Gardens for All

When I think of projects in Madison that I am most proud of and I think deserve recognition for innovation on a national scale, I think first of Troy Gardens. — Mayor Dave Cieslewicz

Madison has an abundance of community gardens, to the point where we are becoming a national model of urban agriculture. And with the prestigious Congress for the New Urbanism due to hold its annual conference here in just a little over a year, Madison’s reputation as a “garden city” is only going to grow.

Fifteen minutes, tops, driving—or biking—in virtually any direction from the Capitol Square lands you among neat plots of land, carefully laid out and lovingly tended. But while the overall impression is of an unusual passion for hands-in-the-dirt gardening, we often lose sight of the other half of the equation—and perhaps the most unique facet of these community gardens—the community part. And nowhere is the “community” aspect in community garden more evident and cared for than at Troy Gardens, the thirty-one acres of gardens, restored prairie and woodlands, organic farm and mixed income, green-built housing on urban property on Madison’s north side.

Located along Troy Drive and operated by the extraordinary nonprofit organization Community Groundworks, Troy Gardens is not just a tapestry of some 330 family garden plots but a truly public resource where anyone and everyone is welcome to visit, learn and enjoy. Starting with kids. Troy Gardens serves a thousand children a year with its Kids’ Gardening and Youth Grow Local programs, East High Teen Farm and more. The Kids’ Garden is a fun, accessible, hands-on experience in growing and enjoying healthy food. Plans include a bike-powered (!) garden kitchen, and, should it win the yearlong Edy’s Fruit Bars and the Fruit Tree Planting Foundation “Communities Take Root” contest, a fruit tree orchard. If you’re inclined, visit and you’ll be directed to a site that allows you to vote once a day in the national competition.

The orchard would not be the first at Troy Gardens. Visitors can already help themselves to the ripe fruit from apple, pear, mulberry and cherry trees. The orchard is behind the garden plots, just past the organic herb garden where the public is also welcome to cut their own chives, thyme, basil and other fresh herbs. It’s remarkably generous and really helps create the community ownership environment that exists throughout the gardens.

The garden plots themselves are all spoken for. There’s an annual waiting list, and plots are assigned on a rolling basis. But the gardens also include the Troy Community Farm, a five-acre, certified organic farm and CSA (community supported agriculture program), which as of the end of April still had a few openings for new members, who receive a weekly supply of organic produce from June through October.

For those who would rather grow their own, Troy Gardens has something for you, too. Madison Farmworks is the non-profit business of Community Groundworks, now in its second year. Staff offer “urban gardener” training, including three visits to your home garden for specially tailored, one-on-one instruction and a personalized garden plan. Troy Gardens staff offer tours of their place, and at four bucks a pop it’s a wonderful way to learn about the gardens. You’ll see the new passive solar greenhouse that will be up and running soon. And you can get up close and personal with arguably the most popular attraction at the gardens: the chickens.

Troy Gardens feels well-organized and firmly established. It is extremely well run, and its reputation is growing. It’s also the site of this year’s Olbrich Garden Tour, July 9–10, which has a nice synergy to it. But it can always use a little help. Whether it’s the annual Plant & Equipment Sale (May 30), the online auction or simply gifts from donors, the support is needed and welcome. The place is a gem, as genuine an article as you’ll find and one of Madison’s greatest assets.

Nancy Christy is the former owner of the Wilson Street Grill. She now runs the consulting firm Meaningful People, Places and Food. Neil Heinen is, among other things, her hungry husband. Comments? Questions? Please write to

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