Scott Richardson tries to get to Nelson Meade County Farm Park by 6:30 or 7 a.m. He leaves his apartment in Canton, drives in on Geddes Rd., and spends an hour and a half tending his half-plot at the Project Grow garden there before heading off to his job as an aerospace engineer.
“I had looked in Canton for community gardens before I went looking in Ann Arbor,” says Richardson, who’s in his early forties. “The truth of the matter is that Canton does have community gardens. But community matters”—and he’s found his here.
Nelson Meade, the park’s namesake, would have loved hearing Richardson’s story. The U-M administrator, who died in 2018, had just been elected to city council in 1971 when a constituent, Susan Drake, came to him for help starting a community garden. She persuaded developer Carl Brauer to lend them a one-acre site off Stone School Rd. just south of Ellsworth. A farmer agreed to plow it, and in 1971 forty-three families gardened together there.
“To Susan, Project Grow was a grand social experiment bringing people from all social strata together in a common activity,” Meade wrote in a 2002 history. Its success convinced her “that community gardening should be available city wide. And it was to be more than simple gardening. The joining together in a single effort of affluent Burns Park residents and the low income and more diverse residents of Arbor Park [now University Townhouses] was a model that should be replicated.”
Project Grow was organized as a nonprofit the next year. Meade’s daughter Holly, then fourteen, remembers “going around to look for all these sites that we could try to have. The first year, not so much. But the second year, we were going to churches and all kinds of places to look.” Last year, during the pandemic, Project Grow managing director Kirk Jones registered a record 470 gardeners at twenty-one sites.
Richardson was one of them. He started to take gardening seriously, he says, a little more than ten years ago, when he realized he didn’t have a green thumb, but a black thumb. “Every plant I had, I killed,” he laughs. “I said to myself, ‘I have to fix this.’ ” He started growing hot peppers in containers.
“Even as a container gardener,” Richardson explains, “you don’t have the same conditions all the time, or the same seeds, or even the same outcomes with the plants. I’m an engineer. I’m a scientist. So I’m always thinking, ‘How do you replicate it?’ But a garden doesn’t work like that. You can try, but there’s no guarantee you’ll succeed.”
But he kept trying. And trying. “I’ve been growing Scotch bonnet peppers for ten straight years now,” he says. And when he came to Project Grow last year to get more space, “a couple of people gave me some tomatoes and leeks, and I put those in the back of my plot. I grew black-eyed peas, too. I ended up with about a thousand black-eyed peas!
“What makes the community so special,” Richardson says, “is absolutely the diversity of the people. I’ve always loved Ann Arbor as I was growing up, and as I went to college at the University of Michigan, I always appreciated the diversity in Ann Arbor. I think Project Grow kind of sources from that diversity. I appreciate all the different stories that bring us all to the garden.”
Jones, who’s sixty-four and is getting ready to retire, is just as appreciative. Richardson “agreed to be a site coordinator at the end of last year, and joined the board last October,” he says. “Scott’s very enthusiastic about gardening—and he’s young!”
Richardson is a kind of changing of the guard.
Since the pandemic, Jones says, “there are younger people joining up. The same thing happened during the Great Recession, where people had time on their hands and maybe also uncertainty.” During times like that, like these, “people often turn to things like gardening—for security, or maybe it’s memories.”
Jones lives in Ypsi Township—“I wanted a bigger yard, and I couldn’t afford a big yard in Ann Arbor,” he says. His work is “mostly administrative. It’s a big job registering everybody.”
A full plot is 750 square feet and $130 annually. Half-plots are about 375 square feet and rent for $80. In May, about 450 people had signed up, and Jones still had some plots available.
There were also two vacant seats on the twelve-member board. “You can nominate yourself,” Jones emails. “However, almost all new board members are people who were encouraged to run by other board members. This is what happened with Scott.”
One of his garden’s site coordinators, Joanie Stovall, “encouraged me, as I got to know my fellow gardeners, to volunteer as a site coordinator as well,” Richardson recalls. Stovall will take over from Jones as Project Grow’s managing director next year.
Richardson made the group’s fiftieth anniversary a theme of his campaign to be on the Project Grow board. Predictably, when he won, he “became the chair of the fiftieth-anniversary committee.”
Richardson started thinking about new ways of capturing the gardeners’ and stakeholders’ stories, because that’s what hooked him. So he’s doing a documentary. “I’m not really a videographer, but I want to capture these stories. I think they matter.
“People come from a lot of stories, and over fifty years, the city has made a difference. The county has made a difference. There are a lot of groups that have invested in what we’ve become.
“Gardeners are quite introspective people,” he notes. “They’re not necessarily interested in being in front of a camera. But, you know, where people are willing to share, I’d love to capture them, because you’re probably not going to get another chance to capture a fiftieth anniversary like this.”
Longtime Ann Arborite and musician Shari Kane and her husband and musical partner Dave Steele have two full plots, which they share with Kane’s grown son and his family, at the Lakewood Garden, just behind Lakewood Elementary School.
“You put one little seed of kale in the ground, and when it grows and if it seeds, you get thousands of seeds from that one seed,” Kane says. “It’s a miracle! So a lot of people have gotten into saving their own seeds from their own plants, and every year Project Grow does a seed swap.” (Richardson brought black-eyed peas this year.)
“We couldn’t be happier. We love it,” she says. “The people in the other gardens are just treasures. One is in her nineties. Another is in her eighties. They both know everything about gardening.”
Kane grows everything: tomatoes, peppers, corn, lots of greens, broccoli, herbs, potatoes, garlic, peas—“I love peas,” she says.
“For all of us at Lakewood, the last two years of the pandemic, being able to work on your garden, have your hands in the dirt, being outside, seeing your friends’ plots next to yours, was a lifesaver.”
Since Kane’s backyard gets no sun, Project Grow was a godsend even before the pandemic. The people in Project Grow “have a lot of passion about gardening,” she says, who’ve figured out “how to make gardening accessible—to any degree.
“The philosophy is, if a gardener is not keeping up with things, maybe they need help, rather than ‘we need to get rid of them.’ ”
“There’s room for everybody,” Kane says.
As the Lakewood Garden’s site coordinator, Kane is involved in another of Richardson’s anniversary projects: every coordinator is planting Project Grow’s “Golden Anniversary” tomato.
“The cultivar was kind of found by Project Grow,” Richardson explains. “They started growing tomatoes and growing tomatoes and growing tomatoes, and they all turned out a little different. They found this golden tomato with this really juicy, delicious flavor.
“They started saving seeds from it. They found out that the seeds started all turning out the same. So we named it for our golden anniversary.”
A potluck for the gardeners is scheduled for “July-ish” (but they’re keeping an eye on the pandemic). On August 20, Richardson says, they’ll hold “a public celebration of Project Grow’s fiftieth” at Leslie Science & Nature Center. Along with their annual “Tomato Tasting,” they’ll have food trucks, music and dancing, and information about gardening.
They’re always looking for new members. “About one-third of the gardeners are new each year,” emails Jones. “Some leave because they finish school, move, have babies, or get a demanding job. At the same time, a number of our gardeners have been with us for decades.”
He shares a favorite piece by “Earthman,” the late Washington Post gardening columnist: “Gardeners are the ones who ruin after ruin get on with the high defiance of nature herself, creating, in the very face of her chaos and tornado, the bower of roses and the pride of irises. It sounds very well to garden a ‘natural way.’ You may see the natural way in any desert, any swamp, any leech-filled laurel hell. Defiance, on the other hand, is what makes gardeners.”
“You can see where I’m going with this,” says Jones. “Not everyone who leaves is not a gardener, but everyone who stays is a gardener.”