More than 100 years ago, you would have seen hundreds of patients working the fields of the old Northern Michigan Asylum in Traverse City for both therapy and sustenance.
Today, that 125-year-old farm is a working enterprise once again, thanks to an informal group of volunteers who’ve resurrected the Community Gardens at the Grand Traverse Commons.
“We’ve got 30 full garden plots now and most are pretty active,” says gardener Mike Haynes, adding that many of these are divided into half-plots of 12 by 30 feet -- more than enough for a family garden. “I think we have about 40 gardeners here now.”
The Community Garden spreads out 100 yards or more in the field between the Grand Traverse Commons and Silver Lake Road. At the far end lies a working farm operated by SEEDS, which offers after-school and summer gardening programs.
Nearby, workmen are finishing the renovation of two massive brick cattle barns, as well as a new cultural center for TC’s Botanical Garden project. Eventually, the Botanical Garden will encompass 20 acres, with cultural offerings similar to that of Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids.
Officially, this site is known as the Historic Barns Park, with sweeping plans to include concerts, dance recitals and educational events within the near future.
VOLUNTEERS TO THE RESCUE
But the more ramshackle, folksy Community Gardens packs just as much passion in the zeal of its volunteers, and it’s truly a ‘grass-roots’ effort. The allorganic, no-pesticide garden brims with greens, tomatoes, beans, corn, cukes, peppers, flowers, lettuce, collard greens, beets, carrots, chard… pretty much everything but squash due to a local problem with squash bugs.
Haynes notes that years ago, hundreds of cattle grazed in this field, enriching the soil with decades of manure. “As a result, this is really good soil for making things grow,” he says.
Haynes gained experience with student community gardens while attending the University of California-Davis.
“I always had a garden growing up and love fresh produce,” he says. “The thing I like about community gardens is that it’s people working cooperatively together.”
Early on, the former pasture was recognized as the ideal place for a community garden for all to share. The Little Artshram group established a small garden here and provided guidance for seven years prior to a tempest-in-a-teaspoon controversy about kids peeing in a bucket at a summer camp program for lack of toilet facilities.
With the garden project in disarray, a group of volunteers including Flint Horton, Luise Bolleber and Alex Campbell got together last year to get the Community Garden back on track.
“I’ve been here for four years now, raising food for my family,” says Campbell, who works for Bay Area Recycling and serves as president of the Community Garden. “I’ve got mostly beans and tomatoes in my plot now.”
A resident of the Grand Traverse Commons, Campbell learned gardening by volunteering on farms and working at CSAs (community supported agriculture).
He notes that one plot at the garden is dedicated solely to Food Rescue and has raised 150 lbs. of produce for local food pantries, which is loaded on a refrigerated truck every Wednesday.
That’s just a small part of the of the garden’s donation effort, however. Gary Harper, who serves as liaison to Food Rescue, says other gardeners also donate a portion of their crops. “Last year we donated just under 1,000 lbs. of food,” he says.
In terms of local real estate, you couldn’t ask for a better deal to get involved. A fee of $60 is charged for a full plot, with $30 for a half plot. The rest of it consists in your investment in elbow grease, tilling the soil, planting the crops and rooting out weeds.
Currently, volunteers are trying to get the word out on Community Gardens at the Historic Barns Park. They’ve got an email list of about 40-50 interested parties to keep in the loop and a Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/ CommunityGardenatHistoricBarnsPark. Or, email email@example.com.
You can also just stop by, every Wednesday from 10 a.m. to noon, or Thursday from 5-7 p.m. “It’s a good time to ask questions and get involved,” Haynes says.