On February 23 at Norwood Elementary School, ground was broken for the first of four planned community gardens in Norwood. The Norwood Learning Gardens is a joint effort between the Norwood Resource Center (NRC) and community members sharing the goal of having fresh fruits and vegetable available to all Norwood residents.
The NRC received a $25,000 grant from the UAB Community Health Innovation Awards to create and maintain the gardens. The inaugural grant focuses on five areas of concern: empty lots and abandoned homes, lack of sidewalks and walking trails, diabetes, high blood pressure and crime.
According to Melodie Echols, Norwood Resource Center’s Executive Director, the prototype for the gardens is based on Norwood residents Tom Creger and Ken Harris’s garden in the neighborhood.
“We looked at what the response was from their garden. They had hundreds of pounds of produce that they made this year with their neighbors. The interest that the people had in the produce and in gardening that came from their garden is what we based this on,” Echols said.
“We own property here in the neighborhood and the city had just demolished an apartment building that had burnt down,” Creger explained. “Typically in neighborhoods like Norwood, when that happens, the lot just goes to waste. So we thought to ourselves, what could we do from keeping that from happening? As we started doing our garden, we started thinking, this would be good to do in other empty lots around the neighborhood.”
Other than the Norwood Elementary location, the remaining three learning gardens will be located on Norwood Boulevard, Norwood Circle and on 17th Avenue.
“The locations were intentional. We wanted everyone in the neighborhood to be able to walk to their garden. We did not want one huge garden in the middle of the neighborhood; we wanted them closer to people’s houses. We made it to where if a family wanted to go harvest some squash or something for dinner, they could do that,” Creger said.
Each garden will have a volunteer from the community who has gone though the Alabama Cooperative Extension Master (ACEM) Gardening Program acting as a manager and guide for gardeners.
The four volunteers spent five hours a week for 12 weeks learning different gardening trades, such as fertilizing produce and treating pesticides and diseases.
“The master gardeners will be a consultant to all the gardeners, but will also coordinate different activities such as pruning and canning classes and healthy cooking exercises,” Echols explains.
The learning gardens also provide Norwood Elementary 4th and 5th graders the opportunity to go through the ACEM Junior Gardening Program. The program gives students a chance to learn about horticulture, environmental science, leadership, and life skills.
“The garden at the school is for the children and people living near the school. It supports the junior master gardener curriculum that they will be taking while in school, but will also be the place for a summer gardening school for the kids,” Echols said.
Echols, Creger and Harris spent hours researching different community gardens, which according to Creger have a fairly high failure rate, in order to give the Norwood Learning Gardens its best chance not only to survive, but to thrive.
“We studied the lessons that can be learned from successful and failing gardens,” Creger said. “We tried really hard to address the failing ones. One of the things we discovered that leads to failure is that there was not easily accessible water. Another thing is that there were spats between gardeners because there were no set garden rules. We sat down and really addressed these things while filling out the grant application.”
Each garden will allow eight families to lease a five feet by twenty feet garden with no monetary requirement, but with what Echols and Creger described as sweat equity.
“The garden is not exactly free,” Creger explained. “There are two garden workdays, where every gardener with a garden is expected to be there. These are for major repairs and cleanup. Also, throughout the year each gardener has to commit to six garden workdays. The work will be assigned by the master gardeners according to the season of year and what needs to be done.”
Both Echols and Creger are optimistic that with the support of the community behind them, the Norwood Learning Gardens will be a success. “We are working on creating a culture in gardening,” Echols said. “A family garden in a community setting.”
For more information on the Norwood Learning Gardens, check out their Facebook page.