COLUMBUS — “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike,” wrote John Muir in his book The Yosemite in 1912.
More than 100 years later, these words convey the essence of the Friends of the Homeless Garden (Friends Garden) in Columbus, according to Sue Simon, Friends Garden Coordinator and a Franklin County Master Gardener Volunteer.
The Friends Garden, a 50-by-100-foot lot, is located across the street from the Friends of the Homeless Shelter and is operated by the Ohio State Extension Master Gardener Volunteers for Southeast Inc. The shelter offers emergency housing for 130 men. New Horizon Transitional Housing sits adjacent to the Friends Garden.
Friends Garden provides a safe place for the men of the shelter and the families in the transitional housing to get together and socialize. Simon added that anyone is free to come into the garden and harvest whatever they want, whenever they want, including flowers.
Most of the vegetables and fruit in the garden are designed to be “pick and eat.”
“One of the reasons [one of the men in the transitional housing] was able to move out was because of his involvement in the garden,” said Simon. “It helped boost his self esteem and he was able to feel a part of something and feel like he’s being useful.”
The garden was part of the 2018 Columbus Urban Farm Tour Series, hosted by Ohio State and Columbus Urban Farmers Network. Simon, and others from Southeast Inc. and Ohio State, spoke about the garden during the tour, Aug. 19.
“The first question I usually get is ‘how do you tell if it’s a garden or a farm?,’” said Mike Hogan, Ohio State Agricultural and Natural Resources Educator. “The best definition I like to give is an urban farm, when you compare it to a garden, is typically a place that grows food for someone else.”
And although Friends Garden is called a garden, it provides food to others and so was included it in the Urban Farm Series.
“We have about thirty urban farms in the city of Columbus, which is growing,” said Hogan, adding that there were only five in the city of Columbus about five years ago. “During our Urban Farm Series, we like to show a whole bunch of different models of urban food production.”
Friends Garden is a very special place, according to Simon. “It’s helping to transform this little part of this neighborhood.”
“The guys are finding it not just a place of beauty and peacefulness, but they’re happy. And it’s hard to be happy. Even if it’s only for five minutes,” said Simon. “It’s a time where they can let everything go and not worry about everything that they have to worry about, which is immense, and just be.”
Simon works on many other gardens and was the Master Gardener Volunteer of the Year two years ago.
About the garden
When Simon started the Friends Garden nine years ago, the ground was not level and was filled with construction debris from a nearby building that was knocked down. The space was filled with weeds and a lot of “unsafe things,” according to Simon.
The garden started with four raised beds on a cleared spot at the front of the area, debris still piled high behind it. Simon said that they continued like this for two years and then she had a friend bring a tractor and completely graded the area — but unfortunately, the debris would have ruined his tractor. Corna Kokosing Construction Company ended up bringing in their heavy machinery and cleared and leveled the entire area.
Most of everything at the garden has been donated or obtained through grants. “If somebody gives me something, I plant it,” said Simon. This year, they applied for a grant through Franklin County Soil and Water, which gave them enough money to add a native plant area to the garden, along the back wall.
Simon said that they have had very little vandalism in the garden.
“I always try to have food,” said Simon, who made the food displayed and shared at the event. “Food is another thing because you sit down and you share a meal together. They talk.”
The garden also features a medicine wheel, which represents different races of the world, colors including white, yellow, red and purple. All of the plants in the medicine garden are medicinal.
“One of the purposes of this medicine wheel is that they’re usually divided into four quadrants, and the four quadrants are done in different colors to represent all the races of the world,” said Simon. “One of the major reasons to have that there is it’s inclusive. It includes all the races of the world.”
Art and community
Adding to the garden’s aesthetic, two works of art stand tall at the back of the Friends Garden. One features a butterfly by Terry Althouse and the other several colors and plants by Phoebe Kellerman. Both of the artists attended the event.
A third piece of art, by Jason Gray, was added in the beginning of September. Gray also made the new sign that says “Friends Garden” at the front of the garden.
Referring to the “Friends Garden” sign, Simon said, “That’s what this garden is all about. It’s about relationships and if you think about it that’s what life is about. This garden, particularly because of where it’s at, relationships are really key for everybody in this neighborhood.”
William Mattis of Troop 474, who meets at Overbrook on High Street, is on his way to become an Eagle Scout. He completed his final community project at the Friends Garden.
On Aug. 26, Mattis, along with 14 volunteers, including several gardeners and Boy Scouts from his troop, installed a table and two benches in between the birdhouses in the garden. The table has inlays of a checkerboard, and according to Simon, Big Lots donated checker pieces and other board games for this table.
Mattis’s project also included a free library for the Friends Garden. “The free library is going to be a godsend here,” said Simon. “As the Free Library was being set, 5 young children came and chose books, crayons and paper! It was perfect.”
“I love building stuff in my free time, and I like work on cars. I loved the idea of building something really cool and sustainable,” said Mattis. “We came out to the lot [garden] and we were just blown away by everything here.”
Mattis is a senior at Metro Early College Middle and High School, the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) school connected with The Ohio State University.
“I really likes cars and the automotive field is where I really want to put all my marbles in,” said Mattis. “My mom loves to garden and that’s kind of rubbed off on me a little bit. I’ve been thinking of starting up a little garden.”
Eventually all of the raised beds will be transitioned from wood to stone.
Visit the garden October 6 for the Art and Harvest Day at the Friends of the Homeless Garden from 12 a.m. to 5 p.m. There will be local artists selling their paintings and local musicians and free food.