Growing More than Dinner: Community Gardens in Zionsville

Writer / Cindy Argentine
Photographer / Christie Turnbull

It’s 8:20 a.m. on Saturday. The large field behind the Episcopal Church on Mulberry Street hums quietly with the chatter of birds and insects. As the sun breaks through the low, hazy clouds, a breeze stirs the tall grass, and dragonflies tour the meadow.

In the middle of the field there are square plots marked by wire, twine, and plastic fencing. Peas, peppers, corn, cucumbers, beans, broccoli, squash and sunflowers grow in profusion.

Chuck Anderson pulls into the parking lot behind the Boys and Girls Club next door, takes a couple garden tools from his car, and walks a few yards to his garden plot. “This is my first year trying this,” he comments. “We’re starting small, with beans, tomatoes, squash, and cucumbers.” He has heavy clay soil in his yard a few blocks away, and he heard the soil here was better.

He’s been pleased with his experience. “All the gardeners are really helpful. They share their knowledge when they can. The folks with the corner back plot, in particular, are a wealth of knowledge.”

About a mile southeast, at the town’s Elm Street Green, another community garden is growing. It’s in the broad plain at the bottom of the sloping drive that runs toward Eagle Creek. In this series of plots, patriotic pinwheels spin alongside bushy bean plants. A red watering can rests upside-down on a fence post, and coils of hoses are wound and waiting by water spigots. Zinnias and marigolds splash the site with color.

Cathy Orosz parks her car, gets out, and meanders through a series of garden plots on the way to hers. She looks over things for a few moments, selects a cucumber to pick, and a plucks a handful of mint. After a few more minutes enjoying the cool, quiet morning, she heads back to her car.

She stops to chat and says this is her second year with community gardening. She lives in an apartment nearby and likes having a place to grow things. An equally important benefit is the sense of fellowship she has experienced.

“There’s a great group of people who garden here. It’s a little community,” she says. “The gardeners talk with each other and with people who pass by on the trail. They share garden tips, produce, and ideas.”

“Gardening people are happy people,” she says as she offers me a sprig of fresh mint.

There’s another community garden at the Heritage Trail Park, by the corner of CR 875 E and CR 400 S, near the back of the Spring Knoll subdivision. Here, a rooster at the neighboring farm crows while mourning doves coo, towering maples rustle, and occasional cars rumble by. Snapdragons glimmer alongside the rows of vegetables local residents have planted.

Kent Harris tends his garden here. Like gardeners at the other locations, he has a generous spirit. When Christie Turnbull stops by to photograph the gardens, he speaks with her and makes sure she takes some of his fresh squash home.

A fourth community garden is run by the Zionsville United Methodist Church on Whitestown Road. It’s located in the strip of land between the church parking lot and the cornfield behind them. Strawberries, Swiss chard, and onions are growing there in addition to more common crops.

Behind the Scenes

A variety of people at town and church offices work behind the scenes to make these gardens possible. The Zionsville Parks and Recreation Department oversees the gardens at Elm Street Green and Heritage Trail. Al Smith is the contact person with the parks. He says there are 30 plots at Elm Street Green and 60 plots at Heritage Trail Park. They lease each 20’ x 20’ plot for $20 a year and provide water and parking at both locations. “We also have the gardens tilled each year,” Smith says, “and we put stakes in the ground with owners’ names on them.”
Smith says the Parks Department has offered some form of community gardening for over 15 years. It used to offer plots behind the fire station near the CVS pharmacy on Oak Street. After that closed, they opened the Heritage Trail plots four or five years ago and the Elm Street Green gardens two years ago.

At the Methodist and Episcopal churches, staff members and volunteers work together to manage the community gardens. The Methodist Church has room for 95 plots, each 20 x 20 feet. They still have a few openings, and people don’t have to be members of the church to register for one. Like the town, the church provides water and charges a nominal fee for the space.

Sarah Billings helped start the Methodist Church’s garden five years ago. “When the town’s garden behind the firehouse closed,” she says, “a couple of us started this one. I missed that garden and thought it would be nice to have something close by that my family could bike to. We started growing vegetables when our kids were young both for knowledge and for entertainment,” Billings continues. “I wanted my children to see where food comes from. The experience has led us to a better and healthier lifestyle.”

The garden at St. Francis Episcopal Church, which started four years ago, has expanded from 32 plots to 68 plots. Their plots are also 20 x 20 feet with water access and availability to the public. Pat Guiney, Parish Administrator, says their plots filled quickly this year; they were all rented by mid-May. “We are quite proud of our gardens,” she says. “We are St. Francis-in-the-Fields,” she laughs, “and we have a fairly sizable plot of land. It was a natural fit.”

Guiney says their gardening program has a distinguishing feature: tithing. “One thing that makes us a little bit unique is that we ask that everyone give 10 percent of whatever they grow to someone in need. It can be a neighbor or the food bank or whomever.” They also have five service plots for the express purpose of growing food for the Zionsville Food Pantry and the Lebanon Caring Center.

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