Aretha McReynolds’ yard is more than just an urban oasis. It’s a place that feeds the neighborhood, both body and soul.
McReynolds’ yard is actually three pieces of property, her own plus vacant parcels on either side that her family maintains with permission from the owner, the nearby Akron Zoo. The land teems with growing things, from the undulating beds of vegetables to the hanging baskets of flowers.
It’s a bright spot in a struggling neighborhood.
“We’ve had so many houses boarded up and torn down around here,” McReynolds said, gazing up Euclid Avenue. She sees her yard as a catalyst for redevelopment, a way to show others that the area can be vibrant and beautiful again.
It all started simply enough with grass and a vegetable garden in the narrow backyard of the house McReynolds and her late husband, Elmer, bought 55 years ago.
It wasn’t till their daughter, Janice Davis, got the idea several years ago of planting vegetable gardens to engage the neighborhood kids that the landscaping started to expand. Davis, a former mayoral candidate, got the zoo’s blessing to create a garden on the lot next door.
Then Davis’ son Brandon took the ball, and the project gained momentum.
Brandon Davis is the visionary behind what has become a green sanctuary. Working with McReynolds’ nephew, Jerry Cox, and her godson, Butch Jackson, he has filled the three parcels with food gardens, flowers, evergreens and water features.
Tomatoes and banana peppers hang heavy on their plants, while green beans and cabbages wait to be harvested. Apple trees are staked to posts, and grapevines clamber over an arbor and chain-link fence.
A couple of watermelons are fattening on their vines in a flower bed next to McReynolds’ front porch steps. They were a happy accident, McReynolds said.
“I happened to see a watermelon vine, and the next thing I saw watermelon,” she said with a smile. She figures kids left some seeds there, and they took root.
The gardens are an outdoor lab for young people in the neighborhood, who are invited to help with the work and share in the harvest. Much of the food is given to others, McReynolds said, because “you know, there’s a lot of hungry people.”
Brandon Davis starts almost all the plants from seed in a greenhouse behind the house to save money, and he feeds the gardens with an organic mixture he cannily calls the “secret family fertilizer.” The plants are so lush that they beautify the yard right along with ornamental plants such as petunias, roses and sedum.
Throughout the property are evergreens and features added for interest — tiered flower planters, benches and several water gardens, including one made of piles of rocks with water bubbling from them and another topped with a square of bulletproof glass salvaged from a construction project.
Davis said he wants to make sure the yard looks good all year long, not just during the growing season. He also wants to show the neighbors what’s possible, which is one of the reasons a gazebo under construction is equipped with solar panels that will eventually provide power to the yard.
As he talked, a van passing on Euclid slowed and the driver gawked. “This is all the time,” Davis said.
He doesn’t mind. Much of his motivation lies in inspiring others in the area to beautify their own properties, he said. In fact, he said he’d like to take on additional lots to make the whole block a show stopper.
He’s encouraged that new housing just down the street has replaced the old Edgewood Homes public housing complex, and he’s hoping his efforts will complement that development. The yard “brings a sense of peace and prosperity to the neighborhood,” he said.
The Akron Zoo is glad to see its land used for gardens, said its president and chief executive officer, Pat Simmons. She called them “fabulous” and said they’re a good fit for the zoo’s environmental interests.
“Helping people help themselves is important to us, and it’s also good for the environment,” Simmons said. “… It just goes to show that if somebody cares, they can really make a difference.”
Davis and his partners, Cox and Jackson, want to make a difference not just in the neighborhood’s appearance, but also in the lives of its young residents.
They’ve used the undertaking to help teach skills and instill a work ethic in McReynolds’ young neighbors and in some of the youths Cox coaches in Little League baseball and football. The adults will teach the kids gardening, carpentry, lawn mowing — any skills they can share.
They try to make it more fun than work, Cox said. And Davis said members of McReynolds’ family often reward the kids, sometimes with food, sometimes with money from their own pockets.
They’re all trying to be role models and steer the kids away from negative influences, Davis said.
“You can go around the corner and sell drugs,” he said. “But we’re trying to get it that you can go around the corner and pick up a saw.”
Davis lives not far from his grandmother, but he said he spends most of his free time at her home. He just likes looking out for her, he said. Besides, he said, the exercise is as good as any gym workout.
Mostly, though, he said he wants to give back for all the care and guidance she’s shown him over the years.
“I’m going to give her her flowers while she’s here,” he said.
Mary Beth Breckenridge can be reached at 330-996-3756 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also become a fan on Facebook at http://tinyurl.com/mbbreck, follow her on Twitter @MBBreckenridge and read her blog at www.ohio.com/blogs/mary-beth.