For two Buckeye gardens, visual message as important as practical benefits
Reggie is snapping photos of the Possibilitarian Garden with a couple of friends when Seth, Julia and I step outside on a cool Tuesday morning.
“I’m sending pictures to Fox 8 News,” he says, with his familiar grin. “They’re always showing people’s gardens.”
We introduce ourselves to the friends. They’re old neighbors, and Reggie’s loaning them some house paint. He wanted to show them how much better the lots look today compared with when they had “old, burned out houses” on them not too long ago.
The garden sits on two empty, side-by-side lots just south of the house where Seth and I are living.
“The vegetables are looking great, too,” I say. They really are: Most crops are at least twice the size they were when we moved in, lush and green.
“Oh, I don’t care about any vegetables,” Reggie says. “I can get those anywhere. I just like the way it looks.”
Aesthetics aren’t always top of mind in discussions of community gardening. They often come second to considerations such as economic development and improving access to healthy food.
But for the Possibilitarian Garden, the visual message the garden sends about the resilience and cohesion of the surrounding neighborhood is at least as important as those more pragmatic benefits.
“We want people to feel that is this is not just a street but a place,” says Diana Sette, who owns our house with her husband Daniel and co-organized the garden with neighbor Liz Bartee. “Even if the goal is to simply bring people to a stop as they wonder at the blossoms of a flower - well, that is a glorious moment, indeed.”
All that is part of the reason the Possibilitarian Garden was awarded $2,000 by the Neighborhood Connections grants program - which provides $500 to $5,000 in support of Cleveland resident groups' grassroots community projects - in May. It’s also supported by Summer Sprouts, Ohio State University Extension’s technical assistance and funding program for community gardens.
Community gardens are perhaps the most common use of Cleveland’s growing inventory of vacant land - some 20,000 lots at last count. Ohio State University Extension alone supports 200 gardens in the city through Summer Sprouts.
Gardens are also one of the more sustainable repurposes of land over time, both because of their ongoing ability to provide food and, to Reggie’s point, because of their potential to improve neighborhood aesthetics and bring neighbors together for work sessions and harvests.
Nico Boyd, program coordinator for community development at Ohio State University Extension’s Cuyahoga County office, tells me those benefits are especially important in places such as Buckeye, where struggles with vacancy and crime are part of daily life.
“In low-income neighborhoods,” Nico says, “a lot of residents are transient. So having a community garden is nice because it’s something lasting. In spite of people coming and going, you have that group of residents who are invested, and when people drive by they see that people care about it and that’s important.”
In choosing which gardens to support, he says, the visual message isn’t as important as a garden’s potential economic impact or ability to improve access to healthy food.
“But on a personal level,” he says, “it’s something that matters to us a lot.”
On the spectrum of the city’s gardens, Possibilitarian is one of the more ambitious. Diana, who co-manages the garden with neighborhood residents including Reggie and Liz, tells me she envisions a full-blown permaculture garden-farm and community space here.
More raised beds are on tap, and in the rear, there’ll be an “edible forest” of fruit and nut trees, native wildflowers and perennials. Through the middle, she’s planning an aisle of berry bushes and right up front, along the sidewalk, she and the neighbors will plant flower beds.
Someday, the ground floor of the house will become a classroom space and community center, Diana says, hosting classes in gardening and horticulture but also poetry workshops, puppet shows, concerts and community potlucks.
A few blocks away, at the Harvey Rice Branch of Cleveland Public Library, branch manager Ali Boyd (no relation to Nico) is doing his best to maintain a garden of decidedly smaller scale but even greater visibility.
He’s kneeling in front couple of raised beds right outside his library along busy E. 116th Street, shaking his head.
The tomatoes and lettuce look great, but a row of baby kale plants has been decimated, reduced to nothing more than shriveled stubs.
“Look at that!” he says, taking a break from the hedge-trimming to examine the damage. “Some animal or bug came through and wiped it all out!”
The other bed is in tough shape, too. It’s low-lying and too wet for anything to grow - except maybe rice, Ali jokes. It sits fallow for now.
Still, this is progress compared with the past few years, when no one planted the beds at all. This season, Ali decided he’d take on the responsibility himself, along with a few friends. Today he’s joined by Tanese Horton, a community engagement manager at Harvey Rice Wraparound school, directly adjacent to the library; and Ginaya Willoughby, branch manager at the library’s E. 131st Street location.
They’ve made a ritual of working on the beds and surrounding landscaping for an hour each Wednesday before biking down to Wade Oval Wednesdays, the outdoor festival series in University Circle.
(Volunteers - yeah, that could be you! - are welcome to join either or both activities. Just meet in the rear of the library any Wednesday at 6 p.m., weather permitting.)
The trip to Wade Oval is how the friends motivate themselves to work efficiently.
“What time is it?” Ali asks Ginaya at one point.
“6:40,” comes the response.
“Twenty more minutes,” he says.
He’s itching to get to tonight’s concert for because the featured performers are a reggae band. He moonlights as a drummer in the popular local reggae outfit Umojah Nation.
As with Possibilitarian, the garden’s reason for existence is both practical and visual. The practical application here is not so much food production as education. The gardens provide a learning opportunity for kids hanging out at the library and for students at Harvey Rice Wraparound.
While we’re working, a couple of boys - age 10 or so - wander over.
“You guys know the difference between weeds and plants?” Tanese asks.
Both shake their heads. She and Ali point out the difference. The boys join us in the work.
As for the visual impact, that may be even more important here than at Possibilitarian. E. 116th Street is one of the East Side’s busiest north-south arteries, with daily traffic counts exceeding 10,000 vehicles.
“I don’t want it looking all raggedy when people drive by,” Ali says.
He spends a few more minutes hacking away at a hedgerow behind the beds.
Then he and his friends clap the dirt off their hands and bag up the clippings.
They’re off to hear some music.