John Jenkins
Benjamin Franklin Garden

     The Benjamin Franklin Garden in Cleveland’s southwest, Old Brooklyn neighborhood is the largest community garden in the state. Originally, the property was a part of the Cleveland Public Schools Horticulture Program at Ben Franklin Elementary. John Jenkins, an Old Brooklyn resident since 1959, first experienced the garden through his two sons who were each given a plot as students in the program. In the late 70’s, the school district dissolved the curriculum due to funding. By 1981, Old Brooklyn Community Development Corporation was able to provide enough support and attention to successfully take leadership of the property. Though the large tract of land, five acres, is still owned by the district, the CDC and a community Operating Committee have grown the space into an incredible asset for the neighborhood and the city.

     The garden boasts 210 plots and 180 gardeners, and historically undisturbed soil (the records show Cleveland schools buying they entire 11 acre lot from a farmer). If the community citizens have their way, the land will continue to be a gardening space for decades to come. A recent survey shows that Old Brooklynders love a few things about their neighborhood: the Zoo, the monthly paper, and Ben Franklin Garden. And John Jenkins wants everyone to know, “we’re more than just a garden.” From fourth graders to collegiate masters students, new mothers with their toddlers to Cleveland elders with their ornery pranks, the garden is a microcosm of the city. One woman who had been calling ahead each season to reserve her spot always caught John’s attention. He guesses that she was in her late 80’s or early 90’s. She would keep a strict schedule, arriving on a bus in the morning and making sure not to miss the bus in the afternoon. One day, when a reporter from the Plain Dealer requested an interview with a gardener, John knew just the one. She was happy to oblige. The conversation uncovered that she was riding all the way from Akron, roughly 40 miles, to garden in Old Brooklyn. When the reporter asked for her name, she refused. “Why,” recalls John, ”because her family didn’t know she was coming up here.” She was sneaking away to her big city oasis.

 

     The site also serves as a laboratory and learning center, similar to the days of the Cleveland Horticulture program. Fourth graders from the neighboring school receive some collaborative instruction from OSU Extension Master Gardeners. Scholars from Wooster College and Ohio State University do experiments and projects with the soil. A recent grant supported the identification and labeling of 160 different species of trees on the property. Monarch butterflies enjoy milkweed as caterpillars, then zinnias when they stop-over on their migration south. A girl scout recently received her golden award for a project where some flora and produce was found to be useful at the zoo. “They call it their dessert,” John laughs. Mulberry branches that were recently pruned were enjoyed by elephants, and apes loved the wild grape leaves pestering the gardeners.

     So what could possibly be next for such a unique and successful community garden? “I want to know that this place is going to be there for the next generation,” says John. He and his neighbors have been working to preserve the space, utilizing Cleveland’s unique agricultural zoning, and contemplating other designations such as historic area and/or wildlife area.