Jennifer Bendorf doesn’t really care whether Leopold Park Community Garden plot owners speak English as a first language.
She sends her emails with a version translated in Spanish.
The garden’s organizer doesn’t mind getting plots ready for new families. She’s got help from volunteers, like the ones from local churches, law enforcement and businesses who helped clear trees and put in a new watering system last month.
And it doesn’t really matter if plot owners have kids or a disability, or whether they have six-figure incomes or are homeless.
The diverse group that collaborates to help the garden flourish is representative of people with varying ethnicities and socioeconomic statuses in the Leopold neighborhood, which encompasses parts of northern Fitchburg, Town of Madison and City of Madison.
What matters most out at the garden just across Fitchburg’s municipal boundary in Leopold Community Park is each individual’s desire to get a little muddy, plant a few seeds and stick around and watch them grow.
“We’re all working together to benefit the neighborhood,” Bendorf told the Fitchburg Star. “We’re eating together at picnics and getting to know each other, and I think that’s been an awesome experience.”
Organizers say the garden has helped grow stronger bonds in a neighborhood that’s been plagued by some high-profile crimes in the past few years.
Mike Richardson is the Arbor Hills/Leopold neighborhood police officer. The Madison Police Department identifies his patrol as being in a neighborhood with a “high need for police service,” according to the MPD website.
But Richardson, who helps out at the garden, said police have seen increased vigilance in the neighborhood since the garden opened in 2012.
He said the overall efforts from Madison’s initiative for emerging neighborhoods have decreased juvenile complaints in the area. One of the garden’s organizers, for example, pointed out the installation of Cannonball state trail as being helpful. Another example is the “Walking School Bus,” in which volunteers walk elementary kids to school two days a week.
The park itself, located on Traceway Drive, is tucked within a residential pocket on the north side between Todd Drive and Fish Hatchery Road businesses. Among basketball courts and a playground, it’s hard to miss the garden after volunteers last year erected a mural fence that’s more than 130 feet long, depicting paintings of the seasons to distinguish it.
The garden had just six plots two years ago, but when it opens May 10 this year, it will have 40, said Bendorf.
What continues to grow at the garden goes beyond produce, organizers say. It’s brought together families from neighborhoods like Arbor Hills, South Ridge Village and Christopher’s Terrace, which are otherwise separated by city boundaries.
This season, volunteers and area residents cleared trees and brush to make room for 15 new plots within the 186-by-125-foot leased land. That allows plots for the 50 families that are expected to sign up for a space.
Plots cost up to $65, with the price on a sliding scale depending on income level. People with no gardening experience are welcome to buy one, too.
They come in two sizes – a half-plot, 10-foot-by-20-foot space, or full size, 20-foot-by-20 foot space. Families can use shovels provided by the garden, but must bring their own seeds to plant. However, Bendorf said the organization does receive some free seeds and seedlings from donations.
Typical produce includes tomatoes, herbs, cabbage, and the space even includes a children’s strawberry garden, where any neighborhood kids are welcome to come harvest.
That, Bendorf said, aims to create an inclusive sentiment for the garden so area kids can begin take ownership in it, even if their parents don’t participate.
Designed to unite
The garden originated from a City of Madison-based idea to strengthen neighborhoods through long-term activities.
Erv Bendorf, Jennifer’s father-in-law, was instrumental in recruiting Jennifer for the project after attending a meeting that focused on those kinds of efforts.
Erv, who continues to volunteer, takes ownership in the garden not only as an organizer but also as a nearby property owner. He said he knew Jennifer could bring credibility to the project. She is a gardener herself and graduated from University of Wisconsin-Madison with a wildlife ecology degree in 1996.
“She just fires people up to get involved,” Erv said. “We’re learning what it takes to make things grow.”
Funding for the garden has been a collaborative effort, and the starting cost was relatively low. Jennifer Bendorf said they received about $350 to get the park off the ground with “seed money” from the Community Action Coalition (CAC).
Raised beds for the garden were funded by a Madison-based church, The Bridge Madison, a group that also volunteers at Leopold Elementary School nearby. And area businesses like Home Depot have also helped with construction of the fence at the site and donating equipment.
Even the more expensive $7,000 mural fence and stepping stones were funded by an “emerging neighborhoods” grant through the City of Madison.
This year, the garden is getting more amenities – a new watering system and a perimeter fence, all installed by volunteers and plot owners.
On a sunny April Saturday morning at one of the many “work parties” at the garden, volunteers installed the watering system by laying underground pipe that will have spigots for gardeners close to their plot.
Equipment for that was provided by the CAC, which coordinates some funding for the garden and co-signed the lease for the land.
Joe Mathers, a Fitchburg resident who has 20 years of experience building community gardens with the CAC, pointed out that even though it was conceived as a community-building effort, the garden would not be what it is without the demand for garden space.
That much is obvious, as it’s expanded to about seven times its original size in just two years.
When the interest is prevalent, Mathers said, these types of gardens rarely “fail,” because it’s something the whole community gets involved in.
“We don’t impose gardens on people,” he said. “They have to want it.”
It wouldn’t be a surprise to see a community garden sprout up within Fitchburg’s city boundaries in the next few years, though no formal plans are yet in place, said Wade Thompson, who is a resource and project planner for the city.
“From the city’s perspective, we haven’t really gone down the road yet of having community gardens on city lands, but I think that’s a conversation that’s starting,” he said.
Thompson said if there is enough interest in a neighborhood, it is something the city would consider supporting. For example, if Nine Springs Golf Course becomes a park, there is a designated plan in the area where they could establish a garden.
That’s something Rodger Tesch, resident and Fitchburg Lions Club member, would support, as he’s seen first-hand how the Leopold garden has helped the neighborhood he’s lived in for nearly 10 years.
A plot owner himself since the garden started, he said he enjoys the opportunity to grow more plants than he’d otherwise be able to fit into a small space on his apartment on Greenway Cross, less than a half-mile from Leopold Park.
But beyond the personal benefits, Tesch said he enjoys working with and getting to know neighbors and that their presence has improved the park.
“Definitely Leopold Park is a much safer place because we have people present there and people want to come out and check out what’s going on,” he told the Star.
A shared garden could be used to foster community elsewhere in Fitchburg neighborhoods, Jennifer Bendorf said, but noted the process is not without its challenges. She intends to keep the garden a place where many residents who don’t speak English as a first language can feel welcomed and is even thinking of taking Spanish classes to aid with communication that can sometimes be difficult.
And while the inclusiveness of the garden has had some success in deterring vandals, however, problems haven’t completely gone away.
She said there has been produce, like cabbage, stolen from the garden overnight. But, on the bright side, at least that’s getting eaten, Jennifer said.
What she hates to see is when people deliberately ruin produce. For instance, once squash ripen, they rarely make it out of the garden.
“When I saw them smashed – that just killed me,” she said.
But frustrations like this don’t outweigh positive effects of the garden’s presence.
“The more (vandals) see us around, they say, ‘Oh those people work hard on that.”
Bendorf said working on the garden gives many a sense of accomplishment and worth to be able to grow food for their loved ones.
“It’s very empowering to say, ‘I can take care of my family,’” she said.