Urban Gardens Grow Community Pride

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Sprays of yellow, bright pink and deep plum tulips greet motorists traveling along Indianola Boulevard on the city’s South Side.

Eric Jones and his family started Youngstown Botanical Gardens, now a nonprofit, as a way to beautify the community.

“My family has really been an inspiration,” Jones said of his wife, Tanji, and their two sons, Trenton, 12, and Troy, 8. His father, Ronnie Jones, also pitches in.

Just around the corner, on Almyra Avenue at Firnley Avenue, sits The Happy Place Sanctuary, with flowers, trees, meditation benches and fountains, surrounded by a split rail fence. It’s the creation of Darla Ballinger, who lives on Boston Avenue. The sanctuary is owned by Boston Area Neighbor Association, the nonprofit organization she started, and sits behind her house, covering three lots.

On the North Side, Matthew Woods works in the Baldwin Gardens on Baldwin Avenue, cultivating kale, tomatoes, mustard greens, watermelon, microgreens, sunflowers and other fruits and vegetables. The garden is owned by Common Wealth Inc.

Each of the owners wants their respective spaces to add to the community.

Ballinger’s sanctuary, a nonprofit but on private property, started as a way to rid the property behind her home of criminal activity.

“The Happy Place Sanctuary started out as I just wanted to get that corner cleaned up because it was really a hot mess,” she said.

It covers three lots.

Woods appreciates “the therapeutic benefits of it, and it’s just a passion of mine,” he said of Baldwin Gardens. He plans to sell his bounty at the Northside Farmers Market on Elm Street. 

The Inspiration

Eric and Tanji Jones bought the property that’s now Youngstown Botanical Gardens in 2010 when they were newlyweds. Trees and overgrowth covered much of the property with a building that most recently housed a group home situated at one end. 

One of their sons was 4 years old, and the other was 6 months old when they came up with the idea for the garden.

“As the gardens started to evolve and started to take shape, there were elements that we looked at in terms of how it could benefit the community, how it could benefit various generations – and that’s how a lot of the sections kind of took form,” Eric Jones said.

But the design has been organic.

“My boys and my wife, my family, have been the source of inspiration …,” he said. “Between God and family, that has really been a source of my strength and my inspiration.”

The exposure the gardens provide for young people in the neighborhood is important to him, too.

“A lot of the families around here, they may just not have the time to make it to Mill Creek MetroParks,” Eric Jones said. “This gives them a little snapshot of some flowers.”

He hopes the garden adds value to the community. “It gives families a place to congregate and really just have an opportunity to just get outdoors, and there’s all sorts of therapeutic aspects.”

The family, through the nonprofit, is pursuing funding from area foundations and other sources to improve the space. They want to conduct community events like health screenings and activities for children in the building and to make it available to community groups. He also wants to improve accessibility for people with disabilities.

Surrounded by homes and businesses, some of them vacant, Youngstown Botanical Gardens stands out. Eric Jones said that’s intentional. People traveling along Indianola stop to thank him and his father for the way they’ve improved the area. Some even pitch in or bring plants to add to the plot.

“The support is amazing,” he said. 

In back, from left, are Ronnie Jones and Tanji and Eric Jones. In front are Tanji and Eric’s sons, Troy and Trenton.

Recently, a family learned about the gardens online and drove from Canton to bring their mother for her birthday.

“This is to be engaged by families and the community,” Eric Jones said. “It’s really meant for that. It’s more of an intimate experience.”

He wants it to be something for both his family and the community to be proud of.

“This is about the love of my children,” he said. 

Eric Jones crafted areas for his boys in the gardens, matching their respective personalities. 

“I definitely feel like he has tapped into the inner side of them,” Tanji Jones said. “Troy is very vibrant and full and lively, which Trent is too, but he’s more relaxed and mild mannered. I think the beds play up on that. One might have a lot more going on, and that would be more Troy. And then you have one that’s Trent because it’s calm and more relaxing.” 

There are different energies that will appeal to other children, Eric Jones said. He’s a substitute teacher and has volunteered, working with children at the YMCA.

“Eric is all about the kids,” his wife said. “He definitely wants to see the youth take hold of something and use it for [something] positive. He’s not going to tell you that, but I will.”

He and his dad spend a lot of time at the garden, digging, planting or weeding most days. 

Ronnie Jones, a retired city police officer, planted 4,300 tulip bulbs just last fall. Rhododendrons, yarrow, creeping thyme, blue spruce, lilies, roses, daffodils and flowering trees and shrubs cover much of the lots. But some people return each year, just to see the tulips.

“I credit my father for his work …,” Eric Jones said. “All of the tulip schemes – he comes up with.”

A Happy Place

Ballenger wasn’t thinking about a sanctuary when she started.

“It wasn’t supposed to be The Happy Place Sanctuary,” she said. “I was just trying to clear it out, clean it up because it was pretty messy back there.”

She picked up trash, cleared out debris and mowed the lots. Eventually, by getting credit for her work, she acquired the lots, which used to include houses, through the Mahoning County Land Bank. 

Darla Ballinger sits on a bench at The Happy Place Sanctuary, behind her house on Boston Avenue in Youngstown.

She’s since secured nonprofit status and spends much of her time there maintaining it. One day last week, a resident of the neighborhood stopped to thank her for her work.  

It’s private property, but she doesn’t mind if others use it, as long as she grants permission first. Sometimes, city police officers will sit on one of the sanctuary benches to decompress after a difficult shift, Ballinger said.

She dubbed it The Happy Place because when her children were growing up, hers was the house where neighborhood children congregated, played and were happy. 

Baldwin Gardens

Woods started working in the garden on Baldwin Avenue about three years ago, and he’s learning along the way. 

“I’m trying to master the art of horticulture this year and still be able to produce and sell,” he said.

It had previously been a garden but hadn’t been maintained for a few years, he said. The garden includes 14 20-by-3-foot plots.

Matthew Woods shows some of the plants he grows in the Baldwin Gardens on the North Side of Youngstown on a plot owned by Common Wealth Inc.

Woods said school groups, coordinated through Common Wealth Inc., stop at the gardens, and he teaches students about growing their food and the health benefits, even introducing them to new fruits, veggies and microgreens. He also teaches the young visitors about sustainability – how the plants produce the seeds that he plants the following year.

“I don’t know what it is, but I’ve never had a kid come out here and be glued to their phone, ever,” he said. “They all love it.”

Woods brings his dog, Jax, a husky/golden retriever mix, with him while he works in the garden. Jax provides groundhog control. Often, people stop to ask Woods what he’s working on, or to inquire about a particular plant growing in one of the beds.

Family Perspective

Trenton and Troy Jones enjoy their visits to the Youngstown Botanical Gardens.

“My favorite part is definitely the flowers,” Trenton said, adding that lilies and yarrow are his favorites.

Troy likes the blooming flowers and the trees.

Tanji Jones comes to the gardens several times each week.

“You can’t come up here and not feel good,” she said. “Just looking around and looking out at the different colors and textures and all of the different levels of plants – high to low. It just gives you something to smile about.”

Pictured at top: Eric and Tanji Jones stand with Eric’s father, Ronnie Jones, and their sons, Trenton and Troy, at the Youngstown Botanical Gardens on Indianola Boulevard in Youngstown.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.