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Issues of the Environment: Ann Arbor Farm and Garden investing in education and sustainability

Martha Lowry
Martha Lowry
Martha Lowry


  • Founded by Mildred Hague Matthaei (wife of U-M Regent Frederick Matthaei, whom the Matthaei Botanical Gardens are named for), Ann Arbor Farm and Gardenhas been enriching the Ann Arbor/Washtenaw County community since 1914. It began as a branch of the Woman’s National Farm & Garden with the goal to empower women to support themselves, earn their living in the beautiful ever-changing out-of-doors, and to help rural women make a fair living from their produce and handcrafts.
  • The group has distributed $650 thousand of funds locally since 1947 to support people and groups with the shared interest and passion for gardening, the environment and the power of flowers/plants to support mental and physical health. The group has provided over $150 thousand in scholarships.
  • Some of those projects include: 
  1. AA Farm & Garden partnered with Matthaei and held a special Peony Garden Centennial Walk in 2022. Donated $15K to the endowment in support of the Peony Garden.
  2. First foray into funding school gardens was Agrarian Adventure at Tappan Middle School in 2004, including a greenhouse. Since then, many local school gardens have been established: including Tappan Middle School, Apple Playschool, Haisley Elementary, Dicken Elementary, Lincoln Middle, Ypsilanti Community Schools, Ann Arbor Community High School. Gaffield Children’s Garden at Matthaei Botanical Gardens, including a $15K grant in 2009 from Garden Walk proceeds.
  3. Flower therapy for patients at Mott Hospital- AAF&G was a pioneer in horticultural therapy, and members of the group still volunteer with patients to create floral arrangements with flowers from their garden to brighten their rooms.
  4. Growing Hope, Ypsilanti. The former Ypsilanti mayor, Amanda Edmonds, received Farm & Garden scholarships and later, grants for the nonprofit she founded. These proceeds helped fund hoop houses, signage, a green roof and walkways.
  5. 4-H/Washtenaw County Youth Center(vegetable garden, fruit trees) - In partnership with several other local groups, a group of Washtenaw County Master Gardeners and community volunteers have worked together to plan, teach and assist the students in their gardens. The students do the planting, tending, harvesting, and cooking in the courtyards with guidance from the gardeners. More than 40 types of vegetables and 10 herbs grow in the gardens including Swiss chard, cucumbers, and garlic, and the students create recipes with the produce.
  • Martha Lowry, board member for Ann Arbor Farm & Garden, says that the major fundraiser for grants is the Garden Walk (first held in 1991) on the “second Saturday in June”, and they also raise funds through silent auctions and public presentations. The walk highlights notable gardens throughout the community and allows the public to tour them. The group plans to continue providing grants and garden support throughout Washtenaw County.


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and I'm David Fair with another edition of Issues of the Environment. We bring you this local conversation series on the environment in Washtenaw County every Wednesday. Today, we're taking a peek ahead to spring. You see, it's only a month away now. There are so many places of unfettered beauty throughout the county. And in many of these spaces, you're going to find that the beautification also serves in the areas of preservation and sustainability. One of the organizations that has been providing grant money to develop, maintain, and sustain some of these areas is Ann Arbor Farm and Garden. Our guest this morning is here to talk about the genesis of the organization and its growing community impact. Martha Lowry serves as an officer on the Ann Arbor Farm and Garden Board. And thank you so much for making time today, Martha.

Martha Lowry: Oh, it's a pleasure to be here. Thank you for inviting me.

David Fair: While Ann Arbor Farm and Garden became fully independent only back in 2017, I'm not sure a lot of folks realize it's been a part of the community since 1947. How did the local branch of what was then the Women's National Farm and Garden Association get up and running?

Martha Lowry: I'm relatively new to the organization, and I've had to dig back in to answer that question. A group of women in Pennsylvania, they were actually students of the Horticultural School for Women in Pennsylvania, and they got together and decided that they wanted to have a group that could help women use horticulture to earn a living. And that began the national organization. And then, in 1926, the Michigan chapter came into being, and the woman who started that was Clara Ford of the Henry Ford ancestry. And one of her areas of focus was creating respectable roadside stands, which I thought was fascinating because there are so many of those now in Michigan, and I grew up with them, and I thought that was very cool. And then, in 1947, as you mentioned, Mildred Matthaei, who was the wife of Frederick Matthaei, who was a regent at U of M-- [

David Fair: Should be familiar to anyone who's walked through the Botanical Gardens.

Martha Lowry: Oh, absolutely. And ever since then, she began the Matthaei Botanical Gardens and began the Ann Arbor branch. And we had the first scholarship of $300 that was awarded to a U of M student at that time. So then, we had the Ann Arbor branch, and it was in existence until 2017 when the group decided that they really wanted to go independent. And the reason for that was because they wanted to focus locally. Up until that time, a lot of the money that was raised was sort of dedicated to projects--national projects or state Michigan projects. And the folks here really wanted to be able to focus locally and really contribute all the money that they were raising to local efforts. So, it's partly around financial: supporting nonprofit gardens and farmers and students of horticulture through grants and scholarships. And so, our mission today is to promote and support local gardens and farms and environmental stewardship through education, community service, grants, and scholarships.

David Fair: How do these additional freedoms that go along with declaring independence play out specifically in terms of investment in the community?

Martha Lowry: Well, it's really, you know, it's allowed us to focus, I would say, all of our grant and scholarship money that we earn through our fundraising to go to local farms and gardens. And so, for example, we awarded seven grants. One was to Community High School, and that was to add some additional outdoor learning space. Growing Hope is an Ypsilanti organization that we've had actually a long standing relationship with, and we gave them some money as well to assist with training and growing some more marketing garden spaces. And some folks well know about friends of Greenview and Pioneer Nature area. And this year, they're focused their funds on ecological burning and plants, wildflowers, planting wildflowers for pollinators. That's a big part of what they're doing.

David Fair: 89 one WEMU's issues of the Environment and our conversation with Ann Arbor Farm and Garden board member Martha Lowry continues. You've mentioned just a few of the projects that you've been supporting over the years, and the difference that it's starting to make in the community. Fundraising has allowed the Ann Arbor Farm Garden to pump some $650,000 in total back into the community. It's allowed for partnerships to develop, as you've mentioned, and including with Matthaei Botanical Gardens and investment and the endowment that preserves, maintains, and grows the beloved peonies garden. I believe $15,000 was the amount your board sent their way last year. How are the decisions made on where to grant money throughout the community and where they'll do the most good, be it education or sustainability or beautification?

Martha Lowry: Yeah, that's a great question. And we have a process that begins in November. And on our website, we have an application, and any organization that is a 501c3 nonprofit or any student who is in an accredited program that aligns with our mission can apply. So, it's really open to anyone. And we don't do a lot of publicizing. We haven't needed to, but it's, you know, it is open to everyone. Then we have a committee that reviews. We have a scoring system that highlights different aspects of the, I guess, the programs that would be the money would be used for. And then, we do that analysis, and we try to spread the money out, so that everybody can get something as long as their application, etc. aligns with our mission. And then we notify them. And what we ask in return for organizations that receive grants is that they provide a couple of people to work on our big fundraiser, which is the Ann Arbor Annual Garden Walk in June and then to come back and tell us a little bit--just a short presentation--about how they used the money and what the impact was. And that's probably the best part of our team sharing how our funds have been used and have helped the community.

David Fair: Once again, this is Issues of the Environment on WEMU and we're talking with Martha Lowry from the Ann Arbor Farm and Garden. And you mentioned that annual garden walk. It is a community favorite. It is your biggest fundraiser. The years that you've done it, what has been your favorite part of that walk each year?

Martha Lowry: Oh, my gosh. Every part of it.

David Fair: Every part of it.

Martha Lowry: I know. But I guess, you know, the first year when I came back, I volunteered. One of the first things I did was volunteer at a garden walk. And working with the team is a lot of fun. These gardens are amazing, and it is really fun to see the people, families, older folks coming in and just enjoying being outside and really appreciating the beauty and the work that went into these gardens. And it's local, so, you know, it's your neighbor that might have a garden that we've never looked at. We also have had some of the gardens at Matthaei and the Arboretum highlighted, so we really try to showcase all different types of of gardens. And, in fact, this year, we're going to have a farm on the tour. So, they'll be seven locations, and one will be a farm.

David Fair: And, again, that will be on the second Saturday in June. And my sense of what you're talking about is that it builds community. And with that in mind, I think one of the more innovative and thoughtful and mindful programs is the flower therapy program offered by Ann Arbor Farm and Garden. That has had a long standing relationship with Mott Children's Hospital, but other organizations in the area as well. What exactly is flower therapy?

Martha Lowry: Uh, this is really interesting. Actually, somebody in our Michigan branch sort of came up with the whole idea of horticulture therapy. Her name was Alice Wessell Burlingame. And it is basically, you know, people who are just stressed or maybe having some health issues using therapy to help people through kind of the process. You know, it's calming. It's just, you know, kind of invigorating. So in Ann Arbor, we started this program at Mott's, as you said, and we would have volunteers from our group go twice a month, September through May, to Mott's Children's Hospital. And we brought with us flowers that were donated from a number of different folks in Ann Arbor, from Busch's to Kroger's to Plum Market and Norton's Flowers. So, we would bring them in, and then we would work with patients and their families to create. So, it's the whole, like, creative process, and it's hands-on. And then, the children would get to take them back to their rooms, and the staff at the hospital, as well as the participants, really, really appreciated it. And we did that for 40 years until COVID hit.

David Fair: Are you back to doing it now, or are you still on hiatus?

Martha Lowry: Yeah. What we're doing now is we had to pivot, so we now, the same group of folks, needed a different location, and we create our own bouquets. And then, we've been dropping and delivering them to different social service organizations. So, they go to Ronald McDonald House, Safe House, and Alpha House, and we do that once a month. So, we're continuing it, and we're staying in touch with Mott. As soon as we can go back, we will. But we haven't gotten the green light yet.

David Fair: Well, I think we've been able to highlight the fact that Ann Arbor Farm and Garden is touching a whole great number of aspects of our community, and hopefully more people will become aware and more involved. Thank you so much for the time today, Martha.

Martha Lowry: Oh, thank you so much for inviting us.

David Fair: That is Martha Lowry, an officer on the Ann Arbor Farm and Garden Board and our guest on Issues of the Environment. It 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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