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Grassroots Gardens Buffalo director sees fruits of her efforts throughout city

Melissa Fratello, 37, was an urban planner in 2007 when she joined Grassroots Gardens Buffalo and discovered the power of community gardens. Fratello, a single mom who waited tables while attending the University at Buffalo, worked part time for Grassroots as a community garden organizer. She also worked for Neighborhood Housing Services before serving as regional director for Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.

In 2014, Fratello returned to Grassroots as its executive director, heading an organization with a $200,000 budget. Today, 94 community and school gardens fill vacant lots and even some rooftops in Buffalo.

People Talk: What does it take to grow a community garden?

Melissa Fratello: Perseverance and leadership. The strong gardens with strong leadership know how to continually recruit volunteers. Neighborhoods change. People move around. It’s important to be open to working with renters, welcoming everyone into the garden to be a helping hand because not everyone owns their own home. It’s important to share responsibility, too. Some of the gardens, where one person takes total control, get into trouble and the person wonders why no one wants to help.

PT: On what grounds is an application for a garden rejected?

MF: If it didn’t have enough community support. Don’t get me wrong, not all of them succeed. Not all of the gardens are these amazing stories of empowerment. Sometimes it’s just people desperate to change how a vacant lot looks but they don’t necessarily have what it takes to keep it going. But even if the garden fails after a few years, I don’t look at it as failure because the time they had with the garden was powerful.

PT: What is the power of a garden?

MF: We hear stories all the time about neighbors meeting at the garden after living next door to each other for 20 years. Maybe they come from different cultural backgrounds and have little to share, but when they get in the garden they’re sharing recipes.

PT: How does Grassroots differ from projects in other cities?

MF: We don’t go out and buy lots and build beds to rent for $25 a year, which is how most community gardening organizations work. We wait for the community to come to us so that we know there is community buy-in. Within reason, every garden is designed the way the community wants and within budget. We don’t design them. The people do. These aren’t showcase gardens. This isn’t Garden Walk.

PT: What does Grassroots provide?

MF: Everything from soil, compost, mulch, lumber for raised beds, vegetable seedlings and seeds so people can start them in the winter and be ready to plant in spring. For the most part, the gardens are all on vacant lots and not all of them are city-owned.

PT: Isn’t it risky planting vegetables in vacant lots?

MF: We require that food be grown in raised beds and we provide organic soil from a trusted vendor. We are concerned about the risk of contaminants. Most of these gardens are on lots where there were homes demolished and we’re not quite sure what the building materials were. The refugee populations don’t know we’ve had this industrial legacy, so we just had an informative brochure called “Safe Roots” translated into seven languages. Recently we’ve seen a demand for Asian and African eggplants and different greens so we worked with Urban Roots this year to source culturally appropriate food.

PT: Are rats a problem?

MF: No. A misconception is that rats are attracted to gardens. Rats are attracted to fats, bones, cheese, oil. Rats don’t eat plants and they have no interest in strawberries.

PT: What is in the future for Buffalo’s community gardens?

MF: We’re developing our school garden network. We have 17 school gardens, and we’d love to see one in every school. They do a lot of spring and fall planting, and some even have summer stewards. We’re developing a resource kit for curriculum and opportunities to work over the summer in the gardens.

PT: What parts of the city lack gardens?

MF: Neighborhoods without a history of blight and vacant lots. Gardens are active public spaces. This year – and it’s a first – we have two rooftop gardens, one at Gloria J. Parks Community center, and one in the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus on the roof of the Innovation Center. For me, that’s an indicator of where the city is going. We don’t have to use every vacant lot of a garden. We don’t want to turn Buffalo into one giant farm.

For a photo gallery of Grassroots Gardens visit email: