The following article first appeared in the Permaculture Activist issue #92 (now Permaculture Design Magazine).
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In a township community with no public gathering spaces and low walkability, we transformed an ecologically damaged hillside into a community gathering space where neighbors and college students come together to learn about gardening and healing the land using permaculture design principles.
Our community garden is on a college campus high on a ridge overlooking the Ohio River near Cincinnati. The day I first arrived there in December 2010, the chairman of the college’s Environmental Action Committee led me through the campus. “They said the garden would be back this way, just over the hill,” the chairman told me. “We should see a blue shed!” It took us a while to find the site– it was a hillside below a parking lot, and behind some trees, hidden from view with limited access, covered in tires, garbage, and honeysuckle. My heart sank.
It’s a powerful exercise for me to think back on that day—I was so full of hope, immediately followed by despair, and finally after some reflection, the deep knowledge that meeting the land and the community on a journey of discovery would yield a rich bounty of relationships and camaraderie.
I wanted to start a project that would (somewhat selfishly) help me meet like-minded people and make friends…”
What I didn’t know was how my simple plan —to bring people together to grow vegetables—would do much more than that. Taking our cues from nature around us, we designed a garden that stacked functions: growing food, building relationships, and restoring a small piece of land are all interconnected. Yet, multifunctionality was not on my mind that December day. My original vision was simplistic. I wasn’t thinking about permaculture design, I was looking for a flat, cleared space on which to build a few raised beds: the typical community garden model.
Identifying the need
Before I moved to the suburban township where our garden now thrives, I lived in a leafy neighborhood filled with places where people gathered: cafes, restaurants, parks, and gardens, all within a walkable area. In our new-to-us bedroom community in Cincinnati’s western suburbs I felt trapped and isolated.
I sought a more participatory community, but our neighbors seemed to keep to themselves, even living on top of one another on postage-stamp sized lots.
We all drive to the grocery (0.4 mi./0.6 km) because it’s not a safe or pleasant walk. I wanted to start a community project that would (somewhat selfishly) help me meet like-minded people and make friends, all while doing something I enjoyed that added value to the community.
My first thought was to approach the township about unused space at one of the parks. The location was flat, cleared, highly visible and accessible, and near the Floral Paradise Gardens, where master gardeners worked with volunteers to maintain a carefully groomed space. The township was once filled with greenhouses supplying the cut flower trade, and the Floral Paradise was conceived as a memorial to that legacy. The garden gets a good deal of press and funding, but not a lot of use. I thought that the greenhouse, picnic area, and connected gazebo would be a fantastic shared, collaborative space. The community garden would bring more people to the beautiful flower gardens, and the flowers would attract pollinators to the vegetable garden. In my mind, bringing them together was a win-win.
I made an informal pitch to the master gardeners during a visit to the park. They were hesitant, but agreed to a meeting with the parks director. I did my homework and invited them all on a day-long tour to see two community gardens in nearby townships, where we talked to the parks directors and garden coordinators. I started the day with a lot of hope, but in the end I was informed that “there wasn’t enough demand here, there wasn’t enough human power in the parks department to run it, and—most importantly—the vegetable garden would detract from the beauty of the flower gardens.” I think they saw my garden idea in competition with the flower garden. I believe there may also have been concern about the community garden being associated with poverty and the inner city.
However, this was also a case of the chicken and the egg. If a group of residents had asked for space for a garden, we might have gotten a different response. As it was, when I first approached officials, I acted alone, so they responded that there wasn’t enough interest. If I were starting this project over again, I would hold a public meeting to bring together a group prior to searching for a site.
I was so sure the township would agree to let me use the garden site that I had no Plan B. I had been reluctant to go to our local college because it’s located away from residential areas. Lacking other options, however, I went to The College of Mount St. Joseph. Surely, I thought, they would see the positive role of a community garden. And sure enough, they said yes!
That led to the day in December when I first saw the garden site. I was dismayed. Like the township, the college was worried that the garden could increase work for the grounds crew, and they didn’t feel confident to donate visible, high-quality space.
I went home and mulled it over. That discarded scrap of hillside, prone to landslides and strewn with trash, was not what I had pictured. It was hard for machines to access, so any earthworks would have to be done by hand. I didn’t feel qualified to lead such a project. I got my permaculture design certificate in 2009 but had little practical experience, and this was a project that would definitely need a careful design analysis.
The alternative was to give up the idea and admit defeat in the meeting-friends department. Rather than wallow in disappointment, I embraced the challenge: the college site would deepen my understanding of permaculture design. As Mark Shepard says, “We are responsible for creating our own habitat.”
Announcing the project
The time came to gauge interest in a community garden! I went to the public library to book a meeting space only to find that this privilege was reserved to organizations; the library wouldn’t let the room to an ordinary citizen. I was crushed. I was trying to build community, but it seemed to be working against me. Not only did I have an impossible piece of land, I didn’t even have the right to use a public gathering space.
I finally happened upon allies in an old garage renovated into a solar-heated and geothermal-powered event space only 800 feet (240 m) from the garden site. EarthConnection was created and is run by the order of nuns who run the college. Sister Winnie, who manages EarthConnection as well as an organic food pantry garden on the grounds, has become a gracious supporter. During back-to-back weeks in January 2011, I gave two public talks there to gauge interest, through a series we called Eat Local—Grow Local, and the talks were well attended. It was inspiring finally to connect with like-minded neighbors.
Nineteen people arrived for a clean-up day on the last Saturday in February 2011. We organized a committee with a representative from the college, and the first season was underway.
That first year folks came and tried it out; some returned, others didn’t. We’ve since learned to work together and have discovered our natural gifts. As with any new system, these adjustments took time. Leadership of the project has emerged in step with our confidence and our new-found skills.
We decided to garden the whole space cooperatively.”
We asked ourselves how the garden could best serve the community, so that more connections would be made, more people would feel confident to lead and create, and more would be inspired to learn useful skills that promote health and well-being. That’s a tall order, because the people involved in the project are all busy with their home gardens (after all, we’re in the suburbs).
We decided to garden the whole space cooperatively. Abandoning plot rental for communal management propelled us into other cooperative strategies. We determined that our gardeners would not have to join, pay, or commit to any set fees or number of work hours. We hoped this would be less intimidating to the busy suburban family who wanted to be involved but couldn’t work every Saturday morning throughout the summer.
Consequently, our community garden is truly communal, free and open to anyone who wants to join us on any work day: Saturday mornings starting in March and Wednesday evenings starting in May. As the coordinator, I’m always present to lead the work days, along with members of the garden committee. We share harvest among those who work. We also encourage public access and individual harvests. Because we don’t pay a fee for the land or water use, we focus our fundraising efforts on special development projects and buying necessary materials.
Creating a development strategy
Before we started in 2011, the eroded half acre (0.2 ha) site was covered in honeysuckle, black locust, black walnut, and white ash saplings, as well as garbage and old tires. The bottom portion was afflicted with poison ivy. The steep upper slope had lost most of its topsoil and drained quickly, revealing hard clay, while the bottom was swampy. Because the area had been untended for a decade, it had become habitat for many creatures. We found garter snakes, turtles, and salamanders, which was great entertainment for the children. Unfortunately, mosquitoes also enjoyed the swamp.
At the outset, we invited a team of people to help assess the site: college representatives, local permaculturists, and friends from the Civic Garden Center (which supports more than fifty community gardens). We came up with a design that would allow us to harvest produce while restoring the land: a terraced vegetable garden would cover the bottom, while a native food forest would help restore the steep northern slope.
One of the first challenges came from working with the local land conservation organization—they encouraged eradicating exotic species with herbicide and replacing the honeysuckle with natives. They weren’t familiar with permaculture and were concerned that a productive garden would hinder ecological restoration. We proudly shared our design plans and our Edible Forest Gardens books, and we compromised: they would support the project and observe our process if we would plant the food forest mostly with native plants.
Getting to know each other and the land
We decided to tackle the bottom half of the garden first, where we planned to locate the vegetable plot. We built terraces using double rows of cinder blocks that we found on site. The bottom rows of cinder blocks in the terrace walls are laid on their sides to open downhill for good drainage, while the top blocks stand upright and are planted with perennial herbs which act to deter the deer and attract beneficial insects; the herbs also help to stabilize the wall with their roots. One terrace is 3’x24′ (about 1m x 7m) and two terraces are 3’x10′ each. We sheet-mulched everything on and around the terraces with free wood chips, composted horse manure and compost soil to create garden beds, then covered the walking paths with more wood chips. We only cut down trees and shrubs when we were ready to replace them with something else, in order to keep the soil intact.
By the end of our first year, we had contributed 800 hours of work, made new friends, hosted and attended ten community events, and made several presentations to local groups. Ninety people had subscribed to our newsletter.
We were making progress, but we also had setbacks. Many residents showed up expecting simple gardening activities such as planting, weeding, and harvesting. Instead, we labored over terrace building, honeysuckle removal, and hauling in wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of organic matter. A few participants were frustrated by our decision not to till. These folks had grown up on farms and were convinced we should be able to farm the site using traditional methods. Never mind that we’re on a hillside in the landslide capital of the US! A few of these folks didn’t return.
Yet I have to think that Toby Hemenway in Gaia’s Garden was encouraging me to not sweat the small stuff when he said, “In the rich interconnectedness of an ecosystem, small failures are shrugged off.”
Finding our identity
In our second year, 2012, we decided that intensive production was not our goal, because most of our gardeners and visitors also gardened their own yards and were looking for community and education, rather than high yields. Also, high annual vegetable production is generally not compatible with restoring a damaged site. Instead, and consistent with our college campus location, we’ve grown into an educational demonstration, melding eco-restoration and food production through permaculture design.
Wanting to provide examples of garden designs that challenge the tilled, straight-row model, we built a circle garden as part of a public workshop. Four beds 4′ x 6′ (about 1 m x 2 m) surround the perimeter, with an herb spiral in the central pathway. We also began collecting leaf bags from community residents to boost our homemade compost soil blends.
The 650 people-hours worked at the garden in 2012 allowed us to install a 300 gal. (1000 L) tank to harvest rainwater from the existing shed. This was done as part of a workshop for the public and college students. We hosted a spring seed swap, and sold more than 100 vegetable seedlings at our first annual edible plant sale. We met more of our neighbors who had backyard gardens. We distributed leftover vegetable seedlings with planting advice at our local food pantry. And we attended and hosted more community events in 2012, including six community potlucks.
Establishing roots in the community
In our third year, we built two 4′ x 10′ (about 1.2 m x 3 m) asparagus terraces and another 3′ x 10′ terrace to be used for cut flowers, and we created a retaining wall for our central pathway. During a public workshop we built a compost center, which now allows us to accept kitchen waste from campus kitchens.
Last year saw more than 970 service hours donated by our regular crew of gardeners and student groups. We offered more classes and provided more presentations and tours. Attendance was up at both our spring seed swap and the plant sale. And we moved into a donated office space in the EarthConnection building. We now have 180 subscribers to our newsletter.
We even grew a lot of produce with all of our vegetable beds fully developed. So many of our visitors comment on the health of our soil and wish they could be as “lucky” as we are! We tell them our secret—sheet mulch and free organic matter have transformed the hillside. There is no more swamp because the terraces have slowed down the water drainage; the runoff is absorbed by the thirsty organic matter, perennial herbs, and deep-rooted asparagus. Other swampy areas have been tamed with lots and lots of wood chips. And the good news is that we’re still seeing the wild critters around.
Planting the native food forest
As we take a deep breath and dive into our fourth year this spring, we’re excited to finally break ground on a native food forest in the upper half of the garden. It will feature strawberries, currants, hazelnuts, plums, cherries, raspberries, mulberries, and pawpaws, with an equal number of herbs and ground cover species. However, we take a cue from Bill Mollison in Introduction to Permaculture where he says, “the importance of diversity is not so much the number of elements in a system; rather it is the number of functional connections between these elements.” Therefore, our goal is to combine plants that have varying root structures to stabilize the soil. Also, we aim to create guilds by matching the roles and needs of the various elements.
Because the hillside is so steep and unstable, traditional swales were not recommended. Instead, we will use a technique that Dave Jacke discusses in Edible Forest Gardens called check log terracing. The basic method is to drive stakes in the ground along contour, and pile limbs and brush uphill of them. Trees and shrubs can be planted either above the brush pile or below the stakes. Rather than digging down to create trenches, which can make an unstable site more unstable, we will pile up organic matter to slow water, retain moisture, and encourage root growth by our edible trees and bushes.
Hard labor has inspired our confidence, and we’ve developed strong relationships through it all. Admittedly, we’re also excited to complete development work and move into a maintenance phase, allowing us to re-evaluate how our design is working. We envision the garden creating connections among the existing elements, so that even if it’s abandoned one day, the hillside will stabilize and thrive because of our love and attention.
…even if it’s abandoned one day, the hillside will stabilize and thrive because of our love and attention.”
When I look at our garden on Google Maps, it is a mere blip on a forested hillside in a sprawling township. Yet, as a garden community, we have spent almost 2,500 hours over three years in this little space, learning skills, solving problems, and getting to know the land intimately. The greatest gift for me has been the opportunity to demonstrate land repair, while making friends and growing food. Stacking these three functions, and weaving together threads of connection in the community, has made the Hillside Community Garden much more than a point on the map. It is truly a gathering place in our community, a productive and sustainable plot of land that will continue to inspire and motivate others.
Amy is a retired high school teacher turned full-time permaculture homesteader, Hillside Community Garden coordinator, and blogger. She lives in Cincinnati on a tenth of an acre (0.04 ha), where she is known locally for her edible landscape. Her suburban homestead serves as headquarters for writing, cooking, food preservation, and a classroom for permaculture topics as they relate to suburban living. She blogs at www.TenthAcreFarm.com.
You may be interested in some of the following related Tenth Acre Farm articles:
- 5 Reasons to Homestead in the Suburbs
- 5 Ways to Prevent Soil Erosion
- 7 Ways to Improve Soil Quality
- Here’s a Quick Way to Terrace a Hill
- Make a Circle Garden for Beauty and Low Maintenance
- The Challenges of Rebuilding Culture in the Suburbs through Community Gardens
- Transitioning to a No-Till Garden
- What is Permaculture?
You might like my article at Hobby Farms: 10 Ways to be a Good Steward of your Suburban Land
The following books were helpful in learning techniques for managing the challenging hillside landscape:
- Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture by Toby Hemenway
- Edible Forest Gardens, Vol. 2: Ecological Design and Practice for Temperate Climate Permaculture by Dave Jacke
Have you participated in a community garden? What was your experience like?