Garden Project promotes growth

Garden Project promotes growth

Erica Smith and Josalyn Randall work in the garden behind University Place Elementary. / CW | Katie Bennett

Jordan Cissell

The Druid City Garden Project is almost hidden, tucked away behind University Place Elementary School on the corner of an overgrown athletic field. Only a sunflower-laden banner, hung from a crooked fence section in the field’s opposite corner, alerts passersby to the garden’s presence.

The banner reads “We Are Coming Back” — the Forest Lake neighborhood’s mantra for the process the community faces of recovering from the devastating events of April 27, 2011. The project, which was started in the neighborhood before the tornado, has grown along with the community throughout the recovery. Now, the garden is poised to help make the slogan’s assertion a reality.

According to the DCGP website, the organization, which runs off of volunteer engagement, will act “as a locus for community activity, cooperation and vitality” by “reinvigorating empty urban spaces with community garden plots, facilitating the development of school gardens and implementing educational programs.”

UA professors and Forest Lake residents Andy and Rashmi Grace founded the DCGP after embarking on a personal project to monitor their food consumption, a process the couple documented in Andy Grace’s film “Eating Alabama.”

“About four years ago, Rashmi and I decided to try this experiment where we would only eat locally-grown food,” Andy Grace said. “In the process, we got to know a lot of local farmers, and we started to care a lot about where our food comes from. That’s where we kind of led into this idea, to build a community around food and start that dialogue.”

The Graces met no resistance from school officials.

“I thought the idea was terrific because a garden would open other avenues of learning for students and teachers,” Deron Cameron, principal of University Place Elementary, said. “Our school believes we need to expand students’ experiences, and this was a wonderful opportunity to do this. Our garden is a vehicle for teaching and integrating hands-on learning across the curriculum.”

After their proposal to the school board was approved, the Graces set to work building the garden in the summer of 2010. The organization originally worked with 10 University Place classes, teaching the children the methods and importance of healthy food production and operating a farm stand at the school to sell the harvests.

“A lot of our children just don’t get regular access to fresh produce,” Rashmi Grace said. “We think that’s really important, and we’re working to change that, even if it’s just a little bit here in our community.”

Like the community it calls home, the garden was hit hard by the April tornado.

“We live right on the edge of all of the destruction. We lost a tree and our fences, but no real damage to our house,” Rashmi Grace said. “I feel like we lost more here [at the garden] than we did at our home.”

University Place Elementary was severely damaged. Fiberglass, trash and other debris from nearby homes covered the garden beds.

“We cleaned all of the fiberglass out of the strawberries, dug everything up and replanted all of the beds with flowers,” Rashmi Grace said. “We wanted to have something pretty for the neighborhood to look at.”

The school was closed and relocated to Stillman Heights Education Center, where it currently operates, while repairs take place. To continue serving its students, the DCGP also opened a new garden space at the school’s temporary campus. University Place pupils now carry out their curriculum at the second garden, and the original location is primarily tended by community volunteers and UA students as the service-learning aspect of their participation in the Honors College’s Food and Community class.

“Our garden is part of University Place Elementary,” Cameron said. “By bringing another garden to our [new location], it helped tremendously with continuity and a sense of ‘home.’ Garden lessons are activities our students looked forward to each week last year, so it was only natural to continue at the current location.”

The Graces said they haven’t decided whether or not they will continue to operate the auxiliary garden once University Place Elementary returns to its original location, but they do hope to see similar initiatives developing throughout Forest Lake and the entire Tuscaloosa community.

“We really want to create a school garden incubator program here at this [original] site and train teachers, parents and staff of schools in the area how they run a garden and plan a curriculum for their own schools,” Andy Grace said. “We want people to learn from our success here and spread it throughout the community.”

Though he feels the garden will not single-handedly precipitate Forest Lake’s rebirth, Andy Grace hopes the DCGP’s work can help motivate the process.

“I don’t think Forest Lake is going to be reborn through food, but the garden, I think, was, and continues to be, a space of hope after the storm,” he said. “We planted those flowers, and a lot of people came out needing to see something aesthetically pleasing. The garden has really been a kind of symbol of hope.”

Cameron feels the garden’s swift return to operation following the tornado has been an emblem of the entire community’s “determined sense of resiliency,” and the Graces are confident the neighborhood is on the right track to moving beyond symbolism and bringing the banner’s prediction to fruition.

“I don’t think Forest Lake can get back to how it was before — the neighborhood has two words in its name, and one of those doesn’t exist anymore — but I think it can come back, and it can come back better,” Andy Grace said. “I’d really like to see Forest Lake come back as a community for families.”

Rashmi Grace said the school board’s commitment to rebuilding University Place Elementary is critical to bringing families back to the neighborhood, and she hopes the continued operation of the Project will further educate and inspire returning children.

“[DCGP] is a unique program — no other schools in the area have it,” Rashmi Grace said. “Having something like this going on in the community is a positive thing that can really help make a difference in Forest Lake becoming the community we all want it to be.”