Gardening Angels

Detroit senior citizens show how inner-city agriculture can strengthen ties between generations

One of the articles in A Good Harvest (IC#42)
Originally published in Fall 1995 on page 28
Copyright (c)1995, 1997 by Context Institute

Here in the Detroit, Michigan, Great Lakes bioregion there is a new spirit emerging in urban communities. Fed up with decades of dis-investment and neglect, people are working together to rebuild their city – block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood.

Rather than relying on expert planners, the miracles of high technology, or the promises of large corporations to revitalize the city, people are turning to the greatest source of all – nature. As we look to nature, we find that those who understand it the best have experienced it the longest. Senior citizen "Gardening Angels" provide the hope, a positive example, time-tested knowledge, and patience to start a project and see it through. The community gardens started by these Gardening Angels have become a way of life that reflects the elders’ love of beauty, family, and community.

Lillian Clark, 74, spread the first Gardening Angels seeds when she ran out of space in her own garden and expanded it into an adjacent vacant lot. As the fruits of her labor blossomed, others joined her and formed a community garden. Over 150 similar gardens involving 500 people in other neighborhoods have since begun.

Gardening builds community. Three, even four generations join together. The subcultures of fear, violence, and apathy from an instant, disposable lifestyle are broken. People take pride in feeding their family from their own gardens.

Gardening Angel Annie Brown, 69, says, "As I sing and talk to my plants and flowers, I realize that there are things in life that we don’t want that we have to do anyway. When I look at my garden I see that I am in charge! I have the final say as to what happens and what doesn’t."

The common unity behind winter planning, spring planting, summer tending, fall harvesting, canning, and composting brings people together. Isolation is broken. Our best human qualities emerge. Excess food is divided up among neighbors. Food pantries for people in institutions and homeless shelters are re-stocked. Young people learn to produce and give back.

Laura Washington, another Gardening Angel, will be 70 in November, right around the time when the last of this year’s harvest comes in. She and her late husband, Eddie, came to Detroit in 1966 from the Mississippi Delta bioregion, giving up their occupations as sharecroppers to make a living as factory workers. They did not, however, give up their rural way of life.

The family garden started by Mrs. Washington is part of a community garden complex growing on land where four houses once stood. Gardening brings her family closer together. She says her 32 grandchildren and her nine great-grandchildren love gardening. Although sometimes the work is hard, she teaches them the virtues of good gardening: patience, clear thinking, and deliberate action.

Many of the Gardening Angels have set up "grannie porches" where grandchildren and their friends in the neighborhood can gather in safety. Rather than the elders telling the young children what to do and what not to do, they take on the serenity of their gardens and listen to the children.

"Young people need and want us older people to hear their stories without judging them. I encourage them to not be afraid to speak their minds," says Mrs. Queeva Anderson, age 78.

Droughts soon end. Insect pests soon fall prey to working plants, beneficial bugs, and birds. Nature does not discriminate; grannies do not criticize the young people for who they are or for what they have to say. Instead, they bring different generations together, plant seeds, make new friends, and build community.

Nina Pruitt, 97, has sage advice: "Keep things beautiful. Love your yard, love your family, love the community, love yourself. Learn to appreciate simple things. Take pride in what you do have, especially those things you have the ability to manage."

Jim Stone is a community development specialist, teacher, and writer. For more information about Gardening Angels, write: 3061 Field Street; Detroit, MI 48214; tel. 313/921-8071.

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