RACINE — The Racine Urban Garden Network has a lot to do. Even though snow is still on the ground, there are only a few months left until seeds will hit the soil at community gardens across the city.
Developing plans for refurbishing wilting gardens, bolstering flourishing ones, maybe building two new gardens, and improving outreach and education for gardeners within the network, are all on the agenda for the upcoming season.
New Garden Network gardens may soon be sprouting. The city’s Parks and Recreation and Cultural Services Department has asked the Garden Network to create two new gardens at Harvey Park along Whittier Drive, north of West Racine, and in N. Owen Davies Park near the intersection of 17th Street and West Boulevard.
A tentative plan for Owen Davies has already been agreed upon by Garden Network, the Parks Department, the West Racine neighborhood association and the St. David’s Society, an organization committed to protecting Welsh culture internationally. It would include as many as eight garden plots to be built over the next year, as well as benches.
“We might have another garden to build, finally,” Garden Network Board Chair Chris Flynn said.
The Garden Network oversees seven “Network Gardens” and has a hand in pruning three “Partner Gardens” across the city, where the board and volunteers help communities — like Fratt Elementary School and Little Saints Child Care Center — establish independent gardens of their own without perennial attention from the Garden Network.
“We help get things started,” Flynn said.
At network gardens, Garden Network members “do everything except the actual gardening,” Flynn said. That includes providing mulch and repairing the individual beds and collecting donations and everything in between.
The communities around some of the gardens — where anyone can make a $20 donation to get a soil-filled bed of their own — succeed in creating flourishing flowerbeds, and fruit and veggie patches. Other neighborhoods require a little extra attention from the Garden Network to get their gardens growing.
For example, the Anthony Lane garden, next door to the COP House at 2437 Anthony Lane, “needs a lot of work,” Flynn said.
They have to remove thistle from garden beds, develop a weed control strategy, identify which beds will be donating their produce to food pantries, plant perennials, and “a whole lot of weeding,” added Rebecca Trobaugh, the manager of the garden on Marquette Street. There’s a good chance not much will be grown on Anthony Lane in 2019 as the garden is healed, allowing it to be fertile again in 2020.
That gives Garden Network leaders time to spread the word, which usually involves talking to neighbors and passing out fliers to generate interest in getting a bed of their own. One hope is that more volunteers can be recruited from nearby Horlick High School, a tactic that’s been successful with Walden III and St. Catherine high school students at gardens near their schools.
There’s a similar situation, albeit less dire, at the Ruby Street Garden, 3825 Erie St.
There are too many weeds in the beds right now, but the size of the garden plot and its proximity to North Pointe United Methodist Church make the board hopeful.
“There’s so much potential there,” Flynn said. “We’ve got work to do there.”
But other gardens, like the Zoe Garden of Life need little attention from the network’s leaders. Zoe Outreach Ministries, 2130 Racine St., Mount Pleasant, the church that owns the land, is committed to its upkeep. And it has a devoted garden manager whereas some of the other managers have struggled with commitment, had to quit because of familial obligations, or butted heads with the board over controversial topics like tilling plans and fertilizer usage — every plant at every network garden is intended to be 100-percent organic.
The Marquette Street garden, one of the biggest gardens in size, is in good shape with board member Rebecca Trobaugh at the lead as garden manager. The Villa Street garden is well established, but it needs a new manager too.
In planning these gardens, decisions have to be made regarding how to successfully care for gardens without resorting to potentially harmful chemicals.
At its Feb. 20 meeting, the board debated how “gross” they would allow their composting to be. Flynn wants to test run a black fly maggot composting area, but knows that some people are scared off by the word “maggot,” even though these insects can fight off unwanted invaders like common houseflies and, more importantly, create high-quality fertilizer while disposing of pollutants in compost piles
Although Trobaugh feared allowing the ugly larvae near her beloved Marquette Street Network Garden, Flynn thinks the maggots are “worth a shot.”
“It sounds like the wave of the future,” Flynn said.
Learning and communicating
Looking ahead, the current board wants to improve its outreach efforts, both for finding new gardeners and through better collaboration with people who already work within the network.
An orientation is hosted every March, and the board is hoping to get more people to attend this year at 5 p.m. on March 19 at Emaus Lutheran Church, 1925 Summit Ave. By attending orientation, the dozens of citywide gardeners are given an idea of the rules and obligations for their plot.
“It wasn’t well attended last year,” Flynn said.
The Racine Urban Garden Network also plans to have a presence at EcoFest on March 16, an annual free-to-attend gathering at Gateway Technical College’s Lake Building, 1001 S. Main Street. It is scheduled to take place that Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
The board is also reaching out to friends and mentors who may be able to lead seminars and classes for Garden Network members.
Tentative plans are for a “Planning Your Garden, Fertilizing and Pesticides” session in April with a tomato-focused class in May. Other classes that could follow would be a “Plot to Table” — a play-on-words of “Farm to Table” created by Board Member Sandy Doran — perhaps partnering with a local culinary college for all-natural cooking classes, or having a canning and preservation class at the end of the growing season.