Northside Gardens: Creating beauty and community

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Northside series.

Every garden tells a story.

In a neighborhood graced by tall trees, large porches, and shady blocks, a handful of community and many backyard gardens grow and bloom. As former celery fields, the soil is rich and fertile, as many Northside gardeners know.

For James Pitts, longtime Northside resident, a large vegetable and fruit garden started this year in his Florence Street backyard has become a place to celebrate community and inspire other neighbors to garden.

Pitts, who used to garden with his family when he was younger, wanted to plant a garden to show his children and the children in the neighborhood how to be more self-sufficient. “Many times they think they have to go to the grocery store for this or that, “ he says. “They’ve never seen it actually grow from the ground. Picking your own food helps create a sense of independence.

“You don’t really have to depend upon a buyer society, you can really grow your own food. You never know when that time will come when you can’t go to the store,” says Pitts. “If you don’t know how to grow anything, you may find yourself in a pickle.”

Or without a pickle.

What Pitts didn’t expect is the degree of interest in the neighborhood his garden would draw. Once he put in his 25 by 25-foot garden, other neighbors asked for his help to till a garden of their own. 

And many more have dropped by to share the harvest, which has been plentiful, Pitts says. He planted tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, peppers, cabbage, and greens, as well as blueberries, strawberries, and melons. 

“You get to know your neighbors better, you get to know yourself better, as well as everyone else who’s helping with the garden,” says Pitts, who worked closely with his brother, a cousin, nephew and son. “It’s a team effort.

“My favorite part was just to kind of sit back and watch it grow. From flat dirt land to in a few weeks, there were big plants growing out there,” says Pitts. “Everyday you could go out there and you were growing food.

“I think there’s going to be a few more gardens come next year. “

Dreaming and plowing: A community garden and park transform a vacant lot

For David Jones, who grew up on the Northside, his Krom Street garden started with a dream, the kind that happens in your sleep.

In the dream, Jones, who now lives on the Westside of Kalamazoo, saw a series of steps that he would have to go through in order to create a garden park at the then empty Krom Street lot, which also happened to be his former home.

“In that dream, I was supposed to gather two pictures of the house that was here and next door and a document from the city,” he says. Those houses had since been demolished.

So in 2006, Jones contacted Habitat for Humanity who owned the lot his grandparents had owned with the photos and document. His grandmother, Lovey Jones, had always dreamed of a garden and park at her home, and since the lot was now vacant, Jones wanted to make the dream come true, even though his grandmother had passed.

After some persuading, Habitat for Humanity agreed to lease the lot to Jones. Two years later, they sold it to him for $200. And in cooperation with Fair Foods Matters, he created the Kadesh Community Garden, a launch that was covered by Channel 3 and Public Media Network.

With the help of Kalamazoo College and Western Michigan University students, Jones broke ground, but not with a motorized rototiller. He plowed it in cooperation with oxen brought by Tillers International.

“I like plowing the old-fashioned way,” says Jones, who owns a landscaping business. “When you have your hand on the little plow, that mule, that horse, you can only go forward. When you turn, the blade follows.

“You cannot plow backwards. You can only plow forwards,” he says. “Like in life, you can change your course if you put work into it.”

The tilling with oxen brought out the neighborhood, he recalls. “People were coming from all over,” he says, laughing. “One young guy said, ‘Man! They got bulls in the hood!'”

The Kadesh Community Garden enjoyed many years of success, but eventually, fewer people came out to help and it became too hard to maintain alone.

So Jones decided to transform the lot into a park that would be open to neighbors. At one point, however, because he was often picking up trash, he considered closing it. He came to the park one morning and found an older neighbor sitting and sobbing. “She said she came down here because it was the only peaceful place she had,” Jones says. “I had to check my spirit because I was going to close it up. When that happened, I said, let’s leave the gate open. You just never know what is a safe haven for someone else.”

Nowadays, Jones brings his 10-year-old son out to help him weed and mow. When he was tilling for the community garden, he unearthed unexpected relics of his childhood—marbles, spoons, forks, even an old pair of pliers. These treasures reminded him of his roots.

In honoring his past, Jones moves toward the future, like a “guy plowing a field.” It’s a message he takes to a family member who battled drug addiction and to youth at Lakeside Academy and the Kalamazoo County Juvenile Home. “You start breaking up that old life, and you have the room to plant anything new.”

Southwest Michigan Second Wave’s “On the Ground Northside” series amplifies the voices of Northside Neighborhood residents. Over four months, Second Wave journalists will be in the Northside Neighborhood to explore topics of importance to residents, business owners, and other members of the community. To reach the editor of this series, Theresa Coty-O’Neil, please email her here or contact Second Wave managing editor Kathy Jennings here.
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Read more articles by Theresa Coty O'Neil.

Theresa Coty O’Neil is the Managing Editor of Southwest Michigan Second Wave. As a longtime freelance writer, editor, and writing teacher, she has a passion for sharing the positive stories in Southwest Michigan and for mentoring young writers. She also serves as the Project Editor of the Faith in Action series and Project Lead for Battle Creek Voices of Youth.