For garden visionary Chris Smyth, sustainability coordinator of neighborhood nonprofit Price Hill Will (PHW), an empty yard is more than a patch of dirt. It’s a blank canvas. It’s a start for a sustainable lifestyle and a place for education and transformation to blossom within a neighborhood. It may seem audacious to say a patch of dirt is the start of a movement, but a PHW initiative called Grow It Forward Gardens is proving to be a small ripple in a big pond of change, taking it one garden at a time.
Smyth, a Cincinnati native, began exploring gardening while he was in Philadelphia working full-time as a volunteer at a small school and after-school arts program in a town hit hard by decades of economic shock. The wheels started turning for Smyth when he first tried out his “green thumb” and discovered he was able to grow food for himself and neighbors. When he returned to Cincinnati in 2009, he began studying permaculture design (ecological design that focuses on building sustainable architectural and agricultural systems modeled after the natural ecosystem) at OM Valley Permaculture and transformed his backyard into a 1200-square-foot garden. Then, while working at Price Hill Will, he came up with the Grow It Forward gardening program as a way to educate residents and combine resources throughout Price Hill so everyone could be a part of the change within the community.
Smyth launched Grow It Forward Gardens in 2013. The concept is simple: Grow It Forward sets up a garden at a Price Hill resident’s home for free, and in return the recipient must assist in installing three other gardens. Residents with any type or size of yard can receive assistance planning, building and implementing a garden through a team of volunteers that provide the workforce, tools and soil needed. The residents are only responsible for supplying plants or seeds.
“The program is easy, useful and fun,” Smyth says. “It’s for people who want a garden but don’t know where to start.”
Gardening through Grow It Forward is about connecting people to plants and sharing local resources with other neighbors. Through the three garden installations, volunteers have the opportunity to interact with other members in their community.
“Doing work together is the best way to form community strength,” Smyth says. “Working with another person quadruples the workforce and makes the process less tedious.”
Seeing the transformation of a yard and what a garden can provide inspires people to pass the transformation along to others.
“I hope Grow It Forward can be a way for people to see that with just a few simple steps and a few new friends, they have the power to transform their empty spaces into useful places,” he says.
The process of receiving a garden consists of two parts — an initial consultation and a workday. Smyth first reviews the yard and conceives a starting plan and design concept. Then, on the workday, the team drives to pick up the tools and buckets of soil. After the yard is deconstructed — the earth is broken up and the sod is ripped — they plant any seeds or plants the resident may have and mulch an accessible pathway. With four or five people on a team, the process is completed in two to three hours. They also educate the recipient on how to maintain the garden for the future and what to expect as it grows.
Married couple Julie Brock and Kevin Necessary experienced the Grow It Forward process firsthand. Brock, a singer with MUSE, Cincinnati’s Women’s Choir, and Necessary, a freelance illustrator and cartoonist, contacted Grow It Forward to help them with their yard.
Decimated with weeds, their front yard lacked the excitement they were looking for. Smyth met with them to brainstorm ideas about design and function and drew up a plan. When the workday came around, the team did its initial yard haircut — pulling weeds and breaking up the sod. Then Smyth and the team landscaped and planted tomatoes, tomatillos, squash and herbs that Brock had purchased.
“We were very pleased with the outcome,” Brock says. “Everything grew well, the grooming and weeding wasn’t too difficult and we ate lots of salsa with all the tomatoes.”
According to Smyth, Price Hill has a lot of potential for food production. In many low-income neighborhoods, nutritious food is out of reach — fast food joints and convenience stores often overshadow farmers markets and fresh produce stands. But the capacity to change a community can come from its soil, a fact that sparked Smyth’s interest in producing more fresh food options within Price Hill.
Grow It Forward is one of many sustainability efforts through Price Hill Will that bring healthy foods and gardening to the neighborhood. Smyth coordinates other current projects including The Roberts Academy Garden and Food Forest, the Price Hill Will People’s Garden and the Event Recycling Program.
Grow It Forward defines itself as a decentralized community garden while still incorporating a community feel through events, classes and educational courses. Aside from the education that comes from working together in the garden, this year the program will have three educational events: strategies for hilly gardens, making cold frames for extending the season and the use of Bio-char in building soil.
Last year, Grow It Forward won the Innovation Award from Keep Cincinnati Beautiful, recognizing its community achievement. And this is just the launching point. The program continues to spread the word about its initiatives and expand its team. Their hopes for this year include focusing on a strong core of designers and gardeners.
The program is part of a long-term plan that follows a natural pattern to grow their efforts slowly and thoughtfully. This will ensure their outcomes will last and that people are equipped for a long and healthy relationship with gardening.
“I want people to know they are powerful and that the culture and agriculture they have can be deepened — that they can reach back for something they have forgotten,” Smyth says. “I want to see our region productive, growing ideas, vegetables and well-crafted items that enhance our lives.”