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FOODSCAPING - with Brie Arthur. Photo courtesy of Brie Arthur, all rights reserved.


The Civic Garden Center of Greater Cincinnati – 80 years of great growing, a conversation with Executive Director Karen Kahle

(below is a lightly edited transcript of this week's conversation)

Jennifer: This is Cultivating Place. I'm Jennifer Jewell. In a month where there is a lot of talk about what it means to be a citizen of this country - this world, even - this week, we follow last week's urban garden conversation with another, this time with Karen Kahle, Executive Director of the Civic Garden Center of Greater Cincinnati, where for 80 years the center has empowered gardeners. It has grown food, habitat, educational programs, and community in civic abundance.

A very happy first octogenarian birthday to the Civic Garden Center. Here's to many more. And welcome to you, Karen. I am so glad to have you here with me to celebrate.

Karen Kahle: Well, I'm very excited to be with you today. I'm a big fan of your show. I try to tune in every week. So thank you for inviting me to join you today.

Jennifer: I would love to have you introduce yourself more fully and describe to us as a garden person in this world, what are the importance of plants and gardens in your life, personally or professionally, at this moment?

Karen Kahle: Well, I've always been a nature girl. I grew up in a farming community in northwest Ohio. My maternal grandparents were farmers, and it was absolutely my favorite place to be. Even as I became an adult and when they sold the farm, I was very sad and they moved to town and my grandmother had a garden, as well as beautiful flower beds and a very well-kept yard. And so, you know, when I was younger, I didn't appreciate you know on a hot summer day having to help pull weeds, either in the garden or out in my grandfather's, you know, soybean field. But as I got older, I certainly grew to appreciate it. And I also loved the results of gardening. So eating all that beautiful fresh food beginning in the spring and summer and fall. And then my grandmother also canned and preserved foods. So we really got to eat some of that bounty all year round. So that's my first exposure to gardening and how I fell in love with gardening. But as I said, I was a nature girl and I was outside, you know, when I was growing up, we were outside from, you know, morning until dinner and after dinner back outside until it got dark. So and even in the winter, we played outside a lot. So I've just always been attracted to the outdoors and comfortable in the outdoors and had a love for nature and shared that love with my mom and my grandmother, who loved sitting outside on a summer evening and smoking their cigarettes and listening for the insects and birds and, you know, flicking their their cigarette butts behind their heads into the bushes while we ran around in the grass in our bare feet. So just really have an appreciation for being outdoors and for just how amazing nature is.

Jennifer: Yeah. And that, that has clearly held over into your adulthood. Minus the cigarettes I would guess.

Karen Kahle: Yes, minus the cigarettes.

Jennifer: (laughing) I wish I did not have a very embodied memory of that exact kind of a scene. But my mother, who was a fabulous gardener and taught me to garden, was also a diehard cigarette smoker. So there they are, very intertwined memories, especially summer evenings outside, oddly enough.

Karen Kahle: Yeah.

Jennifer: Tell us about how you came over time to actually have this incorporated into your current and professional life. Like you, you were born and raised there. These were clearly the people and places and plants that grew you into an appreciation and awareness and knowledge of these kinds of spaces. Take us from there. How did you get to this point in your career, where it is actually built into your career?

Karen Kahle: Well, I got here in a pretty roundabout way. I majored in political science in college. You know, I was grown up in the seventies and had a pretty strong sense of social justice and was influenced by things going on in the world at that time. And after I got out of college, I traveled all around. I was fortunate enough to visit a lot of foreign countries and live out of the country for a while and experience both Europe and Southeast Asia. And then when I came back, as I said, I've spent most of my career working for non-profits, and I was fortunate to work for nine years at Findlay Market, which is Ohio's oldest public market. And there I really got into trying to incorporate urban agriculture into the mission of Findlay Market. We got a USDA grant and did some urban gardening, some urban agriculture around Findlay Market, and that's how I really got connected to the Civic Garden Center, because they were a partner in our urban agriculture project. They had the expertise, they knew how to grow food. We didn't know what the heck we were doing. We had vacant lots around the market that we hoped to turn into thriving gardens to create some produce to sell in our farmers market. So after nine years at Findlay Market, I left there and I was taking a break and actually working on a sitcom about Findlay Market, and I had been, a subscriber to the Civic Garden Center's e-newsletter, and I saw that they were looking for a part time resource development director. And I thought, well, I could, ease back into the workforce part time and what a great place to do that. So I was hired to do resource development for the Civic Garden Center about five and a half years ago. And about four years ago, I became the executive director. I'm very fortunate to land here. It really has tied in to my interest in growing food and and healthy food and then in knowing how great fresh grown food tastes and how healthy and good it is for us.

Jennifer: Okay. So that brings us beautifully to the Civic Garden Center itself. I would love for you to describe for listeners the history when it was founded, where exactly in the city - so orient people a little bit to - especially for those who are listening from far away from Cincinnati - the nature of the city and then where the garden is situated and why and when it was originally founded, Karen.

Karen Kahle: Well, it's nice that you're talking to me this year because this is the 80th anniversary of the Civic Garden Center.

Jennifer: Well done!

Karen Kahle: It was formed in 1942 by a group of garden club ladies who wanted to help people start Victory Gardens, wanted to join the National Victory Garden Movement. And so it started then. And then in 1950, a gentleman named Cornelius Hauck, who lived on a ten acre estate called Sooty Acres - So it's very close to to downtown Cincinnati, only about a mile and a half from downtown. And it was called Sooty Acres because it was surrounded at that time, at the turn of the century, by a lot of manufacturing. So it created, you know, a lot of soot in the air. He was a self-trained naturalist/horticulturist who planted just hundreds of varieties of trees and plants on his ten acre estate. He was on the board of the Civic Garden Center, as well as on the Cincinnati Park Board. He donated two acres of his estate to the Civic Garden Center in 1950 and then the remaining six seven acres to Cincinnati parks. So we share this. It's called the Hauck Botanic Gardens. Some people still refer to it affectionately as Sooty Acres. So we we share this site with the Cincinnati Parks. And we're responsible for taking care of quite a bit more than our two acres, because, after all, it is our home. It's where our organization lives. We have a horticulturist and we take take we take great care of the grounds. And I think the best description of it is it's an urban oasis. And we have someone come through our doors almost every week who says, "I've driven by here a hundred times, and I had no idea that this place was here!" Because it does sit back, you know, a little bit from the road. It has a stone wall partially around the front of the and it's on a fairly busy street in the city, a pretty busy thoroughfare that heads all the way downtown and then all the way north through the city. So it really is an urban oasis. And as I mentioned, with those hundreds of trees and plants that Mr. Hauck planted, as well as everything, you know, that we've planted over the years, that it's been our home, it really is a stunningly beautiful place. And you enter into it and you really forget that you're in the in the middle of a city. And because we've done a really good job of, you know, putting in a lot of native plants and pollinators, we have a lot of wildlife, a lot of insects, a lot of butterflies. And with the pandemic, we've seen an increase in the number of people visiting us and discovering the place. And so it's just as I said, it's really an urban oasis in the middle of the city.

Jennifer: Right and a fantastic resource. You refer to that uptick in interest during the pandemic and ensuing years, and I think that it's exactly this kind of resource that we need to support these new gardeners. So they feel encouraged and they feel like they can learn more and keep practicing because, you know, I think one of my greatest fears is that as anybody who's ever garden knows that it's not always a successful endeavor. And so to have an unsuccessful moment and have your newly sparked interest doused by that failure would be such a sadness. If we can help these gardeners keep going, no matter what it is, they're interested in food or native plants or habitat support or whatever it might be. I think that is really a mandate to us as existing gardeners in this exact moment in time. You describe the early beginnings and I love that Sooty acres - whose garden couldn't be referred to as sooty? Sooty Square feet, maybe. What is the current stated mission of the center now in 2022? And who is that serving? Who is your target audience there?

Karen Kahle: So our mission statement is building community through gardening, education and environmental stewardship. And we take every aspect of that, including and particularly the building community very seriously. So we actually serve through our programs, everyone from preschool to K through 12 to students to adults. So we offer a. Education and training across all ages and a lot of it free and open to the public. And so we have a school garden program. We have a youth education coordinator, and she works in a handful of schools throughout the year doing garden lessons and then taking the kids outside for, you know, hands on experience, tending to and cultivating the garden. We have a community gardens program that is actually 60 years old. It was created I'm sorry, 40 years old. It was created in 1980. So there is now a network in our region across greater Cincinnati of over 75 community gardens. And so we provide education and training and resources to anybody in any of those community gardens in the network. And then annually we provide a 12 week community garden development training series in the winter that is also free. And we have between 30 and 50 participants in that every year. And then we try to stay connected to those participants and really help them take that next step into either starting or maybe rejuvenating a community garden space. And we had we have seed giveaways. We have an annual plant sale that they can come to this year. We gave away we started from seed over a thousand vegetable plants and distributed those in the spring to any community gardener. And we did that through several what we call hub gardens, which are some of the the, you know, most vibrant and highest performing gardens in the network where we also provide education and training directly from those gardens. This summer, we're offering 44 classes throughout seven of those hub gardens. So every week we have probably a class or two going on in one of those seven hub gardens that is, again, free and open to the public. And then we have what we call a green learning station. So next door to the Civic Garden Center was an old gas station. And ten years ago we converted that into LEED platinum certified building. It has a green roof, a green wall, an array of solar panels, a enormous rain tank that captures rainwater. We were the first building in Hamilton County to be approved for a gray water flush. So we flush the toilet in that building with the rainwater, as well as use the rainwater to water the plants on the roof and on the green wall. And then we have at the back of the property a very thriving community garden that is tended to mostly by volunteers. Last year, over 400 lbs. of food came out of that garden that was donated to a local food pantry. We've expanded that garden significantly this spring, and we expect to triple. We expect to grow over 1,000 lbs. of food this season that will again be donated to a local food pantry. And then we are working closely with Cincinnati Parks to really turn the entire space into what I like to call a kick ass outdoor classroom, to really utilize the space for hands on learning for kids and adults from plant identification to native plant propagation, as well as gardening education. And then also invasive species removal and control. And our most ambitious and most recent project that we're just getting started on is a seed saving and plant propagation project. Last year, we a a young man that has taught some classes at the Civic Garden Center and had a native plant nursery, decided to get out of the nursery business and was so generous and donated over 3000 native plants to us. So we hosted a fall plant sale and sold his plants, but that convinced us to and when we saw just kind of, you know, the the low to ground, figuratively and literally way that he was growing all these plants, we said our horticulturist, we decided, hey, let's, you know, get into seed saving and propagating native plants for sale and then for use in our own habitat restoration projects. So we've got probably close to 2000 plants all over the place on our driveway and the green learning station. So we are now embarking on a capital campaign to raise the money to install an onsite greenhouse, a teaching greenhouse and then a hoop house so that we can really ramp up that propagation program.

Jennifer: This is Cultivating Place. Karen Kahle is the executive director of the Civic Garden Center of Greater Cincinnati, located in downtown Cincinnati. For 80 years, the center has empowered gardeners. It has grown food, habitat, educational programs, and community. We'll be right back after a break. When Karen shares more about the center's newest and perhaps most ambitious project involving ecosystem restoration around the city. Stay with us.

Jennifer: I'm Jennifer Jewell. This is Cultivating Place. We're back now to our conversation with Karen Kahle, executive director of the Civic Garden Center of Greater Cincinnati, where a staff of eight and a volunteer corps of around 600 cultivate ecosystems-based garden habitats, community gardens, school gardens and organic educational horticulture programs for adult and school aged students year round. As we come back, Karen shares more about their newest and perhaps most ambitious programing initiative, native plant restoration projects around the region.

Karen Kahle: For years we sold Christmas trees as a fund raiser, and that was, you know, kind of staff intensive. We had to work, you know, every weekend leading up to Christmas, and it didn't make us a lot of money. And I also didn't think it was very consistent with our mission. So I said, how about instead of selling Christmas trees, we plant trees. So we went out and I sent the horticulturists out to try to find a site, a habitat restoration site. And at the time, we had a young professionals group, and there was a teacher at a local high school on Hills High School. Was that was part of that group. And when the horticulturist who was making a presentation to the group one evening told her about our told the group about our ambition to get into habitat restoration, she said, behind my high school is a nine acre forest that's really in bad shape. And she's a biology teacher. And she said, I've had the dream to plant trees and clean that up and and restore it and really use it as an outdoor classroom for our high school. So when the horticulturist first first took me over there, I was like, Oh, holy cow, this, you know, it was a little overwhelming. I said, I wasn't picturing this as our first habitat restoration project.

Jennifer: (laughing) Did we have to start on such a steep curve?

Karen Kahle: Yes. But I leap and expect the net to appear. So we leapt into it. And it'll be four years ago this fall. And it is it's an amazing project. We've actually had other high schools come to us and have heard about what we're doing and have come to us and said, you know, we've got a forest or, you know, we've got a campus that, you know, we'd like to install pollinator gardens in or we've got invasive species going on that we'd like to get control of. So we have literally planted a well over a thousand trees closer, probably 3000 plants in this forest. And then we're working in another high school for a couple of years now and have just started at a third high school. And what's great about these projects is, one, we get to work directly with students and at all of the schools. We have them growing their own trees from seed. And I was just talking to a few of my staff that work in this project, and they said, you know, they're seeing students who've graduated come back and go to the spot in the woods where they planted, you know, the trees that they started from seed. And that's just you know, I love that that we've got students returning. And I just imagine them, you know, as they get older and have their own families, taking their families back to that woods and saying, you know, when I went to school here, you know, we planted these trees and, you know, it's it's a great model and it's a great project. And I'm really proud of of the work that we're doing with with high school students now.

Jennifer: Well, I'm Really proud of the work you're doing, just full stop. The scope and comprehensiveness of the the layers that you are addressing and that really capture in so many ways what a diversity of activity and meaning fall into the word garden right there. And how gardening is fully encapsulated in what you all are doing. And I think that as I'm listening to you, I have questions around your staffing and your funding and your different levels of decision making leadership there - mostly so that other listeners in municipalities can kind of hear how you built over time this complex of a structure, that could take on this much scope because that is impressive. With that in mind, with other people listening and trying to listen for a little bit of a blueprint on how they could get started, share with us a little bit about the building of the structure and in the partnerships involve - because private and public are clearly involved here.

Karen Kahle: Well, any organization that's been around, you know, for 80 years has had to evolve or die, right? Yeah. We've we have an amazing legacy of innovation and of adapting to the times. And so after the Victory Garden movement, after the end of World War Two, we really became a horticultural resource center and had a horticulture library that had well over 2000 volumes in it and then had a horticulture helpline. So before the Internet, you know, in the spring, the phones were blowing up and were manned by, you know, volunteers who were answering garden related questions throughout the fifties and sixties. And then in the seventies with kind of the outmigration of people from the cities and more vacant, blighted lots dotting neighborhoods throughout the city. The director at the time had the idea to start the Community Gardens program and the very first garden, the theater, the Over-the-Rhine People's Garden is still an active garden. 60 plus years later. So, you know, obviously, innovation and an ability to evolve and be nimble has always been at the heart of what we do. We are a small but mighty organization. We only have eight full time staff people. Okay. But I have to mention that we have over 600 active volunteers. Wow. And they magnify and amplify our impact well beyond what the eight of us could ever accomplish.

Jennifer: I'm going to stop right there and ask a little bit more about that, because one of the things that I think has been really hard hit this last three years or two and a half years, is the capacity for nonprofits or cultural institutions to manage and and recruit and retain their volunteers. Do you have a full time volunteer coordinator, Karen?

Karen Kahle: Yes. Yes, we do.

Jennifer: And do you have seen that to be well worth the cost?

Karen Kahle: Yeah, absolutely. And he's phenomenal. He's done an incredible job. You know, we have been very intentional in these past few years of, you know, what's the next generation of volunteer and donor that's going to support the Civic Garden Center because it has such a rich history and, you know, was embedded started by and supported for many years by garden club, you know, mostly women, you know, and garden clubs. We still have over 40 active garden clubs in Greater Cincinnati, but, you know, several have ceased to exist, you know, through the pandemic. And those you know, those those folks are getting older. So the volunteer piece has always been very important to the Civic Garden Center. And we've had a I believe the place has had a full time volunteer coordinator just for many, many years. One fortunate aspect of the pandemic, of course, was it was safe to be outside. And when especially when people were, you know, maybe furloughed from their jobs and looking for something to do, we saw an uptick, you know, in volunteers wanting to come in and get involved with us. So we saw, you know, we would have workdays in our habitat restoration sites of 60, 70, 80 people. We've had, you know, corporate groups and other folks, you know, disinterested in community garden work day. So if a community garden is looking for some volunteer support, maybe especially in the spring and getting the garden cleaned up or in the fall and kind of putting it to bed, they reach out to us and all of our volunteer coordinator pulls together a group of people to go help in that garden on an evening or on a Saturday. So we've benefited from the pandemic in terms of volunteer interest. I'll also have to say that, you know, young people, they want to get their hands dirty, they want to make a difference, and they like to come together and, you know, work together. Yeah, they might, you know, go hang out at a brewery when they're done with their workday and socialize. But I just think that's just the perfect way to be involved and support your community and make a difference.

Jennifer: Yeah, I'm going to come back to that question. Continue with your funding model and how that is shaped in terms of public private endeavor.

Karen Kahle: So a little over a third of our funding comes from individual individual contributions. So every year we do, you know, around Thanksgiving time we do an annual campaign. So a little over a third of our funding comes from that annual campaign. And then about a third of our funding comes from grants. And we apply for grants, you know, state, local or national level. I'm working on a federal grant right now to support our habitat restoration work. We got some state funding through the Ohio Department of Education to support our green girls in STEM, our after school program. So we get a lot of grant funding. We've got some local foundations that are just extremely supportive and generous to us. And then about a, you know, not quite a third of our income is earned income. So we charge for some of our classes. We do earn some income through our school based program and then we rent out our facility. We're a great, you know, site for weddings and small parties and things. So we rent out our facility and then we have this twice a year annual plant sale. The spring plant sale is over 60 years old. It started as kind of an herb swap among some, you know, garden clubs and grew grew into our major annual fundraising event where we sell over 9000 plants, close to 600 varieties of plants. And in the past, it was, you know, a three day plant sale that included a preview party. So a ticketed event, a catered, you know, with catered food and wine and so on. And attendees got kind of first dibs on the plant. So they came to that party the evening before the plant sale started the next day. But of course, with the pandemic, we were not able to have the plant sale in 2020 at all. And then in 2021, we did we went to we built out an e-commerce site and had an online sale, as well as a very scaled back in-person sale. And then this year, once again, we had a hybrid event where we had an online sale and then a one day more robust in-person sale. We've heard from a lot of people that, of course, they missed the in-person sale, they missed the preview party. But yet having an online sale is really meeting a lot of today's customers where they're at, where they're used to shopping. Now, it's very convenient. It's a preferred way for not just young people to shop. So we said, you know, we and it's also a great hedge against weather. You know, some years, if you have a really terrible weekend of weather, you're stuck with a lot of those 9000 plants left over and trying to sell them and in the days afterwards. So we think that with, you know, the in-person sale is is not as big, not as robust as it is it has traditionally been. We think for us, it's smart to can continue to maintain that hybrid model of a combination of online and in-person plant sales. So that's another way for us to raise money. So that's pretty much our funding model.

Jennifer: It's sort of a third, a third, a third rate. That's what.

Karen Kahle: yes.

Jennifer: I think one of the things that's interesting to me here is not only that, like hearing, you know, that funding model laid out, but also that over the course of your and in scope of your programing and with the staff and the volunteer corps that you have very healthy, both of them. It sounds like not only have I heard a lot of feedback from gardening groups and garden clubs and nonprofit garden centers like yours that they've struggled and in some cases completely closed down their volunteer program because of of the pandemic and staffing issues related to the pandemic, but also that they've had a very hard time like finding the young people. This is this is a recurring chorus that I get from groups that I speak with caring about how like where are the young people they don't garden. Talk a little bit because my experience much, much more reflects your experience in that a wide range of ages listen to cultivating play support, cultivating place are encouraged by it. And so I'm never exactly sure how to answer the people who say, where are they? Because part of the answer is you have to meet them where they are. You can't maintain your old model and still hope to meet and serve and be enriched by this group of people if you refuse to see what doesn't work for them. So I'd love to have you chat a little bit about how you have ensured that you are meeting the demographics of your city, that you are incorporating a diversity of voices and stakeholders in, you know, what is a very diverse population there in Cincinnati. And therefore, I would imagine and hope well reflected in the demographics of your community garden organizations and leadership as well as your volunteer corps. How have you found the best possible way to meet the greatest number of people and invite them in to this engagement and work with you? Karen.

Karen Kahle: Well, one thing that I think is is an advantage that we have is our location and that we are so centrally located and we sit pretty squarely between the University of Cincinnati and Xavier University. So we really reach out to the sustainability programs at both of those universities and the sustainability clubs and those student groups. And invite we go and make presentations. We go to any kind of open house event or, you know, that they're having. And a lot of the students at both universities, depending on the program they're in, are oftentimes required to fulfill volunteer hours. So we really work with the people running those programs to, you know, of creating opportunities or advertising opportunities for engagement. If students need to do volunteer hours, we just stay really active and really on top of reaching out and staying connected to the people, coordinating and managing those programs at both universities. We go to community council meetings frequently, especially if there's, you know, a new garden starting up or a garden that's, you know, struggling to keep going and the community doesn't want to see it, you know, go by the wayside or just become another vacant lot. So we reach out to a lot of community groups and, you know, go to community council meetings. And I also think just the fact that we've been around such a long time, a lot of people have heard of us, you know, or they have a family member who's like, Oh, yeah, I took a class there one time. I think the other thing is, is that if you are a regular volunteer with us, you can take any of our classes for free. And that's, I think, a perk that also keeps volunteers hooked in to us. And I think just a lot of word of mouth. I think, you know, if a person comes in, has a good experience and we really I think the thing that we do really well is we weave education into your volunteer experience. You don't just show up, get handed a tool and a pair of gloves and like go over there and pull weeds. We really spend some time at the beginning of the volunteer time talking about what we're going to do that day, why we're going to do it, what we're working on, what we're working towards in that space, whether it's a garden or the woods or on our grounds itself. And so we weave education in and having a horticulturist on staff, having a community engagement or volunteer coordinator. His job title is Community Engagement Coordinator, who I like to tease is is a self-trained kind of naturalist horticulturist himself now. Yeah, having knowledgeable people that can work side by side with volunteers and provide that kind of education and exchange with them, I think is really what makes for a great experience and then helps us with retention and volunteers returning.

Jennifer: Karen Kahle is the executive director of the Civic Garden Center of Greater Cincinnati, located in downtown Cincinnati. For 80 years, the center has empowered gardeners, grown food grown habitat, grown educational programs and community. We'll be right back after a break. When Karen shares some anecdotes as to how the Civic Garden Centers programing and work these past 80 years have built not only gardens, but community. Stay with us. I'm Jennifer Jewel. This is cultivating place. We're back now to our conversation with Karen :, executive director of the Civic Garden Center of Greater Cincinnati. As we come back, Karen shares stories of the many ways the center's 80 years of garden and gardener growing have in fact built interconnected communities. Beginning with the Wednesday dirt crew.

Karen Kahle: It's pretty remarkable. We have a Wednesday crew. We call them the Dirt Crew, and they're primarily a group of women and some of them have been volunteering for 20 and 30 years.

Jennifer: God bless them.

Karen Kahle: And I know that's unusual. I know that probably, you know, young people who are volunteering with us now are not going to be with us for 20 and 30 years, given the nature of our lifestyles now. But I think that's remarkable. And then often young folks then can work side by side with somebody who's, you know, been volunteering with us for a decade or two and can tap into all the knowledge and and, you know, plant knowledge and gardening knowledge that that person has because they have a passion for it, probably do it at home. But what we're seeing now, too, with with some of those older women is, you know, they've downsized, they've moved into a condo or a smaller home. They miss their garden, they miss their yard. They get to come to the Civic Garden Center now once a week and get their hands dirty and work side by side with people who have now become their friends. So the dirt crew, sometime before the pandemic would take vacations together, would take kind of an annual trip in the fall together. So it's a group of people who, you know, they stay, they know each other's birthday. They know when there's an illness in the family. It's really a social, you know, group that has genuine affection and of connection with one another. And we just tried to foster that again. As I said earlier, we really take the building community part of our mission very seriously.

Jennifer: Yeah, that is that is so clear in everything you're saying. And I. I? Yeah, I am. Very moved by this model and its depth and success. And that stewarding of gardeners and stewarding of gardening community, which is community, it is a life community is so powerful. Karen And it it really ties back to the title of the center being a civic garden space because, you know, just the many layers of the meaning of of civic and yeah. And it's in its power in our world right now to be transformational. I just can't overstate it in the way I see the role of gardeners.

Karen Kahle: Yeah, we've we've joked over the years, you know, whether or not we should change the name because, you know, in some ways it doesn't represent who we are and all that we do. We're more an environmental education center that plants have always been at the core of our work. But I think I really, like you said, I really appreciate the word civic in the name of the organization because I think, you know, unless we are engaged in civil society and civil to one another, you know, it's it's it doesn't the future doesn't look you know, doesn't look too good. So I think being, you know, a good civic citizen and being involved in using a garden in your neighborhood or, you know, just for your own personal, I think, you know, there's hundreds of studies now that talk about just the many, many benefits of gardening, even to your own mental and emotional health. And we've certainly seen that through the pandemic. I mean, kind of against all odds, the pandemic, you know, spurred they now referred to as a botanic boom and, you know, one that has led people everywhere to get into plants. So we really seized upon this moment to reinvigorate our mission and our impact. You know, I said very early on to the staff, you know, in the pandemic, I said, you know, outside is going to be a safe place to be and people are going to be spending more time outside in nature. Let's help them know what they're looking at, have a good experience and fall in love with nature so that it becomes a habit, not just something they did, you know, during a rough time, but becomes a habit and a place and a source of, you know, of joy and rejuvenation for people. And then I think we are, you know, seeing that, you know, for some people, they did discover nature during the pandemic and have, you know, kind of I know at a local bookstore, a friend of mine that works there told me that birdwatching was one of the top selling books, you know, during the pandemic. And I just loved that because I thought, that's so great, you know, that that speaks to people are going outside and they want to know what they're looking at. They want to understand what's going on outside. And as I said, we committed early on, let's help people get into nature and fall in love with nature and commit themselves to taking care of the planet.

Jennifer: And and when you think back over these past, you know, two and a half years or so or longer, because you have been doing this kind of contributing work for so long now. Are there anecdotes you could share about how this has, you know, changed a person's life or a group's life? You know, I'm thinking from your community gardens to your school garden work and, you know, all of those programs are clearly so influential. Are there any other anecdotes you would like to share about how this has, you know, transformed any one person or any one group's trajectory? Karen?

Karen Kahle: Well, I think, you know, one of the things that I love every summer and it hasn't happened yet this summer. I haven't had a chance to visit are the kids that are involved in our summer sprouts program, which is a garden to table program for kids 6 to 12 years old. And we work in a community garden down in in a somewhat challenged neighborhood. And we have two summer programs that bring their kids there. And I love it when the kids, like, pull that carrot out of the ground and rinse it off and taste it, which is for some of them, you know, might be the first time that they they really tasted, you know, something, you know, that fresh that that close, you know, to harvest. And so watching those expressions on their faces is always something that I really treasure every summer is. And we will work with those kids. And it's a cooking program, so we cook on site with them. And I remember last summer, we made a recipe book of every recipe they made every week during the program, and we included photographs of each of them in the booklet and the expressions on their face when they were handed their recipe booklet and flipped through it and saw photos of themselves out in that garden and talked about taking that home and sharing it with their family and hoping, you know, wanting to continue to make some of those recipes that they had enjoyed over the summer is really something that I just it's just a great moment always to see those kids in that program. I think the other thing that I don't have a specific antidote. Antidote is just the conversations that I've overheard. Just overheard one last Friday, we have a regular volunteer work day on our grounds every Friday morning and I was outside and I was listening to a conversation between two people. They were students and they said they got up that morning. They were like, Let's go volunteer somewhere outside. And they found this opportunity. And they were working with an older couple who's been coming every every Friday without fail for almost three years. And I was eavesdropping on their conversation, and it just made me smile because they were just, you know, sharing information about themselves, you know, talking about, you know, their interest in in nature, talking about, you know, the grounds and how beautiful, you know, this space is. And it's those kind of conversations that I'm fortunate enough to eavesdrop on on a regular basis that are really gratifying and and give me hope, you know, that we can find our way back, you know, to one another in a way that is more open and is more caring. And by doing that, you know, through gardening and through plants, I think is a great gateway to a better world.

Jennifer: Oh, thank you very much for being a guest on the program today. It has been an honor to speak with you.

Karen Kahle: It's been an honor to speak with you. I really appreciate it. And I love your show, as I said, I tune in every week and you have some really great people on there who also, you know, I think, Inspire Hope and who are doing some really good work across our country.

Jennifer: It's interesting, because I actually often refer to what I do as hosting civic gardening conversations that help us grow a better world. I hope. And you are clearly the physical version of that there in Cincinnati.

Karen Kahle: Well, it's a great place. Thank you so much and will get you here because more people need to have a conversation with you.

Jennifer: Karen Kahle is the executive director of the Civic Garden Center of Greater Cincinnati, located in downtown Cincinnati. For 80 years, the center has empowered gardeners. It has grown food habitat, educational programs and community in abundance. The center has a staff of eight and an active volunteer corps of around 600. Year round, they cultivate ecosystems based garden habitats, a seed grown native plant nursery, a network of community gardens, in-school garden programs, as well as civic garden centers, site based organic educational horticulture programs for adults and school aged students. They also facilitate and lead an Ecosystem Restoration Project initiative across the greater metro area. This is indeed a civic garden center, indeed, a model to be replicated freely and endlessly, I can only hope.

Cultivating Place is a co-production of North State Public Radio, a service of CAPRadio, licensed to Chico State Enterprises. Cultivating Place is made possible by listeners just like you. For many images from the expansive work of the Civic Garden Center of Greater Cincinnati, head on over to cultivating place dot com where you can also support these civil gardening conversations through the support button at the top of every page there. That's all at cultivating place dot com.

The Cultivating Place team includes producer and engineer Matt Fidler with tech and web support from Angel :. We're based on the traditional and present homelands of the : Indian tribe of the Chico Rancheria. Original theme music is by Ma Muse, accompanied by Joe Craven and Sam Bevan. Cultivating Place is distributed nationally by PRX Public Radio Exchange. Until next week. Enjoy the cultivation of your place. I'm Jennifer Jewell.

FOLLOW the Civic Garden Center of Greater Cincinnati online at: or on Instagram at: @civic_garden_center/


you might also enjoy these Best of CP programs in our archive:

JOIN US again next week, when we head to the interior foothills of northern California to speak with Cheetah Tchudi of Turkey Tail Farm, who, along with his wife and his parents, is a land-based market grower of livestock, mushrooms, flowers and the symbiotic relationships between them all. Listen in.

Photos of the Civic Garden Center of Greater Cincinnati, their community gardens and programs are courtesy of the Civic Garden Center, all rights reserved.


Thinking out loud this week:

Hey so – thinking out loud this week. I am following up on Karen’s use of the word habit and trying to encourage and support her greater garden communities nature and garden habits first laid down for many of them in the early weeks of the pandemic. And I think back to the very beginning of the conversation when both Karen and I encountered a shared memory of sorts in remembering being outside in the garden in the summer as young people with our mothers and grandmother’s out there with us chatting, watching us sort of and smoking cigarettes. And What is so great about these two very different kinds of habits is that in looking at them over time and space we know without question that we KNOW the difference between good habits and bad habits – whether they are bad habits involving things we do, things we don’t do, things and or ways of thinking or not thinking – and here’s the sweet part: WE KNOW WE CAN CHANGE bad habits – individually and culturally. We can change and support – not shame – but support one another in great world improving habits like gardening – and supporting one another. Here’s to good habits habituated and replicated. That’s how we grow the world better. One garden and gardener at a time focused on stewarding their garden, their community, their environment. I’ll practice that habit.

The mission of the Civic Garden Center of Greater Cincinnati is building community through gardening, education, and environmental stewardship.

Heck – I think that should be ALL Of our mission statements as gardeners! I am going to make a bumper sticker or a t-shirt or a mug – who wants one?!






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