“The more I think about life, the greater value I place on being able to grow my own food.”

In a metropolitan area without a true grocery store, it’s the residents of Detroit who are using their own hands to alter the food landscape. In 2007, approximately 340 individuals and groups worked with the Detroit Garden Resource Program for help with their gardens that sprouted up within the city limits. In 2008, the number jumped 45% to over 500. It’s expected that when the 2009 figures come out, they will be even greater.

Who are these individuals? Why and how are they growing their own food? And what does it mean to our community’s vitality?

Meet one of them, Ms Halima Afi Cassells, who, last spring, took a vacant lot and turned it into a bountiful harvest of a variety of produce and flowers for herself and her 5-year-old daughter and several of her neighbors from the block. Cassells is a Visual Artist. Her garden is located in Detroit's North End off of Woodward at Kenilworth Street, which is just north of downtown Detroit. She’s in her mid twenties and until last year, hadn’t done any gardening since she was 10 years old. She said her daughter had a really great time last summer gardening, even though she complained a lot.

How did you become interested in gardening?
While living in a small apartment in New York City where it was impossible for me to have anything more than a window full of plants.  I always loved being in the garden with my father as a child, but it didn't cross my mind to actually do it until much later in life.  After moving back to Detroit I felt compelled to at least try to grow something on a vacant lot.  The more I think about life, the greater value I place on being able to grow my own food.

What made you choose the location you have and how did you get access to the lot?
I picked the lot that is on my block and that I pass everyday.  An incredible amount of trash had collected there, and I wanted to create a visible change.  I asked around and found out that the corner store owns the lot, and asked them if I could grow a garden.

What were the steps you used, to prepare the lot, plant the garden and work, protect and harvest the garden?
I drew out what I had in mind and kept talking to people about it.  I typically talk alot in my planning phase because you never know who has what resources.  I was introduced to a guy with a tiller and some other farm equipment. He tried to till the soil but we discovered there is a building buried on the property, making it impossible to till. So, we went and got scrap floorboards and built 12 - 6ft x 6ft boxes to start with.  That made for 42ft. x 84ft of boxes with soil.

Friends introduced me to the Garden Resource Program, who directed me to where and how I could pick up soil, compost, and supplies. They also provided seeds and seedlings. Shoveling the boxes full was a lot more strenuous than I first envisioned. I got some neighbors and lots of kids to paint our boxes and some tires and plant our seeds and seedlings.  Our local fire department engine #35 agreed to water for us every 2-3 days, and they did a magnificent job!

What was at first a nuisance I realized later kept away lots of animals from the crops. The back of the corner store is used by many as a toilet everyday and I later learned from a master gardener that he uses coyote urine pellets to deter pests. So we had no problem with any nibblers.

Did you involve others from your neighborhood or block in the project?  If so, under what conditions?
From the beginning the idea was to engage any person who showed interest, so the policy was if you help keep it clean, then you can have whatever you want to harvest. I had plenty, and so did many other people.

People involved themselves at different levels. Lots of different people came to help, including the gentlemen that usually beg for change at the store, which was great. They helped empty our trash on a regular basis.

What did you grow and did you sell anything ?
We grew tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, beans, peas, onions, greens, beets, spinach, lettuce, basil, parsley, mint, oregano, sage and lesser of many more varieties of herbs.  The eggplant, spinach, basil, beans, and collards grew really strong. They were the best. The tomatoes grew alot of fruit but not many turned red. We planted okra, but it didn’t come up. Otherwise everything else did okay. Selling the crops was never part of the plan.

When did you start and end?
We got a relatively late start, creating boxes in May and planting the beginning and middle of June. We took our last bit of parsley and spinach in November. We pretty much harvested everything by the beginning of October.

Could others eat from the garden?
Many others ate from the garden. Some neighbors told me they were the best greens they ever ate.  Another neighbor told me that he was coming to get items for chili, and that he was really happy he knew he could pick because he didn't have much food until the first of the month.

Do you plan to do this again next season, and what will you do differently?
I definitely plan to continue next season. I am renaming the garden so that it can fit into my non-profit. it will be The Detroit Mural Factory Gardens and we plan to expand twentyfold.  I am enlisting youth and workers who have mandated community service to be a core group that helps and learns to garden. We plan to collaborate with the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, and D-Town Farms this coming year.

To learn more, visit http://detroitmuralfactory.com

-Alethia Carr