Hidden Treasure

Civic Garden Center offers refuge in the middle of the city

Many of us drive by it every day and never take notice, and yet the lucky few who venture off the beaten path discover a tiny oasis hidden just outside of the city. Nestled among eight acres off Reading Road in Avondale, the Civic Garden Center acts as a horticultural resource dedicated to enriching lives through education, community beautification and environmental stewardship.

Donated by the Hauck family more than 60 years ago, the facility offers classes, children’s programming, a neighborhood garden program and horticultural resources including a library and a horticulture helpline.

Executive Director Vickie Ciotti says the center fills a unique niche, constantly evolving and changing to meet the needs of the community. In that vein, she says the center will launch two new projects this year.

Already under construction, the Japanesethemed Serenity Garden houses a trickling waterfall and will feature noise reduction walls complete with Asian flare and a traditional Japanese tea house. The idea to convert the former water-logged memorial garden to a place where all could go to remember loved ones came about when a beloved board member passed away not long ago, Ciotti explains.

She says the garden will be a place of peace and act as a memorial for all those who wish to remember loved ones. Plans are to have the first phase completed in September.

“There just aren’t a lot of Japanese-style gardens around here,” she says.

As for the second project, The Green Learning Station, Ciotti hopes it will inspire people to garden anywhere and everywhere. The focus will remain on what home gardeners can accomplish in limited space.

Besides vertical gardens, a green roof and raised garden beds, the station will feature affordable green technology such as pervious pavement and water reclamation systems. On an educational level, students will be able to run environmentally based experiments in a vocational lab setting.

Of the project’s $1 million price tag, the center has already raised $400,000 toward its goal, Ciotti says. With luck and continued funding, she hopes to break ground before year’s end with a completion date of next summer.

“My dream and image of that lot is when you go past it, you’re going to stop and say, ‘What’s going on there?’ ” she says. “We’re going to have greenery dripping everywhere so that it really catches your eye.”

According to Ciotti, the center satisfies a need that no one else in the city provides: both gardening and horticulture expertise made accessible to residents. She says their wildly popular classes cover a variety of subjects from gardening, planting, pest control, rain barrels and composting to quilting, photography, wine making and Tai Chi.

Classes are free for volunteers and affordably priced for everyone else, she says. For do-it-yourselfers with questions, the center also offers a horticulture help line that she says often takes the form of CSI for gardeners. People call with questions that vary from the simple to the extremely complex with folks even bringing in samples for experts to view. Even with the accessibility of online information, she says the helpline (513-221-TREE) remains extremely busy and just celebrated its 30th anniversary.

As for a project to enrich space outside the facility, the center created the Neighborhood Garden Program 28 years ago. The program allows residents to reclaim vacant land and establish community gardens in urban Cincinnati. The gardens not only build a sense of community but act to beautify neighborhoods and allow people to fulfill their passion for gardening, she says.

Solely maintained by community residents under the guidance of a center expert, the program boasted more than 40 vegetable and beautification gardens, more than 650 gardeners, 7,000 hours of volunteer support and more than 1,500 pounds of food donated to food pantries, seniors and families in 2008. Besides the properties attended to by adults, the center also sponsors a number of children’s gardens in urban areas created to introduce youth to the wonders of gardening and the outdoors.

“We have gardens in 23 neighborhoods throughout the city,” Ciotti says, “and those neighborhoods would not have these little spots of heaven in them if it weren’t for the history of the Civic Garden Center working in those neighborhoods.”

As part of a grassroots effort, more than 500 volunteers work together year round to keep the facility’s grounds looking lovely, says Development Coordinator Marilyn Maxwell. She says volunteers vary from novices learning the basics to master gardeners practicing their expertise.

Maxwell believes the increased interest in home gardening can be attributed to a number of factors including a rough economy, a need to maintain safety of produce and a desire to be environmentally responsible. She says working together in the garden creates a sense of camaraderie apparent among volunteers like the “dirt crew,” a group of 50 ladies that descend on the facility every Wednesday to weed, water and get down and dirty.

“Those women are amazing,” she says. “I think they’ve been doing this for about 15 years. They just have such a great time when they’re here.”

Besides providing a green space for the gardening population, the facility also acts as an ideal setting for special events, Maxwell says. Groups hold meetings, weddings, concerts, and even a sculpture show in the spring where students of the Art Academy of Cincinnati display their art for viewing. The center attracts a diverse group of people who use the facility to satisfy their specific needs, whether it be getting their hands dirty, walking the grounds, taking classes or perusing the horticultural library (one of only three in the state) that contains more than 3,000 specialty books. She says everybody pretty much shows up and, very comfortably, does their own thing.

“I think one of the problems we’re experiencing is that people tell us all the time they’ve never heard of us — they drive by and wonder ‘Who are you and what do you do?’ ” Maxwell says.

After retiring as an art teacher six years ago, Delhi resident Pam Donnelly says she wanted to devote her time to a cause for which she felt a passion. Although she’d visited the property on occasion to admire its splendor, she says she felt a bit intimidated as a novice volunteer working alongside horticulturists and master gardeners. She says those fears immediately dissipated on her first day.

“The staff is so welcoming of their volunteers,” she says. “They always make everyone feel so very appreciated and grateful that we’re there. I definitely don’t think you need to be an expert to be a volunteer.”

In the spring and summer, Donnelly primarily tends to the center’s herb garden along with a few other volunteers and one of the center’s staff members. During the fall and winter months, she participates in the center’s Quilt Committee, an activity that goes hand-in-hand with gardening, she says.

The center enriches people’s lives by creating a sense of community and bringing people from all walks of life together who share a similar passion, she adds, either in classrooms or working side by side in one of the gardens.

“Really what takes the cake is the beauty of the garden,” she says. “Every time I walk down that walkway, I feel that I’m entering the most beautiful garden, kind of a magical place right in the middle of the city.”

Donnelly, Ciotti and Maxwell all use the word “magical” when describing the property and their personal connections. While there aren’t unicorns or pixies visible to the naked eye, an overwhelming sense of beauty enchants those who wander through the property’s grand trees and glorious gardens.

Ciotti tells of a widow who dropped by the office to thank staff members as the garden held such importance for her late husband. He would go to reflect in the gardens following AA meetings held in a nearby building. He told his widow some days sitting in the garden proved to be the only bright spot in his day.

While none of the staff personally knew the man, Ciotti says she hopes other people will also find their own special connection to the garden center, whether it be social or quiet reflection. She says she hopes anybody who needs the center for their soul finds their way there.

“If gardening is your passion or your peace, or you want the peace of mind of growing your own food, you can do it if you live in an apartment, a condo, a mansion in Indian Hill and anything in between,” Ciotti says. “We hope to inspire people to garden anywhere and everywhere.”

The CIVIC GARDEN CENTER is located at 2715 Reading Road, Avondale. More information: www.civicgardencenter.org  or 513-221-0981. Faye Sutherland is one of many volunteers who work at Civic Garden Center.

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