It all started with a New Year’s resolution. A few years ago, Suzanne Lucas decided she’d do her best to eat locally as much as possible.
“It wasn’t for any political or social reason. I just wanted to see how easily (it could be done),” Lucas says.
She already had part of the answer in her own back yard. The first thing Lucas and her husband, Jon, did when they moved to New Albany was set up a garden. At the time, in 2007, it was a bit unusual. She had to get permission to build it.
“It was sort of a novelty for the neighborhood,” Lucas says. “‘What’s she doing? What’s she planting? What’s coming out of the garden this week?’”
When Lucas heard that a small group was getting together to talk about health and wellness initiatives in the community, she wondered if gardening would be discussed.
“I looked around New Albany and noticed there was a lack of gardens, especially vegetable gardens. A lot of that is probably for aesthetic reasons, but I hadn’t met a lot of people that were gardening,” Lucas says. “I said, ‘Let me go (to the meeting) and see if gardening is a part of it.’”
At that meeting in 2009, one of the first for the fledgling Healthy New Albany, Lucas raised the idea of both a farmers market and a community garden. Though both have sprung up in the intervening years, the community garden has been Lucas’ personal project – one she’s tended to with just as much care and enthusiasm as the garden in her own yard.
“I’m not a gardening expert, but I have this desire to learn and to share what I know and to glean what other people know, too,” Lucas says.
Lucas’ love of plants goes back to her childhood. Her father had a garden, so it was something she was always familiar with.
“He had the richest, most fertile soil because he was always throwing his grass clippings on it. It was all those little lessons that I didn’t know I was learning along the way,” she says.
Lucas studied botany at Miami University for her undergraduate degree and earned a master’s in plant breeding and genetics at Michigan State University. After graduation, she bred petunias for PanAmerican Seed in Chicago.
“I loved science, but I knew I didn’t want to go into medicine,” Lucas says. “Now I do the stay-at-home mom thing, so I guess this is my outlet to get back into botany.”
After that initial meeting with Healthy New Albany, Lucas launched an online survey, the results of which indicated New Albany’s strong support for a community garden. Through her involvement in the Franklin Park Conservatory Women’s Board, she learned about the Growing to Green program, which supports community gardening. A class on starting a community garden helped give her confidence to move forward with her efforts in New Albany.
In spring 2011, those who took the survey were invited to an initial planning meeting at the New Albany branch of the Columbus Metropolitan Library. A lot of people at that first meeting haven’t remained involved in the garden, says Jackie Krebs, a member of the New Albany Community committee. At the time, the group was still trying to find land to host the community garden.
“I think they were ready to plant that first day, and we were only starting to sprout,” Lucas jokes. “I was kind of stuck in a mode of analysis paralysis, and it was that small group of people that said, ‘No, let’s start now. …’ And I was so glad we did because we were able to expand and get more support.”
Fortunately, the City of New Albany turned out to be on their side, allowing the group – the core of which is about 25 dedicated volunteers – to build 16 4-foot-by-4-foot raised-bed plots in the green space behind the Village Hall parking lot. The effort proved so popular that there was a lengthy waiting list for plots. The New Albany Women’s Network kicked in $1,500 toward a rain barrel system, which was installed at the New Albany Police Department building.
“I thought it was the biggest coup when we put the rain barrels up at the police station,” Lucas says, adding that the Village Hall location seemed equally improbable. “I still feel like we’re getting away with something.”
In its second year last year, the garden expanded to 76 plots. Gardeners included neighbors, families with children, newlyweds, a mother-son team, a class of sixth-grade boys and a group from NAWN. The committee hosted fun activities: a potluck and awards for categories such as Best Garden Sign and Best Garden Name & Theme.
As Lucas and her crew gear up for the garden’s third season, even more developments are popping up. In January, the Aetna Foundation awarded the garden a $10,000 grant to help secure a more permanent water source and add signage. The rain barrels have been useful, but ran dry a few times during last summer’s drought. Lucas wrote the grant herself. The committee is still examining how to best spend the money, she says. Options include tapping into city water or drilling a well. And the garden is again expanding – this year by an additional 10 plots.
But the real success, Lucas says, has been the relationships that have developed through the garden’s growth.
“(Bill Dawson, the Growing to Green coordinator for Franklin Park Conservatory) is always saying the actual gardening in a community garden becomes secondary to the camaraderie, the knowledge passed on and the experience,” Lucas says.
That’s been true in her personal life as well. Lucas’ sons Robbie, 7, and Owen, 4, love helping Mom in the garden. All winter long, Owen asked her when he could go back to see the plants, but she told him the garlic and onions were still sleeping.
“I love that sense of pure joy and pride they have when they run up to their friends and say, ‘Look at this zucchini I grew! It’s this big!’” she says.
Lucas’ kids were a large part of her motivation for starting a community garden.
“My father was a huge gardener in my life,” she says. “Once he passed (in 2008), I just realized that was something I could give my children from him. … I really think this garden has pulled me out of the depression of losing my dad. It’s positively impacted my life and my kids’ lives while having a positive impact on the community, too. It’s about becoming part of something bigger than myself. That’s helped me.”
Outside of time spent planting and pulling weeds, Lucas spends her free moments online on gardening message boards and perusing the website Pinterest for garden ideas.
“We’re lucky because (Lucas’) New Year’s resolution has sparked a revolution in New Albany of eating locally and finding those sources,” Krebs says.
“I think if you see something you want changed, you have to be that change,” Lucas says. “That’s what I want to teach my kids, hopefully.’
For more information on the community garden, visit www.facebook.com/newalbanycommunitygarden.
Lisa Aurand is editor of Healthy New Albany Magazine. Feedback welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.