Back in 2011, VEJ bought 15894 Greydale Street in Detroit for back taxes. From the very start, a neighborhood garden was part of what VEJ leaders imagined for the place.
The place for the garden--a vacant lot next to Hope House--was not ideal. The soil, like soil in many vacant lots in Detroit, was possibly contaminated. So many trees around, and on, the lot blocked out direct sunlight. Hope House & Gardens itself stands on the most sparsely-populated block in the Hope Park neighborhood, which means fewer neighbors to take up gardening with VEJ.
Nevertheless, VEJ staff and volunteers went to work coaxing a garden from the shadows and sickly soil. Each year, the garden got a little hardier and healthier.
In 2018, one of the volunteers who helped start the garden returned as VEJ garden program leader. L'Oreal Hawkes-Williams came back to VEJ with a vision for making the garden into a living laboratory and learning space for the neighborhood. She cleared the entire garden lot and started from scratch with a new design.
Hawkes-Williams's design for the garden made it more about holistic health and neighborhood togetherness. She added new features like a "medicine wheel," mushroom mound, and wildflowers to teach aspects of gardening that go beyond just food.
In 2019, VEJ added an emphasis on teaching organic sustainable gardening methods to Hope Park neighbors. This included more than 20 classes and workshops along with "drop-in gardening" with Hawkes-Williams and garden interns two or three days a week. Around 300 volunteers came to work in the garden in 2019--VEJ's most popular form of outreach and service.
"L'Oreal put together as good a program as any I have ever seen," said VEJ executive director BT Irwin. "The mix of classroom learning, hands-on practice, and personal coaching was excellent. Anyone who was part of it would come away from it a better gardener and better steward of Earth. We got rave reviews from people who came to learn from L'Oreal and work with her."
Unfortunately, Irwin said, the garden program fell short in two important ways.
"The neighborhood didn't really get into the garden too much," said Irwin. "That's not for a lack of trying. We reached out to neighbors and neighborhood groups. We went door-to-door. Our Community Dinners at Hope House we popular with neighbors, but that didn't turn into much participation in the garden program."
Irwin said the other shortfall was the loss of so much produce to wildlife.
"I bet nine out of ten pounds of food we grew in the garden ended up feeding groundhogs and deer," said Irwin. "We tried everything short of putting a tall fence around the garden and none of it worked. They just kept on coming."
Irwin said that other gardens in the neighborhood are big enough to produce enough food for both human and wildlife consumption. VEJ's garden is too small for that.
Even though the garden didn't meet its two most important goals in 2019, Irwin said it still did a lot of good.
"Oakland University found that our garden is one of the strongest pollinator centers in Detroit," said Irwin. "And it's hard to measure the appeal and beauty the garden adds to the neighborhood when it's in full bloom."
Not to mention the hundreds of volunteers--most of them youth--who come from all over the country to work in the garden each year.
"One of my favorite things about the garden is how neighborhood kids come down to work with other kids who come from all over," said Irwin. "They get close to each other. They like each other. They see how much alike they really are. Hope grows."
Building on these positives, the neighborhood garden will be back with improvements in 2020.
"Everything we do at VEJ is an experiment," said Irwin. "Earth justice is an experiment that nobody really knows how it will turn out. We give it our best try, learn from our mistakes, and try something a little different. In that sense, the neighborhood garden is a really important part of what we do. We may learn more about Earth justice from what we do in the garden than anywhere else."