thumbs are in. West Michigan residents
are growing their own food and helping
feed their neighbors.
Photography by Johnny Quirin
is the daughter of a farmer, so growing her
own food isn’t a new concept. What’s
new to her — and to many other gardeners — is
the community aspect of planting, weeding
and harvesting. Community gardens are gaining
ground as more people realize the benefits
of getting their hands dirty and meeting
“Senior citizens have done this all of
their lives,” said Jansma, who is the unofficial
garden coordinator for the Hillcrest Community
Garden on Lyon Street. “Newer gardeners
are young professionals who are busy — but
getting out to the garden for a few minutes is
a great stress reducer. It gets people away from
what they must do. Gardening is a happy thing.”
Jansma is just one of many across the area — and
the country — who are turning to community
gardens as an outlet for their green thumbs.
The gardens are planted on plots of land with
adequate sunlight and water availability. Often
land is leased from the city, township or landowner,
though occasionally purchased by a neighborhood
association, as in the case of the Hillcrest
Garden. The land is divided into plots assigned
to gardeners by a small governing board. Gardens
may offer tools to share, may include dues and
written rules, and may offer ways for gardeners
to share extra food.
Vicki Garrett is projects coordinator for the
American Community Gardening Association based
in Columbus, Ohio. The organization has nearly
2,500 community gardens in its database, but
Garrett knows there are many more out there.
While the site and the services offered by the
ACGA are popular, funding for the nonprofit is
hard to come by.
“If we were getting funds based on popularity,
we’d be rolling in money,” said Garrett.
She attributes the increased interest in gardening
to concerns about global warming, higher fuel
prices, the crumbling economy and food scares
in recent years. Gardens offer a cheaper, more
wholesome alternative to food purchased at traditional
“Also, in food deserts such as urban areas,
it’s great to be able to grow your own
nutritious, quality food,” Garrett said.
Jenn Vanden Hout
and 3-year-old Aiden Adams work at
Heartside Park, where vegetables are
free for the picking to Heartside residents.
Gardening Association reports a 19 percent increase
in the number of households planning to grow
their own produce from 2008 to 2009 — up
7 million from last year’s nearly 37 million.
According to the NGA, food gardens can yield
a $500 return based on investment and price of
Interest in local community gardening has seen
growth, as well. Jansma couldn’t fill Hillcrest’s
100 plots three or four years ago; last year
she was able to offer full or half plots to everyone
on her waiting list. This year she’s got
more than 40 on the waiting list and no plots
left. She’s now dividing plots, which are
25 feet by 50 feet, into halves and quarters.
“The original goal is to grow your own
fresh food so you know how it’s been grown,” she
said. “But people usually grow more than
they can use, so gardeners’ families and
coworkers benefit, and we’ll give food
to elderly neighbors. We’re working with
the Northeast Food Pantry to give our excess
food to them.”
Dave and Jen Kirchgessner have been gardening
at Hillcrest for about five years, now bringing
their three children, ages 2, 4 and 8, with them.
Dave remembers gardening there in the 1970s with
“The garden has been an education for me,” he
said. “I used to go buy a tomato plant
and plop it in the ground. Now I’m buying
heirloom seeds and starting them in March or
so, and I’m saving seeds from previous
The Kirchgessners have 12 varieties of tomatoes,
peas, lettuce, peppers, raspberries, herbs, soybeans
and strawberries growing in their garden. And
the children love to help.
“They enjoy being outdoors, and it’s
cool that there is always something for them
to eat at the garden,” Kirchgessner said. “It’s
so much easier to get them to eat their vegetables
when they’ve had a hand in growing them.”
Community gardens are just one aspect of a larger
interest in local food systems. In 2002, Tom
Cary helped found the Greater Grand Rapids Food
Systems Council, an organization dedicated to
food justice issues such as affordability and
accessibility of local food.
“One of the challenges to the local food
movement is that it tends to cater to wealthy,
upper-middle-class white people — sort
of a boutique thing,” said Cary. “There
is a strong interest in trying to make sure we
are improving and creating opportunities for
economic development so lower-economic level
and diverse groups will have access to locally
The council has been instrumental in starting
urban community gardens as well as urging the
Southeast Area Farmers Market, located at the
corner of Franklin Street and Fuller Avenue,
to accept food stamps.
“Community gardens offer individuals who
are living in an apartment or place without property
the opportunity to garden,” said Cary. “People
can get fresh produce in a convenient and enjoyable
way, and get the taste and ripeness they want,
as well. They also serve to connect people who
haven’t gardened with people they can learn
Charlie Snedecker is garden co-chair for the
Heartside Downtown Neighborhood Association.
He helps run the Heartside Peace Garden at Heartside
Park. The garden features eight 4-by-8-foot raised
beds. Volunteers, who call themselves the Heartside
Gardeners, maintain the gardens that provide
vegetables free for the picking to Heartside
“We grow things that people can pick and
eat, such as beans, cucumbers, lettuce, spinach,
zucchini and tomatoes,” said Snedecker. “Ninety-five
percent of the time the people who pick from
the garden are people without a permanent dwelling
place, people in transition.”
While the food pantries and charities in the
area do an admirable job providing meals, Snedecker
is eager for area residents to enjoy fresh food. “It’s
nice to watch people enjoy eating something fresh
off the vine, to enjoy a homegrown tomato or
cucumber,” he said.
Rose Thomas plants tomatoes
at Hillcrest Community Garden on Lyon Street.
Snedecker has been instrumental is taking the
Peace Garden idea several steps further. The
Heartside Gardeners are involved in helping residents
of downtown’s Ransom Towers apartment complex
grow food. They also work with Grand Rapids Community
College culinary arts students to teach residents
how to cook with what they grow. The Heartside
group has been giving away five-gallon buckets,
dirt, rocks, plants and seeds to residents with
permanent housing to grow their own food.
“It’s hard to categorize the importance
of growing your food and the empowerment that
comes from that,” said Snedecker. “You
aren’t dependent on grocery stores and
are part of the whole growing experience.”
Cynthia Price, cofounder with Cary of the Food
Systems Council, sees only growth in the future.
She estimates there are 45 area community gardens
and would like to see that increase to at least
200 by 2019.
“I would like to see more yield, and an
increase in the status of community gardens and
urban agriculture,” she said. “I
would also like to see Grand Rapids have an understanding
of the economic benefits of gardening: to see
people creating businesses selling produce or
making products from that produce — to
see a whole system of green jobs.
“Most people see urban and community gardens
as a little tiny bandage to the food problem,
but I don’t see it that way at all. Around
the world, urban agriculture provides much food.
I would like everyone to know how to grow their
own food. That doesn’t mean everyone will
do it, but they should at least know how.” GR
Ann Byle is a freelance writer based in