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Flower farms transform vacant lots on Detroit’s east side

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Photo by Michelle & Chris Gerard

A vacant lot in a neighborhood can summon a number of reactions: despair, anger, apathy. But many Detroiters are finding ways in which a vacant lot can lift up a community and inspire—even create a place for sanctuary.

Last week, we visited the Garden Detroit in Jefferson-Chalmers, with both a corner lot with hoop house and a plot of nine vacant lots transformed into a lush garden. The land and the flora is indeed inspiring.

Nancy Weigandt and Tom Milano of the Garden Detroit had been cleaning up vacant land as volunteers for years. Both experienced gardeners, they understood the potential for turning blighted land into a place of beauty, and started working with the Land Bank to acquire vacant lots. They intended on planting vegetables, but neighbors worried they might attract rats, so now flowers create a sanctuary on the lots on Manistique Street.

A few blocks away, a vacant house sat on the corner lot next to the purple house at 313 Newport Street, where Milano has lived for 30 years. Weigandt notes that dogs took up residence on the upper level of the vacant house at one point. After the land bank demolished the house, Wiegandt and Milano bought the vacant lot in order to create a new garden. They started a non-profit—the Garden Detroit—and received an implementation grant from the Kresge Foundation to plant non-edibles.

Detroit Abloom now has a hoop house, a root cellar, and so many dahlias.

Weigandt says that 80 percent of cut flowers come from Central America; growing cut flowers here can not only beautify vacant land, but the growing movement in the U.S. can reduce the carbon footprint for shipping flowers.

The group also sells cut flowers at many local retailers, hosts floral workshops and events, and helps others plan sanctuary gardens.

Milano sees a more spiritual purpose for the gardens, that they’re an external manifestation of how we’re all equals and share the same purpose. The gardens not only demonstrate how the land can be used, but how we can beautify our neighborhoods, create jobs, and create safe places of sanctuary.

Weigandt says that this year has been difficult and temperamental for growing, with the very cold winter and hot, humid summer. But looking around the property, especially along the perimeters of the hoop house, visitors can see a variety of flowers on full display.

The Garden Detroit is hosting the Detroit Abloom Dahlia Festival September 30 from 2-6 p.m.