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Eco Garden Grows Community While Encouraging Kids to Play in the Dirt

May 22, 2013 |

Luke Ebner and Angela Stanbery were fine art majors who also had an eye (and a few green thumbs) for organic gardening. Ebner started working at Permaganic Co.’s Eco Garden, a community garden, educational program and non-profit in Cincinnati, Ohio, part-time in 2003. Stanbery joined him in 2004.

While Ebner had previous experience working at various organic farms and Stanbery worked as a ‘horticulture helper’ with the Cincinnati Park Board, the couple never dreamed they’d take over and transform Eco Garden into a non-profit, educational organization.

Ebner and Stanbery formed Permaganic, the non-profit that claims Eco Garden, when the garden’s original umbrella organization, IMPACT Over-the-Rhine (merged under Memorial Inc.), folded in 2010. After creating the non-profit, the couple has successfully supported the organization, garden and its educational programs.

While Permaganic is poised to have a successful 2013 season, Ebner and Stanbery know that keeping the Eco Garden successful will take a lot of work and community kids’ helping hands.

Neighborhood kids typically hear about the garden and all the non-profit’s programs from other kids who have participated at the garden. “Some of our most memorable, honest, reliable, hardworking kids have come to us through friends who are similarly blessed,” Stanbery said. “Some of them wait for years to be old enough for the program, or for a spot to open up.”

A view of the Eco Garden, a community garden, educational program and non-profit based in Cincinnati, Ohio.

A view of the Eco Garden, a community garden, educational program and non-profit based in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Many of the kids who participate in the programs use money they earn at the garden to help their families, or start savings accounts. Once kids finish the program, they leave knowing – and valuing — the importance of tending and caring for plants. “Most kids come through this program with a highly developed connection to the earth, and their role as stewards and future leaders in their community,” Stanbery said. “They learn how to grow, harvest, process, and create meals with vegetables, and how to care for the soil, and that they can actually do things to create healthy microclimates wherever they are, by planting and tending trees.”

Every year, the organization supports various programs, such as permaculture, basic business skills, visual art basics, and service learning. “The ongoing service-learning project is the Eco Garden itself, where the kids give tours, do outreach at the market, and participate in beautification and community building,” Stanbery said.

The Eco Garden’s has about an acre of growing space. “We have about 35 or 40 fruiting trees and bushes of various sorts, and perennial veggies. We also have a variety of herbs. We do sunflowers and zinnias most years, and many other flower varieties, and a huge garlic crop,” Stanbery said. “It’s very pleasing to people who see the world as artists, and social and environmental activists. It’s nothing like an English formal garden or a suburban yard — we make friends with many of our weeds.”

The garden also supports peaches, raspberries, asparagus, annuals, and greens of all kinds. Ebner and Stanbery don’t use any chemicals on the garden’s plantings. The couple also is in the beginning stages of creating a biodiverse food forest. “We feel it’s important to begin transitioning from a mostly annual-based monocultural agricultural system to a perennial-based polyculture,” Stanbery said.

The food forest would help build ecological capital, which would be similar to a healthy, old growth forest. “If we created as many pockets of food forest as we could in our urban environment, and trained people how to harvest and process the food, that would be our best odds at mitigating the food-desert issue. When the one-acre forest wrapping the back of the Eco Garden in 2006 was cut down, we noticed a huge difference,” Stanbery said.

The organization does get outside help and funds, and works with multiple organizations in the area. “Last year we worked with Children’s Hunger Alliance to build a wood-fired cob bread oven. They approached us through the Civic Garden Center of Greater Cincinnati – it has been like our mama organization since the Eco Garden was founded in 1998,” Stanbery said. “Each year, the Civic Garden Ctr. funnels grants our way, as one of their ‘Neighborhood Gardens Program.’ They provide support in many ways, as does Turner Farm, who also helped found the Eco Garden. We work to bring groups of student volunteers through Urban Plunge, UGIVE, and the Peace Village.”

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