Nestled in the historic Old Brooklyn neighborhood, the five-acre Ben Franklin Community Garden site is the largest and one of the oldest community gardens in Cuyahoga County. Situated on the grounds of the Ben Franklin Elementary School, the garden has been designated as a Cleveland Historic Landmark (the only garden with that distinction), due to its history as part of Cleveland’s once-thriving school gardening program.
While mostly known today for its contributions to community gardening in Cleveland, the Ben Franklin Garden connects to a much deeper history for Cleveland. First cultivated as a garden in 1929, it provided a learning space for the school, which was built in 1923. Ben Franklin students began working their own individual garden plots in the 1930s and this custom continued until the late 1970s.
The interest in utilizing schools for gardening in Cleveland dates back to the early 1900s when Cleveland residents formed a Home Gardening Association to promote gardening as a way of beautifying the city. Early on, the association focused on school gardening as the most effective way to spread the program to neighborhoods throughout the city. Volunteers for the Home Gardening Association handled distribution of seeds and assisted with school garden operations to reduce burdens on schools Over time, the school gardens became incorporated into the curriculum of the entire Cleveland public school system.
According to Joel Mader in his book Cleveland School Gardens, Ben Franklin teacher Frank Kukowitch became director of the Ben Franklin Gardens in 1950 and developed the first comprehensive horticulture program for primary students, including kindergarteners.
As Mader notes, the idea of the garden program “was to prepare the gardeners for life and citizenship by creating a love for beautiful things.” He notes that the gardens also fostered good health habits, improved mental health, provided an understanding of world food problems and encouraged conservation, “all vitally important to the strength and prosperity of the nation.” Unfortunately, the Cleveland school gardening program was discontinued in 1977 in the wake of a severe budget crisis. Jenkins recalls, “When they closed the student garden, residents started to complain about the weeds.” This prompted the Old Brooklyn Community Development Corporation to get together with the school to turn the space into a community garden.
A community garden since 1979, the site features more than 200 individual plots, covering 500 square feet each. According to John Jenkins, chair of the Ben Franklin Garden Committee, “We encourage gardeners to give extra produce to 12 area hunger centers. Last year, more than 5,000 pounds of produce was donated from the garden.”
The garden also serves as an educational resource, including a school garden plot tended by fourth graders and a demonstration garden managed by volunteer Master Gardeners to teach adults about gardening.
In addition to Old Brooklyn residents, the Ben Franklin garden draws residents from across Cuyahoga County looking for land to grow their own food. Jenkins even recalled one woman who took a bus each week from Akron into her early 90s to tend to her plot.
More than a source of local food, gardens like Ben Franklin provide a unique approach to preserving green space and encouraging habitat in the city. In addition to the three acres tilled for community gardens, the Ben Franklin site includes a small wooded preserve, a newly planted fruit orchard and a number of large, old trees. Hazelnut trees, which produce an edible nut, line the drive leading into the garden. The site includes some rare trees as well, including a dawn redwood, a paper-bark maple tree and a bald cypress, which provides a favored gathering spot for gardeners to get out of the sun.
If all that activity wasn’t enough, the garden is also a certified monarch butterfly way station, raising milkweed, zinnias, asters and other flowers that attract the butterflies on their summer migration to Ohio. Planted along the driveway and walkways of the garden, the flowers add to the beauty and bio-diversity of the space.
The Ben Franklin garden is one of more than 200 community gardens in neighborhoods throughout greater Cleveland. Each of them demonstrates the power of neighbors to work together to improve the supply of healthy local foods, create a stronger sense of community and connect residents with the cycles of nature. Visit OldBrooklyn.com/BFCG/ to learn more about the Ben Franklin Garden.