Bumper Crop: A Detroit Garden

WHAT DO YOU GET when you combine zoo animal manure, coffee grounds and shipping crates? The answer is an environmentally friendly start to Detroit’s newest urban garden.

Located on Merritt in southwest Detroit, the Cadillac Urban Garden marked its first year with a bumper crop and steadfast community support in spite of the drought and the parched economy. “It has exceeded our wildest dreams,” says Sylvia Gucken, garden volunteer and assistant to the chairman of the Ideal Group, the local business that administers the garden.

The concept is simple: On Saturday mornings and after work, neighborhood residents are invited to stroll through the gardens and pick the produce free of charge. What happens next is magical. People stop to talk to each other. Neighbors who previously only exchanged a superficial “hello” become friends.

“Our mission is to create a space that promotes the health and security of our community,” says Frank Venegas, Ideal Group chairman. “Cadillac Urban Gardens is producing vegetables, community health and growth.” Ideal Group, an eight-time GM Supplier of the Year, worked with both for-profit and nonprofit organizations to create the garden. General Motors provided 250 shipping crates for the raised-bed gardens. The soil was supplied by Detroit Dirt, with composting materials, coffee grounds and food scraps from the Detroit Zoo, Astro Café, the Marriott Hotel and GM’s Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Plant. Better Day Ministries and southwest Detroit residents provided labor.

Children from the neighborhood are the heart and soul of this garden. Take 13-year-old Christopher Lara, for example. The adult volunteers credit him with keeping the garden alive during the summer drought. Pedaling back and forth from home to the garden on his bike, Lara spent between five and 15 hours a week tending to the 250 raised beds. With this summer’s inconsistent rainfall, Lara put a lot of his energy into watering the crops. The sturdy boxes of overflowing plants that cover a once-abandoned parking lot delight him.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” he says. His summer as a gardener has sparked an interest in becoming a landscape architect.

All told, neighborhood youth have contributed more than 800 volunteer hours working in the garden. Ideal Group’s Esperanza Cantu is responsible for motivating and organizing those young people. She draws on the nearby Cristo Rey High school, Latino Family Services, LA SED and Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision for labor. Many of those same kids will bring their parents to the garden to enjoy the vegetables they have planted.

Gucken summarizes the spirit of the garden in one sentence: “Anyone who comes here is part of the garden. They own it.”

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One thought on “Bumper Crop: A Detroit Garden

  1. Awesome initiative and wow-nderfully written. This reminds me of an NPR article I just heard regarding an unintended postive consequene of the Chicago teachers’ 1 week strike. They all bonded and shared ideas and resources during this time. The article emphasized the importance in growing social capital (people working together), not just human capital (1 person at a time).

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