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Secret Gardens of Kzoo

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Secret Gardens of Kalamazoo

Ssssshhh! I'd like to share a secret! Community gardens are quietly sprouting up all over Kalamazoo. Often hidden from view, one by one they are changing the landscape and health of our community for the better.

To understand exactly what community gardening entails, I went digging in search of expert green fingers and a model example. What I discovered is a blossoming network of organizations, and inspiring individuals coming together to make community gardening a success in Kalamazoo.

Karma Hassell is Program Coordinator at the Kalamazoo County Land Bank, and Common Ground, a collaboration that combines the efforts of the Kalamazoo County Land Bank, MSU Extension/Master Gardeners, and other Kalamazoo organizations.

Hassell described her perspective on community gardening, "I see it as effort to inspire and bring together neighbors and community members on one piece of land, to share garden plots, or create individual plots on which they can grow fresh food. The result is a more informed community, able to make healthier lifestyle choices, which in turn results in a better quality of life."

There are approximately 60 community gardens rooted in Kalamazoo. These include smaller church and school gardens along with larger scale projects planted to serve the food insecure. Examples include the WMU Community Garden, and the WeGrow to Give Community Project. Michigan State University also helps sponsors in collaboration with the Food Bank of South Central Michigan the Giving Garden. This is a volunteer project by the Master Gardeners of Kalamazoo County that donate all the food grown to Ministry with Community, Kalamazoo Loaves and Fishes.

The benefits of local community gardens include education for new gardeners of all ages, beautification of our landscape and improving safety in and around neglected and distressed land. Community gardens also are a great way to foster a strong sense of belonging and responsibility to nurture our planet.

As I dug deeper to understand how this works in practice I discovered an inspirational husband and wife team, Tomme Maile and Dale Abbott. They created The Trybal Garden on East Michigan Avenue to help neighbors grow healthy, safe, affordable food.

Maile, is a talented carpenter, who was busy building planters for this year's vegetable crop. He had also created a kitchen garden, a rain garden, an apiary, and with the help of volunteers tends a large orchard next door for Land Bank, Common Ground Community Garden Project. It's there the team grows wild raspberries, strawberries, pawpaw, persimmon, currants, and grapes, pears, peaches and cherries a complete fruit salad. Maile even hand built a worm compost to nourish this garden. At the front of the property sits a large tool shed he manages, that is the hub of the Common Ground tool lending program, housing equipment that can be borrowed by community gardeners in return for only five hours of volunteer time.

Maile suggested I visit a garden just steps away, at the Peace House on Phelps Street. The Peace House, (physically two homes on adjoining land), is run by Kalamazoo College graduates Jerry and Molly Mechtenberg-Berrigan and Mike and Jen DeWaele. This passionate team with groups of volunteers, is dedicated to promoting peace, justice and caring in their neighborhood, by nurturing children of all ages. Monday through Thursdays after school, they open their homes and provide up to 40 local children with nutritious snacks to eat, a safe place to play, and help with schoolwork.

Their garden, which includes a flock of chickens, plays an important role in their work. Jerry explained, "Each year we plant a pizza circle. During the summer, we teach kids to cook homemade pizza using the fresh tomatoes, onions and herbs. Kids also learn other life skills such as bike repair, community service and of course - gardening."

Over the summer months, the children are then given fresh produce to take home, assisted by donations from The Trybal and WMU gardens, encouraging healthy eating in the wider community. Very moved by the work they do - I committed to volunteering, on the spot!

So, what are the secrets to successful community gardening? Brenda Kolkman a retiree from a corporate career with Zoetis and now a trained master gardener who volunteers for the MSU sponsored Giving Garden Project laughed, "Well you should enjoy getting your hands dirty and of course like gardening." She then got down to grassroots of gardening by sharing, "It takes lots of patience, persistence, consistency of effort, many willing volunteers, good project leadership - and ongoing community resources."

At the start of this trail, I wasn't sure what I’d find amongst the quiet achievers in the often-concealed community gardens of Kalamazoo. There is excellent groundwork being done in our little corner of the planet. Our community gardeners are planting seeds for the success and well-being of today's children while inspiring future generations.

And now their secret's out! Community gardeners of Kalamazoo are calling you share your talents. Everyone is welcome in the gardens of Kzoo! Grab your rake and shovel, pull on your 'wellies' boots - get your hands dirty, and join in!

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