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Women’s Board Bus Tour Visits Garden Helping Refugees Grow a Taste of Home

Published August 30, 2022

On a cool and refreshing August afternoon that felt just on the cusp of rain, Abbie Sigmon greeted me with a smile. Pulling up two chairs to the edge of garden beds bursting with squash, ground cherries, corn, and potatoes, we sat down to talk about her work and community gardens in Columbus, hoping the rain would hold off just a little while longer.

“This is what this world should look like,” effused Sigmon, Volunteer Garden Leader at the International Harvest Garden. Since 2009, the International Harvest Garden has brought groups together across cultures to grow food and build community. Currently, the garden serves as a hub for three different immigrant groups–Bantu Somali, Kenyan, and Chin State refugees from Myanmar. The Franklin County Master Gardening program also has a shared plot, of which Sigmon is a part. 

The garden was started with support from Franklin County Commissioner O’Grady, inspired by a meeting with Somali community organizer Ja’far Matan, who works with refugees locally. Columbus has one of the top three biggest populations of Somali refugees in the U.S., just behind Minneapolis. Matan knew that refugees needed a place to grow their own food, since food insecurity is a very real challenge and many people have a background in agriculture but no available space for growing.

Most of the gardeners here have experienced the cultural and personal displacement that comes with being a refugee, and resettlement is never an easy process. But Sigmon emphasized how the garden serves as a respite, a refuge, and a resource. “You’re surrounded by crops, you’re doing something with your hands and that just feels really good in this world right now,” she said. “You can’t check Twitter out here.” 

Gardeners are able to use traditional growing practices from their home countries, and grow crops they would otherwise be unable to find at American grocery stores. The Bantu Somali gardeners mainly grow their traditional “holy trinity”: corn, beans and gourds. The beans are grown up the corn stalks for support, so minimal weeding is required. Meanwhile, the Chin gardners use a traditional technique which stores rainfall in trenches around the beds, which is then drawn up by the plants from the root level. They also grow traditional vegetables such as Asian long beans, hot peppers, karela gourds, and a bitter leafy green called rozelle. “There is this idea that when you become a Franklin County Master Gardener that you know a lot, but you will be immediately humbled here by everyone else and all of their knowledge,” Sigmon said. 

Sigmon helps to run the Master Gardener plot, which grows a wide assortment of fresh vegetables all spring and summer long. When I ask her what they do with the produce she helps to grow, she chuckles lightly. “What we don’t taste ourselves?” she jokes. “All of the food we grow here, we donate to food pantries including the 4 All People’s Market and GRIN.” 

The International Harvest Garden was one of six sites that the Conservatory’s Women’s Board toured in August for a beautiful day that connected the Conservatory with the larger Columbus community. The bus tour included visits to other sites including the Highland Youth Garden, Garden District, South Bexley Community Garden, Stoddart Avenue Community Garden, and Franklin Avenue Community Garden. The Women’s Board presented each site with a donation in support of their ongoing work. 

The bus tour helped to highlight the good work being done through the Conservatory’s long-running Growing to Green program, an initiative that makes sub-grants to community gardens throughout the city and provides technical support and expertise to make the whole city greener and healthier. Since 2000, Growing to Green has served as Columbus’ largest organized effort to promote and support community gardeners. 

The bus tour truly highlighted what gardening is all about–working together, supporting each other, and uplifting the whole community through horticulture. Each of the gardens on the tour did this in ways that are reflective of their participants and neighborhoods, but Sigmon shared what makes the International Harvest Garden in particular so special, “Seeing people speaking their own language, teaching their children and grandchildren how to plant seeds from their home country. When I see little kids helping water or plant something, my heart sings. We should foster places where people and refugees can find solace and peace.” 

To learn more about ongoing Conservatory efforts to support initiatives like these all over Columbus, visit our Growing to Green page.

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