The Busy Bee Garden Project, Part One

Posted by jdg | Monday, July 25, 2011 |

This past May the kids and I hopped on the bike and rode around our neighborhood looking for something to do this summer. We have a neighbor who gets up every morning and picks up the trash that accumulates in this city full of litterbugs. We wanted to do something like that. For a few days we went around the edge of the neighborhood beyond her usual circuit, filling many garbage bags with trash. We noticed a fenced-off vacant lot and asked our friends at nearby Busy Bee Hardware who owned it and it turned out they did. Years ago they used it as a parking lot for downtown events, but were told by the city to stop. I asked if we could plant some flowers there, and Mikey shrugged and said, "You can do whatever you want over there."

I don't know if he was prepared for how literally I'd take that. 

The first thing we did was get rid of three garbage bags worth of trash. We hoped to plant sunflowers in the existing soil, but it turned out to be barely an inch deep; underneath was gravel. So instead the kids and I put in a few raised beds with the hope of growing some flowers that would brighten up this spot on Gratiot Avenue (one of Detroit's main thoroughfares).

It turns out that if you want to build a garden on someone else's property, it really helps when the owner is a hardware store with a great gardening department. Busy Bee donated much of the soil we used in the first three boxes, and Ritchie and Sandy had already given the kids seeds that we started in March. After we built the three raised beds, we loosened up the soil underneath, pulled out weeds, and laid down cardboard and newspaper before filling them with a healthy mixture of bagged peat, manure, topsoil, and compost.

Filling the soil with flowers was easy. The sheds of Eastern Market are just two blocks away, and late on a Saturday afternoon some flower sellers practically give away the flats they don't want to haul back to their greenhouses. Once the kids actually planted the flowers they were pretty invested in this garden. We've helped with several gardens around the city over the past few years, but this was the first one that really depended on us. My interest in this project was less about gardening or growing produce, but teaching my children the responsibility that comes with caring for these plants. They understand we need to go to the garden every single day. They understand how important it is that each plant get water.

There is no water source in the vacant lot, so we bought a few 3-gallon sprayers. Every day we fill them up and haul them up to the garden (usually in the covered wagon), and the kids will argue about who will water the flowers and who will pump the sprayer.

Occasionally (especially on really hot days), more than just the flowers get watered.

click here to read the whole post and see all the pictures.

I thought three boxes would be all we'd do this year, but soon we had five and I found myself planting grapes and trumpet vines to grow up the chain-link fence, with beans and of course a slew of potted sunflowers. I started foraging the nearby alley for bricks and broken concrete to build beds along the fence. I found an old shipping pallet and we tore it apart and turned into yet another raised bed.

Some of our neighbors got involved, and soon we had ten raised beds in the garden, with half devoted to flowers and the rest to vegetables.

As the garden has grown bigger, so has the difficulty of getting water to all these thirsty plants (especially because it's only rained three or four times in the past month). Every day I haul between 25-50 gallons of water up there, often in that covered wagon.

I recently bought a rain barrel and connected it to the gutter of the empty building next door. Now all I need is rain.

Our stubborn refusal to let the garden die has turned into a wonderful routine. We love spending time up there, sometimes several hours a day. I love watering and weeding with the kids, or listening to the ballgame at dusk by myself. We brought a couple old Eames chairs up there and a few days later some wooden Adirondack chairs appeared (another gift from the Busy Bee folks).

The kids and I have weekday picnics there.

On lazy afternoons the kids will just sit there and tell each other what they see in the clouds.

When we have visitors from out of town we often grab some pizzas and hang out at the garden with beers and lemonade. Our dog Wendell runs around sniffing at everything, generally acting like it's the greatest place on earth.

Already we've made a few jars of dill pickles, several loaves of zucchini bread, and pasta with homegrown broccoli, peppers, grape tomatoes, beans, and squash.

The sweet corn is looking like it's almost ready to pick. The watermelons are bigger than softballs. The dozens of sunflowers are taller than two kids who are extremely anxious for them to bloom. Our neighborhood beekeeper recently put in a beehive. In a few weeks the garden will be producing all the tomatoes we can eat, along with brussels sprouts, beets, edamame/soybeans, cantaloupe, honeydew melon, pumpkins, acorn squash, along with all the stuff my neighbors planted.

I really don't know what I'm doing gardening-wise, but I prefer to learn how to do something by trying rather than just assuming that I can't. You'd think though---after several years of growing squash---I'd learn not to plant so many so close every spring, but there's always next year. Until then, I hope the folks at the food pantry where we are donating extra produce have a good recipe for zucchini bread.

* * * * *

In this city full of incredible community gardens, this really isn't much. It's just one little raised-bed garden where there used to be an empty lot. At this point it's even a total Detroit hipster cliché. But it has become a huge part of our lives. We love sharing it with the folks at Busy Bee and bringing Sandy a bouquet once in awhile.

The good folks at the hardware store have been amazing. So have all the people in the neighborhood who've stopped by to say kind words. I really enjoy talking to the people who walk by on the street and hearing their reaction to the garden. I see a lot of suburban people walking by on their way to and from Tigers games. There's always a few panhandlers who target the crowds after baseball games, and three or four aggressive guys can affect the way 30,000 baseball fans see the core of this city. It's always bothered me how a single person can have such a massive negative impact. But with this silly little garden I've also come to respect how a few people doing something small can also create a more positive one.