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Issues of the Enviroment: Project Grow celebrates 50 years of community gardening in Washtenaw County

Project Grow managing director Kirk Jones
Project Grow
Project Grow managing director Kirk Jones


  • Project Grow was launched in 1972 with a focus on gardening as a community-driven neighborhood project and to teach responsible and sustainable organic gardening practices. The organization is celebrating its golden anniversary throughout 2022. Project Grow Community Gardens is the longest standing community garden organization in the nation.
  • The Project Grow Community Gardens organization originated in the Burns Parkneighborhood of Ann Arbor from an idea by Susan Drake and a neighbor, Nelson Meade (city council representative or the 3rd Ward at that time). Susan wanted to grow a “victory garden,” modeled after successful community gardens in other regions. The first community garden was on about an acre vacant industrial land in the neighborhood, used with permission of the owner. 
  • The community garden concept took off in 1970s Ann Arbor, and, in a few years, there were gardening sites on the Ecology Center property, Arrowwood Hills on Pontiac Trail, County Farm, Freeman School in Dixboro, Peace Neighborhood Center, Zion Lutheran Church, and at the site of Hikone Public Housing. To Susan, Project Grow was a grand social experiment bringing people from all social strata together in a common activity.
  • Over the years, the organization has received numerous grants and continued to expand to new properties, while a number of the original gardens are still being cultivated. Many community gardeners are renters or do not have access to their own land for gardening.
  • A desire to grow organic vegetables and crops unites the project grow members, but the type of crops is diverse. Members come from a variety of backgrounds, and the level of experience with gardening varies a great deal. The gardens offer community building and a place for gardeners to learn from one another. For example, one member might have an infestation of Japanese beetles, and another member has an organic solution. 
  • During 2022, to celebrate the 50th anniversary, Project Grow held a number of community events, including a giveaway in March of a special cultivar of tomato created for the golden anniversary (the Project Grow Gold tomato) and a celebration event with tomato tasting this August.
  • Five decades down the line, Project Grow has built upon its foundation and now facilitates 20 individual sites across the community, providing over 350 individual plots. The organization has also expanded its reach, teaching classes about topics related to vegetable gardening, providing free plots for low-income families, and much more. Those interested in registering as a Project Grow gardener, volunteering for community workdays or to work on organizational events, providing monetary or in-kind donations, taking part in our educational classes, or attending upcoming events can visit our website at projectgrowgardens.org for more information. 


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU. And today, we celebrate a golden anniversary. I'm David Fair, and welcome to this week's edition of Issues of the Environment. It was back in 1972, Project Grow began in Ann Arbor. What started as a small community garden project in the Burns Park neighborhood has blossomed into an expanding concept that not only produces tangible product but offers education and awareness about cooperative and sustainable living. Our guest today is Kirk Jones, and Kirk serves as managing director of Project Grow. And happy anniversary, Kirk.

Kirk Jones: Thank you. Thank you. It's been a very exciting year for us.

David Fair: Well, we look back 50 years to 1972. Can you kind of give me an idea of what the original mission of Project Grow might have looked like?

Kirk Jones: Well, the organization was founded by Susan Drake, and she was a Burns Park resident, and she reached out to her city council representative.

David Fair: Nelson Meade, right? Yeah.

Kirk Jones: Right. And County Farm Park is now named for Nelson Meade. And she was interested in starting what she called the Victory Garden, reaching back to World War Two. And the people just wanted a place to have a garden. And so, he helped her find some unused land. That was, I think, at Ellsworth and Stone School. She and some other Burns Park neighbors had the means to have this area tilled up, and they had more space than they needed. So, they reached out to people at the it's now University Townhouses, and they leafletted the whole area. And they drew a number of people from there to share the garden. At the end of the year, Susan thought, "Well, this is, you know, this is great." And Nelson said that Susan thought of it as a grand social experiment that, you know, was very valuable bringing together these affluent people from Burns Park with these less affluent people, but sharing something in common. And so, that was kind of the foundation of Project Grow.

David Fair: So, fast forward to today. We're five decades later. How has the overall mission evolved?

Kirk Jones: Well, now our mission statement is to provide this space, education, and inspiration to make organic gardening accessible to all. People weren't thinking about organic gardening much in 1972. That gradually became more important. And one of our previous directors, Linda Asher, sort of guided the transition to making the organic organization, and that took place in the eighties and nineties.

David Fair: Is that when you first got involved?

Kirk Jones: I first had a Project Grow garden in 1986, and it was at County Farm Park. And I didn't know anything about gardening.

David Fair: So, what made you want to go do it?

Kirk Jones: I had a coworker ask me. So the coworker said, "Do you want to share a plot with me?" I was like, "Yeah, okay, I'll do that." But, you know, I didn't know much about gardening. And, you know, things grew, and it was fun. The following year, I did it by myself, and I had applied at County Farm for well into the early 2000s.

David Fair: Issues of the Environment continues on 89 one WEMU, and we're talking with Project Grow managing director Kirk Jones, as the organization continues to celebrate its 50th anniversary this year. What is it, Kirk, about putting your hands in the dirt and cultivating and nurturing through the process from seed to table that becomes so fulfilling?

Kirk Jones: I think that's something that sort of, at least for me and I think for many other gardeners, is something kind of just magical about gardening. There's something very spiritual about it. And other than that, everybody gets it. But if you're a gardener, gardeners get it. They get a pleasure from it. Even pulling weeds and just doing these things, there's a connection to nature that you don't find by just taking a walk or a hike.

David Fair: Well, in a community garden setting, there's also that opportunity for running into and meeting and creating bonds with like-minded folks. How much of what Project Grow does now is really relationship oriented?

Kirk Jones: I think a lot of it. And, someone said to me, and this is very true, you know, you meet people at the garden that you would otherwise never meet. People from Burns Park and homeowners from Burns Park and apartment dwellers and single mothers and all races and creeds, all different kinds of people. You're gardening next to people that you're very different from, but you share a common interest, so you always have something to talk about.

David Fair: And does that kind of relationship then carry beyond the border of the garden and into how you interact with the broader community?

Kirk Jones: I would like to think it does. I mean, yeah, I think it has for me and a number of other people I know in Project Grow. Yeah.

David Fair: WEMU's Issues of the Environment conversation with Project Grow managing director Kirk Jones continues. And, Kirk, we talked about 50 years of community gardening, and it started in this one little area, but now it is far more expansive, touching different parts of Washtenaw County. How expansive is Project Grow at this point?

Kirk Jones: Right now, there's 21 garden sites and about, I think this year, there were 470 gardeners. So, some of the sites are very large, like County Farm. I think there's 80 full plots. Plots are big. There are 25 feet by 30 feet. And a half plot. But in many gardens, the plots are divided in halves. So, there's more than 80 gardeners at County Farm. Some other sites are very, very small. Like, we have one at Wines School that only has five plots. So, the furthest out. I think there's one on Zeeb Road at Scio Community Church. And the furthest east is this one at Catholic Social Services at Packard and Golfside.

David Fair: And how diverse is the product that is coming out of these gardens? Can people serve their own particular interests in growing what they want on these plots?

Kirk Jones: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. When I first had my garden, and I became more and more interested in growing flowers, and I actually felt sort of guilty--you know, it's like, "Oh, I should be growing vegetables." But as long as it's legal, and you can grow anything you want. Some Project Grow gardens are virtually all flowers. Some of them are virtually all tomatoes or people have, you know, just a couple of things that are interested in growing. And other people always every year, they want to try something new. You know, they want to try this is a kind of cucumber I've never had. So, I want to grow a few of those, and I want to grow a few of the squash or something that I've never grown before. And Project Grow doesn't care. We just want people to be able to garden if they want to.

David Fair: 2022 marks 50 years of Project Grow. Is there a strategic plan in place, or are there forward-looking plans for Project Grow over the next decade?

Kirk Jones: You know, about ten years ago, a little, little longer, you know, the urbanization went through various struggles of, like, what are we about, you know? And about ten years ago, there was a decision to sort of let's focus on what we know how to do well, which is run community gardens and create community gardens. Because, for a while, there was, you know, "Oh, we should do more educational things, or "We should create more, you know, we should be teaching all these classes, or whatever." And it led to a lack of focus, you know, cause it's all run by volunteers. And our board is they're more or less super volunteers who pitch in and do things, rather than raise money to hire people to do things. We mostly just want to try to continue to expand, to add more sites as we see good opportunities and continue to educate people about how to garden, hopefully continue to build community in Washtenaw County.

David Fair: I'd like to thank you for making time for us today, Kirk. And, again, happy anniversary to Project Grow!

Kirk Jones: Oh, thank you, David.

David Fair: That is Kirk Jones, managing director of Project Grow, as the organization marks its 50th anniversary. For more information on Project Grow and today's conversation, visit our website at WEMU dot org. Issues of the Environment is produced in partnership with the Office of the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner, and we bring it to you every Wednesday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti.

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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