Growing food and raising chickens, Middlebury man brings vacant lot to life

words and photos by Jarett Theberge

In 2017, Anthony Rhodes would look at the vacant lot next to his house in Middlebury. The lot was littered with all types of trash and discarded items that had accumulated over the years. Growing tired of the eyesore, he took matters into his own hands and got to work. 

Two years and many phone calls and emails to organizations later, that vacant lot is now dense with lush and organized crops, with a coop in the back of the garden housing chickens and turkeys. 

Anthony has been living in or around Akron since 1960. Other than a brief stint as a motorcycle mechanic, he has been self-employed his entire life, and this sense of self-reliance shows in the Philip Avenue Community Garden.

He shows me just how easy it is to get a community garden up and running. He takes me to two bags of soils on the ground with the front of each bag cut off. Tiny sprouts have already begun to show on the exposed soil. 

“Someone might say ‘I don’t know how to grow’ or ‘I can’t grow anything,’ so here you go. There’s a bag on the ground, take a pocket knife, poke some holes in it so the water goes through, and throw seeds at it. That’s it,” Anthony says. 

He then places a discarded plastic tote box over one of the bags.

“There’s an instant greenhouse,” he says. 

With limited funds of his own, Anthony says that the Philip Avenue Garden wouldn’t have been possible without the help of generous organizations around Akron and greater Summit County. He received monetary donations as well as hardware for the garden from and ReWorks, the Knight Foundation, Let’s Grow Akron, Akron Summit Community Action, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds,The Well Community Development Corporation, the Network Neighborhood, Summit County Extension Office, Akron WaterWays. Summit Food Coalition, and Church Coal Firewood & Mulch. 

With all this help from the community, Anthony has been able to deck out the former trashed lot to a thriving guarding in two years time. What used to be trash is now home to Asian long beans, kale, peppers, eight different varieties of tomatoes, onions gords, cabbages, potatoes, okra, zucchini, cucumber, various herbs and spices, a coup with chickens and turkeys, two beehives and a mini-greenhouse. 

Ideally, Anthony would like to make the Philip Avenue Community Garden as self-sustaining as possible. Blue water barrels surround the perimeter of his house next door to collect rainwater. At the moment, Let’s Grow Akron provides him with soil, but Anthony hopes to generate his own through vermiculture. 

“You know those old cast iron bathtubs? Yeah, I need two to three of them,” he says. 

The plan would be to fill the tubs with earthworms and compost from the garden. It wouldn’t need any turning, as the worms would do the job just fine. This method would also generate worm tea — moisture that is left over from the worms consuming the compost that would be drained at the bottom of the tub which can be used as a natural fertilizer. 

Anthony put up a fundraiser on the Philip Avenue Community Garden Facebook page to help support his plan to acquire a truck to transport the bulkier garden equipment. 

“We are trying to get transportation now, which is sorely needed because we need to get straw and 50-pound bags of chicken feed. It’s kind of hard to do without a vehicle. I like hunting down scrap and I want to make a food dehydrator,” he says. 

A truck would help Anthony collect materials to build picnic tables so members of the community can stop and have a seat in the garden. 

Anthony says he believes the art of gardening has been lost over the generations. But not only is it still possible to start up a garden, he says — you’d be surprised who many people are willing to help. 

“There’s opportunities out there for people to grow gardens,” Anthony says. “There’s just a really good community of like-minded people [in Summit County] who are willing to help other people get started in gardening if you want to feed your family or your neighborhood or however you want to spin it.”

Jarett Theberge is a journalism student at Kent State University.