80 Community Gardens Thrive in Columbus

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Mary Simon shows Willie Alexander how to grow vegetables in a community garden on Ellsworth Ave.
Mary Simon shows Willie Alexander how to grow vegetables in a community garden on Ellsworth Ave.

Some Columbus central city residents are enjoying the fruits of their labors: They’re picking fresh produce from their community gardens. The Franklin Park Conservatory, the City of Columbus and others are encouraging people to start gardens on vacant lots.

Jeannetta Holliman and her husband George are mulching flowers in a community garden near the intersection of Ellsworth Avenue and Columbus Street, 40 blocks east of downtown. “Alright George, do you have my gloves?”

Even though it’s tucked in between two faded wood frame houses in the Driving Park neighborhood, the gardeners, and the greens, attract a lot of attention. But there’s more here than just collards and okra. Jeannetta Holliman has planted a variety of vegetables in her plot close to the street.

“Well I have pole beans and cucumbers and these are bush beans here; cabbage, white potatoes and red potatoes there; Swiss chard and zucchini.”

“Swiss chard?”

“Yes! It’s delicious! It’s a delicacy!”

Holliman’s plot is 4-by-16-feet and is known as a “square foot garden.” But on a recent afternoon she and her husband were tending to the flower bed under a shade tree at the back of the property. George Holliman says they paid for the supplies themselves.

“I figure, you live here, you donate. That’s what I think a community garden is about. It’s about people in the community coming out and doing the work. And doing it together and reaping the benefits and getting to know each other,” he says.

“A lot of people ask me, Do you live around here?’ and I am so glad to say Yes, I live one street over.’ I am part of this community,” Jeannetta Holliman adds.

This is one of about 80 community gardens that receive some sort of backing from Franklin Park Conservatory’s Growing to Green program. Coordinator Bill Dawson was standing on the sidewalk when a young mother drove up and started asking questions.

“I think she saw the people first,” Dawson says. “It’s always great to see activity in a neighborhood especially if it’s good. And good dispels the bad. And I’m sure she noticed the flowers at the entrance and maybe somebody weeding or picking vegetables. So she’s probably curious about it.”

The man who started this garden is David Glen. He was prompted in part by a need to include more fresh vegetables and fruits in his diet. Grocery stores are few and far between in this part of town. And Glen would like to see more of his neighbors growing their own food; which means they’ll be eating more fresh produce.

But it’s not just about growing things. The gardeners here see this green space as one way to draw the community together. Willie Alexander, who’s already begun harvesting from his plot, says he plans to share some of the produce with his neighbors.

“We had some tomatoes the other day and some peppers and they was good, too. When we get ready to do the greens we’ll let everybody share. We can’t eat it all, that’s for sure.

Now he’s growing cabbage, collards, okra, some kale and a few watermelons. When he needs advice, he gets it from a woman named Mary Simon.

“Mary’s a lot of help for us. She lets us know what’s a weed and what ain’t,” Alexander says.

Simon is an advocate who owns several city lots that host community gardens. She also volunteers her expertise to get novice gardeners going.

“Some people we have now have never even taken care of a house plant,” Simon says.

So Simon teaches the less-experienced how to plant and thin different vegetables and when to get rid of those that don’t work out.

“Willie, the radishes are not going to do well now because it is too hot. So you need to pull them up. And if you put a fence in between, plant cucumbers, the cucumbers will grow up the fence.”

For Alexander, it’s especially fulfilling, he says, to watch his garden grow and to see neighborhood children get involved.

“Last year a little girl seen a watermelon. She said she’d never seen a watermelon on a plant. She said she’d always seen them in a store. You know she just lit up like a Christmas tree. That was fun to see her reaction.

The city leases the lots it owns for $1 a year. In return, community gardeners get a season-long supply of fresh produce. More than 10,000 pounds of produce have been donated to food banks and people in need in the past several years. Franklin Park’s Lexie Stoia says much of the return on the investment is immeasurable.

“You can just get the vibe. People see it as a positive thing,” Stoia says. “This is just a place even beyond gardening for them to meet with their neighbors, have a cookout, have a block party and stuff like that.

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