COMMUNITY GARDENING in Cleveland - cultivating gardens for a civic purpose – dates back to the first years of the twentieth century.  It has taken many forms: vacant lot gardening, SCHOOL GARDENS, war gardens, relief gardens, victory gardens, and most recently, community gardens. It has served many purposes: to beautify the city, to teach skills and values, to put the unemployed to work, to support war efforts, to revitalize neighborhoods – and of course, to raise healthy food. Community gardening advocates have always measured gardens’ success by acres tilled, bushels harvested, and dollars saved.  A better measure might be their long life in the public memory.  

Cleveland’s school gardens led the way. They were part of the national movement to remedy the disorder and ugliness of American cities and to teach city children the gardening skills associated with the rapidly disappearing American countryside. The CLEVELAND PUBLIC SCHOOLS established the program in 1904 with small summer gardens at Warren, Outhwaite, Detroit, Willard, and Stannard Schools. So popular were the gardens that in 1905 the district established a department of school gardens, headed by Louise Klein Miller. The program quickly expanded to other elementary schools, including the Memorial School Garden that opened in 1910 to commemorate the172 children and two teachers who died in the COLLINWOOD SCHOOL FIRE. Students’ home gardens, overseen by teachers, were also included in the program, and parochial school children who lived within walking distance of a public school garden were welcome. The greenhouses of West Technical High School, the city’s first vocational school, after its opening in 1912 produced the seedlings and plants for the school gardens. The school district sponsored annual festivals at which the best gardens and gardeners won prizes. In 1913, 5,000 children signed up to garden at school or at home. The district integrated gardening into its science curriculum. Well-established school gardens, with a skilled staff and a reliable budget, provided crucial expertise and materials for all later community gardening until the demise of the program in 1978.

School gardeners at Ben Franklin Garden
Cleveland Memory
School gardeners at Ben Franklin Garden


Cleveland’s short-lived vacant lot gardening program, which coincided with the school gardens’ beginning, was inspired by the same desires to beautify the city and teach gardening skills. In 1910, the city began to offer unsightly vacant lots to residents who agreed to turn them into attractive gardens. Public officials hoped to revive – or inspire - Clevelanders’ interest in agriculture. Two hundred would-be gardeners were assigned lots in 1913. The Cleveland Plain Dealer (PLAIN DEALER) offered prizes to the best-kept gardens; one lucky gardener won a two-year course in the agricultural program at Ohio State University. The next year, the famous campaign tent used by TOM L. JOHNSON was the site of the gardens’ displays in the annual gardening festival. Contestants included a one-acre garden on a once-vacant lot at Perkins Avenue and E. 22d St. The Johnson administration itself had not taken any appreciable interest in community gardening except for establishing the progressive Cooley Farms, the workhouse, where outdoor work in a rural setting was supposed to rehabilitate prisoners. 

The United States entrance into World War I in April 1917 generated enormous enthusiasm for “war gardens” that would support the war effort by producing food for the Allies and conserving food at home. With exceptions such as the school gardens, the war gardens, although committed to a common cause, would be on private property. The National War Garden Committee directed the effort, distributing gardening information and encouragement, initiating the federal government’s growing role in local gardening. Mayor HARRY L. DAVIS and his War Garden Commission vowed to bring every vacant lot and backyard in the city and the suburbs under cultivation, and the county auditor promised to make a list of suitable lots available, apparently regardless of who owned them. Some companies donated land, but in spring 1917, there still wasn’t enough available land to satisfy Cleveland’s patriotic gardeners. School children enlisted in the U.S. School Garden Army, doing their bit by raising and canning produce. 

The 1917 war gardening season got off to a late start, but by January 1918, garden plans were already underway. The original enthusiasm had not dimmed.  Zealous neighbors took over the property of a German who had returned to serve in the German army and turned his yard into a war garden. HALLE BROTHERS’ employees raised vegetables on a 12-acre lot on the Western Reserve University (CASE WESTERN RESERVE UNIVERSITY) campus.  American Steel and Wire (U.S. STEEL CORPORATION) boasted the biggest employee garden: 15 acres at Harvard Avenue and E. 49th St., gardened by 435 men. In August, the Cleveland War Garden Director, Carl F. Knirk, estimated that the 50,000 gardeners in Cleveland and surrounding suburbs had produced $350,000 worth of produce on 5,000 acres of land.  Regardless of how accurate the estimates were, Cleveland’s war gardens probably raised morale and inspired support for the war, which was their primary mission.

When the war ended, war gardens lost their civic purpose. Donated land and company gardens reverted to private use. During the prosperous 1920s, gardeners – especially those who moved to the suburbs - raised flowers and produce for their own use and recreation. Only the school gardens remained a communal responsibility. 

During the Great Depression, however, gardens seemed a solution to both the growing numbers of unemployed Clevelanders and the growing need for food.  Relief gardens had been used in other cities during the depression of the 1890s, but the idea had not caught on then in Cleveland. In March 1932, however, when Cleveland was struggling on its own to relieve the poverty of its citizens, Mayor RAYMOND THOMAS MILLER appointed ELIZABETH RING IRELAND MATHER, wife of WILLIAM G. MATHER, director of the city’s relief garden program; she was already active in organizing Protestant churches to care for their own parishioners. Mather envisioned an energetic community effort like the war gardens, and in March 1932, she urged Clevelanders to donate land and garden tools and to cultivate their own backyards and available vacant lots. The city supplied seeds and fertilizer for subsistence gardens in backyards or vacant lots that provided food only for the gardeners, but also established field gardens and relief farms that supplied food to needy residents.  The seven relief farms, loaned by their owners, in distant suburbs like Chagrin Falls and North Royalton, provided men with two weeks of work from May to November 1933. Like other public works projects, these were short-term seasonal jobs with small salaries. The gardeners of 151 acres of field gardens harvested their first crops of radishes and lettuce in July 1932. In 1933, the program expanded: for a $2 fee, a family on relief might get the use of a large (40X50 foot) garden plot in one of the twelve garden sites sponsored by the city.  Because these large lots were often situated on vacant land on the periphery of the city or even in the suburbs, the city also had to provide passes on the street railway.

Again, the school district provided expert staff, garden plots, and materials. The Garden Center of Greater Cleveland (CLEVELAND BOTANICAL GARDENS, now Holden Forests and Gardens) awarded prizes to the best gardeners. The city claimed that the estimated dollar value of the food produced for the needy far outweighed its minimal cash outlay. But the gardens presented special challenges: some gardeners, perhaps unskilled or unhappy about being forced to work in the soil, neglected or abandoned their plots; there was a drought in 1933, and hungry people stole garden produce even though the city provided some security. Mather hoped that the gardens would be permanent, and the program did continue through summer 1934. But Cleveland’s relief programs – like those of other cities –  were overwhelmed as the Depression worsened. Aided by federal funds, the Cuyahoga County Relief Administration in November 1934 took over the city’s relief efforts, including responsibility for more than 3,000 garden plots. The next year, the federal government cut funding for gardening programs. Larger, more generously funded federal work relief projects sponsored by the Public Works Administration and the Works Progress Administration provided more jobs. In 1937, the federal government stopped funding all garden programs. The communally cultivated gardens on donated property returned to their private owners.  

Only days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Cleveland gardeners enlisted in another war, gardening became patriotic, and gardens became victory gardens. Most gardens were on private property, but some were communally cultivated.  All were dedicated to defeating the Axis while simultaneously providing Americans at home with food, recreation, and a sense of civic purpose. This was a county-wide effort. The Victory Garden Committee operated under the aegis of the Cuyahoga County Civil Defense Office, putting gardening in the same essential category as air raids and scrap salvaging. Lectures and courses on raising everything from small fruits to potatoes were provided by experts from the school gardens and local garden clubs. Gardeners were warned about Japanese beetles and other garden pests. In March 1943, the Garden Center, which played an important role as leader and educator of gardeners, hosted a special exhibit of garden layouts and planting methods.  Local newspapers threw themselves behind the effort; the garden editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer announced to her readers in April 1942 that she too had “enlisted” in the army of victory gardeners. So had the long-serving school gardeners. Women and children were urged to pick up seed packets and shovels in the absence of men serving in the armed forces. Food shortages and rationing made gardening especially attractive. Real estate advertisements listed “room for a victory garden” among a home’s assets.  

WILLIAM ALBERT STINCHCOMB, founder of the CLEVELAND METROPARKS, headed up the 1943 campaign to sign up new victory gardeners.  The absence of skilled labor and the growing demand for food made gardens more necessary than ever; at the same time, because supplies of fertilizer and seed were limited, home owners without adequate skills or yard space were discouraged from signing up. In May, Mayor FRANK JOHN LAUSCHE dropped the first seeds into a victory garden in the middle of the MALL, a cooperative effort between the city Parks Department, the county Victory Garden Committee, and the  Garden Center. This became a demonstration garden to introduce visitors to new crops and new planting strategies. The National Victory Garden Institute persuaded local industries to plant gardens for their employees: the ALUMINUM COMPANY OF AMERICA won a bronze plaque for their garden as did the Garden Center for encouraging victory gardening among industries and home owners.  Officials hoped to increase the number of victory gardens in Cuyahoga County from an estimated 110,000 to 125,000 in summer 1945. Although the need for food did not immediately end, the war did – in August 1945. The garden on the Mall, symbol of civic commitment to the war effort, closed in September. Thousands of visitors had stopped by to express their support or get answers to their garden questions. All over the county, gardeners harvested their victory gardens, now just gardens.  

A victory garden at the Mall
Cleveland Memory
A victory garden at the Mall in downtown Cleveland

In contrast, Cleveland’s school gardens had continued to expand. During the 1920s, the school district began to buy the properties that became large tract gardens, which eventually replaced many of the smaller school gardens.  A 1964 publication listed these: Benjamin Franklin (5.5 acres); Harvey Rice (7 acres); H.W. Longfellow (1.25 acres); Kentucky (2.1 acres); Miles (3.2 acres); Miles Standish (2.7 acres), and Paul Revere (2.2 acres).  The district also managed gardens at these public housing estates: Cedar-Central, Garden Valley, Outhwaite, Riverside, Valleyview, and Woodhill. There were vocational programs and greenhouses at West Technical High School and Thomas A. Edison School.  In 1969, the school board leased Washington Park (WASHINGTON RESERVATION/WASHINGTON PARK) and in 1970, opened Washington Park Horticultural Center for vocational training. In 1978, however, the beleaguered school board, under federal mandate to implement costly desegregation, cut the school gardens from its budget, ending their almost 75 years as leaders of community gardening.

The city of Cleveland had already begun its own community gardening program. In the early 1970s, in the context of a expansive urban renewal program that leveled homes and left neighborhoods desolate (CITY PLANNING), city lots in the county land bank were turned over to gardeners.  These gardens, like the vacant lot gardens of the early twentieth century, were justified as efforts to beautify neighborhoods but also to spur their revitalization by generating grassroots activism. Support for community gardens also gained strength from the early environmental movement’s focus on local, healthy food and community sustainability.  Most important, however, were the federal block grant dollars that became available for community gardens in 1976, channeled through the Summer Sprout program organized by the Ohio State University Extension Service and Cuyahoga County.  Summer Sprout did essentially what the school gardens had done for decades: provide residents with garden plots, seeds, tools, and advice on gardening and preserving food. Summer Sprout also ran classes for Master Gardeners, who then volunteered in the community gardens.  First garden sites were in city parks and playgrounds.  The city also leased many former school garden sites, including the large Ben Franklin, Miles, and Kentucky gardens. In 1986, an estimated 66 acres of community gardens were cultivated by about 7200 people.

Community gardening got another significant boost in 1996 when the Cleveland Botanical Gardens (formerly the Garden Center of Greater Cleveland), long active in community gardening, initiated its Green Corps. The program paid stipends to Cleveland high school students to work in urban gardens in Midtown, Fairfax, Buckeye-Woodland, and Slavic Village, where they would learn not only how to garden but how to sell their produce.  

Hoping to bolster Cleveland’s reputation as a “green city” noted for its many sources of local food, Cleveland City Council in 2007 included “urban garden districts” in the city’s zoning code to provide some legal protection for community gardens in areas for which gardening would be the best use and in 2010, permitted larger, commercial urban farms in low-density neighborhoods. Produce from gardens would also take some pressure off local food banks.  The CLEVELAND FOUNDATION and the GUND FOUNDATION contributed private funds.

Summer Sprout’s 2020 annual report listed as clients 152 community gardens in 2019, in all but one of Cleveland’s 17 wards, engaging 3,139 gardeners on land owned by the city, churches, neighborhood groups, or non-profits. Gardens ranged in size from the five-acre Ben Franklin community garden to the 0.9 acre God’s Little Acre in the Lee Miles neighborhood and the .05 acre garden at MERRICK HOUSE in TREMONT. Most had become Summer Sprout gardens within the last two decades although many were older, including former school gardens like Outhwaite, Garfield, Paul Revere, Michael R. White (formerly Miles Standish), and Kentucky gardens. Gardeners were also encouraged to compost and to donate surplus food to local food banks. This list was partial because not all Cleveland’s community gardens were in the Summer Sprout program. Nor were the city’s large commercial farms like Ohio City Farm, operated by Refugee Response or the Rid-All Green Partnership in the Kinsman neighborhood.

Summer Sprout’s report noted that although there were new community gardens every year, old gardens disappeared as garden leaders left or gardeners lost enthusiasm, perhaps because of the drought, heat, weeds, animals, and insects that attack all gardens. But community gardeners – like the school gardeners, vacant lot gardeners, relief gardeners, and war and victory gardeners before them - also risked losing their borrowed spaces to more profitable uses. Despite Cleveland’s garden-friendly zoning code, much of the Harvey Rice community garden, once the largest of the school gardens, became commercial development after the original school was demolished in 2007, replaced by a new building to the north in 2009.  In 2020, two Green Corps gardens closed: the Buckeye-Woodland Garden, to become the site of a new Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority housing project; Midtown Garden, to be absorbed by the new headquarters of the Cleveland Foundation. In 2021, there were plans to uproot the Cudell Orchard for an early childhood center.

Nevertheless, the ideal of cultivating the soil for a shared purpose – to create beauty, teach skills, win wars, provide jobs, invigorate neighborhoods, and raise food - has survived for more than a century in Cleveland.  In summer 2020, as COVID 19 imposed isolation and threatened many Americans with food insecurity, signs announcing “this is a victory garden” appeared in many community gardens. They faced their newest challenge: defeating a pandemic.


Marian Morton

Cleveland Public Schools Horticulture Program collection, Cleveland State University Special Collections.

Lawson, Laura J.  City Bountiful: A Century of Community Gardening in America (2005)

Stockmann, Deirdra P. “The New Food Agenda: Municipal Food Policy and Planning for the 21st Century, Dissertation submitted for partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Doctor of Philosophy, Urban and Regional Planning, The University of Michigan, 2012. 

Summer Sprout  Community Garden Report, 2020 :     


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