Tender Heart Gardens: cultivating queer connections and abundant harvests in Lansing's East Side
On Lansing’s east side, nestled at the very end of a cul-de-sac, is a community garden full of ripe strawberries, leafy green kale and buzzing beehives.
The space is called Tender Heart Garden, and it isn’t just a place for native plants to take root but an opportunity for queer and trans people to foster connections.
Five years ago, Morgan Doherty was walking along South Foster Avenue with a couple of friends and spotted a vacant plot of land with a “for rent” sign on it.
“If you drive around [the area], there's farms like this and gardens like multiple on every block, because this is the floodplain, so people can't develop here," they said. "So the land is really cheap for gardeners. So I called immediately and just started at kind of on a whim."
Doherty says at the time, they envisioned the vacant plot as an opportunity to build something that they say was lacking in the queer and trans community in Lansing. They say that many places for the LGBTQ+ community to gather are for adults and aren’t free.
“I'm a single parent, so it was important for me to be able to have like intergenerational space that felt safe and comfortable for me and my kid," they added.
So they decided to rent the property. Doherty put the call out asking for friends and gardeners to come out every Sunday morning. Together, they cleared the land of weeds, tilled the soil and started planting.
“Now lots of other people have been joining every year," they said. "It's not my idea anymore, now it's everybody deciding what they want the space to be."
The once vacant plot of land now has a greenhouse for growing fruits and vegetables, two beehives and several fruit trees. Right now, there are also rows of garlic, squash, kohlrabi and rutabaga in the main garden bed.
“So we just put in some plum trees here in the center," Doherty said. "I just planted some horseradish, some spicebush I think and serviceberries. There are some shrubs that are in here that are eventually going to fill in this central space.”
The garden bed is at the center of the plot in the shape of a mandala. Doherty says that's intentional to encourage visitors to walk around the plants.
"Its also surrounded by yarrow and on the outside we've planted a bunch of dye plants like Japanese indigo," they said.
Ava Anderson started coming to the garden after moving from Kentucky two years ago. She loves to get her hands in the dirt every week, but more importantly, they see the garden as a safe space.
“I spend a lot of time throughout my week in spaces that are slightly hostile to me as a trans person," they said. "And so coming here, I am free to take some deep breaths from that."
She also says there’s something fulfilling about building something from scratch. A few weeks ago, she worked on putting together the garden’s hoop house while blasting music from Fall Out Boy.
“It took some hours. It wasn't super easy. There's a lot of using a sledgehammer to bring the posts into the ground and the grounds were really hard over there," she said. "So we turned on some teenage emo music and that's how I got through it."
Julia Kramer has been coming to Tender Heart Gardens since the beginning. They say the group's purpose is to grow what they call queer kinship.
“Queer kinship, to me, is a type of relationship building that is outside of what we think of the norm," she said.
That means Kramer shows up to the garden’s weekly meetups on Sundays ready and open to whatever needs to get done that day.
“I'm trying to learn more about the plants around me and the robins and the insects, and the mushrooms that come up," they said. "I'm trying to grow my relationship with those beings, and this is a wonderful place to do that, and then also trying to grow relationships with the human beings in my neighborhood and in the city.”
For the group, fostering those relationships with one another means getting to take home and enjoy the fruits and vegetables they all had a hand in growing.
Tender Heart Gardens is located at the end of South Foster Avenue in Lansing.