It’s the largest garden-building event in the United States, and it starts this weekend. The Great Milwaukee Victory Garden BLITZ, now in its ninth year, will have hundreds of volunteers flocking to neighborhoods across Milwaukee from Saturday, May 13, through Saturday, May 27, to build above-ground gardens. For those who purchase plots, volunteers will build four-by-eight-foot vegetable gardens, complete with organic soil, all in line with the Victory Garden Initiative (VGI)’s larger mission of encouraging Milwaukeeans to grow their own food.
Volunteers, especially those with trucks, are still needed and can sign up for specific time slots online. Volunteers can sign up for before May 13 to help set up for the event and during BLITZ to help build gardens and transport soil. There is also still time to purchase a plot, but the absolute last day is Thursday, May 11. You can also just have soil delivered if you do not want a garden.
“You could go to a movie about urban agriculture or something like that, but participating in BLITZ gets people doing something engaging right away, whether it be volunteering or gardening,” said VGI’s founder and executive director Gretchen Mead. “Ultimately, we’re all working towards change in Milwaukee’s food system in which locally-grown food takes center stage.”
The BLITZ event is bringing VGI towards this goal, as they’ve installed over 3,000 garden plots across Milwaukee and will be adding over 500 gardens this year alone. But the event wasn’t always so robust. When it began in 2009, only 40 gardens were built by a group of friends bent on saving the world.
“We were mulling over depletion of food systems in the world and in the city and wondering what we could do about it,” said Mead. “Many of those issues really boil down to heathy local food, so we started thinking about helping people grow in the city. Unlike in rural areas, there’s a real disconnect in urban environments about food and where it comes from. We wanted to reintegrate that, and that’s how BLITZ began.”
BLITZ has grown every year since 2009, in part because of Community Programs Manager Kelly Moore Brands, who joined the team in 2015 after working on sustainability and conservation efforts in Panama. Brands, a Milwaukee native, was excited to be able to help her own community, especially because of VGI’s charity. If people cannot afford to purchase a plot, VGI will provide a garden for whatever price they can pay.
VGI also works hard to accommodate those who would normally not be able to have a garden. During one BLITZ event, Brands said, VGI built a wheelchair-accessible backyard garden for a woman with multiple sclerosis.
“Before that, she didn’t have a reason to go in her backyard,” said Brands. “Her eight-year-old son watched from the window as we built the garden, and the whole family was so, so happy.”
Many people who purchase plots for the BLITZ event are first-timers who are just getting exposed to the gardening bug. But the small size of the plot, plus VGI’s garden mentors program, makes gardening easy to keep up. Mead said that almost all of the people who get garden plots during BLITZ stick with them for years and eat more vegetables because they are growing them themselves. Many plot-purchasers also return to BLITZ to volunteer and later buy more gardens.
Plots are built in backyards, front yards, churches and other community centers. All gardens come with a “Move Grass, Grow Food” yard sign to remind neighbors that they too can join the local gardening movement.
“I think we should be proud as Milwaukeeans about the work we’re doing to change our food system and the way local food is seen in our community,” said Mead. “I think this is all an important part of Milwaukee’s recent history.”
The BLITZ event has been so successful that other towns have participated in VGI’s “how to BLITZ your own town” training. Green Bay just had their fourth BLITZ event, and ten other towns are on the waiting list to go through the training.
Outside of the BLITZ event, VGI grows local food at their Urban Farm in Riverwest, which is Milwaukee’s only urban forest. At the Urban Farm, you can rent a garden, volunteer in the existing gardens and also contribute compost materials in their community compost. For those with an apartment sans yard, volunteering or renting a garden at the Urban Farm is a perfect opportunity to participate in the local food movement that’s taking hold in Milwaukee.