Late winter’s muck mood swings have passed, and while everyone in NEO is ready for warmer weather, community gardeners are especially impatient to turn the soil, nurture their seedlings and reunite with their neighborhood plot partners.
For the past 15 years, Argerie Vasilakes has tended at least one (sometimes two) 25-foot-by-25-foot plots at Ben Franklin Community Garden in her Old Brooklyn neighborhood. Established about 40 years ago, this five-acre site of 200 plots is the largest community garden in Cuyahoga County and serves as a model for others to follow. Ben Franklin has been awarded ribbons in the Best Community Garden category at the Cuyahoga County Fair since 2008, and its gardeners donate thousands of pounds of vegetables to local food banks, churches and pantries.
To Vasilakes, the community garden is a picture of “diversity in who gardens and what they grow.” Tangles of flowers, fruits and vegetables such as gourds, heirloom tomatoes, eggplants, hot and sweet peppers, peas, beans, greens, herbs, zucchinis, pumpkins, corn, sunflowers, and even Appalachian-inspired peanut plants and tobacco create a colorful patchwork of individual plots stitched together in threads of gold (insect-repelling marigolds are a required border flower around the perimeter of each plot).
In addition to community gardening, Vasilakes is enthusiastic about solo gardening. She’s contemplating the Food Not Lawns movement, where environmentally conscious homeowners swap their manicured lawns for aesthetically pleasing and community-directed permaculture gardens. But that’s no replacement for the joy she finds two blocks from home at Ben Franklin.
“Every time I step into this garden, I’m transported to a place of green that inspires me to be strong and beautiful, like the plants growing here,” Vasilakes says.
Why is community gardening superior to backyard gardening? Here’s Vasilakes’ list:
- Soil nutrients are perfect for nurturing growth after years of enrichment, whereas West Side soil is typically choked with clay.
- The sense of community encourages gardeners to learn from each other, share produce and gather together for communal meals.
- Beauty in diversity is everywhere to be seen.
- Membership provides access to premier local seed and feed sources.
- Civic involvement creates an urban green space, contributes local produce to local food banks and inspires further sustainability efforts.
- Gardeners learn different techniques for planting, weed barriers, insect and pest control, irrigation, plant support systems, etc.
Beyond all of those benefits, “My garden has been a huge mentor,” Vasilakes says. “It has helped me to slow down, slough off the cares of the day, and remind me of the joy of seeing the first blossom on the tomato plant. I experience renewed joy and awe every time I see another one.”
A partner at TimeZero Enterprises, Vasilakes provides organizational consulting services to corporate leaders. She uses models of symbiosis from natural ecosystems to inspire new growth, resilience and sustainability in workforce and management environments. No wonder she goes to the garden for guidance.
Vasilakes’ lessons learned provide food for thought.
“Instead of imposing my agenda on a given situation, the garden has taught me to appreciate what is and what it wants to be. I have learned to be in service while in leadership, to respect the interplay between control and emergence. If organizations could learn to be like a garden, we could learn to be resilient and flexible in the corporate world.”
More than 5,000 Cuyahoga County residents are committed to community gardening in 250 locations, with thousands of other community gardeners throughout the region. Many enjoy the support of the local Ohio State University Extension Office’s Urban Agriculture Program, which provides workshops, training courses, newsletters, print and online information, and technical assistance to community gardeners.
Anyone interested in joining, starting or maintaining a community garden may be eligible to enroll in the Summer Sprout Program — a partnership between the City of Cleveland and the OSU Extension office — providing soil testing, soil amendments, tilling services, plants, seeds, materials for raised beds, technical assistance and education since 1977.
Considering that food and agriculture represent the largest sector of Ohio’s economy (farms, processing, wholesaling, retailing and food service), the Buckeye State is considered ideal for community food systems. According to the OSU Extension Office, food and agriculture contribute $105 billion annually to the state economy and account for 14 percent of Ohio’s employment (1 in 7 jobs).
Statistics aside, the community garden provides a shared natural oasis in an otherwise stressful and isolating society. According to a National Gardening Survey, more than six million Americans took up gardening last year, citing social, ecological, health, spiritual, physical, political and local food sourcing motivations. If you seek a richer connection to the land, its food and community, you just may find it all in the garden.
Where Gardens Grow
A couple of summers ago, CBS Cleveland published “Best Community Gardens In Cleveland.” Their list included:
Ben Franklin Community Garden
2339 Broadview Road, Cleveland
The Community Gardens of Shaker Heights
3623 Rolliston Road, Shaker Heights
Lakewood “LEAF” Community Garden
LEAF Community, PO Box 770374, Lakewood
Upon further online digging, Cleveland gardeners can also find:
East 45th Community Garden
1589 E. 45th St., Cleveland (between Payne and Superior avenues)
Trinity Cathedral Urban Farm
2230 Euclid Ave., Cleveland
Cleveland Cultural Gardens
1163 E. 40th St #205A, Cleveland
1366 W. 74th St., Cleveland
Sponsored by the Cleveland Clinic
East 105th Street, Cleveland
Cleveland Crops/Solutions At Work Inc. Cuyahoga County Board of Developmental Disability
Estelle Rodis-Brown is a freelance writer and photographer from Northeast Ohio whose insatiable curiosity secures her enduring commitment to lifelong learning, wellness and the pursuit of adventure.