Jill Jones of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, had watched with dismay as her inner-city neighborhood of Wellington Heights--once home to grand old houses and tree-lined streets--declined into falling-down buildings; trashy, empty lots; and a haven for drug dealers, arsonists, and vandals. She had always loved gardening, so when she helped organize a neighborhood association to rebuild the spirit and beauty of the community, it was only natural for her to get down on her knees and help plant 5,000 tulips on all the corners of the 80-plus block neighborhood. Little did she know that gardening would transform her neighborhood and her life over the next 12 years.
Jones led her community group in creating numerous gardens, and involved the schools, an elderly care center, a community corrections center, and many neighborhood families in growing plants for the gardens and saving seed. A children's garden is the site for weekly storytelling during the summer, and a market garden is in progress. In 1998, Jill Jones and the Wellington Urban Gardeners received a National Gardening Association Youth Garden Grant to help support their efforts with children. Recently Jones received an Urban Green-up Gardener of the Year award from the Scotts Company, which salutes volunteers who have helped beautify a neighborhood within their city and thereby significantly contributed to city pride.
A nurse by profession (she works with head and neck cancer patients at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics), Jill Jones wasn't new to therapeutic approaches to helping people, but she had never realized how therapeutic gardening could be. "My mom taught me the love of gardening early, but gardening has been a pure passion for the last 10+ years," says Jones. Gardening has been an organizing tool. Neighbors who might never have gotten involved with the neighborhood association get involved with the gardens, and get to know each other. The awareness of growing one's own food is a revelation to many. We have turned vacant, trash-filled lots into beautiful gardens and social places. Neighbors are planting their front yards, parking areas--anywhere they can plant to beautify the earth. Where once there used to be crack houses, now there are raised beds and butterflies."
In 1993, after Jones and fellow Wellington Urban Gardeners planted bulbs and created a large traffic island garden, she happened upon an article about the American Community Gardening Association. "I didn't realize we were in the beginning stages of community gardening," she recalls. "I went to one of their conferences, and I was like a giant sponge, soaking up all the ideas and information. I met gardeners from all over the country, and they invited me to see their gardens. The next year I went to Philadelphia and New York City. I was learning the whole philosophy of community gardening and about protecting our resources and bringing the land ethic to the urban environment."
A year later, when Jones' group was building the next garden in an abandoned lot, they sought donations of labor to construct 14 raised beds. When they invited neighborhood children to paint pickets of the fencing, 350 kids eagerly volunteered and over the next few months, they painted 254 pickets, each a work of art.
Children are welcomed--and recruited--to be involved in many of the community gardening projects. When the 5th Avenue Community Garden was being developed, the Wellington Urban Gardeners held a design contest for a sculpture for the garden. A fifth-grader, Ellen Fry, created a design of people holding hands in a circle. A local artist fabricated the sculpture, mostly out of stainless steel, and it was installed on a pedestal in the center of the garden. On Mondays throughout the summer, 25 to 50 neighborhood children gather around the sculpture for story hour. On Fridays, children help harvest and sell produce from the garden at the Garden Market. The garden hosts a Harvest dinner in September and a Haunted Garden on Halloween. Jones estimates that more than 500 children representing a diversity of ethnic groups (African American, Asian, Latino, and Middle Eastern) have been involved with this and other community gardening projects.
Jones supervises the summer maintenance of the gardens, but a hard-core group of 12 to 15 gardeners drive the programming of the entire project, and 60 to 100 people of all ages help in many ways. When it became clear that they needed to grow their own seedlings, a local carpenter built 10 handsome wooden plant stands, and the indoor Seed Project was born. The seed-starting process is now incorporated into the day-to-day activities of two elementary schools, a high school, a community corrections center, an elderly day care, and some of the neighborhood gardeners' homes. The project now produces more than 7,000 plants.
"We started this project to save money by growing our vegetables from seed," says Jones. "But we found that by involving children they learned the magic of how plants grow, and the process invested them in their community gardens. They valued the vegetables they grew as if they were prized possessions. They learned that tomatoes were not only round, and they savored the salsa we made from them. They learned geography by discovering where the seeds came from: rainbow swiss chard from Russia, tomatoes from the Czech and Slovak Republics."
The most recent project of the Wellington Urban Gardeners (WUG) began as a way to improve the nutrition of neighborhood families and save two vacant lots from being turned into parking lots. The Gateways Garden will eventually be a neighborhood market garden, as soon as the soil is well nourished. "Many neighbors, students from the McKinley Middle School, and women from a literacy center's transitional house next to the garden have all enthusiastically participated," says Jones.
Jones and her WUG associates have had to become savvy in soliciting donations and writing grants for gardening projects. They received grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and the East Iowa Presbytery for the Gateways Garden. In addition, many of the gardens have been created with product donations from small, local businesses and well-known giants, such as Wal-Mart, General Mills, Quaker Oats, and Pizza Hut.
The NGA Youth Garden Grant provided $750 worth of gardening equipment, and the Scotts award will provide $500 worth of products as well as a $1,500 cash award. Jones has her eye out for a greenhouse to start seedlings for the gardens.
Recognition has come not only from funding sources. In 1997 Senator Tom Harkin presented the Congressional Community Crimefighters Award to the Wellington Heights Neighborhood Association. The crack houses and drug trade are gone, and vandalism of the gardens hasn't even been a problem.
With the Iowa winter winding down and the gardening season approaching, Jones and her fellow community gardeners already have plans: to develop a 4-H project that involves neighborhood youth in various aspects of the gardens, assist a housing project in another neighborhood with starting a community garden, and help a church that wants to start a small garden with a youth shelter.
"Our community gardening movement is amazing," says Jones. We're just a small group with the belief that we can change our little niche in the world. We have created the gardens for so many reasons: food security, beautification, providing a connection to our land and food supply, preserving seed and plant diversity, and enhancing the neighborhood's health through a positive outlook of gardening. Gardens have become a more valuable part of our neighborhood than the drive to pave good land for parking lots!"
Kathy Bond Borie is co-director of educational media for National Gardening.