Q&A: Bill Dawson on Community Gardening

Walker Evans Walker Evans Q&A: Bill Dawson on Community Gardening
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If you want to start a community garden in Central Ohio, then there’s one person you most certainly know: Bill Dawson. Bill has been working at the forefront of community gardening efforts for the past two decades and has helped launch new gardens all throughout the region in addition to efforts located on-site at the Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens where his efforts are based.

Since Columbus Underground is celebrating Gardening Week this week, we thought it would be a perfect time to catch up with Bill for a Q&A over the phone. Our full conversation can be found below:

Walker Evans: First, can you tell us a bit about who you are and what you do?

Bill Dawson: I’m the Growing to Green Program Coordinator at the Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens. I actually just hit the 20 years mark on Saturday.

WE: Congrats!

BD: We’ve been doing the community garden program since 2000, so that’s now in its 13th year. In 2000, when we began the program, we found about a dozen community gardens set up in Central Ohio, but most of them were struggling because they didn’t have any resources. Some were turning to OSU for help, others were coming to us for their horticulture information, and others were going to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. So we decided that we wanted to become the one-stop shop for them.

After researching other programs all across country, we reached out to that dozen existing community gardens in need and gave them assistance and resources. We then started going out to blockwatches, schools, churches and neighborhood groups and explained the benefits of starting community gardens. And here we are 13 years later, assisting over 250 gardens throughout Franklin County. We also do work that goes beyond central Ohio. Scotts MiracleGro has a grassroots grants programs where they procure funds and products to distribute across the US and Europe, and they also do five big $25,000 grants. Those grants were awarded in January, and after doing some planning with the recipient cities over phone, we go into those cities and help them build gardens. We just did our first one of 2013 in Forth Worth, Texas and we’ll also be travelling to build gardens in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Sacramento, California, Bridgeport, Connecticut, and Cincinnati, Ohio. They’re all very different projects, but mostly edible gardens in inner cities. In Tuscaloosa, we’re rebuilding in an area near where tornados took out entire neighborhoods a few years ago. That one is in collaboration with Habitat for Humanity housing.

So all of that is in addition to what I normally do with assisting over 250 gardens locally.

WE: I think that a lot of  people hear about the Franklin Park Conservatory and just think only of the Conservatory itself. Do you find there’s a challenge in educating the public about the other programs offered at the FPC, such as Growing to Green?

BD: There is at times. Growing to Green is out there on a regular basis, out in the community. I’m busy working with individuals and groups, so there’s not a lot of time to market what we do to the general public that visits the conservatory. But this is something that we’re talking about that now… how we can increase the visibility of the program. I think that in the gardening world and in the community gardening world, we’re already known as the hub and center of all things community gardening. We also house the American Community Gardening Assocaition at Franklin Park. They’re a worldwide organization, and they’re housed here in Columbus. So we really hope to be that central hub with our resource center that is open to the public offering classes, workshops and other events in our five acre garden.

WE: I’ve heard a statement made a few times from different folks that Columbus has more community gardens per capita than any other major metropolitan city. Can you shed some light on this?

BD: I think that stat may have come from the American Community Gardening Association, or it may have just fallen out of Bruce Harkey (Executive Director of the FPC) mouth or the Mayor’s mouth one day. [laughs] The mayor wants to see 500 community gardens in Columbus. I want to just see them all successful, no matter the number. The important thing is that we’re not seeing a lot of attrition. We see a lot of sustainability with our existing gardens. We try to point new gardeners toward resources like land and money, which are the two most important things, but also to seeds, plants and education. We want to help people get organized and do their homework before sticking a shovel in the ground. I want them to be thinking about not just this season, but a couple of seasons down the road. And I want them to think about fundraising opportunities. There are grants out there, but at some point these gardens have to wean themselves off of those grant. They need to look toward working with area restaurants or farmers markets to be able to sell and make some money. The entrepreneurial aspect teaches children about business practices and marketing opportunities. I want people to think about all of those things.

WE: What factor or factors do you think is driving the growing trend behind community gardening?

BD: I don’t think it’s a trend, it’s a movement. This is actually the third or fourth resurgence of community gardens in America. We had the war gardens or victory gardens the first time around, and then the hippies in the 60s as the second resurgence.

What brought it about this time was the economy. We’re all trying to save money and grow food and know where it came from, so those are big driving factors. When Michelle Obama planted her garden at the White House, we had already been doing this program for eight years! [laughs] But that brought about a lot of national and international awareness of gardening, local foods, and healthy nutrition. I don’t see any of that interest ending anytime soon, as food is only going to get more expensive, and we’re in such a mode of disease and obesity and diabetes, so the timing is right for this.

WE: You’ve already touched on many individual benefits of community gardens, but what would you say is the largest benefit to community gardening to the city as a whole?

BD: The economic development factor. I see gardens going into inner city neighborhoods next to boarded up homes, and those homes get fixed up afterward. The gardens help a neighborhood become more beautiful and safer. In what was formerly an abandoned lot now exists a community garden. If there’s flowers and vegetables and people and activity on the site, then you don’t have bad activities on the site.

There’s just so many benefits. Community gardens contribute much more fresh produce to food pantries, from the Mid Ohio food Bank down to the smaller soup kitchens. Many of the local gardens have partnerships with these pantries. And we can teach people who have been hit with job loss in the pantry lines… show them how to garden in the process.

WE: Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers related to community gardening?

BD: Just that our upcoming Earth Day celebration is actually a full week long. We’re getting onboard with Earth Day Columbus and Green Columbus, and complimenting their great activities and worksites. Our event is all about community gardening. We’re announcing our grant winners. We’ll have environemtnal displays, food trucks, and information. We want people to have the opportunity to come and talk and learn about these efforts.

More information about Growing to Green can be found at www.fpconservatory.org.

From April 15th to April 21st, Columbus Underground is celebrating Gardening Week! Throughout the week, we’ll be taking a look at various backyard gardening and community gardening trends, efforts, businesses and more. Gardening Week 2013 is sponsored by Scotts Miracle-Gro, who provides support to regional community gardens through grant programs and other philanthropic efforts. Follow them on Facebook or Twitter for more information.

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