Neighborhood Yards Transformed for Public Good

Story and Photo by Chris Cuddihy

“Look. This pepper is eight centimeters tall,” announces Jovial Garden’s horticulturist Seth Moon while holding a small ruler against a seedling. Inside the recently revamped greenhouse at Edgewater Elementary, second and third graders inch forward for a closer look. 

Jovial Gardens is part of Jovial Concepts, a nonprofit inspiring the public to take part in activities that will improve the safety and the beauty of their communities. In 2013 Jovial Concepts initiated its gardening project in Edgewater. Overseeing 40 young children nurture vegetable seeds into seedlings that will later be transplanted onto nearly 10,000 square feet of gardening area—all donated by Edgewater and vicinity residents—is just one component of Jovial’s multi-tiered agenda. 

By the end of the summer, Jovial Gardens will deliver enough fresh produce to provide more than 20,000 meals to the homeless and others in need. One recipient of produce is Mean St. Ministry. Stews and soups prepared from the fresh produce supplied by Jovial feed between 20 to 30 people a day at the ministry’s kitchen.  According to Chaplain James Fry, that not only significantly helps them feed the 1,000 plus people—sixty percent of whom are children—they serve weekly, but those nutritional options lure many to regularly drop into the ministry for fellowship and counseling.

“Last year we produced 2,500 pounds; this year it will be closer to 5,000,” said Jovial Concepts’ executive director Kristina Welch. “Our intention is to keep doubling that annually.” But even that goal is only part of what Jovial Concepts hopes to ultimately achieve. 

Joel Newton is a major catalyst at Jovial Gardens. Newton is the founder and director of Edgewater Collective, a nonprofit specifically focused on improving the Edgewater community. “I connect the dots,” said Newton. His online newspaper, The Edgewater Echo, has helped promote Jovial Gardens, recruit volunteers, and convince Edgewater residents to become donor/participants.

Seth Moon teaches Edgewater Elementary students about the science of gardening.Mandy Scott, Edgewater resident, heard about the project and wanted to learn more. Scott, already a prolific gardener, has a family to feed. Her youngest, Qwabee, inherited her Hirschsprung’s disease that requires a very particular diet, so she jumped at the offer for fresh produce. Now, almost every Saturday a truck full of volunteers show up to tend to the 600-foot plot she donated. 

“Jovial has been super generous,” said Scott. “Not only do I get a large portion of the produce they grow, they always help me cultivate my own personal garden.” Last season’s crop, which included squash, potatoes, tomatoes, and peppers, became her family’s regular source of fresh vegetables, a diet she and her youngest rely upon to maintain their health. 

Currently 40 other Edgewater and Lakewood property owners have also made the two-year commitment with Jovial. The standard arrangement provides Jovial Gardens permission to cultivate a plot (typically 10-foot by 10-foot or larger) on the owner’s property for a minimum of two years and for 70 percent of all the produce grown. Additionally, to defer some inherent costs, the participants can either contribute $29 per month or join the Saturday volunteers who, like modern day Johnny Appleseeds, make their way through town going from garden to garden. 

“Some families can’t be available to help, but—by far—it’s our preference when they can,” explains Will Davis, vice president of Jovial Concepts. “We want community members to get their hands dirty together—that’s how you become community.” Once a gardening community is established and self-sufficient, Jovial Gardens will remove themselves from the equation. “We’re not gardeners,” said Davis, “we’re community engineers.” 

The gardening project has attracted more than 200 volunteers, generating over 1,200 volunteer hours. During growing season, anywhere from five to 50 volunteers join the Saturday morning gardening parade. They include property owners, local school kids participating in mentorships, and others from further afield who gravitate to community service. 

Locally, the people consuming the food have the most to gain. “We thought Edgewater represented a food desert, but instead we found it’s a food swamp,” said Newton. Although fast food opportunities abound, securing a nutritionally rich diet—fundamental to child development—is not easy. “We’d like to make Edgewater a food oasis.” 

To facilitate that transition, Jovial Concepts and Edgewater Collective are developing a plan for a food dispensary to support locals with the greatest need. Today though, the most grateful beneficiaries are people like Mark, who is homeless and comes by Mean St. Ministry nearly every day to feed himself, and often his kids, a healthy meal plus a chance to volunteer his skills as a contractor. That’s a big part of the attraction for Joe, too. Joe was an electrical engineer who had a stroke and later injured his ankle; he gets some disability but not enough for an apartment. “I used to either go downtown and wait in line for a meal, or get myself something at McDonald’s for a dollar, but here I get better food, more respect, and a chance to help out.”

At the Action Center, where basic human needs for those living in Jefferson County are supported, Jovial’s produce is valued beyond the hundreds of pounds they deliver each season. “It’s a treasure,” said Barbara Penning, director of in-kind donations. The Action Center has made collection and distribution of perishable foods a main focus. “The amount of food that is discarded when so many people go hungry is a moral outrage,” said Penning. She explains that community garden produce offers quality that donations from Sprouts or Trader Joes cannot match. The produce made available from grocery stores has several days less freshness left than what Jovial delivers. “It’s about shelf life and, frankly, quality.”

Jovial Concepts is on to something—developing  sustainable systems from the ground up, providing our community more efficient access to the resources we need. ■