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GROWING A CONCEPT — Jacob Hyman is the manager of the Urban Mission Backyard Food Garden Center under development these past several months on about 2 ½ acres located across the street from Urban Mission Ministries’ warehouse and offices at 311 N. Sixth St. It is behind and a part of the Seventh Street Plaza the mission purchased in 2019. The idea is “to create a physical hub for models, materials, mentors and manpower to help grow gardens in the window sills, backyards and empty lots of Steubenville.” Top photo, Hyman stands toward the North Street, Steubenville, side of the center.
-- Janice Kiaski
STEUBENVILLE — The purpose of the newly launched Urban Mission Backyard Food Garden Center, according to its Facebook page, is “to create a physical hub for models, materials, mentors and manpower to help grow gardens in the window sills, backyards and empty lots of Steubenville.”
Jacob Hyman, center manager, put this vision for food production into perspective earlier this week at the site of the green space that used to be home to the Steubenville train station decades ago.
The under-development garden center is about 2 ½ acres located across the street from Urban Mission Ministries’ warehouse and offices at 311 N. Sixth St. It is behind and a part of the Seventh Street Plaza the mission purchased in 2019.
A drive along North Street brings it into view somewhat, offering evidence that something has been happening there in recent months.
There’s a rainwater capture/collection system that’s operational, for instance. It’s attached to Standard Alignment on North Sixth Street. “They were very generous. We reached out to them, and they’re allowing us to use their gutter to collect rainwater from their roof,” Hyman said, noting it is capable of collecting 750 gallons of water. “This is what’s watering our crops when it’s not the rain. We don’t have any city water out here, so this is what gives us our water,” he said.
The center has compost bins; raised garden beds; bales of hay; and an area with mulch, cinder blocks, palettes and water containers, among resources free for the taking. So far, it has produced a harvest of zucchini, green beans, cucumbers, summer squash, beets, carrots, lettuces, tomatoes and radishes — food that’s not being distributed, but used, for example, in food preparation at Unity Kitchen.
And there’s a chicken coop with 10 chickens laying eggs, feasting on scraps and making soil fertile. They will be there year-round.
A row of colorful zinnias flourishes nearby.
“We’re really focusing on gardening food. We love flowers and want to incorporate flowers in our garden because they help pollinators come, but our focus here is on food production,” explained Hyman, who came on board with the mission in June as a part-timer in this new outreach. He moved here from Dayton, having finished his military service at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
“We’re very interested in flowers, herbs and spices as we’re able to consume them, but I would say that our work here isn’t focused on flowers particularly. You may see flowers crop up, but we really want to help people grow food,” he emphasized.
While there’s food being grown in the area, the space is more about serving as an example to backyard gardeners or people who want to be.
“It’s not just the Urban Mission garden — it has a little bit of a name that needs to be explained,” he said. “We have four M’s that we identify with our mission, and those M’s are models, materials, mentors and manpower,” he said.
Ideas of turning the space into a garden began when the plaza area was purchased, Hyman said of the project’s origins.
“But the vision wasn’t so comprehensive as how does this plug into the work the mission is doing and how does this really hit some systemic changes when it comes to say. food insecurity, for example.
“There has been a lot of thought since 2019 and the acquisition. We’ve been working with some lovely farmers who live in Toronto — Shawn and Beth Dougherty. They’ve been very great visionaries when it comes to this project,” he said.
“Those four M’s correspond to the models we are creating in this space so that with however much space you have in your back yard or if all you have are containers on your windowsill, you can come downtown and that barrier to entry of gardening is lowered,” Hyman said. “You can actually see what models we are presenting that you can take into your own back yard,” he explained. “What we’re really trying to grow is gardens in the backyards of Steubenville and the empty urban plots of Steubenville.”
The bales of hay are for a variety of purposes. “We’ve been doing some composting here that we have with our compost bins. We also know hay can be used as a good mulching material to prevent weeds from growing. This bed has been here about two months now, so hay is starting to break down and prevent weeds from growing,” he said.
“Everything you see was planted here around July 13 from seed. None of this was here before July 13 so all that hay looked a lot more like what we see behind you (round bales). We put this bed down about a week and a half ago,” he continued.
The sight of hay bales in the city seems odd. “We got them out here because of the size of the space we have and knowing that we need a lot of brown material to work with in restoring fertility to this area.”
Why not chickens seems the better question, according to Hyman.
“We really are wanting to focus again on what can you do in your backyard. We recognize that within the city of Steubenville, downtown especially, we don’t have local food security. You have to go up to Kroger. We here at the mission are able to distribute food but thinking about long-term systemic change, we really want to empower the community to be able to produce as much food as it is currently able to produce, and we see taking advantage of the empty spaces we have in our back yards, the empty plots between houses downtown, and a great thing you can do with that is chickens,” he said.
“We have 10 chickens out here, laying eggs. The nice thing about chickens that we can use in our urban garden is that one chicken can consume a typical person’s food scraps and that can account for the food they need to sustain themselves,” Hyman said. “We’re talking potato skins, waste grains from the tops of vegetables you are eating, you can throw to the chickens, and they are so not picky when it comes to what they want to eat, so they will turn food waste that you’re doing nothing with but bringing to the landfill, they will take that and turn it into fertility for your garden, and they will also turn it into eggs.”
The chickens will be there year-round, their presence a model like everything else.
“Take a look at how we are featuring chickens downtown and working with backyard gardeners. How can you create something similar to this space based off your space and number of people in your household, how can you have chickens, wanting to feature the benefits they have utilizing your space in your back yard but ultimate tailoring your back yard to what you want to grow,” he said.
“Maybe they just want all the vegetables they can grow. The thing is to do that repeatedly year-round, you’re needing to restore that fertility of the soil, and so chickens are great because when their manure gets composted through natural means, that’s adding fertility back to the soil.
“You can do a lot with a little bit of space, and we want to help you lower all those barriers of entry, so I presented the first M, which is model — showing what the downtown site exists for. We want to show you all the models and model what you can do in your backyard here at the Backyard Food Garden Center,” he said.
“M” is for materials, too.
“Through the mission we receive all sorts of donations,” Hyman said. “What we’ve done is laid them out — mulch, palettes, cinder blocks, water containers, are all here for backyard gardeners to take home for free. Just come and get them,” he said.
“And we accept donations of grass clippings from any lawn care specialists — and we’re working on getting wood chips from arborists. Those are really great wood chips for long-term bed breakdown because they take a long time to break down but can add a lot of nutrients to the soil, so we are collecting those on the site.
“We want to collect those to continue to show models down here but also for back yard gardeners to take,” he added.
The center welcomes donations of manure. “We are working on getting a dedicated vehicle to be able to transport manure.”
From construction materials to garden tools, donated items are there for the taking.
“We have all these donated goods available to people,” he said.
“What you see here is the work of three and a half months, which is great, but there’s still so much to continue to do,” he said.
“When I say this is the old train station, we’re actually standing on a brick road, and so this location is really great for people who want to go pick up stuff, because they can just drive their car up here, get what they need, get grass clippings, get some cinder blocks and drive off,” he said.
“We see that this being the old train station is actually a benefit to us, not a drawback, because we’re able to work with some of the infrastructure that’s been left over to really make it a garden center, but also, if we can make this place fertile, showing as an example you can make any place fertile,” he noted.
“If we can garden here, we can garden anywhere, and the thing is we’re gardening here already.”
M is for mentors, Hyman continued the explanation.
“We have gardeners, I mentioned the Doughertys, and we have farmers and gardeners in the area who are excited and want to help current gardeners or aspiring gardeners to make a plan for their space, to go and actually meet with them, and this is a service that’s available to anybody through the garden center to reach out to us and say, ‘Hey I’d like to know how to use my space better, I have no ideas,’ or ‘Hey, I’ve been reading some gardening materials, and I have some plans but I’d like to get your opinion on this.’ We can have people come out to your home and help create the plans that are going to help you produce what you want to grow, and so things like setting up a rainwater collection system, how to move around any gutters to maximize the water being collected on your roof, we have people willing to come out and help with that,” Hyman said.
M also stands for manpower.
“Sometimes we just recognize what you need is manpower to be able to get heavy jobs done like tilling the soil or setting up a rainwater collection system, so we have the ability to mobilize volunteers to come to people’s back yards and do those large tasks,” he said.
“We are actually investing as well in a walking tractor which is very nice, a rototiller basically, and it’s going to be available for this garden site to do a lot of tilling that’s necessary, but once we receive it, we’re also going to be able to bring it to our neighbor’s back yard and till up their yards to get a really easy jump start on planting because tilling can be such a barrier for people,” he said.
People may not be so aware of the garden center’s existence but hopefully that changes, Hyman said.
“We have a Facebook page where our announcements have been posted,” he said. He has had an informational table presence at First Fridays on Fourth and will be there again on Oct. 1.
“We are going to be doing a harvest contest and a cut flower contest at the upcoming Oct. 1 First Fridays so bring your largest gourd, tomato, whatever it is, there are going to be prizes, and if you’re growing cut flowers, make your most beautiful bouquet, and there will be prizes as well.”
Naming chickens is needed as well. “We’re going to be doing a community naming of the chickens. We will be getting nice headshots or as best as we can wrangle them of these lovely ladies and have the community name each of them so look for that. We’d love for people to be involved.”
During the Labor Day weekend, the Doughertys taught a class on fall garden bed preparations now for spring to come.
“There’s a lot of things we can do right now in the fall to have healthy garden beds in the spring, to grow even better,” he said. “These hay beds right here,” he pointed out, “were actually made during the workshop. We had people come and watch the rototiller go over the soil. We have beneath here all sorts of organic material that’s going to be breaking down, and we wanted to feature the whole gamut of what you might have in your back yard or kitchen waste that you can put in your soil. We have everything from grass clippings to coffee grounds and food scraps and dried-up flower bouquets. The hay on top is breaking down over winter. These are easy techniques you can do with materials you are throwing away, and you can grow food with them. You can turn coffee grounds into food and grass clippings into food,” he said.
What will the garden center look like this winter?
“We’re definitely going to be doing first Saturday workshops at the garden center. The first Saturday of October we are going to be doing a canning workshop at the War Memorial Building most likely, beginning at 10 a.m.,” Hyman continued.
“We want to keep people engaged over the winter and obviously gardening and farming is built into the cycle where there are less things to do but still things to do, so we have connected with the Sycamore Center,” Hyman said, noting Leslie Sherlock will be teaching a class about gardening to students in grades five through 12. “She is donating a cold tunnel which will be set up to more or less be a greenhouse to grow things over the winter.”
And speaking of greenhouses, ones donated by the now-closed DiGregory’s were dismantled and stored but will come out of hiding.
“We have them, and it is actually going to be one of the focuses moving into the fall into the winter,” he said. “We do intend to reuse those greenhouses on this site. We are going to reassemble two or possibly three greenhouses, so there can be winter activity.”
The center of the space will be home to an outdoor pavilion, a learning educational place for classes and a workday meeting spot. “It will add a lot of structure to the space so we want to also be able to have harvest festivals, different things utilizing the food we’re actually growing and sharing it in common so a pavilion will be able to add toward that.”
What Hyman said he wants to most get across to readers about what’s happening at the site is that gardening is for everybody.
“I have not gardened before coming to this work. My background is in civil engineering. I did work in the Air Force, and I came here. I had recognized in myself the importance of gardening. I love to share that importance with others, but the land is incredibly generous to us, and that notion of a green thumb can come through experience, but anybody can garden and should garden — even if that’s just having a potted cherry tomato on the front porch. Whatever your ability is, gardening is intended for everybody. There’s a lot of good to come out of gardening physically and spiritually,” Hyman said.
“If you don’t have a back yard, let this be your back yard to get produce and learn gardening techniques.”
For information on how to get involved, e-mail Hyman at [email protected] or call or text (561) 339-8320. The Facebook page is Urban Mission Backyard Food Garden Center.
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