Making a Difference in Madisonville Kitchens

Most Thursday evenings I spend in the garden at Ward and Chandler.* Usually I am by myself, puttering. Last night was different.

If you had come by the garden yesterday you would have seen neighbors “shopping” among the rows. In the two-hour period I was there seven people came by to get food. They mostly just walk in with a bag, or take one of the many black plastic buckets, and start picking. Last evening they took tomatoes, greens, green beans, peppers, eggplants, basil, cucumbers, zucchini and broccoli. In case anyone cares about demographics the shoppers last night were white 20s, black 50, black 30, white 40, black 40, black 40, black 40.

Having an always-open, unsupervised u-pick, free garden was not our game plan when we started.** It is a mind-blowing experience for me sitting in the garden having stranger-neighbors explain to me how it works: “It’s a free community garden and anyone can come and get food as long as they donate something back.”

The downside is that people don’t know what is ready and how to pick efficiently. Some plants get broken. Some food is picked and dropped because it is unripe. Somebody took all of the little watermelons, and we were hoping to share those with the Lighthouse students.

All the food is picked and taken home and eaten.

The upside is that all the food is picked and taken home and eaten. There are few tomatoes for the squirrels because the neighbors get them first. Every cucumber is taken. There are no extra zucchini. We are making a difference in Madisonville kitchens.

There are no signs at the site except the one that says Lighthouse Community School Garden. Once the shelter that is under construction is completed we could put up a chalkboard with a list of what is ripe and ready. We could hang a scale and have a notebook and ask people to write down what they take. (It makes me a little crazy that we can’t measure what the garden has produced.) Everyone I talked with was very willing to learn. They wanted to know what to pick and how, and how to cook it.

It was mind-expanding and delightful for me to watch all this and talk to people. I still kind of want to harvest and sell the produce, but I am amazed and pleased by this largely spontaneous happening — and I don’t think we can change the business model this year. Next year we may reboot and set up a farm market, or we might try to find a way to fund the free garden again.

Five of the seven people did not know who I was or my role in building the garden. Most knew about the school but were very fuzzy on the details. One wanted to know if she could enroll her niece.

I’m not sure what to do with all this new data right now, but it is quite something to see and experience. Apparently it happens every evening.


Editor’s notes: 

* In the Madisonville neighborhood of Cincinnati.

** For background on the garden project see “Lighthouse Community School Garden Project” at  and “Madisonville gives urban farm project a tentative trial run” at For information on the Lighthouse Community School go to

Photo: Spinach Oakley Originals. Home page image: Shannon Kringen.


About the Lead Author

Steve Rock
Steve Rock
Steve Rock is an environmentalist and volunteer garden builder in Cincinnati's Madisonville neighborhood.

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