Inner-city gardener checks out nearby land for fruit orchard
By David Skolnick
After transforming an overgrown, garbage-filled property on the South Side into a fruit-and-vegetable garden that feeds seniors, the disabled and others in need, Mason Carratt is eyeing land across the street for a fruit orchard.
Carratt lives on Idlewood Avenue, directly behind a vacant 3406 Hillman St. lot, which he’s named the “Youngstown Inner City Garden.”
The orchard site, two vacant parcels at 3407 and 3411 Hillman St., was recently selected by the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corp. as a “Lots of Green 2.0” winner.
The YNDC is providing about $8,000 worth of work to the orchard to level and grade the property.
It will start next month, according to the YNDC.
Carratt said he’ll plant apple, cherry and pear trees, “and anything else that can grow there.”
His garden includes watermelons, cucumbers, lettuce, squash, peppers, tomatoes, beans and sweet corn.
With the help of others, Carratt is having a fundraiser for the garden from 4 to 7 p.m. next Sunday at the Phoenix House, 850 N. Meridian Road, with a 6 p.m. ceremony to honor veterans.
The event will feature pasta, salad, soft drinks and dessert. Tickets are $8 for the general public and $5 for people with disabilities, veterans and those under age 11. Call 330-406-6603 for carry-out.
Those who attend are asked to bring one used, but in good condition, tool for gardening, lawn or construction.
Tickets can be obtained at Youngstown Nation, 8 N. Phelps St. in Youngstown; and at Liberty Tax Service, 90 Boardman- Poland Road, and Pizza Joe’s, 6810 Market St., both in Boardman.
The money will go to make improvements to the garden, particularly to grade it and for topsoil needed for the front portion of the garden, Carratt said.
Tired of seeing the vacant Hillman property behind his house filled with garbage in an overgrown field, Carratt started cleaning it up slowly more than a year ago. He would fill a few bags of garbage from that Hillman parcel and throw it out with his garbage.
Earlier this year, Carratt began to do much, much more.
He picked up 80 tires, concrete, roofing materials, lumber, bricks and a lot of garbage and mowed the overgrown field in April and May.
Then Carratt, a gardener with an injured foot who grew his own fruits and vegetables to reduce his expenses, started planting seeds on the Hillman property.
Carratt said he did it to provide fresh fruit and vegetables to those in need, including those who live at the nearby Grovewood Manor, an apartment complex for seniors and the disabled.
Philip and Mary Leyman, who have lived at Grovewood for four years, said Carratt’s garden has been a blessing to the neighborhood. Among the work Carratt and volunteers have done is clean the sidewalk on that portion of Hillman Street so people can walk there.
“I never came out before the garden was planted,” Philip said. “Now, I’m out quite a bit. I love the fruit and vegetables.”
Using a rake with a crutch as a handle — “I found a new pair [of crutches] in the trash so I didn’t need this one, and I had a rake with a broken handle. It’s a high-tech redneck crutch-rake” — Carratt said he’s been overwhelmed by the support his project has received.
“I’ve worked with a lot of people in the community,” he said. “The response has been great. If you want to meet people who like to help other people, you need to go and help other people.”
“He’s a very strong-willed person who gets things done with or without anyone’s help,” said Jennifer Jones, coordinator of Green Youngstown, the city’s litter prevention and recycling program. “We see groups of people who adopt parcels and take care of them. But one guy is rare. To see one guy tackle all of these lots, that’s unusual.”
It’s resonated with others, who Carratt has persuaded to volunteer.
“He’s energetic and he’s doing a great job,” said Bill Wood of Austintown, one of Carratt’s volunteers. “It definitely looks better than what it was before he started, and it will get better over the years.”
Jessica Popio, manager and part-owner of Liberty Tax Service’s Youngstown West Side office, met Carratt at a Mahoning Avenue cleanup last month.
“What Mason is doing is absolutely amazing,” she said. “My grandmother grew up on the South Side, and it was horrible. The crime in the neighborhood is a concern. This helps push the crime out by getting people involved. He’s helping make this a nicer community. His vision is inspiring.”
The Mahoning County Land Bank is working to acquire the garden property and the two parcels across the street for the orchard through foreclosures because of tax delinquencies. The land bank should have ownership of the properties by about March 2014, and would then finalize a lease agreement with Carratt, said Roger G. Smith, the agency’s director of planning, acquisition and disposition.
Also, the land bank would lease a parcel at 3328 Hillman St., next to the garden, with Carratt but only after the city demolishes a vacant house on that lot, Smith said.