A Place To Grow

Eight-year-old Emily Van Dyke-Mathews isn’t sure what earthworms do for her garden soil, but she doesn’t need to worry. Emily is already a veteran gardener in Hillcrest Garden, the Fulton Heights Neighborhood Association Community Garden.

Nestled in the 1400 block of Lyon NE, Hillcrest Garden is a sunny patch of heaven for city dwellers seeking green space they can call their “own.” With one hundred plots of various sizes for lease, the garden is the largest community garden in the Grand Rapids area.

Beth Van Dyke, Emily’s mom, rented their first plot when Emily was just three.

“Emily and I turned into gardeners together,” Van Dyke said. “I love the idea of her knowing that food comes from the earth and not from the supermarket. We got addicted after the first year. It’s a real nice community of people. You chat with other gardeners and you kind of stroll through the gardens. It’s fun to watch what other people are growing.”

At three, Emily was an active participant, planting seeds and helping her mom water. This year, Emily has selected her plants and chosen her own planting space within her mom’s larger plot. She fences in her area to keep it separate. “I have two sections, with a path that goes between.” At last count, Emily has selected eleven different veggies, flowers, and herbs, including cherry tomatoes, sunflowers, and oregano.

While parks and recreation areas fill a need for city folk seeking green spaces, a sense of ownership or belonging is often missing. At Hillcrest, gardeners come together on common ground as they prepare the garden in the spring, swap growing tips and techniques throughout the season, and clean up in the fall.

Plots of Plants and People
In addition to trellises and beanpoles, the garden is dotted with the personal touches of the gardeners: vine-covered arbors, picket fences, lawn chairs, and even a patio table and umbrella. Some plots have flower borders, and some have gates that open onto the two-track lane used for vehicle access to each garden. A project to beautify the main entrance along Lyon Street is underway with benches, flowering trees, perennials, and labor donated by FHNA members.

“The garden is a very social thing,” said Norma Jansma, a long-time member of the FHNA Community Garden committee. “The man who has the patio table with the chairs and umbrella puts them in his plot for family and friends when they visit. A lot of the gardeners knew each other before they started gardening together, and there are a ton of new friendships made.”

Jansma is always amazed at the people who come to Hillcrest. “This year we have eighty-five gardeners. They range across all ethnic groups and income levels. We have gardeners who live in the inner city, one who lives near 44th street, and a couple of gardeners from the northwest side. There’s a family of Hondurans who garden here, and they bring their little kids and babies.”

Jansma is also impressed with the variety of plants. “You name it, you can see it out there growing—corn, squash, okra, greens. One gal grows broomcorn; it’s used for making old fashioned brooms.”

Homegrowin’ in the City
The gardeners who come to the community garden are there because they don’t have a yard, or their yard is too shady. Lois Huisman, who has been a member of the garden since 1981, falls into the shady yard category.

“If I had a sunny space at home, I’d garden at home,” Huisman said. “Gardening is part of my soul. I need to be doing it. Going to the community garden is what I need to do to be able to garden. It’s a wonderful thing for a city to have. A community garden should be something people look at when they’re looking to move into a neighborhood.”

The Hillcrest Garden committee strives to make the garden totally organic. Having control over what goes into her food is an important choice for Beth Van Dyke.

“I grew it, so I know it’s organic. [Hillcrest] has been organic for a few years, and we’re working to make all of our gardeners aware.”

One-quarter of the garden is devoted to perennials such as raspberries, blackberries, fruit trees, rhubarb, and asparagus. Three water lines provide city water to raised faucets that service four plots each. At the back of the property, one wall of the quaint utility shed sports a display of announcements, a map of the garden, and gardening regulations.

Cultivating Fun and Family
For over twenty years, Bill Blickley has been churning up the spring soil with a rototiller pulled behind his 674 International Harvester. “I used to plow and disk,” he said, “until I saw a guy do the same thing with a tractor-pulled rototiller. When I saw how smooth it left things, I went out and bought my own.”

Blickley drives his tractor the eight blocks from his home to the garden. “People stop me and ask what I’m doing driving a tractor in the city,” he said. “Sometimes I ask them, ‘Did you leave the gate open? I’m looking for my cows.’ I get a lot of funny looks.”

Though the gardeners revel in the harvest and sweet fruits of summer, the reward is even greater because their hard work is made easier by the camaraderie. In the words of one eight-year-old enthusiast:

“I think everyone should do it ‘cuz it’s really fun, and if you do it with your family it sort of brings you together and it makes you feel good because you’re doing things together.”

Photographs by AJ Paschka - All rights reserved

Photographs top to bottom:
Emily Van Dyke-Matthews and her mom Beth Van Dyke
Norma Jansma
Rain droplets on leaves
Bill Blickley plows Hillcrest Garden on his tractor (photo courtesy Norma Jansma)

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