On a recent visit to Cincinnati I stopped by the Civic Garden Center. I went in to ask a few questions and had the great luck to meet the community garden coordinator, Peter Huttiger, who introduced me to their program and some of the bountiful community gardens in the area.
Here is the interview with Peter and some pictures of the gardens.
What do you do with the Civic Garden Center and how does your program operate?
I am the Coordinator of Community Gardens with Cincinnati’s Civic Garden Center. We are seeing a very strong interest in community gardens. Like with everything there is an ebb and flow but right now there is a strong resurgence in gardening and you see a lot of organizations getting more involved. There is also enthusiasm for market gardening and the education and training associated with that.
We currently have 50 gardens in the greater Cincinnati area. Some are very small; one is a single planting pot at the Jimmy Heath Drug and Alcohol Rehabilitation House and the biggest garden has 50 plots. Our program is focused on a peer based model that aims to empower people so they can do things themselves.
To promote empowerment we have free community garden training that consists of 12 classes during the year divided into blocks on community development and management, garden construction and how to actually grow the food. We use a peer-led inquiry based approach so that people can explore and find out what is going to work best for them. There are menus of options on ways to do things but it is very flexible. We do site visits, help with garden design and provide basic support.
There are three components in our community garden outreach:
1. Community gardens
2. Schoolyard gardens – These are being integrated into the school curriculum
3. Youth Gardens – We have a program called Summer Sprouts that is an open gate program so a couple of times a week children can come to the garden without a registration fee. The kids help take care of the garden and there is place and activity based education that takes place. Madeline Dorger, our youth coordinator, and her interns model what to do. The children grow then harvest the food and make snacks and salsas. There are some formal nutrition lessons but the main goal is to modify eating habits through exposure.
How successful is the Small Sprouts approach in modifying eating habits?
We feel this is very successful. We are not doing long term evaluation but through journaling and interviewing the youth and their parents we are learning that children want to take food home, parents ask for recipes and we hear that people really like the program. In the gardens they cook on little stoves and use solar ovens. We have found we need to modify some of the recipes because some of the families just have microwaves. Relationships are built and we feel that changes are made. We prefer this type of program over bussing kids out to farms. Not that these programs are bad but we have decided on this approach. There are a lot of spin-off things that occur too; for example we talk about why it’s important not to litter and when people throw trash into the garden the kids feel upset.
How are gardens funded?
They are self-funded for the most part. The Civic Garden Center is a non-profit organization that gets grants and donations and there are lots of small donations. Over the last couple of years we have also gotten some money from the city. The city currently has an urban agriculture program that helps pay for training, technical support and garden funding. One of the biggest issues we have is getting water into the gardens and this fund can also help pay to get a tap put into the garden.
What are the rules like for urban agriculture in Cincinnati?
We work closely with the city planning department and there is a community gardening ordinance in place. Community gardens are allowed in virtually every part of the city. The ones they are excluded from are areas that are not safe for gardening like industrial zones. This open support from our planning department is much appreciated. There are also rules around composting that are overseen by the local health department. As far as I know in 30 years there has never been an issue.
Do people raise chickens in the city?
Yes but as far as I know only one of our community gardens has chickens. I am closely involved with 6 to 8 gardens but we do bring the 50 gardens together via events during the year and this is where I hear about what’s going on. Many individuals have chickens throughout the city. A couple of years ago there was a huge peak then the reality set in about raccoons and possums. Our ordinance says you can have chickens as long as they don’t become a nuisance; they aren’t limited by number. The health department has gone out to a few places and said they needed to clean things up but for the most part it’s all been fine.
A few years ago I was involved with a move to get a zoning ordinance passed called Manufacturing Agriculture which is for a combination of light industry and agriculture to co-exist and to protect existing operations and to restrict what was going into an area that was historically a farm and greenhouse area from heavy industry moving in. This seems to be helping.
In terms of long term larger scale farms we still have Bahr Farms, a 32 acre farm that’s been in the family for over three generations. Wooden Shoe Hollow now has a native plant nursery, a small farming operation and a sprouts and wheat grass business.
What about value added products? Does Ohio have a Cottage Food Law or something similar to that?
From my understanding most food businesses are overseen by the USDA. A local couple owns a great business called Fab Ferments; they make coleslaws and kimchees and they are doing really well.
One of the classes we have is called “Healthy Traditions”. In this class we do basic nutrition and teach people how to make a simple kimchee in a mason jar. We also do some classes on canning and food dehydration in cooperation with OSU Extension.
We have a Cincinnati Co-op here based on the Mondragon model from Spain. It’s a member owned co-op and they have a project called the Food Hub. With this they have an incubator farm and they are training people in organic farming; this program is doing great.
What do you like to grow here? What grows really well?
The most popular things to grow are tomatoes, squash and peppers. Lots of people are interested in fruit. We work with extension on this too and really advocate dwarf trees. Pears and Asian pears are disease resistant so we push those. People are also getting more interested in lesser known varieties like gooseberries and currants. Cucumbers are a problem due to disease and pests. We encourage the growing of more kale as collards are pest and disease prone.
Do you have any community fruit harvesting groups?
We have several list-serves that are quite active. There is an urban orchard with a community garden in the east end and we are looking at foraging sites and doing more with permaculture. There are a couple of the community gardens that are based more on permaculture. There is a river renovation site in Mill Creek and we have a site in Madisonville that is in the early stages of development. It’s actually in a big traffic island but there are lighted crosswalks, a bus stop and a bike trail. What interested me about this site is that it is completely accessible but you need to make a conscious decision to go there. We’re working on establishing hazelnuts, hardy almond, native persimmons etc. There are several areas that people forage and I would love to do time lapse photography to see who comes to harvest. Pawpaws are another native fruit that is foraged and being planted in more gardens; they are great for smoothies.
One final question what do you like best about your job?
I think what I like best is the social component; I see a culture of generosity and gifting within the gardens that I find really wonderful. You don’t see this very much in other areas of life, it’s interesting to see when there is a surplus all the different places that it goes. People are so willing to provide gardening advice and collaboration.