By getting thousands of residents excited about using their green thumbs, Newark, N.J., is turning its vacant lots into prosperous, blooming gardens.
Because the city’s urban gardening program is coupled with a leaf composting project, it helps reduce landfill costs while beautifying plots of land that were once eyesores, said Frank Sudol, manager of the city’s Division of Engineering.
“We had an ongoing problem with maintaining these vacant lots because of illegal dumping,” he said. “Through the program, we’ve stopped the dumping, cut maintenance costs and put the lots to productive use.”
Nearly 4,000 once-vacant lots are now being used. Resident adopt the lots, Sudol said, then plant gardens and maintain them as a community project.
The leaf composting project is essential to the success of the community gardens because New Jersey’s rocky soil makes growing gardens difficult. Each fall, the city asks residents to rake their leaves to the curb. Bagging the leaves is discouraged to save residents money and the city disposal costs of the plastic, he said.
Once the leaves arrive at Newark’s composting site, they are screened, watered and composted in long windrows. Eventually, the finished product is hauled back into the urban area where it helps gardens bloom on the vacant lots.
“Rather than just hauling all that material to the landfill, we use it internally to enrich the soil and improve the value of our neighborhoods,” Sudol said.
As an added benefit, more and more residents are now composting on their own and hauling the material to their community gardens, he said.
An annual dinner is held each fall as part of the urban gardening program to honor the efforts of Newark’s community gardeners. A bus tour is conducted to visit the now-prosperous vacant lots before the event, and a panel of judges chooses winners in various categories.
Slides of the winning gardens are shown at the dinner as schools and neighborhoods celebrate their efforts, while making plans for another growing season.
“We’re talking about a significant amount of acreage being gardened that would otherwise sit unused,” Sudol said. “The program has helped raise community spirit and involvement.”
Tip/Stat — An estimated $750,000 worth of produce is grown on Newark’s vacant lots each year, through its urban gardening project.