What’s growing in Madison?

A walk through Community Groundworks' gardens

It is the most productive time of year when it comes to growing produce in Wisconsin. I should know–I co-own Raleigh’s Hillside Farm, an organic CSA vegetable farm south of Madison, with my husband Kyle. In my fifth year of farming, I have grown to love late August, because it means an abundance of summer flavors. Sweet corn, tomatoes, melons, cucumbers and peppers are all going wild. The produce is vibrant and colorful, and figuring out what to make for dinner is simple.

But I wondered what garden plots around Madison would look like this time of year. Would they look anything like my own fields? I met up with the Gardens’ network assistant Ryan Grist on an unseasonably cool Friday at Community Groundworks on the north side of Madison. The wind was cool and clouds threatened to drizzle, so plots were largely vacant of gardeners, but Grist walked me through the gardens pointing out crop after crop, (many of which were unfamiliar to me).

“It seems like everyone thinks it’s a good season,” Grist says. “I think it was hard to get planted in the spring and a lot of people got a late start. But with the amount of rain, people have had to water less, which is always a plus.”

We ambled together toward the back of the garden. There were some plants I recognized, like red cabbage at its peak, Brussels sprouts hanging out until late into the fall, beautiful flowering nasturtium and well-mulched kale plants standing tall.

What’s growing in Madison?

Then things got interesting. Alongside our path, climbing up one side of a handmade wooden trellis were green and purple yard-long beans (or long beans for short). Grist told me how these beans, native to southeast Asia, can grow several inches in one day.

What’s growing in Madison?

Climbing up the other side of this trellis was another southeast Asian treat I’d never encountered: bitter melon. The plant is beautiful with sprawling leaves and delicate yellow flowers. The vegetable is less attractive, looking like a lumpy (almost warty) cucumber. As we ambled through the garden, I started seeing these plants everywhere. It turns out this prolific crop has many medicinal uses. From diabetes prevention to aiding with a number of gastrointestinal disorders, bitter melon is a bit of a super food.

We rounded a corner and strolled passed beautiful stands of lemongrass, Thai hot peppers, water spinach and amaranth. Things I had eaten but never experienced “in the wild.” I was mesmerized by the colors and shapes: so different from anything we have growing out on our farm.

What’s growing in Madison?

“I know it’s been a bad year for potato beetles, but it seems like corn is growing really well,” Grist pointed toward a vibrant purple ear of Hmong corn.

Indeed, it has.

What’s growing in Madison?

We turned down the path toward a colorful garden shed managed by CommunityGroundworks that’s filled with tools for the gardeners. As we strolled, I notice a makeshift greenhouse at the edge of a plot pieced together with boards and plastic. It’s a simple structure filled with trays of seedlings. They were likely ready to go into the ground. We, too, are busy planting our last fall crops.

Then I spotted another structure. This one looks more established. Grist explained how some of the elder gardeners need more shade than their spaces provide, so they build sheds and porticos within their plots. Year after year, folks who maintain the same piece of ground add on to these structures and over time some look quite impressive. I love the rough edges and bells dangling by the door.

What’s growing in Madison?

On the walk back to my car, I feel like I’m heading home after exploring a foreign country. There’s something about this space that transports me much further than Madison. Of the 300 garden plots here at Community Groundworks, over 35 percent are managed by southeast Asian gardeners. This was evident not only by the diversity of crops I’d seen, but also the extraordinary handmade fences, trellising systems and structures. The creativity and handiwork is impressive.

Grist told me that one of the other gardens he’s working in this year, Marlborough Gardens in the Dunn’s Marsh Neighborhood, is predominantly filled with Hispanic gardeners. I imagine the completely different varieties of produce I’d find if I were to head out there. And suddenly, I realize there’s so much more than fruits and vegetables growing in Madison’s community gardens. Alongside the corn, tomatoes, lemongrass and bittermelon, there’s leadership, cultural understanding and, perhaps most important of all, community growing strong in these joyful spaces.

What’s growing in Madison?