Native Species Transform the Community: The Noble Outdoor Classroom

By Linda Gadsden

I.

All too often in the City of Detroit, we look around our neighborhood and see vacant abandoned houses.

Too often in the City of Detroit, we look around our neighborhood and see vacant overgrown lots.

How often do we see the problems and ignore the beauty? How often do we see loss and fail to see value?

This is a story about looking for solutions and seeking an answer to problems. It has always been said that it takes a whole community to raise a child.

It must now be realized that it takes a whole community to save a neighborhood and maintain a sense of family. If we look closely at our neighborhoods, we will be able to see that there was a time in the past when each family in the neighborhood was connected and they made up different parts of an extended family.

Adults interacted together and were friends. Children attended school together and played together and developed lifelong friendships.

Over the years people moved out of the neighborhoods in Detroit. Fires destroyed houses and they sat empty. People began to use vacant lots as dumping grounds and those of us remaining in the neighborhoods sat back and watched the decline.

How long can we look and pretend that we do not see?  It is easy to sit back and think that trash removal is somebody else’s job. But when we get tired of looking at it……it becomes our job.

II.

In the summer of 2015 the Wyoming-Kentucky-Indiana-Wisconsin-Ohio Block Club (in the Grand River area) was created with the mission of creating a clean safe environment for all members of the neighborhood. At that time seniors were isolated in their homes and abandoned houses placed children at risk during their walks to school.

Concern for the neighborhood provided the need to create the block club to address the illegal dumping and the trash building up along the streets. Next came the opportunity to address the overgrown lots and the overgrown trees that created unsafe passage.

Cleaning up the neighborhood provided the opportunity to see the beauty of years past and have a close-up look at the beauty that was fading. Cleaning up the yards of abandoned houses provided the chance to see the love and attention that was put in gardens of the past. When one is removing trash from the yard of an abandoned house, there is beauty to be found among the weeds that are choking out plants and flowers.

Seniors in the neighborhood became curious about the activity and took the opportunity to have conversations and share memories of the Block Clubs in the past and the interaction of neighbors. Young adults in the neighborhood were willing to be helpful with clean-up tasks and heavy lifting. Children found the activities interesting and looked for ways to be helpful. That led to being allowed to meet weekly with children at our neighboring Noble Elementary-Middle School, to provide recreational activities and ways to expand civic engagement.

Familyhood Inc. was created in the Spring of 2016 with the mission of engaging youth in positive activities and teaching entrepreneurial skills.

I grew up during a time when cooking and sewing were taught in school; classes in woodworking and other hands-on activities gave children skills to express their creativity; Girl Scouts and 4-H Clubs expanded these opportunities.

Today, those classes are missing. Many libraries are closed in the City of Detroit. Craft stores do not exist in the City of Detroit for young people to identify interests and develop hobbies. ‘Familyhood’ has the vision to fill that void for young people and provide the opportunity for parents to develop skills and interests alongside their children and include neighborhood Seniors in the growth process. Children should not be taught in a vacuum. Families benefit most when children and parents grow together.

When we go into the streets removing trash we get to hear conversations. We get to realize that there are young mothers struggling for a place to call home. There are young men squatting in houses without the skills to create a better tomorrow.  We get to hear children talk about what they don’t have but want.

Many creative jobs and earning opportunities grow out of skills and recreational interests. From baking to cooking to crafts to gardening to wood-working.

And along came the Great Opportunity! The opportunity to submit a grant to Detroit Future City with the vision of the Noble Outdoor Classroom! The opportunity to create an environment where all segments of the community could come together on a project— a project that will grow and benefit the neighborhood for years into the future.

III.

The Noble Outdoor Classroom is located at 12408 Wisconsin at Fullerton across from the Noble Elementary-Middle School. It is a Four Season Garden placed on a vacant lot that has four plots that are 20 feet in diameter and planted to reflect seasonal interest for Fall, Winter, Spring and Summer.

The Spring Garden is at the front of the lot and has a Tulip Magnolia Tree as the focal point. The tree is surrounded by approximately 250 bulbs that will bloom in the Spring. The bulbs are an assortment of Tulips, Daffodils, Hyacinths, Blue Flag Iris and Crocus. The plot is anchored with Black Eyed Susan and Iris plants rescued from an abandoned house on Indiana.

To keep the plot from being bare of plants after Spring blooms fade, the plot is sprinkled with Lily of the Valley that were rescued from the yard of an abandoned house on Ohio.  

The plot will be encircled with Hosta plants that are being donated by a neighbor on Wisconsin and Star of Bethlehem bulbs that were salvaged from the lot during digging.

The Summer Garden is the second plot and has a Dogwood Tree as the focal point. The tree is surrounded in the plot by three rescued rose bushes. One rose bush, whose color is unknown, was rescued from an abandoned yard on Indiana. The second rose bush, with tiny white blooms, was rescued from the yard of a house with fire damage on Wisconsin.  The third rose bush, which has pink blooms, was rescued from the yard of an abandoned house (location unremembered) a couple of years ago. The interesting thing about this rose bush is its tendency to travel in a garden bed by underground roots.

The Summer Garden has an assortment of Summer blooming perennials that include: Bee Balm, Blazing Star, Milkweed, Phlox, Ornamental Onion and Ornamental Garlic. Ground cover includes mint, thyme, and oregano.

The Summer Garden also contains rescued Iris, a Peony plant and will be surrounded with rescued Hosta.

The benefit of the Seniors in the garden planting process was most clearly displayed during the difficulty of locating Milkweed and Onion plants.  Unknown to this writer (who was feeling totally frustrated by the inability to locate Milkweed and Onion plants in any market) the Seniors was able to point out the abundance of both plants in abandoned lots and along sidewalks of abandoned houses.  Who knew!  Wow!

Now, I see them everywhere.  

Bee Balm is also widely growing in alleys! The young people will now research Heirloom plants with the help of our Seniors!

The Winter Garden is located next on the lot.  It is coming after the Summer Garden because a Colorado Blue Spruce is the focal point of the Winter Garden. The children will make Christmas ornaments for the tree and it’s location is best on the lot.

The Spruce is surrounded by Holly and accented with Red Twig Dogwoods.

Additional plantings include Viburnum and assorted summer blooming perennials.

Two rescued rose bushes include a match to the white rose bush and a red rose bush rescued from the fire damaged house on Wisconsin.

The plot is sprinkled with Periwinkle ground cover rescued from an abandoned house on Indiana and will be encircled with rescued Hosta plants.

The Fall Garden is located at the back of the lot under an overhang of trees.  The focal point of the Fall Garden is a Smoke Bush. The path to the Smoke Bush is lined with Ornamental Cabbage. The Fall Garden is circled on the left side by Ornamental Grass and lined at the back with Fern rescued from an abandoned house on Indiana.

Additional plantings include Butterfly Weed, Bee Balm and assorted perennials.  Additional plants include rescued Lilies from an abandoned yard on Ohio that have Orange Blooms, a sprinkle of the Orange Lilies that grow like weeds in the City of Detroit and a Rose Bush that blooms orange.

A Rose of Sharon from an alley between Kentucky and Indiana was also placed in the Fall Garden.

Additionally, the Fall Garden contains the ground cover Periwinkle rescued from an abandoned house on Indiana.

The Fall Garden will be encircled with the Star of Bethlehem bulbs that were salvaged during the digging of the lot and Hosta rescued from an abandoned yard on Wisconsin.

The tree area to the left of the Fall Garden was left in a woodland state.  It contains an unidentified Rose bush and assorted perennials that include Bee Balm, Milkweed, Star of Bethlehem and Money Plants.  A Rose of Sharon rescued from the alley between Kentucky and Indiana; and an Iris rescued from an abandoned house on Indiana was added for color.

Native plants and rescued plants play a big role in maintaining the history of the neighborhood. Rescued plants provide the opportunity for Seniors to see the plants of their past friends and neighbors continue to grow and provide beauty. Rescued plants allow the younger generation to view the the time and pride that was invested in homes and yards of the past. This awareness of the past allows the three generations to blend for past – present – future.

IV.

The creation of the Outdoor Classroom Garden has expanded the neighborhood involvement to all age groups from children to Seniors.  And the activities will not end with the planting. In addition to tasks to maintain the Garden, Seasonal activities will be scheduled to enjoy the beauty of the Garden and enjoy social interaction.

The Garden provides the opportunity for Seniors who have sat in their homes in the past to venture out and share their knowledge and memories.  They can bring their knowledge of the Block Clubs of the past to the benefit of the Block Club of the present.

Seniors are a fountain of knowledge in locating native plants and their beneficial use. Residents in the garden vicinity appreciated the improvements to the vacant lot and began to display increased personal yard beautification. Children and youth began an early involvement in civic engagement and community improvement.

Young Adults became involved in the labor of lot preparation for planting and expressed interest in vegetable gardening for future projects. Young parents embraced the Outdoor Garden as a positive recreation location for their children and as an enjoyable place for social activities. Children enjoyed the opportunity to freely play in dirt and do light tasks.

The overall inclusiveness of all age groups of the neighborhood in the creation of the Outdoor Classroom Four Season Garden has provided the opportunity to re-create a time when neighbors interacted with each other as a unit.  Returned is the time of open involvement and a decrease of generational fear. When neighbors are involved with each other and push towards common goals, neighborhoods become safer places to live.

The Outdoor Classroom does not end with the planting of the Four Season Garden. Additional plans include the creation of seating areas under, between and around the established trees that provide shade; the creation of walking paths; and the construction of a blackboard and benches to create a classroom effect.  

Additional plans include the use of Rain Barrels with the building of a rain roof and the use of compost bins. There is also the desire for a Worm Farm. All which provide additional learning experiences.

A Garden is a gift that just keeps on giving!

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