful plant, how it brings so many cultures and people together. That’s one of the most important and most beautiful things out of it. That’s something that you don’t see where we live on Tuckaseegee; you don’t have this diverse population coming to the so-called ‘hood to shop,” Singleton said, laughing. “People come and they haven’t seen their country for years, they get all emotional. Just with that one crop alone, it tells such a story, diversity-wise, economic empowerment-wise, health and wellness-wise.”
Bennu Gardens’ dedication to health and wellness doesn’t stop at with food. While Singleton will be focused on building up Nebedaye Farms in the coming year, a young partner of his named Brandon Ruiz will be implementing his own project at Bennu’s Tuckaseegee Road garden: an herbal pharmacy aimed at helping community members treat and prevent maladies through alternative, natural medicine.
Ruiz, now 21, became interested in gardening through one of his teachers at Mallard Creek High School who grew wheatgrass in the classroom. He began growing his own food, which eventually led him to herbalism.
While Singleton works on the farm in Indian Trail, Ruiz will be cultivating an Afro-Caribbean garden on Tuckaseegee Road that includes traditional plants from those regions and some from Latin America, with a focus on plants that offer herbal remedies.
For Ruiz, you can’t talk about urban gardening and health and wellness without including herbal medicine and alternative healthcare.
“I think that there’s a very fine line, if any, between providing preventative healthcare and having knowledge of how to do more of an acute sort of thing,” Ruiz said, “like you have food and vegetables but in the situation of, ‘Oh I have a cough, I have a fever, a cold,’ you can learn about treating those specifically.’”
Ruiz said he hopes Singleton’s work with moringa, which is known both for its culinary and medicinal properties, will help bridge the gap between diet and healthcare.
“To see the connection with how food and urban gardening has been for such a while, I think that the connection to herbal medicine is inevitable,” he said. “Moringa is literally that. It’s medicine, it’s used for specific medicinal remedies, and it’s food as well, it’s providing sustenance for people. So to be able to do what I’m doing and and educate alongside him is really special. I’m really excited for all the different stuff that’s going on and is going to happen.”
Singleton can also rest easy knowing that his Savona Mill location will be in the capable hands of Chantel Johnson, founder and owner of local health and wellness self-sufficiency organization Off Grid In Color, while he works on Nebedaye Farms.
The future plans for Savona Mill are still far off, but Singleton isn’t going to let them sneak up on him. He’s currently in talks with Argos Real Estate Advisors, which owns the Savona Mill property and gave him the original space in the parking lot he uses now, about leasing out a separate building with offices, classrooms and garden space for an educational concept partnership between Singleton and Scott Harris of Viva Raw.
Those plans are still in the preliminary stages, so in the meantime Singleton is focused on building up Nebedaye Farms. When we last spoke, Singleton had spent the day in discussions with companies interested in packaging and marketing his moringa products once the farm gets moving.
The namesake of Bennu Gardens, the Egyptian Bennu Bird, is a symbol of resurrection, renewal and rebirth, all themes that Singleton wanted to reinforce in the West End. Considering he launched Bennu Gardens with food stamps and never asked for a dime back, the potential to bring serious money back to his community would seem like a happy surprise, although one would be hard pressed to surprise Singleton.
“From where we came from and getting it to that point, and to bring as many people as we can along with us, that’s important,” Singleton said. “We’ve got a very good team of dedicated workers, and we just do it. Money wasn’t what was driving us, but if that’s what came out of it, nothing’s ever wrong with that.”
You know what that’s called? Growth.