Guest post by Don Reck: Community gardens help KC with stormwater diversion, heat island effect and community food needs

Don Reck is a farmworker at Juniper Gardens Urban Farming Training Project in Kansas City, KS. He assists with maintenance and training for the project, which benefits Catholic Charities & Cultivate KC’s New Roots for Refugees Program. Learn more about the project here >>

Gooooood Morning, Kansas City!!!!! This is your neighborhood gardener, Don Reck. I’ve been involved in backyard gardening since birth, with a few breaks in the action due to life situations. What I’ve learned in those years, as anyone that is in a relationship with Mother Nature will tell you, every day of the growing season brings a new challenge to your efforts in urban gardening.  

Another important lesson is that in this great and glorious Universe, the most constant thing is Change. And we are experiencing the effects of Climate Change; in the western wildfires followed by diluvial rains and floods, drought in some areas and devasting floods in other parts of the world; bone-chilling killer freezes in parts of the country that grow tropical fruits and heat waves in December and January where snow accumulation has been the norm for centuries.  

Because urban gardeners are in partnership with Mother Nature, we are subject to the increases in extreme temperatures, times of no rain, times of too much rain, heavy winds that destroy infrastructure and rip our plants out of the ground. Plant hardiness zones are migrating, plants may not get adequate rest in dormant seasons, fruit and nut trees may not get the chill hours needed for successful fruiting, winter warm spells can encourage plants to leaf or bud out, only to be struck by frost before spring arrives. This list is infinite!!  

As gardeners, we have the ability to modify and assist in adapting to these extremes. And the story of the birth of the Center City Community Garden is such a story. Way back at the turn of the century (2000), KCMO was faced with a stormwater runoff problem. Without getting too far into the Weeds, human activity in what is now the Metro area, had modified the nature of the prairie ecosystem. Rainfall in our area averages around 40” a year. This amount could easily be absorbed into the prairie hydraulic process, as the grasses and forbs of the Tall Grass ecosystem drank in the life-giving moisture.  

But over the past 100 years, as we added more streets, highways, parking lots and other impervious surfaces, that rainfall had nowhere to go but downhill; that means runoff follows from suburbs to inner-city and the River. Most of suburban Johnson County that was farmland a century ago, is now hard surfaces or non-native vegetation (lawns and golf courses) that encourages runoff.  As the population has grown, pervious surfaces have been transformed and our antiquated dual sewer system cannot safely handle the stormwater runoff. There is too much runoff so storm sewers overflow into sanitary systems and we have waterway contamination with sewage waste.  

One of the alternative methods for dealing with runoff was for the City to encourage and implement a Rain Garden program. It is a long-term solution that looks beautiful above ground and works wonders below, decreases the amount of rainwater getting into our pipes, and reduces flooding, pollution, and trash in our local creeks, streams, and rivers. Habitat For Humanity was building homes in the Center City neighborhood at that time. As houses were completed, the City was installing new curbs, gutters and sidewalks.  

Local neighborhood activist, Peter Hughes, recognized the opportunity to convert conventional curbs and sidewalks into a beautiful and important water diversion rain garden. Peter rallied support, built partnerships with neighborhood residents, Habitat For Humanity and KCMO City Council members. This was a wonderful example of Community coming together, spurred by strong leadership on many levels, and the cooperation with City govt to bring improvements to one neighborhood that has repercussions on a much larger scale. Today, there is an oasis of cooling plants and trees along one hundred feet of frontage on East 34th Street, filled with native, indigenous plants that hold up to 5000 gallons of stormwater when it rains an inch in our neighborhood. The water is held by the plants and allowed to work according to the design of Mother Nature: permeating into and replenishing the groundwater system.  

The two vacant lots along 34th street evolved over the next few years with small improvements. A few raised beds were built with the volunteer efforts of Skills USA; a permaculture berm was created with the help of local Garden expert, Steve Mann, where a native plant Insectary Garden was installed with the assistance and guidance of Kansas City Community Gardens staff; small donations from various sources helped to purchase plants from local nurseries; volunteer groups of 4th graders from Bishop Tolbert Elementary joined with garden stewards and other adults in the neighborhood to engage the young students in maintaining and cleaning up the Rain Garden. Eventually, the two lots were officially acquired from the Land Bank, with the sponsorship of Rae Peterson, long-time Midtown activist. 

The Center City Community Garden and Orchard now has a border of 32 fruit and nut trees on the north edge, 12 raised beds that are available to neighborhood residents; a water harvesting system for crop irrigation as well as the installation of a City water hydrant; larger cultivation areas for scale production of certain crops such as tomatoes and collards that are made available to local agencies such as Bishop Sullivan and St. James Parish to help our neighbors with healthy food.  

Community gardens reduce the urban heat island effect by providing shading and absorbing solar radiation. Gardens can also help manage stormwater runoff; unlike asphalt, vegetation and soil in gardens can absorb and store rainwater. In addition, gardens can help capture carbon from the atmosphere. But maybe the most important effect of a community garden is that of Social Engagement, an opportunity to work together, to share ideas and companionship, to be In Community; all while working in collaboration with Mother Nature.   

We are all connected, 

-Don Reck