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February 27, 2013

Hundreds of organic community gardens to take root this May

By Mary Beth Almond
C & G Staff Writer

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Hundreds of organic community gardens to take root this May
Kidz1st Pediatrics founder and pediatrician Jay Mitchell spearheaded the idea for Raising Rochester — a communitywide organic gardening project that will help stock local food pantries struggling to provide fresh produce to families in need in the Rochester area.

ROCHESTER — Seeds for change will be planted across the Rochester area this May, thanks to Raising Rochester.

Raising Rochester, the newest program of KidzKare — a nonprofit affiliated with Kidz1st Pediatrics in Rochester Hills — is a communitywide organic gardening project that will help stock local food pantries struggling to provide fresh produce to families in need in the Rochester area.

Kathy Campbell, a director of KidzKare, said the nonprofit offers a variety of opportunities for local children to be healthy and taken care of — including programs that speak to literacy, clothing and basic needs — like diapers and formula — health care needs, and now healthy diet and nutrition.

“This seemed like the next logical step, to move into healthy diet and nutrition,” Campbell said. “Healthy children make for a healthy community.”

Kidz1st pediatrician Jay Mitchell, also a director of KidzKare, came up with idea for the project after working in a garden at First Congregational Church in Rochester that provides fresh produce to the Rochester Area Neighborhood House Community Food Bank.

“I’ve been involved with the garden in the couple of years that it’s been running, and really, last year looked and said, wow, there’s so many people that we want to serve; there’s no way that we have enough space on the property of the church. What can I look for, what can we do in order to exponentially deliver the service to the people who need the food, especially the kids, which is my focus, being a pediatrician,” he said.

So this May, Raising Rochester will install more than 130 raised-bed organic gardens across Rochester, Rochester Hills, Oakland Township, Auburn Hills and Orion Township.

“My goal, way back when — about four months ago — was to get 10 beds, and we kind of blew that away quickly. So I set it to 100 — which is a ridiculous number — and about one month later, we broke 100. Now I really don’t know what to expect — 1,000 seems too crazy, but the more I hear people talk about it, maybe 1,000 is not crazy,” Mitchell said.

But the work is far from done.

Raising Rochester is now looking to the community to volunteer their time, donate space or support the project financially.

People of all ages and abilities can volunteer their time to assist in building and installing beds, planting seeds and seedlings, assuring healthy growth of plants, and harvesting, packing, delivering and selling produce.

“We need volunteers — lots of them. Our list is growing and growing, although we still have plenty of room for more. They will be the builders of the beds and the maintainers of the gardens,” Mitchell said.

To help kick the project off, volunteers are needed to help build the beds on Saturday, May 4, in the front parking lot of Classic Lanes in Rochester Hills and also to deliver them to their host sites on May 5.

Bed hosts — who are invited, but not required, to support their beds financially and/or with volunteer work time — are also needed. Right now Raising Rochester is targeting businesses as bed hosts, but will eventually seek out individuals, schools, churches and other organizations.

“The great part of it is we don’t need the earth. Because these are raised beds on legs, we can put them on asphalt, concrete, half-dead grass, roofs, and even going vertically up the sides of buildings,” Mitchell explained. “We don’t need the prettiest or fertile property. In fact, we prefer the ugliest, filthiest stuff because we don’t have to go on the ground.”

Raising Rochester is also looking for garden sponsors who can donate anywhere from $100 for seed, fertilizer, treatments and compost for one bed for a year, or up to $10,500 for a family of four to design, build, grow and support seven beds for the first 10 years.

The gardens, based on the concept behind “The New Square Foot Garden” by Mel Bartholomew, will be 4-foot-by-4-foot beds constructed of cedar boards and filled with peat moss, vermiculite and compost to support plant growth.

“There is no soil, there is no dirt, and that’s good for two reasons: the main place you get all your weed seeds is from the dirt you use. … The other thing is, what we think of as dirt is really pretty nutrient poor, so that really limits a plant’s ability,” Mitchell explained. “By following the recommendations in the book, we just used peat moss, vermiculite and a variety of compost so that the nutrient percentage in there is really high. It’s nice and balanced. It’s great for holding water when it’s dry, and getting water when there is too much and it still provides structure for the plants. By providing everything a plant needs, it doesn’t need to have a giant root system.”

At least half of the produce grown in the gardens will go to local food pantries, one-third will be sold — either in farmer’s markets or to businesses such as local restaurants or grocers — to support KidzKare programs, and garden hosts will keep one-sixth of what is grown.

In the future, KidzKare plans to expand Raising Rochester into the school system and eventually hopes the program will become a model for other communities and make the greater Rochester area a destination for “urban agro-tourism.”

“The program is in phase one this year, which is to provide sponsors, hosts and volunteers, but next year it will be more about children because we hope to include schools and educational components to give children the chance to not only, perhaps, benefit from the garden, but also to do the planting and the harvesting,” Campbell said.

To volunteer or receive information about Raising Rochester sponsorships, call (248) 651-8197, ext. 171, or email info@raisingrochester.net. Those interested in making a donation are asked to send them to 2370 Walton Blvd., Suite 3, Rochester Hills, MI 48309.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Mary Beth Almond at malmond@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1060.