Milford resident Sara White is one of the architects behind Milford’s community garden known as “Growing Greens.” Originally from Ft. Wayne, Ind., White moved to Milford with her husband and has been a resident since 1996 and has a 9-year-old daughter and twins (a boy and a girl) who are 7. It’s her children and her desire to see them eat healthy that inspired her, in part, to help start a community garden last year near the intersection of General Motors Road and Milford Road, west of the Pet Supplies Plus store, bordering the Huron River and the bike trail. She said the goals of the garden are to offer residents a place to grow fresh produce for their own families, to grow food to donate to the Community Sharing local food bank, and to provide a place to learn about healthy food and participate in its production. Despite some obstacles, the first year of the garden was a rousing success and now she is expecting the sophomore year to be even better. The Spinal Column Newsweekly recently spoke with White about the process of creating the Growing Greens garden and what to expect in the future.
Tell us about how the idea for Milford’s community garden “Growing Greens” came about. Prior to this idea, how much experience did you have in tending a garden?
SW: Actually it started because I attended a conference in Detroit — I think it was two years ago — called the Farmed Cafeteria conference, and it’s a national conference. Initially, I was looking into improving the quality of food in the schools’ cafeterias and when I attended this conference, there were lots of workshops and speeches and things about community gardens and I became very intrigued with community gardens and decided to take that route.
I had no experience gardening on a professional level; I don’t have a degree in horticulture or any type of agriculture, just backyard garden experience.
Tell us about how you developed a passion for gardening and growing fresh food.
SW: Really, it began with maybe more of a passion for feeding my children healthy food and countering lots of obstacles. I’d say that’s where it really began. Maybe the school food isn’t what you want offered to kids. There’s a lot of processed food, garbagy food out there and then to go and buy organic in the grocery store and to try and buy fresh produce throughout the year in the long, cold Michigan winters becomes challenging and very expensive.
So, then when I got the idea of the community garden, I thought here’s a perfect fix to that problem. And the garden involved children, hands-on, in growing food so they get excited about it and then they develop an interest in eating vegetables they may not have eaten before. It’s inexpensive, you know where it comes from, you can make it organic and fresh, and I guess that’s the evolution of the whole thing.
When the proposal for a community garden was accepted by the village and you were allocated a piece of property, how did you and your team go about planning to make this vision a reality? What was the response from fellow residents, including fellow gardeners, who learned of the idea of a community garden?
SW: We looked at the site. It’s a beautiful site, and one of the members of the Huron Valley Green Team had a tractor and plowed it for us. We met several times, and we had a friend who was a landscape architect and she volunteered her time and drew out some plans and helped us map out the property and level the ground. We did soil samples and sent them to the Michigan State Extension to make sure the soil was safe. We looked at how we could access water from the river and verified it with the DNR that we could do that and that the water was safe to use to water our vegetables. We just went out there, a bunch of us, and started picking up rocks and getting out rototillers and digging and planning it out.
We were fortunate to have a lot of really creative, enthusiastic people attend our first couple meetings that we held at the Milford Public Library. It took a lot of elbow grease, but it turned out beautifully.
The initial response was fabulous. We had I think a turnout of 40 people when we expected maybe a small handful at the first couple meetings. It’s a time commitment so we ended up with a core group. Some people volunteered just to help with other gardens, such as the main component of our garden, and one of our goals is to provide food for Community Sharing, our local food pantry. We have two plots that are just for Community Sharing. So we had several people who volunteered just to help and didn’t have a garden of their own. We had a core group of about 20 people, including about 14 plots run by individuals or couples or families, and then the rest of the volunteers just helping out with the sharing garden and with whatever needed to be done.
When the garden was finally in place, what were some of the biggest obstacles that you and your team faced in tending the garden?
SW: I guess the two main things we were concerned about would be getting adequate water; we’re out by the river and there’s no running water to the area. The river is close, but you still need to get water from the river to the garden. The other real big concern was animals, critters, deer and others eating up all of our hard work. We put up a fence with very cheap materials and we tried to be very careful that it wasn’t an eyesore. Miraculously, it worked for the most part; of course, we had some damage and some destruction, we had a groundhog that was digging under someone’s garden, and there’s not much that you can do about that. But, for the most part, we didn’t have much of an invasion.
Then we had people willing to take a pump down to the river and we had a gentleman, John Klein, who volunteered to go every week, and he drove his pickup truck, pumped water, and filled rain barrels. We use rain barrels to store the water for almost everyone in the garden every week, so we didn’t have a problem with that, either.
At what point during the first year of “Growing Greens” did you realize that it was going to be successful and that you and your friends had something special?
SW: When I saw the transformation, when we first went out to that field, I guess about mid-season, when everything was really growing and it just was such a beautiful thing. It went from this empty, blank field early in the spring — it looked just barren, it’s still a beautiful piece of property, but it was covered with rocks and it just looked like a daunting process. But, once it was in full bloom — the gardeners were so creative, they used mulch and the rocks that we had to dig out of the soil to create these beautiful paths through and around their gardens. We decorated the rain barrels, people had their children paint them; people put up signs; we had a funny, sassy scarecrow lady at the one end of the garden that somebody made, and then somebody answered it with a male scarecrow who was flirting with her at the other end of the garden.
We had people walking the Milford Trail nearby and asking, “What is this?” This is beautiful and we come by here frequently just to look at everything growing and to see what a beautiful job you’ve done.” It was phenomenal. It felt like a miracle that we pulled it off and that it just turned out so well. It surpassed any expectations that I had starting out and it’s all I’m really looking forward to this year, too.
Each person who rents a plot, that’s their plot and food for their family, and then we had two plots that we did for Community Sharing and we had different people just volunteering to harvest periodically as things were ready to be harvested to take down to Community Sharing.
If it’s your plot, it’s your food. Now at different times of the season, you tend to get an overabundance. You might have more tomatoes than you can handle or more rosemary or more zucchini, so you find that people would maybe share or trade with somebody else or say, “Hey, I’ve got too many of these, take these to Community Sharing, too,” or they would just take them home and share them with their neighbors, but that’s basically how it works. It’s $30 to do that and those are your vegetables all summer long.
What kind of changes, if any, are you hoping to see made to the garden as it heads into its second year?
SW: We definitely want to build a better fence, so we have a gentleman in our group who has priced and planned it out in the most affordable way that we can, so we are looking to raise a bit of money to erect that fence. We just feel that we can’t count on last year’s work to be strong or sturdy enough to withstand another year. So we need a better fence and we are going to do that. We need a better pump, and we’re working on that and we’re hoping to expand everything. We’re hoping to have more plots available to more people in the community. We want to see our garden grow.
How can anyone who wants to learn more about “Growing Greens” find information?
SW: They can e-mail me. We have a website, it’s growinggreensmilford.org, and they can e-mail me at email@example.com. Also, people should look in their local papers for notification of a public meeting, which is what we did last year, as well; we will be holding that at probably a public venue like the Milford Library sometime in April.