How an environmentally friendly and caring “food forest” in Fort Wayne is helping a neighborhood move forward
Diana Hart loves her community in South Central Fort Wayne, and she serves it by growing food.
As you enter the three-acre urban farmhouse from his residence at 2107 Broadway in the Poplar neighborhood, known as Gardens of the poplar village, you won’t be greeted by neat, tidy rows like you might see in a conventional garden. Instead, you’ll find what Hart, the manager of the garden, describes as a “permaculture nourishing forest. “
Flowers and other plants grow on wooden pallet trellises in the poplar village gardens.
Her property is dotted with bright blue baby pools where she grows cabbage and kale in buckets from local composting service Dirt Wain. Floating buckets help with water retention, says Hart. Nearby, she successively plants beets and tomatoes in raised square flowerbeds made of cinder blocks, and her mounds of squash are dotted with flowers and tall grasses with wooden pallet trellises.
Even so, although this garden arrangement may seem unintentional, it is not. Hart has devised a strategy to make his garden as environmentally friendly as possible. This includes making his property habitable for wildlife, large and small. Because of this, she was able to certify her property as a sustainable garden and wildlife habitat.
Poplar Village Gardens is a certified wildlife habitat and sustainable garden.
Along with its increasing tactics, its mission with Gardens of the poplar village is also rooted in sustainability and mutual aid. Rather than selling food, her urban garden is designed to build community in her neighborhood, distributing healthy produce for free to her neighbors as well as her local food bank at the nearby Saint Patrick Catholic Church.
In fact, during the COVID-19 pandemic and the food shortages that followed in 2020, Hart used Poplar Village Gardens to grow and donate 1,300 pounds of food to the Saint Patrick’s Food Bank. She has also partnered with Forward Indiana to bring a caring pantry to her property, where residents can donate and pick up food any time of the day or night.
Diana Hart, right, chats with an entrepreneur from Poplar Village Gardens.
Hart says his mission at Poplar Village Gardens is primarily to improve the quality of life in his neighborhood, which has always lacked resources. Just south of downtown, near the future Electric Works campus, about 36.6% of Hart’s neighbors live below the federal poverty line, according to U.S. Census data. This figure is 20 percent higher than the city-wide poverty rate of Fort Wayne.
Diana Hart grows chamomile at Poplar Village Gardens.
In addition to Hart’s residential farm, she also grows food on two satellite lots on the south side of Fort Wayne, where she has the ability to farm and donate even more food in the future. What is lacking, she says, are enough volunteers to help her expand her harvesting operations.
Sadly, Hart says there are times when some great produce at Poplar Village Gardens goes to seed because there aren’t enough hands to help him pick it. Without counteracting, she collects and saves the seeds to try again.
“My goal with this was to provide food for the neighborhood,” she says. “But the main goal was to build a community, so I try to create a space where people can come and enjoy nature, eat and work… together if they want to.
Poplar Village Gardens edible beets have holes due to a lack of pesticide use.
Poplar Village Gardens is primarily funded by Hart and relies heavily on volunteers. Thus, the amount of work she is able to accomplish is directly related to the number of volunteers she can mobilize. If you are interested in volunteering or providing a service at Poplar Village Gardens, email Hart at [email protected] to learn more.
We sat down with Hart to learn more about his work at Poplar Village Gardens and what inspires him to serve his neighborhood with an eco-friendly food forest.
Hydroponic strawberries at Poplar Village Gardens.
IFW: What inspired you to create Poplar Village Gardens?
DH: Although I have always been interested in gardening and finding ways to contribute to the community, this idea solidified during the process of taking the Urban Agriculture Certificate course through the Extension Office of the Allen County. Through the classroom exercises, the formal structuring elements of an urban farm quickly took shape.
Poplar Village Gardens is based on three acres of land at 2107 Broadway in the Poplar neighborhood of Fort Wayne.
IFW: How long have you been gardening and how did you get started?
DH: My grandparents were farmers. My parents gardened throughout my childhood, and I tried it in college, and I’ve gardened on and off since I moved to the neighborhood in 1990. My connection to plants really started to grow. intensified in 1997, when I was going through a particularly difficult period. growth in my personal life. I have always loved nature and growing things, but now they contain so much joy. During the pandemic, Poplar Village Gardens became my comfort and an outlet where I could safely interact with others.
Black Choke Berry at Poplar Village Gardens.
IFW: Owning over three acres of land in an urban setting is amazing. What is your land use planning strategy?
DH: I initially monitored the area of land that we now call the Lower Orchard since we moved in. At that time it was home to the Boys and Girls Club of Fort Wayne, but when they left it and moved to a new facility, it became a rarely used building that was demolished. I felt I needed to own this land and prevent it from developing. I didn’t have any concrete plans other than that.
When I took the Urban Ag course, I had already started studying permaculture. I was also aware that people’s quality of life improved in many ways with the addition of more trees in a neighborhood, so a permaculture food forest made sense to me.
A crab apple at Poplar Village Gardens.
During the course, I began to believe that a community food forest that provided for the neighborhood would be a good way to improve the lives of the people who live here. I was made aware of all the county land available throughout the city, so I researched what was available in my neighborhood and started acquiring land to develop more gardens.
Bee hives at Poplar Village Gardens.
IFW: How can the people of Fort Wayne support your project?
DH: We need people of all skill levels for a variety of tasks at Poplar Village Gardens. There are gardening tasks, such as watering, weeding, planting, harvesting and distributing. There are record keeping tasks, grant research and writing tasks, and project construction tasks. We hope to further develop our educational programs to include neighborhood children in the food cultivation process and to teach sustainability. We also like to participate in the Forward Pantry Project in Indiana, and we need help tidying up and cleaning our pantry.
During the 2020 pandemic, Poplar Village Gardens grew and donated 1,300 pounds of food for its neighborhood food bank at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Fort Wayne.
IFW: What would you say to someone who wants to help but thinks they don’t have the proper gardening skills?
DH: There is something for everyone here at Poplar Village Gardens. We are happy to educate people on 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 the greatest need for Poplar Village Gardens?
DH: We are struggling with human power to operate such a large project on a very limited operating budget. Volunteer help is in great need, and we are always looking for ways to fund work projects and a full time position to take care of the garden.