Kankakee Wetlands Organic Gardens

It hit her right where she lived, environmentally, financially, socially.  She was sharing a ride to work with her friend, passing vacant lots around her neighborhood:  a 2007 winter of hunger, abandoned homes and vacant lots, and global warming.  "What a waste..." she noted to her friend. Judith Rubleske, of South Bend, Indiana's west side, characteristically frugal, ecto-vegetarian, civic and environmental activist, nutritionist,

gardener, and full-time WIC employee, could not ignore this triple threat right at her front door.   She began discussing, sharing, and exploring possible solutions that morning on the way to work.  So many overwhelming challenges.  How to feed people in the cold winters of northern Indiana?  How to prevent neighborhood decline?  How to build community resilience?  How to promote earth friendly values?  How to turn around inner city heat islands, grow food without further degrading the air, water and soil?  She had all the skills, the desire, the drive and as her husband, Jim, says "she has grit."

Being task oriented, she started gathering, assembling and planning that year, and broke ground in 2008 amid the economic collapse, so the need for local, organic food in this hard pressed neighborhood was clearly recognized.  As luck would have it, this neighborhood is built on Kankakee Wetland land, very fertile and high water table land.  Although not good for basements, its great for growing food, and the vacant lot she purchased from the city tax sale, was dug and composted and planted in butternut squash, a deep rooted, hardy, long storage, and nutritionally complete vegetable.  She became the butternut expert.

With significant and constant help from her husband Jim, with the financial and legal expertise to work through tax and non-profit status, with help from well-known Unity Gardens, the Notre Dame Legal Aid Clinic, Fiddler's Hearth, Michael Holcraft, family and many treasured friends and neighbors.  She went door to door in her neighborhood and established Westside Neighborhood Organic Gardens, which now has become Kankakee Wetlands Organic Gardens, consisting of 7 city lots, growing thousands of pounds of food serving the local population, donating 1/3 to food pantries and soup kitchens, selling 1/3 to local restaurants and hospitals, and allocating 1/3 to participants.   All of this is done with mutiple environmental benefits including minimal fuel usage (mostly manual labor), making own fertilizer out of coffee grounds and worm castings, sheet mulching existing grass on new lots, and pioneering the use of water conserving planting methods and climate hardy varieties such as sweet potatoes, tiger eye beans, red norland potatoes, patterson onions, black eyed peas and permaculture methods. These originally wasted vacant lots are back into use by not only providing some of the most nutritious food in the area, but that also helps return the wetland to clean water and soil condition.

Judith retired from her full-time job last year, and now works 50-60 hours per week for KWOG as well as several related endeavors, such as Earth Friendly Eating, her expo at the St. Joseph Public Library around January 18 every year, gardening classes for USDA WIC program, Vegetarian Community Meal Gatherings (using their garden produce), a book study devoted to earth/gardening/civic issues, and Michiana Organic Growers Cooperative. This past year, 2013, the gardens produced:

  • Sweet Potatoes - 10 bushels
  • Tiger Eye Beans - 60 pounds
  • Red Norland Potatoes - 700 pounds
  • Patterson Onions - 1000 lineal feet
  • Carrots - 1000 lineal feet

as well as kale, parsley, leeks, basil, sale, pole beans, cucumbers, watermelon, cabbage, squash, tomatoes, peppers, walking onions, and a permaculture fruit forest consisting of 10 fruit trees, 20 raspberries, 8 blueberries, perennial kale, and clover ground cover -- so far. Economically this totals pretty well, for $1800 in sales, donating 800 pounds of food at about a $1400 value.

At 69, Judith says this year she is streamlining and balancing, but to listen to her plans and excitement over new ideas, it doesn't sound like that includes cutting back.  She does make sure she and her team of gardeners get away for rest, and sleep, and drinking lots of water and eating largely off of these gardens, she and Jim manage to keep their energy and enthusiasm high.  She rarely gets depressed or at a loss for direction, as gardening is a task intensive occupation, and each new day has its new To Do List.  Her proudest  recognitions include being awarded the 2010 Spirit of Women Community Hero Award, and her family appreciation is deeply satisfying.

Judith rises to the challenge, again and again.  The use of the past 6 years makes use of the many and varied skills she developed over her lifetime.  She has turned her frustration with current conditions including climate change, hungry winters and neighborhood decline into an interwoven, multibranching, constantly evolving solution, offering exponential benefits.  That's the kind of reciprocity our planet deserves, and the kind of human ingenuity we can all live with.

Judith Rubleske can be reached at jrube@michiana.org  Her phone is 574-288-1386



Submitted by Debra DuRall