Regional programs turn vacant lots into community gardens

By Nick Hrkman

Photo: EchoingU students tend to the raised flower beds in their community garden
Put down roots in your community—literally.

Five Rivers MetroParks works with community gardens in the Dayton region as part of the Grow With Your Neighbors program, which began in 1986. In 2007, 18 gardens were part of the program—today, it’s grown to include 97 gardens that serve more than 3,460 people.

And when it comes to people, the key predictor of a garden’s long-term success is the number of those committed to see it succeed.

“Anyone can start their own garden,” says Lucille Beachdell, a Five Rivers MetroParks education coordinator. “Until you have people, it isn’t a community garden.”

Even with a dedicated group of volunteers, the first year can be tricky. A lot of planning and organization is required, including researching the history of the site, establishing garden rules, deciding on membership fees, setting up water infrastructure and constructing fencing.

Beachdell recommends starting out small, with the first year dedicated to organizing and planning the garden.

“It’s not all about having a green thumb. It takes some organization skill,” Beachdell says. “The flipside of that is that some people have the drive, but don’t have anyone involved who has gardening know-how. Too much of one side and not enough of the other can cause issues.”

Fortunately, a number of organizations are committed to helping these community gardens take root. One of them, Five Rivers MetroParks, offers classes that help committed gardeners learn valuable skills, from gardening basics to leadership development. MetroParks also provides many forms of ongoing support to these gardens, including soil testing, tilling, consulting, seed giveaways, and lots of encouragement.

Five Rivers MetroParks will deliver wood chips and compost—provided by the cities of Dayton, Huber Heights, and Kettering—to community gardens. The city of Dayton offers leaves during the fall and funds an urban agriculture grant that provides up to $2,500 to connect community gardens to the city’s water supply. Home and garden retailers—such as Lowe’s, Home Depot, and Ace Hardware—also offer corporate grants to help support community gardens.

Two years ago, the community gardening program branched out to serve schools in the Dayton region through an initiative called Green Schoolyards. The school gardens become ecological teaching tools and provide a setting for children to connect with nature by cultivating vegetable and habitat gardens.

“I love seeing how kids react: ‘Did I grow that?’” says Richard Dawson, garden coordinator at Gloria Dei Montessori.

For some, community gardening is a fun, relaxing hobby that connects people with nature and their neighbors. For others, the produce from the garden feeds their family and helps offset the cost of grocery bills.

“I like being out there and connected to where food is supposed to come from,” says Brenda Jarvis, who works with the Nu-Pi Garden in Huber Heights.

Gardening also can help seniors stay physically and socially active.

“There’s a great sense of accomplishment in leading seniors who have put together something really beautiful that also aids their health and wellbeing,” says Erin Haas, garden coordinator for the Hoover Place Community Garden.

Immigrant and refugee communities have shown a strong interest in community gardening.

Pam Laughlin, coordinator for the Unity Garden, wishes to give local refugees in the area a chance to participate in an activity that is familiar to them.

“I would love for the refugees here to take over running the garden,” Laughlin says.

A host of issues can work against a new garden, and those interested in the undertaking should be aware of the commitment required and complexity of the project. According to Beachdell, the most successful gardens have a handful of dedicated volunteers and not just a single, driven individual. The most successful school gardens are championed by administrators who do more than approve the program—they’re excited about their students learning through hands-on, nature-based experiences.

In addition to starting a community garden, you can rent a garden plot at Possum Creek and Wegerzyn Gardens MetroParks for $20 per season.

Those who want to start a garden at their school, place of worship, organization, or community can attend a free introductory program, “Start a New Community Garden,” May 4, at Possum Creek MetroPark, to learn the essential steps to a successful project and start planning for next year.


The ‘Start a Community Garden’ workshop takes place from 6–7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 4 at Possum Creek MetroPark, 4790 Fryetown Rd. in Dayton. To view a map of community gardens, rent a plot, or for more information, please visit

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Reach DCP freelance writer Nick Hrkman at

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