Sandra Robertson grew up with her hands in the dirt. With a family of 11 to feed, her father raised vegetables while her mom grew flowers.
She joined her parents in the garden at the age of 3; they had fresh produce for meals and “handed some over the fence to the neighbors. There is nothing like a fresh tomato that doesn’t taste like cardboard,” recalls one of the 2016 winners of the Dorothy Richardson Resident Leadership Award. The retired police officer from Cleveland has had a garden in her backyard ever since.
When Robertson moved into the Glenville neighborhood of the city in 1983, it was a food desert and vacant lots marked the area—a consequence of the blight and demolitions triggered by the housing crisis. What better way to use some of the land, Robertson thought, than for a garden the whole neighborhood could contribute to and enjoy? Robertson approached NeighborWorks member Famicos Foundation for help in obtaining one of the vacant lots and together, they were successful. In 2012, Sandra sought and received a grant from the Cleveland Foundation’s Neighborhood Connections program and, combined with her sweat equity and some of her own money, Ashbury Sprouts was created.
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“It’s a big communal garden,” says Robertson, who also has three gardens of her own. “Whomever participates can take home enough produce for their family. Of course, I’m sure we also have some ‘after hours’ visitors who take some for themselves. But that’s what it’s all about; we have no fresh food around here otherwise.”
Robertson joined Summer Sprouts, an Ohio State University extension program to support the county’s 250 community gardens and help residents start new ones. In return, she received free seeds and starter plants; other supplies, such as wood for raised beds, was donated from construction sites. “I like to experiment,” says Robertsen. “Some people tell me I can’t do certain things, but I go my own way and it usually works out.”
It certainly has with Ashbury Sprouts. What started out as a venture of Robertson’s, members of the local block club and a few friends now has about 11 regular adult volunteers and 13 youth who grow vegetables such as beans, kale, collard greens and tomatoes.
The garden has become a “teaching moment” for local children. A favorite of the kids is growing Yukon Gold potatoes in a trash barrel. As the plants grow, Robertson adds more soil. When it’s harvest time, she’ll tip the barrel over and pull out the potatoes.
“I like showing kids how much fun it is,” she says. One teen, she recalls, was awe-struck when he yanked a carrot out of the ground; he’d never seen that before. “Most people today have no real idea where their food comes from.”
For middle and high-school students, Robertson offers activities to satisfy their service requirements.
At the other end of the age spectrum, Robertson caters to the needs of seniors by building waist-high wood garden boxes so they can garden without bending.This makes the seniors in the neighborhood feel welcome, while also creating an intergenerational experience. The garden also has become the site for regular barbecues, storytelling sessions and marshmallow roasts.
Meanwhile, Robertson’s dedication and enthusiasm for gardening and community outreach has proven infectious. Glenville and other predominately African-American communities have suffered from black professional flight, with graduates either moving to the suburbs or out of the city completely.Her son, Alex, however has become a strong leader in the community and has established several youth programs of his own. Cleveland Recess, for example, uses vacant lots for pop-up sports events. Alex also is manager of Famicos’ summer youth landscaping program.
Robertson is far from finished with her own work. “I’d like to acquire one more lot to use, and more volunteers,” she says. “I want a constant flow of people. After all, it’s fun to play in dirt!”