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Community Gardens

Green thumbs are in. West Michigan residents are growing their own food and helping feed their neighbors.

By Ann Byle
Photography by Johnny Quirin

Norma Jansma is the daughter of a farmer, so growing her own food isn’t a new concept. What’s new to her — and to many other gardeners — is the community aspect of planting, weeding and harvesting. Community gardens are gaining ground as more people realize the benefits of getting their hands dirty and meeting fellow gardeners.

“Senior citizens have done this all of their lives,” said Jansma, who is the unofficial garden coordinator for the Hillcrest Community Garden on Lyon Street. “Newer gardeners are young professionals who are busy — but getting out to the garden for a few minutes is a great stress reducer. It gets people away from what they must do. Gardening is a happy thing.”

Jansma is just one of many across the area — and the country — who are turning to community gardens as an outlet for their green thumbs. The gardens are planted on plots of land with adequate sunlight and water availability. Often land is leased from the city, township or landowner, though occasionally purchased by a neighborhood association, as in the case of the Hillcrest Garden. The land is divided into plots assigned to gardeners by a small governing board. Gardens may offer tools to share, may include dues and written rules, and may offer ways for gardeners to share extra food.

Vicki Garrett is projects coordinator for the American Community Gardening Association based in Columbus, Ohio. The organization has nearly 2,500 community gardens in its database, but Garrett knows there are many more out there. While the site and the services offered by the ACGA are popular, funding for the nonprofit is hard to come by.

“If we were getting funds based on popularity, we’d be rolling in money,” said Garrett.

She attributes the increased interest in gardening to concerns about global warming, higher fuel prices, the crumbling economy and food scares in recent years. Gardens offer a cheaper, more wholesome alternative to food purchased at traditional stores.

“Also, in food deserts such as urban areas, it’s great to be able to grow your own nutritious, quality food,” Garrett said.


Jenn Vanden Hout and 3-year-old Aiden Adams work at Heartside Park, where vegetables are free for the picking to Heartside residents.

The National Gardening Association reports a 19 percent increase in the number of households planning to grow their own produce from 2008 to 2009 — up 7 million from last year’s nearly 37 million. According to the NGA, food gardens can yield a $500 return based on investment and price of food.

Interest in local community gardening has seen growth, as well. Jansma couldn’t fill Hillcrest’s 100 plots three or four years ago; last year she was able to offer full or half plots to everyone on her waiting list. This year she’s got more than 40 on the waiting list and no plots left. She’s now dividing plots, which are 25 feet by 50 feet, into halves and quarters.

“The original goal is to grow your own fresh food so you know how it’s been grown,” she said. “But people usually grow more than they can use, so gardeners’ families and coworkers benefit, and we’ll give food to elderly neighbors. We’re working with the Northeast Food Pantry to give our excess food to them.”

Dave and Jen Kirchgessner have been gardening at Hillcrest for about five years, now bringing their three children, ages 2, 4 and 8, with them. Dave remembers gardening there in the 1970s with his parents.

“The garden has been an education for me,” he said. “I used to go buy a tomato plant and plop it in the ground. Now I’m buying heirloom seeds and starting them in March or so, and I’m saving seeds from previous years.”

The Kirchgessners have 12 varieties of tomatoes, peas, lettuce, peppers, raspberries, herbs, soybeans and strawberries growing in their garden. And the children love to help.

“They enjoy being outdoors, and it’s cool that there is always something for them to eat at the garden,” Kirchgessner said. “It’s so much easier to get them to eat their vegetables when they’ve had a hand in growing them.”

Community gardens are just one aspect of a larger interest in local food systems. In 2002, Tom Cary helped found the Greater Grand Rapids Food Systems Council, an organization dedicated to food justice issues such as affordability and accessibility of local food.

“One of the challenges to the local food movement is that it tends to cater to wealthy, upper-middle-class white people — sort of a boutique thing,” said Cary. “There is a strong interest in trying to make sure we are improving and creating opportunities for economic development so lower-economic level and diverse groups will have access to locally grown food.”

The council has been instrumental in starting urban community gardens as well as urging the Southeast Area Farmers Market, located at the corner of Franklin Street and Fuller Avenue, to accept food stamps.

“Community gardens offer individuals who are living in an apartment or place without property the opportunity to garden,” said Cary. “People can get fresh produce in a convenient and enjoyable way, and get the taste and ripeness they want, as well. They also serve to connect people who haven’t gardened with people they can learn from.”

Charlie Snedecker is garden co-chair for the Heartside Downtown Neighborhood Association. He helps run the Heartside Peace Garden at Heartside Park. The garden features eight 4-by-8-foot raised beds. Volunteers, who call themselves the Heartside Gardeners, maintain the gardens that provide vegetables free for the picking to Heartside residents.

“We grow things that people can pick and eat, such as beans, cucumbers, lettuce, spinach, zucchini and tomatoes,” said Snedecker. “Ninety-five percent of the time the people who pick from the garden are people without a permanent dwelling place, people in transition.”

While the food pantries and charities in the area do an admirable job providing meals, Snedecker is eager for area residents to enjoy fresh food. “It’s nice to watch people enjoy eating something fresh off the vine, to enjoy a homegrown tomato or cucumber,” he said.

Rose Thomas plants tomatoes at Hillcrest Community Garden on Lyon Street.

Snedecker has been instrumental is taking the Peace Garden idea several steps further. The Heartside Gardeners are involved in helping residents of downtown’s Ransom Towers apartment complex grow food. They also work with Grand Rapids Community College culinary arts students to teach residents how to cook with what they grow. The Heartside group has been giving away five-gallon buckets, dirt, rocks, plants and seeds to residents with permanent housing to grow their own food.

“It’s hard to categorize the importance of growing your food and the empowerment that comes from that,” said Snedecker. “You aren’t dependent on grocery stores and are part of the whole growing experience.”

Cynthia Price, cofounder with Cary of the Food Systems Council, sees only growth in the future. She estimates there are 45 area community gardens and would like to see that increase to at least 200 by 2019.

“I would like to see more yield, and an increase in the status of community gardens and urban agriculture,” she said. “I would also like to see Grand Rapids have an understanding of the economic benefits of gardening: to see people creating businesses selling produce or making products from that produce — to see a whole system of green jobs.

“Most people see urban and community gardens as a little tiny bandage to the food problem, but I don’t see it that way at all. Around the world, urban agriculture provides much food. I would like everyone to know how to grow their own food. That doesn’t mean everyone will do it, but they should at least know how.” GR
Ann Byle is a freelance writer based in Grand Rapids.

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