Residents find ‘common ground’ in city gardening program

Skyler Adamson can picture it now: community members walking between rows of brightly colored trees, reading the informational signs planted in front of each one, picking fresh fruit off the branches.

While his vision is still a few years from being realized, thanks to Lawrence’s Common Ground initiative it’s at least a possibility. Adamson coordinates the Lawrence Community Orchard, one of several community gardens that make up the program, which turns vacant eye sores of city lots into lush fruit-and-vegetable-producing green spaces. The undertaking has so far garnered a lot of interest (and creativity) from the community, expanding to seven sites in its second year. Organizers say Common Ground not only saves the city time and money from having to mow the unused lots, but gives residents places to learn about gardening and farming while growing fresh, healthy produce — nearly in their own backyards.

Brian Wolfe rakes mulch at the Lawrence Community Orchard on Saturday during a volunteer work day at the garden. The orchard at 830 Garfield St. in East Lawrence is one of the community gardens in the city's Common Ground program.

The idea was hatched a few years back, when Eileen Horn, Lawrence’s sustainability coordinator, attended a conference that detailed other cities’ efforts to hand over vacant properties to entrepreneurs for the development of small businesses. Why not, Horn thought, do the same thing in Lawrence, but with community gardens? Common Ground was unveiled in 2012.

Since then, the ideas that have rolled in have surpassed organizers’ expectations: a garden incubator, a fruit orchard, a student farm.

“The thing I love most about the Common Ground program is it allows us to step out of citizens’ way and let their creativity take over,” said Horn, who has been sought out for advice by dozens of other cities interested in starting similar programs. “And we get the benefit of all these vibrant spaces.”

In return for the lots, each garden has to offer something back to the community, whether that’s giving food to a local pantry, teaching children how to garden or allowing anyone to pick their own fruit and vegetables. In the first year of Common Ground, more than 40 gardeners and 600 volunteers helped grow nearly 6,000 pounds of produce, about a tenth of which was donated to charity.

Aimee Poulson, a coordinator for the Garden Incubator at John Taylor Park, 200 N. Seventh St., has long been waiting for a program in Lawrence like Common Ground. Well, she didn’t actually wait, as she has for years been involved in getting private community gardens off the ground.

Unlike most, though, she doesn’t do it for the gardening; what she relishes most is the potential the spaces have for building communities and strengthening neighborhoods.

“If you get a good foundation, people get very vested in it and interested in its survival,” she said. “It becomes integrated into the fabric of how you see a place.”

Justina Gonzalez applied for Common Ground because she wanted to give her 3-year-old son and other Lawrence kids a place where they could have fun and learn at the same time. Horn paired her with Poulson at the Garden Incubator, as both had a similar vision of building a gathering spot for neighbors of all ages.

At the Garden Incubator, the dirt mound is a hit with kids, students from the next-door Ballard Community Center take care of their own plots, and neighborhood kids often stop by to pick strawberries.

Over at the Maple Incubator Farm, on U.S. Highways 24 and 40, farming entrepreneurs make use of a 5-acre plot to find out if agriculture is truly in their future. For instance, husband and wife Kevin Prather and Jessi Asmussen grow bulk-storage crops such as sweet potatoes, onions and winter squash. Another aspiring green thumb, Frank Smutniak, experiments with hops and garbanzo beans. The farm exemplifies another benefit of Common Ground: It’s a collaborative effort, with participants learning from their fellow growers.

Lawrence resident Nicole Van Walleghem entertains her 10-month-old son, Oren, while her husband, Michael, not pictured, works in their plot at a Common Ground community garden located in the 600 block of Illinois Street earlier this month.

At their recent monthly work day at the Lawrence Community Orchard, volunteers built cardboard moats around the fruit trees to stop weeds from creeping in. Adamson, the coordinator, noted that he sees the space one day being an “edibly landscaped park free for anyone to pick ripe fruit from.”

Five years ago, he and other perennial-fruit-plant enthusiasts started the Lawrence Fruit Tree Project. They planted at various locations around town, but it wasn’t until Common Ground came along that they finally found a place to put down roots, both literally and figuratively. The formerly vacant lot at 830 Garfield St. gives them a centralized space with the long-term availability required for planting fruit trees.

The Lawrence Community Orchard features low-maintenance fruits able to withstand pests, including peaches, pomegranates, blueberries, jujubes, hazelnut and mulberries. The plants are still a few years away from being fully mature, but once they are they’ll likely stand for decades. Adamson’s vision, though, goes beyond this third-acre lot next to a railroad trail.

“I’d love to be able to walk down any city street in Lawrence and pick a pear in October and eat juneberries in June,” he said.