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Community gardens help less fortunate, bring people together

Sunday, April 25, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Seeing students' excitement as they dig up giant sweet potatoes and search for strawberries under leaves is Lea Langdon's reward for coordinating a community garden at New Haven Elementary School.

With more than 50 years gardening experience and six years of participation in community gardens, Langdon said she likes to help people get involved in community gardens. Aside from her work at the school, she's one of the garden leaders at Claudell Lane, one of Columbia's community gardens.

There are nine community gardens in Columbia where residents can sign up for a plot and garden for free. There are also 11 group-maintained gardens.

It is not just about better quality food, even though participants said fresh produce tastes better. Participants have said it's rewarding because they like being outdoors and enjoy observing things growing from scratch. Community gardens also fit into the recent trend of growing and eating local food.

The Claudell Lane and New Haven Elementary gardens are among the 20 gardens affiliated with the Community Garden Coalition of Columbia and Boone County. The not-for-profit volunteer group directs potential gardeners to particular gardens that provide plots to people in the area, especially those who might not have access to a garden of their own.

Formed in 1983 with only a few gardens, the Community Garden Coalition is primarily aimed at helping lower-income families to meet their nutrition needs via providing them access to the affordable fresh produce, according to its Web Site.

"It is an opportunity for people of all types to have a garden plot of their own," Coalition President Bill McKelvey said. He said it reflects "the idea of strengthening numbers where you can get more done by working with a group as opposed to working by yourself."

Last year, 475 families and about 850 people participated in the organization, McKelvey said.

He also said the gardens under the coalition donated at least 4,676 pounds of fresh produced food to various food pantries and soup kitchens last year.

"People in our community are better fed," McKelvey said. "They are healthier because of the fresh foods and vegetables available."

Participants' experiences

Gardening is a lot of work. Seeding, planting and weeding require time and energy. But for many participants, the passion doesn't fade away because of that.

Chris Olsen, an MU junior, said he liked moving away from business agriculture, which he perceives as harmful both to the land and consumers, and he gets a sense of accomplishment from growing food at the Ash Street Community Garden. His gardening experience before the plot consisted of a basil plant in a pot when he was in middle school.

It is free to get a plot, but participants are expected to take care of their gardens. Olsen said he got some seeds from the coalition and the tools he uses are provided by the garden. He also spent $8 on four packs of seeds from Walmart.

"Gardening is something I've wanted to do since I was young. My grandparents have a garden in their backyard," Olsen said.

After getting the 20-by-20 foot plot, Olsen said he spent three hours clearing grasses and shrubs and tearing roots out of the soil on a Sunday afternoon.

"I woke up with a sore back," he said.

Participants also like sharing and giving advice.

After working as a Natural Resource Engineer at MU extension for 41 years, Don Day retired last year. He and Weldon Jones started the Broadway Church garden in the spring of 2007. Last year, all the 48 plots were full. The garden has doubled this year, and around 30 new plots for refugee families com from Burma and Africa.

He said if there were some empty plots, he would ask two of his grandchildren to plant there and donate the food they grow.

"I'd like the kids to learn to share what they raise and give to people less fortunate," he said.

The Broadway Christian Church garden donated about 80 pounds of food to the food bank, he said. Langdon also enjoys the giving aspect — she helped found the garden at New Haven Elementary in 2005.

"I kept looking at the playground and thinking it looked sterile, and that we needed to grow something more than just grass," she said.

About a dozen kids now meet every week to learn how to plant, weed, mulch and harvest. Each fall, the parents and kids celebrate the harvest by gathering and sharing food.

She said the community garden promotes growth by connecting people.

"You get to know your neighbors and rely on them, learn from them and help each other," she said.

How to get involved

Question and answer with Community Garden Coalition of Columbia and Boone County President Bill McKelvey

Who can apply for a plot?

A: Anyone

Do I need to pay for it? If I do, how much should I pay?

A: No fee, though donations are welcomed

When can I apply?

A: Anytime

How can I apply? What materials do I need to prepare?

A: You can apply through our Web site, cgc.missouri.org. There is a brief application there.

What if I've already have a plot last year and want to continue this year?

A: Just keep in touch with your garden's leader at the end of the year to reserve your plot for the next year.

If I got a plot, is there any commitment?

A: Yes. You are expected to take care of your plot throughout the season and help out with general garden upkeep like mowing, trimming, compostingand attending workdays. Gardeners are also encouraged to help out with organizing their garden by joining their garden's leadership team.

Do I need to prepare my own gardening tools?

A: Most gardens share tools and keep them stored in a shed.

What can I plant in my own plot? Are there any limitations?

A: The choice is yours.


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