EVANSVILLE, Ind. (AP) - They may look like muddy plots now, but in the coming months vacant lots and empty fields around Evansville will bloom and overflow with fresh produce.
Several neighborhoods and communities this year are independently transforming unused urban land into lush community gardens. It's a trend that's gained popularity nationwide, and there are at least nine in the Evansville area. Local organizers say the act of gardening brings together and elevates a community, provides the people who live there with fresh, nutritious foods, and educates children about where food comes from.
The look, layout and contents of any single community garden vary widely by community. Some gardens are designed by a few dedicated volunteers for optimum food production. Others are divided into many small plots that individuals can claim. Still others are built specifically to educate children.
That's the mission of the Tri-State Food Bank's Kid's Crop Garden, said Kim Sievers, who heads the food bank's donor relations and fund development. She also coordinates the five-year-old garden.
"A lot of kids that live in the inner city live in apartments," she told the Evansville Courier & Press (http://bit.ly/18SAkqI ). "I like to tell this story, one year (during a summer program) I pulled the husk off some corn and this kid said, 'Wow, we thought corn came out of a can.' They had no idea you could grow food. Nobody thought to tell them."
This year, Sievers has a group of Girl Scouts helping with the garden. She plans to grow mainly tomatoes and watermelon, the food bank's most popular produce. Sievers says the food bank needs more volunteers with gardening experience.
The Patchwork Central Community Garden — possibly Evansville's oldest, started in 1995 — has a more bountiful harvest. A few dedicated volunteers grow an array of fruits and vegetables on its nearly 50-square-foot garden. Patchwork Central, a faith-based community outreach group, uses the garden to supplement its food pantry and teach children about gardening during its summer programs, said Executive Director Amy Rich.
The Glenwood neighborhood community garden also yields a large produce supply thanks to dedicated volunteer gardeners, said Shirly Williams, the head gardener at the Glenwood Neighborhood Association.
Glenwood's garden, which was started three years ago, is at the Glenwood Leadership Academy.
"The first thing you've got to have is enthusiasm," Williams said. "If you can get eight, nine, 10 people willing to work in the garden, and you can get a piece of land, then you can get a garden started."
It also takes a suitable location and money, Williams said. The ground must be tilled every year, and tillers can cost several hundred dollars. The plot must also be connected to a nearby water source. Then there's the cost of seeds and plants.
Still, at least four Evansville area groups plan to start gardens this year, all in low-income areas.
Westbrook Evolution, a new nonprofit group working with children who live at the Westbrook Mobile Home Park, has asked the Southwestern Indiana Master Gardener Association to help it get started.
One Life Church and its community engagement team are planning gardens in three low-income neighborhoods. A garden in Howell Park is open for community members to come plant in. By next spring, the group hopes to have a garden established in Jacobsville Park.
"The Jacobsville neighborhood is the poorest census track south of Indianapolis," said Austin Maxheimer, the director of Life Groups. "If you raise the quality of life for the poorest income track, the rest of the city will rise, too."
Maxheimer said he hopes the neighbors will make the garden their own.
"They're going to have to own it in the long term," he said. "We can come in and raise money, but they're going to have to own it."
Melodie Shrader is building 25 raised beds on a vacant lot she owns on Washington Street in Henderson, Ky. Shrader plans to name it the East End Community Garden. A group of volunteers will maintain 8 beds and donate the produce to area food banks, she said.
The other 17 beds are free for anyone to claim.
"A garden can change the way you think about a neighborhood," Shrader said. "My hope is that it will not only be an inspiration, but it will take on the personality of those who participate."
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