Posts tagged ‘community gardens’
We are a nation of gardeners. Thomas Jefferson grew over 300 varieties of plants at his Monticello home and like any dedicated gardener kept meticulous records detailing the triumphs (and failures) of his adventures in gardening. In the nineteenth century Italian immigrants introduced new vegetables like artichokes to the United States. Today, heirloom seeds originating from around the globe—or grandma’s backyard—can be purchased online and grown wherever we make a home. The Smithsonian Gardens Victory Garden at the National Museum of American History tells a story of citizens feeding their communities during wartime years, as well as a story of the diverse cultures that comprise the American people. In the summer ‘Carolina Gold’ rice, a traditional crop from the Carolina Lowcountry, can be found growing only a few feet from ‘Corbaci’ sweet peppers, a hard-to-find heirloom from Turkey.
April is National Garden Month, and we are celebrating the diversity of American gardens and the gardeners who make them grow. Small gardens and large gardens, community gardens and backyards, our diverse stories are part of a verdant quilt of gardens growing across the country. Gardens tell us where we’ve been, and where we are going. They can tell us stories about how people in our communities lived in the past and articulate our cultural values in the present. So often our everyday stories—the dahlias bred by a great-uncle, the nursery owned by a family for generations, the hot peppers grown as a reminder of a faraway island childhood—are lost to the historical record, and therefore lost to future generations.
Community of Gardens is our answer to the call to preserve our vernacular garden heritage. Community of Gardens is a digital archive hosted by Smithsonian Gardens, in partnership with our Archives of American Gardens, and created by YOU. It is a participatory archive that enriches and adds diversity to the history of gardening in the United States and encourages engagement with gardens on a local, community level. The website uses a multimedia platform that supports images, text, audio, and video. Visitors can add their own story to the digital archive, or explore personal stories of gardens from around the country.
To contribute a story to the digital archive visit the “Share a Story” page on the Community of Gardens website to sign up for an account. Once you have set up your account you may then add a written story and photographs. If you’d like to add video or audio files to your story email them to firstname.lastname@example.org. You will hear from a Smithsonian Gardens education staff member within a few days, and your story will be posted on the website usually within 3-5 business days. Once you have shared a story, share another story, or encourage your friends and neighbors to do the same!
We are looking for any story about gardens and gardening in America—even stories of Americans gardening abroad. Here is just a sampling of the stories we are looking to include in Community of Gardens:
- What’s growing in your own backyard, or on your apartment balcony? What motivates you to garden and how did you get your start? How does gardening enrich your everyday life?
- Interview a neighbor or family member about their garden.
- Memories of gardens past. Do you have strong memories of your grandparents’ garden, or visiting a public garden that no longer exists? Gardens can live on in stories and images through the archive.
- Family history. This is a good opportunity to get out the photo albums and scan old family photographs. Are you a fourth-generation gardener like Paul, pictured above?
- Community gardens—past and present.
- Did you immigrate to the United States from another country? How do your traditions and culture play a role in your garden?
- College and university gardens.
- School gardens. Involve your students in telling the story of their garden!
- Pollinator gardens and beekeeping.
- Americans gardening abroad. Are you a veteran or member of the Foreign Service? Did you keep a garden while living abroad? How did living in another country influence your garden?
- Sustainability and eco-friendly gardening.
- Stories of gardens committed to providing food access in urban areas.
Join us in preserving our national garden heritage—this month and every month. What is your garden story?
-Kate Fox, Smithsonian Gardens educator
Detroit was still a burgeoning industrial center in 1918 when John and Elizabeth Crews ended a journey “through six states seeking a home” and settled in the city. As part of the Great Migration, when African Americans began moving to Detroit in large numbers for employment opportunities and an escape from Jim Crow segregation, the Crews and many others were faced with the challenge of making a place and building community in a new environment.
In Detroit, many stopped their traditional gardening and food growing practices because urban-industrial life offered new opportunities to escape toiling on the land. Others changed and adapted their horticultural practices. Although the East Side of the city where many migrants first lived was quite dense, some managed to cultivate gardens here, while others moved to areas with more space.
For those with financial means, the West Side of the city offered one of the first opportunities for African Americans in the area to cultivate a suburban garden aesthetic in a neighborhood of mostly single-family homes. Yards were landscaped with lawns and adorned with flowers and trees (often fruit trees). One resident planted so many flowers along her fence that she was known as “The Flower Girl.” Unlike other suburbs, however, rock gardens were often a common feature, especially in the more private space of the backyard. As one resident remembered, “Roosevelt was a serene and beautiful street with trees, green grass, butterflies, [and] beautiful rock gardens in back yards…” The neighborhood was so closely knit one resident described it as “village.” Home ownership created a shared sense of community as residents worked to maintain a suburban sense of place.
In the Eight Mile-Wyoming area, where the Crews lived, residents often had a different vision of the suburban ideal, raising chickens and growing gardens that often included vegetables, such the “Kentucky Wonder” green beans the Crews canned to eat throughout the winter. Corn was also a common sight in the neighborhood, along with an informal system of community gardening. As one resident told a visitor, they had no trouble with people stealing from their garden because, “we just plant a little more than we need each year to take care of that.” Alternately, “if we run low, we just get a few [ears of corn] off of somebody else’s. We all know that. We don’t care. We’re friends out here!”
Not everyone found this more rural way of life appealing, however. During the 1920s and 30s, the Detroit Urban League (an organization founded to assist African American migrants in Detroit) often sponsored flower garden contests (complete with prizes of cash or flower bouquets) in this neighborhood to beautify what they considered to be unsightly “yards,” not gardens. According to one observer, during the spring contest houses in the neighborhood were “surrounded by riots of bloom…porches and fences sag under the weight of rambler roses, honeysuckle, and clematis; the yards bloom with myriads of flowers.”
While images of these gardens are sparse, bits and pieces from the written record help to illuminate the ways African Americans used gardens to create a sense of place, belonging, and community in Detroit, a tradition that continues with community gardening projects in the city today.
-Joe Cialdella, Enid A. Haupt Fellow
Back in the warmer days of August, I had the opportunity to attend the Detroit Agriculture Network’s 15th Annual urban garden tour in Detroit, Michigan. Hundreds of people gathered in the late afternoon at Eastern Market to board buses or take off on bikes to visit gardens and hear from gardeners on the east, west, and central areas of the city. Above all, it was an occasion to hear from passionate individuals and view the city from the ground up.
Even though my first experience seeing and volunteering with urban gardens in Detroit was in 2004, looking at the gardens in Detroit’s landscape – a compelling assortment of open space, roads, and buildings (many still inhabited and, yes, many long abandoned) – continues to be at once jarring and inspiring; a poignant and thought-provoking place because of the layers of time and meanings collected here. As garden historian Kenneth Helphand writes,
“When we see an improbable garden, we experience a shock of recognition of the garden’s form and elements, but also a renewed appreciation of the garden’s transformative power to beautify, comfort, and convey meaning despite the incongruity of its surroundings. Gardens are defined by their context, and perhaps the further the context from our expectations, the deeper the meaning the garden holds for us.”
As a historian, the context I look to when I see these gardens is often that of the past. How did social, political, economic, environmental and cultural conditions shape transform these spaces? The seeming improbability of gardens as a part of post-industrial landscape challenged my expectations, and sparked my interest in learning what deeper meanings, and histories, gardening in Detroit might have.
Through this experience with a place, the landscape itself becomes an inspiration and an archive. A record of changing tastes, values, style, and use, for example, is captured by looking closely at the location, age, and size of buildings. Natural features, such as rivers and waterways often mark the original contribution to the archive of a landscape.
Yet in a place like Detroit, where seemingly endless redevelopment and decline are starkly juxtaposed, you cannot help but wonder what is missing from the landscape today. This can be particularly problematic when digging deeper into the history of such fleeting spaces as small scale community-minded gardens in a constantly changing urban environment.
Gone from Detroit’s landscape is the rich tradition of gardening culture that came before the contemporary movement. For example, during the 1890s, Mayor Hazen S. Pingree started a municipally-supported gardening plan to feed unemployed workers (many of whom were Polish and German immigrants). The Garden Club of Michigan was one of the 12 founding members of the Garden Club of America in 1913. During the Great Migration, African Americans moving to Detroit used gardens as a means of providing food and improving the appearance and value of their neighborhoods. And in the 1930s, thrift gardens again provided sustenance to many of those left unemployed by the Great Depression.
As the Haupt Fellow at Smithsonian Gardens, I’m in the process of digging up the details of these gardens using more traditional archives to better understand the history of what it means for people to contribute to an urban-industrial landscape by gardening. This can be a difficult task since the spaces themselves are often fleeting and records of them scarce, unlike many of the design plans and photographs of more famous landscapes. Looking back to the 19th and early 20th centuries, sociological surveys, government reports, meeting minutes, scrapbooks, maps, newspapers, magazines, and photographs are often surprisingly detailed documents that provide us with a way to re-imagine what these types of gardens looked like, their contexts, and how they were used in the past.
Together, the actual landscape and the two-dimensional records of experiences long removed from the land lend themselves to a fuller garden history that contributes not only to understanding gardens themselves, but also how gardens can reflect changing social, political, economic, environmental, and cultural contexts that give more people a way to consider the role of gardens and landscapes in their own lives.
The fleeting, seasonal nature of gardens also points to the importance of documenting garden spaces today. While we all hope they will last forever, proactively considering how you can preserve a garden or landscape’s history for your family, community, or organization provides an opportunity for reflection and sharing of information between one another that can often help to create connections and networks of support that will help these spaces exist into the future. One way of doing this is through creating a collection of photographs, such as those found in Smithsonian Gardens’ Archives of American Gardens. Look for more on this in my next post.
– Joe Cialdella, Haupt Fellow, Smithsonian Gardens
For more information on being a part of preserving garden history or beginning your own research, check out the resources below.
Take 10 minutes to “tag” an image form the Archives of American Gardens to help make their extensive collections more accessible to the public, researchers, and landscape designers!
These websites offer good tips and instructions for beginning your own archival adventure into the history of a garden or landscape near you:
 Kenneth Helphand. Defiant Gardens: Making Gardens in Wartime, 2006, pg. 9.