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  • Audio: Susannah Barton talks gardens

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By Scott Scanlon

Refresh Editor

Susannah Barton works in the Tri-Main Building in downtown Buffalo, an architectural gem with steel beams, colorful corridors and eclectic gallery, office and light manufacturing space.

But truth be told, Barton would rather be working outdoors, especially this time of year.

Barton, 34, is a former commercial banking specialist who landed a master’s degree in urban planning at the University at Buffalo in late 2009 and became the first paid executive director of Grassroots Gardens of Buffalo, a nonprofit group that helps residents and neighborhood organizations operate nearly 70 community gardens across the city.

She lives in the Parkside neighborhood with her husband, Kevin. They grow tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, zucchini, squash and herbs in their home garden.

“We’re going to be growing okra for the first time this year,” said Barton, a Dallas native. “I’m really excited about that.”

She and dozens of volunteers have spent recent weeks getting their hands dirty in raised box gardens in lots that will soon teem with flowers and vegetables. She took a break to answer a few questions during a recent workday while helping Mikey Vertino and other members of the University Heights Collaborative start a new project in a Tyler Street lot. Students from the nearby University at Buffalo South Campus also helped.

Q. Let’s start with this particular project. Who owns it and what did it look like before you started?

A. This is a privately owned lot. There were mainly weeds and some grass. It looks onto this beautiful small park. The neighborhood has planted trees in the park, along the street as well, so … the neighborhood got together and approached the landlord and said, ‘We’re interested in starting a community garden. Can we have permission to use the land?’ … They came to Grassroots Gardens, completed the application over the winter months and moved forward. This is one of four new community gardens for the 2013 season.

Q. Where are the other three?

A. One’s on the grounds of Lafayette High School, one’s in the MLK neighborhood on North Parade and one is in Riverside on Esser.

Q. Are the gardens all pretty much the same?

A. When they come to us, we ask them to give us an anticipated site plan and a design. We want to make sure that they’ve thought about where they want to place things, if they’re growing vegetables or only want it to be a flower garden, things like where the sun hits. So every garden under our umbrella, they all look different, which is one of the things I think is so special about our organization. They’re all a reflection of the host community.

Q. How did Grassroots Gardens form?

A. We were started in 1992 by a man named Milton Zeckhauser, who passed away about seven years ago. He saw some efforts going on in Philadelphia and said, ‘Hey, we can do that in Buffalo.’ So he started the leasing of space. We lease about 80 city lots from the City of Buffalo and we have about 29 private parcels as well. It’s just kind of blossomed – pardon the pun – from there. We depend a great deal on donations and grants.

Q. What are some of the oldest gardens and what are some of the biggest?

A. One of the very oldest is a garden on the property of the food bank on Holt Street. The sponsoring organization for that is called Food for All. Most of our gardens are one or two parcels. We do have a few that are a little bit larger. There is a garden that we lease at City Honors on Best Street and that’s actually four city lots. That one is an incredible garden.”

Q. How much does a garden generally cost and where does the money come from?

A. In general, we put between $1,500 and $2,500 into a new garden. We are heavily grant funded and we do have membership as well as individual donors and we do fundraisers, as well. Unfortunately, Grassroots Gardens can’t supply everything a garden needs. We wish we could, but we can’t … so it’s really a community effort.

Q. What are some of the things that you grow?

A. We do have some gardens that are completely flower and ornamental flower-based. We have some that only grow vegetables. The majority of our gardens are a combination.

Q. What happens to the vegetables?

A. The community consumes them. How depends on how they’ve decided at the beginning of the season to grow.

Q. If someone wants to learn more?

A. If you’re interested in joining a community garden, you can go on our website, grassrootsgardens.org, and there’s a map of all our gardens, and you can zoom in to get information, a little bio on each garden and contact information for our lead gardeners.

email: refresh@buffnews.com