On any given summer day, gardeners from age twenty to eighty tug weeds from around Brussels sprouts, melons, and peppers. Their ten fenced-in plots, each twenty-five by thirty feet, compose a collection of three compact rows against a backdrop of tall trees behind Lakewood Elementary School.

Between pulling weeds, muggy afternoons, and fending off unidentifiable pests, gardening can be frustrating even when the weather cooperates–which it didn’t in 2019, when cold and rain delayed the growing season. Project Grow managing director (and longtime gardener) Kirk Jones calls it “the worst spring I can remember!”

The rewards include home grown produce and camaraderie. For many, the gardens are a second neighborhood, with growers sharing advice, a shovelful of mulch, or a cold drink during a day in the hot sun.

“Project Grow is for everyone,” says Jones. People of any age, from any neighborhood, and of any mobility level can garden. Project Grow collaborates with the Center for Independent Living on a wheelchair-accessible garden there, and two other sites have raised beds for gardeners with limited mobility. (These “Discovery Gardens” also come with extra assistance and education from volunteers.)

Although plots are individual, gardeners take responsibility for their site as a whole. Each of the twenty-two locations has a volunteer coordinator who schedules work days where all the gardeners get together for garden-wide clean-up.

Since its inception forty-seven years ago, Project Grow has also been busy growing. In 1971, just one site on Stone School Rd. held forty-three plots where families could plant and harvest that year. Today, Project Grow is the longest-running community garden in the country. The individual plots–350 of them–fill up fast. “If you want a plot,” says Jones, “the time to be thinking about it is when you aren’t thinking about it, which is February and March. Some plots fill up in March.” Prospective gardeners apply for a plot online. Gardeners can also apply for scholarships to offset the cost of a plot–$130 for a full plot, $80 for a half-plot, and $50 for a smaller Discovery Garden.

Jones, a longtime participant in Project Grow whose tenure has progressed from gardener, to site manager, to board member, to managing director, remembers the first year, 1987, Washtenaw County provided water to his garden at County Farm Park. Before that, gardeners hauled water from the nearby creek. (All sites now have water available.)

Jones says the Project Grow board, especially in recent years, has been tempted to branch out into other services, but they always come back to their goal: to let as many people as possible garden. The emphasis on education, accessibility, and community has led to a strong and diverse community of gardeners.

It’s “a community of people that is different in many, many ways, but everyone shares this big passion for gardening,” says Jones. And as for the best gardening advice he can pass along? “There’s always next year,” he says with a laugh.