By Cindy Hadish/Homegrown Iowan
CEDAR RAPIDS – In a city that touts itself as a healthy, “Blue Zones” community, Ed Thornton faces a trespassing violation. His crime? Growing vegetables.
“If I’m doing something and it’s not hurting anyone, why am I being punished for it?” Thornton asked of his garden, which he started 4 years ago on overgrown, city-owned property next to the apartment building where he lives at First Avenue and Sixth Street SW.
The city demolished two duplexes on the site after purchasing the two small lots with Community Development Block Grant funds after the 2008 flood.
No plans have been made for the lots, which Thornton said were neglected and overgrown with weeds before he transformed the land into a bountiful garden.
Produce from the garden – he estimates 92 different varieties of plants – go to neighbors and others who stop by, as well as being eaten fresh and canned by Thornton, whose parents taught him how to garden at a young age.
Now 44, Thornton, who works as a house cleaner, was displaced by the flood and stayed with friends in Marion before moving to his current apartment in 2009. After noticing the weedy lot next door, he asked to borrow a friend’s tiller and started a small garden.
“It’s gotten bigger as time has gone on,” he said, pointing to sunflowers that feed the birds, corn that a neighbor asked him to plant, dozens of heirloom tomato plants, grown with seeds from Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, and a patch of lettuce tended by his young neighbor, Charlie Stoneking.
At age 5, Charlie is learning to garden. She sprinkled the lettuce seeds and takes care of her portion of the garden, her mother said. In her own handwriting, she also wrote a letter of support for Thornton, one of numerous letters that neighbors have dropped off at the garden.
“I think it’s a really good use for vacant property,” said Sofie Hundley, as she brought a letter to add to Thornton’s collection. “It’s being well-kept and it’s providing food for the whole neighborhood.”
Thornton doesn’t charge anyone for the tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and other vegetables that he hands out and has spent his own money on seeds. Everything grows organically, with dried grass used as mulch that he rakes from other city lots in the neighborhood.
“It’s never been a problem,” he said, questioning why city staff didn’t tell him in past years that he was in violation.
One person made a complaint to the city, Thornton said he was told by Zoning Inspector, Deanna Thomas, who signed the notice sent to him in July.
If the garden is not removed by Aug. 6, the letter notes, the matter will be forwarded to the Cedar Rapids Police Department for further action.
Thornton noted that the city has allowed Matthew 25 to garden on city-owned property. Produce grown by the non-profit is sold to the public.
He also referred to the city’s status as a Blue Zones demonstration site, which promotes healthy living through activities such as gardening and eating fresh, locally grown foods.
“I’m saving the city money,” Thornton added, as he takes care of mowing and otherwise tends the land, saving city workers from mowing the vacant lot.
Thornton, who has advocated for flood victims, wonders if the trespassing notice is in retaliation for his political activism.
“I don’t think it’s any of my neighbors,” he said of the complaint.
Thornton was told the city would come in with a bulldozer to “scrape off” the land if he doesn’t remove the garden by Aug. 6.
“I’m not going to do it,” he said, hoping he can at least be allowed to let the garden stay until the end of the growing season. “There’s a lot of hard work that went into this and a lot of food that could be harvested.”
UPDATE (Aug. 4, 2014) Ed Thornton has resolved the issue with the city, at least for this year. Here is what he wrote: “I just met with Ray Nees, Manager at the Building Services Department, and Sandi Fowler, Assistant City Manager, in my Garden. We have reached a solution that is amicable to everybody. I will be allowed to grow the Garden until October 31st but I will remove the fire pit. This is the solution that I was looking for and I’m glad that they came to me and discussed this like reasonable people. I’ll have to see if the land can be purchased or if I will move the Garden somewhere else next year. Thanks to everybody that got behind me on this, for all the kind words and support. It’s good to know that people will still stand up and say something when they see something is unjust.”
See the petition started to save Thornton’s garden: https://www.change.org/petitions/the-city-of-cedar-rapids-save-ed-s-garden
Read this related story from Iowa City: Right to Garden
More from Cedar Rapids: Healthy oak tree removed for pavement project