Project 4: Earthworks Community Urban Garden in Detroit, MI May 2012



How deep can some lettuce get growing in a vacant field in the middle of Detroit? Literally, lettuce roots are about 6 inches deep, according to several online gardening forums. Figuratively, those roots run much deeper.

Earthworks is part of the Capuchin Soup Kitchen and was the scene of the crime for project number 4 of my 35 Projects. The urban farm aims to not only feed those without food that use the soup kitchen, but to reconnect individuals to the earth that nourishes them by showing them how to live in harmony with the earth and respect the nutritional value of the food the earth gives us. So, they want to reconnect us with a broken earth, attack poverty, combat an obesity epidemic and feed the hungry? Gosh, I love an organization with ambitious goals.

Aside from my recent and mildly successful forays with the Topsy Turvey, I haven’t participated in any gardening activities in about 15 years, but I enjoyed gardening throughout my childhood. My babysitter, Kay, would let me assist her in a garden where she grew cucumbers and snap peas. My family also did some recreational vegetable gardening, growing pumpkins, peppers, corn, and sunflowers. All of this took place during my childhood in rural Michigan, making it somewhat comical that my plunge back into gardening happened on the East Side of Detroit.

Carrie in 1982

A Community in Need  

In the Michigan nonprofit community, Capuchin Soup Kitchen stands out as a highly respected organization. They’ve earned their reputation by filling a real local need and doing an amazing job at it.  Hunger and the lack of means to provide meals with nutritional value is a real issue in many cities across America, and Detroit is certainly no exception. The absence of both grocery stores that sell fresh produce in the city and public transportation to get to the few that do only serve to compound the city’s nutritional issues.

Detroit does have an abundance of one thing: vacant land. This has led to an urban farming movement that has had mixed results. One of the most successful members of the movement, Earthworks Urban Farm was started by Brother Rick Samyn in 1997. It now not only grows produce for the soup kitchen, but provides a teen vegetable stand, jam making in the fall, and bee keeping.


Getting Started  

The project I assisted on was weeding a vacant tract of land named Donna’s Plot. When I arrived, it was an overgrown mess of weeds with city trash mixed in – broken glass, an errant hair extension that had been discarded during what I hoped wasn’t the commission of a crime. As a testament to the battle scars of a large urban city, two vacant houses framed one corner of the plot.

The enthusiastic team leader from Earthworks, Roxy, was on site working with us. I am sure she quickly realized that she had won some sort of nonprofit lottery having me on board. I have not kept up on my gardening tools. A student handed me what I assumed was a gardening hook. It didn’t have a sharp end and I ended up exchanging it for a saddle hoe that I barely knew how to use properly. It turned out to be broken (or I broke it, I’m not sure which). At any rate, I picked up a metal rake and settled in for some hard work in the hot sun. In addition to paid workers, volunteers ranged from people interested in sustainable growing practices and university students from nearby Wayne State University to students from the University of Massachusetts AmeriCorps program in Detroit on an alternative spring break program.

Weeding and planting will come later. Since I am not too far from Earthworks, I plan to volunteer there a few times this year, watching the plot of land produce the herbs and participating in transplanting, watering, and harvesting the food that I helped to grow and serving it in the soup kitchen. I would also like to donate some gardening tools to use on the farm.


Hey dreamers, can you see a thriving herb garden here?

My Journey

When I started this adventure, I wanted to learn more about the nonprofits that are truly keeping this country together. I have come to find out (as I type this with blistered hands) that while I am doing that, I am learning a few things about myself as well. For example, I am enjoying learning about compost, and I am enjoying weeding and planting on Detroit’s east side. Who knew? I do know that I am excited for the 31 other projects still to come over the next eight months.

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