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Downtown Greens aims to grow

Downtown Greens executive director Sarah Perry and board president Brad Smith
Sandy Hausman
Radio IQ
Downtown Greens executive director Sarah Perry and board president Brad Smith

Every week, preschool students in Fredericksburg City Schools have garden class, led by volunteers from Downtown Greens, a community greenspace in the city.

When the weather is nice, the students visit the little garden they tend at the back of the school to see what’s growing. On rainy days garden class comes inside where volunteer Beth McClain is reviewing the parts of a plant.

“What’s the part that grows underground," she asks.

"Um, carrots," a student responds.

"That is a vegetable that grows underground," McClain explains. "That’s good. Does anybody remember? The roots yeah, good job.”

Then Khalilah Brooker introduces a new topic – edible flowers. “Can anybody guess what you might have been eating that was a flower and you didn’t know? If I show it to you, everybody can you say what it is as soon as I show it, OK? Ready? Broccoli”

The students learned that tight little green bumps on a head of broccoli are buds that will open into tiny white flowers, and each kid got a piece of broccoli to sample.

Downtown Greens was established in 1999 and started offering garden class to the preschoolers in 2018. The program is part of the organization’s mission to reconnect us to where our food comes from.

“I feel like we are getting further and further away from where our food comes from and even something as simple as ketchup coming from tomatoes is a big discovery moment,” says Sarah Perry. Perry is executive director of Downtown Greens.

In addition to offering garden classes for kids, staff and volunteers maintain a community garden on 2.7 acres of publicly accessible greenspace in the city. They host a youth garden club and adult workshops on a variety of topics from mushroom growing, canning and tree identification to dance therapy.

And soon, the organization will be able to expand its reach. In 2021, it raised $1 million from 520 donors to make a down payment on 56 acres of undeveloped land in the city’s industrial park.

The parcel includes wetlands, farmland and mature trees. Downtown Greens plans to create walking trails, offer opportunities for nature-based research and play, and establish an agricultural training center.

“We have about 13 acres of agricultural fields and we plan to create this center that teaches young people from 15 to 25 years old all the different facets of the agriculture industry," Perry says. "Not just hands in the dirt, how to grow a tomato. But also the marketing and the business planning parts, different niche markets, the hydroponics and aquaponics and all the other different ways you can have a business or be successful or be part of the agriculture industry.”

For Downtown Greens board member Brad Smith, the expansion project offers a chance to connect more people with nature. "I know so many kids are terrified of going on manicured lawns," Smith says. "It’s great to see kids in the city be given an opportunity that a lot of kids in rural areas are the only folks who get that familiarity. For me a part of our larger mission is also reducing the mental emotional gap between us and nature, between us and the leaves, the dirt, the animals and each other.”

He says people today are also less connected with each other and hopes Downtown Greens can bring residents of Fredericksburg and beyond closer.