THERE’S A LITTLE BIT OF MAGIC, and a lot of fertile soil, serving as the foundation of a thriving community garden on Columbus’ West Side. For more than 12 years, young hands have helped plant, water, and harvest crops from the Highland Youth Garden, and with a recent expansion of the garden and purchase of a home to serve as valuable indoor space, Executive Director Shelly Casto says they’re just getting started.
The half-acre garden was established in 2009, following the closing of two West Side recreation centers. Volunteer founders wanted to create a space to bring people together. Eventually, this grew into the idea of using the garden as a learning space for neighborhood youth, since it’s located just across the street from Highland Elementary School in the Highland West neighborhood of the Hilltop.
“We are a neighborhood that has significant challenges in terms of poverty, food access, safety, and health outcomes,” said Casto.
“We were founded with the original idea, which we continue to this day, to bring the children of that school over on a regular basis to garden, learn about healthy eating, do STEM-based activities, develop social and emotional learning skills, and connect with each other in an outdoor learning environment.”
After 12 years of organic farming on the same plot, the result is some very healthy soil. Casto remarked that some scientists at The Ohio State University think they may have the healthiest plot of land in Franklin County. She said they basically grow anything you can grow in Ohio that you can eat, from radishes, spinach, and greens to kale, collards, beets, and zucchini. A favorite crop for the kids is jewel corn, Casto explained. She loves to watch the kids peel back the husks in wonder and amazement at the rainbow of color each ear produces.
Vegetables aren’t the only things growing.
The garden is home to multiple berry bushes, an apple tree, a cherry tree, and a beautiful array of flowers. A recent expansion of the garden will enable the addition of new crops to include some that are familiar to neighbors originally from South America and Latin America—like chayote and tomatillos.
Children pre-K through third grade regularly come from Highland Elementary to the garden not only to plant, harvest, and taste but also to count, write about, and draw the things they see.
“We’re really a learning institution first—we just happen to be a garden and that’s the tool that we’re using. Really, it’s about the children and their learning and well-being.”
SHELLY CASTO, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, HIGHLAND YOUTH GARDEN
This fall, with the opening of Columbus’s new early learning center nearby, the garden will start serving an additional 240 4-year-olds.
“We work with the teachers at the schools to make sure we are reinforcing their curriculum,” Casto said.
The garden also offers an afterschool program for grades K–6 three days a week. Groups of 12 participate in activities and have a healthy snack created from garden produce that they help cook. Its summer youth employment program is geared towards West Side teenagers and offers teens an opportunity to help with the garden, staff the Garden Market produce distribution operation, and go on field trips to learn about food justice around Columbus.
In 2021, the board of the Highland Youth Garden established the Highland Youth Garden Endowment Fund at the Foundation to provide long-term support and sustainability for the garden.
Highland Youth Garden’s Garden Market launched during the pandemic as a way to develop closer relationships with its immediate neighbors and provide fresh produce, Highland Youth Garden started a twice-weekly produce market. Visit highlandyouthgarden.org to learn more.
“We knew that we needed two things to be sustainable as an organization—one was an indoor space and the other an endowment,” Casto said. “We are 100 percent committed to that particular spot. We want to have kids grow up and know that it’s their garden and come back and visit it as adults and bring their children.
The board and I really felt the first thing to do was to secure the financial base and we wanted to do that before purchasing the home.”
After operating entirely outdoors for more than a decade, the organization purchased a home in March and will be completing renovations that will allow for programming to continue despite weather challenges. Casto noted one special feature of the garden is that it is welcoming to anyone.
“We have no barrier fence, which is an unusual thing for a community garden but a really important symbol for us that we trust our neighbors, we invite and welcome our neighbors, and we are there for them,” Casto said.