From Plot To Plate: SE Michigan's Urban Gardens

Each summer Lisa Yamin used to squeeze whatever vegetables she could out of her Bloomfield Hills backyard. Then the 45 year-old GM planning analyst discovered that just a few miles away the community gardens at Charles L. Bowers School Farm set aside seventy or so 25'x25' garden plots for people with an itch to grow things and no place to plant them.

"When I discovered all that space out there I said 'This is for me!'" she said. "They fertilize it and till it; it's the best."

Yamin's not alone. A growing number of southeastern Michigan gardeners are putting sweat equity into public spaces and quite literally reaping the rewards - fresh food for their families and communities. But that's just the beginning.

"Gardens are really a great way to address a lot of problems that are very common to urban areas," said Kristine Hahn, horticulture educator for Michigan State University Extension in Wayne County. "They've been shown to reduce crime. They take a vacant lot – of which there are at least 60,000 in the city – and instead of becoming a crime magnet and an area for dumping, it's a place of beauty. People are out there doing healthy things and neighbors are out there talking to each other."

A place to grow

Spend enough time in the garden and you might just learn something.

In Oakland County, people serving court-ordered community service for misdemeanors can work in community gardens run by the corrections department and the MSU Extension master gardeners. The garden produced 14,000 pounds of food - which is donated to food banks, soup kitchens and senior citizens - in its first year.

It's labor-intensive work and some don't like it. But others ask to be sent back to the garden, and a few have come back to volunteer even after they've done their time.

"I meet lot people that have a lot of knowledge – and I meet some who have none, but by the time they're done they do," said community corrections specialist Linda Muiter-Carmean, herself an advanced master gardener.

With the help of a local church, Earthworks, a program of Detroit's Capuchin Soup Kitchen, runs a Growing Healthy Kids program that teaches 5-11-year-olds how to grow a garden, then takes them to the kitchen to cook what they've grown. Earthworks also grows food for the Capuchin Kitchen and WIC vegetable markets, and older kids can take that fresh produce to market through the Youth Farm Stand program.

The community gardens at Bowers Farm actually grew out of the farm's original mission as a "land laboratory" for the school district's students. Younger students learn about plants and animals, older students can explore technology and animal science. And each third-grade class plants a garden plot, tending and harvesting it over the summer.

Over time the farm added community plots to the class gardens, renting the space for $40 a year. Bloomfield Hills School district residents get first dibs; people who live outside the district snap up the remaining plots on a first-come, first-served basis.

Last year's third-graders included Lisa Yamin's youngest daughter, Isabelle. Isabelle's been gardening with her mom for years, and her older sister Grace, 16, raises prize-winning vegetables on a plot of her own. Gardening with her classmates just made it that much better. This year 9-year-old Isabelle took on her own garden plot and raised a crop of produce that earned her Oakland County Gardener of the Year honors.

"We have a lot of families that actually garden together," said farm manager Holly Glomski. "It's really rewarding to see the parents helping the children, the little kids out there with hoes or harvesting. It gives you such a sense of where your food comes from and how much work it takes."

Making the desert bloom

In June a LaSalle Bank study tagged Detroit as a "food desert," noting that 550,000 city residents have to travel at least twice as far to get to a mainstream grocer as they do to get to a convenience store.

But at the time the report came out, this season's fresh produce was already growing in family, school and community gardens across the city – each plant a little green drop in the desert. The Detroit-based Garden Resource Program Collaborative currently works with 220 family gardens, 18 school gardens and 114 community gardens in the city of Detroit. That's up significantly from just three years ago, when participants included 39 community and school gardens combined and 41 family gardens.

"Community gardening is growing by leaps and bounds in the city," Hahn said.

MSU Extension, along with the Detroit Agriculture Network, the Greening of Detroit and Earthworks, make up the Garden Resource Program Collaborative.

The collaborative provides low-cost training, seeds and plants, lends tools and gives gardeners access to compost. And in Detroit, where major grocery stores are very few and very far between, community gardens give people in the city access to good, fresh food.

One work group developed a Grown in Detroit label to promote locally grown fruits and vegetables sold at five different Farmers' Markets this past summer. The collaborative's Urban Roots program trains people not only to grow food in community gardens, but also to organize the community to keep the garden going. Community gardens don't usually fail because things won't grow, Hahn explains. They fail because of organizational problems. And in a city that doesn't officially support urban agriculture, zoning and water access hurdles can add to the burden.

"Urban gardening is one of our best ways to provide the city with food security," Hahn said. “…We could definitely use some support for it in the city of Detroit."

Cultivating friendships

In Ann Arbor, Project Grow operates community gardens at 10 sites on property lent by the landowners. The organization tries to situate its sites in neighborhoods, within walking or biking distance of the people who use them. Gardeners lease the 25'x30' plots for $120 a year ($47 for half a plot.)

"Our mission is to give people the space, education and inspiration to make organic gardening accessible for all," said executive director Melissa Kesterson. "There's definitely a swelling interest right now in locally-produced and organic food. The problem we're having right now is finding places to put gardens."

Gardeners range from transient University of Michigan students to a small core of mainstays like Tom Scheper, who's been tending a Project Grow plot since 1978. Scheper, site coordinator at one of the gardens, likes to grow produce he can't find in stores – special tomato and chili pepper varieties and some of the more fragile herbs.

Like enthusiasts of any ilk, Project Grow gardeners are eager to share what they know; members lead several of the classes Project Grow sponsors – ranging from heirloom and organic gardening to gardening with low vision. Though each tends their own garden there's a sense of community among those who work the same patch of sometimes-stubborn soil.

About five years ago gardeners at Scheper's site noticed one elderly newcomer struggling to get her materials to a plot near the back of the garden. They helped her get a new plot closer to the street, then helped her move in, clearing leaf litter off the plot and digging trenches so the heavy soil there would drain.

"She has the best green thumb of anybody out there," Scheper said.

With abundance, of course, comes the eternal question, "Um, does your family eat zucchini?"

In Bloomfield Hills Lisa Yamin's plots have produced tomatoes, cabbage, beans, peas, onions, lettuce, herbs, eggplant and, of course, the obligatory overgrown zucchini-that-ate-Cleveland. There's far more than her family will eat, but that's never been a problem.

"Mostly I give it away." Yamin said. "I wish I could (can it all) but I can't. Besides it's fun to give it away. It's a good way to meet neighbors and make friends."

Amy Whitesall is a Chelsea-based freelance writer. Her work has appeared in the Ann Arbor News, the Detroit News and Seattle Times. Her previous article for metromode was A Cool Commute.


Grown in Detroit (photograph by Marvin Shaouni)

Aerial photo of the corn maze at Charles L. Bowers School Farm (courtesy photo)

Irrigation going in at Earthworks (courtesy photo)

Heirloom vegetables at Project Grow (courtesy photo)
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