Community Gardeners Dig Midtown

Burkhart Garden in Rocky Ripple is Midtown's longest-running community garden. Nancy Barton photo.

by Thomas P. Healy

Midtown’s community gardeners enjoy working with plants in the commons. But they share more than seeds, plants, chores, and harvests—they share a vision of connection.

Nancy Barton photo

Rocky Ripple’s Burkhart Community Garden has the distinction of being the longest-running community garden in the district. Cofounder Nancy Barton said she and Rick Burkhart established the project in 2001. “He was a market gardener, and we also started a farmer’s market before John Hill invited us to his parking lot to join the Broad Ripple Farmers Market, she said. The Rocky Ripple 4H Club, Rocky Ripple Community Association, and the Town of Rocky Ripple were key partners in carving out space at Hohlt Park. After Burkhart passed away, Barton said the gardens were named in his memory.

Rocky Ripple hosts a community plant swap each year but the health emergency has prompted some changes. “We have decided to do a ‘drive-by’ plant exchange beginning the afternoon of Saturday, May 16, and lasting through the month of May,” she said. Interested participants (whether Rocky Ripple residents or not) are invited to drop off plants, seeds, and/or seedlings in front of the garden gate at 53rd Street and Sunnymeade in Rocky Ripple during that time.

Participants are asked to label plants they drop off and to feel free to take any plants that are available. Barton says not to worry if no one is around; just leave plants by the garden gate. “We will take care of the plants until they are gone,” she said.

“If other people are present, please keep the designated distance from one another,” she added. “We hope this brings some cheer to the community.”

Mary Ellen Gadski photo

Staying Sharp

Ten years ago, retired Lilly research scientist and avid gardener Bill Scott found a kindred spirit in Brady Smith of Common Grounds Community Church. They both had noticed an empty lot at the southeast corner of 46th and Illinois streets. “It was owned by people who lived directly east of that plot,” Scott recalled recently. “We got word they were willing to have people make a garden on that plot so we established SHarP” (Shared Harvest Project.)

Smith has moved on but Scott remains engaged along with three other core members. “We keep track of gardeners, keep track of finances, and organize events like cleanup days or social days,” he said. “Keeping a community garden going is tough, but we’re going strong after 10 years.”

The “shared” part of the garden name comes from the fact that 18 of the 38 garden beds are dedicated to the community. “Individuals or families take responsibility for the community plots,” Scott said. “They will garden it, tend it, and together we take the harvest from that plot and the others and donate it to the food pantry at 42nd and Boulevard Place.” Core member Mary Ellen Gadski reports, “Our all-time high annual contribution to the Boulevard Place food pantry amounted to over 450 pounds of fresh, organic vegetables. Not bad for a formerly vacant urban lot, eh?”

Scott said crops like collard greens, kale, tomatoes, and beans are the most popular for community plots. Through the years, individual donations have funded overhead costs like water and property taxes, while grants from the Butler-Tarkington Neighborhood Association and the Marion County Master Gardeners program have paid for a water spigot, seeds, and soil amendments. Heritage Place, a service center for older adults located across the street in the Common Grounds building at 4550 N. Illinois, recently funded the installation of two super-raised beds elevated to waist height. “They’re more accessible for people who are older and not comfortable bending,” Scott observed.

Gardeners pay an annual fee to rent a garden bed and can grow whatever they want. “We try to keep it organic —no pesticides or herbicides, just organic fertilizers,” Scott said. Raised beds make it easy to track crops and plan a rotation schedule. “We make sure any individual bed in the community garden is rotated over the years. It keeps down pests and reduces chances for disease,” he said. A large compost bin helps turn plant residues into a soil amendment that goes right back onto the gardens. “I’ve been making compost since I was 12 years old,” Scott reports. “I was amazed to take leaves and make soil. I get almost as much satisfaction from making dirt as I do from gardening.”

A Garden Grocery

The Keystone-Monon Community Garden at Arsenal Park has been thriving for five years thanks to volunteers like Stacie Hurrle. A diabetes health educator for the Marion County Public Health Department by day, in her off hours she handles the “business” of the community gardens—paying bills and ordering supplies. “Christie Wahlert Koester, who started the garden five years ago, moved to Michigan last year,” Hurrle said recently. “It takes four of us to do what she did. She was a powerhouse.”

In February, the annual seed giveaway event at the College Avenue Library attracted upwards of 70 people. “Whole Foods donates their old seeds to us. It’s a great way to get the community together,” Hurrle said.

Even though the growing season doesn’t officially begin until April 25, a recent visit to the site shows evidence that gardening has already begun: peas, onions, and perennial herbs poke through the mulch. “We have 20 beds that are open for gardeners,” she said. “Usually about half return and some people decide not to garden with us so half are new.”

Each gardener pays a $35 annual fee that covers insurance mandated by Indy Parks and pays the water bill. “We used a $300 grant from the Master Gardeners to expand and buy a few things. Last year we added three-tier beds that get progressively taller and put in “table” beds for folks who don’t want to bend down.”

A friendly Midtown arborist donated wood chips to suppress weeds between the raised beds and create an absorbent walkway. A shed holds shared tools like a garden cart and expandable hose that reaches the distant water spigot.

Two years ago, a gardener who is a yoga instructor began offering yoga in the garden sessions. “That’s a lot of fun,” Hurrle said. “You bring your mat and pay what you can, and a portion goes to the garden.” Another program involves basketball, yoga, and gardening. “It gets kids to play basketball and do yoga and then have a 10-minute garden session to learn about gardening,” she said. The kids get to have a bed and learn that you can plant this and eat it. It’s pretty awesome.”

Hurrle welcomes the changes to the Arsenal Park area. “We love it. We partnered with the Black Firefighters Association whose offices are in the old fire station across the street from the park. They put in a raised bed garden last year.”

“We partner with the State Fairgrounds and do a garden tour by bike on the last day of the State Fair. People pay to go on a tour of neighbors’ gardens and then we go to tour the demonstration gardens at the fairgrounds,” she said.

While a formal donation system doesn’t exist, Hurrle said gardeners do share the harvest. “We have a table there and typically, what they can’t use, they put food there and neighbors will come and grab it.”

As for her own plot, she likes to stop by on the way home from work. “I can harvest cherry tomatoes and basil from my garden grocery.”

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