Summer Sprout takes urban gardeners from rookies to green thumbs

Replacing urban vacant lots with green spaces provides countless benefits for local neighborhoods, including increased access to fresh produce, crime reduction, deeper community engagement, increased property values, and even improved mental and physical health. The city of Cleveland has one of the country’s highest rates of vacant homes and lots, leaving many local residents hoping for more gardens to beautify public spaces.

That’s where Summer Sprout, the city’s longstanding community gardening program, comes in. Launched in 1976, the program took off when the City of Cleveland partnered with the Ohio State University Extension, Cuyahoga County (OSUECC), in 1977. What began that summer has become a testament to the value of pooling financial and educational resources to create lasting change. It’s also an example of how greening programs can address a variety of social ills at the same time.

But the real value of OSU’s presence in this full-cycle program, which takes people within Cleveland’s city limits who may have little to no experience in gardening from rookies to green thumbs, is ongoing education for community participants.

Seeing beginning gardeners transform into leaders, says Maggie Rivera, OSUECC’s Agriculture and Natural Resources Educator, is one of the most rewarding parts of the program. From kids' camps and gardening seminars to composting classes and nutrition counseling sessions, the most successful Summer Sprout participants get communities involved at every level. “It really empowers people to start a community-based program in their own neighborhood,” Rivera shares. “We love working with gardeners who take the idea of a garden and run with it in creative ways, or build community engagement into their work with participants.”

Terry Robbins, manager of the city's land bank, agrees, adding that community togetherness is one of the program’s major benefits—along with greater access to local fresh produce. “That’s what we find the Summer Sprout program does, by bringing residents together, providing fresh produce to neighborhoods that might not have access to produce, and promoting healthy eating.”

The city’s land bank makes vacant lots available as garden sites, and if a community garden application is approved, it enters into a license agreement that can be renewed annually for one dollar per year. Around a third of Summer Sprout gardens are located on vacant land owned by the city, while churches, block clubs, and other neighborhood groups own the land that houses the remainder of the gardens.

OSU, in turn, “provides soil testing, seeds, starter plants, soil amendments, tilling services, raised bed materials, educational outreach and support to participating gardens,” according to its website. OSU also requires new gardens or new garden leaders to attend its annual Dig in! Community Garden Training Program, at a cost of $50 (Summer Sprout scholarships are sometimes available). There are currently 164 community gardens being maintained by the program, and OSU facilitates each one.

Summer Sprout garden leaders like Erika Acy, co-founder of Glenville’s Gardening in the District program, have created community havens filled with edible fruits and vegetables and safe, beautiful gathering spaces. Acy’s community engagement efforts have included healthy snack-making demonstrations for area youth and have turned vacant lots into veggie gardens with picnic tables and benches. 

To keep the program thriving, OSU educators check in with local garden leaders throughout the summer, forming ongoing relationships. OSU master gardeners also sometimes visit the community gardeners to give them tips on how to improve.

Given that Cleveland residents are at greater-than-average risk of experiencing food insecurity, living in food deserts, and lacking consistent access to fresh fruits and vegetables, there’s a significant public health benefit in supporting community gardening projects, Rivera says. “Gardens can serve as gathering spaces and sites of learning. Not only agricultural or horticultural learning, but also learning about healthy eating, community health, and nutritious foods.”

With recent reports showing that Cleveland has lead contamination levels as high as Flint, it’s worth noting that Summer Sprout also helps residents address lead-contaminated soils right in their own (shared) backyards. “We continue to be a source of information about lead contamination and how to work with those sites, and which ones to avoid,” Rivera explains. “We’re always educating on the potential of soil contamination and how to know what you’re dealing with.”

Rivera says that the long-term goal of Summer Sprout is to bring residents together to enjoy the fruits of healthy urban living. “Mainly, we’re looking to sustain gardens and turn the ones that exist into long-term community spaces,” she says. Rather than exponential growth, she explains, keeping up and building upon the status quo—currently at around 170 gardens per year—will demonstrate the value of sustainable horticulture to each neighborhood with a Summer Sprout garden.

“These vacant spaces are lots where absolutely nothing is happening,” Rivera says of the new spaces being transformed and cultivated. “The city already has to maintain them so they don’t become a problem to the neighborhood. Summer Sprout is taking something that is basically draining resources and turning it into an actual productive space, and a beautiful one as well.”

As for Robbins, she hopes that Summer Sprout’s transformation is as much interpersonal and intergenerational as it is agricultural. Representatives are now working with the city’s Department of Aging to expand the program into rec centers and senior living centers where gardeners of all ages can get involved. “Community gardens bring people together. There's a kick-off for the program every year, when the garden leaders all get together and share their insights about what works and what doesn't work. We see garden leaders from the east side, west side, the young, the old, all uniting with high energy around a common interest."

Interested in getting involved in the Summer Sprout program? Contact the OSU Extension Office at 216-429-8200 or visit the program’s website. The program is cyclical, so there are different ways to jump-start your involvement throughout the year.

This story is part of a dedicated series titled "People, Planet, Progress: A Decade of Sustainable Cleveland" in partnership with Sustainable Cleveland.