Source: Grosse Pointe News Online

Digging around
The Backyard garden in Grosse Pointe Park nourishes more than produce. It cultivates friendships and community spirit, served with a side of home-grown vegetables.

by Kathy Ryan

July 15, 2010

It is hard to imagine, amid the rows of corn, carrots, beans, lettuce, sprinklers, birds nests and scarecrows that this plot of land was nothing more than a vacant lot just a few months ago.

Now reclaimed and renamed “The Backyard,” this urban garden at the corner of Mack and Wayburn in Grosse Pointe Park is producing more than fresh vegetables for the families that have come together to participate in the Park’s newest community garden.

“This has been a great experience,” said Mary Martin of Grosse Pointe Park. “It has brought together people who are anxious to share their gardening experience with people who have never done any gardening. Very few of us knew each other before this.”

And that is the essence of the spirit behind community gardens.

According to the American Community Garden Association, a community garden is simply defined as “any piece of land gardened by a group of people.” But the association embraces a broader definition of the benefits of these gardens, citing improving the quality of life for people who participate as a main benefit, along with providing a catalyst for neighborhood and community development, social interaction and providing nutritious food.

Let’s not forget the fun.

“This was my daughter Lauren’s idea,” explained Amie Reno, who lives just a few doors away from the garden. “I have to admit that I am normally a plant killer, so I have learned to rely on everyone else for real gardening advice. Other than growing some tomatoes in the backyard, this is our first experience with a real garden, and I have to say it has been a lot of fun.”

Her daughters, Chelcie, 6, and Lauren, 7, are both active in the garden.

“I usually water,” Lauren said. “I also collect worms from our backyard and bring them here.”

Her sister, Chelcie, was busy watching over killdeer eggs that were resting between rows of vegetables, proving community gardens are not just for the benefit of the gardeners.

“The garden has really given life to this corner,” said gardener Shannon Byrne of Grosse Pointe Farms. “People stop by and tell us how great it looks.”

It wasn’t always looking good. The garden sits on the site of the former Grumpy’s, a restaurant destroyed by fire in the 1990s. A landfill, the soil was tested for contaminants before the first row was hoed. The lot is now privately owned, and the owner is allowing it to be used by the gardeners.

“I was part of the construction crew,” said Matt Martus, whose wife, Heather Bendure, is the garden’s coordinator. “It was a mess of dirt and concrete. We had a lot of debris to clear, then we erected the fence.”

Then he added with a laugh, “Even with all that work, it doesn’t get me out of weeding.”

Construction, weeding, watering are all jobs shared equally among the 43 participating families. They pay $25 for dues, which cover the cost of seeds, compost and fencing. The garden “season” runs for 20 weeks, with two work days scheduled each week. But gardeners often stop by more often, making sure the watering is done and the weeds are kept under control.

And when beans, peas or lettuce are ready to be harvested, workers are welcome to take their pick.

“We work on the honor system,” Bendure explained. “People can drive by and take what they need. On work days, we pick what is ready to be harvested and we share.”

And they share in a very green learning experience.

“It seems that everyone has a different reason for wanting to be part of a community garden,” Bendure said. “But the most popular reason seems to be that people have a real interest in locally grown organic produce. We have several experienced members who are anxious to share their knowledge with the rest of us.”

This is the second community garden in Grosse Pointe Park. Grayton Garden was planted last year by Park resident and business owner Betsy Breckels. She brought neighbors together for their first try at a community garden, and the group’s success from last year brought them back to work the small garden at the corner of Mack and Grayton. Breckels, according to Bendure, has been happy to share her expertise with The Backyard.

Also anxious to support community gardening was the Park’s beautification commission which sponsored a seminar in March for anyone interested in the concept. According to the commission’s chairman, Bob Ramsey, more than 100 people turned out to meet with Wayne County master gardeners and city officials on the ins and outs, the do’s and don’ts of such an undertaking.

The seminar planted the seed, so to speak, for neighbors to work with city officials on developing The Backyard. What began with a vacant lot on Mack has now spread to two other nearby lots, one designated for spreading plants such as pumpkin and watermelon, and another that is home to the potato condos.

Potato condos?

“Apparently we were the last people to figure out that potatoes can grow vertically,” Bendure said with a laugh, as she explained the concept of the above-ground, four-foot deep bins that can hold up to 100 pounds of spuds. “The potatoes begin growing in the ground, and we add more soil to form more ‘ground.’ Then we begin harvesting from the lowest level. We expect to start pulling slats from the bottom and harvesting potatoes in a few weeks.”

While the garden also provides a lesson in agriculture, it also provides lessons in recycling as well.

“If you notice the tomato cages, you’ll see they are actually rebar from concrete projects,” Martus said.

A compost pile provides fertilizer and worms, thanks to the Reno girls, are relocated to the garden’s soil.

And while the benefit of a community garden is easily seen in the on-going harvest of fresh produce, it is the benefit of friendship that is often cited as the most valuable product.

“It just provides a real sense of community,” Bendure said.

And that is exactly what the beautification commission was hoping for when it agreed to be the guiding force behind community gardens in Grosse Pointe.

“It brings together people who never would have known each other,” said Ramsey. “And it is a wonderful experience for the children.

“It teaches them to care about their community. It helps them realize that they are citizens of the world and there is a benefit in coming together for a common good.”