Despite a cool, rainy spring, community gardening educators around Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township are gearing up for the 2019 growing season with ambitious new collaborations and other new plans.
T.C. Collins, founder of the volunteer gardening education program Willow Run Acres, says he's sad to find out that many children don't know where their food comes from. For instance, when he quizzes children about where potatoes come from, they might say, "From french fries."
Collins is teaching children firsthand exactly where potatoes come from, with an ambitious goal to help Ypsilanti Community Schools (YCS) students grow more than 2,000 potatoes this year.
Over at the Cooperative Orchard of Ypsilanti (CORY), Lisa Bashert and a team of volunteers are hoping to bounce back from a rough 2018 season, during which lack of rain and too many pests caused many crop failures. This year, they will be introducing a few new ideas to improve crop yields and are kicking off a partnership with the gardeners at the Parkridge Community Center garden.
The Cooperative Orchard of Ypsilanti
Bashert says the orchard got its start in 2011 when a dozen people combined resources to buy a pie slice-shaped piece of land at 473 Jefferson St. in Ypsi. The idea was to own it cooperatively and split the harvest 12 ways each year.
The project was made possible by the fact that the city of Ypsilanti had recently passed a zoning ordinance allowing urban agriculture as a primary use for land within the city boundaries.
The land wasn't the right shape or size to build a house, and neighbors told Bashert that it had been used for farming since the 1940s. Bashert says her goal was to build a "permaculture food fest" mixing all kinds of food-bearing trees, shrubs, and vines.
There were some challenges along the way, including the fact that the land still doesn't have a water tap. Additionally, the city owns the adjacent strip of land, and workers contracted to mow the city land repeatedly mowed over plantings in the orchard. The city eventually reimbursed the orchard owners for their losses, however, and the issue has since been resolved.
Bashert did some gardening on the lot as early as 2012, and the orchard's first line of fruit trees was planted in 2013. A second row of trees was added in 2015, and a third row in 2017, after CORY organizers bought another oddly-shaped and "unbuildable" lot right next door to the first one.
Today, the lot holds a mix of food-bearing trees and bushes, ranging from native pawpaws to hazelnuts, as well as vegetable patches and native herbs including bee balm. The emphasis is on planting heirloom varieties and Michigan natives, as well as planting species that fix nitrogen or give back to the soil instead of depleting it.
The orchard isn't certified organic because there's some cost and red tape involved in that certification. But it does use organic and natural methods, such as planting certain species that Japanese beetles love to eat to keep them away from the plants more desirable to humans.
Still, those practices weren't quite enough in 2018. Bashert says some more natural, organic fungicides will be used this year with hopes of increasing yields at the end of the season.
Bashert ended up being one of the only original 12 owners to take an active interest in the orchard, so she's slowly recruited other volunteers in the community, including Bill Teepen.
Teepen first developed an interest in gardening when he was homeless and had his food benefits slashed.
"I didn't want to be hungry again, and I wanted to help others who were facing the same problem," Teepen says. "I thought, 'How can I do that?' and I decided I would grow a garden."
Shortly after he began gardening, he learned about the cooperative orchard, where he has helped out ever since, using his Master Rain Gardener certification to build a rain garden that prevents flooding and filters pollution.
Last year, Bashert and other CORY volunteers began discussing a collaboration with Noah Rucker and Jasper Gary, who manage the gardens at nearby Parkridge Community Center. The collaboration kicked off this spring with some interplanting. Several fruit trees from CORY were donated to the Parkridge garden, while CORY made a space for students at the nearby WSC charter academy to plant vegetables and herbs in a small garden bed.
As part of his Health Economics curriculum, Rucker will bring students to work on the garden inside CORY every Wednesday throughout the summer.
"They're also going to learn about pruning, planting, seeding, and tagging trees," Gary says.
Willow Run Acres
T.C. Collins remembers that just about all the grownups in his life knew how to garden when he was a boy, but it's a skill that has been lost along the way. Trying to correct that, he is active in more than 20 gardens around southeast Michigan through a volunteer program he calls Willow Run Acres.
"We all grew up gardening, and it was fun," he says of his childhood in Ypsi Township's Willow Run neighborhood.
Collins remembers that his family had a house with room for a garden, while most of his friends lived in the nearby Sycamore Meadows apartment complex. They weren't able to grow anything and marveled at his gardening skills, calling him "the Ghetto Gardener," "the Flower Man," or "the Potato Man."
Collins remembers that his mother had a small garden plot at Chapelle Elementary School, now the Chapelle Business Center, at 111 S. Wallace Blvd. in Ypsi. Now he has both indoor and outdoor gardens there.
He began the outdoor garden about five years ago. About three years ago, he was able to establish an indoor "garden room" in cooperation with the Boys and Girls Club that met there at the time.
"The Boys and Girls Club left, but I stayed with the community," he says.
Collins does gardening education both at Chapelle and in preschools and schools around Ypsi, often appearing in costume as the superhero "Reggie the Veggie."
He began a Community Potatoes program several years ago, letting children plant and tend their own potato plants, starting with just a few dozen plants. That project has grown to serve more schools and more pupils over time, and the goal is to have 2,500 potatoes planted by schoolchildren over the course of this year's growing season.
Collins says he spent a summer doing a farm work program after getting mediocre grades in middle school, and says children can learn both discipline and math from farming.
"It made me more responsible, because I'd have to get there early in the morning. At a farm, minutes count," he says. "You have to get certain crops planted before midday, and it's best to pick corn early before the heat, so it'll be sweet and cool."
He says he learned math concepts by thinking about the difference between picking a bushel of beefsteak tomatoes the size of a softball versus a bushel of tiny cherry tomatoes. He learned the difference between a bushel and a peck, and why some crops are counted and sold by piece while others, like green beans, are sold by weight.
Through Willow Run Acres, he also teaches children about the differences in how long seeds take to germinate, grow, and ripen, and how to count backward from the end of the growing season to figure out when crops need to be planted.
Collins throws a little history into his lessons as well, talking about the Underground Railroad and how travelers had to learn what plants they could harvest from the wild to eat on their journey.
When the Boys and Girls Club in Ypsilanti disbanded, Collins made a deal with the management of the Chapelle Business Center to continue working out of the garden room as long as he committed to working with YCS students.
He'd like more stability for the program, however, and says that establishing Willow Run Acres as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit is his "number one goal."
More information about Willow Run Acres is available here. Learn more about CORY at the orchard's Facebook page.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She has served as innovation and jobs/development news writer for Concentrate since early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to Driven. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos by Doug Coombe.