The surface of the city of Lead has changed multiple times over the last few decades due to mining operations. The Mile High Community Garden is located on a piece of property on the edge of the Open Cut Mine buffer zone that is now being used by residents as a place to grow vegetables, attract visitors, and bring the community together.
Lead’s Mile High Community Garden sits on what used to be a neighborhood at the east end of Miners Avenue. After decades of expansion of the Open Cut Mine all that exists of this abandoned neighborhood now are old concrete foundations and stairways that lead up to empty lots that are overgrown with tall grass, wildflowers, and weeds.
Today the community is coming together and turning one of these vacant lots into a space that’s full of life.
“I see the start of something beautiful,” says Van Der Vliet
Community resident and gardener Kathy Van Der Vliet says the lot needs work but the location is perfect – it gets lots of sun and the view is spectacular. She’s says a community garden is good for residents because Lead is hilly and many areas aren’t suitable for a garden. Lead is a mile up - one of South Dakota’s highest elevations - and has a cool climate.
Van Der Vliet says some plants thrive in these conditions.
“I wouldn’t think of putting tomatoes up here because our season is so short but beets only take sixty days, onions, peppers, kohlrabi, your cold-weather plants, broccoli, cauliflower, things like that, they’ll grow great up here,” says Van Der Vliet.
Van Der Vliet says she’s using the Community Garden for extra space and for growing ingredients for salsa. She says she plans to can much of what she harvests and enjoy it over the winter.
Fellow gardener Darla Boehm-Auld says she’s trying some new things this year and learning along the way.
“It’s kind of been more of an experiment for me – everything I put in is not that I’m hoping I’m going to get this huge harvest, but I’m kind of trying to figure out what works and doesn’t work. I think that you kind of have to start with the experimentation phase,” says Boehm-Auld.
Mile High Community Garden participants grow their crops inside wooden frames, they’re called garden boxes, that are about ten feet by four feet and about a foot deep. There are currently twelve garden boxes and they each contain a variety of vegetables - corn, lettuce, cucumbers, onions, and even melons.
Boehm-Auld says she’s getting things figured out.
“Peas and beans, spinach - I just had like more than we could use. They did really well,” says Auld.
The Mile High Community Garden truly is a community garden. The lot is privately owned but the landlord agreed to let the property be used for the garden. The City provides the water. Local contractors leveled the already terraced area. Even the local coffee shop is contributing by donating used grounds to supplement the soil. Volunteers keep it mowed and weeded.
Boehm-Auld says the Community Garden provides more than just a space to grow food – it’s a place to socialize.
“It’s not just so people can grow food its so people can kind of network with each other and enjoy more social contact with other people in their community that’s not work related, so it’s a community building tool,” says Boehm-Auld.
Boehm-Auld says the garden is nice place to reconnect after a long day.
“And I do it with my family. My kids are teenagers and we come up here and they help us water and pick so we kind of do our thing, more at night. The four of us come up here and kind of putter around and do some weed-whacking or weed-pulling or mulching together. And so it’s kind of something we do, a family building thing too,” says Boehm-Auld.
Boehm-Auld says one of her biggest challenges is keeping deer and rabbits from munching on her plants. Some gardeners have gone beyond the usual six-foot chain-link fence and come up with creative ways to keep wildlife out. Boehm-Auld's garden has an old gazebo frame as an enclosure, another gardener is using the frame of an old papasan chair to keep pests out.
Boehm-Auld says there is no City budget for the garden so many of the items like lumber and fencing are donated.
“And they’re totally reclaiming, and we’re re-using too, and we’re recycling, we’re doing the whole thing and I don’t care that we don’t have any money. You have to be more creative and you have to be more of a team and you have to work together more,” says Boehm-Auld.
Fellow gardener Kathy Van Der Vliet agrees.
“For instance those big boxes over there, they were putting up a big sign down by the Sinclair station and they were going to throw those boxes away - well that’s a raised bed garden right there without building it – so they donated it to me,” says Van Der Vliet.
Participants say it could also be a potential draw for tourists.
Gardener Darla Boehm-Auld says she’d like to see the garden expand toward Lead’s Main Street.
“And then the giant sunflowers, you can actually see them from the library because
they’re over eight feet tall. I think the whole thing it could just be very much a draw for the whole town,” says Boehm-Auld.
Organizers say the Community Garden got off to a slow start but they say it is gaining momentum. NeighborWorks Dakota Home Resources in Deadwood now oversees the garden and rents out the boxes for fifteen dollars each per season. They say any interested gardener is welcome.
Current participants say they believe the garden will only get better and they say if the garden expands there is plenty of room for more garden boxes.
Kathy Van Der Vliet says she plans to do it again next year.
“Absolutely, absolutely, only more, better,” says Van Der Vliet
Darla Boehm-Auld says for her gardening is a labor of love.
“Yeah, there’s nothing like a fresh pea,” says Boehm-Auld.
Lead’s Community Garden is turning an abandoned neighborhood into a charming place to grow nutritious food, spend time with loved ones, and take in the views of the city of Lead.
For South Dakota Public Broadcasting I’m Amy Varland at the Mile High Community Garden in Lead.