How an eco-friendly “meals forest” in Fort Wayne for mutual profit advances a neighborhood

Diana Hart loves and serves her community in South Central Fort Wayne by growing food.

When you enter the three acre urban farm at their 2107 Broadway residence in the Poplar Neighborhood known as Gardens of the Poplar Village, you will not be greeted by neat rows like you see in a traditional garden. Instead, find what Hart, the gardening director, calls Permaculture Food forest. “

In Poplar Village Gardens, flowers and other greenery grow on trellises made of wooden pallets.

There are bright blue baby pools on her property, where she grows cabbage and kale in buckets from the local composting service Dirt Wain. The floating buckets help with water retention, Hart says. Nearby, she plants turnips and tomatoes in square raised beds made of concrete blocks, and her pumpkin mounds are strewn over flowers and tall grass with wooden pallet trellises.

While this garden arrangement may seem unintentional, it is anything but. Hart has developed a strategy to make their garden as environmentally friendly as possible. This includes making your property habitable for large and small wild animals. Because of this, she was able to certify her property as a wildlife habitat and sustainable garden.

Poplar Village Gardens is a certified wildlife habitat and sustainable garden.

Along with their growing tactics, their mission with Gardens of the Poplar Village is also rooted in sustainability and mutual help. Rather than selling groceries, their urban garden is meant to be used to build community in their neighborhood by giving free healthy produce to their neighbors as well as their local food bank at the nearby St. Patrick’s Catholic Church.

In fact, during the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent food crisis in 2020, Hart used Poplar Village Gardens to grow 1,300 pounds of food and donate it to St. Patrick’s Food Bank. She also partnered with Forward Indiana to bring a mutual aid pantry to their property, where residents can donate and take away groceries at any time of the day or night.

Diana Hart, right, speaks to a contractor at Poplar Village Gardens.

Hart says her mission at Poplar Village Gardens is first and foremost to improve the quality of life in her neighborhood, which has historically been lacking in resources. South of downtown, near the future Electric Works campus, about 36.6 percent of Hart’s neighbors live below the federal poverty line, according to US census data. That number is 20 percent higher than the Fort Wayne citywide poverty rate.

Diana Hart grows chamomile in Poplar Village Gardens.

Together with Hart’s Housing Farm, she also grows food on two satellite properties on the south side of Fort Wayne, where she is able to grow and donate even more food in the future. What she lacks, she says, is enough volunteers to help expand her harvesting activities.

Unfortunately, Hart says there are times when perfectly good produce is sown in Poplar Village Gardens because there aren’t enough hands to help her harvest. Unhindered, she gathers and stores the seeds to try again.

“My goal was to provide the neighborhood with food,” she says. “But the overall goal was to build a community, so I’m trying to create a place where people can enjoy the outdoors, get food, and work together if they want.”

Edible bed tops in Poplar Village Gardens have holes due to a lack of pesticides.

Poplar Village Gardens is primarily funded by Hart and relies heavily on volunteers. Hence, the amount of work she can do is directly correlated to how many volunteers she can raise. If you are interested in volunteering or doing service for Poplar Village Gardens, email Hart at [email protected] to learn more.

We sat down with Hart to learn more about her work at Poplar Village Gardens and what inspires her to provide an eco-friendly food forest for her neighborhood.

Hydroponic strawberries in the Poplar Village Gardens.

IFW: What inspired you to start Poplar Village Gardens?

DH: While I’ve always been interested in gardening and finding ways to contribute to the community, that idea solidified during the process of taking the Urban Agriculture Certificate course through the Allen County Extension Office. Through the class exercises, the parts and parts of the formal structure of an urban farm quickly took shape.

Poplar Village Gardens is based on three acres of land on 2107 Broadway in Fort Wayne’s Poplar Neighborhood.

IFW: How long have you been gardening and how did you start?

DH: My grandparents were farmers. My parents used to garden when I was growing up, and I did it in college, and I’ve been gardening since I moved to the neighborhood in 1990. My connection with plants really started to intensify in 1997 when I was going through a particularly difficult period of growth in my personal life. I’ve always enjoyed the outdoors and things growing, but now it’s so much fun. The pandemic made Poplar Village Gardens my comfort and a place where I could safely interact with others.

Black Choke Berry in Poplar Village Gardens.

IFW: To have more than three hectares of land in an urban setting is incredible. What is your land management strategy?

DH: At first, since we moved in, I have been observing the land we now call Lower Orchard. At the time, it was home to Fort Wayne’s Boys and Girls Club, but when they vacated it and moved to a new facility it became a rarely used building that was demolished. I felt like I had to own this land and keep it from being built on. I had no other specific plans.

When I took the Urban Ag course, I had already started studying permaculture. I was also aware that adding more trees to a neighborhood had improved people’s quality of life in many ways, so a permaculture food forest made sense to me.

A crab apple in the Poplar Village Gardens.

During the course, I began to believe that a communal food forest to feed the neighborhood would be a great way to improve the lives of the people who live here. I was made aware of all the available lots across town so I researched what was available in my neighborhood and started purchasing lots for further garden development.

Beehives in Poplar Village Gardens.

IFW: How can the people of Fort Wayne support your project?

DH: In Poplar Village Gardens we need people of all skill levels for a wide variety of tasks. There are gardening tasks like watering, weeding, planting, harvesting and distributing. There are accounting obligations, search and writing obligations for funding and tasks in project development. We hope to continue developing our educational programs to include neighborhood children in the food growing process and teach sustainability. We also like to get involved in Forward Indiana Food Pantry Project, and we need help tidying up and tidying up our pantry.

During the 2020 pandemic, Poplar Village Gardens grew and donated £ 1,300 of food to its neighborhood grocery bank at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Fort Wayne.

IFW: What would you say to someone who wants to help but feels they don’t have sufficient gardening skills?

DH: There is something for everyone here at Poplar Village Gardens. We love to educate people in the things they want to know about sustainable living and growing food. Small time contributions make a big difference here and are always welcome.

IFW: What is Poplar Village Gardens’ greatest need?

DH: We have problems with the manpower to run such a large project with a very limited operating budget. Volunteering is a huge need and we’re always looking for ways to fund work projects and a full-time gardening job.

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