Published May 3, 2009, in the Democrat and Chronicle
By Karen Miltner
When the multifamily house at 325 N. Union St. was demolished, the remaining space was nothing but weeds, rocks and patchy grass.
But last spring, the landscape changed dramatically.
Rocks were hauled away. The ground was tilled, ornamental cherry trees were planted, hand-crafted flower planters and benches were installed, and over the next several months, surrounding beds grew lush with marigolds, sweet peppers, lettuces, celery, zucchini and collard greens.
Passers-by came not only to admire the evolving vista of edible greenery but also to take home free baskets of fresh vegetables. In a neighborhood riddled with crime, trash and dilapidated houses, Marketview Heights’ community vegetable garden has so far escaped theft and vandalism.
“People respect the garden,” said Jim Affronti, a lifelong Marketview Heights resident and garden volunteer.
Community gardens - in which a group of people grow vegetables, fruits and flowers on public or private land - are springing up around the Rochester area.
They’re not only on inner-city vacant lots and neighborhood street corners but also in town parks, alongside churches, at neighborhood recreation centers and on school yards. This year there seems to be a bumper crop.
“Since the Obamas have put a vegetable garden on the White House lawn, we have had at least a couple dozen calls from community groups who want to start gardening this year,” noted Jan McDonald, director of Rochester Roots, a nonprofit organization that develops school- and community-based urban agriculture education programs. Rochester Roots has established city schoolyard gardens at School 9, School 2 and the Franklin Montessori School.
Earlier this winter, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced plans to create community gardens at U.S. Department of Agriculture facilities worldwide. These gardens will put organic and sustainable methods at the forefront.
Bobby Wilson, president of the American Community Gardening Association who attended a roundtable discussion with Vilsack in late March on inner-city agriculture and community gardens, is encouraged by such initiatives.
“This is first time that I have known the secretary of agriculture to have community gardens on his watch. … With that alone, we are starting to see the movement catch fire and spread,” he said.
Wilson and other community garden enthusiasts note multiple benefits, from beautifying and uniting neighborhoods and creating income opportunities and economic development to providing affordable, healthful foods, exercise and recreation to participants. For example, Affronti, a two-time heart attack survivor, attributes the vegetables and activity he gets from working in the garden as a key to his weight loss and health improvements over the past year.
Christina Mitchell Grace, manager of the Urban Food Systems Program for the state’s Department of Agriculture and Markets, estimates there are at least 1,000 community gardens throughout New York and more than 10,000 in cities across the country. Ag and Markets’ community garden program, launched in 2007, helps individuals and groups find public land and community resources.
“That’s a lowball number, as community garden definitions differ among municipalities,” she says.
Since 1991, Rochester has issued free annual permits that allow residents and community groups to adopt and transform vacant lots into gardens. As the program grew more popular, the permit was updated in 2006 to include more guidelines that would help the growing number of applications, said Stacey Estrich, the city’s former horticultural technician who still works as a consultant for the city. (Estrich now is parks director for the town of Perinton.)
In 2006, there were about 60 such permits on the books. Last year, the tally was 300.
Applications must clear the city’s real estate department, which does not allow brownfields to be used in the program. From there, the city urges applicants to have the soil tested to gauge nutrient levels as well as the presence of heavy metals.
The city offers free spring and fall training classes, rototilling and compost (though city compost is not recommended for edible plants), and sponsors a plant giveaway for community groups each spring while the water department provides free hookups for community gardens, though groups are still responsible for paying the water bills, Estrich added.
The Marketview Heights community garden is one of 11 statewide to receive funding from the state Department of Agriculture and Markets this spring. The $4,000 grant will be used to develop food preservation workshops through Cornell Cooperative Extension for neighborhood residents who want to make their summer bounty last.
This is but one beautification project in the works this summer through the Marketview Heights Collective Action Project, said Pamela Reese Smith, community project manager at PathStone Corp. (formerly Rural Opportunities), who wrote the grant. Four other gardens are in the works along the North Union Street corridor, including a walking garden on the site of a former gas station.
Last year, she got the garden at 325 N. Union St. started on a shoestring budget of $600 along with plant and tree donations and coaching from the city. This year, her grant writing efforts have yielded a budget of $10,000, with grants coming from Realtors Charitable Foundation, Rochester Area Community Foundation and NeighborWorks Community Leadership Institute.
“We try to make a difference in one small area at a time,” said Reese Smith, noting that residents bordering each site have agreed to help with watering and caretaking.
Though community gardens have less of a draw in suburban areas where homeowners typically have enough space in their yards to grow flowers and vegetables, two Penfield garden centers are toying with the idea of offering land for such endeavors.
Country Way Garden Center’s co-owner Michele Slominski said she is “putting feelers out” to gauge interest for a community garden next year. In the meantime, Country Way will be a drop-off point for the Plant a Row initiative, where home gardeners can bring surplus vegetables, which will then be distributed through Foodlink. That program should be in operation by August, Slominski said.
Grossman’s Garden & Home CEO Larry Grossman has been looking for a church or community organization that could use the land, equipment and support his company is willing to provide at no charge. “This is a giveback, no strings attached,” he said.
Other local businesses and organizations are also eager to support community garden endeavors. Harris Seeds in Chili, for example, donates seeds and plants to numerous community gardens in the area while area schools and businesses donate labor, materials and equipment. For example, students at Edison Technical and Occupational Center built the planters and benches at the 325 N. Union St. garden.
While vegetable seed sales tend to spike during recessionary times, interest in home vegetable gardening is expected to drop off once prosperity returns, said Harris Seeds President Richard Chamberlin. But he believes community gardens will continue to thrive.
“City sectors want them. They involve families, kids and people of all ages. It’s good for everybody.”
Resources for community gardens
• Community Garden Program, New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets:
• American Community Gardening Association: www.communitygarden.org.
• For a city of Rochester community garden permit and information, call (585) 428-6770 or (585) 428-6755.
• Rochester Roots offers consultation for schools and community groups interested in starting a community garden. Go to www.rochester roots.org or call (585) 232-1463.