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The Toledo Blade

Community Gardens: Growing Food Brings People Together

Tahree Lane

There's an old fable folded into a community gardening context.

The Little Red Hen finds a grain of wheat and asks for help planting, harvesting, milling, and baking the flour into bread, but alas, she's unable to drum up enthusiasm.

"Not I," say the Duck, the Cat, and the Dog.

In the end, the lazy trio missed out on the delicious bread she baked and probably slathered, piping hot from the oven, with creamy butter and home-made raspberry preserves. They probably ordered a greasy pizza or got Chinese, spending cash instead of enjoying a home-cooked treat that cost little more than sweat equity.

Nor did they experience a passel of other benefits: the opportunity to work side by side with creatures from diverse backgrounds while chatting about something as nonpolitical as the weather.

Moreover, their apathy did zilch to enhance the neighborhood, generate good will, reduce pollution (by filtering rainwater and restoring oxygen to the air), deter crime (by putting more eyes on the street), or provide them with the sense of deep fulfilment derived from growing food.

Chances are, the Little Red Hen would have better luck these days.

Community gardens "are taking off like mad," says Vicki Garrett, projects coordinator at the American Community Gardening Association in Columbus. As food, gas, and household expenses soar, gardening is a low-cost hobby that offers big returns with safe, delicious food. The association estimates there are 18,000 to 20,000 such gardens in the United States and Canada.

"I think some cities have realized the value of growing food close to home," said Ms. Garrett.

Locally, there are four acres in South Toledo with 88 large plots ($12 each), an upscale organic garden in a lovely riverside setting in Perrysburg, and a humble but productive strip of land abutting a freeway sound-barrier wall that's been enriched by a group of apartment dwellers.

Some community gardens are little more than one person digging up the vacant lot next to their home and inviting neighborhood kids to help and to share the bounty.

Leading the trend is Columbus, said Michael Szuberla, director of Toledo Grows, the community gardening program of the Toledo Botanical Garden that oversees 60 gardens.

The Franklin Park Conservatory, two miles east of downtown Columbus, offers an eight-week urban gardening academy each winter, awards 13 grants up to $4,000 each year, and is planning a five-acre community-garden campus with 50 plots, demonstrations, and cooking classes.

"Each year we're growing by 15 to 20 community gardens," said Bill Dawson, the conservatory's Growing to Green coordinator. "The city is very much behind it."

'Victory gardens'

Tending Taiwanese cabbage, New Zealand spinach, spoon mustard, and mache lettuce, Yvette Smith wonders why more Americans haven't figured out the benefits of raising one's own veggies.

"I really do believe this is something that a lot of people should be doing," said Smith, who teaches French at the University of Toledo.

She and some of her neighbors who reside in six four-unit buildings on Carskaddon Avenue in West Toledo have the blessing of their landlord to till and plant a skinny, sunny strip between their garages and the freeway wall. Andy Huff, caretaker of the properties and a resident, said several years ago a tenant suggested adding flowers to spruce up the place.

"I said, 'Sure, sure; I just want to cut the grass,'" said Mr. Huff. "Then I got a book on container gardening." And he attended a library program on gardening and called Toledo Grows.

"It's been great. It's been social, a source of conversation. People say this reminds them of the Victory Gardens," he said, referring to the patriotic gardens millions of Americans and others around the world planted during World Wars I and II.

Ms. Smith's portion of the garden, shared with her partner, Noel Habib, also has kale, okra, eggplant, pickling cukes, lime basil, muskmelon, and enough tomato plants to fill jars that will last all winter. Raspberries thrive against the tall wall that dulls the sound of traffic in the I-475 canyon.

"We eat, we put away, we give away," she said.

Different ingredients

The creme de la creme community garden, offering water, mulch, compost, and an on-site horticulturist, is at the 577 Foundation on the former estate of Virginia Secor Stranahan in Perrysburg.

The 39 individual plots, 10-by-12-feet and larger, and a children's garden, are organic.

"A community garden is just like a big recipe; everybody brings a different ingredient," said Vicki Gallagher, 577's horticulturist.

This year the gardens adopted a no-till system that works like this: In autumn, the staff spreads four inches of shredded leaves on each plot, which, during the winter, gets compressed down to about an inch. Under that leaf blanket, a rich, moist microculture develops, full of worms and beneficial organisms that improve the soil and result in more nutritious vegetables. The microculture is best undisturbed, said Ms. Gallagher.


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Come spring, gardeners are asked not to churn up the soil but to simply dig a small hole through the leaf blanket to insert each plant, leaving the rest of the mulch in place.

These plots have a waiting list, so Ms. Gallagher refers people to a 16-plot garden owned by the city of Perrysburg at East Boundary and Bexford Drive across from St. Timothy Episcopal Church. There's access to water for the 40-by-25-feet plots that rent for $20 a season, and the city tills in leaf compost to amend the soil. All plots are filled and people usually reserve their space shortly after the first of the year. For information, call 419-872-8020.

Old West Enders maintain a story-book garden at Delaware and Scottwood avenues. Its narrow, curving paths are fringed with good smells, tastes, and colors: raspberry bushes, broccoli, zinnias, lemon balm, tomatoes, and marigolds.

A few miles away, Zenola Sherman is learning how to grow vegetables in the sunny side yard of the home she purchased in November. She was inspired after her mother, who received a $50 coupon to buy local produce, said the money wouldn't go very far.

"I want to share. That's my objective," Ms. Sherman said. A few neighbors have helped in her yard off Nebraska Avenue, and she's received assistance from Toledo Grows.

Mary Sawers often includes neighborhood kids in her Old West End garden on a vacant lot next to her home. It includes a large, fanciful fence made of tree branches that a friend built.

"I tell the children, 'Here's what I have to do today; weed, or plant, or mulch. And what do you want to do?' I supervise them the first couple of times," said Ms. Sawers, an attorney. "All the children know not to pick anything without asking."

Soon, when cukes and tomatoes are ripe, she'll bring out a bowl of ranch dressing for them to dip the fresh veggies. She'll swap produce with neighbors for their homemade wine, and give the rest away.

On Earth Day in April, Johanna Laesch, a Spanish teacher at Scott High School, broke ground for a 35-by-45-foot garden next to the school. She and students planted vegetables that they'll make into salsa. An English teacher plans to put in a Shakespearean garden nearby.

"The last couple of weeks of school we spent at least the last 15 minutes of class in the garden," in which she hopes to involve Scott alumni. Students can earn community-service hours for working in the garden.

"My vision is to donate produce to the senior citizen center, " said Ms. Laesch, adding that the venture has already resulted in new friendships and connections.

Rewarding projects

There are still 15-by-15-foot plots available at Common Space Too at Hill Avenue and South Holland-Sylvania Road, said Roger Zielinksi, director of the on-grounds Garden Sanctuary.

"It's extremely rich land," Mr. Zielinski said of the plots which he made into raised mounds after poor drainage two summers ago destroyed most of the vegetables. Plots rent for $40 a season, he said, adding that there's still time to put in beans, peas, Swiss chard, spinach, lettuce, beets, greens, cabbage, and other plants.

The granddaddy but least-known of community gardens is a four-acre rectangle in South Toledo wedged between the Schneider Park soccer field, a public transportation building, and the world's largest retailer. Off Schneider Road near Detroit Avenue, it's divided into 88 spacious 20-by-60-foot plots that rent for $12 a season.

Called the Interfaith Garden, it dates to 1975 when it was established as a living memorial to Jeff Wharram, who was a sophomore at Sylvania High School in 1973 when he died from a blood clot related to football injuries. (The garden was started in 1974 on Hoffman Road but had to be moved when the city built its landfill there.)

Jeff's parents, Mary and Bruce Wharram, were inspired by a talk their minister gave about poverty, recession, rising oil prices, and a faraway U.S. war, and what a valuable service a community garden could be.

"It's a very rewarding project," said Ms. Wharram, who farms three plots with her husband.

This space has plenty of sun but distinct challenges: water must be trucked in, the soil is clay, deer eat the vegetables, the bugs are bad, and poachers steal the food. Perhaps that's why only about half the plots are rented this summer.

"We could sure use more gardeners. The plots grow into weeds, which encourages more insects," she said. "But we don't worry about it. God takes care of it."

Toiling in these fields for more than 30 years is Rube Lyles, 99, who doesn't much care for store-bought vegetables.

"He won't eat any vegetables in a can. Vegetables come out of the ground," said his son, Robert Lyles.

Robert, 59, began helping his father with the plot about 15 years ago and got hooked. Starting plants from seeds sown in the ground, they're raising corn, cabbage, three types of greens, zucchini, squash, crowder peas, and the last to be harvested in late fall - sweet potatoes.

"I'm surprised not as many people are out here as should be. And young people don't care about gardens. Maybe they don't know what to do and nobody shows them what to do," said Robert as he sprayed the plot's perimeter with an anti-deer concoction of hot sauce and water. His other attempt to keep Bambi at bay is lengths of shiny, black video tape stretched from pole to pole around the plot.

He cans and freezes much of this food, and gives it to family and neighbors.

"It's relaxing," said Robert, who's been on disability since suffering a heart attack in October. "And it's nice to spend time with my father. That's why I do it."

© 2008 The Blade

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