Upon Sacred Ground

Trinity Cathedral’s Community Garden

It always troubled me when a benefit for a food pantry or soup kitchen requested two nonperishable food items as the price of admission, and people fished out some off beat item they’d received in a food basket that no one in their family would eat. It seemed wrong that because people were in need, they should be fed unappealing cast-offs.

So, in 2006 when Trinity Cathedral member Scott Blanchard shared his plans to start an urban farm a few blocks away from the downtown Cleveland cathedral, I was immediately on board. The goal was to raise fresh, organic produce for the weekly community hot meal Trinity has served every Sunday since 1983.

Scott’s idea grew out of the success of the community meal, A Place at the Table, which often feeds as many as 150 people living in the neighborhood and the surrounding area.

“When we started going to church at the Cathedral, I loved the idea that we’d been feeding people every Sunday for 20 years,” said Scott. “I wanted to volunteer and I did, but they had the volunteers in place that they needed.”

“The few times I did volunteer, I was making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I kept thinking, there’s got to be a way I can have more impact than just volunteering for the meal,” said Scott.

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At the time, he had a garden at his home in the Old Brooklyn neighborhood that he shared with his wife, Stephanie, and baby son, Matthew. Later, a daughter, Olivia, would join them. He would bring tomatoes into the kitchen at Trinity to use for the meal. At that time, the urban gardening movement in Cleveland was just starting to pick up steam; projects like the Ohio City Farm and Community Greenhouse Partners—the latter founded by another Trinity member—were still a couple of years down the road.

Scott had read about the Ohio State University Extension program to train urban gardeners and called them for advice.

“I think it was the tail-end of March,” he said. “I had a long conversation with a gal who was there at the time. When I said there was a possibility I could pull together a volunteer group to plant and feed hungry people in the neighborhood, they immediately thought of Father Jim and the land we work on now.”

That land is at the corner of East 35th and Cedar across from the home of Father Jim O’Donnell, a Roman Catholic priest, who has been a linchpin in the neighborhood since he moved there in the late 70s. He was enthused about the idea of new life on that barren corner, which had once been a community garden, but had been abandoned. I was one of a dozen people, recruited by Scott, who were part of the initial team that brought that two and a half acres back to life.

“I remember one of the first workdays we had,” said Scott. “Back then, it was catch-as-catch-can. We got a load of soil delivered and we were freshening up the old beds. We didn’t have much of anything. Father Jim let us use his lawnmower; the church was willing to invest in soil. People brought their own shovels and rakes, and we could borrow from Father Jim, as well.”

We gradually became savvier about how to get things done. In 2007, we got a Neighborhood Connections grant from the Cleveland Foundation, the first of four, and were able to start buying our own tools and equipment. In 2009, the farm was awarded a grant from the Fiskars tool company in an international competition that awarded the grants to only 20 projects in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. The garish orange T-shirts were a small price to pay for the wealth of tools that came with the grant. And when the Cleveland Foundation brought a busload of donors to the site, it resulted in the farm getting a grant from the Thatcher Family Foundation—twice.

Crops vary from year to year, but tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, eggplant, beans, and collards are mainstays. We’ve also grown potatoes, onions, garlic, sweet potatoes, cucumbers, kale, spinach, radishes, lettuce, apples, peaches, blackberries, and raspberries.

I took on the creation of the herb garden, which produces parsley, basil, oregano, chives, thyme, cilantro, and mint. While many of our herbs come from Mulberry Creek organic herb farm in Huron, we found the mint and oregano already growing in the space and just recycled it where we wanted it.

Over the years, core farm members have come and gone, with Scott Blanchard, Linda Lohr, and myself from the original group still hanging in. Matthew has grown from a roaming toddler to a young man who pitches in from time to time.

Regulars assign themselves responsibilities. Paul Hergesell, a core member who has moved to Atlanta, took on the mulching of the beds. Steve Roberts led a team that designed and built the irrigation system. Fran Sumagpao is the flower queen.

We come in good weather and in bad, looking forward to seeing familiar faces each week. Sometimes when it’s cold and windy, a hardy band stays for an hour or two, making sure everything is in order and getting a fix of connection to the earth. On sunny days in late July, the farm might be overrun with harvesters, quickly filling the bags and boxes that will be piled into the back of Scott’s van.

Our first year, we raised 1,200 pounds of food for the Trinity Meal, an impressive haul for a group that was making it up as we went along. By 2014, our banner year, we raised more than 3,200 pounds. Poor weather, including a very rainy June, made 2015 an off year. Such is the farmer’s life.

As the harvest grew, it sometimes overflowed the capacity of Trinity’s own kitchen. The extra food went to organizations such as the Greater Cleveland Food Bank, the City Mission, St. Herman’s House of Hospitality, and the Salvation Army Kitchen.

A major shift came in 2014. With the departure of its kitchen manager, Trinity began sourcing its food from Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry’s central kitchen, which serves more than 1,500 meals a week to homeless and hungry people in the city core while training those re-entering from prison in marketable culinary skills. Now all of the Trinity Farm’s food goes to the Lutheran kitchen whose Christian mission of feeding the hungry, whoever they might be, coincides with Trinity’s.

The farm has come a long way, celebrating its 10th anniversary this past season. It’s produced more than 28,000 pounds of food from more than 60 newly constructed raised beds, fruit trees, berry bushes, and herb gardens. Flower beds edge the property enhancing the neighborhood. The space includes compost bins, an irrigation system, and hand-crafted signs designed by artist Linda Zolten Wood, a Trinity member.

As we look back on a decade of growing in Cleveland’s urban core, we thankfully recall the contributions of the dozens of people who have come and gone—church members driven by a spiritual mission, friends who liked the idea of spending time outdoors and getting their hands dirty, neighbors who came by to be part of the community. Some have moved away or moved on to other pursuits; a few have passed away. Whenever someone sits down somewhere in central Cleveland to enjoy a free hot meal that contains bits of tomatoes or zucchini or collards grown on our space, their spirit is there.

Anyone is welcome to stop down at the corner of E. 35th and Cedar to work or just to visit and see what we do. We work every Saturday during the growing season (usually late March—early November) from 9am–noon. For more information, contact Scott Blanchard at ScottWBlanchard@RoadRunner.com.