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Youth in Indianapolis build personal and community resilience in the garden–with Groundwork Indy

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(Earth Eats theme music)

KAYTE YOUNG:  From WFIU in Bloomington, Indiana, I'm Kayte Young, and this is Earth Eats.

PHYLLIS BOYD:  And that's-- yeah, we're not shooting for perfection, we're shooting for richness of experience.

KAYTE YOUNG:  This week on the show we revisit our conversation at Groundwork Indy. We spoke with then Executive Director, Phyllis Boyd. She gives us a tour of their on site garden tended by teams of young people in their Youth Development Program and she shares other community projects in North West Indianapolis. All that and more is coming up on Earth Eats, so stay with us.

KAYTE YOUNG:  I'm Kayte Young, thanks for listening to Earth Eats. At long last Renee Reed is back with food and farming reports. Hello, Renee.

RENEE REED:  Hello, Kate. It has been a while, hasn't it? I've got a couple of stories this week from Harvest Public Media. A new law that went into effect this year requires food labels to identify genetically modified ingredients, but Harvest Public Media Seth Bodine reports on why some say the labels don't work.

SETH BODINE:  One criticism boils down to whether a QR code, those blocky images you scan with your phone, are the right way to let consumers know whether they're buying genetically modified food. The US Department of Agriculture said yes, even though a study found 7% of Americans don't have sufficient Internet access to use them. That's one reason why Meredith Stevenson, a lawyer at the Center for Food Safety says the labeling requirements are inadequate.

MEREDITH STEVENSON:  It just kind of has a disproportionate impact on minority communities, you know, rural communities, older populations because they won't be able to access this information.

SETH BODINE:  The law also provides alternatives to a QR code, like printed text on the packaging, a symbol, or the option to have a text message sent to the consumer. The Center for Food Safety is suing the USDA on behalf of several groups and retail chains, like Natural Grocers. I'm Seth Bodine.

RENEE REED:  Rural areas are continuing to lose their full service grocery stores, and are forced to rely upon dollar stores and long drives to superstores to buy food. That's according to new data from the US Department of Agriculture which shows a 20% decline in grocery, specialty food and convenience stores in rural areas over a six year period. Jennifer Paulson is the Executive Director of Food Works, a Southern Illinois non-profit that works with farmers and rural communities. She says the data highlights a paradox.

JENNIFER PAULSON:  In these very rural areas which often have really beautiful climate and wonderful soils, you know, you can see farms for miles and miles yet none of them are growing food that people can eat.

RENEE REED:  Paulson says the solution is changes to the food system that make it sustainable, and affordable for small scale farmers to grow food for rural residents. Thanks to Harvest Public Media's Jonathan Ahl and Seth Bodine for those reports. For Earth Eats, I'm Renee Reed.

KAYTE YOUNG:  The Biden Administration is looking to redefine what a body of water is. The definition matters, it drives the Federal Rules landowners have to follow. Harvest Public Media's Jonathan Ahl reports on the upcoming changes putting farmers and environmentalists at odds.

JONATHAN AHL:  Chris Brundick farms 450 acres in South Central Missouri, raising hogs and cattle, and growing soy beans and corn. We're in his truck on a rainy fall day, behind us are acres and acres of soy beans, in front of us a ditch that has a couple of inches of water in it.

CHRIS BRUNDICK:  This is hardly a creek, and this in my opinion should not be classified as a Water of the US.

JONATHAN AHL:  Brundick says under the Obama Administration, this ditch was classified as a Water of the United States, that limited what he could do on the land next to it. The Trump Administration reversed that rule making only a fraction of rivers, streams, wetlands, and creeks like Brundick's part of the definition. Brundick is worried the Biden Administration will set rules that will put it and other minor creeks back into the definition, and that could reduce the amount of crops he can grow, and make food more expensive. Brundick might have to use less fertilizer and weedkiller, and that might mean he couldn't plant anything.

CHRIS BRUNDICK:  But if you start eliminating these acres that are sitting behind us right now, Jonathan, you know, enough of this is going to create a large enough impact that it's going to increase-- it could create more shortages.

JONATHAN AHL:  Brundick has his own idea on what waterways should make the cut.

CHRIS BRUNDICK:  I think that there are some that need to be, it just-- the word navigable is key.

JONATHAN AHL:  That would be rivers and lakes that can carry boat traffic, some environmentalists say that's far too narrow.

JEN PELZ:  We need to make sure that we're protecting all the waters of the United States, not just the ones that people can boat in.

JONATHAN AHL:  Jen Pelz is a biologist and attorney with the environmental group, Wild Earth Guardians. She says it may be tempting to exclude a ditch that's dry 11 months out of the year in the Waters of the United States definition, but it's still a critical part of the bigger water system.

JEN PELZ:  And then that one month out of the year those chemicals or whatever they that are in-- that gets dumped, gets, you know, washed down by a big storm event into a creek, that gets washed into a perennial waterway, which gets washed into a bigger river, then you then have a water quality problem.

JONATHAN AHL:  Pelz wants to go back to the Obama Administration's rules. Better yet, she says include even more creek streams and tributaries. She's also concerned the Biden Administration may be too willing to compromise with Big Ag, but some environmentalists are willing to seek middle ground. Jim Karpowicz with the Missouri Coalition for the Environment says, "Perfect can't be the enemy of good."

JIM KARPOWICZ:  As an environmentalist, I'd, I'd like to be sort of on the practical side of the fence and, and be able to take steps that can get done in, in order to initiate them immediately.

JONATHAN AHL:  David Aiken, a Professor of Agricultural Economics at the University of Nebraska says, "Don't count on a compromise."

DAVID AIKEN:  I don't know that they can-- that's there's a needle or thread that would avoid all court challenges. This is just such a controversial issue, it's going to end up before the Supreme Court ultimately.

JONATHAN AHL:  The Trump reversal of the Obama rules did end up in court, the result tilted more to what Trump wanted than what Obama imposed. Now, Aiken says it's up to Congress to clarify things. Chris Brundick wants that too.

CHRIS BRUNDICK:  We never know with clarity what the rule is, and, and we need something permanent, and we need Congress to do this, but it's just not a topic they want to pick up.

JONATHAN AHL:  In the meantime, the US Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers are planning a series of virtual round tables on what the rule should be on what makes something a Water of the United States. Jonathan Ahl, Harvest Public Media.

KAYTE YOUNG:  The round tables were scheduled for December 2021 and January 2022. Harvest Public Media is a reporting collective covering food and farming in the Midwest. Find more at

KAYTE YOUNG:  Kayte Young here, this is Earth Eats.

KAYTE YOUNG:  I've just crossed an expansive boulevard, Burdsal Parkway in Indianapolis, and pulled into a parking lot between two greenhouses, and a small stone-studded mid-century style office building. I spot some tall sunflowers not quite in bloom, and feathery garden beds on the other side of the building.

KAYTE YOUNG:  I'm meeting with Phyllis Boyd, she is the Executive Director of Groundwork Indy. They're a non-profit organization, one of 20 independent trusts nationwide that are connected to a national groundwork USA network.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Groundwork Indy is tasked with addressing the needs of their community as outlined in a quality of life plan that the Northwest area developed prior to 2015.

PHYLLIS BOYD:  So, the Northwest area of Indy, which is now called the Near Northwest Area, its been re-branded, but it's basically that beige area on that map, it's about 6 square miles. You can see we've got multiple parks, including the Riverside Regional Park, that large green linear rectangle there, that's actually larger than Central Park. And we've got three waterways that converge in the area. So there's a lot going on. So, our task is really to support the action items that the Arts and Parks and Public Space Action Team develop as a part of the Quality of Life Plan. And, so, those items we add to each year, each month, depending on what happens, but we do have some set things that we try to do. We have two youth employment programs, the first is our high schoolers Green Team Program, ages 14 to 18, for youth enrolled in high school, and then we have a program called GroundCorps for out of school youth, and they are anywhere from 16 to 24 and, probably, if they're on that younger-- in that range, they've dropped out of school, and so we work with them to get enrolled in programs to get their diplomas, because we all know that if you don't have a high school diploma it's really hard to make a living.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Groundwork Indy also works to connect the participants to wraparound services. They assist with future job placement, but also if someone is facing housing challenges or transportation challenges, they address those issues as well to make sure they can get to work, and those barriers are minimized. The Groundwork office building has an open floor plan with a small kitchen area in front that's always stocked with snacks. Phyllis said they've almost outgrown the building. The garden begins just outside the back door.

PHYLLIS BOYD:  Here's the garden that is ours that we manage, we also work in other garden spaces with other community gardens, other non-profit partners, and support their work. Some folks, places we visit once a week, some places just once a month, and other places it might just be at the beginning of the season or at the end of the season to do, you know, the prep or the, the winter wind-down. Mostly it's community gardens and that's what this is too, it's community-- this garden is community access. You know, your typical community garden you have people that have plots that they come and work at. We support those as well, but this garden here is managed by our youth, and that's Ian Oehler over there, he's our garden manager, also our bike coordinator. You'll see that. But this garden really is open to anyone to come into, and to pick whatever they need whenever they need it.

KAYTE YOUNG:  It's really beautiful, this garden is extraordinary.

PHYLLIS BOYD:  This initially was our first bed of peas, and then now you see it's-- the peas have finished up, and the corn is taking over and we've got beans in there. It's, it's sort of a Three Sisters, two-thirds Three Sisters [LAUGHS]. And then around, around the bend here, there's a, there's a bed that's actually got the corn and the beans, and the squash companion planted together.

KAYTE YOUNG:  It's a gorgeous space, wow.

PHYLLIS BOYD:  So, it started out, when we started in 2015, we didn't have a garden here, it was just lawn from here to the canal, and our first summer program in 2016, we had ten Green Teamers, and they really wanted to have a garden. So, we installed two beds on either side of this exit here from the office, and every year they've made it larger and larger, and last year Ian had the brilliant idea of merging all the beds into one serpentine bed. So, this was-- this used to be discrete rectangles, and now they're altogether [LAUGHS] and that's an interesting modification because you were able to keep the original beds, but just make something more flowing, just to connect them to get more area in, in garden, and then to really think about this idea of inter-planting and diversity in the garden. So, we've got flowers here, we've got vegetables here. Try to keep the water off the leaves, Dre. Down on the ground. And it's great for pollinators. Yeah, I think it's just really beautiful.

KAYTE YOUNG:  We walked over to a garden bed being tended by Ian, the Garden Manager and one of the Green Team members, Cal.

PHYLLIS BOYD:  Hey, Cal, what are you working on?

CAL:  New cuttings.

PHYLLIS BOYD:  What are you cutting?

CAL:  So, so this won't connect, like, on this bar, so it's loose on this cane, this right here, so I can separate it.


IAN OEHLER:  These are our former pea, former pea trellises.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Oh, I see.

PHYLLIS BOYD:  So, yeah, constant change in the garden, for sure.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Phyllis and I continued on our garden tour.

KAYTE YOUNG:  So, there's a squash in here, some greens, and I love all these narrow pathways with stone and wood and logs, and stuff. It's really pretty.

PHYLLIS BOYD:  So, this one, so Ian has been studying permaculture, and just forest agri-ecology, and is sort of bringing those principles in here about how you really take care of the soil and build the ecology in the soil, and the soil health, and that is really reliant on having a good substrate from mycorrhizal fungi, and that's where the logs come in. But it also helps, you can see that the land sort of falls down a little bit, and it creates these terraces where we're holding water a little bit better in the beds. Sometimes what we're doing, is when we're watering by hand, we have a, a rain barrel back there, and you see they've gotten a cart and 5 gallon buckets where they've gotten water from the rain barrel. Sometimes we'll just take a whole bucket and just pour it onto, like, one of those logs, and let it just sort of seep in slowly.

KAYTE YOUNG:  That is really nice, I've never heard of that. It's beautiful.

PHYLLIS BOYD:  Here's some lettuce.

KAYTE YOUNG:  You've got lettuce in the middle of summer, that's impressive. I see all this inter-planting, so there's peppers, there's lettuce, there's watermelon, some flowers, calendula, I see some amaranth maybe.

PHYLLIS BOYD:  And, we've collected some of the calendula flowers, like, a couple of weeks ago and they've dried, and we're going to be using them to make a salve with some of the plantain that's growing in the garden as well.

KAYTE YOUNG:  It's great.

PHYLLIS BOYD:  And we've cabbage inter-planted here with dill because it helps to control the cabbage moth, and protect them. We had some cabbages that were not planted with the dill and they just got decimated, they're not even-- they're not around any more, they're just gone.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Oh, and I see you have a few chickens walking around.

PHYLLIS BOYD:  Yeah, we have a flock. We've got two roosters. I'm actually going to grab a stick because one of our roosters is really-- he can be very aggressive which is his job, but I don't need him attacking us. Oh, he's inside the pen right now, the rooster that's very protective. But we're actually going to get some more hens. I had a neighbor where I live just come up last week and say, "Hey, any more chickens?" I was like, "Guy, yeah, but not here, but at work," he was like, "Oh, yeah, I've got 20." I'm like, "We'll, we'll take ten." So, every rooster should have at least six hens, and we had some hens get taken, there's a fox that comes every morning, and we catch him on the street cameras when he visits, and some days he gets lucky.

KAYTE YOUNG:  So you have a, a-- looks like a pretty secure pen for them, and then during the day they just kind of walk around?

PHYLLIS BOYD:  They roam around. We added that pen at the end of last summer right after two dogs just busted into the, the coop. We thought it was secure, but they just knocked the doors down and the-- and got two, two more hens. So, we ended up putting the, the larger pen around which is more secure, except for there was a gap between the top section and the fence, and the fox climbed up the fence and into that little opening, and got in the coop, and one by one, took out three hens. So--

KAYTE YOUNG:  And you caught all that on security camera or you just know that's what happened?

PHYLLIS BOYD:  And we-- they, they caught it. Because we wouldn't have been able-- We were like, "Where did they go?" Because he didn't leave a trace, they were just gone.

KAYTE YOUNG:  And, so, do you get eggs from the chicken?

PHYLLIS BOYD:  We do, and either the youth take them home or, we run a food pantry, an emergency food pantry that we started at the beginning of COVID last year, Mondays and Fridays, and so we'll give out eggs there.

KAYTE YOUNG:  And, so, the youth are also learning about caring for chickens and about their behavior, and all that?

PHYLLIS BOYD:  Yeah. Yeah, and they, they take care of them. And, so, it's-- caring for chickens is not that hard, and because of that, you know, you can get eggs, and it's a real sort of low key way to get a protein source for your family. I haven't had youth really take up having chickens at home, but I've had staff members that now have chickens, so it's good.

KAYTE YOUNG:  And you have chickens?

PHYLLIS BOYD:  I do have chickens, like, I love having eggs [LAUGHS]. And then a couple a years ago we planted this native plant border here with the Marion County Soil and Water Conservation District funding, and then we worked with them to actually have different guilds. So, the first guild up there is a Paw Paw Guild and they help us, you know, pick up-- pick the plants to plant with that. This is the Plum Guild right here, and there's the Service Berry Guild, and then an Elderberry one just past where that utility pole is.

KAYTE YOUNG:  And, so, they help to maintain it or just help you plant it?

PHYLLIS BOYD:  No, they just helped us get the plants and then put them in, and then we maintained it.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Wow, look at all the pollinators on that. It's like everybody, like, bees, wasps, bumble bees.


KAYTE YOUNG:  Flies, little tiny native bees, that's really cool.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Those Guilds that Phyllis pointed out, that refers to a permaculture term for a collection of plants that help each other grow, and don't compete for all the same nutrients. The effect is a diverse and floral living fence between the garden space, and the road. We approached a shaded lawn area with brightly colored Adirondack chairs arranged in a large circle. I asked Phyllis about it.

PHYLLIS BOYD:  So, the first year that we started, well, we've always wanted to connect and do connect the sort of hands-on work with the idea that it really all starts with visioning, and, like, what is it you that you want to see. And my background's in landscape architecture and I'm an artist, and so it starts with imagining how you want to change your environment and your surroundings, make it better, just do you want-- what's beautiful to you, how do you want to make that manifest. And, so, we work with the youth on, not just the hands-on work, but then also the, the visioning and design, and everything from, like, park spaces, so, that Riverside Park plan that you saw, the park, we worked on the park plan as a part of the Outreach Team, but then the youth also got to give their input on what they wanted to see in the park. We may, if you have time, go drive over to the Flanner House Community Orchard, which we were part of that process in terms of designing that, and working with the design team on that, and then now we maintain it.

PHYLLIS BOYD:  So, the space here definitely has their imprint on it, they're the ones that decided to create what they wanted to call a "chill corner" over here, and it started at first with just a few chairs for community members, but then with COVID last year, it became our outdoor meeting space, and so every morning, you know, we have our morning meeting, and this is where it happens now. And sometimes we end the day with a closing circle. It's definitely become one of the spaces that helps, and I think it, like, holds the garden, like, you know, you got the trail on the one side, the big circle, the office.

KAYTE YOUNG:  So, for our listeners can you describe what the space looks like?

PHYLLIS BOYD:  Yeah. So, you see a large circle with chairs, outdoor chairs, that some of them that were constructed by the youth, others by volunteers, but they've all been painted in different colors. It's just kind of, like, they pick up the colors from the garden flowers, so there's a chair that's blue and orange, there's one that's a turquoise and fuchsia, and there's a couple of benches, and some logs. And that just becomes a really nice sitting space. And so, we start with the morning circle, we do a check-in because it's important to know how youth are doing when they come in. We ask them either, you know, tell us how you're doing on a scale to one to ten. Some circles we have a, a mood meter, sheet of paper, and it's, like, take two words, and what's your word of the day, blend it together. And then we have check-in question, and it could be if you're an animal what would you be, or what's the best piece of advice anyone ever gave you. Something like that just to kind of connect and, and learn more about them.

PHYLLIS BOYD:  And then we all stand up, and we do a stretch circle because the work is very physical as you can see [LAUGHS] and they're young, and they're not necessarily used to thinking like, "Oh, I've got to really, like, get my body ready to do this work." But each person gets a chance to lead in a stretch, and it's a very kind of low key way of having each person take the lead on something just even for a minute, and just have all eyes on you, and then you just lead the stretch, and you can say anything. So, we try to have opportunities where we build on those small experiences, and give folks chances to, to be leaders and guide their peers and things, and it just-- So, we have right now 42 youth in the Green Team Program this summer, and they're broken up into three teams, two of those youth in each team are the co-leads, co-captains, I try to do a male and female. And there are Green Teamers that have been here for at least two years, but half of our current Green Teamers are, are repeats from previous years.

PHYLLIS BOYD:  And, so, we have usually way more applicants than we have spaces for. We were able to manage-- this is our biggest summer yet since 2016, yeah. And, so it's a, it's a work program, so they're-- it's, it's basically a job, they're getting paid and they're learning skills. So, for most of the youth that are new, this is their first job ever, and so they're getting acquainted with the practice of getting places on time, letting us know if and when they're going to be late, calling ahead. We have conversations about what does it mean to be a part of a team, how important it is to have a good attitude even when, like, the work is hard. And that's, you know, some days we're out here, it's sweltering, and how do you work through that even when it's tough? And you-- if you talk to each team, they're going to tell you they've got the best team [LAUGHS]. And it's great, and they work well together, they get along, they build bonds. And, and part of, part of the skills that they're building are ones that more about just as a human being how do you get along in the world?

PHYLLIS BOYD:  And, and what does it mean to, to build, build a sense of belonging, to build internal resilience? And, so it's, it's the life skills that we're working on as well as the job skills, and in some ways the life skills are the most important part of what we do.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Right. So, many of the people who are participating may not pursue careers or jobs in agriculture or in, you know, landscaping or-- Yeah.

PHYLLIS BOYD:  They may not. I mean, for me, it's great if they want to. The most important thing is they start to really figure out what it is that interests them, and to know that they have a space here to kind of start to explore stuff and talk to us about things, and, and figure that out. Yeah.

KAYTE YOUNG:  So, it's building other kind of skills besides just learning how to grow stuff?

PHYLLIS BOYD:  Absolutely. But the growing stuff is a great-- the growing stuff for the community, the taking care of community spaces is a great way to build community connections. It's also a great way for them to understand the level of agency that they have in the world, you know, even with these small things that we do that are really actually quite immense and beautiful.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Could you tell me a little bit about how you got involved with this? Or just what inspired you to move in this direction?

PHYLLIS BOYD:  I was working for a small landscape architecture and planning firm for about eight years, and we had tried to do projects with youth, involve them in the planning phases of things. But it was really hard to get the project schedule meshed up with the school schedule, and sometimes we'd be able to have some interactions that were meaningful, but not real deep, and so, you, you know, you'd have to go through a whole process. The whole thing, like, just the timing was, was never quite right. And then, so I knew I wanted to figure out how to work with youth more in that way, and then my former boss and the owner of the company was wanting to scale down and eventually plan for retirement, and had thought to have myself and another co-worker take over the business and buy it from her. And we went down that road for about six months, and then I realized I was going to be going around the state doing marketing, and, like, you know, drumming up the business. And that's not really the work I wanted to do, I wanted to stay working with community more closely, and in this community in particular, in Indianapolis which is where I'm from.

PHYLLIS BOYD:  So, I decided that it was not the route I wanted to go, and decided to leave the company. I didn't really know what I was going to do, just that I wanted to figure out how I was going to work with youth, and then this job came up, and it was a good fit.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Well, it seems like it's maybe helpful to have that national organization that's already kind of set up, a structure, so you're not starting just from nothing.

PHYLLIS BOYD:  Yeah, the, the great thing about that-- oh, look, there's a great blue heron.

KAYTE YOUNG:  A gray bird with a long beak and a giant wingspan glided over the garden as we spoke.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Well, I guess, being so close to the canal here you get some of those waterbirds?

PHYLLIS BOYD:  Yeah. So, yeah, so Groundwork USA, the way you get a Trust in your city or town, you actually apply to Groundwork USA to do it, and then you have to put together a whole collective of folks to serve as the Steering Committee, to go through this feasibility process to do that. And the Steering Committee is residents, it's other non-profits in the area, City Government, municipal folks, and then other partners that are stakeholders that are, are relevant. And obviously at the end of that feasibility process, it was decided that Indianapolis could handle another non-profit, and that the work that was needed to be done was enough to necessitate an-- a Groundwork Indy starting here.

KAYTE YOUNG:  And that had already happened before you came on?

PHYLLIS BOYD:  Right. I came on when that was done, when the first Board had already formed, and then they issued a job announcement for the Executive Director.

KAYTE YOUNG:  So, you're the first Executive Director for the program?


KAYTE YOUNG:  Oh, cool.

PHYLLIS BOYD:  Yeah, yeah.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Well, that's kind of neat for you. So, you're, you're joining something that already has some structure, but you also get to...


KAYTE YOUNG:  ... be the visionary too.

PHYLLIS BOYD:  Yeah. Yeah, and, so, we knew we wanted to have a youth program, and so we started that off right away. Like, I started in August of 2015, and we had our first youth, youth program in October.

PHYLLIS BOYD:  This was maybe the beginnings of our forest ecological approach to the gardening here, this tree that died and was cut down last year, and then Ian started excavating around the roots and, and started planting just sort of this wildness, a beautiful wildness. And, you know, we've talked to the youth about this whole idea of the hidden life of trees, you know, what's going on under the soil, and, like, how important this thing is that you don't even really see, and take for granted, just how alive it is, and you can't have a good garden without good soil. It's a good metaphor for them too, there's that saying, right, like, if you have plant that's not growing, the issue isn't with the plant, it's with the environment. And, so, I think that applies to these kids as well.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Phyllis tells me that they work with a local arborist who brings them large trunks and branches to incorporate into their garden work.

PHYLLIS BOYD:  They're great for these mounds that we're doing here, Hügelkultur, it's a German word, I'm sure other cultures have done this as well, but you, you dig out a shallow pit, you put in all these branches, and you put the soil back on that you dug out. And then as the wood breaks down, it creates that richer soil environment for the myccorhizal fungi, and other things to live. It holds moisture better, plants grow and they're happier. So, this is the second of Hügelkultur mounds that we've done. The first round are the front ones along the way there, and we had just native plants in those. And you see how those have settled in a lot more, but they start this tall. And then this year with all of the extra lumber that we have or wood, we're able to, like, make them a little more substantial. And what we like to do, and Ian's really great about this, is we have a lot of seeds inside, and when there's a spot that's ready for something new to go in, he just says, "Go, go pick something that you guys want to grow," and then we'll get a seed pack, spread the seeds.

PHYLLIS BOYD:  And so, it's very hands-on, and, like, why not try it? Yeah, try it out. I mean, that's what it is, it's, like, it's an experiment and if it doesn't work, guess what? You can plant something else there later.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Yeah, I think that's an important part of working with youth from my own experience is that you can't have somebody who's too controlling, because if you want a perfect garden you're going to not have the right experience for everyone involved, you know?

PHYLLIS BOYD:  Right, right. And that's-- yeah, we're not shooting for perfection, we're shooting for richness of experience.

KAYTE YOUNG:  I'm speaking with Phyllis Boyd at Groundwork Indy. She was just talking about Hügelkultur. Hügelkultur mimics the forest floor environment to create rich soil for garden beds. In just a moment we have a story from Harvest Public Media about farmers using the actual forest floor in agriculture. Later in the show, Phyllis Boyd takes me on a driving tour of some pocket gardens and art installations throughout the Northwest neighborhood, and a community orchard created though a partnership with Flanner House. Stay with us.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Thanks for listening to Earth Eats, I'm Kayte Young. The role of trees in agriculture tends to be viewed as limited to the lumber industry or highly organized orchards to grow fruit, but Harvest Public Media's Jonathan Ahl reports, some farmers are looking to the forest floor to get more people into agriculture, at least part-time.

JONATHAN AHL:  Dennis Lindberg's 5 acres in Southern Missouri don't look like a farm. After making our way past a fence and through a thicket of sticker bushes, we're in a heavily forested area on sloping ground. All around the forest floor are smatterings of small green plants, they're intentional, those are the crops.

DENNIS LINDBERG:  Now, here's some ginseng here that I planted, and I'm taking the seed from it, and just planting it right down in here so it'll spread. But you've got to get the seed in the ground.

JONATHAN AHL:  Lindberg grows ginseng, goldenseal, and other plants that prosper in the shade. They're used in cooking, medicines and supplements. He's one of a growing number of people who are doing very small scale farming in forested areas to serve niche markets. Lindberg says it's possible to make a decent living this way.

DENNIS LINDBERG:  You grow 100lb of ginseng root out in the woods, at 500 or 600 a pound, well, that's pretty good money.

JONATHAN AHL:  It's not quite that easy though, because ginseng needs seven years to grow before harvest, and it's worth more if you wait longer. Lindberg has been forest farming for almost 40 years, and much of that time he's had another job raising hogs. Forest farming advocates say it's an under utilized form of agriculture. Hannah Hemmelgarn is with the University of Missouri Center for Agroforestry, she says the key is to find the right crops to plant in the right kind of forest.

HANNAH HEMMELGARN:  And, and I think there are ways that, that people who are doing this are getting really creative and creating markets, and creating interest in these value added products especially.

JONATHAN AHL:  Forest farmers are also finding markets for products including black walnuts, witchhazel and ramps. The Hellmuth family owns Ozark Forest Mushrooms in Missouri, they grow a special variety of shiitaki mushrooms on white oak logs. Instead of building shade shelters, they grow them under a stand of yellow pine trees on their land, about 150 miles south-west of St. Louis. Stacks of logs under special blankets are covered with mushrooms waiting to be picked. Henry Hellmuth says these mushrooms are analogous to heirloom tomatoes.

HENRY HELLMUTH:  These have a, a stronger flavor, are more unique, and it's also just a different variety, so you'll see the ones in the store look slightly different, they have got just a subtly different flavor.

JONATHAN AHL:  Henry Hellmuth is the son of the founders of the farm. They harvest between 100 and 500lb of mushrooms a week all year round, and drive them to St. Louis where they're sold for $10 a pound wholesale to restaurants and specialty grocery stores, and a couple of bucks more at farmers markets. He says this farm is profitable in part because they also have a B&B that is booked months in advance, and includes a mushroom tour with a stay.

HENRY HELLMUTH:  Not to be too pessimistic, but there's many easier ways to make a living, just any small scale farming operation you're gonna realize it's not a. A prof-- that profitable an endeavor. It's a hard endeavor, seven days a week always working, but also a lot of people love that lifestyle, you know, feeling connected to your work directly.

JONATHAN AHL:  And that draw to farm and work with the land may get more people into forest farming, partially because the cost to get into the business is much lower than conventional farming. Hemmelgarn says a few acres and some basic supplies costs far less than hundreds of acres, and the high tech machinery needed to grow real crops like corn or wheat.

HANNAH HEMMELGARN:  Keeping trees in the ground, planting trees and thinking about ways to integrate our livelihoods with tree landscapes, and making a livelihood or part of your livelihood from those species, I hope, is going to be more part of the agricultural landscape moving forward.

JONATHAN AHL:  She says another part of the allure to forest farming is the desire to mitigate climate change, more trees means less carbon in the atmosphere. The US Department of Agriculture identifies forest farming as a good alternative to supplement income for farmers and other landowners, but stops short of calling it a full-time occupation. Jonathan Ahl, Harvest Public Media.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Harvest Public Media covers food and farming in the heartland. Learn more at

KAYTE YOUNG:  Earlier in the show, we spoke with Phyllis Boyd of Groundwork Indy, we toured their on site garden where teams of young people tend to the plants and chickens as part of a youth development program. I wanted to hear about the other work that the Green Teams Ground Corps Groups and Groundwork staff engage in throughout the community.

PHYLLIS BOYD:  Right now we have a project called the Community Led Environmental Action Project, and at the moment that's mostly staff supported, but we're partnering with others in the community to do this where we are seeking community input on what are the issues and concerns that people have about the environment, everything from lead in soils to what's going on in your house, what's your water quality, what's the air quality outdoors, indoors, and sort of just where do we go from here? There's a lot going on, there's brownfield property that may or may not have contamination. There are a lot of vacant property, so the-- in this area about a third of the properties are vacant, a third are renter occupied, a third are owner occupied, and so that's a lot of vacant properties. And with, with vacant properties come a lot of issues including, like, criminal activity and, and one of the worst ones is just chronic dumping, but it's not the residents that are doing it.

PHYLLIS BOYD:  It's, it's folks either working for landlords that have evicted people and they're just dumping, like, furniture, or it's construction companies dumping construction waste because they don't want to go pay for it, you know, at the, at the landfill. So, they'll come and find a vacant lot that doesn't have a lot of eyes on it, and then they'll dump on there.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Yeah. And so then you're getting all kinds of contaminants just from that?

PHYLLIS BOYD:  Yeah, yeah, and it's ongoing, it's an ongoing issue. So, one of the things we do besides gardening in this space, is we've activated some vacant properties on, on the street, up here Rader Street. Before, one of the sort of connecting projects for us, is that before, and when I was working at the other firm, I worked with a community on a safe routes to school plan, and then worked with youth at the two elementary schools nearby, asked them, one, to map their routes to and from school, how they walked or biked, and then also asked them, "What is it that you like about your walking and biking to school? What do you not like about it?" And the things that kind of rose to the top in terms of what really was troubling to them were they were getting chased by dogs, they were not liking the scary kind of abandoned properties that they had to walk by. There were adults that would harass them.

PHYLLIS BOYD:  And just some other things that were-- you know, that no, no kid should have to deal with on their way to school, right. And other issues in terms of, when we did a sidewalk assessment or a pedestrian assessment with them, and had them go out in teams. We had three different grades participating, and so one of the grades would take notes, one was taking photos, and one grade was, like, the a-- the lookout to make sure that they were, they were safe as they crossed the street. And they were just going around, around the schools, and just marking what sidewalks were in good shape, what ramps, and also taking note of, like, how many abandoned properties were around the school. So, just in one school alone, there were, like, 70-- in, in, in a three block radius around the school, there were, like, 70 abandoned properties.


PHYLLIS BOYD:  And, so we can take a drive and see, see that too. But, what we identified with the, with the mapping of the routes was, like, which are the routes that are the kind of collector routes? And then that helped us determine where to put the lot activation project, and that was a separate project that I worked on with another artist, LaShawnda Crowe Storm, and we got an ArtPlace America Grant to fund that.

KAYTE YOUNG:  So, what is a lot activation?

PHYLLIS BOYD:  It can be anything from a garden to art, to just putting up a fence and mowing it, and making it not look like it's abandoned. But activation is really, like, for me, it's like are you inviting people into it, and--, and making it cared for? Caring for it, yeah, cared for.

KAYTE YOUNG:  And making it cared for? Caring for it?

PHYLLIS BOYD:  Cared for, yeah. Cared for.


KAYTE YOUNG:  When you're doing the-- like, when you're having these meetings or discussions, and working with the youth, do you ever touch on issues of food justice, environmental justice, those kinds of things?

PHYLLIS BOYD:  Absolutely. Yeah. So, we ground the work in the context of the community, so that includes learning about historic and structural racism, institutional racism, why the highway is where it is, why the neighborhood looks like it does. It's not just because their parents or grandparents aren't trying or haven't tried, it's-- you look at red lining, the history of red lining and how that has impacted chronic disinvestment in areas, and why we have these vacant properties here. We look at the issue of mass incarceration because that affects them. We look at violence in the community, and how that has impacted them. So, we-- it's, it's super contextualized, there's no work that happens without some explanation of the multiple whys.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Mm hm. And the--

PHYLLIS BOYD:  And also the, the, the environmental side of it, like, if we're planting a tree, we talk about why a tree, what does a tree do? How do trees function? They understand, we've got this garden that's got all these different plants in it, they get that we're supporting pollinators, that it's important to have biodiversity.

KAYTE YOUNG:  And also how some neighborhoods have tree canopies that are mature and some don't.

PHYLLIS BOYD:  Right, exactly. So the, you know, the heat island effect, we've talked about climate change. Some of the work that we do is, is super labor intensive, like, we go around-- there's probably a crew out now that's clearing curbs on Rader Street because one of the issues is we don't have street cleaners come along. So, the curbs get built up with debris, there are growing plants, the storm drains get blocked, and the streets flood which means people's basements are getting wet, they're getting in-home mildew. So, there are all these things that are connected to, to the urban environment, the hydrological cycle, and it's-- we try to make those connections because nothing is happening in a vacuum.

PHYLLIS BOYD:  I think it's shocking to some of them particularly, like, things like lead in the soils, like, they-- some of them had no idea. Like, what? Like, this is an issue? And learning about Flint, places like that, environmental justice issues that we have here as well as other places in America. There's socio-political stuff that's happening that really does impact them and people that look like them, most of our youth are youth of color, and they're low income.

PHYLLIS BOYD:  Let's take a drive.


PHYLLIS BOYD:  And I'll show you some other places.

KAYTE YOUNG:  We took the Groundwork pickup truck to drive around the neighborhood looking at projects.

PHYLLIS BOYD:  This-- the canal is the borderline between the Northwest Civic Neighborhood and the Riverside Neighborhood. I'm just going to go across the canal, so you can actually see how beautiful it is.

PHYLLIS BOYD:  It's a neighborhood in the core of Indianapolis. You can see that there's quite a few vacant properties, but then also a lot of actual neighbors that are here and living, and that care about the neighborhood. This is one of the lots that we activated with a fence. This is an intersection that we freshen up every year in partnership with IU Health for their IU Health data service.

KAYTE YOUNG:  We drove through the Rader Street corridor, I saw the vacant lot activation sites with raised garden beds, colorful picket fencing, and art sheds with murals painted by local artists like Mechi Shakur.

PHYLLIS BOYD:  You could characterize this as an economically struggling neighborhood, but then that's only really a part of the story, they're-- the residents that live here, a lot of them are very engaged and have a lot of gifts and talents, and it's a very rich neighborhood. It might not be economically rich, but it's rich in other ways.

PHYLLIS BOYD:  We'll go back to Rader Street.

PHYLLIS BOYD:  This is Aspire House, they're, they're renovating this old fire station, it's a really cool building. Oh, let me back up, that house back there, the house back there across the alley from the Wellness Garden is an Aspire House house. It's a duplex, and they are turning it into a potters house where on one side a ceramicist will have a studio, and then do community classes, and on the other side they'll live. So, that's just right here. An Aspire House was started by Sharon and Tim Clark, an African-American couple, and it's next to the Wellness Garden, and across the street from the neighborhood park.


PHYLLIS BOYD:  It's like I said there's a lot going on, there a lot of people who really love this community, and are working hard.

PHYLLIS BOYD:  So, this is the Flanner House Community Orchard, it went in a few years ago, the trees are getting mature and they're producing.

KAYTE YOUNG:  We arrived at a spacious green space with young fruit trees, and gravel paths. The orchard is near the 2 acre Flanner Farm, and next to Cleo's Bodega with a gorgeous new mural painted across the long side of the building. Flanner House worked with Keep Indianapolis Beautiful, or KIB, to start the orchard.

PHYLLIS BOYD:  For their green space projects, they, they pick a designer to work with. They work with community teams to pick projects, and this was one of the first community orchards that they've ever done, and then they worked with our youth to sort of think about the layout, what were the kinds of spaces that were needed in the community orchard, so, a fire pit and things like that. So, we come back every weekend, it's an ongoing thing of controlling the weeds in the, in the gravel, because we're not trying to be-- you know, spray herbicides and stuff here. So, it's just basically hand removal and it's, it's a constant process, so we just work our way around weekly. This mural was installed for Juneteenth, and there was a big celebration here, it's by Tasha Beckwith, it's gorgeous and it-- I love it.

PHYLLIS BOYD:  The other mural on the other side is looking towards the past or in the past and this to me is sort of, like, black futurism, and, like, looking forwards, and it's one of my favorite murals in the city.

KAYTE YOUNG:  That might be a good place for us to end, looking to the future. I've been speaking with Phyllis Boyd, Executive Director of Groundwork Indy. Please go to our website to learn more about the great work happening in the Northwest area of Indianapolis. That's at Since this story first aired in 2021, Phyllis Boyd has left Groundwork Indy to become the Director of Indy Parks with the City of Indianapolis.

KAYTE YOUNG:  That's all we have time for today, thanks for joining us.

(Earth Eats theme music)

RENEE REED:  The Earth Eats Team includes Eoban Binder, Mark Chilla, Toby Foster, Abraham Hill, Josephine McRobbie, Daniella Richardson, Payton Whaley, Harvest Public Media, and me, Renee Reed.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Special thanks this week to Phyllis Boyd, Ian and Cal, and everyone at Groundwork Indy.

RENEE REED:  Our theme music is composed by Erin Toby and performed by Erin and Matt Toby. Additional music on the show comes to us from the artists at Universal Productions Music. Earth Eats is produced and edited by Kayte Young, and our Executive Producer is John Bailey.

Phyllis  Boyd standing in the shade with a large stick in her hand, smiling at the camera. A small white building, brightly painted wooden chairs and a lush garden are visible in the background.

Phyllis Boyd stands in the "Chill Corner" of the garden at Groundwork Indy. The garden and office building are visible in the background. Phyllis carries a big stick in case she needs to shoo away the agressive rooster who patrols the garden. (Kayte Young/WFIU)

“We’re not shooting for perfection, we’re shooting for richness of experience. “

This week on the show, we revisit a conversation at Groundwork Indy with then Executive Director, Phyllis Boyd.* She gives us a tour of their on-site garden tended by teams of young people in their youth development program. Then we take a drive around Northwest Indianapolis to see more inspiring projects, including a community orchard.

From Harvest Public Media, we have reports on an increase in honey production, drought in the midwest, PFAS in crop fertilizer and a story about the forest floor as agricultural land. 

A visit to Groundwork Indy

I crossed an expansive boulevard, Burdsal Parkway in Indianapolis, and pulled into a parking lot between two greenhouses, and a small, stone studded mid-century style office building. I spotted some tall sunflowers, not quite in bloom, and feathery garden beds on the other side of the building. 

I was there to meet with Phyllis Boyd. At the time, she was the Executive Director of Groundwork Indy.* They are a non-profit organization, one of 20 independent trusts nation wide that are connected to a National Groundwork USA network,.

Groundwork Indy is tasked with addressing the needs of their community as outlined in a Quality of Life Plan, that the Northwest Area developed prior to 2015. Their work includes youth employment, development and maintenance of greeways and parks, addressing brownfields and vacant land, and building healthy communities

Phyllis showed me around their on-site garden, which is maintained by youth in their programs, and we drove around the Northwest area to see a few projects that Phyllis and Groundworks have been involved with. 

a lush garden with flowers and vegetables and a shed with a bright mural painted on it.
This Wellnes Garden, next to the "Potter's House" on Rader St. was originally a RECLAIM vacant lot activation site. Aspire House has transformed the space into a  wellness garden, with extra tall raised beds for elderly gardeners. The mural on the art shed (part of the RECLAIM project) was painted by Mechi Skakur.  Phyllis Boyd started RECLAIM with LaShawnda Crowe Storm.(Kayte Young/WFIU) 
Bright mural painted onto a long building, stylized images of an african american man and woman, with red and black background and sweeping yellow and black lines. raised garden beds and apples on a tree are visible in the foreground.
The mural Gatekeepers, by Tasha Beckwith, was installed on Juneteenth on the side of Cleo's Bodega next to the Flanner House Community Orchard. Youth from Groundwork Indy were part of the design team for the orchard, and they maintain the space weekly. (Kayte Young/ WFIU)

Listen to this week's episode of Earth Eats for the full story. 

*Since this story first aired in 2021, Phyllis Boyd as left Groundworks Indy to become the Director of Indy Parks, with the City of Indianapolis. Adam Velazquez is the current director of Groundwork Indy. 

One more update, Groundwork Indy has partnered with the City of Indianapolis to rehabilitate a historically significant firehouse that stood vacant for 13 years. On April 25, 2024, they will celebrate the opening of their new headquarters at the Burdsall Fire station. 


The Earth Eats’ team includes: Eoban Binder, Alexis Carvajal, Alex Chambers, Mark Chilla, Toby Foster, Daniella Richardson, Samantha Shemenaur, Payton Whaley and Harvest Public Media.

Earth Eats is produced, engineered and edited by Kayte Young. Our executive producer is Eric Bolstridge.

Music on this Episode

The Earth Eats theme music is composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey.

Additional music on this episode from the artists at Universal Production Music.

Stories On This Episode

The Forest Floor May Be Untapped Agricultural Land

cut tree branches, leaning upright, with brown mushrooms growing on them

Trees' role in agriculture tend to be viewed as limited to the lumber industry or highly organized orchards to grow fruits. But some farmers are looking to the forest floor to get more people into agriculture, at least part time.

Honey production grew in 2023 — but it's a small bright spot in a struggling industry

Two beekeepers stand by bee boxes

For the first time in three years, honey yields rose across the United States. It’s good news in an industry facing headwinds.

This farmer's livelihood was ruined by PFAS-contaminated fertilizer that few Midwest states test for

Farmer stares into the distance as he poses for a picture

Biosolids — a type of treated sewage byproduct from wastewater treatment plants — are used as a nutrient-rich fertilizer on farms across the Midwest. But a group of toxic “forever chemicals” are slipping through the cracks and could be inadvertently contaminating millions of acres of farmland.

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