Madison Commons Virtual Garden Show: Meadowood Community Garden fortifies southwest Madison neighborhood

This is the fifth in a continuing series of snapshots of some of Madison’s  community gardens, a “virtual garden show.” For more, click here.

The last ripe tomatoes droop from already dead vines in the community garden. Even where no one planted them, tomatoes stubbornly twist out of the ground. It seems the soil in Meadowood neighborhood imbues resiliency.

In July 2007 a 26-year-old man was fatally shot in the neighborhood and in June 2009 a 17-year-old boy also died from gunshot wounds. This violence initiated a five year dialogue in Meadowood about how to shape their southwest Madison community.

Residents of Meadowood don’t feel unsafe, but they do recognize the need for community engagement to guide their neighborhood. After the first shooting death, neighborhood volunteers went house to house to ask one another what would strengthen their community.

 “Our neighborhood came onto the city’s radar as an area that could potentially become more and more troubled,” Sheri Rembert, a Meadowood resident for 18 years, said. “If that was indeed happening, we wanted to know what we could do about it.”

As a result of that survey, neighbors decided to collaborate with Community Action Coalition (CAC), a nonprofit working on socioeconomic issues south central Wisconsin, to act on one of the neighborhood’s ideas. Together, Rembert, her neighbors, and the CAC carved out a space in Meadowood Park for a community garden.

It was during the second season of the community garden that the 17-year-old was shot to death on Leland Drive, a short road bordering Meadowood Park.

“The whole neighborhood felt changed,” Meadowood resident and garden organizer, Leslie Stephany said. “There was a heaviness in people’s hearts. But the silver lining to something awful was that community conversation started happening.”

After the 2009 killing, Meadowood Neighborhood worked with a UW-Madison landscape architecture professor to further shape a vision for the future of their park. A busy park, they decided, would be a crime deterrent for Meadowood Neighborhood.

Meadowood Community Gardens occupies the southern corner of Meadowood Park, with just over 30 garden plots. The park also contains a sports field, playground equipment, and a basketball court. The court, Stephany said, seems to be the most heavily piece of the park.

 “The garden gives adults a reason to go the park,” Rembert said. And the mix of ages lends a welcoming atmosphere to the space.

Lisa Veldran, president of Meadowood Neighborhood Association, likens the park to an outdoor community center.

“We look for ways to bring people together,” she said. “The garden is one of those things that does that.”

Veldran and Rembert both acknowledge a divide between apartment renters and homeowners in the neighborhood. On the surface, the more transient renters and the long-time neighborhood resident don't always have a lot in common.

“We hoped the garden would be one way to start bridging that divide and form friendships,” Rembert said. “I think it’s been real successful.” Several gardeners commented that they met people they probably never would have if not for the community garden.

With many apartment buildings bordering the park, many kids treat the space as a big backyard. In fact, Stephany organized Meadowood Kids’ Garden with them in mind. The children occupy 3.5 of the 31.5 community garden plots.

“Formally, we have kids garden on Thursdays in the summer, but they can come anytime,” Stephany said. “People tend to move in and out of the apartments pretty often, so I don’t have the same kids through the summer or year to year.”

The kids who stay around the neighborhood recognize Stephany as a friendly face at the garden. She explains what each plant produces, and discusses which parts they should eat.

“There tend to be a lot of Cheeto wrappers around. One of the things I wanted to do is have things planted that they could come and forage on that were healthy,” Stephany said. She started cooking with a couple of the older kids. They pick out a recipe together and use produce from the garden to make it.

One of the garden’s most plentiful snacks for curious kids are the voluntary tomatoes. As she walked past a thicket of these vines, Stephany noted that the tomatoes actually planted themselves, and then choked out the thorny raspberry canes planted by gardeners.

Beth and Paul Rahn, Meadowood residents of 24 years, cultivate the plot across from the volunteer tomatoes. The plot has been under their care since the garden opened four summers ago.

They bent over their evenly spaced, immaculately weeded crops and commented that they often interact with kids in the park while they garden. As Paul unearthed their fat orange carrots and Beth harvested a heaping bowl of broccoli, they shared their thoughts about the violence in Meadowood.

 “We’ve had our share of neighborhood issues over the years, maybe more than usual in the last couple years,” Paul said. “But every neighborhood has issues.”

They brought their children to the park when they were young, about 15 years prior.

“I’ve never felt unsafe here in the daylight,” Beth said. “I wouldn’t have come here at 10 p.m. back then, and I still wouldn’t today.”

Both agreed the vandalism their garden endures is disappointing. Be it a stolen cabbage or a smashed fence, sometimes their hard work meets a frustrating end. They decided not to plant corn anymore, as it seemed a prime target for sticky fingers.

“Part of that happens because we are a very exposed garden in a community park,” Rembert said. “It’s not a very big park to begin with and we’re very visible. Sometimes that’s a positive thing and sometimes that’s a detriment.”

Stephany noted that the children’s garden sees a fair amount of vandalism as well. Rcently, the sturdy picket fencing was kicked over in two separate places.

“We just have to keep coming back,” she said. “We can’t let it get us down.”

Veldran sees gardeners as part of the neighborhood’s security network, helping to address larger issues of neighborhood safety.

“It’s part of being aware and letting the bad guys or girls know, we’re out watching and we want our neighborhoods to be safe.” Veldran said.

In fact, Meadowood’s neighbors see the opportunity in their challenge.

“The perceived threat has drawn people together in a way that you don’t see in other neighborhoods,” Rembert said. “There’re a lot of adults that put in time and really care about the neighborhood.”