Common Ground program looks to expand past established roots

Kristine Chapman, center, and Adam Weigel, right, provide information at the Common Ground Garden booth at the Kaw Valley Seed Fair Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016. Chapman and Weigel coordinate operations of two of seven community gardens around Lawrence. The program was created by the city of Lawrence in 2012 to convert vacant or underutilized city properties into neighborhood produce gardens.

More than food grows in the seven lots that are now part of the Common Ground Community Gardens program.

“It really brings out community involvement,” project coordinator Michael Morley said. “People make friends with those they might not get to know. That’s the reward for me. People sit down and start talking.”

Morley has been part of Common Ground since 2012 when the city of Lawrence started the effort to make vacant lots available for community gardens. A member of the Sustainability Action Network, he hit the streets to recruit people to sublease plots on what is now the Penn Street Community Garden at 1313 Pennsylvania St.

“Really, it was gathering the people to get involved, putting fliers out and getting people to participate,” he said. “There was no precedent in Lawrence.”

Common Ground Community Gardens

Garden Incubator at John Taylor Park, Seventh and Walnut streets

PermaCommons, 1304 Pennsylvania St.

Penn Street Community Garden, 1313 Pennsylvania St.

Pearl Clark Community Garden, 639 Illinois St.

The Lawrence Community Orchard, 830 Garfield St.

Incubator Farm on U.S. Highway 24/40 southwest of Lawrence Municipal Airport

Willow Domestic Violence Center garden, 1920 Moodie Road

Like the other Common Ground gardens, the site was leased from the city for three years, and then renewed on a yearly basis.

A builder by profession, Morley said he didn’t have a lot of gardening knowledge. He focused on applying his skills to construct sheds, raised beds and fences, and install irrigation systems at the gardens, he said. He also enjoyed laying out the garden, which he likened to a mini version of platting a subdivision.

Four years ago, Morley started the effort to found the Pearl Clark Community Garden in his Old West Lawrence neighborhood after he noticed the city-owned vacant lot at 639 Illinois St. Although the idea of having a community garden closer to his home appealed to him, he admits there were those living near the site with initial reservations.

Those neighbors have since embraced what Morley calls a “pocket park.” Part of that acceptance reflects the adage “good fences make good neighbors,” he says, but it also is a recognition of the garden’s benefits.

“It was an abandoned lot the city had to pay to maintain,” he said. “It was a place people would walk their dogs and not clean up after them. Now, it’s a monarch butterfly weigh station and a bird landing site.”

Another local benefit was improved drainage. The site is an old stream bed with a history of overflowing during storms. The community gardeners didn’t try to grow in the claylike soil of a site long used as a dump. Rather, they built raised beds for garden plots and provided the landscaping muscle to improve the drainage around them, Morley said.

A sign of the neighborhood’s embrace of the garden is a waiting list of those wanting plots, Morley said. There are others in the neighborhood who don’t want a plot and visit just to garden, he said.

“That’s a very well-organized garden,” said Aimee Polson, who has been involved with Common Ground since 2011. She is now the project coordinator for the Garden Incubator in John Taylor Park at Seventh and Walnut streets in North Lawrence.

She’s been interested in how gardens can build and benefit communities since her teenage years, Polson said. In addition to her work at the Garden Incubator, she is helping organize shared gardens at Woodlawn Elementary School, which her son attends, and at her Kansas University Endowment workplace.

The biggest community-building aspect of the Garden Incubator is the involvement of the children who visit, often on their own, from the adjacent Ballard Center, Polson said. She enjoys introducing them to gardening and its benefits.

“We see kids eager to jump in and help out,” she said. “They are especially interested when it’s time to plant or harvest. They always come up and ask you if they can help when it’s time to harvest potatoes or something like that. Weeding is not as much fun for them.

“It’s good to have them learn about fresh, healthy food and where it comes from. Some of them may have only known food to come out of a can.”

A children’s garden is one of three components of the Garden Incubator, which also includes a section for individual garden plots and a micro-farm reserved for those growing commercially. One of the micro-farm gardeners raises hops for home-brewed beer; another plants native plants and flowers, and others grow more traditional produce for farmers markets, Polson said.

The children’s garden has a butterfly maze, a cotton plot, a section for berries and, new this year, a sensory garden of plants selected for how they smell and feel to the touch, Polson said.

The seven Common Ground gardens all have their own identities, Polson said. For example, the larger plots available at the Incubator Farm just southwest of the Lawrence Municipal Airport are reserved for those involved in larger-scale commercial ventures. The PermaCommons, 1304 Pennsylvania St., is a cooperative where volunteers share food grown in a common demonstration garden, while the Pennsylvania Street Community Garden on the west side of the street is divided up into subleased plots for individual gardens.

Eileen Horn, sustainability coordinator for Lawrence and Douglas County, said those differences reflect the creativity of their local organizers. When the city developed the program, it imposed few regulations besides a few common-sense rules. It is up to the local organizers, who lease the vacant lots from the city, to establish and enforce the rules they deem necessary.

“For the most part, all we do is lease the land and ask they control the weeds,” Horn said. “It’s not very restrictive at all. We don’t oversee subleasing of smaller plots. We leave that to the individual garden coordinators.”

Polson said the Garden Incubator was headed by a five-person committee whose members oversee such things as scheduling events, weeding and leasing plots.

One thing is asked of the local gardeners for the right to use city property, Horn said. Common Ground gardens are required to create a community benefit plan for their projects. That involves workshops, tours and donating excess food to Just Food or local food pantries. Combined, the Common Ground sites donated 1,900 pounds of food in 2015, she said.

If the local leadership arrangement encourages the creativity that leads to the gardens’ different identities, there is one thing all seven gardens have in common: they are all east of Iowa Street and north of 23rd Street. Horn said a number of factors contribute to that, including the larger number of vacant lots in the older sections of Lawrence, the good soil in much of the area and the area’s developed tree canopy that discourages home gardens on many lots.

Horn would like to expand Common Ground to the west and south. The city is now soliciting lease applications for four sites for Common Ground gardens, and three of those sites — Edgewood Park, 1245 E. 15th St., the future Peterson Park at Kingston Drive and Iowa Street and Holcom Park, 2601 W. 25th St. — would accomplish that goal.

The deadline to apply to lease one of those sites and one at 815 Oak St. is Monday, she said. Applications can be found online at

There are sites potential in the newer neighborhoods, and Horn encouraged residents to explore their use in the Common Ground program.

“If citizens want to recommend a property they think may be city-owned, let us know,” she said. “Some of our most successful gardens were started when people came to us.”