From you-pick to Underground Railroad gardens, Ypsi-area community growers have big plans for 2021

On the Ground Ypsilanti is thinking spring. We caught up with representatives of four farming and gardening organizations based in the Ypsilanti area to see what's new for 2021.

Spring is just around the corner, and the Ypsilanti area's many community farms and gardens have big plans for this year's growing season. We caught up with representatives of four Ypsi-area farming and gardening organizations to see what's new for 2021.


Growing Hope: A new partnership, mushrooms, and U-pick


Ypsi-based Growing Hope, a nonprofit focused on strengthening the local food system, has been running a home gardening program for many years, with a slightly different focus each year. Last year, thanks to increased interest in home gardening during the COVID-19 pandemic, Growing Hope increased the number of households it helped from 25 to 45, according to Director of Programs and Operations Elizabeth "Bee" Ayer.

Home vegetable coordinator Teria Moore-Berry and Urban Farm Coordinator Charlotte Thurston by Growing Hope's wheel chair-accessible raised beds.

This year, the nonprofit is scaling back to its normal 25 households, with a focus on people of color and people living with disability in two neighborhoods: Ypsilanti's Southside and Ypsilanti Township's West Willow neighborhood. Growing Hope provides gardening supplies, seeds, seedlings, and expertise, and matches home gardeners with an experienced gardening mentor.


Ayer says focusing on specific neighborhoods allows Growing Hope to build relationships between Growing Hope and residents, and between neighbors in those areas.


"With COVID-19, we've seen the importance of building interconnectedness in our community and providing for ourselves," she says. "Growing Hope is building up our community of people with knowledge and resources."


She says that while Growing Hope staff have a lot of expertise, they don't necessarily have all the answers, so sometimes they seek mentors who have specific niche knowledge or experience. For instance, last year the nonprofit tapped a community member with a disability who had deep knowledge of gardening. Growing Hope can recruit mentors with other specialties for participants with specific goals.


"Some of our participants want to grow food, but they also really want to spend time outside with their grandkids," Ayer says. "We can find them a mentor who has direct experience gardening with young children."


Another addition for 2021 will be a you-pick area on the Growing Hope farm at 922 W. Michigan Ave. in Ypsilanti. Ayer says staff planned to open the area in 2020, but COVID-19 interfered. This year, the you-pick area will finally launch, with scissors, bags, and signage provided by Growing Hope.


"This year, we're hoping people will come to that area and interact with the front areas with the wheelchair- and walker-accessible raised beds," Ayer says. "We'll have a welcome kiosk, and people can harvest for themselves. Guides will be available to explain how to harvest and how to know when the produce is ready."


Other changes this year at Growing Hope include a partnership with another gardening nonprofit, Willow Run Acres, that will add mushrooms to Growing Hope's farm. Staff also plan to redesign Growing Hope's youth area to include a reading nook, a five-senses garden, a little free library with gardening books for kids, and more.


Ayer says it's important to start teaching children about where their food comes from at an early age.


"Providing thematic opportunities for little kids to touch the ground, play with worms, get soils under their fingernails, … those experiences can have a really profound effect on their relationship to nature," Ayer says.


Willow Run Acres: New partnerships, expanding Underground Railroad gardens


Partnering with Growing Hope is just one of several new developments for nonprofit Willow Run Acres, founded by Ypsilanti resident T.C. Collins.

Willow Run Acres founder T.C. Collins.

Collins intends to create an educational farm on a small piece of Growing Hope's property, where he will teach children about black walnuts and growing raspberries. He'll also take over a forested part of the farm, which isn't good for other produce, to grow mushrooms.


"T.C. is one of our close partners, and he is such an amazing community leader, because he works with people across the city of Ypsilanti and in Ann Arbor and meets people where they're at," Ayer says. "We have a small forest area on our property we haven't been developing much, so it's a perfect fit."


Collins obtained a 501(c)(3) designation for Willow Run Acres in late 2019, opening opportunities to expand through grant funding. A small grant in fall 2020 allowed him to redesign an existing Underground Railroad garden, featuring plants that passengers on the Underground Railroad might have foraged on their trip from the South to the North, outside the Chappelle Small Business Center (formerly Chappelle Elementary School) at 111 S. Wallace Blvd. in Ypsilanti Township.


In 2021, Collins will add more Underground Railroad gardens across Washtenaw County, including one in Ann Arbor. Collins' son Tucker Collins lives in Kalamazoo and is trying to acquire land to add a branch of the Underground Railroad garden there as well. Collins can't name the Ann Arbor site until the lease has been signed, but hopes to build a garden school for children and another branch of his Underground Railroad garden there.


"I'll be teaching the community about the plants and the medicines and the struggles that a lot of slaves went through foraging on the Underground Railroad," he says. The gardens will also feature the "quilt code" — a code that used certain designs on quilts to warn escaping slaves if they were safe or not, or whether certain resources were available nearby.


Collins says plants featured in the gardens will include heirloom tomatoes, collard greens, kale, and okra. He's also hoping to plant and raise some cotton so children and their parents can see what growing cotton looks like.


Other new plans for 2021 include adding a volunteer who can teach people about raising chicken, pigs, and cattle. Collins also plans to start two new gardens: a rose garden for making soaps, to be situated on First Avenue in Ypsilanti; and a tea garden with a variety of herbs that can be used for herbal tea. Produce from both gardens will be sold to raise funds for Willow Run Acres operations.


Collins says he's also working to create a community farm park in Ypsilanti Township, with a combination of rental plots, a garden school for children, and another branch of the Underground Railroad garden. Washtenaw Promise, a nonprofit focused on early childhood development, and child care business Bottles-N-Backpacks are helping fund that project. Collins says that besides signing a lease, the last step will be raising funds to put in a well for watering the garden.


We the People Opportunity Farm: Expanding paid internships, adding programming


Melvin Parson, founder of We the People Opportunity Farm, says his organization's most exciting development for 2021 is doubling the program's number of paid interns from two to four, and partnering with Michigan Works! Southeast for some of the interns' job training.

We The People Opportunity Farm founder Melvin Parson.

The farm's focus is providing training and job opportunities for formerly incarcerated people. The four formerly incarcerated interns will receive job skill and career development services from Michigan Works! starting in March, and will begin working at the farm after that.


"We're excited about that partnership," Parson says. "We wanted to do this last year, but with COVID, we weren't able to get that off the ground until this year."


Parson says other plans for 2021 include adding garlic and herbs to the farm, hiring a new farm manager, and creating a new role for a teacher to deliver programming.


"We haven't confirmed the title yet, but they'll deliver farm training along with food justice programming," Parson says.


The farm shifted its focus from providing produce for local restaurants to distributing free food during the pandemic, and that will continue. Field trips and other community events were canceled in 2020, but Parson hopes to bring some of that in-person programming back in 2021, including an annual end-of-year harvest festival. He hopes to collaborate with other organizations with similar missions who can do food demonstrations or promote their work at the festival.


Parkridge Community Garden: Community clean-up, programming for summer camps


Noah Rucker, manager of the Parkridge Community Garden at the Parkridge Community Center on Ypsilanti's Southside, invites the public to help clean the garden and surrounding neighborhood from 1-4 p.m. March 31. Participants are encouraged to wear a mask and bring gardening gloves and drinking water.

Noah Rucker at the Parkridge Community Garden.

"The whole area was hit hard by winter, so we'll go from the community center to the garden and clean up the whole block," Rucker says. "We're doing some spring cleaning, preparing for planting."


Rucker says he's proud that he has been able to make additions to the garden each year over the last few years. He intends to expand the garden again this year, as well as provide recipes that use the produce grown there.


The garden will also provide a learning opportunity for children enrolled in summer camps and other youth groups that may come through the area this summer. Rucker will also continue to maintain the youth community garden at the Cooperative Orchard of Ypsilanti (COrY).


"I'll be able to teach them the process and knowledge of growing their own food and maintaining a community garden," Rucker says. "I'm excited to connect with the youth again."


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.


All photos by Doug Coombe.