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Gardeners Make Good Neighbors

2002 Garden Crusader Winner:
Urban Renewal Category

Jill Jones helped create several gardens that now provide more than 800 pounds of free produce each year.
When Jill Jones moved into the Wellington Heights neighborhood in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, she saw a community in decline. Typical inner city problems of drugs, crime, and building decay were spreading throughout this historic neighborhood. Although her profession is nursing, Jill quickly found that gardening can be a very effective tool for revitalizing a neighborhood. "I'm more of a community organizer than a gardener, but gardening has become my passion," says Jill. Working with her neighborhood planning board, Jill has taken four vacant lots in this neighborhood and turned them into gardens.

The First Garden
Jill started with small beautification gardens in the early 1990s. She noticed neighbors really responded to these early efforts. "People would come out and talk with you as you worked on the flower gardens. It was a way to get to know who your neighbors were," says Jill. Her first big garden project happened on the site of a former crack house. When that house burned down in 1993, Jill petitioned the county (who owned the lot) to give the neighborhood association the land for creating gardens. She was determined the gardens would be a success, but didn't have the background in community gardening. So at her own expense, Jill took Master Gardener training, attended that year's annual American Community Gardening Association conference in Kentucky, and traveled to Philadelphia and New York to see how their community garden programs were run. Once the land was secured, she organized volunteers to clean out the lot and plant 14 gardens. This Wellington Garden now grows vegetables for anyone who wants them, giving away more than 800 pounds of produce each year.

Keep Renewing

MORE: Read about all of the 2002 Garden Crusader winners.

Buoyed with this success, Jill started looking at other lots in the neighborhood. When a slum landlord refused to give the neighborhood association use of a rundown lot for gardens, Jill used $5,000 of her own money to buy the lots. "I didn't realize it then, but securing the land is such a major issue with urban community gardens. I feel fortunate we were able to get ownership of these lots," says Jill. She received grants from the USDA and local churches and volunteer labor from juvenile offenders in the corrections department to clean up the lot and open it as a community garden. "Instead of one big community garden as in Wellington, we rented the plots at a very reduced rate. In one area we even started a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. Next year we may operate part of the garden as a vegetable stand," she says.

Jill renovated another empty lot obtained from the county into a natural habitat with native plants and wildflowers. It's more of a park-like setting, and the nearby residents love it," she says. "Each part of the neighborhood is different, so we have to think what kind of garden is most appropriate for each area".

Jill also encourages children to participate in the gardens. "We held a kids sculpture contest with a local artist providing the instruction. We also sponsor a summer story time in the gardens every Monday night, potluck dinners, and gardening classes," says Jill.

Neighborhood Growth
Each year since she started building gardens, the neighborhood has improved in its look and feel. And it is not just the neighborhood that's changed, but there are individual success stories too. "One woman, Maggie, had been unemployed and on welfare for 14 years. She also had mental health problems. When she started volunteering in the garden I could see her self-esteem increase and she gained confidence in her abilities. Now she is on her own, employed, and doing much better," says Jill.

"For the immediate future I'm less interested in finding new vacant lots for more gardens. I'd rather have a few gardens that are run smoothly than many gardens that are struggling," says Jill. The Wellington Heights neighborhood is a terrific success story and a testament to the power of gardening and the enthusiasm and commitment of Jill Jones.

Last updated: 10/24/15