Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Metro Gardeners Get More Green For Their Cabbage

Most evenings, usually before the family sits down for dinner, you'll find Francine Creer and four of her children in the backyard of their home on Detroit's northwest side.  They're either removing weeds or gathering lettuce and peppers for the dinner salad from a plot they call "Matthew's Garden," so named because it was 13 year old Matthew's idea to start it.  Matthew, you see, got a little tired of his mom telling him she didn't have money to buy on thing or another that he wanted.  A vegetable garden could help reduce the food bill and leave more money for other things, he decided.  This year marks the Creers' second and bigger garden.

They're among an increasing number of metro Detroiters growing vegetables for reasons ranging from reducing food costs and increasing food safety to the simple joy of watching something grow and go from the garden to the food table.

Gardens appear to be popping up all over.

No one keeps track of the number or kinds of gardens.  But statistics from the Detroit Garden Resource Collaborative, an information and support network, give an indication based on those signed up with the program.  It reports that from 2005 to 2008 the number of family gardens grew from 79 to 220, and the number of community garden grew from 80 in 2005 to 115 this year.

But untold numbers of gardens have no connection to the resource program.

Ruth Gretzinger of Ann Arbor, calls hers a "victory garden," a tribute to home gardens that were popular during World Wars I and II.

"The idea was we're at war and everything costs too much money to buy, so why no grow your own," says Gretzinger, a University of Michigan writer and Web project manager.

She planted less than she'd initially planned, but still her tomatoes, peppers, parsley, oregano and lettuce have put a small dent in her grocery bill.

"Normally, I would have brought tomatoes at least once a week and I haven't had to buy any," says Gretzinger, a single mom with a 17 year old daughter, Elizabeth, who's bound for Central Michigan University this fall.  "every little bit helps.  The other night, I made myself a BLT with my own lettuce and tomatoes and that was pretty nice."

James Smith, 82, turned the land where three houses once stood near his Detroit home into a home for collards, string beans, lima beans, Crowder peas, squash, peppers and more.  There's enough to feed the retired Ford worker's 11 adult children, his grandchildren -- he says he has about 30 -- and "I don't know how many great-grandkids."  And he still has enough to share with neighbors and friends.

"I was raised on a farm and I've always liked it," says Smith, who was born near Selma, Ala., but has lived in Detroit most of his adult life.  "Where I came from, if you didn't grow food, you didn't eat."

Robin and Steve Reisig have had a garden at their Sylvan Lake home for sever years, primarily to eat healthier.

This year they decided to try something different -- edible landscaping.  Where grass once grew, there's now an assortment of fancily arranged vegetables and herbs, including beets, tomatoes and peppers.

"It wasn't about the cost; it was mainly the quality of the food and the fun of doing it," Steve Reisig, 59, says.  "But eventually, we will probably save money.  Some of the tomatoes we're growing cost $3 to $5 each at Whole Foods."

Matthew Creer, 13, says there wasn't one incident that led him to think of the garden, just what sounded to him like too many "no"  or "maybe later" answers.  His mom, Francine, has been on disability since she suffered a back injury in 2000 while working as an EMS technician.

After seeing a big cabbage his sister Suyvann, 11, grew, Matthew got the idea that maybe he could grow vegetables too.  She won second place in a contest for the biggest cabbage at Gesu School about three years ago.  He learned about gardening by helping out fellow church members at a community garden at Gesu, the nearby parish his family attends.  The garden has become a family project.  They have string beans, radishes, carrots, beets, broccoli, eggplant, varieties of lettuce and tomatoes and more.

"I hardly have to go to the vegetable aisle of the grocery store anymore," says Francine Creer, 50, who has three adult children in addition to the four at home.  "There's a lot we don't have to buy because we grow it in our garden."  The savings have enabled the children to go to the movies and a carnival, they say.  And the benefits have grown money, Creer says.  She's found working the garden together a good way for them to enjoy one another's company.  "There's no TV or video games or computers on when we're in the garden, "Creer says.  "They get to talking and I get to listen to what's going on in their lives."  They enjoy it too.  "I like being out there and looking at the plants grow," says Noah, 9.  It's also a good disciplinary tool, Francine Creer says.  "When they start arguing and getting on each other's nerves in the house, I say, 'OK, it's time to get outside and get in the garden.'"

Contact Cassandra Spratling at 313-223-4580 or

Photos by:  David Kilkenney, Cassandra Spratling and the Reiseg family.

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