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Story #9 - Green Corps
In five vacant lots across the city of Cleveland, things are growing. Not just fruits and vegetables, although there are plenty of those, but also the knowledge and experience of the high school students who tend the gardens. Employed by the Cleveland Botanical Garden’s Green Corps program, these students plant, weed, water and harvest in the gardens while learning about agriculture.
The Slavic Village Garden, supervised by Ayla Zeimer, employs sixteen students: twelve in their first year and four in their second. “They came in with a lot of questions,” Zeimer said. Most of the students knew little or nothing about agriculture when they started with Green Corps. Zeimer said that the program didn’t change the students’ perspectives on agriculture so much as it filled a knowledge gap.
The four second-year garden workers - Courtney McRae, Japorcha Piggee, Patrice Dennis, and Kennrich Jackson - each head up a group of three first-years and a section of the garden. The four sections are called earth, water, wind and fire. The garden is built on asphalt, so innovative methods had to be used to make it suitable for growing. Parts of the garden use lasagna beds. Similar to the layering of ingredients in a dish of lasagna, these garden beds are layered with cardboard, straw, food waste, humus, and topsoil, and then the process is repeated several times. The layers create compost over time but are suitable for planting right away. The tires that had been dumped in the lot were put to use as planters for potatoes. While the soil in the lot didn’t go deep enough for potatoes, soil piled up in a stack of tires worked quite well. To harvest the potatoes, they simply remove the tires on by one or kick over the whole pile. Moreover, by lifting up the top tire and peeking underneath they can better assess when to harvest, check soil dampness and so forth.
The garden also sports an herb spiral, a bench made out of wood and old tires, and a flower bed that keeps woodchips out of the neighboring lot. Woodchips are used to keeps weeds down throughout the garden. The students also keep compost bins to reuse waste and a “lunch bed,” which they often eat from during their lunch break. Most of the produce is sold at local farmers markets on Wednesday and Saturday, as well as on-site at the garden on Wednesdays.
One of the most distinctive features of the Slavic Village garden is the old shipping container that has found new life as a garden shed. Students, disapproving of the rusted metal eyesore painted the side facing the street. It now sports a mural with the name of the garden in rainbow colors against a bright blue sky. A green roof thick with flowers tops of the container-turned-shed.
The four, second-year students all feel a sense of ownership of this garden because they helped establish it last year. They pulled a picture out of the shed that showed just how empty the lot was when they began. It’s hard to believe that it’s the same lot.
The students’ reason for joining Green Corps were all variations on the same theme – a love for the outdoors and for growing things. McRae added that she likes the cause-and-effect aspect of working in the garden – you get to see the literal fruits of your labor.
The reactions of the student gardeners’ friends were generally positive. Piggee said that she has been asked if she can get her friends jobs with Green Corps. “They think it’s easy,” she said. As much as these four love to garden, they all agree that it’s hard work. “There is always weeding – that is the work part,” McRae said. Keeping the first-years in line and working is another difficulty.
At the end of the summer, as a culminating project, Green Corps students help to produce Ripe from Downtown Salsa, which is made with the produce they have grown as well as tomatoes from other Cleveland farms. They help chop up all the ingredients at a kitchen at Case Western, go to the factory to see the salsa being made, and then sell it at the farmers markets they attend.
Working with Green Corps is not just a job, it’s also an educational opportunity. “They also teach us lessons,” McRae said, noting that topics included nutrition, fitness, and sustainability. The students may have entered the program with little knowledge about local foods, but they will leave it with a solid base of agricultural knowledge. McRae said that learning about agriculture was important because this knowledge needs to be passed on to younger generations, and because gardening is a way to give back to the environment. “Food is a part of life,” said Piggee. She added that working in a garden can help keep kids out of trouble.
For more information about Green Corps, visit http://www.cbgarden.org/green_corps.html.