CEDAR RAPIDS — Five years after Ed Thornton was banned from gardening two oft-overlooked city-owned vacant lots next to his apartment, he’s back to planting — and this time with the city’s blessing.
Last weekend, Thornton and several friends tilled virtually the entire lot — roughly 2,700 square feet — except a 5-foot setback around the perimeter of 110 and 112 Sixth St. SW. So far, he’s planted potatoes, and when the temperature consistently tops 50 degrees overnight, he will plant the rest of the 1,400 seedlings of more than 100 varieties of vegetables, lettuces and herbs. He started them in a grow room in his attic earlier this year.
“Being able to grow my own vegetables is huge, and doing it outside my own door is also huge,” said Thornton, 49. “I can get back to feeding my friends and neighbors.”
Thornton doesn’t have a vehicle, so growing at one of the city’s community gardens is not feasible for him, plus he lives in what is considered a food desert, meaning he’s more than a mile from affordable and good-quality fresh food in an urban area.
The city acquired the lot after the 2008 flood and demolished the structures. In 2011, Thornton decided to put the land to use and did so for four years growing winter squash, summer squash, green beans, peppers, okra, beets, carrots, radishes, tomatoes, potatoes, snow peas, sunflowers, kohlrabi, lettuce and more — giving away much of the bounty.
In 2014, a city resident who was denied permission to garden on city land turned Thornton in to city officials, and city staff ordered Thornton to abandon his garden, saying he was trespassing and would face city action.
Friends and the Facebook community rallied to his defense, even starting a petition. Thornton and city leaders agreed to let him finish out the growing season but not replant the following season.
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Flash forward to last summer, and Thornton took to social media calling attention to how the property had become neglected. The grass had twice grown to 4 feet tall that season, he said. The city wasn’t maintaining its property, he said.
“It was like you were walking through a savanna in Africa the grass was so tall,” he said. “How was that better than my garden?”
City Council member Ashley Vanorny was tagged in a social media post and brought up to speed.
“I took the information back to the city trying to diagnose why we had let the grass grow beyond our city standards,” she said. “This led me to help re-energize the conversation about urban gardening.”
The property had simply been lost in the shuffle during a period of transition within the department that maintains city properties, she said.
She had a good relationship with Matthew 25, a local nonprofit organization with a mission to strengthen and elevate neighborhoods, including through urban gardening. Matthew 25 also has an urban agriculture permit, which was key to the group’s involvement.
Jennifer Pratt, the city’s community development director, got involved and helped hammer out a plan: The city would lease the property to Matthew 25 under its permit, and Matthew 25 would sublease to Thornton.
“Having Matthew 25 involved provides a safeguard to ensure the garden is maintained and watered,” Pratt said. “If there’s an opportunity to put a property to good use, we want to take advantage of it.”
The lease is for a year at a time to preserve the potential for the property to be sold to the private sector for future development, such as housing or some other use.
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“We are all about food in the community and healthy food options in food deserts, so it is a win-win,” said Clint Twedt-Ball, executive director and founder of Matthew 25.
He said he is hopeful the arrangement serves as a model for people in other parts of the community who want to garden city-owned property. It is likely too late for others this growing season, but perhaps in 2020, he said.
Vanorny noted it puts the land to good use in providing food as well as a healthy activity, and helps the city because it is one less property to maintain.
For the green thumb, Thornton, he is back to doing what he loves. He still is annoyed the city threatened him “for taking care of the city’s land for four years,” but he is glad with how it has worked out.
“I think it took too long, but I think this is the smart thing to do,” he said.
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