Common Ground series: Garden Incubator in John Taylor Park

In north Lawrence, a new, magical, living kingdom is a place for exploration. It is a children’s utopia brimming with all colors of the rainbow, flying creatures whizzing above, creepy crawly creatures below, and new kinds of good food to eat in all different shapes and sizes. You can wind your way through the veggie maze, navigating around vines and stalks and leaves, and then leap from tall, wooden stump to stump. You can look up to the sky through brightly colored zinnias as tall as you are, and reach the tallest spot of all: dirt mountain. And the best part is that you can be a kid of any age to experience this kind of wonder at the Garden Incubator. It is for all to enjoy.

Bella and Tessa on top of dirt mountain.

Bella and Tessa on top of dirt mountain. by Kim Scherman

When Justina Gonzalez and Aimee Polson first applied for a Common Ground site, they had different ideas of what they envisioned for their garden. Originally, Gonzalez submitted a proposal for a children’s learning garden. She wanted to create a space that could help educate children about healthy eating from a young age. And she wanted this knowledge to last.

“It feels forced to make kids transition to healthy eating when they are teenagers,” Gonzalez said. “This garden could make our lives as parents easier in the long run.”

Justina Gonzalez helps Mercedes, Ayana and Nikolaus harvest potatoes.

Justina Gonzalez helps Mercedes, Ayana and Nikolaus harvest potatoes. by Kim Scherman

While Polson emphasized children in her application, she envisioned a community garden that would focus on all ages. Her interest in community gardening sprouted when she volunteered for an event with Alice Waters and Michael Ableman about local food and farming as place making. After she saw an enthusiastic response from the community, she got her master’s in Community Planning with an emphasis on horticultural therapy from Kansas State University.

“I wanted to participate in the creation of a place that calms, excites, incites curiosity, satisfies, empowers and grounds people,” Polson said. “The added bonus of eating healthy, simple food right off the plant doesn't hurt either.”

After the Douglas County Food Policy Council read the two very similar applications, they invited Gonzalez and Polson to submit a joint application–working together to create a space that would encompass the two ideas. Now, the Garden Incubator in John Taylor Park is a place where adult community members and children can have a space to learn, play and grow.

Children's 2x2-foot plots.

Children's 2x2-foot plots. by Kim Scherman

Three sizes of plots are available at the garden. Small 2x2-foot plots are available for kids, and larger 4x8-foot plots and 8x10-foot plots are available for adults. The plots are $3, $20 and $30 per year, respectively. Gonzalez estimated that 30 to 40 kids participate every week, and that nearly half of those kids are from the community. The rest are from the Ballard Center, since all five classrooms have a plot, and classes make trips out to the garden weekly.

Ciaran Sullivan has an 8x10-foot plot at the Garden Incubator with his mom, Elaine Atwell. He is 8 years old, and his favorite vegetable is the potato. This year, he learned how to plant, tend and harvest potatoes.

“I enjoyed eating them,” Sullivan said. “Growing your own food is the only way you can get unprocessed food.”

Ciaran Sullivan, 8, holds out his potatoes.

Ciaran Sullivan, 8, holds out his potatoes. by Kim Scherman

Sullivan got some help from his mom who said her two goals were to grow food and to grow as much food as she could as economically as possible.

“We have been impressed with how much we’ve been able to grow in this 8x10-foot space,” Atwell said. “Community gardening is the best fun I’ve ever had.”

The money that the Garden Incubator receives through plot fees will go toward the public space and maintenance of the garden. Gonzalez and Polson were also inaugural grant recipients through the Kansas Community Gardens Project, a joint initiative of the Kansas Health Foundation and K-State Research and Extension. That grant funded the fence and shed, and paid for a wheelchair accessible rock path. And Gonzalez and Polson are not finished expanding the garden. In the near future, they would like to develop a sensory garden, cotton patch, fun paths, earthen sculptures and tunnels for kids to play in and around.

Aside from simply cultivating gardening excitement in kids and adults, the Garden Incubator must also provide a community benefit plan, in accordance with the Common Ground program. The produce from the public space, which includes the veggie maze and 28x10-foot watermelon and potato plots, is donated to the Ballard Center food pantry. So far, the Garden Incubator has donated 32 pounds to the food pantry. There is also a space in the back dedicated to young adult growers. The produce from this area is contributing to a CSA and some restaurants.

The Garden Incubator is also benefitting the community by partnering with Dads of Douglas County, Parents as Teachers and the 2012 Summer Fun Hunt. On July 14, all four groups joined forces to host a children’s hunt in the veggie maze. Participants were encouraged to eat what they wanted while they harvested and even take some home, but the majority of the harvested produce, which turned out to be 50 pounds, would be donated to Just Food.

Gayle Anderson and Charlie Bryan, co-facilitators of Dads of Douglas County, with Bella, 3, and Luca, 18 months. Nikolaus Stotler plays in the foreground.

Gayle Anderson and Charlie Bryan, co-facilitators of Dads of Douglas County, with Bella, 3, and Luca, 18 months. Nikolaus Stotler plays in the foreground. by Kim Scherman

Come visit the Garden Incubator at the Farmer’s Market at the Fair on Thursday, August 2, from 4 to 8 p.m. They will be selling vegetables, herbs and flowers. Also, if you are interested in volunteering at the garden, please email Gonzalez and Polson at

Tagged: children, garden incubator, Common Ground, north Lawrence, kids, gardening


DCCDA 6 years, 3 months ago

So excited to see this happening! What luck that this was installed just when Ballard joined our program and needed garden space! This is a win for everyone.

Marilyn Hull 6 years, 3 months ago

What a wonderful place! Thanks to organizers for creating it.

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