Beer for Humans

Beer for Humans Interview: Civic Garden Center

We recently had a great conversation with Karen Kahle and Erin Sigmund from the Civic Garden Center, one of our partners in our Beer from Humans initiative. We talked about their mission, history, the history of our collaboration, and more! To get the scoop on this great organization from the mouths of two wonderful humans working behind the scenes to make the teamwork dream work every day, read on!


Tell us a bit about the Civic Garden Center. What is the general mission and services you cover?


Karen: The Civic Garden Center turned eighty years old in 2022 and our mission is to build community through gardening, education and environmental stewardship.


How has the Civic Garden Center changed over time?


Karen: As you can imagine, over 80 years, it’s changed quite a bit. It all started when a group of Garden Club ladies wanted to help people in the area build Victory Gardens during World War Two. In the 1950s, it became a sort of horticultural center with a horticulture helpline. As you can imagine, in the spring and fall the phone would be ringing off the hook with people asking gardening questions. After that, the CGC built a very large horticultural library, and became a sort of horticulture and gardening center, with an emphasis on personal gardening and public beautification efforts. In the late 1970s, we launched the Community Gardens Program (called the Neighborhood Gardens Program at the time). The goal of that program was to establish community gardens on vacant or abandoned/blighted lots. The first community garden was the OTR People’s Garden, which is still in existence down on McMicken Street, near Findlay Market. The Community Gardens Program is now a regional network of over 60 community gardens! Fast forward: we shifted a little bit in the 90s/early aughts to a focus on sustainability and build out our Green Learning Station (which is housed in a former gas station), which is a Platinum Leed-certified building with lots of green infrastructure, solar plant panels, green roof, EV charging station, rainwater capture, etc. We were the first building in Hamilton County approved for gray water flush, so all the toilets are flushed using rainwater, and the rainwater is also used to water the green wall and the green roof! 

How long have you personally been with the organization? What do you think drove you to join the team?


Karen: I’ve been with the Civic Garden Center six years in January. When I was previously with Findlay Market (another BFH partner!), we received a USDA grant to launch an urban agriculture and training program. We didn’t know anything about growing food on vacant lots around Findlay market at the time, but we knew that the Civic Garden Center did. So I reached out to their community gardens coordinator to see if he could help us set up the training component of our program, and then work with some of those early interns in the program. I also went to the CGC’s annual plant sale for many years, so I knew of the Civic Garden Center and was impressed with what they were doing as an organization. After I left Findlay Market, I took a little break, and was receiving the Civic Garden Center monthly newsletter. They were looking for a part time resource development director, so I applied and got the job! That’s how I started. About three and a half years ago, I became the Executive Director.


Erin: I actually came across a Civic Garden Center as a grad student. I was doing my master’s degree work in nonprofit management. I graduated in May. Last fall, I needed an organization to write a paper about, and my mom said, “Hey, what about the Civic Garden Center?” So I talked to Karen and ended up being an intern until I was hired in June as official staff! They’re so knowledgeable here and they know so, so, so much, and really care about the community and about what they’re doing. It’s an amazing organization to work for, and we do really cool work. I don’t particularly have a gardening background, but it’s hard to hang out with the people who work here and not get into conversations about food and gardening. You hang out here long enough, and the whole world kind of blooms for you!


What are some of your favorite stories or interactions from your time at the Civic Garden Center?


Karen: I think our Tree Reforestation Project, which started about four years ago, has become one of our most successful projects. Years ago—I think for about 10 or 12 years—the Civic Garden Center sold Christmas trees as a fundraising event. We shipped Douglas firs from a tree farm in North Carolina, and sold them on the weekends leading up to Christmas. In addition to it being staff-intensive, it didn’t make us a lot of money. And you know, Christmas trees aren’t the most environmentally sustainable thing you can do! So I suggested that we get into planting rather than selling trees. I asked our horticulturist at the time to identify a habitat restoration project that we could jump into. And he came back with the Walnut Woods site, which sits behind Walnut Hills High School. It’s about a nine or ten acre site. This past fall, that site was officially renamed the Walnut Woods of Evanston! There was a grand opening ceremony for all the people that have been involved in the project, and it recenlty won an award as a model program for conservation, and we were able to engage students in every step of the process. I’m really proud of that project. 



Does your organization have any exciting projects coming up in the near future that you are able to share about?


The Community Gardens Program turned 40 years old in 2020! I think this program continues to evolve in exciting ways. We’re doing a lot more education in some of the gardens around the region—some of the gardens that are more robust. We’re using them to offer classes on growing food as well as cooking. Last summer, through summer and fall, I think we had 36 total gardening and cooking classes that took place in a handful of gardens, and we’re expanding that to seven gardens in 2023, which will feature a robust schedule of classes. That program really continues to be very engaging. During the pandemic, there was an explosion of interest in plants in general and in gardening in particular. We really tried to really meet the needs of people getting into gardening during that time—people who found comfort and joy in gardening. We teach people how to be successful at it, so they stick to it, and it becomes a lifelong hobby, rather than just something they did during a dark time. 


Has Rhinegeist and the Civic Garden Center collaborated in the past?


Absolutely! We’ve co-hosted some successful and popular Rain Barrel classes, we brewed a delicious beer together called Sun Honey beer with a keg tapping at the CGC, and we worked together on a spruce beer, just to name a few!