“So many things divide us in this small world, but growing plants is the opposite. It is something that almost everyone likes to do, though some believe they are not capable,” says our newest Plant Champion, Kathy Lewis. She dedicates her time to bringing people together through the power of plants. Kathy uses her organizing skills to support Blocks in Bloom, an outreach program of the Master Gardeners of the Cornell University Cooperative Extension in Monroe County, NY.
Throughout Kathy’s career, she has always worked to improve the conditions in whatever community she found herself. Her first job was as a VISTA volunteer community organizer. This exposed her to work that helped everyone from youth to senior citizens. Following that, she moved to Rochester and ran programs and organizations throughout the community. “I met many people working in Rochester’s low-resource neighborhoods. Because of this I felt I could combine my passion for gardening with my knowledge of how to address community building — and Blocks in Bloom was born.”
Blocks in Bloom uses plants as a tool to bring communities together. Because of their dedication, Kathy and the other volunteers have worked on blocks with as many as 30 households. They garden side by side with homeowners and renters to make sure their knowledge is passed on, setting up celebrations and meetings to stay in touch with the community after the work is done. Kathy also notes the strong partnership of the Rochester Garden Club (a club affiliated with The Garden Club of America) as another way they reach Blocks in Bloom participants, co-hosting a winter workshop. The City of Rochester is another major partner, contributing compost, mulch, and bedding annuals to the blocks.
“The program has worked with 71 blocks from 2014 through 2019, including 665 households, all in low-resource neighborhoods (15 blocks per year). This is accomplished with 30 volunteer Block Mentors, an army of plant donors, and a small budget for expenses. Front yards are beautified with perennial flower gardens. More importantly, however, through gardening the program has strengthened the bonds within neighborhoods and built a leadership ladder from Block Captain to Block Mentor to, in some cases, Master Gardener.”
Kathy tells us that she learned gardening through trial and “a lot of error.” “I moved from a house in the city of Rochester with a totally shady yard to 57 acres in an exurb, 30 minutes away. Suddenly, I had limitless amounts of potential garden space ranging from full sun to woodsy shade. I was in seventh heaven, and proceeded to build way too many garden beds — vegetables, perennial flowers, and containers.” I took the Master Gardener training from the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Monroe County and earned my Master Gardener certification.”
When asked what advice she would give to someone considering a career working with plants, Kathy enthusiastically advised:
“Volunteer. There is an endless list of possible ways to give back to your community through gardening — limited only by your imagination. Roll up your sleeves and get started.”
We wholeheartedly agree! It is for her work with Blocks in Bloom that we’ve named Kathy Lewis our newest Plant Champion.