Buckets of Rain and the greening of Detroit


Skellenger planting urban gardens in Detroit.

Local troubadour Chris Skellenger is Johnny Appleseed

By Norm Wheeler
Sun editor

Just try to keep up with local musician and international vegetable grower Chris Skellenger. The Sun ran a story in August 2007 titled “Saving the world, one bucket at a time” about Skellenger’s nonprofit 11 Oaks and how he was teaching hungry people in Africa how to install gray water bucket irrigation systems in their parched gardens so they can eat vegetables, not just grain.

“Bucket kits, only about $7 each, are able to irrigate a garden that receives little or no rainwater,” Skellenger explained. “The bucket is filled twice a day from “gray water,” water that has already been used for washing or cooking. Hoses connected to the bottom of the bucket run through rows of plants, and each plant receives water from tiny openings in the hose that drip a drop at a time.”

The Sun followed this with a “Letter from Lesotho” on Jan. 15, 2009, in which Skellenger reported on the progress 11 Oaks was making in the tiny, dry landlocked country that is surrounded by South Africa.

“11 Oaks is working with local and international partners to subsidize the cost of the kit and get the price for a villager down to about $5 per family. That way, a kit will only cost about a week’s worth of wages, and that may be the best starting point. Now that our shipment of pipe is finally in, we will pre-manufacture kits so they are ready to go when requested and will leave small caches of kits with the administrators of the demonstration kits. The money received will go back into the purchase of more kits.”

In February of 2012, I joined Skellenger as he taught urban gardening techniques to the Guatemalan people who live in shantytowns next to the Guatemala City garbage dump. Their plight was illustrated in the documentary Recycled Life that traced the founding of Safe Passage, an organization established by Maine native Hanley Denning to create schools for the children of the garbage scavengers in order to break their cycle of poverty.

Skellenger’s 11 Oaks held a fundraiser last fall at which Dave Speicher of Suttons Bay earned a ticket to Guatemala by winning the competition that re-named the nonprofit “Buckets of Rain”. The Traverse City Friends of Safe Passage were also in-country, and we spent several days building lightweight bamboo ladders and towers that support planters made of plastic soda jugs. We worked at La Guarderia, the Safe Passage daycare center right next to the garbage dump and the slum.

During his five months there Skellenger showed the mothers in the Women’s Literacy Program (with the help of Stacey Workman, Denise Lorenz, and Cindy Tzaz) how to start seedlings in flats and how to cut soda bottles in half to create pots for growing the seedlings into vegetables mounted vertically on ladders, fences, poles, concrete walls, or in tires on their rooftops. Now the people could grow tomatoes, cabbages, lettuce, spinach, chard, radishes and green peppers right on their walls or on top of their shacks. It was cool to see how excited they were about being able to concoct their own homemade pico de gallo!

But Buckets of Rain didn’t stop there. Skellenger continued: “In the village of San Antonio we partnered with a Guatemalan organization — Educacion y Desarrollo (education and development). Together we planted 12,000 vegetable seedlings and built a greenhouse on land donated by the City of San Antonio Agua Calientes. The greenhouse produces seedlings for the little gardens where the villagers are able to grow small but fertile plots outside their corrugated and cement block houses. Educacion y Desarrollo has built another greenhouse and several community gardens with financial assistance from Buckets of Rain. In our ‘spare time’ we helped them install donated concrete paving stones as floors in the shacks of selected villagers to create a non-muddy space during the extensive rainy season as all housing has dirt floors. Educacion y Desarrollo executive director Freddy Maldonado will visit our area in late October.

“Also, in the nearby village of San Mateo, Buckets of Rain worked at the Prodenhs School. This school of 80 poor and orphaned children is run efficiently with a staff of four led by husband and wife team Juan Jose and Judith Hernandez. We put in an extensive school garden with drip irrigation and the school now grows all their own vegetables with enough left over to take home to the parents. We also grow vegetables vertically in the schools cramped courtyard. Juan is a great innovator and dispenser of these primitive but effective technologies that can be used by the poorest of the poor. We’ve already shipped them more irrigation parts and financial aid for their garden expansion.”

Once back in the USA, Buckets of Rain committed their time and resources to creating urban gardens in Detroit. “Partnering with the Cass Community Social Services, we are tackling the challenge of growing as many vegetables as we can for their food kitchens. These programs serve one million meals per year. Many thousands of feet of drip irrigation are being installed. This will save the Project big money as city water is expensive.”

“With another of our partners, Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries, we prepared and planted 6,000 sq ft in Highland Park. This garden is self -serve and open to any neighborhood resident passing by. They can stop to pick squash, tomatoes, greens, whatever is ripe.”

“Our third partner, the St Raphael of Brooklyn Church, is a drip-irrigated garden that, perhaps as early as next year, will be expanded to provide food for the surrounding Castle Rouge neighborhood. A local abandoned school is a possible neighborhood farm- we’re looking into it.”

So after ambitious and fruitful outreach projects in Africa and Central America, Buckets of Rain is addressing American food injustice in our own back yard. The final food frontier may be the greening of Detroit.

You can help Buckets of Rain continue to feed the poor in Detroit, in Latin America and in Africa. There is a fundraiser at Boonedocks in Glen Arbor on Sunday, Sept. 9 from 3-6 p.m. that will include extreme gardening demonstrations, music and lots of photos. You can also see updates and Buckets of Rain photos on Facebook, or by contacting Skellenger at (231) 883-7213 to find out how to help.