Eagle Heights: The Oldest U.S. Community Garden

Eagle Heights: The Oldest U.S. Community Garden

Part of Ep. 1906 Grow Local, Eat Local

We visit with Robin Mittenthal at one of the oldest and largest community gardens in the country, which happens to be right here in Wisconsin. The Eagle Heights Community Gardens was founded in the 1950s and now has 520 plots.  That’s a lot of produce and it’s grown by UW-Madison students and their families from all over the world.

Premiere date: Jul 13, 2011

TRANSCRIPT+
Wisc Gardener Transcript: 

Shelley Ryan:

We are standing in the middle of one of the oldest and largest community gardens in the country. This is Eagle Heights Community Gardens and I'm talking with one of the people that helps keep it running smoothly. This is Robin Mittenthal. Robin, you're a grad student here at UW-Madison. You're the chair of the Eagle Heights board. Tell me what that means.

 

Robin Mittenthal:

Sure, it means that I'm a volunteer, and show up regularly at board meetings. We have and all-volunteer board. We also have three part-time paid staff people. And a bunch of other people from the gardens volunteer to help make things work.

 

Shelley Ryan:

So you put out some of the fires and handle disputes. You're working on trying to get an upgrade in the irrigation system, and lots of things.

 

Robin Mittenthal:

Yes, and communicate with the university. We're part of the university, so one of the most important things that I help do is talk to university administrators who oversee us.

 

Shelley Ryan:

Ah, a mediator.

 

Robin Mittenthal:

Yes.

 

Shelley Ryan:

I'm looking around. just a few paid people, this is enormous. How many plots do you have here?

 

Robin Mittenthal:

The gardens all together have almost 540 plots. But most of those plots are shared by more than one gardener, so there are somewhere between 900 and 1,000 gardeners. Many of those people, myself included, have families such that there are at least a couple thousand people eating food that comes from here.

 

Shelley Ryan:

That's a lot of food, too.

 

Robin Mittenthal:

It is a lot of food. Some of those people are better gardeners than others, so some people get more food out of their plots than others.

 

Shelley Ryan:

Well, and we have good years and bad years here in Wisconsin, so you know, we don't have to just blame the gardeners!

 

Robin Mittenthal:

Right.

 

Shelley Ryan:

Are all of these gardeners students, or affiliated with the university?

 

Robin Mittenthal:

No, they're not all students. The majority of our gardeners are residents of university housing, are graduate students, or in many cases, not the students themselves, but their parents or grandparents. A lot of people from India, or China, or Taiwan, or South Korea, come over here as graduate students have a baby, bring their parents or grandparents over to take care of their child. Then, both as something to do and as a way to grow foods that their comfortable with, and want, their parents and grandparents come out and do most of the gardening work, if not all of it.

 

Shelley Ryan:

That's nice. It not only frees them up to do their studies, but then they're also getting fresh produce from their home.

 

Robin Mittenthal:

Yes. Some of that you can now find elsewhere in Madison, but it's not as fresh, and it can be expensive. Many of these people are our best gardeners, as well.

 

Shelley Ryan:

Sure, they've got experience. So, back to the question. They're not the exclusive gardeners here?

 

Robin Mittenthal:

Right, we also have gardeners who are faculty and staff. Then, some people who have no university affiliation at all, but live in Shorewood Hills or adjacent parts of Madison. Those people are also some of our longest-term gardeners, and are important. Because of that, they often are also expert gardeners, and they teach their new gardener neighbors how to garden. They're also some of the most active volunteers.

 

Shelley Ryan:

It's because they have experience.

 

Robin Mittenthal:

Yes.

 

Shelley Ryan:

How does one get a plot here?

 

Robin Mittenthal:

You have to apply. We have an annual application process. You apply between December and February. The university does require we have a priority system, so people with a university affiliation have higher priority than those who don't.

 

Shelley Ryan:

That makes sense.

 

Robin Mittenthal:

We have enough turnover that yeah, it's easier to get in here than most community gardens, anywhere in the country really.

 

Shelley Ryan:

Because it's so big.

 

Robin Mittenthal:

It's big, and we have a lot of turnover because students leave every year.

 

Shelley Ryan:

I know the UW is a melting pot of different ethnic groups. When we walked up here, I realized this is a small representation of what we see. There were plants and vegetables I didn't recognize.

 

Robin Mittenthal:

Sure.

 

Shelley Ryan:

Let's talk about who's growing what here.

 

Robin Mittenthal:

Well, we have people who speak more than 60 languages.

 

Shelley Ryan:

Wow.

 

Robin Mittenthal:

And people from dozens of countries. There are a lot of vegetables that would be unfamiliar to a Wisconsin gardener certainly, things like bitter melon, snake gourds, and sesame leaves are commonly grown, various relatives of the tomato with which I'm not familiar. A lot of sub-Saharan African crops, including yam varieties. Small tubers, whose names I don't even know.

 

Shelley Ryan:

So, there are more things that grow in Wisconsin than our typical tomato, potato, peppers?

 

Robin Mittenthal:

Right, some of the things that people try to grow here don't actually grow very well here, just because our growing season is not long enough. You try to grow them and they don't. But there are many, many things that you can grow here successfully that people don't.

 

Shelley Ryan:

The garden started here in 1960.

 

Robin Mittenthal:

1960, as far as we know.

 

Shelley Ryan:

Well, they're fabulous. Looking at this, define community garden. What is a community garden?

 

Robin Mittenthal:

Community gardens are really different things to different people. But the main function is to give land to garden on for people who don't have yards or homes of their own. Many gardens also have an environmental education function. Some of them also a have a small farm attached, which grows and sell food to people who are not gardeners. The main function, or one of the main functions here certainly is community. The idea that people would get out in a setting which is not inside, and not at work, and see people that they may or may not know from those settings, and meet and greet. Especially in a place that's this diverse, just talking to people whose first language is not English perhaps is informative certainly for someone like me.

 

Shelley Ryan:

Sure, and for people who are far away from home, it's really a chance to get out and say hi to other people.

 

Robin Mittenthal:

Yes. I would imagine potlucks from this garden would be fabulous.

 

Robin Mittenthal:

We've had small informal potlucks in the past. We are hoping, beginning of this year and coming years, to have more large community-wide potlucks. Indeed, the food should be diverse and wonderful.

 

Shelley Ryan:

Well, you may have a guest that you don't know about! Robin thank you for sharing this. This is just a wonderful place to visit, thanks.

 

Robin Mittenthal:

My pleasure. Thank you so much for coming and learning about the gardens.

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