November 6, 2017

Here’s how flower farming is busting blight in Detroit

The nonprofit The Garden Detroit is helping to renew vacant urban land by cultivating colorful, productive landscapes

The Garden Detroit co-founder Nancy Weigandt, left, and board member Julia Griffin are farmers in the nonprofit's cut flower business. Photos courtesy of The Garden Detroit

With over 20 square miles of vacant land, many Detroiters have scratched their heads for years wondering what to do with all this land, much of it blighted. In 2015, my partner Nancy and I, along with several like-minded friends, formed a nonprofit organization called The Garden Detroit. Our mission is to turn vacant blighted land into beautiful and productive landscapes.

In 2016, we established a community partnership relation with the Detroit Land Bank Authority, so we could purchase nine contiguous vacant lots in the middle of a residential neighborhood. A year later, we received a $74,000 Kresge Foundation grant to establish a model project that could demonstrate how non-edible crops can be used to create enough revenue to transform and maintain vacant land. Thus, we started a community-owned and operated cut flower business called Detroit Abloom, and with the help of friends, neighbors—and from time to time, dozens of volunteers from Ford, Chrysler, Quicken Loans, and Wayne State University—transformed these lots into a beautiful place of sanctuary where people can appreciate nature and enrich their souls.

We also market our flower crops by selling mixed-flower bouquets at two venues and through a subscription program where people can sign up to receive a bouquet on a certain day each week. Nancy and Julia also make value-added products like lavender soap, and we all offer consulting services. In these ways, we make enough revenue to not only maintain these properties, but also to create good jobs. Last year we created two full-time positions and next year plan to create two more.

In one year, the flower business has increased from five subscribers to 30, and the gardens at Detroit Abloom are fast becoming a popular destination for people who want to see some of the benefits of urban horticulture. Nancy and Julia have grown the business to specialize in providing flowers and arrangements for weddings and events, and we’re realizing that there’s a huge untapped market for fresh, organic, locally-grown flowers, especially for one of the world’s most gorgeous flowers—dahlias. In addition, community-based organizations are partnering with us to have us incorporate Detroit Abloom gardens into their projects.

By transforming blighted land into beautiful and productive landscapes, not only do we bust blight, we simultaneously create places of sanctuary that can draw the community together.

This past year we partnered with two groups and for next year we already have four prominent community-development organizations who want us to replicate our Detroit Abloom model into their green space. What does all this mean? Simply, we’re inspired to glimpse how ripe the time is for us to demonstrate how cut flower farming can enhance neighborhood revitalization.

Here are some benefits of cut flower farming:

  • Neighborhood Stabilization: By transforming blighted land into beautiful and productive landscapes, not only do we bust blight, we simultaneously create places of sanctuary that can draw the community together. Replacing blighted lots with beauty and providing the opportunity for residents to engage cohesively in meaningful work, can potentially benefit everyone.
  • Economic Impact: Jobs are the bottom line in rescuing the local economy. People will get up and move to where the jobs are. When the jobs are literally growing up from the earth, it keeps people rooted to their community.

  • Environmental Impact: Everything about cut flower farming can benefit the environment. We are 100 percent organic, meaning that we do not use synthetic chemicals that contaminate the land and our bodies. Essentially, Detroit Abloom is an outdoor classroom of innovative ways to grow flower crops, manage storm water, nurture the honey bee population, use native plants, improve biodiversity, recycle organic matter, and much more.

In short, we’re thrilled to be a pioneer of cut flower farming in Detroit and feel blessed to be where we are today. Our five-year goal is to transform at least 1 percent (or 200 acres) of the vacant land in Detroit into cut flower farm/sanctuary gardens. But I hope our efforts will go beyond beautifying land. Our deepest wish is that more and more people will work together to bring into full expression “The Garden” embodied in the consciousness of each and every one of us.

We see Detroit blooming from within as we, with God’s help, open our hearts to one another, and turn this city into a paradise on earth.

Tom Milano

The Garden Detroit

A self-taught farmer, Tom has been working to develop the concept of The Garden Detroit for the past eight years. He believes having easy access to affordable healthy food is a natural birth-right that's essential and fundamental to community revitalization.

Originally from New York, Tom backpacked around the world on a spiritual quest for several years before joining the Hare Krishna movement and settling in France for a decade. In 1987, he returned to the U.S. to live in Detroit where for three years he was the president of the Hare Krishna Temple, located in the historic Fisher Mansion. In 1990, he left the movement to develop a project to help revitalize the Jefferson Chalmers business district. During this time he also operated a health-food store and forged relationships with local community-based organizations.

Tom is the author of The Hare Krishna Book of Vegetarian Cooking, published in 1984, and is currently working on his second book, titled Spiritual Vegetarianism: The Key to Unveiling Heaven on Earth.
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