"The Amen of nature is always the flower."
Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.
The Garden Detroit is developing a demonstration land-use model, called Detroit Abloom, based on cut flower farming and the creation of sanctuary gardens to repurpose vacant blighted land. One day, a few years ago, while working with Nancy and volunteers to clean up vacant lots and keep them clean in our neighborhood, we thought of a different approach to blight removal. Gradually the idea evolved that by using cut flower farming to make good use of vacant land, not only could blight be turned into exceptional beauty, we could simultaneously market flowers and eventually establish a community-owned and operated business, create meaningful jobs, make safe havens for the community, interest people of all ages in gardening, increase community pride and develop a vision of how Detroiters can manifest The Garden embodied in all of us.
Nancy and I had already been urban food farmers for years when we started the Jefferson Chalmers Community Food System with a group of like-minded people. Shortly later we received a Kresge Foundation grant to demonstrate whether “non-edible” crops grown on repurposed vacant land can generate enough revenue to pay the land taxes and property maintenance. Working with our new board, we shifted our focus from food to flower production, changed the name of our nonprofit and used the grant to develop a cut flower farm on nine contiguous vacant lots we had purchased the year before. Starting in early April 2016, we began by planting 350 lavender plants, building 1,000 feet of raised wooden and mounded flower beds and planting a host of different flower types.
Our success has exceeded expectations and we’ve expanded by specializing in flower arrangements for weddings and events, selling live plants and providing presentations and consultation services. Thus, we show that enough revenue can be generated from the project to fulfill the objectives of the grant proposal, develop the business and provide good jobs. During the past two years we learned how to grow over 160 kinds of flowers and market mixed flower bouquets including two 10-week subscription programs. And with the help of friends, neighbors and volunteers, the Detroit Abloom site has become a beautiful destination for people interested in seeing and participating in the benefits of urban horticulture.
We’re encouraged that other Detroit community-based organizations want us to partner with them to transform some of their vacant land into beautiful and productive landscapes. What we mean by “beautiful” is to combine cut flower farming with outdoor structures, sitting areas and a wide range of native plants to create attractive park-like places of sanctuary where people can gather. “Productive” means to cultivate certain cash crops to support good jobs. Each community partner can also work with us to sell the flowers grown and harvested from their sites or we can help them develop their own independent flower business. Who knows, maybe some we'll operate a city-wide flower growers cooperative!
Detroit contains about 23 square miles of vacant land, much of it blighted. That equals around 147,200 vacant lots. Our long-term goal is to work with other organizations throughout Detroit to transform at least 1% of this vacant land, or 1,472 lots, into cut flower farms and sanctuary gardens. We look forward to working with growing numbers of people to help remake Detroit.