Life at Kentucky Garden

While our NWIS scientists enjoyed their long summer break, our zebra mussel shell experiments continued in backyard gardens and over at Kentucky Garden in Ohio City. It is a convenient place to garden, since it is located directly across from Near West Intergenerational School.

welcomepotI made a connection to the garden after shadowing University of Akron Professor Elizabeth Erickson. Liz is head of the youth garden club at Kentucky Garden, and I met her while she was mentoring some of the fifth- and sixth-graders I’m working with on my zebra mussel shell project. Liz has been running the garden club since 1998, and she makes certain her workshops carry over into the spring, summer and fall, too.

When you watch Liz and her volunteers work with the kids, you get a real sense that these kids are right where they’re supposed to be. They hunch down with their garden tools and play with bugs, smoothing the soil and delicately handling seeds, herbs and baby seedlings. I occasionally pop in to watch Liz and her kids in action, and I let everyone show me a thing or two. “Here’s a piece of Ohio for you,” said one of my students, who held up a piece of metal, while tilling the soil. “Oh, hey, and here’s another!”

Volunteer manager Michael Mishaga is all about the excitement that Kentucky Garden offers the kids. Once a Victory Garden that aided in the war effort, Kentucky Garden still has an element of civic mindfulness. Gardeners there continue to keep things 100 percent recyclable, and occasionally you will find old rusted pipes and abandoned or repurposed parts that have been arranged along fence lines and flower beds. But the beauty is in all those unique fruits and vegetables, like plums and peppers, peaches and herbs, apples and figs, and of course, black, red and yellow raspberries, gooseberries and red currants, too.

As I walked around the garden with Michael, he was enthusiastic about my composting project and how I was teaching youth to recycle organics. “I collected zebra mussel shells at Edgewater,” Michael explains. “I had written permission, so I was allowed to collect and pulverize them, then added them to the soil. I figured it would slowly return the calcium and magnesium it needed.”

Over in Ohio City, gardeners are blessed with an interesting mix of sandy loam in some areas and clay loam in others. Some attribute that rich soil to the proximity of Lake Erie, which makes sense, because this soil is a lot easier to work with than the soil I have in Old Brooklyn.

kidplotHere at the garden, projects are happening in every corner, as far as the eye can see. The kids are growing interesting tomatoes, like Celebrity, Abe Lincoln and Snow White. There are organic compost bins at the far end, and a rooftop apiary where 100,000 bees manage to make honey. Over in the greenhouse, folks can grow produce even in the harsh Cleveland winters.

At $8 a plot, Kentucky Garden is easy to afford. Once the water system gets upgraded, the garden will only continue to thrive and grow.

The layout of the garden can be overwhelming when you first arrive, but the proximity of plot-to-gardener makes it a true communal experience. “You can learn a lot from observing and listening to gardeners,” Michael said. “We’re at all different experience levels, but still trying to find our way.”

We walked along rows and I immediately felt connected to the plants and their habitants. I like to introduce myself and learn where everyone is from. There is Lorenzo, Fernando and Raymondo, the Italian immigrant farmers who are proud to show off a fig tree and other goodies. Mick hails from Serbia. Masud is a native of India.

I looked at the plaques outside the community building where gardeners can gather tools and wheelbarrows. One said “Dan Cardenas, 1927-2005 – good gardener, good friend.” Dan also built the shell fountain, which tells me that my experiments with mussel shells will be a welcome addition. Dan originally hailed from Mexico and worked as a foreman at one of the local steel mills.

Like the gardeners who worked here before us, shellfountain the history of Kentucky Garden is fascinating. It is located on a section of the very first reservoir in Cleveland, which stretched along Franklin Avenue all the way to West 32nd. There was a coal-fired pump station and huge tunnels that led all the way to Lake Erie that filled the reservoir for neighboring areas. “It was a place to gather … a promenade,” Michael explained.

The promenade (now Fairview Park) is still a focal point for Ohio City residents, where children play and families gather to picnic. So when I look out at Fairview, and then over to Liz, then the kids, and all those volunteer gardeners, it makes me realize how life sort of continues on, exactly the way it should.

As 6-year-old Poppy tells me:

“I know why the vegetables are so good. It’s because they don’t have to travel far!”

Yes, sweet Poppy. Way to speak out in favor of fresh, local food.